Content warning: This article discusses depression, online harassment and suicide.
Byron "Reckful" Bernstein died on July 2, 2020 at the age of 31 from suicide. Only a while before, he was streaming and subjected to "KYS" emotes from his viewers, during which Byron had a breakdown on stream. Shortly after his Twitter messages became cryptic.
Why are we talking about this today? What the hell does this have to do with Magic? Well, it has everything to do with Magic.
I am bipolar.
Years ago, I would have denied it up and down despite being diagnosed as a teenager and then confirmed at 23. I fought and rallied against mental illness because I did not want that to be me, or what people thought of me. I started writing Magic articles in 2009, and then consistently for TCGplayer in 2012. My fear was that my illnesses would be discovered and suddenly poof—it would all be gone. It is scary when you do not feel like you are in control of yourself.
I did what a lot of players do: I immersed myself in Magic to the point where it was my entire life. I was alienated from my wife and family because the grind was more important. Every weekend was traveling to a tournament somewhere in Florida, PTQs, Opens, Diamond Qualifiers, thousand-dollar events, etc… if there was a prerelease in Pittsburgh I would fly there, because that is how I identified myself. My days were divided between when I could play Magic at my LGS (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday), and when I had to wait to play Magic (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday). My finances suffered because I would only work those four days because nothing could come between me and the tournaments I wanted to play in.
I convinced myself I was happy, and that this was what I wanted. My dream was to play on the Pro Tour, and it engulfed my being. Every PTQ Top 8 where I did not convert would send me into a spiraling depression for weeks at a time. My world would crumble temporarily until the next PTQ came along and I would inevitably Top 8 and then lose again, thus continuing the cycle.
As a content creator and streamer of Magic in 2013-2015, I wanted to share my love of the game with everyone I could because that is simply how I defined myself. I learned what trolls were. I learned what it's like when death threats and people telling you to self-harm are a regular occurrence. This is uncomfortable to talk about, but it is a side effect from putting yourself in a public position.
"But Mark, you have to have thick skin to do this. If not you're weak."
This is what I told myself every time someone made me feel like I was small or that my content was terrible or that I should quit or that I should stop living. Yes. I'd write an article someone didn't like, and they'd tell me to off myself. Words have meaning, and every word felt like a thousand knives. Whatever, poor me poor me poor me.
Eventually I converted. I qualified for my first Pro Tour and it was a dream, until it was over. Then it was a nightmare. How do I get back? Am I chasing the dragon? My world became consumed again by Magic to the point where I was willing to risk it all: friends, family, finances—everything. I got back on the Tour, but it felt empty. But then something happened in 2016.
"You're having a boy."
The world was no longer about me, but him. Things suddenly snapped into place immediately. I needed help. I needed perspective. I started seeing doctors, therapists and psychologists. I got on medication and began practicing mindfulness. I changed myself fundamentally until Magic became a hobby… not my life.
What is most terrifying is that my story is not unique to me. It is shared by tens of thousands of other players; maybe more. People that drop out of college so they could draft every night instead, friends who bankrupt themselves traveling across the country playing in a weekly tournament series, pouring money into food, travel, lodging, entry, and doing everything they could to get their fix until they are left with nothing. Folks that hide their pain and illness by trying to push so hard into Magic that they think they can compress their suffering into a tiny little ball. Eventually that ball goes off like a bomb. Trust me, I know.
But it is not all bad.
When I moved to Florida at age 12, I did not know anyone. One day at the library I saw some kids playing a card game. They seemed like they were having so much fun, so I sat closer to see if I could figure out what they were doing. One of them, Daniel, invited me over. I watched them play some amalgam of Magic house rules, but I got the gist. These kids became my friends, and my confidence grew as a result. I branched out and had a ton of friends, all because some silly card game brought me out of my shell.
Magic can be a game for people that do not quite belong. It's not that for everyone, but for some people. They are looking for an outlet, and Magic can be that for a sect that needs a place to call home.
We are all beautiful and beautifully broken, but that does not mean we are unworthy of a place where we feel we belong. As much as Magic can be bad, it can be a force for good if you let it.
Some of the best friends I have ever made were from Magic. My best friend John was one of those people I met when I was barely a teenager that played Magic, and to this day, he is my brother and I love him like one. I can tell you with exact detail the times I spent riding up and down the roads with traveling friends, stopping at Ma and Pa places along the way and eating some amazing food, laughing and singing the whole drive until our throats were sore and our eyes ached from laughing so hard that we cried. They were the halcyon times for me. I did not see it then, but in those moments, I think I was as happy as I could have been.
MagicFests, conventions, prereleases, and more are a breeding ground for timeless moments. Someone opens a foil mythic rare and wins the local tournament with it and suddenly it becomes a part of the lore surrounding that local game store. One of my best friends Paul F cast a main phase Boil against Blue Skies at a Junior Super Series 20+ years ago in the finals, and people still talk to this day about how it resolved and how Paul won that event. I am dead serious. It is like folklore to the players from where I am from. It was one moment perfectly encapsulated in time that two decades later people still reference. Imagine that.
Magic is home for a lot of people, not a crutch. The grind of the work week can be so mentally taxing, but that Friday Night Magic event is going to make it all better. Heck, if it is prerelease weekend you have three whole days to just relax and sling some spells. There is nothing better than building your sealed pools with your friends. It is those days you should hold on to. They are precious and few and far between.
One of the most difficult parts of mental illness is that you cannot see it. You do not know the extent of which someone is suffering. Every blistering criticism or comment meant to be a dagger in their heart hurts about as much as you would expect it to. I know content creators that have stepped away from the game entirely because they could not deal with the targeted harassment they faced every day on social media.
This is one of the reasons we lost Byron, who when I started playing Hearthstone was my favorite steamer because of how hilarious he was, and who I stayed around to watch because I loved World of Warcraft. He was a dynamo of a player and a streamer, but instead of hearing the millions of voices that love you, sometimes you can only hear the negative. I will get a thousand positive comments and then I'll fixate on the one bad one. That is not to say we should not urge each other to be better writers or streamers and YouTube video creators—we absolutely should want the best out of each person we interact with. Sometimes we will falter or say something stupid or hurtful. That is where we must learn how to treat each other better. Claiming everything is "virtue signaling" is just a bad way of calling out someone being a good person. Using terms like "clout chasing" when you see someone standing up for their beliefs is poor form. There are other ways to go about expressing yourself. It does not always have to be so pointed and filled with vitriol toward a person you've never meant who could be hurting just as much as you are.
And so that is it. How Magic can be detrimental or a boon to your mental health. If you decide to be your best self, fight hard to love this hobby while also not allowing it to consume you. If I could talk to my 20-year-old self I would say: "Love Magic. Don't live Magic."
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, or you are concerned someone you know is, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.