The Collector

"To be a book-collector is to combine the worst characteristics of a dope fiend with those of a miser."
--Robertson Davies

1994. Tuesday night. Dinner time. I walk into the Jack in the Box on Market Street (a fact disclosed without pride). This particular House that Jack Built is unusual in that it features a massive subterranean dining room. 60 white topped plastic tables with molded ass-hugging chairs augment the abattoir of the first floor. On this fateful evening, charred-flesh-and-salt confections must be on super-sale, filling the entire top floor. I descend.

I sit. I eat. Fluorescent panels sear the room with unnatural shadowless light.

From the farthest corner of the room voices are raised. A 13-year-old blond surf-kid stands up abruptly.

"Screw you man, I am NOT giving you that card."

Sitting across the table from the offended youth is a guy about my age. He's in a suit, tie still tight, clearly not off the rack. My trained eye pegs it as Hong Kong tailor. He is the Suit.

"Look kid, you said you wanted to play for ante. It's not my fault your Mox came up. You don't want to lose it, don't play it. That's the rule."

The kid stands up, grabs his book bag, scoops a bunch of cards from the table and walks out. The suit takes a sip from his decaffeinated diet beverage. Half a dozen tables around him are occupied by pairs, each playing some sort of card game.

The diversity of the group is shocking, but for XY chromosome dominance: Black, white, and Asian; 12 years old to 30. The Suit anchors the professional end of the food chain, the other end represented by Central Casting ravaged-college-student#27 (hygiene and footwear optional). In another context, I'd think him homeless. Walking casually past his table on the way to the garbage, I see there are two five dollar bills stuck under a prominently placed cardboard box bearing the inscription Magic: The Gathering.

Bashful, I don't talk to anyone, but watch the games. After 15 minutes or so, I think I've got the basics. The following Tuesday evening, I go back to the basement of the Jack in the Box with a few hastily-constructed and never-played decks in my jacket pocket.

I sit down. I play. I get schooled by a 12 year old for two hours as he teaches me the ropes with a condescension reserved for teenagers with grownups by the throat. Each game is a bet--loser gives the winner the top card off his deck: Ante. I leave a dozen cards short.

I had discovered a great game, and people to play it against. But that's not why the night sits burned into my brain with razor sharp clarity. No, it's because that Tuesday night in San Francisco, I became a collector.

-------

The manifestation of my collecting infection followed the two classic pathologies.

The first vector--one that most people fall to--is love. With Magic, it was a love that hit me on so many levels. In the beginning, when the card pool was just 300 cards, the idea that the game was a festering collector's money-pit had yet to register. Dropping from the sky on a tired gaming world, it was--just as a game--flat out brilliant. It was the Best Game Ever (tm). The fact that it had style, art, and a bit of humor just baited the hook with a bit of honey. My collecting started as a function of the game itself. Having 4 of every card gave you limitless possibilities, and the possibilities were the love: endless hours pouring over binders full of cards, the lizard part of my brain engaged in irrational lust caressing the pasteboard, the higher brain constructing orthogonal combos of gaming goodness.

The second vector was economics. The infected use money to maintain their denial of the love. After a time, I convinced myself that these worthless little things, these cards were investments. If enough people believed a card was worth more than the 20 cents it originally cost, then it was worth more. This madness of belief can justify nearly anything. But with any denied love, it can only end in tears. Like the comic book collector who never rereads a book, I came to resent the very object of my affections. Still I slipped deeper in. I acquired thousands of cards, "invested" thousands of dollars. I became the Suit--the old guy with the suitcase full of rarity and desire, doled out reluctantly when presented with cash, or a better trade.

I was one of the lucky ones. I met the perfect woman, and somehow I got better. I sold out near the top. I still fall off the wagon from time to time, but never like that first time.

Pundits (here, and elsewhere) predict the end of the collectible, writ large. They are wrong. The epidemic flourishes. Cardboard-and-plastic game companies continue to thrive on the backs of collectible games: cards, miniatures, and anything anyone can claim as the "next big thing." Since the Dutch tulip crises of 1637, the madness of crowds when faced with collectible, irrational, greater-fool economics has remained indomitable. As one market collapses, another rises to take its place, as people who need-to-own become people who mask their disease with the paliative of investment.

Persistent digital spaces just spread the epidemic. In the mid '80s, members of my university science fiction club prided themselves on their collections of ASCII books--never read of course, why would you read Heinlein on a VT100? Virtual worlds continue to attract a large cadre of collectors--people who love a digital object with all the passion of a baseball card or a Beanie Baby. When Guild Wars handed out birthday presents to the game's original buyers, the mini-dragons and micro-monsters inside the wrapped boxes became, and remain, the most expensive objects in the game. They serve no purpose. They exist simply to be owned. Second Life is a--whatever it is--in which the only activity that generates revenue for the developer is the accumulation of digital things.

And of course, Wizards of the Coast, makers of Magic, took my old dirty needle online. One buys virtual cards, 15 to a pack, for 3 non-virtual dollars. It's even easier to build and lust over a collection than it is to sit in your living room with the binders. And there's a thriving marketplace for trading and selling these ethereal pasteboards.

And I can quit anytime I want.

Comments

Check out a book called 'How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World'.

Ahh Magic, that takes me back. I playtested the game back in Milwaukee in 92, then my friends and I bought a case of starters and divided up the cards into colors (I got all the reds) and we played-and played-and played... The brick wall came when we decided to host our first tournament out at Milwaukee School of Engineering and some local kids came with amazingly constructed killer decks stocked with Moxes and Black Loti that cleaned up on most of our fun "theme" decks. That's when I started to realize that competition <> fun.

Now, I only play rarely, and only "Zen". Buy a starter and two boosters, that's your deck. Never add or remove cards other than ante. Beautifil in it's simplicity, and amazing in its depth.

As for collecting, I prefer to be on the positive economic side of the equation. (ie. selling..)

Years ago a friend of mine gave me about 150 cards of his, even some Alpha, in the hopes that I'd get hooked. I tried and tried, I bought more and more, but every single game I played I'd get completely schooled. No matter how well thought out I perceived my deck to be it was never quite good enough. I just couldn't quite get the game it seemed. So I finally sold all my cards (about 200 by then I'm sure) last year after not having played the game for about 4 or 5 years. I so wanted to be able to play but I guess I'm just too damn blond.

I got schooled by the rich kids in class often enough, for not having the right cards for my deck. Well, that was my excuse anyway. Fact is, I don't like games with countless rules. I like games to have simple rules that offer countless possibilities. But not chess, cause I always get schooled there too. Dammit, I hate losing.

I have bitten deep into the Online Magic Apple, and now have over 3000 cards, most of those coming over the last year, though I have had the same account since MTGO went live. I tell myself that I can sell the whole shebang sometime, maybe put the money towards something useful like a 360 or remote control lighter than air vehicle, but I know deep down that I am lying to myself.

The kicker is that I don't do anything with the bulk of those cards. For I am a Limited man, which means the only cards I play with are those that I have just drafted, or that I have opened in my current sealed-deck league. And when that draft or league is over the cards will be relegated to the collection page, very rarely to be played with again.

My card hording is so bad that I find it difficult to even trade money rares for more product, thereby driving up my own cost to play. I could probably pay for a whole league with a couple of my Dual Lands, especially if I were to part with a foil one, but then they would be gone, my precioussss would be gone.

What always amazed me about my young kids playing this game (or Pokemon or any of the other card games) is that they can memorize hundreds of cards and how they interact but when I tell them to clean the room or anything else they forget it in 5 mins.

Selective intelligence is a wonderful thing.

I debate dumping "staples" from my online collection every few weeks. I haven't actually PLAYED online in a long long time. I too love the limited format more than any other gametype, but have a hard time justifying the endless outpour of cash for the draft sets...

Selective intelligence in youth is an amazing thing.

I debate dumping my rares to pay for drafting on a monthly basis. I haven't even played in months but I still think about it.

I guess I'm one of the lucky ones. I never got into Magic. The only collectible card game I'd played was Heresy, and even then I had only a single deck. My older brother, on the other hand, had huge boxes of Magic cards and played in tournaments all over the country.

My father owned a rare book store when I was growing up, so I got to see what happens to collectors early on: it's not pretty. Watching someone haggle with themselves over a book that you know they already have because this one is in better condition, or a rarer printing, or whatever. Sad really.

Some markets never dry up. Others, like Magic, are passing fads that have little, or no consequence: it's like buying a first edition Sue Grafton "R is for" because you think it will be worth something someday...never going to happen. But that's the fashion world for you.

I don't collect anything. Not even games. I turn them over like so many leaves, looking for the next experience. Too bad so many of them are the same these days, but that's a different chat altogether.

Great article, rabbit.

Man, I remember when that game was brand new. I bought 5 Ice Age decks the day my friend Aaron and I had enough money to go to the hobby store. I still have those decks too, along with all my original First Edition starter packs.

That was quite a happy part of my childhood.

Not to sound like an old guy, but Ice Age (rather, Alliances) was pretty much the beginning of the end as far as I was concerned. It was about that time that restricted and banned and type 1/type 2 entered the equation, and all of the sudden it became much harder to just sit down and play.

Not saying the derivations of format are a bad thing -- it would be nearly impossible to keep a game with thousands of cards remotely balanced without format and banning structures. It's just where it went from being new to being old.

rabbit wrote:
Not to sound like an old guy, but :old:

I missed the boat on Magic, but for some reason I bought several hundred SPELLFIRE cards. Don't ask me why. Well, you can ask... and the answer is that I was a D&D nerd and bought the GenCon hype that year. I probably would have gotten into these games more if I actually knew anyone who PLAYED. Thank god for small favors, I guess.

I teach high school currently, and you might be surprised that the popularity of Magic keeps on going even still-- kids meet before school to play in the cafeteria. I regularly have to yell at a few to put their cards away during anime club meetings. For a "fad," it's sure got legs.

SommerMatt wrote:
I regularly have to yell at a few to put their cards away during anime club meetings.

...

speechless.

cough...

I need a new job

rabbit wrote:
SommerMatt wrote:
I regularly have to yell at a few to put their cards away during anime club meetings.

...

speechless.

cough...

I need a new job

Not sure what part of that made you speechless, but if you want my job, maybe we can talk...

I've been into Magic myself, well just a little bit. I began with the chronicles and played a few games, later the Ice Age packs came, with much better powered creatures, and my Deck was just nowhere against my friend. But I'm a cheap bastard so instead of bying new cards to get better I just abandoned the game. I still have the cards somewhere tho.

mateo wrote:

Some markets never dry up. Others, like Magic, are passing fads that have little, or no consequence: it's like buying a first edition Sue Grafton "R is for" because you think it will be worth something someday...never going to happen.

"R" no, "A, B or C" yes. Will they hold their value over the next 50 years? Who knows, in the forties Dos Pasos was more collected than Faulkner or Hemingway, but if you had aquired a Faulkner first just 10-20 years ago even paying retail you would have done pretty well.

The bottom line with collection is collect what you enjoy, but don't try and beat any particular market, your just as likely to end up with a Dos Pasos.

I can definitely relate to this article... I was suckered into the whole Pokemon and Magic card craze. When people say "they're just a bunch of pieces of worthless cardboard," I would have to agree with them. However, it's not the same if you were to cut out pieces of paper and draw the same stats and play with those homemade cards. While card battle game cards are nothing more than a pile of cardboard and ink to the average person, they possess a significant value to those who are really into the game.