Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Magic-al Evening

Today's post comes from my long lost friend Alex. She is bad ass. I know her whole family and they are also ninja-like in their awesomeness. Here's a little blurbitty blurb about her:

Alex has two ragamuffins, a 4 year old girl and an 8 year old boy, who continually cause her to question her parental preparedness. Actress, writer, editor, doula, painter, and family cook, she lives in Southern California, where she actively avoids getting a real job while making a go of the whole Bohemian scene. When not idly fantasizing about yurts and eco-architecture, Alex blogs over at La Acera.


Tentatively, my son Smoochy* has Asperger’s; the experts can’t seem to come to an agreement. He has some behavioral issue that, for a couple years, made schooling outside of the home an impossibility. In real life, this means that he often appears to be an undisciplined little brat. Non-experts tell me that's what’s wrong with him, or more accurately what’s wrong with me, although I haven’t found an expert witness to testify to it. All that is neither here nor there, though. It is only the backdrop to what I really want to talk about, which is our happy place.
*Not officially his real name]

I didn’t know what to expect when I promised to take my son to Friday Night Magic, although I’ve met my fair share of geeks. More accurately, I wasn’t familiar with this particular subspecies of geeks, the Magic-the-Gathering ones, and I wasn’t sure how they would react to an 8 year old who wanted to play with them.

Magic is a Dungeons and Dragons-like card game, which is for ages 13 and up, because it’s ridiculously complicated and has some heavy themes. For instance, there's a "Vivisection" card. Accordingly, the best players are adults who have been playing for years. My son is really smart, though, and his Dad taught him how to play. He is now obsessed with it and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the card’s rules.

“Hey Mom, wanna hear what Gideon the Wraithsnakes abilities are? They’re really cool. Mom…”


“Ok. He costs 6 mana, 3 white, 3 colorless, and he has haste, and if he’s put in the graveyard it takes 5 +1/+1 counters to get him out, plus if you have 5 trample creatures…”

It being a little strange for an 8 year old to play, I quickly found that his opponents follow a pattern of interaction with him. At first, they are overly sweet and a little patronizing, the way grown-ups are when they are unused to being around kids. They think it’s endearing that an 8 year old plays Magic, and assume he's a newbie. They explain everything to him... until he finishes 5 or 6 sentences for them. It doesn’t take long for them to realize they don’t need to patronize him, and then their common interest in Magic breaks the ice. Soon enough, as they chat about +1/+1 counters, Smoochy’s opponents forget he is a kid and see him as just another Guy They Play Magic With.

This illusion is broken with a shock when they curse by mistake in front of him, or when I say it’s past his bedtime, or when he beats them. Then, the fact that he is 8 years old comes rushing back on the scene. It’s fun to watch the realization break on their faces – when they remember that he is 8 years old, and his mommy shuffles his cards for him. After that cycle happens a few times, they get in the swing of when to treat him like a Magic compatriot and when to treat him like a little kid.

The sweet thing about being at Magic, though, is that everyone avoids giving anyone else any crap. It’s the inner sanctum of geekdom, after all, and geeks have enough to put up with “on the outside” to bring any of it to Friday Night Magic. Most of the participants have something off about them, and there is an unspoken rule that you let people “do what they have to do,” which runs the gamut of all kinds of borderline antisocial, OCD-like behavior.

On this particular night, the first guy my son played had a ton of nervous tics. He would clear his throat a lot and wiggle his eyebrows, and his communications would come out in clipped sporadic bursts. He made short work of Smoochy, and we went on to the next round. Next up was a guy who looked to be about 17, with a bad case of acne.

“Do you have chicken pox?” Smoochy asked.

Oh god Oh god Oh god how do I stop him from talking without making this even more awkward?

“Are those chicken pox? Or what are those red things on your face?” Smoochy asked clearly and loudly, his voice ringing in the large room.

“Pimples. They’re pimples” replied his opponent crisply.

His ears were turning red. I felt bad. He probably gets teased, or anyway feels insecure about them. The worst thing about having pimples is that you can forget they are there because you don’t have to look at them; but everyone else does. Then, someone refers to them and you feel stupid for walking around in denial, as if you didn’t have them.

“What are pimples?” Smoochy asked, seemingly concerned they could be contagious.

“It just happens sometimes when you hit puberty,” I said, not knowing how to fix this trainwreck of a conversation.

“What’s puberty?”


“A really crappy time in your life,” the next guy over deadpanned, and we all laughed.

“That depends,” I said, “It’s going pretty well for Justin Bieber.”

We were ok from there on out, but my son proceeded to school Pimples 2-0, adding injury to insult. Smoochy dutifully shook his hand and said “good game,” which I’ve taught him to do at the end of any game, as it helps mitigate any unsportsmanlike behavior.

The next opponent was a guy with a black/red vampire deck who was pretty average-looking and businesslike. He tried to talk down to Smoochy a bit, showing him every card before playing it and over-explaining its abilities. He somehow didn’t take the hint that Smoochy is a walking Magic card catalogue.

“I KNOW,” wheezed Smoochy for the tenth time.

“Ok, I’m just trying to be helpful,” replied average-dude.

“You’ve said that like a thousand times,” complained Smoochy.

Communications were getting frosty, and I didn’t particularly like Mr. Vampire Deck. When he threw down Rakish Heir and pronounced it “Rack-ish Heir,” Smoochy jumped on the opportunity to correct him. “It’s RAKE-ish Heir,”. We’re pretty strict about Smoochy pronouncing the words right, so he was a little blown away by the error. “Rakish” is one of the vocabulary words I teach in my GRE class, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to jump on the know-it-all bandwagon.

“It means, ‘Smart, dashing, dapper, sporting, flashy, debonair’,” I chimed in.

That’s the other great thing about Friday Night Magic; you can act like you are one of the guys on The Big Bang Theory and nobody will give you any crap; in fact, you’ll blend in. It’s liberating to not have to be cool, to let your freak flag fly, and conversely, to let everyone do their thing without judging them. At this point, we’d officially ganged up on the know-it-all; he was chastened and looked at the picture of the Rakish vampire with fresh eyes.

“He does look pretty dashing,” he said.

“Like a vampire Fabio,” I replied.

By far the dorkiest conversation happened in between games, when Smoochy struck up a conversation with a surprisingly hipster-looking youth, and they compared decks.

“Hey, you have Negate. I have Negate too,” said the hipster.

“If we were playing each other, I could Negate your Negate,” giggled Smoochy.

“Yeah, and then I could Negate that Negate,” said the hipster.

“That would be a double negation,” I chipped in.

“Yeah, and if we had all the Negates allowed in a deck, we could do it 8 times!” said the hipster.

“That would be cool!” laughed Smoochy.

“More like it would NOT be UNcool,” I said.

Friday Night Magic goes on till 1 in the morning, but Smoochy can’t stay up that late, yet. After one more round it was time to go. He usually suckers a booster pack out of me as part of our exit strategy, but the evening is such a refreshing change of pace from his usual behavior/my usual embarrassment that I’m in too much of a good mood to mind.

More importantly, I’m proud of him. Not many 8 year olds can go head to head with thirtysomethings in a dragon-filled version of chess and come out ahead, as he often does. Given our track record of school suspensions and judgmental clucking while waiting in line, seeing him excel at something is all the more fulfilling. His aptitude for Magic is extraordinary, and I love watching him do his thing. Friday Night Magic has made me realize that maybe I always wanted a geek for a son.

(c)Herding Turtles, Inc. 2009 - 2011


  1. Thank you for a funny, touching and encouraging post. I remember playing WoW when I was in college and being completely shocked when this killer warrior I'd been teaming up with turned out to be a 13-year old boy! But we just went on doing what we did. Geeks are pretty welcoming, in my experience.

  2. This is really beautiful, it made me cry. My son doesn't have the same troubles, but he does have trouble. I applaud you for finding something that works/helps him. I'm still looking. This is very inspiring.

  3. I have a student that sounds a bit like Smoochy :) He's an English Language Learner to boot (and is in my Freshmen English class) so finding ways to reach him can be difficult since I know nothing of his Magic-esque card game.

    He's a good kid who really struggles socially and, with the added language barrier, academically. I'm letting him write his next essay on his anime comic book so hopefully that will pique his interest enough for him to actually attempt to do some work in class.

    I have no idea where I'm going with this.

    Geek is beautiful - even when pimply :)

    1. If he is truly interested in Magic: The Gathering, then it would be fairly easy to use it in a your classroom even knowing nothing about the game. As the story above illustrates, many, if not most, of the cards use some advanced vocabulary like rakish and vivisection. He can bring in a stack of cards and you can sort through them, pick out the ones with useful vocabulary words in them and ask him to explain the word or words.

      Each card generally has a theme, for example the Rakish Heir is a vampire, the illustration shows striking figure, and at the bottom of the card, there is a quote that reads: "If you're not having fun, what's the point of living forever?"

      Ask your student to explain in writing what theme he thinks is expressed by being rakish, a vampire, and the quote at the bottom.

      Cards will vary, and even though you don't understand the rules expressed on each card, you can still ask your student to explain how the rules tie into the card, for example, the Animate Dead cards is an enchantment, has the word Aura on it, and then explain how the cards works.

      One last example: The Benalish Hero, the text on the card reads:
      "Benalia has a complex caste system that changes with the lunar year. No matter what the season, the only caste that cannot be attained by either heredity or money is that of the hero."

      Vocabulary word: caste, attained, and heredity.

      This card IS a Benalish Here which means that unlike the other castes that change with the changing moon, this hero is always considered a hero in her socoiety.

      Hope this helps.

    2. I'm not an educator, but that sounds like it could be a very effective teaching strategy.

      One small correction, though: the flavor text only implies that being a Benalish Hero means that a person acted in a legitimately heroic manner at some point. You see, as far as we know from the card's flavor text alone, although a person can only *attain* the hero caste in one way (or a limited number of ways), it may be possible for people to be *expelled* from the caste in any number of ways, including due to seasonal changes to the Benalish caste system, although I guess then he/she would just be a Benalish Citizen or something. I don't actually know how the Benalish caste system works.

  4. Awesome!! My son also has Aspergers. I wish he had an outlet like that too!

  5. Love this. My 12 year old is in total geekdom and I'm a proud momma about it. His "drug of choice" is Minecraft for computer games and Yu-Gi-Oh on the card games. I took my son and his friend to a Yu-Gi-Oh tournament recently and it was the same type of setting. Glad to see a post about this and know I'm not the only momma out there hanging at these types of card tournaments!

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this story!! You just made me realize that although I'm always fighting for my son to fit into the world out there, it's nice to simply go into his world for a little while and have fun too.

  7. wonderful! My son is an Aspie and his "obsessions" have morphed over the years starting with bionicles and now onto Pokemon. It is so awesome to see them find something that helps them to fit in

  8. No, magic isnt a dungeon's and dragon like card game.....their fairly different.

    But other then that, sounds awesome. Sounds like alot of conversations I've seen whether its over magic or wargames like 40k with younger opponents.

    1. Magic was made to be played inbetween DnD sessions. So I'm pretty sure it's a DnD like card game.

    2. If it wasn't for D&D, I doubt Magic would have ever existed.
      For someone that has played both, they are quite different.
      For someone that has played neither, they are quite similar.
      The comparison is valid

    3. OMG to the above argument.

    4. My big problem is the "their" in the original post. And I, too, love Smoochy.

  9. I LOVED Magic when I was in high school!! I had a group of girlfriends that all played together. Our level of skill was probably nowhere NEAR Smoochy's. And yet another reason I was not popular in high school.

  10. Mama, you guys enjoy your corner of geek heaven. For us, it's all things Doctor Who. My happiest moment was watching my highly food allergic five year old strike up a surprisingly sophisticated conversation on the long islands rail road with a stranger in the merits of the various companions. These things, they give our children a good reason to stick out from the crowd, and one hell of am ego boost.

  11. As the wife of a guy who plays this, I have to say, I definitely smiled while reading. :-D You really nailed the average gamer- and they really DO let their freak flags fly. HA!

    More importantly, I'm glad you have found something to do with your son that is so fulfilling! When he's a bit older, might I suggest Hero Clix? It's a super hero game that's a bit like Magic, only it's with little figurines. My husband and all his friends really like it.

  12. :) best place for a aspergerish child can sometimes be with adult geeks where they suddenly find their niche and you look at the fun going on all around them and think , "yep , they CAN be themselves , they are in good company." . With my girl it often involves dice or Lego though .

  13. As a former Magic playing mama, I've longed to get my kids into card gaming, alas, their father is a video game geek (which is a whole other area of geekdom) and so my efforts have been in vain.

    That said, I love reading about how parents allow their kids to be themselves, and more importantly, facilitate their kids' interests even when they deviate from the status quo.

    Thanks for sharing, Alex - this was a really bright spot in my morning :)

  14. I miss all night Magic games! I saved a couple decks from the years when I was obsessed and spent too much money on cards. I too have a son like yours (oddly similar, actually) and I'm thinking, maybe I need to teach him MtG!

  15. That's so awesome, on so many levels. Acceptance, friends, interaction on a comfortable level, and to top it off, the parental glee of knowing 'my kid can kick your ass'. ;)

  16. Loved this! Your attitude and openness is a great example to turn to when time gets rough for all of us! Excellent post!

  17. What a great post! I loved it.

  18. That is awesome! I love the mental image of your son in the midst of all these older players and totally holding his own!

  19. Both of my sons (age 8 and 10) play, and they love the game. It's a great way for them to interact with others, builds math and vocabulary skills, improves strategic thinking, and gets their mind working in a number of different ways. My sons receive the same reaction when they show they know about the game, and I love the look of shock on their opponents faces when they are beaten by a cute little blonde haired kid. My boys are now considered part of the group, and the players are for the most part very respectful of the fact they are there.

    Sure, some of the people that play are a little different, but many are normal, average guys (or gals).

  20. It is great that "Smoochy" loves the game. I have been playing Magic for several years and I always find it fascinating when some of the younger players come to tournaments. I wish "Smoochy" all the luck in the world! It sounds like you guys have an awesome shop to play at.

  21. My nephew is an Aspie. One year I actually bought him a fire extinguisher for Christmas because he was so into them and was asking for one from Santa. To this day (7 years later) he still has it on a shelf in his room. At the moment, my family is being taught about the mechanics of roller coasters at family functions. Aspie kids are so often labeled as "bad" or "misbehaved" because people just don't understand. But they truly are awesome kids who have a lot to teach us.......if we let them.

  22. Good for you, mama! You sound like a great mom.

  23. and the geeks shall inherit the earth...

  24. We have magic night every week at our house. My SO and I have been playing since high school and now our son is learning.

  25. You rock lady. Just Rock. My guy is 4 and definitely creates (through no real fault of his own) some of those "looks" from other people...A little young to find his "thing" but I hope he is as happy as your kiddo when he finds it. Keep on keeping on, Momma!

  26. I hope my son plays Magic. Best. Game. Ever.

    Well, if you don't count D&D and World of Warcraft.

    *proudly raises her nerd flag*

    1. I'll join you in your nerd-dom. Me and all 4 (or is it 5 now) level 85 toons on WOW! ;)

  27. Infinite awesome points for you and Smoochy. It's always a great thing when parents are involved in their child's interests instead of brushing it off as a phrase or turning the child away from them.

  28. Smoochy is incredibly lucky to have you as his mama. WTG!!

  29. As a member of the MTG community, it's always nice to read a 'foray into the FNM culture' article that doesn't encounter any real jerks that drive them away.

    I will take this opportunity to offer a little commentary on common etiquette in MTG. It can sometimes be perceived as bad sportsmanship if you offer the 'good game' handshake when you win. You're typically supposed to let the losing player offer it and then accept. The reason for this is that if the loser is a little (or a lot) miffed about the loss and feels like he didn't deserve to lose (such as if he thinks the winner just got really lucky), he may not consider it to be a good game at all, and may take it as rubbing salt in the wound.

    I'm not chastising at all, just giving you a friendly heads up that not every losing player, especially after losing to an 8yo, may not appreciate the ol' gg.

  30. I wish all the preteens brought their milfs with them

  31. I will tell right now that your presence at the even dramatically changed the dynamic and the behavior of the group. Your incredibly patronizing and cursory look into Magic tournament culture is clearly insufficient. Once he is old enough to go to these events without your supervision there are going to be a lot of problems. Frankly, your son is probably going to become a socially maladjusted know-it-all when it comes to magic; which is fine considering that so are a lot of people that play this game. The difference is that they will know when to turn that off and be part of the group. It is very easy to feel like an outsider at these events, which will significantly diminish his enjoyment if that happens to him. People really don't just 'let their freak flag fly' without fear of judgement or reprisal. I can tell you that, as a highly competitive player who is also socially well-adjusted and normal looking, my friends and I while away a lot of our idle time at these events making fun of the weirdos. The 'jock vs nerd' dynamic is there, but it's just shifted farther down the nerd scale. Look, I have friends with aspergers--they are some of the most clever and interesting people I know, but other people aren't all that understanding, especially because it can be difficult to tell whether someone is just 'weird' or can't control their reactions in certain situations because of their placement on the autism spectrum. I would make sure that you do everything you can to socialize your son if you really want him to keep playing magic.

  32. Great going Mom. We have friends with a son that has Aspergers and they have also done this type of thing within their home. Holding weekend board game parties and such. He really is into board games and has been playing them since he was a young kid. Games like Carcassone and others like that. He usually blows the adults out of the water.
    Our local library holds a gamers union for kids with Aspergers once a month and offers their teen section up to them while their parents network and get support for one another. I think that is great that places offer these types of things to reach out to kids and also their parents.

    Jrseygirl in VA

  33. I been playing magic for many years on end and mainly that is where I made all of my friends. As the years go by after playing with the same group for a number of years a bond tends to grow and those people who are strangers become friends. The group I play with is like a second family for me. We always take care of our own and we act like brothers in a family would constantly bustin each others ball but we do it out of fun but if anything happens we also jump to action to make sure we have each others back.

  34. Good job. I have a 5 year old son and a 2 year old daughter. They'll be learning MTG as soon as they're ready. Other than chess, I can't think of a game that teaches decision making and mathematical skills better.

  35. This is great! High five and an ass slap for being so supportive to your kid. Woot!

  36. Sadly the “Good Game” after a Magic match many times can be perceived by a losing opponent as one of the above posters described. However, in an attempt to teach common courtesy and non-optional social convention to both your son and his opponent, should he need it, I completely agree with encouraging your son to do so. As a former collegiate athlete I have been on the receiving end of “Good Games” after complete blow outs, bodily dislocations, fist fights and much more. Many Magic players have not been as fortunate to have like experiences and losing to an 8 year old might be their worst. While Magic is a wonderful game the type of concern the previous poster shows really keeps the game from growing and attracting as many players as possible. I say keep up the “Good Games”.

    On another note, your child reminds me a bit of myself when I was his age. While I was never formally diagnosed I had and pretty much still have my far share of issues. It sounds like your boy might be coming to the realization that he is more intelligent then a lot of adults that are put over him. I’m guessing that answers to his questions like “because”, “because I said so” and “because I’m an adult do what I say” don’t really fly with him. Life can be hard when you are trying to learn as much as you can, whether you know it or not, and those are the types of answers you receive. The only real option at that age is defiance.

    I have also been completely obsessive about whatever I spend my time doing since I was your son’s age. It can be a very good thing is focused correctly. It can also be extremely self-destructive. Magic is a great game and by far is one of the more positive obsessions I have had during my life. I really enjoyed your article. Thanks for sharing.

  37. YAY! I dont got to FnM, but I do play Magic, and the guys tend to feel the same way towards most girls as they do 8 year olds... until we beat them.. Good for smoochy.. get that boy some Dark Ascension (pre realease is Friday!!!)

  38. My husband started teaching my son to play Magic when he was 5 years old. Now that he's 10 he can hold his own in a game and be treated with respect - something few do since he has Tourette's and has difficulty with some of his ticks. Friday night Magic is one of his favorite things.

  39. As a avid magic player myself I liked this story, as a parent of a son with aspbergers I loved this story. I have been looking for someone to be able to play magic with on a regular basis. I never would of thought to look in my own house. Thank you so much!

  40. Hats off to Smoochy (and you) for finding a Magic groove.

  41. Today, I managed a multi-million dollar ad network. 6 Years ago, I flunked out of highschool trying to deal with ADD. By the time my classmates were finishing undergrad, I had an MBA, a job, and had traveled the world playing magic. I play on the magic pro tour (not even very well). The connections, strategy, and math I learned playing competitive magic have given me a drastic advantage. I hope magic can help your son as well.

  42. I love you, Alex!

    As the wife of a D&D playing nerd (nothing shall
    come before Friday night. . the Holiest of Holy Nerd Nights, wherein
    nothing shall come before D&D, except for maybe births, deaths and
    marriages) and mom to my own 8 year old budding boy nerd with Autism, I can totally

    Thanks for the happy chuckle today.

  43. I'm so proud of you, sis, for your wonderfully written story and the courage to share it. And to my "third" sis, Julie, for supporting this post on Mommyland. Love you both so much! Love, Beans.

  44. gifted, wonderful kids always have a difficult time conforming to the mind-numbing norms of culture. he's really lucky to have you as his mom, that you give him opportunities to really shine.

  45. This was a great read! My 11-1/2 year old daughter has always been a little different than all the other girls. She was a total Pokemon fanatic and gets along much better with boys, but is by no means a tomboy. I have to remind myself on occasionally that she beats to a different drum. Last week she was told by a girl in one of her classes that she is "socially awkward". Luckily, it didn't faze her, but then again, that's kind of how she's different. My 9 year old who is more emotionally intuitive would have been devastated had it been her. My big girl is a total gamer and loves Wizard 101 right now, but is in search of something different, I'll have to introduce her to Magic!

  46. I've got two of the geek kingdoms up and comers. An 8 yr old Pokemon nut who can quote all 400 (I'm guessing here) plus Pokemon and their type and evolutions and such. And a 5 yr old Lego nut who build without instructions, though the cities and buildings and whatever else he creates MUST be symmetrical in shape, in block choice during construction, and in block colors from all angles. (much harder than it sounds, and necessitates ownership of some 20k Legos sorted into plastic drawers by color. Because of the need for symmetry and the fact that he loves the sorting almost as much as the building, not to mention the fact that out of the clear blue the kid was reading at 3.5 (nope, didn't teach him), and does the same math as his brother in the gifted program 2/3 grade, we're pretty sure we've got a borderline Aspie (did I mention the Richter scale tantrums he can throw if a change occurred in his plans?).

    I embrace my boys' differences. I'm proud not to have to bonehead athletes.

  47. I love magic! I'm one of the only girls at our shop that plays, there are only 2 that show up routinely. We occasionally have little kids come and I love that every slows down their game to help them out a bit.

    Its pretty awesome that your kid is actually winning games at his age, I love how excited the young kids are even when they are 0-4.

  48. Woa, MTG on my favorite mommy blog? Awesome! I can't wait to teach my son to play... I know it's improved my math skills.

    I really like how the nerds came out of nowhere and took over the comment section and turned it into a debate about whether magic is similar to D&D.

  49. I notice the mother wrote this but the father taught him. way to go PARENTS!

  50. My daughter, age 6, is also and Aspie and aside from all her quirks and behavior and social issues, she is the most interesting kid I know. Great job on finding a niche!

  51. My son, age 6, has taken to Redaki. I bought them on a whim at Christmas thinking it would be something cool he could do. There's some really nice things about it: First there's 2 levels that you can play, a basic level that is easy for a young child to master quickly, and then an advanced game for the "geeks" which he needs help with still since he can't read everything on the cards yet and always understand the meanings of certain words. Second, the cards are clear and you can see how the character is affected. He's very visual so I'm not sure that we could get into Magic just yet but maybe in a few years.

    Now the other thing is I'm a bit of a geek myself (according to my husband, a computer/IT guy, obviously ironic) and I really enjoy playing too. For the first few weeks it seemed that I spent a lot of my free time playing with him when he was home. He and I don't bond much and this was a nice change.

  52. I realize this is an old post, but I came across it and it really resonated with me. My 8yo son has discovered MTG. And while we have some family who are very involved with the game and community, they don't live close to us. So I'm trying to learn the game so I can play with him. I was really interested in knowing that you took your son to Friday Night Magic. I was thinking my son would be too young. But that may be something he would really enjoy. Thank you!




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