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March 8, 2016

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Musings of the Madman: Dealing with Dystopia

Welcome back all! This week is going to be a little different. I won’t be speaking on any specific Magic-related topics or iterations, but rather on how the game itself can help us grow and heal over time. We’ll be going into things a little deeper than usual this week, so forearmed is forewarned if you were looking for strategy and something lighter.

Please be advised there is a trigger warning from here onward for: Depression, Suicide, Mental Illness, Death or Dying.

I’d like to address you on the topic of Depression. It’s become a timely topic over the past few years thanks to initiatives such as Bell: Let’s Talk! Day and personalities such as TSN’s Michael Landsberg and Olympian Clara Hughes coming to the forefront to explain their experiences and their survival. It’s easy to feel disconnected from them though, as they are up there in the strata while we are here, in the everyday muck, trying to survive both physically and psychologically. Excessively important is to know that people you know, love, admire and even simply associate with on a more or less casual basis might have some of the same difficulties you do, so you can relate to them on a more personal, humanistic level.

Late 90s – The Darkness Descends

After having graduated from Algonquin College with a translation-related degree, things were looking good for our hero. However, the certificate wasn’t quite beefy enough to get work as a Translator, so off to the University of Ottawa we went to get that fixed. These were the first signs of trouble. Having 30+ hours or schoolwork and 24+ hours of weekend work on top of a social life would be a heavy burden for anyone, let alone someone like me who is more used to a deliberate pace. The lack of sleep from both the midnight shifts (11 p.m. to 11 a.m. Friday to Saturday and Saturday to Sunday) and erratic school schedule, with some courses finishing at 10 p.m. with others starting quite earlier in the day, didn’t help. On a side note, while I understand the post-secondary enclave wants complete focus on the work there, wide gaps in the schedule only lead to excessive idling and so on. While you’re nominally supposed to be doing homework, we all know all kinds of cool hobbies can arise from the empty periods.

To get back on topic, the excessive workload and course load starting taking their toll. Allied with my petit mal Epilepsy, which essentially requires that I have a semi-regular sleep schedule, it was feeling more as more as if a giant weight was pressing down on me from above, immovable, inexorable and invincible. This is where our story nearly ended. On one endless midnight shift, with debt accumulating and barely enough money available to pay bills and utilities and so on, I seriously considered simply attaching myself to some of the beams above and just letting it all end, tragically and pointlessly.

What held me back? Oddly enough, my love of Magic: the Gathering may have saved me. I had a tendency then (as I do now) to carry my junk around with me to sort through. EDH didn’t exist back then, of course, but I was always busy tweaking decks, sorting cards, more tweaking, more re-sorting. I got so engrossed in building whatever it was at the time (likely something with a lot of goblins, Goblin Grenades and a Goblin Snowman or two for good measure, that time passed and the Patrol Officer came by to checkup. For those that haven’t worked in the Security field, Patrol Officers are basically roving checkpoints to see if everything is okay on your site. They check your deportment, your site’s cleanliness, and whether you’re there or gone for a nap. (Note to the gentle reader: never get caught sleeping at your post, the consequences are dire.) The arrival of the PO came at a providential time, giving me some much needed relief and a kind of milestone to hang onto as I finished my shift. After that, with a full day of sleep behind me, I was able to get back to the jobs at hand.

Mid-2000s and new friendships

At his point I had delved back into my studies with renewed vigour and I thought the world of depression behind me for good; like a pernicious enemy that resides within, however, it was always there. With each low grade, with each setback and with each minor failure the dark cloud kept pressing down on me. Thankfully, at that point I had a lot of cool, eclectic friends on the University of Ottawa campus and outside and my varied interests kept me afloat. I had also learned from mixing work and school’s toxic mix so I was entirely focused on the university aspect. My grades steadily improved despite many distractions, though my health wasn’t at its best in this period, as I was afflicted with a terrible bout of pneumonia that left me bedridden for seemingly ages and left me with a weak lung system that hinders me to this day. Lest this devolve into self-pity, however, I’d like to throw some love to a few important people in this period.

Terry Moore (You really should be reading his stuff, even as his new series Rachel Rising comes to a close) had a dedicated website for his seminal Strangers in Paradise comic strip, and it’s precisely here that I made a friendship that lasts to this day. Amanda Parsons, a lovely woman from the Ohio region, formed a deep friendship with me that led me to visit her and her then-partner in Ohio. The visit reinvigorated me and it seemed that depression had finally, at long last, been vanquished! And it had been! I graduated from the University of Ottawa, got immediate work and then began a short, somewhat erratic career as a freelance translator. Around this time MTG had be playing 5-Colour, a casual variant where you played decks well over 200 cards, could use four of any of the allowed cards but needed at least 18-20 cards of each colour to build a functional deck. Since this was an ante format, you could (or had to) play Contract From Below, perhaps the most broken card draw engine that let you draw seven for one black mana. Yes, this card makes Dark Ritual look like a chump, and chaining these created plays so broken that having it banned was a recurring request on the 5-Colour forums.

I clearly remember playing a ton of this around various Ottawa shops before some of us moved to more classic, non-EDH highlander variants. One particularly gross combination Nick Sirman was fond of was using Myojin of Seeing Winds, returning it to his hand with Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni’s Ninjutsu ability and then replaying it, sifting though his library with Mindmoil or Tomorrow, Azami’s Familiar. Ugh, so much card draw. Not that I’d (still!) complain about something that happened in a game close to 20 years ago, but yeah. Nick and Kenneth Gallagher had been absolute rocks for me during this period as well. No one can break a gaming rules system like Nick and few have the clarity of mind and near lawyer-like ability to argue a point to its very minutiae (amazingly, actually) like Ken does. We’ve already covered the graduation from highlander to EDH in columns long ago, so let’s just focus on friendships here for a bit.

Friendships then and now.

Magic is a fun game. There are a ton of different things you can do with it and you can even set yourself a bunch of achievement scores to keep yourself goal oriented. All foil EDH deck? Achievement unlocked! Completely white-bordered EDH deck? Achievement unlocked, but please stop! One of each card in a set? Not so much anymore, anyways. This best part of it all is meeting people that will point you in a different direction, will generate rivalry and just go from there.

Of course not every person you meet is going to be a fast friend. It does take some merging of the minds to meet after the games and do anything from talking trash with your friends to sharing musical tastes or whatever. And the best part? It helps.

It helps a lot.

Understand that my goal here isn’t for us all to start a commune where we all play Magic and live in harmony and so on; our differences are important and there needs to be some mutual respect about those as well. You know what else helps? Social networks. We’re so used to being on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat or just our mobiles that it’s easy to forget that pressing the flesh used to be de rigueur when forming any kind of lasting bonds. It still is, really. You know what’s cool though? We have a ton of gaming stores in the Ottawa region where we can just hang out and do stuff. And those stores are open to all members.

Short of sounding like an old man here, I can’t reiterate how important it is to at least surround yourself with some young adults in your life, and even moreso when gaming. The keen analytical minds out there will just force you to up your own game plan and make better decision trees. And hey, no one’s really better for taking you down a peg than your friends, especially your “little bro or little sis” right?

As for me? Dystopia’s cumulative upkeep isn’t being paid anymore. The light of day is slowly creeping back and though my decks still can’t win worth a damn, at least they’re  becoming a bit more resilient over time. I’ve made a new friend or two recently and they’ve added some great perspective on my life and made me glad I’m still around.

With the editor’s permission, I’d like to close by leaving a few numbers for our readers. Kids Help Phone is a fantastic resource that I’ve been glad to be circuitously associated with ages ago in some writing work, and they can be reached at 1-800-668-6868. Ottawa’s Crisis Line can be found at 613-722-6914 in the Ottawa region and 1-866-996-0991 outside the city proper.

Until next week, may you have a friend in the Magic world. Better yet, may you be a friend and create your own magic.