Magic the Gathering (and other trading card games)

As a child I was fascinated by the fantasy genre. I read Terry Brooks’ Magic Kingdom of Landover series, the Hobbit and Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. In another life I would have loved to be a wizard of some description. Given the constraints of physics I had to accept the simulcrum of simulations. Trading card games have been a hobby of mine since I was a six year old playing Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh alongside collecting Magic the Gathering (MTG) and Digimon cards. Unfortunately as a poor kid from the inner-city I could never afford to play seriously.

The advent of online card games provided an opportunity for me to compete. Between 2010 and 2018 I was an avid player of the game Shadow Era. The game provided a relaxing dopamine rush in downtime as well as a fraternity; I became a member of a ‘guild’ called The Rising Sun (RS). I have many fond memories of my time playing Shadow Era. Highlights include:

Achieving the number one ranking on 1st April 2018.

Winning a tournament.

Innovating a new deck, ‘Traditionaldmor’ that could cast a game-ending ‘Ally’ card as early as turn 4.

Mentoring newer players and seeing them succeed.

Being soundly beaten in RS’ intra-guild tournament by the guild’s best player, PhillipW. This loss reminded me that no matter how successful I became, there will always be more talented people who push me to improve.

Becoming the first player to obtain 1000 wins with my chosen ‘hero’, ‘Loest, Savior of Layar’. I was rewarded with 20 free foil cards for this feat, and chose to complete my ‘Traditionaldmor’


After leaving Shadow Era I looked for another game to play. I was very impressed by Elder Scrolls Legends, an intellectual property based on the epic fantasy series of the same name. This game allowed me to immerse myself in battles between legendary heroes that I had spent hundreds of hours role playing on my Switch and PC. I could wield shouts as the Dragonborn, summon huge mechanical constructs as the Clockwork God Sotha Sil, or plunge my opponents into a series of oppressive commercial contracts using the skills of the Thieves Guild. I still hold this game in very high esteem.

LG-card-Sotha Sil.png

I left this game soon after beginning however for two reasons. The first of these was the malleability of the game; the text, effects and power levels of the cards were not fixed and could be adjusted by the developer. If I left the game for a couple of months and returned, I could find that a combo or strategy I devised was no longer viable or optimal. ‘Nerfs’ and ‘buffs’ were part of the metagame. The desire to balance’ the game meant that it could be very volatile. This volatility was a question of strategy as well as value; Should I spend my gems to create a deck that’s going to get banned? Should I invest in cards that may one day not read as they did when I bought them?

TESL Alfiq Balance EN

The second ESL problem was the lack of interactivity. The game played out as a series of actions taken by my opponent followed by a series of my own actions with little interaction between the two. My opponent would typically know at the end of my turn whether it was possible (or advisable) to attack me, and there was little that could be done to stop them. There was a random element of interaction whereby if my life total was reduced by a multiple of 5, I would draw a card. If that card was a ‘prophecy’ card I would be able to play it during my opponent’s turn. This random feature relied on interaction by my opponent, and was thus in their gift to trigger or not.

I would experiment with Gwent, a game I had loved in the Witcher games, but the ‘rock-paper-scissors’ dynamic of the game felt forced. There are many archetypes involved in TCGs. Some players load the board with low-cost in-game participants (aggro); there are those that wish to steer (control) their opponents’ gameplay experience, diminishing their resources and maintaining a concentration of powerful resources; the inventive players put synergistic combos into their decks. Gwent seemed to favour the control/card advantage style of play, and that was a problem for me. I will typically play control decks in TCGs out of choice; Gwent made me feel that if I didn’t play control decks I would not be able to win.

As you can see, I have spent thousands of hours over my adult life playing online trading card games. I have tried Hearthstone as well as the Switch variant. I played Shadowverse too. Google and co. have no doubt conducted extensive psychographic profiling on me to work out how best to influence me to spend (what little) disposable income I have. The inevitable result was that in April 2019 I received a hyper-targeted advertisement for a game called Magic the Gathering Arena.

While daydreaming at work, I thought that watching this ad might be a more productive use of three minutes than the preceeding Facebook scrolling or the pending investigation of the ceiling from my office beanbag. The following describes my experience of the ‘War of the Spark’ (WAR) trailer:

I started to feel chills throughout my body as soon as the piano riff began (I am a long-term Linkin’ Park fan since Reanimation, an album I bought because I incorrectly thought it was a Mech/Gundam video game).

I was consumed by a powerful wave of nostalgia. It hit me very hard and seemingly out of nowhere.

“It starts with one…” WHO IS THAT DRAGON?

These wicked villains have besieged this town. Nothing new here.

About 25 seconds in I realised that the army of deinvidualised stormtroopers were moving backwards that this was not a linear progression.



Will she survive?

That’s the moment I became a planeswalker.

I had played MTG as a child and thought the art style retro and inventive, but other games took priority. Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon and Digimon were supported by the anime industrial complex, and that was a compelling reason to stick with them.

By contrast, the right ad at the right time while I had the right level of disposable income as an adult led me to love this game and invest everything I’ve got into it.

And so I began a love affair with Magic the Gathering Arena. I first played a monored aggro deck in standard, then branched out into UBR control decks (so that I could use the dragon) and I have been a Grixis mage ever since. I would play terrible decks with Nicol Bolas, Dragon God in them simply to hear his voice actor speak. At 5 mana with an awkward casting cost, he was difficult to play.

The standard that I played in was dominated by the powerful Teferi, Time Raveler, and I really despised the effect that he would have on the game. Until one day I realised that powerful cards were meant to be played with, and I was doing myself a disservice by criticising them and not using them. So I picked up Azorius Control and realised that I could anticipate my opponent’s choices, and by playing clever removal and countermagic I could work out the full contents of their hands. I learned more about Teferi and realised that he is truly a kindred spirit; an African (Jamuraa is definitely Africa) magician who is obsessed with acquiring knowledge and showing off the clever tricks he’s acquired. Teferi reminded me that my greatest asset in card games is my brain and not my wallet, and even when I lack options, I can interfere with the thoughts of my opponents to create space to carve out a win. The following lessons have stuck with me:

I can force my opponent to think that I had certain cards in my hand when I did not.

I can disguise the fact that I did have certain cards.

I can make my opponent think that I thought they had no answer to my threat when indeed I knew they did.

I can make my opponent think that I thought they did have an answer when I knew that they did not.

These mindgames would force my opponents to play too aggressively, or too cautiously, and I can take advantage.

Magic gave me many things that the other card games could not. In summary the unique selling points of this game were:

The rules take priority over balance, player experience, price and almost everything else. In Blizzard’s highly successful, genre-defining game, the company would frequently ‘nerf’ and ‘buff’ cards in a similar manner to Betheseda in Elder Scrolls Legends. Because MTG features a physical card game in addition to its digital releases, the text of MTG cards are never functionally altered- they are clarified via an online database called ‘Gatherer’, but never amended to perform separate functions.

Multiple formats that enable me to play at different power levels when switching, as well as emphasising the importance of different rules (Commander as a singleton format enables game-winning combos that are impossible in 60-card constructed formats for example).

The ability to play during an opponent’s turn.

The utter brilliance of the stack and being able to interact with an opponent’s plays before their cards have physically entered the game.

The ability to build a series of complex interactions that might result in another player not being able to make the play they would have made.

Unexpectedly winning.

This new (old) interest was further encouraged by a trip to Japan in 2019. I experienced a culture in which my nerdy interests were mainstream, and even celebrated in the vibrant Akihabara. I visited local game stores and watched planeswalkers slinging stained glass versions of powerful cards from WAR at each other. I did not have access to my collection, nor a computer whilst in Japan, so I played the poor relation ‘Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers.’

Geek Retreat image

Since getting back I’ve played several games of Magic a day and have found a wonderful community of kindred spirits at my local game store, Geek Retreat Holloway. I love playing against my new friends, attempting to accelarate the development of our group’s deck-building, and collecting powerful cards that interact with the stack. This game provided me with an outlet for my frustration and boredom during the pandemic, and in a sense helped me to secure my life’s ambition, a trainee barrister role at Matrix Chambers. I will be forever grateful to the four men I played on Spelltable over the course of Winter 2020/2021, and relish our daily WhatsApp discussions of cards and the game. Though I took a ridiculously long break, the prodigal son has returned home and this game is going to be a part of my life forever. I look forward to growing with the game.

“The things I once imagined would be my greatest achievements were only the first steps toward a future I can only begin to fathom.”

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