I’ve done a lot of things while tripping on mushrooms. I’ve eaten meals, taken walks in the park, even closed my eyes and chilled out to my favorite tunes. But, until a few weeks ago, I’d never won first place—and $5,000—in a Magic: the Gathering tournament.
Our journey begins on a Saturday at 6 A.M., a time I’m more likely to stay up until than to get up by. In my living room were three friends: a strip club DJ, a software engineer, and a cosplay photographer—which is almost enough to fool you into thinking that the world of competitive Magic is diverse.
I felt horrendous. There was only one thing that could restore my equilibrium.
“We ready to go?” said the cosplay photographer.
“Almost,” I said.
I ran upstairs and threw a Ziploc bag into my backpack.
As Insane Clown Posse raps, “If Magic is all / we’ve ever, known / then it’s easy to miss / what really goes on. / But I’ve seen miracles in every way / and I’ve seen miracles, every day.” I play Magic because I like the friends I’ve made from it, because I like thinking (or pretending to think); but what gives it its replay value, aside from the periodic printing and acquisition of new cards, is the challenge. Magic is hard. Winning a tournament, no matter how good you are, is always a miracle.
I couldn’t sleep on the car ride down to Portland, and the coffee wasn’t enough to make me feel human. How do people get up early five days a week? The mind reels. I had no choice but to unzip my backpack.
“Forget something, CML?” said Jamal (the strip club DJ).
“Nope,” I said, gobbling some shrooms. They tasted disgusting.
“Can I have some coffee?” I asked Brendan (the cosplay photographer).
We were somewhere around Lacey when the drugs started to take hold …
Card games have been a passion of mine since I was ten. After college, I briefly played online poker for a living. When the US government murdered it, I naturally regressed to my childhood passion, Magic. In January, I won a qualifier and earned a comped ticket to Brussels to battle the most powerful planeswalkers in the multiverse. I would say “I couldn’t complain,” but I’d be lying: my Eurotrip was dope, but the (misnamed) “Magic Pro Tour” was easily the worst part. I wrote an article about it, the gist of which was: Magic appeals to only a niche demographic because its events don’t matter and even suck in a lot of ways for the competitors. (Contrast with eSports, which have iconic pros, and have reaped the rewards of their real advertising budgets.) My article elicited some polarized responses, which brought me great joy. But it also made me want to do well in Portland. My expectations for myself were getting dangerously high, my thinking very uptight. Shrooms (I thought to myself while retching out the window) were a way to take the pressure off, remind myself the whole thing was essentially a joke.
But would I be able to play up to my standards for myself? One of the clichés the community uses to explain Magic to muggles is that “it’s like chess and poker at the same time,” which differs from other clichés in being more or less true. You have to devote a lot of thought to the cards you have, the cards they have, the cards you might draw, the cards they might have. Magic is the best game of all time—it tests adaptability and memory, intuition and calculation, stamina and judgment. Bringing the shrooms was a spontaneous decision, but I would never have eaten them without some prior experience.
My training regimen had begun some months earlier, during the NFC Championship game. In the first quarter, I ate some caps and stems. Five minutes in, I felt great; fifteen minutes in, I fled outdoors. The score was bad enough, but the lamentation of women was way too much. After communing with nature, I came back in and lay on a couch in a room where I could hear reports of endless defeat and sighs of frustration issuing from the television and the sectional. It sounded like fiction; the game needed a new narrator. Midway through the third quarter, I walked back to the TV, concentrated, and envisioned a fake field goal. It worked! Thanks to me, we were back in it. As the game grew grimmer, I fantasized about scenarios where the Seahawks won. These fantasies grew increasingly outlandish, until one of them came to life, as I knew it would. Defeat had never been an option.
We got to the Greater Portland Convention Center with plenty of time. The shrooms had had only a mild effect—I was worried they’d lost some puissance since that irrecoverable football game—so I’d eaten a few more a few times en route. I felt a little buzzed, though, who knows, that could have just been Portland.
Brendan asked if I wanted to smoke a joint. “No thanks. I want to be on my mental game.”
Pairings for the first round went up, and the sea of unwashed humanity coursed around me. Magic tournaments are, for lack of a better phrase, visually stunning. The sheer number of people—472 players in Portland, several thousand at some other events, the chaotic lurch towards match pairings and orderly arrangement, side-by-side, at long and narrow tables; the glaring lights and ugly carpets: you have to see it to believe it. Clad in orange and sweat, I was a part of it.
I looked down at my hand; the flesh darkened and shriveled against the bright day outside. Was I to be slain and lobotomized and reanimated into a dread zombie to do the bidding of vile necromancy? Or was this the first sign of my transcendence to a higher realm, the tinder that would ignite my planeswalker spark? I swiped right on myself and walked towards the first round.
Like you, I waste a lot of time reading the internet, and a lot of that time has been spent reading Magic media. The media is seldom about people, often about cards, and never of interest to anyone not hopelessly addicted. I’d seen my opponent’s deck the day before, so I stared at him through my shades and read his soul. Who said English literature wasn’t a useful degree? Outside, I reveled in the unseasonable sun and had a flashback to that day in Central Park where I discovered I gave a flying fuck about Walt Whitman. Then I had to play another round, so I ate some more shrooms.
“I read your article,” said my next opponent.
Auditory hallucinations? I might have eaten too many.
“Sorry?” I said.
“I said I read your article.”
… I’d definitely eaten too many.
“Oh!” I riposted. “Um, cool. Did you like it?”
I crushed him.
A friend came up to me. “Your article is blowing up.”
“I just heard a few people talking about it.”
“Did they like it?”
Everything was going perfectly.
“What round is it?” I said.
Magic game is popular enough that the competitive circuit is well-developed, and the games are often incredibly complicated and strategically rich and completely inaccessible to laymen. To be fair, the coverage team does a thorough and accurate job of describing my games, if you play a lot and have kept current with popular cards and “metagame” trends. But what outsider would care enough to decipher the Wizard language? The World Series of Poker this is not. I share coverage’s despair at communicating the strategic depth and excitement of Magic to a commercial, laic audience. Hence the advent of League of Legends as spectator-friendly, ersatz Starcraft, and Hearthstone as spectator-friendly, ersatz Magic. I guess you’ll have to believe me when I say I played brilliantly.
Another round went by.
“Would you classify shrooms as a performance-enhancing drug?” asked Ranjan (the software engineer).
It was then that I was accosted by a man in a suit. Was it the CIA?
“What kind of content would you like to see published?” he said.
“I’m just wondering what kind of content you’d like us to put out there.”
Oh! He was on the coverage team.
“Ummm. Something honest? Something…with a sense of irony.”
“OK, so you want something honest and something with a sense of irony.”
He understood me! “Yep.”
“… That doesn’t make any sense.”
It did, I thought, but the shrooms had put me in an uncharacteristically non-confrontational mood.
“… Because these guys aren’t really writers who play Magic,” said the commentator, “They’re Magic players who are writing.”
Undeterred, he continued: “You ever read Chuck Klosterman?”
“You know how he covers things, but he thinks he’s better than everyone else, so, in my opinion, that makes him kind of an asshole?”
Ah! This wasn’t a conversation; it was a rant.
“I don’t disagree,” I said.
“It’s kind of pretentious.”
“Right,” I babbled. “But, uh, what if Klosterman actually was smart, though?”
“Because the majority of Magic readers are looking for decklists and tournament reports. So we give them that.”
“Right, OK, look, I’m, uh, not saying you should publish me, man. Just something a bit more honest.”
“OK, sounds good. We agree.”
“I’ve gotta run. We’ll continue this conversation later.” And he walked back to the booth, where he would resume doing his job, and not badly at that. Contrast with Wizards of the Coast’s official coverage teams, trying in vain to convince you what’s going on is exciting, trying way too hard in fact, taking inartistic liberties with their impersonality-based narratives.
I put on my shades and looked out the exit. My glasses were polarized; the response to the article was polarized; the response to me was polarized; my quality of my play was polarized; everything and everyone was polarized.
I ran into some friends. Together we went to a Greek restaurant and the five of us downed two bottles of wine.
“CML’s going to win the tournament,” said someone. Or were the voices in my head singing Renaissance counterpoint? “What’s your record, CML?”
“Am I?” I said.
“Are you asking me or telling me?”
“Telling?” said Aaron.
We went out for drinks. I had a whiskey sour and felt drunk, so I had another and that helped me sober up. All of life appeared before me, boozy and diaphanous. Two healthgoths walked by. Portland is all about chill hedonism, about not working and thinking. Playing Magic there, all the stress and dyspepsia—that was, well…that was hella normative.
Shrooms off, whiskey on. I’d be able to sleep! I Ubered back to the hotel and did just that.
I started my morning with some shrooms. There seemed to be no point in not eating them, until I understood there was nothing to get rid of the putrid taste. Or was there? Beside my leg was something moist and fishy. My Greek leftovers!
There were no forks in the room. I stole one from the hotel lobby and chased down the shrooms with a salmon skewer. There was some salmon left after that, so I ate more shrooms.
I won the first round, I think? I tried to remember where the Starbucks was but I couldn’t because I hadn’t had any coffee. Caffeine is addictive; drugs are bad.
“‘No alcoholic beverages,’” said Jamal, reading the sign outside the tournament hall. “Read that, CML: it says, ‘No alcoholic beverages.’”
“But it doesn’t say ‘no drugs,’” I said.
“If it did,” said Jamal, “What would they do with all the cats on Adderall?”
It was true, just as any company in Seattle that drug tested would immediately have to fire half its employees. Adderall use at Magic tournaments is as widespread as “greenies” were in 20thcentury baseball.
A tournament judge walked by. “I hear you’ve added, uh, shiitakes to your diet today,” he smirked.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I replied.
I had to play against a friend? With his wide grin, his feline eyes and whiskers, I could swear I was up against the Cheshire Cat.
“What did you do last night?” he said.
“Went out for drinks.”
“Aren’t you hung over?”
I was! I’d forgotten; it was maybe the fifth-biggest reason I felt physically ill.
“Not really,” I said.
“Are you still shrooming?”
“Why?” he asked, whisking around his tail.
“Why anything?” I said profoundly.
I was going to kill him but ran out of time, so we both got a draw instead. How un-American! How Portland. We were both happy.
I won an incredibly close match. It’s always those wins, not the easy ones, that make you feel like you can’t lose. I sprinted out of the hall; I had a fire flower and an invincible star; I was Beast Mode.
My opponent wasn’t supposed to take an intentional draw, but I wanted to.
“Wanna draw?” I said.
“I mean …” he said.
“If we draw and lose the next round, we’ll both make it,” I lied.
To “make it” is to reach the elimination rounds, in eighth place or better. I would make it. He might not. Or would he? Why wouldn’t he?
I continued: “I snuck at 8th place at the last one with the same record as you if you lose the last round.”
“OK, if you say so!”
That was easy. I could use language! He was going to make it, after all.
“Congratulations!” I said.
I could try to win the last round, but a draw would really lock things up.
“Wanna draw?” I said. (He probably shouldn’t.)
“I think I have to play,” he said.
Damn! He was right.
“You’re right,” I said.
“But if you concede to me, both of us will make it.”
“I’ll concede if someone else can confirm it,” I said.
“You’d be the most awesome guy ever,” he answered.
I was the most awesome guy ever! He really knew how to flatter someone on shrooms. That, and he was a genuinely nice guy.
The match started and I got off to a big lead in game one. Then I revealed a card that shouldn’t have been in my starting lineup, but on the bench, if you will.
“Oops!” I said blithely. I forfeited the game.
A friend came by. “You’re mathematically locked for top 8, even if you lose.”
“Are you going to concede now?” said my foe.
“Uh, I might later,” I said.
“But you’re in.”
“Might as well play for seeding,” I said, dithering and leaving him, I realized, in agony for a not very good reason.
I won the next game and felt a little bad for not feeling bad about it. We got moved over to the camera table; we’d be on if the other match finished.
“It might be different on camera,” he said. “Just letting you know.”
“I kind of like the idea of drawing on camera,” I said.
I lost. I had put him through far greater emotional turbulence than was necessary. That should make it all the sweeter!
“Congratulations and good luck,” I said, moved by my own generosity.
It’s easy to be a gracious loser when you’re on shrooms! It’s also easy to be a gracious loser when it doesn’t matter much. But if that’s true, then why do we ever get salty after losing at Magic?
The head judge announced the top 8 — I was in, at seventh. We took a group photo:
Really, this was nothing after guiding the Seahawks to victory. My bullshit had come to life. I was a good person! I deserved some shrooms.
“Trail mix?” said someone.
“Can I have some?”
“No,” I said, feeling like a prick.
An official came over. Was he ousting me for five counts of delinquency and hooliganism?
I was shrooming; everybody knew I was shrooming.
The official walked past me to the guy I’d drawn with and tapped him on the shoulder. He had actually gotten ninth. Someone had blundered. I felt guilty. Had I squandered all my good (Reddit) karma from the previous week?
On to the quarterfinals! Was I having a flashback? Or was this really the guy I’d played in round 13? I didn’t want to; he was kind of good.
“Dios mio, man,” I said.
“Huh?” said my adversary.
This was the guy from two rounds ago! It was a flashback. (Of course, flashbacks within flashbacks were quite possible.)
I played the first two games about as badly as possible, but, as in a game of pinball that appears accursed but rises up to reach the replay on the strength of an eleventh-hour multiball, as in a round of bowling so deucedly desperate it looks to a turkey to take flight, the third time was the charm.
“I am where I need to be,” I said to no one.
“Come again?” said my opponent.
I’d seen him before too! A flashback within a flashback within a flashback.
I stared at the trippy art in my beautiful deck and felt destiny course through me with the might of a million memories. I knew I would win the tournament. I also knew I’d gotten this feeling dozens of times before and I’d invariably lost, at some point, with all the dull brutality of probability.
He stumbled game one, and I was one with my deck. I was the Whip of Erebos that resurrected the Hornet Queen; I was the Satyr Wayfinder that blazed a fratty trail through the virgin lands; I was the Temple of Malady that sucked dry the Forest of impurity and affliction. I indulged myself with these thoughts while so far ahead in game two, so close to victory, that I thought too of all the ways I could lose before realizing there weren’t any.
I paused, and when I came to I saw I could do no wrong; the world was my Minecraft server.
The restoration of limitless narcissism.
Ah, how sweet it is to win when you’re anyone. But how much sweeter when you’re a massive and incorrigible troll!
What would the coverage team say? If they were salty, it’d be hilarious; if they were courteous, it’d be hilarious. They were unfailingly professional.
(A shocker; nerds are usually so confrontational, most of all when doing their jobs.)
Then we were on the road, back to Seattle, $2,250 richer after splitting the prizes among the last four players. A hard way to make a hard living.
I shouldn’t have split. “That’s what I get for deviating from my villain persona,” I muttered, with not much regret.
“Huh?” said the driver.
“You fucked it up!!” I yelled. “You FUCKED IT UP!”
“I don’t want to think of how insufferable you’re going to be after this,” he said.
I closed my eyes to vistas of endless geometry. All was well.
Some tournaments as miserable as my Pro Tour are inevitable, while victories are precious and rare; this is the opposite of what the Magic media would have you believe. The truth is that the two make no sense without one another.
The best shroom experiences are full of revelations: I now understand why they are called Magic mushrooms. It was my most righteous life benchmark since I’d bowled 200, my wildest hallucination since the NFC Championship, my dopest trip since Europe.
Three weeks have passed since the tournament. A muggle friend came by, picked up and examined a stray card.
“The fuck is this?” he asked.
I said: “Obviously, you are not a golfer.”
Illustration by Jim Cooke