An Unexpected Magic

Magic Pacifism

When I was seven I collected baseball cards. I was never a particular fan of baseball, but at that age owning, trading and collecting the cards had very little to do with the actual sport. Like most collectibles the value and fun to be had was much more about the ownership of the uncommon or rare than it was about the faces on the cards. It was 1979, and I was living in what was at the time the most high profile professional sports city in the nation: Pittsburgh.

This was the year that the Steelers, with Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Mean Joe Greene, won the Super Bowl and the now hapless Pirates won the World Series off the bat of Willie Stargell. My dad would occasionally take me down to Three Rivers Stadium, just a few hundred yards from where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers collided to form the grand Ohio, and under the afternoon sun or evening stars we would watch the mighty Pirates topple one National League foe after another. To be honest I don’t really remember much about the games, except that I did not care for the fireworks fired high into the sky after every Stargell homer, but I do remember the shared experience with the energized crowd and the safe joy of going to the stadium with my dad. And so, I collected baseball cards.

It was almost a cliche. I kept them in a shoebox on the floor of my closet. I wagered them with my friends to try and claim the precious bounties that I had not yet had the fortune to acquire. I stuck the duplicates into the spokes of my bicycle so that when I toured the side streets of my neighborhood my pedaling produced a satisfying machine-gun rat-a-tat-tat sound. I carried plastic bags full of quarters and dimes to the 7/11 on the corner after earning my allowance to buy a couple of Topps packs in the hopes that maybe this one contained some precious rookie card for a future hall of famer. For a few short summers, I was defined by these paper trophies that smelled of mildew and bubble gum.

Now it is 2011, and I think those cards are moldering away somewhere in the bottom of a forgotten moving box at the back of the garage, but my own seven-year-old has discovered the baseball cards of his generation. Instead of heavy hitting sluggers on ERA stats, though, these cards have dragons, spiders and elves. They are Magic.

I am rarely an early adopter. I still don’t really “get” Facebook. I only got an HD television a couple of years ago -- it took an additional six months until I actually upgraded to an HD service. I’ve never shelled out the dough for anything above a mid-range video card. And, as for collectible card games, I am only just discovering the concept.

I had been vaguely interested in a game like Magic: The Gathering for a long time, but as the game entered its tenth, eleventh and now twelfth core iteration my natural assumption was that the rules and structure would have become so complex as to be impenetrable to a newcomer such as myself. It wasn’t until the release of Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers on XBox Live that I even dared to plumb the game’s mysterious depths, and only in the safe shallows of a constrained environment.

Every few days I would fire up the game, and my son would watch on with interest slowly absorbing the basic concepts of the game. Upkeep, attacking, defending, instants and mana pools slowly became a part of both our vocabularies as he would helpfully provide suggestions for how to defeat the Planeswalkers that stood in my way.

When finally a couple of months ago I explained that Magic was not actually just a Xbox video game, but actually a game of cards that could be collected and played together, his eyes instantly betrayed an immediate interest. I suppose I knew at some instinctual level what I was doing by revealing this fact, and I wasn't really surprised that the next two days were populated by frequent and not-so-subtle inferences about how cool it might be to actually get and play Magic together. As always, the idea of finding a new shared experience for me and my son was something I was just as interested in exploring, despite my instinctive parental non-committal, so that weekend I took him to his first real games shop.

The games shop near my house takes up the far end of a dilapidated strip mall along with a traditional Mexican grocery store, a nail salon and a half dozen empty store fronts. It is a surprisingly cavernous space with only a relatively small corner dedicated to the efforts of retail, and the rest a twisting maze of tables, chairs and artificial landscapes ready for battle, where games and tournaments of all kinds wait to be played. The place was packed, some kind of tournament raging in the background, a beehive of activity that was both exciting and slightly intimidating to my boy. And, maybe just a little bit to me as well.

It had a convention kind of atmosphere, the almost static-electricity in the air that happens when a large group of people with shared interest enter a confined space. As many people loomed over tables watching the action as there were people actually playing. I felt like an outsider, salt-and-pepper beard and button up shirt, among what felt like a young crowd, but as soon as it became apparent that I was there to introduce my son to the world of cards and gaming, there were helpful suggestions from all sides. Helpful, often expensive suggestions.

We left with a benign enough duel deck starter set called Knights vs. Dragons. These are prebuilt decks ready to be pulled out of the their boxes and played without the fuss of actually refining or tuning the balance of cards. And so, my son and I spent the afternoon trading blows back and forth, the quick and agile Knights deck against the creature and direct damage heavy Dragons, I think both of us more than a little surprised at how easy it was to comprehend and implement the rules of the game.

It began to dawn on me and equally impress me that even a decade along, this was still a game that a newcomer could embrace with minimal effort.

By the following weekend we were ready to venture into the horizon hinterlands of deck building, so we sallied forth back to the store and picked up a couple of starter packs and a handful of boosters. Now without the safety net of preconstructed and balanced competing decks, we gathered our scatter-shot collection and began trying to organize it into something coherent. My son, who is neither particularly deceptive or subtle, immediately embraced the creature building capacity of Green -- the lure of deploying massive Wyrms too enticing a prospect to be ignored -- while I preferred the subversive attraction of flying White cards supplemented by the enchantments of Blue.

Every afternoon we would refine our decks, spar against one another trying new strategies and deck combinations, and of course lust after the cards that would fill that certain glaring weakness that seemed to be exploited in game after game. Within a few weeks we had a few hundred cards and each of us a couple of different decks to tinker with. Occasionally I would come home with a new booster pack or two and together we’d sit at the kitchen table opening the foil and exploring the new cards inside, hoping for that perfect rare card that would supplement our core deck in just the right way.

“Oh Jeez, not another Giant Spider,” my son would say.

“Check this out,” I’d retort. “This guy is unblockable and has an attack value of 4!”

“Hey, you already have 4 Pacifism cards in your deck, dad. You can’t have anymore! I hate that card!”

And, as I sat there with my son opening Magic boosters, I was reminded of going to the convenience store, picking a pack or two of Topps baseball cards, and eagerly exploring their paper bounties while chewing dusty bubble gum that was more like cardboard than candy. I was reminded of humid nights under the bright lights of the baseball diamond, caring more about hanging out with my dad than ground rule doubles and pinch hitters. I was reminded of the odd joy of collecting, gathering and organizing.

Except this time I was seeing it all from a new angle, from the outside looking in as my son enjoyed all these things and more for the first time. And I discovered it was every bit as much fun even as an adult. Maybe even better. Almost Magical.

Comments

Awesome! MtG sucks yet another player into its clutches! Also, a decade? Try almost two. MtG was originally published in 1993 if I recall correctly (a quick trip to Wikipedia confirms this). There have been expansion sets released continuously over the past 18 years. I started playing around the Fourth Edition of the core game, with Ice Age as the current expansion. I think a big part of this continuous appeal is that the most popular format (called Standard) consists only of basically the most recent two years of sets, and continually rotates. This means that if you ever feel like jumping into tournament playing, you don't have to be faced with the brick wall of acquiring very expensive, extremely rare old cards. There are sanctioned tournaments and formats that use these cards, of course, but you don't have to play them.

Duels of the Planeswalkers is an excellent way to learn the basics of the game and get into it in a safe, sandbox environment. There are no booster packs to buy, and it's a one-time investment (not counting the expansions they make for that, of course). Even as a veteran player, I enjoy it just for that sandbox aspect. I really don't have any interest in maintaining a giant collection of cards anymore.

In that regard, Magic Online is also really good. It combines the convenience of a purely digital format in managing your cards and easily making new decks, but it works basically just like the paper game in purely digital format. There's an economy, and trading, tournaments, etc. with all the same current sets and formats. You do lose that personal aspect of physically playing with someone, and I wish it was a little cheaper given the purely digital nature of it that should make it cheaper to "distribute" cards. I think it runs the same MSRP as the paper game.

Anyway, the point being that Magic is an awesome game with big legs and there are lots of different ways to play it. Welcome to the fold.

Welcome back to the front page. It's articles like this that I forward on to Mrs Prozac to read and they give me something to look forward to.

Oh God. Echoes of my daughter and those )&@% Poke-dreck cards. She still has them, and her Pokedex, though I imagine it's several iterations out of date by now.

Good luck, to both of you.

The games shop near my house takes up the far end of a dilapidated strip mall along with a traditional Mexican grocery store, a nail salon and a half dozen empty store fronts.

Is this the natural habitat of games shops? Sounds just like the largest nearby game shop to me, except it's an Asian market, not a Mexican grocery store.

I liked this article a lot. I loved buying and collecting and reading Magic cards, even though I was never any good at the game itself. Really, I rarely even played, though I always wanted to. My friends and I actually got Magic banned from the middle school cafeteria after a disturbance involving a guy stealing and trying to sell my Chromium (Gold 7/7 Legend!).

I kept all of my cards. They're in a plastic shoebox across the room. There are around 600 of them, and they share space with my Star Wars cards, of which there are probably 400.

And I have a ton of giant spiders, too.

And I played Green, White and Blue. I liked the wurms, the Circles of Protection, and the Rabid Wombat.

Great article. Thank you.

Great article. Glad to have you back Mr. Sands.

Great article. I must show this to Mrs. Judge to justify keeping my 7000+ MTG cards in binders and copy paper boxes in the basement. She keeps asking if I am the only one crazy enough to keep hanging on to them. Occasionally I convince her to play a match or two. She's better than she wants me to believe. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who realizes this franchise spins in a large circle.

Great article!
(And welcome back, Sean!)

I remember my oldest son getting interested in M:TG around 2000 or so, when he was 8-9. I had already been playing for several years and had tons of cards so I built him a simple red/green deck with a mixture of burn and creatures. He loved playing it so on a Sunday afternoon I took him to the small weekly tournament at a game store in town (since closed). That week there was only about eight people but he won the whole thing. He was very excited and Dad was pretty proud.

It's always cyclical. My friends and I will occasionally dip into MtG binges that can last several weeks. While we all have multiple decks made that we rotate through, most recently we made several Ravnica decks - one for each guild that are all fairly equal in power - so we can just use those and not have to worry about someone breaking out an infinite damage turn-lock blue deck.

Welcome back Sean!
I can still recall the exact moment when I peeled open a pack of baseball cards and hastily discarded the brittle gum to find my first Nolan Ryan baseball card. Powerful stuff... great article.

I remember collecting hockey cards (naturally) in elementary school, Pro Set and the coveted Upper Deck. Like Elysium, I kept them in a shoebox, and like Elysium I knew nothing and cared less about hockey. The important thing was collecting the rare goalies. Eventually Micro Machines replaced them as the new hawtness.

I did also fall victim to Magic for an iteration a few years ago (Mirrodin? Was that a thing?). In a moment of weakness I spent $12 on a card for a favourite deck. When my friends were getting excited for the inevitable next release, I only saw an investment that was about to become obsolete. So that was the end of me and Hassle: The Dorkening.

Great to have you back, Elysium; too bad we've immediately lost you again.

Gravey wrote:

I did also fall victim to Magic for an iteration a few years ago (Mirrodin? Was that a thing?). In a moment of weakness I spent $12 on a card for a favourite deck. When my friends were getting excited for the inevitable next release, I only saw an investment that was about to become obsolete.

As I write this, I'm looking upstairs at two studiously concentrated faces, bent over a table strewn with Magic cards. Elysium and Elysium 2.0 are having a great time together, father and son, doing something that doesn't involve a TV screen or monitor. I don't care how much it costs - it's worth every penny.

And the great thing is, now you won't have to worry about either of them getting anyone pregnant while they're teenagers!

What?

Ben the Lad wrote:

I liked this article a lot. I loved buying and collecting and reading Magic cards, even though I was never any good at the game itself. Really, I rarely even played, though I always wanted to. My friends and I actually got Magic banned from the middle school cafeteria after a disturbance involving a guy stealing and trying to sell my Chromium (Gold 7/7 Legend!).

I kept all of my cards. They're in a plastic shoebox across the room. There are around 600 of them, and they share space with my Star Wars cards, of which there are probably 400.

Great article. Thank you.

Me too.
You only have 600? Lightweight. I don't know how many I have actually.
Chromium was a favorite card of mine, really any dragon card was.

Even when I was playing I was wondering how long WotC could continue this thing.
Their long-term solution is simple and effective: rotate which sets and thus mechanics are allowed at any given time. Though they have added a ton of stuff since I stopped.

kazooka wrote:

And the great thing is, now you won't have to worry about either of them getting anyone pregnant while they're teenagers!

Don't be so sure.

Fun read!

Also: my buddy used to destroy me using that pacifism card. Made me shudder when I first saw the image...

RolandofGilead wrote:
kazooka wrote:

And the great thing is, now you won't have to worry about either of them getting anyone pregnant while they're teenagers!

Don't be so sure.

It's true. The sort of things that the later generations are getting into, he could very well meet some hot MtG gamer chick.

Xeknos wrote:
RolandofGilead wrote:
kazooka wrote:

And the great thing is, now you won't have to worry about either of them getting anyone pregnant while they're teenagers!

Don't be so sure.

It's true. The sort of things that the later generations are getting into, he could very well meet some hot MtG gamer chick.

Kids these days!

Just wait, my friends and I all play and of course everyone has one or two awesome "you can't beat this deck because of..." that no one else wants to play against.

the solution? DRAFTING!!!

Everyone buys three boosters and brings them to the party. Then we sit around, everyone opens up pack #1 picks one card and passes to the right. Repeat with the pack that you are handed until the 15 cards are dealt out. Open pack #2 pick a card and pass to the left, rinse repeat. Pack #3 back to the right. Then everyone gets 30-60 minutes to build a 40 card minimum deck based on whatever you just picked plus a communal mana pool (unlimited of the 5 basic mana) and then round robin or tourney style brackets until a winner emerges.

Advantage of this system is it makes sure that everyone has the same chance of making an awesome deck and no one can buy their way to victory.

Cayne wrote:

Just wait, my friends and I all play and of course everyone has one or two awesome "you can't beat this deck because of..." that no one else wants to play against.

the solution? DRAFTING!!!

Everyone buys three boosters and brings them to the party. Then we sit around, everyone opens up pack #1 picks one card and passes to the right. Repeat with the pack that you are handed until the 15 cards are dealt out. Open pack #2 pick a card and pass to the left, rinse repeat. Pack #3 back to the right. Then everyone gets 30-60 minutes to build a 40 card minimum deck based on whatever you just picked plus a communal mana pool (unlimited of the 5 basic mana) and then round robin or tourney style brackets until a winner emerges.

Advantage of this system is it makes sure that everyone has the same chance of making an awesome deck and no one can buy their way to victory.

Ah, the days of keeping unopened Magic booster packs on my person and carrying them with me wherever I went just in case a random draft broke out...

I enjoyed the article (and welcome back, Sean!). I've also been intrigued by MtG, but haven't tried it cause of the same assumptions you had. Thing is, I don't have a kid to play with nor friends who might be into it.

Elysium wrote:

eleventh and now twelfth core iteration

M12 is actually the thirteenth core set, M10 followed Tenth Edition.

Good article, very Rabbit-esque.

Welcome to the fold! Dont think you'll mind you're missing the gum

Something we'd remind parents when they'd come in for the first time to see exactly what their child was playing. WOTC sponsors tournaments for kids 13 and under and first place winner would get $1000 for a scholarship. One of the kids from our shop paid his way through his first year of college with mostly tournament money.

Been collecting MTG since the late 90's. It's truly amazing how it's still around and bigger than ever! Glad to see your son has taken an interest - and pulled you in along with him! My first article on this site and I am very impressed.