“It’s in the basement; follow me.”
I follow Alan down the steps and into the cool, dark room. My toes curl on the cold cement floor as he stumbles and curses his way to the light switch. I’d asked to see his collection of Magic cards so I could bring a few decks to the local game shop where a friend of mine works. Alan is a client, so I know him pretty well. But discovering another geek in your midst requires a leap of faith and a prayer that he’s not going to reveal his life size elf queen statue -- who also happens to be his wife.
The fluorescents hum to life and the cold floor is forgotten as I look at the hundreds of boxes arrayed on countless shelves and tables. “Yep,” he says, hooking his thumbs under invisible suspenders. “Every Magic card ever made.”
With Wizards sponsoring us this week (don't worry, we're off the clock here) it got me thinking about Alan and what his place is in our digital future.
Up until a couple years ago, Alan and his son would go to Magic launch parties and buy boxes of the new cards to keep their collection current. They’d go to tournaments, challenge each other daily and arrange stacks of binders containing different deck builds for future reference. But as his son grew older, he started to spend more time with girls and online games, and Alan's bond with his son has become more tenuous. There’s a bit of nostalgic melancholy in the air as Alan roots through his piles for some cool builds he thinks I’d like. Some of the binders are looking pretty dusty.
I ask him if he’s looked into the Magic Online game. He’ll have none of it. “Real cards have meaning and value to me; I don’t get why anyone would pay for pictures and bits.” He brandishes a stack of cards. “This is my favorite green/red tournament deck. Last time I played it was at the lake with my kid. I don’t think a laptop would cut it.”
I thank him for the cards and make my way out. The next day, I wipe the floor with the other Magic players at the local shop. He wasn’t kidding about that red/green deck he’d perfected over months of play. As I revel in the victories I borrowed from Alan, I couldn’t help but notice every gamer in the place was in their mid-twenties or older.
There’s a growing social divide between cardboard die-hards and a younger generation who seem perfectly fine playing with digital variations of old standbys like Magic -- if they play at all. Wizards of the Coast and companies like them are scrambling for new ways to digitize their most popular brands and leverage internet social sites to bring some new zip to the old tabletop games.
My wife has been going to a weekly D&D Encounters night for a while now. Like most of the adults who show up, she’s there for some light and fun D&D with new people. The fact that there are gamers all over the world playing the same encounters and earning virtual points places a distant second to the local, social aspect of it for her. The DM she tends to play with doesn’t even use the Twitter feed that adds modifiers to the game in real time.
It’s no surprise that Wizards of the Coast is looking to social networks to spread the word and keep people engaged in the hobby. While digital apps like a comprehensive character builder have been a huge help to pen-and-paper players, the dream of everyone playing online remains an elusive goal. The Magic franchise has seen more success with Magic Online and Duels of The Planeswalkers thanks to the head-to-head, strategic aspect of the games. Playing in person has always been more fun to me, but the online variations are good enough when you're too busy or not interested in collecting anymore.
Despite their online success, they’re not abandoning the physical market—they’re also trying to scratch that social media itch with TweetMTG. The goal is to encourage players to put down their mice and go visit their local game shop for the weekend. Whether or not initiatives like this succeed in keeping the cardboard flowing (or if they even care as digital sales grow) is still up in the air.
The next time I visit Alan's basement I hand his cards over and thank him for the opportunity to look like a big shot with the local nerds. "Oh man," he rubs his hands together. "I should have given you my cheat deck. It's full of cards they don't even make anymore because they're so game breaking." He turns to rummage through one of his shelves. You won't see cards like that on a digital service for long. With constant patching, tweaking and editing, curiosities are ironed out and balanced. It's a great feature for online players who want a fair game. For guys like Alan, it misses the whole point. These are conversation pieces. He would probably buy that elf queen statue for the right price just so he'd have an excuse to tell you about his Elvish deck.
As he opens up his binder and starts pointing out some of the most notorious cards ever made, I'm left wondering if guys like Alan will exist in twenty years. These physical games are so tied up in getting everyone to sit down at the same table for a couple hours that they already seem a relic from another world. I get a lot of mileage out of my internet friendships. Most days, I have little drive to drop my friends-on-demand world of IM and voice chat and go to a local shop. But like every human being, sometimes I just want to make eye contact, roll some dice and deal out some cards. Which way the balance shifts in the long run remains to be seen.