I walked out of the loading dock, through a cloud of rotting garbage, and into the alleyway behind the theater. A curtain of rain fell between me and my destination, a little over a block away.
“Do you want to wait here, while I get you an umbrella?” Liz, the producer from Wizards of the Coast, asked me.
“No,” I said, stepping into the rain, extending my arms outward and turning my palms and face to the sky, “it’s been so long since I felt rain fall on my body, I’m not going to let this opportunity pass me by.”
I walked down the sidewalk, surrounded by other PAX attendees. Some were not bothered by the rain, while others held up programs and newspapers and other things to keep it away. A man walked his dog next to me. The dog was unperturbed by the weather. We got to the corner and waited for the light to change. The rain intensified and it was glorious.
“Are you sure this is okay?” She said.
“Oh yes, this is so much more than okay,” I answered, “this is perfect.”
Les Baxter’s soothing sounds were not soothing at 6am. Quiet Village played on my phone, which was, by comparison, better to wake up to as an alarm than an actual alarm’s jarring screech. Still, at 6am, the only thing I want to hear is whatever is in my dreams.
I dragged myself out of bed, silenced my alarm, and started my day.
Give up and accept hairstyle.
“Good morning,” April, from Wizards of the Coast, said.
“LIES!” I said with a smile.
“Can I get you a coffee?”
“Yes. You can get me all the coffee.”
“How would you like your coffee?” A new guy asked me, joining us. “I’m Brad from Wizards,” he told me.
“Angry. I want a big cup of angry coffee.”
We all laughed as Ashly Burch joined us.
“Good morning, Ashly,” April said.
“More lies,” I said, “there is no such thing as a good morning at bullshit o’clock.”
We went on like this for a few more minutes, my anti-morning sass offset by Ashly’s relentless happiness and positivity. Coffees in hand, we walked out of our hotel and a few blocks away to the theater where we were hosting the Battle for Zendikar preview show for Wizards of the Coast, thirteen hours in the future.
Rehearsal went as well as a rehearsal can at 7am (bullshit o’clock plus one hour, if you’re scoring on the Wheaton Clock), and a second run through was legitimately good. The point of the thing was to introduce a bunch of new cards that are about to come out in the Battle for Zendikar set, and to do it in a way that was hopefully amusing to the people on the room, and the Magic fans watching on the Internet. In a little over thirteen hours, we’d know if we succeeded.
I thanked everyone for a good couple of run throughs, went back to my hotel, and took a nap. I woke up, ate a sandwich, and took another nap. Then I woke up for real, went downstairs, and headed back into PAX to play Magic against as many people as I could in two hours.
If the presentation was the work, this was going to be the fun. I haven’t played Magic competitively in well over ten years, and I’ve only played casually in the last five or six years. Until I started preparing for this weekend, I didn’t know what was happening in the story of Magic, and there were a lot of current mechanics that I wasn’t familiar with. But I did a ton of homework, and with the help of some friends (especially my friend, Graham Stark, who really held my hand through the whole process), I entered the battlefield, as ready as I could be against players who dueled on a regular basis.
In the story of Magic, the world of Zendikar is currently being attacked by a species of terrifying creatures called the Eldrazi. These creatures are massive and ancient and hungry. They are so hungry, they devour everything in whatever plane they happen to invade. From their point of view, this isn’t a bad thing (they just want to scoop up everything available at the buffet), but from the point of view of literally every other living thing in the multiverse, the Eldrazi need to be stopped and contained. So these powerful Planeswalkers used the magic inherent to Zendikar along with these things called Hedrons to trap the Eldrazi there. Everything was great for a few thousand years, but now things are not so great. The Eldrazi are awake, hungry, and anxious to get back to feeding, starting with Zendikar itself.
That’s where I and a bunch of really cool and interesting people come in. We all played the role of the Eldrazi, in duels against players who were the representing the Zendikari. I had one deck that was built around summoning these massive Eldrazi creatures, and the players had their choice of three different decks that used different strategies, according to their skill level.
The players were, literally, battling for Zendikar. When a certain number of player victories were achieved, the image of an Eldrazi creature on a huge screen would be replaced with the image of a preview card from the next set, Battle for Zendikar. It was a clever and fun way for Magic fans to both duel against some cool and interesting people (or me), while they also worked as a group to get a first look at what’s coming up next in the game they love to play.
It was incredibly fun. I’m not good at Magic by any objective measure, and I’m certainly not going to offer any kind of meaningful challenge to a player who is experienced in tournament play … but I am pretty good at playing a role, and in these duels I was playing the role of the bad guys, which is something I’m fairly comfortable — some may even say good at — doing.
I learned how my deck was constructed with the help of Rich Hagon, a Pro Tour announcer. “You want to stay alive long enough to get enough mana to cast these big creatures,” he told me. “It won’t be easy, but when you can hit them, you’ll hit them hard.”
“Back when I played regularly, I liked to play with small, fast, ‘death by a thousand cuts’ decks, so this is the opposite of my preferred playing style,” I told him. “I think it’s going to be fun to get out of my comfort zone and do something different.”
Rich wished me luck, we discussed the possibility of him joining me for Tabletop next season, and I got ready to go to work. Well, I mean, to play. Even though I was technically working, I was actually actually playing in the way people play for enjoyment. Playing was also my job for the next few hours, so I guess I was going to work to play. Which was for work. But mostly for play.
Still with me? Good.
I got wrecked in my first game, which gave me tons of mana but not a lot of creatures. I won my second game, using a bunch of smaller creatures to absorb damage from the other player while I got more and more lands into play, finally casting a couple of Eldrazi who were very big and very nasty, including Ulamog the Infinite Gyre.
Win or lose, though, a couple of things happened in every duel:
- I had a really good time, and so did the other player.
- None of the people I played with traded the joy of playing for the pursuit of winning.
- Every player told me how excited they were to play with me, and that they’d been hoping I’d be the Eldrazi (from the more than twenty possible players) they’d face.
This last thing was really awesome, because I could feel how happy it made these people to play with me. I’ve been feeling pretty much the opposite of awesome for several weeks, now, and actually getting to sit down, face to face, in a semi-quiet few moments with real people who wanted to be there with me was … restorative, I guess is the best word. One player told me, “Thank you for everything you do. From Tabletop to Titansgrave — which is the best thing I’ve ever seen — to talking so openly about anxiety and depression.” He then destroyed me, with the final life counts being -8 for me, and 43 for him. It was awesome.
Part of my Depression is this voice that never stops telling me that I suck. Part of my Depression is this constant fear that everyone will know how afraid of failure I am. Part of my Depression is this relentless worrying, in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary, that I’m never going to do anything that matters.
I know that all of those thoughts — occasionally sincerely held beliefs, even — aren’t rational. I know that they are intrusive and part of depression lying, but when the depression and anxiety are very strong and very loud and I’m feeling very sad about some things, the guard who sits between my rational mind and my irrational emotions is easy to sneak past, and when Depression sees that happen, it makes the most of the opportunity.
I was really worried that I was going to suck when I did the presentation with Ashly on Saturday night. I was really worried that Magic players — who aren’t exactly renowned for being the most welcoming and inclusive people on the planet — wouldn’t give me a chance, because I don’t play as frequently or intensely as they do. I was worried that I would be tired and that I would make stupid mistakes that made me look unprepared. Depression saw all of that, and it pounced. I was, basically, a big ball of anxiety up until the moment the presentation was finished, and for a fair amount of time after, too.
I did make some stupid mistakes, but I thought I pulled out of them in an entertaining way (the folks who hired me told me they liked what I did, and the writers of the script were pleased with what I did, so I’ll let them judge). Ashly was perfect, and she made us both look better than I deserved. But I really did have fun talking with Mark Rosewater, who is the head designer for Magic, when we revealed to the world the preview cards we showed during the duels, and some others (like full frame dual lands) that made Magic fans go bananas.
(If you can spell bananas without Gwen Stefani doing it for you in your head, you’re missing out on something great.)
So putting it all together, it was a good and successful event. Yeah, the people who hate something that I do because I did it are always there, and yeah the type of Magic player who needs to be a gatekeeper didn’t like it, and there were some people who just didn’t like it because it wasn’t what they were looking for. All of that is totally fine, of course, but they were outnumbered by at least 20:1, and maybe even more.
But all of that isn’t even the best part of the day, or even the trip, for me.
The best part of the day came at the end of my last duel. The guy I was playing with was kicking my ass. I was down to, I think, 5 or 7 life, and he was still close to 20. I got super lucky and was able to play a card that wipes everything off the table that isn’t colorless, which cleared off all his creatures and gave me a couple of rounds to get out Ulamog, who went to work destroying all of his lands and creatures, and then devouring him. With the win, I finished 4 and 3 on the afternoon.
I extended my hand and thanked him for playing, because it was a genuinely fun and challenging match. He took my hand and he said, “I was really hoping that I’d get to play with you, because you saved my life.” Before I could respond, he continued, “everything you’ve written and shared about anxiety and depression helped me get treatment for my own mental health.”
It’s not the first time someone has said something like this to me, but this guy and I had spent about twenty minutes playing a game together, and we’d sort of bonded a little bit, the way people do when they’re playing a game. I felt an unexpected swell of emotion, and I said, “I’m really happy to know that I could help you the way Jenny Lawson helped me. I have to tell you that I haven’t been feeling very awesome lately, and the last few weeks have really been a struggle. In fact, I’ve had to take [medication] every day this week just to get through the day.”
He laughed. “Me too!”
“The thing I think we have to remember is that there is no finish line with depression, anxiety, or any other sort of mental illness. We’re on this path, and the path is constantly changing. Sometimes it’s flat and well-marked, and we can see all the way to the horizon.” I realized that I had gone from shaking his hand to holding it. “Other times, it’s so heavily shrouded in fog and mist, we can’t even see past our fingertips and we need someone to show us where the path is. And sometimes, we come to a wall that we don’t think we’ll ever get over. I’ve been staring at the base of that wall for weeks, and just now you helped me remember that there are always handholds to get up and over it.”
“You were one of my handholds,” he said, with a squeeze of my hand.
And that’s when we both began to cry.
“I’m sorry,” I said, wiping tears off my cheeks, “it’s been a really shitty few weeks, and you just really, really made me feel better about myself.”
We began to laugh through the tears, and when we composed ourselves, we took a picture together.
“Thanks for playing with me,” I said, “and thanks for … everything else, too.”
“You’re welcome,” he said.
“Play more games!” I said.
The announcer told the crowd that we were about to reveal another new card, and there was much rejoicing.
I had a little less than an hour between finishing the games and starting the presentation.
Again, I walked back to the hotel to change my clothes. I reflected on my final duel, and another, similar conversation I had with a different player right after it that is so deeply personal I’m not going to recount it.
It was raining, again. I looked up into it, again, and let the rain fall on my face.