When I was fourteen I got really into Magic: the Gathering. I only had one friend from the age of fourteen to seventeen and we played Magic the Gathering together. Well, he wasn’t really a friend I “chose” for myself, his mom was sort of friends with my mom, and we started being friends with each other because we didn’t have any other friends. But it was pretty nice to have “a friend’s house” you could go to on the weekends, riding over there on the same kind of mountain bike that was really cool for boys to have in sixth grade, a lime green one that said “Huffy” on the side in huge letters. It was nice to go over there and talk to his friendly, non-stressed-out seeming parents. Maybe they even thought we had a little romantic something going on, I don't know.
Playing Magic was something we could do there and not feel bad that this was the friend each of us was stuck with—my mom often berated me for spending so much time with someone like Ilya, who was not an asset to me socially or intellectually, and in the back of my mind I thought she was probably right. My mom was always having these fits and nightmares about me because she wasn't able to "stop me from making the same mistakes" as her, but I didn't know what those were. I was just a passive person, I guess. Anyway, in order to feel better about the whole thing I started trying to invent myself as someone who was good at Magic.
Magic: the Gathering is a collectible card game with attractively packaged fantasy-themed cards and abstruse rules. You try to put together the most powerful deck out of the hundreds of different cards, and then you play against other peoples’ decks.
“So to be good at this ‘game’ you have to buy more cards?” said my mom when I tried to explain it to her . “That’s really smart marketing, actually. Why don't you study game marketing in college, Complicity? That's something you're interested in."
There was an edge to her voice.
“Shut up MOM! ”
I didn't want to know what her friend's daughter was majoring in in college, I didn't want to take better care of my underwear, I didn't want to take advantage of her love. All I wanted was to have the best deck of Magic cards.
I went on the internet to read about deck building strategies. I read a lot of forum posts and got excited about Magic: the Gathering-related news, such as the release of a new expansion, an upcoming tournament, or a minor change in the rules. I felt that the deck that I needed to use was the “Control” deck. Instead of attacking the opponent directly, it relied on cards that limited the options available to each player. This seemed extremely romantic to me, to win by exerting passive control of a situation.
I didn’t play against anyone other than Ilya. We shared a legalistic, retentive memory for rules and a mutual love of sitting in his special tidy room with its customized gaming desk, going through all the intricately-rendered, colorful cards one by one. Ilya’s strategy consisted of stealing rares from his ten-year-old cousin, who was the only person he ever played Magic with besides me. I started to beat him pretty easily with my Control deck. His parents didn't get on his case for just staying in his room and playing computer all day, so he wasn’t interested in improving his mind by reading about Magic strategies on the internet. For my part, I developed an elaborate fantasy of myself as tournament-level Magic: the Gathering player even though I still never joined any tournaments or played against anyone other than Ilya. Ilya thought I tried too hard and was scared of my mom.
Then a new thing happened. Around that time, I joined an online fantasy art gallery. I put up a lot of carefully-shaded Magic the gathering-based art—mostly elves with sad, serious faces, with a delicacy and suppressed rage to them. I vaguely imagined they would probably use a Control deck.
So I was shading one of the drawings when this theater girl from my school actually came and talked to me. She was a known bisexual. She decided to comment on what I was drawing.
“Hey what are you doing there?” she asked.
I looked up from my desk. It was lunchtime.
“You’re in my World Studies class," she said, carelessly putting a hand on my shoulder. "You really have the most amazing expression in there, my boyfriend and I were making a bet to see if you were retarded.”
I was working on a picture of an angry elf frowning against a background of bestial sex demons (my own invention).
“Hey wow, that actually kind of looks like my boyfriend,” she said, pointing at the stylized fantasy elf.
“It’s for my college application,” I said.
That night I dreamt that the theater girl came on to me really aggressively, taking her clothes off and begging me to have sex with her right on the floor. Despite my shock at this lurid turn of events, I was very nice to her about it, saying I wasn’t a lesbian but I was willing to remain friends with her and still respected her as a human being. When I woke up, I realized I would do anything to have that girl touch me again.
I became so obsessed with this I even stopped caring about Magic as much. Instead of inventing myself as someone who was good at Magic: the Gathering, my life acquired a new focus--that of making myself seem interesting to this new person, who, I imagined, criticized me yet showed an interest in me. She thought that I was unlike anyone she'd ever met before and she was right.
I followed her and her boyfriend around school elaborating on game strategy, fantasy art, philosophy, and so forth. I tried to portray myself as some kind of avant garde artist type. I told Ilya that he had an insufficiently romantic attitude towards life and that was why he kept losing to me at Magic.
That was a good year. Afterward, things did not go so well. The girl from my school rejected me. Also, I did not get into Stanford or anything like that, and I even got in a huge fight with my mom during which I tried to physically swallow all of my college applications and had to go to the hospital. The only college I got into was this expensive and not-as-hard one in New York City, and my mom was really angry at first, but she said of course she would pay for it. Later she said it was a big success that I was "going to school in New York."
A new phase set in, both in my relationship with my mom, and in my own life. I almost immediately drifted out of dorm life and classes, and started taking the subways a lot and talking to this chipmunk-faced Ayn Rand supporter, who quickly became "my boyfriend." Yet, gradually, on the whole, I started to feel much better about myself. I felt better than I'd ever felt before.
My greatest wish from my Magic-playing days came true: over time, I came to believe that I had some kind of special talent or genius that other people did not. It was hard to say what this talent was—a greater capacity to get excited about things, to want and enjoy things. No matter how fucked my life might become, I felt, I had a unique destiny in store just for me. And, oddly, no one contributed to this sense more than Ilya.
I still went to his house whenever I was back in town. Instead of showing him all my Magic cards, I regaled him with hypothetical stories of New York college life. Dorm room drinking, large impersonal groups of friends, walking forever through Danteesque tunnels, stilted but philosophically meaningful sexual encounters with the chipmunk face dude—my college experiences seemed to show their true significance only during the course of these conversations with Ilya. In his sarcastic commentary, I could detect envy for a life beyond the confines of his room, his non-messy yet low-pressure home and parents who even liked to read some of the same sci-fi books as him.
The next time I actually played Magic with Ilya again, I had been out of college for a while. I was working for a Liberty Tax franchise as one of those people wearing a foam Statue of Liberty outfit, when he called. It was a relief to hear from him after hours of standing in a crowded parking lot in Long Island City, smiling apologetically at prospective income tax preparation clients. In the evenings, when I wasn’t donning my green tunic, I was in the process of reworking one of my high school drawings. I was hoping to make a name for myself with fussy over-detailed fantasy art, playing into that whole aesthetic of wolf shirts, black metal, and detailed pictures of deer that I was starting to notice.
“Yo what is up,” I said. I was supposed to visit my parents again soon. I reminded Ilya with a smirk that I had sold all my Magic cards several years ago.
“That’s all right,” Ilya chuckled in his corny, semi-sarcastic way. “You do know who I work for now?”
“Uh—a different party supply store?”
He used to work at this place called The Fun Store, one of those places where everyone wears cheerful uniforms and seems angry and tense all the time, that I used to love when my mom took me there as a kid.
“Complicity my dear. You never listen to me—as usual. But that’s all right.“
“Why do you talk in that annoying way.”
“Dude. I took those game design classes. Remember?”
“At the community college?”
“Yeah, the game design program. Hello?”
It turned out he got hired by Wizards of the Coast, the company that makes Magic cards. When I went to his house, he had boxes of cards from the most recent expansion as well as preconstructed decks, themed decks, and all kinds of assorted Magic: the Gathering merchandise I hadn’t even heard of. That irritating younger cousin was there, who he used to steal Magic cards from, and so were two other Wizards employees. I had invited along the theater girl I was obsessed with in high school, who I was sort of normal friends with again. When we entered, the Wizards employees expressed surprise that Ilya had so many female friends.
Looking at the new cards, something about them seemed kind of disappointing. The new art seemed really slick and professional, full of women in spiky armor and overly luminous flame and lightning effects. The text on the cards that described what they did had changed too. I guess the new rules were more balanced to make for a more satisfying gaming experience, because there was a lot of competition in the fantasy/gaming market.
The former high school theater girl listened with an amused and ironic expression while we pompously explained the rules and debated the changes in the game, arguing about Wizards' decision to do away with the mechanic of "interrupts." Ilya and his cousin chortled about different cards that I didn’t know. I suddenly felt angry for no reason. "Fuck the control deck," I decided. I decided to make a red deck to express how I felt.
Unfortunately, Ilya was a lot better at Magic now than he was in high school, and also played it at work all the time. He emitted a theatrical laugh when my fire deck lost in six turns. Pretty soon, it was just him and his coworkers who were left in the informal “tournament” we'd arranged. The high school-aged cousin watched, making annoying analyses of the games. The former high school theater girl (now a receptionist at a children’s theater) watched as well. She was excited to finally be among “real nerds.”
“Seriously,” she laughed. “I’m gaining like ten IQ points for every ten seconds I spend in here.”
“Can you express that as a graph,” said Ilya’s cousin, as if imagining he was in a web comic for smart computer users.
“Seriously, the art on these cards has gotten really ugly,” I said. “That woman is wearing a special plate mail armor that perfectly cups each of her breasts. I don't think even Tolken ever had that.”
"Um, yeah he did," said one of the Wizards employees. "Have you seen Deviant Art?"
“It's just printed better,” said the other, more earnest Wizards employee, after everyone expressed a mild chuckle. “I don’t think the actual art has changed all that much.”
“Well," said the former high school theater girl. "I for one am really impressed with people who can master this game.” She rolled her eyes.
"Yeah, but—" I looked at her, at the laughing, cruel, but ultimately intelligent and sympathetic face, the sight of which had once compelled me to proclaim to an entire Chinese restaurant that I was the modern-day incarnation of Xerxes Damien Antonius, the dark elven assassin. I looked at Ilya, at his cousin, at everybody.
“But, like, what happened to that sense of mysterious possibility the old cards used to have?" I said. "They looked like something an old civilization might make. They looked like they were made by naïve, self-taught people. You know what I mean?”
“Well, I’m going to be helping design the cards pretty soon,” said Ilya.