Welcome to the Sidebar’s advice column, where dudes, prudes, and the eschewed alike sit down for a chat with our very own Muffle. Her advice might be bad, but hey, at least someone’s listening. Today we’re talking about how to handle a friend whose reaction is out of proportion with the problem.
The other day I was playing a game of Magic: The Gathering with a couple friends. It was me, my best friend, his girlfriend, and his brother. What started as a 4-person free-for-all comes down to my best friend (let’s call him Fred) and his brother (whom I’ll dub George).
George has a card that he can place “anywhere on the battlefield” and allows him to block an attack unless another player specifically tells him to return the card to his hand. George has the card placed on top of his discard pile in full view of everyone (a stipulation of the card is that it must be visible to other players). In the game’s closing moments, Fred attacks George and is about to eliminate him. George states that he’s using the aforementioned card to block the attack and avoid elimination. In so doing he would be able to win on his next turn because of how the game had gone up to this point. Fred claims that George is not playing the card properly because it’s on his discard pile, which isn’t the same as it being in play. George states that the card is in full view of everyone and by its nature is meant to be somewhat disingenuous. They get into a shouting match which ends with George being kicked out of Fred’s apartment, where the game was being played.
Two questions. First, what is your take on how the game ended? Personally I think George played the game correctly, if somewhat underhandedly. Second, how do I talk to Fred about this? He obviously cares way more about this game than I do, which is fine since it’s been his hobby for many years, but how do I go about making my friend feel better when I feel, for a variety of reasons, that his anger at the outcome of the game was unjustified?
Heart of the Cards
I’m going to take a moment to flag that I an very aware that a lot of people will read your question and have the immediate response that it’s just a game. Wrapped up in that may also be a bit of implicit judgment (a nerd game, even). Let me be clear, though; while I might not care as much about this particular branch of ultimately trivial nerdery, it is Not Cool to dismiss someone’s very real feelings just because you don’t share them. Believe me, I have my weird pressure points that pretty much no one I’ve ever met shares — ask me sometime if Balrogs have wings. Plenty of people get all hot and bothered about sports, or music, or obscure procedural points from seventeenth century British common law. Know what I have to say to that? Neat.
Anyway, while the scenario you painted here is pretty specific, this kind of conflict is actually fairly universal. People (including and sometimes especially people you care about very much) will have a variety of responses to the same situations, and varying degrees within even the same kinds of responses. Navigating those situations is part of any friendship, and it’s particularly difficult when you find yourself on the opposite side of the spectrum from one of your friends.
The first question I have is whether you really need to talk to Fred about this at all. If this was the first time something like this has happened, and it hasn’t come up since, you’re justified in hoping it just blows over on its own and Fred works on having a more measured response in the future. He may well be embarrassed by his behavior, upon reflection, and talking about it would just be painful for everyone.
On the other hand, if he’s been kvetching to you about how unreasonable George is, or if you have concerns about how he acted and want to address them for your own sake, that brings us closer to something that needs to be addressed. This isn’t really about the game: reasonable people can disagree in a reasonable fashion without devolving into screaming and brother-ejecting. (Side note: since this argument was between brothers, there may be all sorts of other stuff wrapped up here to which you’re not privy, and if so, these may not be the kind of waters into which you should haplessly wade. Consider carefully before proceeding.)
If you do want to talk to Fred, my advice is to keep the conversation casual, and focused on Fred’s well-being. Coming at this from a “dude, what is wrong with you?” angle is unlikely to be well received, and doesn’t do anything to make you or Fred feel better. Instead, note that you noticed that he seemed upset the other night, and ask him if he’s okay. That opens a path for him to talk about what bothered him about the situation, and for you to weigh in regarding your thoughts and reaction. If you stay receptive and keep your focus on concern for your friend and a behavior that troubled you, you’re much more likely to help him see that how he acted was a little out of proportion, and if he already sees that, to help him wrap his head around the situation and feel better prepared for similar circumstances in the future.
By the way, George cheated; the graveyard is not part of the battlefield in Magic. Asshole.
Snark and tipples,
Got a question for Muffle? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.