Regarding Magic: The Gathering and Being Cool

Cards from the game Magic: The Gathering. Cool, right?

Yesterday, a Gizmodo editor named Alyssa Bereznak posted this article about her Ok Cupid date with former Magic: The Gathering world champion Jon Finkel. I’m sure you have a lot of questions now, all of which it will embarrass me to answer:

  1. Ok Cupid is an online dating site. I am a member, but only because I work at home and I’m really lonely and people find me unsettling and gross in real life.
  2. Magic: The Gathering is a card-based strategy game set in a fantasy world with, like, wizards. I played and enjoyed it all through college.
  3. Jon Finkel is arguably the best-known professional Magic player of all time, and he seems like a nice guy.

I feel like I just took my pants off at the bus station.

Shame is a powerful thing, and as a lifelong nerd, I am familiar with the paradoxical impulse to hide what you personally think is cool.* My college girlfriends knew I played Magic, but only after a few months and only if they could remember my telling them once and then never mentioning it again. The process of becoming an adult is, in part, the process of realizing that such behavior is unnecessary. Being cool seems life-determiningly important in the compressed social world of high school and, to a lesser extent, college. But adults socialize mostly with their friends and loved ones. Other people are strangers, and so cool becomes a quality of substantially less value.

An exception to this principle can be found on the dating website. Those who know me will note that my Ok Cupid profile makes me look substantially more cool than I actually am. My interests in punk rock, fighting and journalism are on prominent display, whereas the amount of time I spend playing World of Warcraft or trying to knock a beer bottle off a pole with a frisbee goes unmentioned. I like these things, but I know they are uncool, so I leave them out in order to better impress strangers.

Ms. Bererznak’s article points out the flaw in this strategy. Her contention is that Finkel should have included his world-champion Magic career in his profile, presumably so that she could not go on a date with him. She was repelled when she found out about it, and she implies that Finkel’s failure to mention it until the first date is tantamount to deception. “Just like you’re obligated to mention you’re divorced or have a kid in your online profile, shouldn’t someone also be required to disclose any indisputably geeky world championship titles?” she writes. At first glance, this seems like a situation where what would be good for Bereznak would not be good for Finkel, since it would prevent him from going on some dates. In fact, though, it’s a great strategy for Finkel, since it would have prevented him from going on a date with Alyssa Bereznak.

Bereznak is not world champion of anything, except maybe being called a bitch on the internet. I’m going to put aside normative assessments of her personality and focus on a fact, here, which is that she considered Finkel’s achievement a fault. Regardless of whether that’s justified, it points to a fundamental incompatibility between her and him. He is committed to Magic: The Gathering, and she is committed to a particular idea of cool.

I personally think her idea of cool is childish, but that’s beside the point. Finkel likes a fantasy world based on Dungeons & Dragons and Bereznak likes a fantasy world based on Sex and the City, and never the twain shall meet. Or rather, never the twain should have met. Jon Finkel’s Ok Cupid profile should say that he likes Magic: The Gathering. That way, he’ll stop wasting his time with cool people like Bereznak.

Another Jon I knew in New York used to remark that “I just want to meet a woman who’s into stuff.” He was a cool guy, in the sense that he was really smart and about to become a doctor and had a lot of weird opinions. He was not cool in the sense that Bereznak wouldn’t like him—in that he genuinely cared about particular things most people ignored, in that he was into stuff. As Bereznak’s early disclaimers remind us—”I came home drunk and made an OKCupid profile,” “every time I signed on, I was hit by a barrage of creepy messages”—a large portion of being cool is rejecting stuff, even when it’s stuff that you yourself are doing. It’s the absence of a Magic: The Gathering world championship, the absence of a date with all those guys who creeped you out by responding to your internet personals ad. It’s the absence of experience. Maybe that’s why it’s so popular with children.

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  1. So the question is, if you played Magic: the Gathering in college, why did you quit playing after college?

  2. I’ve found that I can get away with liking childish things such as Legos or even Magic cards by the simple expedient of having grade school-aged children.
    But then, ladies won’t date me on OkCupid because I disclose that I have said children. Same as it ever was.
    GOTO: Line 1

  3. That’s a good question, James. Mostly it was because I moved to New York and didn’t know anyone there who played Magic, but that’s an excuse. Obviously, I could have found people. I think the more likely explanation is that, regardless of what I _think_ about cool, I still _feel_ it pretty sharply. Even as an adult, I feel like a dork. It’s like the way Keanu Reeves goes to the Matrix and remembers his old hair.

  4. Your Magic cards will always be there waiting for your return, Dan.

    I was upset to find out that had I disclosed my geek-habits in my online-profile when I first met my future wife, she wouldn’t have dated me. Now we’re happily married. I’m not sure it’s fair to accuse my wife of being a naive 20-year-old at the time or to blame society for being stupid about hating on geek culture.

  5. I clicked a lot of accessory links in your post, the gawker post, and the IAMA post, and I have to say, I’m kind of befuddled by the vehemence of the reaction.

    Is Bereznak bitchy? Maybe.
    Is Finkel socially maladroit? Probably.
    Should those two facts be featured on reddit and gizmodo and kotaku and any other websites? Of course, yes, since the people who frequent those sites care about nerd culture the way deaf people care about deaf culture. But, as a magic playing nerd, I don’t exactly feel like nerds have as much to be proud about. Nerd culture is as much defined by it’s failure to meet standards as surpassing them. So, meh. There are other things more important, like how the fuck was Magic getting televised in 2000 without me knowing?

  6. Great post. The pants/bus station diptych is wonderful.

    This whole thing can only be good for John Finkel, and bad for who-the-fuck-cares-that-you-write-for-Gizmodo.

  7. I quit M:TG becasue it was too expensive and to much work. I didn’t want to half-ass it because I think the game is better than that, but I like doing other things as well.

  8. You know, at work, I spent most of my time bullying and cajoling the other workers into playing Magic the Gathering with me. They have recently come out with a video game version with a computer opponent.

    When I heard about this I blurted out at work, “I have no more need of humans.” This became a catchphrase around the office.

    So, worship me, because I am the epitome of cool.

    By the way, does Alyssa Bereznak remind anyone else of John Locke’s (from Lost) dick boss who enjoyed making fun of him for wargaming on his lunch break at the box company?

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