I was introduced to a card game called Magic: The Gathering way back in the late 1990’s by my (now) ex-uncle Jason. Jason was, to me, a cool guy who introduced me to lots of awesome, nerdy things. He taught me how to play Warhammer and Warhammer 40K. He introduced me to Necromunda. He owned a PC and showed me different PC games and also introduced me to the Playstation 1 gaming system. He conspired with my aunt Debbie one year and they bought me a Warhammer starter set for my birthday. In the case of Magic: The Gathering – for one Christmas they bought me a bunch of retail boxes of the Beta set of Magic.
Now, I’d never had much of an opportunity to acquire lots of cool nerdy things aside from comic books because my family was always so poor, so for someone to express an interest in fostering my rabid desire for nerdy games, it was refreshing and I completely took advantage of it. I took to Magic instantly. Back then, it was new and it was very popular. The news showed stories of kids devoting all their free time to Magic and how some parents were concerned that the game was demonic. It made us all want to play it even more.
I started playing all the time. First, with my siblings. Then, later on, with new friends. My best friend Justin and I went to local tournaments, and we’d spend entire afternoons just building decks, or looking up card prices, or drawing art inspired by the cards. We wanted to own the rarest cards. We wanted to win those tournaments. We wanted to meet the artists. We wanted to create those perfect decks. Eventually, gatherings at his house were common by the time our gaming interest hit its peak.
Over time the popularity of Magic– at least in the area I lived – began to wane. Eventually, my aunt and uncle separated and divorced and I never saw Jason again. I sold off all my cards sometime before I went off to college, bringing the cards to school in a locked suitcase. The kid I was selling the cards to showed up with three friends, and I flipped the briefcase open in front of them like in the movies, except instead of stacks of cash inside, there were stacks of Magic cards. They may as well have been stacks of cash, because at the time I owned a couple of Black Lotus cards (rare cards worth upwards of something like $30,000….yep, I’m totally kicking myself these days) and I sold the entire lot, hundreds of cards, for only about $30.00.
Fast forward to about 2013 or 2014. Magic was sort of gaining in popularity again, or at least had been for a while, and my cousin Lester still played. I bought a couple of “Fat Packs” for Return To Ravnica and some others, and began to play again, with my cousin. I built a fun deck – a green/black Golgari deck that fully took advantage of the “Scavenge” game mechanic. Scavenge was new to me, and it was fun since I hadn’t used it before. (I stopped playing around the time Ice Age came out. Yep, I’m old.) It was cool to come back to an old game and see that there had been significant developments to the system while I had been away.
I recently moved to a new location for my job, and at my new place of business we sometimes have time to chat with one another. Over the course of the past few months, I discovered that a couple of co-workers play Magic once in a while. So, we formed a little club and finally all got together the other day. It was a blast. Slinging cards and eating snacks and drinking caffeine reminded me of my teen years again, in a good way. Experiencing the magic (pun intended – I’m so, so, sorry) again made me reflect on what I love about the game and why I think it has endured over all these years since 1993.
First of all, I think the main reason Magic has endured for so long is because of how versatile the game is. Like the players of the game have to be, constantly restructuring their decks and strategies in the heat of battle – the developers and designers of Magic: The Gathering have had to restructure and reformat every year or so while at the same time ensuring that their product stays fresh, stays relevant, and stays exciting. In between the time I stopped playing back in high school, all the way up until I started playing again with Return To Ravnica (2012 but I really didn’t start playing until about a year later) – there have been 105 Magic sets released. That’s a lot of new content. Granted, some sets were re-prints and some had similar cards or the same game mechanics – but that devotion to their product kept them in the game, so to speak, over the last couple of decades – and kept players lined up at hobby stores and game stores and comic stores to buy new packs and boxes of cards. When I came back to the game, I discovered cool new mechanics like the aforementioned “Scavenge” and others like “Dredge” and “Heroic”. New card types and new skills keeps strategy-making fresh and keeps players invested in the product. New tactics sometimes means revisiting old cards, or new cards in a different way.
The other reason Magic succeeds is because the game is very social. Sure, there are lots of stereotypes about the people who play fantasy games of any kind. Yeah, some of those are true some of the time (seriously, people – deodorant is your friend) – but overall, anyone can play Magic and lots of different kinds of people with different backgrounds play. On the one hand, I knew a guy in high school I played with all the time and he seemed to fit the stereotype pretty well, of loner “nerds” who have little to no friends – but now that guy works for NASA and makes more money than I could ever hope to. On the other hand, my best friend played a lot with me back in the day and he became a soldier in the military and is now a combat veteran with a little family of his own. It doesn’t matter who you are. It’s like chess but more than two people can play at a time. People love competition, especially in a social setting where they can brag about how they won or how they lost or what their favorite card is, or Magic set, or artist. It brings us together with a love of gaming.
The other great thing about Magic: The Gathering is the artwork. Without the art, the game could still be a game but it would just be numbers on a piece of paper as in traditional playing cards and therefore super-boring (at least to me). The images and the flavor text on the bottom of the card descriptions give the game a mythology all its own that is rich and has become increasingly complex over the years which also provides players with a context and setting for where the cards (which are representations of spells) are played. It’s hard to imagine you are a powerful sorcerer on a field of battle without the alluring image above, of Greg Staples’ Baneslayer Angel floating in the sky as if you’d just summoned it to punish your opponent. Here are a few other great examples of the amazing artwork employed to keep the game firmly set on a foundation of a believable world:
And, finally – one of the things I love best about Magic: The Gathering is the cost. You can put as little or as much money into the game as you want. Sure, the players who spend money on cards online or at shops or conventions might have an advantage over someone like me, who spends a minimal amount of money these days (times are tough, brother) but it doesn’t mean I can’t win with my little Golgari deck if I play my cards right (I’m so, so sorry). And that’s the beauty of it. I can keep my little Golgari deck and I can play with it. It won’t win against every deck, but it will win against some decks. And the game isn’t about who has the best deck, either. If someone is skilled enough they can do something and possibly win with starter cards. It’s all about luck, skill, and then the cards. Strategy is the main component in this game.
So the next time you’re looking for a solid multiplayer experience, something that won’t eat up a ton of your money if you don’t want it to, or a lot of your time – check out Magic: The Gathering. Put down the game paddle and pick up some cards. Cosplaying is optional – but remember, deodorant isn’t.