March 2022

Ethical Land Destruction

Josh Taylor

Play Audio
read by Barbara Suter

artwork by Patricia Rounds Manwaring

I must be the first woman in history to start playing Magic: The Gathering at the age of sixty-four. My son Benjamin used to play when he was an adolescent. I wasn’t interested then, and he’s not interested now, but alas, I’m hooked. This evening I’m playing with fourth-grader Danny Chin.

He says, “Swamp,” and puts down a card with some dreary trees and water on it. He taps it, which is to say he turns it sideways. “Dark Ritual.” Then he gives me a chubby grin and says, “Hippie.”

Once again Danny thinks he’s got me. ‘Hippie’ is short for Hypnotic Specter, a classic dating all the way back to the first set, Alpha. Landing one on the first turn can cripple an opponent. That’s why he’s going to be all the more devastated by what I do next. There’s a reason they call Hippies ‘bolt-bait.’

His grin is gone before I’ve finished tapping my Mountain. “Lightning Bolt.”

The Hippie goes down to another classic from Alpha. Danny would already be tearing up if Jaya Bhardwaj weren’t sitting at the table next to us. He’s ten, bad at sports, and worst of all, he’s sensitive. They tease him even here in the game shop. I’m not helping, but I know what I want. Besides, it’s not just him. I get it from all the kids.

I put down a Strip Mine, Fourth Edition printing, which means it’s worth about five bucks. It’s the priciest card Benjamin would lend me from his collection. In fact I feel a bit rebellious using it. Strip Mines are so powerful they’re restricted, meaning no more than one in a deck. I tap it and, smiling gently, say, “Your swamp, Danny.”

Only children under a certain age frown this sincerely. He won’t hold out much longer. I just destroyed his only Swamp in play, and I can tell he doesn’t have another in his hand.

I reach for my Mountain. Mountains produce red mana, and I’ve dressed accordingly—red sequin shirt, red manicure, ruby ring. My husband bought the ring on our honeymoon in France. I love it, but it doesn’t go with my clothes anymore. This is the first time I’ve worn it in years. I think my friends at the salon thought I was going to a costume party, which is fine. I’m not ready to share my secret just yet.

Danny watches the ruby in terror. He has no poker face, not that many ten-year-olds do. He actually flinches as my red nail touches the Mountain. I hope school isn’t too rough. I feel a twinge of guilt, but I’m so close right now.
“Grim Lavamancer.”

I put down the card, and Danny preemptively wipes his eyes. A Grim Lavamancer is a threat, and at twenty bucks, not a cheap one. There are over twenty thousand unique cards in Magic: The Gathering, and new ones come out every year. I’ve built eleven separate decks of sixty cards each since I started playing four months ago. If I keep going at this rate, buying Grim Lavamancer playsets and such, I might make a dent in Benjamin’s inheritance. On the other hand, even though he doesn’t have the time to play with me, he won’t let me use any of the good cards in his collection. He started playing in the early nineties. I’m talking Arabian Nights, Alpha—big bucks on eBay. I’m talking Moxen. My grandkids, six and three, are too young to even look at his collection. I know he’s glad I didn’t throw it out when he went to college. I thought he might come back to it one day, not that it would be valuable. What a pity.

I destroy the next Swamp Danny puts down with a Stone Rain and the one after that with a Sinkhole. Without Swamps he can’t generate the black mana he needs to play the cards in his hand. He’s really too young to be playing black anyway—zombies, demons, rats. Green elves or blue merfolk would be more age-appropriate, not that the images on those cards are particularly modest. It’s his mother’s call, I suppose.

Now he can’t do anything but watch as I peck away at his life with my Grim Lavamancer. His face is wracked with frustration, but he doesn’t hit the table or accuse me of playing cheap. He’s a sweet boy. He just sits there and bottles it up, which is what I want. It helps in this regard to have Jaya sitting at the next table.

I recall that, back in the nineties, Benjamin’s first girlfriend dumped him for playing a very similar deck to mine—Land Destruction. “It’s unethical,” she said, which I thought was precocious. She was right, too. But getting what I want means emotionally dismantling grade-schoolers, and for that purpose nothing beats Land Destruction.

By the seventh turn Danny is down to three lives. I’m still at twenty, but he’s managed to get a couple Swamps into play. These kids never lose hope. I let him play a Nantuko Shade, a lovely, pumpable creature from 2002, and then, right as he’s starting to smile again, nix his last three lives with a Lightning Bolt I’ve had in my hand since turn two.
I start getting out of my seat. I had arthroscopic knee surgery two months ago. I’m still a bit slow, and the next few moments are critical. I need to be ready.

Danny is falling apart. He knows Jaya is watching. He’s trying not to let loose, but there’s already a tear on his cheek. He looks up as I come around the table. I can see the pain in his eyes. This is it.
“Come give Bubby a hug!”

He just melts in my arms. He sobs all over my sequins, and I don’t care. It’s so good.
“I have a surprise for you, Danny.”

He looks up from my shirt. His eyes are red and moist, but he’s interested. I take a pack of cards out of my purse and put it in his hands. A little conditioning never hurt anyone.

“Torment,” he says. That’s the 2002 set the Nantuko Shade originally appeared in, and it’s difficult to find packs in stores today. Aside from the wetness on his cheeks you’d never know he’s been crying. “Thanks, Bubby.” He gives me another hug, sits down on the carpet, and starts going through his new cards. “Cabal Coffers!” Ouch. That one really is worth something. I should check what’s in these packs first. They’ll never know.

I hear Jaya snicker at the next table. I don’t scold her. She’s been sitting there since her game ended five minutes ago, deck in hand. I sit down again, put my purse on the carpet next to my chair, and smile gently. I know she only wanted my attention. She doesn’t want to miss her turn.

About the Author

Josh Taylor was born in Baltimore and now lives in France. His short stories have appeared in Electric Spec, Metaphorosis, and The Penn Review. His kids are most definitely not allowed to play with his Magic cards.

About the Reader

Barbara Suter is an actor and writer. Her play Finally Flannery (My Search for Flannery O’Connor) was produced Off-Broadway at New York Theater Workshop. She was a core member of the sketch comedy group Rumble in the Redroom. Her novel, Dorothy on the Rocks, is published by Algonquin Books.

About the Artist

Patricia Rounds Manwaring is an artist based in New York City. She is a graduate of of the College of Visual & Performing Arts at Syracuse. She is also the owner of Roots Café, a local gem of a coffee shop, located in Brooklyn, that also serves as a gallery for local artists.