Preface: while reading my friend’s personal statement about gaming, I thought back to applying to college 8 years ago and thinking about writing an essay about playing Magic the Gathering. I decided against it because gaming still has this weird stigma of being a fringe hobby and a waste of time, but back in January 2016, when solidly 25, I wrote a personal statement as if I were still 17.
My name is Peter, but my friends call me a Johnny Combo Player. When I play Magic the Gathering, I build decks using cards that seem harmless at first glance but, when combined creatively, do completely outrageous things. I’ll transform my tiny blue-green snakes into a flock of menacing red dragons. I’ll give wings to my mutant elf and he’ll produce unlimited resources. I’ll throw three golems and an oracle into a furnace and in a wild flurry they’ll draw infinite cards, create infinite mana, take control of everything, and destroy arbitrarily many players.
Crafting combos is fun! I start with an unusual ability and consider how to exploit it, then think about its limitations and find other cards that remove those boundaries. It’s logical, and it has taught me to understand the game with a conceptual framework instead of as an encyclopedic database. This philosophy makes me the menacing tinkerer I am in the Magic world, but in the real world it provides me the attitude to pursue deeper understanding of anything I study. Thus, subjects like math and chemistry come naturally, and I am excited to explore what engineering holds in store.
Our personalities shine through the decks we create, and with thousands of printed Magic cards at our disposal there’s plenty of space for creativity when we assemble our 60-card decks. My brothers are both “aggro” players with swift overwhelming aggression, and other friends in my playgroup are “control” players with reactionary and incapacitating decks. My Magic style of “combo” play mirrors my real-life tendency toward working at my own offbeat pace, analyzing underlying patterns, and discovering hidden advantages. Working in the deck-designing lab comes naturally, but that’s only the beginning of the battle, both literally and metaphorically.
Magic is a strategic game of resource management and combat, and my combo-reliant style is fragile, like a machine with too many parts to break. I couldn’t design in isolation, because without wings a mutant elf does nothing if my brother fireblasts him away or if my other brother slices him apart with a battalion of axe-wielding knights first. I learned to construct combos that were quick and robust, and I began to include my own tools to disrupt my opponent’s strategy while setting up my own. In fact, it’s so much more fascinating to design decks while considering the richness of interaction, and playing the games to experience that interaction quickly became my favorite aspect of Magic.
It reminds me of practicing piano and violin in solitude and then trying to play with other musicians in orchestra and chamber groups. Coming together demanded an entirely different skillset: listening, reacting, matching, interacting. Eventually, after more practicing with a different mindset, the way I committed the musical notes to memory enabled me to adjust to the group style. Like designing a solid deck, adequate practice at home was is the fundamental preparation that enabled me to experience the interactions that matter. There’s nothing quite like taking my seat in the orchestra with my friends and performing the symphonies we could never play alone.
My decks are all old inventions now that I hardly tinker anymore. Still, my friends and I enjoy coming together to pit our creations against each other. As the quintessential combo player, I still try to turn my tiny snakes into dragons, but it’s just as fun to laugh with my friends as they trample me with beasts and angels and zombies.