Ten business lessons I learned from Magic: The Gathering in 2019

I picked up an old-new hobby in the summer of 2019. I started playing a fantasy card game, at the grand old age of 37. I've been a fan and a keen player ever since, and I found the game surprisingly educative. Here are ten ways in which MTG helped me do better at work this year.

1. Meeting people is easier than you think
Having something in common at the game store - the kind of game you're playing, most often - already means that most of the ice is broken. At work, the same thing applies - we share an office, we came to the same meeting, we do similar things. We may never have met before, but we're about to do a thing together. For a card-carrying, die-hard introvert like me, this is one of the biggest lessons.

2. Everything you do is an expression of yourself
You would think that a fantasy card game taking place in an alternate universe doesn't necessarily allow for self-expression. Wrong! There are five colors, many combinations, and literally thousands of cards to choose from as you go to build your decks. The cards on the battlefield are only half the story; the other half is the people playing them. I've found that this applies to business as well - why is this document written or formatted this way? Why does this person prefer Slack to email? Why are those folks running this meeting like that?

3. You are allowed to like what you like
There are many ways to play MTG, and many formats. You can play online or in person; you can go for highly competitive or casual settings; you can choose between 1v1 or multiplayer formats. None of them are right or wrong by themselves - but I quickly picked the ones I liked and resolved to stick with them. That's how I performed best and had the most fun. I would say this applies to jobseekers, employees, recruiters and managers as well: it's OK for you to be aware of your preferences and express them, pursue them, or attempt to negotiate them.

4. Budgets matter
MTG isn't free. The cards cost a bit, and the really good cards - on the second-hand market - cost a fair bit. But, as with most things, there is a focused and a carefree way of spending your money here. You can either shop for the exact cards you want, knowing what you want your deck to do - or you can keep buying "booster packs", sealed collections of cards, in the hope of getting a nice surprise or a card that inspires you to try a new angle. Again, both ways have their merits. For the kind of work I'm doing these days, I'd much rather stick to the focused purchase - and MTG helps you research before that credit card comes out.

5. Negotiate!
My preferred format is Commander - a longer variant which is most often also multiplayer (up to 4 players). This means that three other people - and three pretty powerful sets of cards - join the game with me. Only one winner. I love this format because of the alliances, politics, plot twists and negotiations it involves. These types of interactions - discussing how to reach a goal, communicating support / concern, making threats or responding to them - they're all to be found in meeting rooms and on conference calls everywhere.

6. Work with what you have
The deck you bring to play MTG may have 40, 60, or a hundred cards. But usually, there'll only be about 6-7 cards in your hand. There's no way of ensuring you get the exact ones you want - most of the time, you draw at random. This means that plenty of strategic questions need asking. What's the best play this turn? Are there any synergies between cards in my hand? What's best held back in case a threat needs to be countered? In business, that's a skill which may get overlooked in the always-on, hyper-optimistic rush to do everything all at once.

7. Mind your mana
Mana is magical energy. In MTG, it comes from cards called "lands" - each land you control gives you a portion of that energy, which you need to "spend" each turn to put other cards into play. This means at least two things: first, when building your decks, you need to make decisions about the amounts and kinds of mana-producing cards you need; secondly, each turn, you need to calculate how much energy your plays will cost - and how much to leave "open" in case you need to respond on opponents' turns. For anyone who needs to manage their team, take care of their morale, workload, or energy levels, the analogies should become obvious. And as for personal "mana" levels, learning to notice and nurture them matters just as much!

8. Defeats are lessons
I've only been a (returning) MTG player for about 6 months now. This means that, on any given game night, chances are good that I'll get my fantasy posterior severely kicked - sometimes, spectacularly so. This used to bother me: I spent money on these cards! I thought I had thought this play through! Now, though, I recognize the value of each such trouncing. I am able to see the mistakes sooner and more clearly - in choosing which deck to play in the first place; in identifying threats and responding to them; or in not playing the best I could. Call it "feedback" or "growth mindset" or anything you like. MTG lets me fail a little bit better each week, and that's what matters.

9. There are millions of ways to tell a story...
Most Magic: The Gathering cards are tiny works of art. A single card does something in the game, sure - but it is also uniquely illustrated, and it often comes with a tiny snippet of story or text printed on it. When it becomes part of my collection, it interacts with all the other cards, and with my playing style - will I choose to build a theme around a particular hero? Maybe stick to one fantasy place? Go for one or two illustrators I like? The company which publishes MTG - Wizards of the Coast - quickly outgrew its geeky, college-style beginnings and is now firmly in the business of telling a myriad stories at once to millions of players. How they're told matters.

10. ...and there are thousands of reasons why people tell stories
Some people play MTG to win. Others play to show who they are. Others, still, just want to watch their cards and decks do their thing and work the way they planned. There are MTG streamers online, competitive or professional players, cosplayers, writers. At my local game store, you're likely to find me and my mates around a Commander game, but also a kid and her dad playing a different format, a rowdy D&D bunch, a serious miniature battle...each of us came for a reason, and keeps showing up for a reason, and each of these reasons are different. It works best (at a game night, at a business, anywhere) if we're all allowed to tell our stories the way we want them told.


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