James hit a new high -- "or new low, depending on how you look at it" -- when he bought a ticket from Beijing to New Jersey to compete in a Magic cards tournament. "I got utterly defeated," he shares in an interview on March 20 at Lily's Diner in Beijing. "And that's when I had to take an honest look at myself."
In his book Magic: The Addiction, James tells his story start to finish, from collecting quarters as a kid to buy board games with his brother, to making a name for himself in his 20s, to getting into the Beijing Magic scene in his 30s, to hitting "rock bottom" after an impulse investment in a Magic tournament halfway around the world. Pre-order his book on his website, read an excerpt below, and listen to a conversation with him about the whole damn thing.
Flying across the Pacific Ocean, I thought about the challenges that awaited me in China. The biggest challenge was uncertainty. The clearly defined rules of engagement that I relished when I played games like Magic were inapplicable to the laws and physics of the real world. To move to a foreign land meant giving up control, certainty, and predictability. While most things in my life had turned out relatively fine, I knew that the past did not dictate the future. There was much ahead of me that I knew nothing about.
As fate would have it, it was my membership in the online Magic community that led to my discovery of the Beijing Magic scene and motivated me to keep going. At this point, I had already put my active participation in the game on hold for a number of months. I was conflicted between continuing my Magic journey and quitting. I didn’t play Magic for a while but continued to browse the online forums.
As I was browsing the forums one day, I came across a post made by a user, GoblinZ. Nothing stood out in terms of what GoblinZ wrote. Instead, what piqued my interest was his listed location: Beijing. Intrigued, I looked at his posting history and realized that he was pretty knowledgeable about the game. He had also been a regular poster for a few years, and posted quite a bit in the Storm threads. If nothing else, we could talk about our favorite Storm decks.
I sent him a private message:
This is James a.k.a. Plague Sliver. Are you located in Beijing? If so, would love to find out more. Where do you guys play Legacy?
A day later, he responded:
Hello. Yes, there is regular legacy event on Sunday at “Tian Shi” card store. And there are usually some guys playing legacy there at weekends. I usually play legacy with my teammates at “Fan Ya” card store near Zhong Guan Cun in Haidian district at the weekends. As for standard and draft, I recommend “Ka Dou” and “Fan Ya”. If you would come to Beijing, maybe we could have the chance to play together.
Sounds like there were at least three places to play. I wasn’t completely sure about my own time investment in the game, but decided that some scouting was warranted. Playing Storm overseas a few times a year wasn’t enough for the serious competitor in me. As a next step, it seemed completely reasonable to scout the local Magic community first. Maybe it was engaging enough for me to continue playing locally.
After an initial set of back-and-forth messages, GoblinZ and I agreed to meet at the upcoming Beijing Grand Prix, held on the western side of the city in a university study hall. The main event wasn’t Legacy, but there was a Legacy side event that GoblinZ planned to attend. I could accomplish two things by going there: take in the sights of the Grand Prix, and size up the state of the Legacy scene. I also had an opportunity to play in a small tournament with my Storm deck. I quickly looked up the location on my phone and took the subway ride there.
GoblinZ was initially nowhere to be found. He was busy battling in the Standard format main event, which I didn’t plan to play. This gave me time to walk around and take in the sights around me. Like other Grand Prix events I had attended in the past, the university hall was packed to the brim with at least a thousand players. The air was filled with excitable, Magic-related chatter. Vendors lined the university, selling theirMagic-related cards and merchandise. As the players were predominantly Chinese students in their twenties, the Grand Prix looked like a local university exam gone haywire. Instead of pen and paper, the students took their high-pressure Magic exam with well-assembled pieces of cardboard.
In-between rounds, GoblinZ texted me some updates on how he was doing. I texted back a few words of encouragement. Unfortunately, after picking up his third loss in the tournament, GoblinZ was mathematically eliminated from second-day contention. GoblinZ forfeited his spot from the tournament and came over to meet me. We shook hands and made our introductions.
In person, GoblinZ was a quiet and unassuming young man. His sharp and observant eyes revealed a strong intelligence behind a quiet demeanor. GoblinZ told me that his real name was Ji. He was working on a Ph.D. in women’s studies, but had played Magicin Beijing for several years. Due to Ji’s affinity for western literature, his written and spoken English was strong. Ji’s online name, GoblinZ, combined his love of playing Goblins in Magic with the first letter of his last name. One of the first Legacy decks he played was Goblins, but he has since expanded his horizons to include decks like Storm.
I felt at ease at how freely Ji opened up to my questions. He appeared happy to meet an outside party who had taken on an interest in the Beijing Legacy scene. It turns out that I had struck gold. Due to the language barrier, most of the Chinese Magic players didn’t post on forums like the Source. Ji was one of the few who did, and I just happened to notice his posting. After a few minutes, Ji walked me over to a large table and introduced me to the rest of the Beijing Legacy enthusiasts. Many of them had come to the Grand Prix to exclusively play in the Legacy side event, and were waiting for the event to begin.
There were about fifteen Legacy players sitting together. They were a close-knit group, judging from their body language and easygoing banter. Some of them joked around; a few of them practiced playing their Legacy decks. I walked around the table and introduced myself to each of them. They were quick to exchange pleasantries. I felt very positive with first impressions, and immediately felt the warmth of the group.
Beijing had its share of passionate Legacy enthusiasts. After a bit of conversation, I learned that several of them had played Magic competitively for a decade or more. It was clear that the old-timers knew the ins and outs of the game. One of the players, Hao, operated a Magic store close to where I lived – that would prove to be a great convenience later on. The community was friendly and eager to talk about their experiences, interjected with a fun story or two. I’ve always enjoyed socializing with fellow players, and this time was no different. It was a little harder for me to discussMagic in Chinese, but I managed.
The unique thing about Chinese Magic is that very few of its players have made a name for themselves on the global scene. In Wizards’ Magic coverage, I often hear about powerhouse teams from European countries, or professional players like Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa from Brazil. This is, of course, in addition to the strong coverage of American professional players. China, by contrast, has generated next to no coverage, and I couldn’t name one Chinese player from memory.
At first, I thought that this discrepancy had to do with language issues. Perhaps the English language was a big barrier for Chinese players to overcome? But this explanation was unsatisfactory. It failed to explain why Japanese players were so dominant in the game. Japan has enjoyed a strong tournament presence for at least a half-decade, despite its people not being known for their grasp of the English language. I could rattle off the names of a half-dozen Japanese professional players, but I struggled to do the same for Chinese players.
It was precisely due to China’s anonymous reputation in the competitive scene that I didn’t associate Magic with China at all. I reasoned that if a region had enough of a grassroots scene, then some professional players are bound to rise to the top. Due to China’s anonymity on the global scene, I never suspected for a minute that there would be a group of passionate Magic players in Beijing. It’s one of the reasons why I was able to place the game out of mind for my first year here. But I was wrong.
As I started to play in more Chinese Magic tournaments and spoke to more people, I began to understand the reasons for China’s underrepresentation on the global stage. The first reason is pure pragmatism. The Chinese are pragmatic and base a lot of decisions on financial benefit. Those who have the ability to practice and play in tournaments tend to be older people with families and stable jobs. While Magic doesn’t make sense from a financial or career perspective in any country, in China this is amplified by the expectations of society.
I work in the tech industry, and there’s a telling question being asked by startup founders in the United States that differs greatly from one being asked by founders in China. In Silicon Valley, the question being asked is: how do I change the world? In China, the question is: how do I make money from this? Chinese society expects its people to study and work hard. It expects its citizens to make lots of money; wealth allows one to settle down and start a family, as well as take care of one’s existing family. In this life narrative, there is little financial incentive to seriously invest in Magic. And unlike Japan or Korea, there is barely any state-supported infrastructure that allows for gaming as a full-time career.
Even younger Magic players in college don’t have free time to chase their gaming dreams. They are constantly under pressure to excel in academics, and land a decent job after graduation. China is a country defined by scarcity; people compete ferociously for jobs and opportunities, and this starts at a young age. By contrast, there are lots of American college students who don’t face the same pressures, and can grind endless hours on Magic Online. They also have time to play in lots of live tournaments.
Chinese students tend to be “late bloomers” in dating – many have not been in serious romantic relationships during their high school years. There is a lot of pressure to excel in academics, at the cost of a social life. For many students, college is a time of liberation, and they are keen to explore social activities for the first time. In other countries, students typically experience a greater range of social activities before college. For Chinese students entering college, it’s more difficult for Magic to take center stage.
There is also the financial barrier of entry for Chinese Magic players. The average income of the Chinese middle-class person does not support a serious Magic habit. The rising cost of cards is already a problem in North America; in China, Magic cards command the same prices as they do overseas. For Chinese college students, it is often impractical to play online or acquire tournament cards.
While it’s normal to see older Magic players acquire expensive cards and collections, they’ve already reached the stage where playing serious tournament Magic is impossible. The game is accessible only to those who have disposable income. It’s rare to hear about middle-aged Magic players who place well in Magic Pro Tours – they generally have other life priorities that prevent them from investing a lot of time in the game. By the time Chinese players have the ability to travel and play extensively, they’ve outgrown the game on a professional level.
When it comes to travel, it’s a logistical challenge for Chinese players to travel to play in tournaments. China is a massive country, and players generally need to book flights to play in multiple cities. Compared to American Magic hot spots like the New England area, or car-accessible European Union countries, travel is prohibitive for the Chinese. Also, there is the issue of Visa requirements for out-of-country travel. For any Chinese person to travel, they need to secure a Visa to the country they’re visiting. The Visa application process is not guaranteed – Chinese players may be denied a Visa if they are deemed to be a flight risk by the Chinese government. All of these logistical reasons make it difficult for all but the most affluent Chinese players to travel to play in tournaments.
It’s easy to dismiss the Chinese players’ under-performance as a case of un-originality, or lack of creativity. There is an oft-cited stereotype about the Chinese people’s deficiencies in these areas, and how creative deck building contributes to success inMagic. In reality, this is far from the truth. The Chinese are way ahead of the curve when it comes to gaming. Entire generations of Chinese kids have been raised on gaming through the ascending ubiquity of mobile devices. Kids in China play games everywhere they go – on the subway, with friends, and at home. New games are invented every day in China. For this generation, creativity and thinking outside of the box is the new normal.
After Ji’s initial introduction, I became an official member of the Beijing Legacy community. I started visiting Chinese Magic web sites and joined a Legacy-specific chat group. Despite my previous efforts to distance myself from playing the game locally, I warmed up to the idea. Besides, I was in a real rut as far as the game was concerned, and wanted to do something new to shake things up. I wasn’t fully committed to playing fulltime yet, but I figured that making new friends couldn’t hurt. If I played just a little bit more Magic in this new setting, I might be able to rid myself of the negative feelings I had built up inside.
This was a breath of fresh air and my chance at redemption. Now that I knew the local community of Legacy players, I could practice more frequently and level up my skills. If I put my mind to it, I could invest more time into Magic and become a competent player again. Magic was always an international game for me – now it was solely in my backyard. The ball was in my court, and it was my move to make.
How could I refuse my shot? Encouraged, I began to re-invest my energies back into the game. In the back of my mind, I knew that I didn’t want to get too addicted again. But I had taken a one-year leave of absence. This leave reinforced my self-confidence, and proved that I could keep the game under control.
Playing Magic was like starting a new romantic relationship – the parameters were different, and I needed to build on the hard lessons that I had learned before. I learnt those earlier lessons through pure trial and error. Now, I needed to ease back into the game through a series of ultra-casual first dates. The goal was to keep my passion for the game in check, and not get too excited too early. I had a long way to go, and I didn’t want to face early disappointment in case things didn’t work out.
Another reason to dispel the myth is that originality in deck building is a problem everywhere, not just in China. The practice of “net-decking” – copying exact deck lists online – is a global phenomenon. The Chinese don’t do this any more frequently than their American or European counterparts.