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What I Learned Playing Magic: The Gathering With a Marine Running for Senate

7 minute read

When Missouri Senate candidate Lucas Kunce logs onto Zoom for our game of Magic: The Gathering, he isn’t messing around. He has what he calls his “streamer set-up”— an extra computer monitor— and has opted for Standard, a dynamic version of the strategic trading card game where we build decks ahead of time using cards from the most recent sets. I don’t often play Standard, so I’ve “netdecked”—built my deck based off an online list.

I soon see a problem: I don’t recognize Kunce’s deck at all. It’s one he’s built himself. Meanwhile, he starts to rattle off the cards that he knows are in mine. I’ve got a Corpse Appraisera creature that lets me draw an extra card after I’ve killed his creaturesand multiple kill spells. But he plays Field of Ruin, which destroys one of my nonbasic lands, then quickly does it again by bringing Field back with Conduit of Worlds. Soon, I realize I can’t cast any relevant spells. Three minutes later, he plays Jace, the Perfected Mind three times to dump my entire deck into my graveyard, an uncommon strategy that wins him the game when I have no cards left to draw.

Few serious politicians advertise their interest in a hobby as nerdy as Magic: The Gathering. But for Kunce, a clean-cut, populist Marine vet who could give Democrats a fighting chance in a deep red state, Magic has been an integral part of life for three decades and has seeped into his political identity. He draws a comparison between his campaign strategy and his Magic strategy: “I’m not meta-decking,” he says, another term for building game decks that are currently popular in high-level competitive play. “I want to do something different.”

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This is Kunce’s second Senate bid. During his campaign for Missouri’s open seat last year, he got buzz in the national press as the sort of Democrat who might be able to face a Republican in a state that seemed to be turning darker red. He’s an antitrust advocate who supports abortion access and wants to repeal Section 230 to regulate Big Tech. He says he doesn’t accept money from corporate PACs, big pharma or fossil fuel executives, or federal lobbyists. At the beginning of 2022, he had out-raised every candidate in the field and earned the support of national groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and VoteVets. But despite that support and an 11th-hour endorsement from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Kunce lost the primary by 5 points to Anheuser-Busch heiress Trudy Busch Valentine. Valentine went on to lose soundly to Republican nominee Eric Schmitt. Now Kunce is challenging Republican incumbent Senator Josh Hawley for the state’s other Senate seat.

“That first campaign, I learned a lot,” Kunce says. “We were trying to figure out, how do you come in and raise money like this with no personal money, no personal connections, no family connections, anything like that, in a situation where you didn’t even really have a villain… This time, we have the full grassroots fundraising apparatus that we built out last time, and we have a villain.”

Kunce continues the Magic metaphor: “Josh Hawley, corporate Country Club Republican, completely netdecked. Then he was like, ‘Oh, wait, I want to be president young, so what new deck can I go find off the interwebs?’ So he goes and takes the sort of extremist culture-type crap, and that’s his new thing. In that party, there’s two netdeck paths to winning: it’s big corporate money, or you’ve got to be a culture crazy type.”

Earlier this month, the same day his campaign announced raising $1.1 million in the first quarter of the year—more than Hawley did in the same period—Kunce’s campaign saw another chance to connect with regular people who feel the deck is stacked against them. The opportunity arrived when the conservative outlet The Washington Free Beacon published a story headlined, “NERD ALERT: Democrat Senate Candidate Likes Magic the Gathering, Was First Male Cheerleader at Yale.”

His tweet proudly confirming the story got thousands of likes and numerous comments from Magic players saying that learning he played prompted them to donate. Some joked that their support was conditional on his favorite deck or format.

“They just don’t understand how everyday people live,” Kunce says, mentioning Hawley’s past critical comments about men playing video games. “They don’t understand that sometimes you need an escape from the world. I mean, I was a poor kid growing up in Jeff City, Missouri. This was a way I found friends. It was a way that I escaped some of the harsh realities of my family going bankrupt and struggling… If only we could all lead such a pampered life that we never had to escape in some way.”

Kunce, 40, grew up in a working class neighborhood, where his family lived paycheck-to-paycheck straining to cover the medical bills for his sister’s heart condition. He started playing Magic when he was in middle school. When I ask what card best represents him, Kunce pulls out a binder and flips through the pages. I see about 54 copies of Wanderlust, a card that depicts a little guy with a walking stick and a backpack gazing out at a hilltop view. As a kid who didn’t know if he’d ever get to see the world, he loved that art. Kunce says he has nearly every version of the card ever made.

Turns out, he did get to see the world. He got a Pell Grant that allowed him to attend Yale. Magic helped him scrape by, then, too. “I had a mint condition Alpha Ancestral Recall,” Kunce says, naming a card that now sells for upwards of $10,000. He sold it while he was in school, along with a box of Collector’s Edition, to buy a new car when his old one broke down.

After attending law school and unsuccessfully running for the Missouri state house, Kunce joined the Marine Corps. He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he says he and other service members played the game to decompress. These days, he uses his old cards to teach his kids, ages 7 and 9, how to play. But lately, between the campaign and the Marine Corps Reserve, he’s more often playing online on the virtual platform that hosted our game, MTG Arena. At one point recently, Kunce broke into Mythic, the highest-level rank, and became one of the top 100 players of one version of the game; he says he often plays while he’s making political and fundraising calls, and on long car rides campaigning across the state.

Before we say goodbye, I ask Kunce what color he most likes to play, hoping to glean something about his personality from his answer. Does he play blue, which represents knowledge and trickery? White, the color of law and peace? Or does he have an impulsive, destructive streak symbolized by red? Kunce replies that when he does a draft, passing packs of cards around the table and choosing one at a time, he likes to play all five colors. I silently reassure myself that had we been drafting—my favorite format—I’d have defeated him.

Around midnight, I’m still thinking about my loss. I log on to Arena and play a round against a stranger. I win. I’m about to log off when I see that one of my friends is online: It’s Lucas Kunce, up late, still playing.

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