Friday, October 18, 2013

Sitting at the Big Table

I have a few memories from my childhood that I cherish.  Running through the grass not wearing any shoes on a spring day.  Finding a million and one uses for rather large magnifying lens that my stepbrother let me 'borrow'.  The day I permanently moved to live with my dad.  There are many more, but there is one that sticks with me that I want to share with you today.  It has to do with Magic, socialization, and growing up.

Large Families, Small Table
During the holidays, large family gatherings were common occurrences.  Thanksgiving and Christmas especially were reason enough to gather, but anytime one of my 2 uncles came in from the west coast special attempts were made to get everyone together.

Anyone who comes from a large family is probably familiar with the result.  Picture if you will, grandma and a few aunts cooking in the kitchen, occasionally chasing out the foraging menfolk and children.  Older adult siblings likely telling stories with younger adult siblings arguing about every small detail, up to and including what the weather really was like that day they both fell out of the boat 3 miles from shore.  The multiple attempts to keep the youngest children occupied while the older children do everything in their power to stave off boredom (this was pre-Internet people, with 5 channels on tv).  In short, a picture of a large and loving slice of Americana.

As dinner time nears, two tables are set.  There is the large banquet sized table that has had 3 leaves added to it so it can seemingly seat a million people (but it only sits 10, 11 in a pinch).  And then there is the 'kiddie table'.  It's an abused card table that has been drafted into service.  The table looks lonely, set off to the side and lacking the same level of sophistication seen on the larger table.  Often, its settings were common dishware or in some circumstances, 'fine china', aka paper plates, would be employed.  Even the difference in height spoke volumes.  Those that sat at this table were 'less than' those that sat at the adult table.  This lonely island in a room of cheer was my purgatory for many years.

From the kiddie table, even as young as five, I would watch my father and the rest of his family engage in rousing discussions and tale telling.  While I never felt as a child that I wasn't watched or unloved as a result of sitting at the smaller table, I did know that I was also thought of as unready to join my older relations.  I was ostracized due in no small part to my inexperience.  My grandmother would take a particularly keen interest in my table, making certain no one left hungry.  More importantly, she suffered no ridiculous behavior, often swooping in to check on us all or gazing at me from her perch at the adults table.

Nothing would have made me happier than to join the adults.  Unless my older cousin was in town, I was the oldest at the table and as the years moved on I was expected to help manage my younger sister and cousins.  The privilege of leadership though didn't diminish my feelings.  I felt that I was sure I had proven myself trustworthy enough to sit at the big table and it got to the point when I was twelve or thirteen that I felt I was being punished by my placement.

One holiday though, everything changed when I was promoted.  I don't remember my age at the time that it happened, likely because I viewed it as a natural, yet overdue, progression.  I'm sure it happened one year when an uncle didn't fly in to join us, or when someone perhaps discovered a fourth leaf for the table.  Regardless of the reason, I found myself seated to my father's left.  Eating off of the fine china didn't impress me (even though I was VERY careful with it).  What did impress me though was finally being included in all of the conversations that happened that night.  Even though I had been watching the adults for years, I was still a little uncomfortable.  I distinctly remember feeling bashful and awkward when it came to talking with and answering questions from my relations.  I was probably 14 at the time, but it still took a few more years of practice at the big family table before I really felt comfortable.

I made myself a promise following that evening.  I vowed to never have my children, if I was so lucky to find some woman weird enough to have children with, sit at a separate table at family gatherings.  Over the past twenty-one years, I've kept that promise, both figuratively and literally.  I have taken steps in the past to protect my boys - but when it comes to introducing them to social challenges, I've given them many opportunities to prove themselves.

MtG - It's All a Big Table
Magic the Gathering represents a wonderful example of equality, completely different than my family's holiday seating arrangements.  Certainly, younger players can sit and play a casual game separately  from other players.  But when you start talking about the competitive environment, everyone has an equal chance to participate.

Drafting at my LGS on Friday nights is a perfect example.  Somewhere between 16 and 35 players gather, pay the entry fee and are seated into pods using a randomizer built into Wizards Event Reporter.  WER doesn't care how old you are or how many drafts you've played before when it seats you.  It just throws your name in and churns out a seating arrangement.  The system plays no favorites and pulls no punches.  It can result in some wickedly difficult pods for novice players to be seated into, but by the same extension the randomness of the seating also allows for pods to be formed with lower skill levels as well.

And then there are larger events.  PTQs.  Grand Prix.  States.  All of these are democratic as well, with first round pairings being completely random.  You could just as easily find yourself at table 1,000 as table 1.

All of this means that at 40 years old, I can find myself seated against a almost anyone in the room.  And so can my son, Jacob.  While we've both been playing for the same amount of time, Jacob is only twelve and his grasp of the rules isn't as strong as mine.  He's learning an important lesson though every time he sits down to play.

No one is going to roll over for him because of his age, and everyone is forced to respect him as a player.

There is no kiddie table in competitive MtG.  There's also no 'Under 16' age division.  Jacob has to find his seat, sometimes in a hall with 2000 chairs.  He has to get himself there on time, ready to play.  He has to get out his gear, shuffle his deck and confirm the person across from him is his opponent.  At his first competitive experience last year, that was both confusing and educational.  On his second match, he didn't remember the correct table number when he went to find it, costing him time and nearly resulting in a game loss for tardiness.  MtG is about equality - if he wants to play it competitively he has to overcome mistakes like that.

Better than teaching him some small lessons about responsibility, competitive MtG gives him something else that is more important.  Jacob has to meet, play, and talk to people that are on average at least twice his age in just about every match-up.  This is one of the many reasons I'm so supportive of his playing the game.  He doesn't sit off at some table at events and just stare at his cards and try to pick up games with other kids his age (who are very few and far between).  And he certainly doesn't gaze longingly at some group of players engaged in a draft because he's shut out due to age or inexperience [Note: the 'inexperience' example is for the most part no longer valid].  Instead, he jumps right into open queues, often seated in pods with at least 5-6 players capable of growing facial hair.

Why is this a big deal and worth writing about?

Jacob's self-esteem is on par with any other youth 4-6 years older than he is.  He has no problem engaging adults in conversation.  He talks with them respectfully, but at the same time there is a measure of equality in his discussions.  Certainly, there is the youthful exuberance and tendency to oversell a point in a story that one would expect of a pre-teen.  But the fear one often sees when younger children speak with adults is almost non-existent.

A small part of me is cringing, thinking I may be setting myself up for some blowback in the feedback section, so please allow me a chance to clarify.  He's not untrained in stranger danger, nor is he going to strike up a conversation with a guy driving a van near his bus stop.  MtG Tournaments are reasonably safe environments, and he is often in sight of me or has a cell phone with him.  He also knows to call for a Judge if and when something bothers him or gets out of his control.  So please, reserve any criticism you may have in this area.

This confidence does extend beyond Magic.  Recently, I saw him at a non-MtG related meeting of other kids his age and older.  He was asked to present an opinion on a topic he had researched.  Unhesitatingly, he walked to the front of the room, turned around and spoke for five minutes straight on a topic with no notes at hand and more importantly, zero fear.  He smiled.  He scanned the crowd, looking at other kids (some as old as 17).  He spoke to them, not above them or at the floor.  He was absolutely charismatic - well, as charismatic as a 12 year old can be.  When he finished talking, he took questions and handled the group of 20 other boys as if he were a teacher.  Was I proud?  You bet I was.

But it was only upon reflection later that night that I really understood how proud I was of him.  The funny thing is, I've come to expect it of Jacob.  The confidence and ability to speak with his friends is something I've started to take for granted as something that he simply does.

MtG: The Equalizer
Magic isn't just about offering people valuable lessons in a Mensa level game.  It's not just about teaching them to them to do math quickly in their head or how to read at an advanced level.  We call it a 'Social Game' all the time.  And that is what is about.

Magic, whether you are comfortable with it or not, is about interaction.

Certainly, the game has its share of bashful Barry's.  Players who don't socialize well, but still continue to come out to LGSs and play because the enjoyment of the game is strong enough to overcome their reticence.  I'm happy they continue to come out.  Maybe one day they'll overcome whatever is lying in their way and come out of their shell.  I anxiously await those days and I'm confident it will happen for many.

Until then, I'm proud of the progress Jacob has made.  He hasn't yet figured out how to 3-0 drafts (although my wallet would love that).  I'm referring of course to his progress in his social development.  Perhaps he'll be the catalyst to one day help someone else come out of their shell.  Or maybe he'll just continue to break the curve, acting in ways that defy his age.  No matter what though, I know I'll continue to challenge him with new opportunities.  So long as he promises to pass the mac'n cheese.  I hate it when he sits at the opposite end of the table from me and hoards the good stuff.

This article, as many of my pieces, deserves a couple of end notes:
First, if your child is nine or ten years old and interested in MtG, take them occasionally to a draft at an LGS.  Invite them along to play some Standard.  Allow them a chance to sit at the big table.  You can't tell me they aren't ready until they'd had a chance to prove it.

Secondly, Jacob does receive other chances to socialize with adults in other structured settings.  However, none of them require him to meet and speak with new adults a tenth as often as Magic does.  Involving Jacob in larger, competitive settings even occasionally drives up this percentage a thousandfold more.

Lastly, MtG is not a panacea for social development.  People still have to be willing to learn.  If you give a pre-teen age child though opportunity and challenges in the guise of a game, you should be prepared for some potentially remarkable results.

Reblogs, Retweets, & Mentions of all kinds are appreciated - as an independent writer I'm only read when others like what they see and share with their friends.

A special note...
A good friend of mine is responsible for Eternal Weekend in a few weeks.  As of this writing, there are still pre-registration slots open to score a wicked, one-of-a-kind Tarmagoyf playmat.  Believe me, this offer won't last much longer.  So if you're into Vintage or Legacy, click on the link to find out more about it:


  1. I enjoyed the article and can relate quite a bit.

    I help run a lot of events for stores in the area(and further out as well). My son knows this and started pestering me about learning to play when he was 4 or so. I put together two decks with nothing but vanilla creatures to learn the basics of casting and combat. As he progressed we added more parts of the game. From there, he started asking me about playing in tournaments. My rule was that he had to learn to read before he could play in events. It definitely incentivized his reading.

    He is 9 now and he loves to play. Sealed, draft, constructed...whatever you got going, he wants in. Soon, he gets to play in his first GP Main Event and he couldn't be more excited.

    I am glad to have another shared interest with him. I am also glad to have tournaments to run/play in and wish that there had been something like this for me when I was young.

  2. Thank you for sharing, DHThomas. I hope he has fun at his first GP. Jacob was in first almost a year ago, and it changed his perspective somewhat (and mine) of what true competitive level play was like.