An Unexpected Magic
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.