David reaches over a table covered in cards during a game of Magic: The Gathering.
The Game and its Gamers

Two great sorcerers meet tonight for battle.  But these are not just any sorcerers, these men are Planeswalkers.  They have the ability to walk amongst and between all the planes of existence.  As the Planeswalkers travel, they learn how to cast new spells and summon different creatures by drawing power from the diverse lands they visit.  Tonight, James comes in blue and black, the colors of islands and swamps, to face David, who bears the white of the plains.  Each holds legions of soldiers, terrible creatures, and ominous enchantments at their command.

They meet. David's army stands at the ready.  A legion of Kithkin soldiers stare down the mass of monsters waiting on the other side of the battle field.  James sends out a Salvage Titan made of scraps of metal and stone.  It charges, swinging its massive fists and crushes several of David's soldiers. Those remaining unscathed encircle the Titan and work together to tackle it to the ground and tear it apart. David watches the destruction and sets his jaw. Raising his hand high, he commands his vast army forward.  James grins at his opponent's rash decision.  Sure of his victory, James draws upon the power of five different lands to summon an Eldrazi abomination.  The Kithkins look up in dread as the horrifying creature descends. David's face contorts not in fear, but in concentration as he calls up the last of his strength to send forth a Celestial Crusader.  Sword at the ready, the great angel slices through the Eldrazi with a single swipe. The army lets out a cheer and presses on towards the enemy Planeswalker, who has now run out of defenses.  James bows his head in defeat and turns his twenty-sided die to zero.  The boys gather back the cards scattered on the blue card table between them and begin to reshuffle, preparing to do battle again in the game of Magic: The Gathering.

A graphic listing the colors and their proclivites in Magic: The Gathering.

Magic is a fantasy-themed trading card game invented by mathematician Richard Garfield in 1991 to be a portable, quick-to-play game for downtime at big gamer conferences.  When Wizards of the Coast released the game in 1993, it was the first of its kind and remains wildly popular today with an estimated six million players in more than 70 different countries.  To play the game, each player begins with 20 life points and a simple goal: eliminate all other players.  There are many ways to accomplish this, but the most common is to use the creatures, spells, and items collected to bring all opponents' life totals to zero.

The basic rulebook for Magic: The Gathering is 38 pages long, but you don't have to read it to play the game.  As James likes to say, "there are the rules, and then there are cards that break the rules." Each card comes with instructions on how it is to be played and many cards allow players to do things that would technically be illegal in the official rules.

The skill of Magic comes in deck building: assembling different cards to form a strategy.  Standard decks have a sixty card minimum and no real maximum except that the player must be able to shuffle the deck without assistance. Larger decks allow more cards, but the more cards also makes it less likely for a particular card to come up when needed.  For play, the decks are assembled at home but shuffled before the game so cards are not guaranteed to appear in any reliable order.

The core to any deck is land cards because land produces power, called mana.  Most creature, enchantment, and artifact cards require mana to be played and often a card will need mana from a specific type of land.  There are five lands in Magic: plains, islands, mountains, swamps, and forests.  Each land has a sort of personality and inherent strategy to the cards you can play with them.  Decks can be built around one type of land or all five.  "Seeing decks with two is pretty normal," David explains, "but more than that is hard to handle."

Magic can be a very addictive game.  Most people start young, being drawn in by a friend or family member.  Once they start building decks for themselves, they begin a never-ending quest for the ultimate cards for those decks.  When asked how many cards they own, most Magic players can't say for sure.  They shrug and casually reply, "a couple thousand?&"  One player explained that he used to own 20,000 some cards but he sold them when he lost his job to pay for a blown transmission in his car.  "Back in the day you had to crack packs to try and find a few good cards," explained Brad, a Magic player since 2004.  When asked how many cards he owned, Brad pointed to a large plastic tub in the next room.  "They are all in there.  There are at least 30,000 cards in there."

How did you start
playing Magic?

Jr. High Friend
High School Friend
College Friend
Christmas Present
Found the game on their own

Miles is an older man who has been working part-time at the Greenwood Game Preserve for 15 years now.  He knows how to play Magic but he prefers historic miniature games.  He sees Magic players in the store regularly and knows many by name. "They will come in here and buy three to five decks a week," he says.  Miles estimates that most of the store's income comes from Magic players and other hobby gamers even though half the store is stocked with family board games and puzzles.

When a player walks into a game shop like the Game Preserve, they have a few options for buying Magic cards.  They can buy pre-constructed, ready-to-play decks of sixty cards for $15; booster packs which are 15 assorted cards, guaranteed to have at least one rare, for $5; or individual cards ranging anywhere from $1 to over $100.

The Wizards of the Coast make sure that Magic stays alive by releasing new deck sets quarterly, which adds 600-1,000 new cards yearly.  Today, there are more than 12,000 unique Magic cards.  Cards gain value by their rarity or usefulness in game play and individual cards will be sold for hundreds of dollars.  The record, though, for an individual Magic card sale is $20,000 for a Beta Black Lotus in 2005.

Magic players are generally unwilling or unable to say how much they have spent on cards over the course of their gaming history.  The average guess seems to be around $5,000, but responses ranged from the modest $1,000 all the way to $20,000.  This could actually be a small investment for talented, driven players.  The Wizards sanction tournaments all across the globe with a range of prizes culminating each year in the Magic World Championship and a cash prize of $45,000.  But playing in the World Championship is an earned position that requires placing highly in other Pro Tour level tournaments.

Brad has been playing Magic for seven years now and competes off and on in Pro-Level tournaments.  The most money he has ever won at one time was $525 when he placed in the Top 8 at the StarCity Tournament.  The tournament atmosphere can be fun and challenging, but Brad admits that it can sometimes be ruined by the other players.  "All games are competitive.  But some people take it too far, you know.  It's just a game."

For players interested in playing tournaments less competitively or just want a place to start, the Wizards of the Coast sanction more casual tournaments at local game shops across the country called Friday Night Magic, aka FNM.

A graphic explaining the components of a Magic: The Gathering card.

Friday night, February 25 at the Greenwood Game Preserve: the tournament doesn't start until 6 o' clock, but its 5:30 and anxious Magic players are already milling around the shop.  Three or four cluster over the glass case by the register where the individual cards are up for sale.  Ben leans back in an office chair behind the counter.  A thick-built red-head wearing a baseball cap, a wrinkled button-down, and jeans, Ben is the FNM coordinator for the store.  "We get a pretty casual crowd of players here on Fridays," he says.  "But a lot of our regulars won't be here tonight because it costs money."

There are two general kinds of Magic tournaments.  The most common is Constructed, where players bring pre-built decks from home to play.  The other is Limited, which is when players are given cards and they build decks on-site.  The last Friday of the month in Greenwood is a Limited tournament, specifically a Booster Draft.  To play in a Booster Draft, players have to buy three Booster Packs.  Then players sit in a circle and open one pack at a time.  Each player thumbs through their pack, picks one card, and passes the pack around the circle until all the cards are gone.  Each player ends up with 45 cards and has to construct a 40 card minimum deck.

"A lot of players like Booster Drafts for the challenge of finding connections between cards quickly to build their decks," says James who has come out to FNM for the first time in years.  "I just like being able to see all the cards," adds another player across the table.  Garret sits next to James and admits, "I don't even like Booster Drafts.  I'm not good at building decks under pressure.  I'm not even sure why I came tonight."

What is your favorite
Magic card?

  • Brigid, Hero of Kinsbaile
  • Timberwatch Elf
  • Raging Goblin
  • Exalted Angel
  • Mind's Desire
  • Yowgmoth's Will
  • Force of Will
  • Any card that will win me the game

At 6, all the players have arrived and bought their Booster Packs.  Ben calls to get everyone's attention and they all head to the other side of the shop to a backroom set up on the left side with six scuffed-up plastic tables surrounded by mismatched chairs.  Shelves of dusty boxes and some Star Wars models dominate the right half of the room.  A circa 1998 desktop computer sits in a far corner next to a young guy who is not participating in the tournament, but is absorbing the atmosphere while playing World of Warcraft on his laptop.  There are fourteen participants in the tournament tonight, all men ranging in age from thirteen to late thirties.  Ben splits them into two groups: one of six and one of eight.  The next 30 minutes are fairly quiet as the guys pick their decks.  Small conversations rise and fall, but the dominating sound is the swiff of cards.

Once the drafting is done, the real games begin. To win a match, a player has to win two out of three games.  The numbers of wins are added at the end of the night to pick the winner.  Games range from five to thirty minutes.

There are more conversations now, but it's still not loud.  Players get up to watch other players and chat when they have to wait for opponents.  Friendly banter can be heard from the regular players.  "These cards suck," one player shouts.  Ben comes over to encourage, "The cards don't suck, man.  You suck."  And so goes a usual evening of Friday Night Magic.

Meanwhile in Speedway, Brad's living room is filled with noise.  Three people scrunch on the couch and battle on the original Nintendo.  One girl sits on the floor with a laptop, shouting for pizza orders.  Brad is sitting in the kitchen playing Magic on a green plastic-molded patio table with his well-known highlander deck.  Highlanders are 100 card minimum decks that many Magic players like to "trick out" by putting in cards signed by the artist, foreign cards and foils, which are otherwise ordinary cards specially printed on a shiny background.  Brad plays a card written in Simplified Chinese.  Neither he nor his partner knows Chinese, but they don't hesitate.  "The picture is the same," Brad points out as he continues to move cards across the table.  Brad flips cards quickly, barely glancing at each one, and uses mostly hand gestures to communicate with his opponent while he moves smoothly between a conversation with a newly arrived friend in the kitchen, telling the laptop girl his pizza order, and explaining why he enjoys Magic.  "It's a fun game to play with your friends.  It's kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure novel," he shrugs.  "You can do whatever you want with it."

Brad plays fast and talks faster.  He never stops answering questions or casually defeating his Magic opponent until asked how he would explain the game to someone who had never heard of it before.  He pauses to think.  Then he turns and grabs a Magic deck sitting on the shelf beside him.  "I would say to them, 'Pick this deck up and let's play.'"

Want to watch a game? See Untold Indy's first video, "World Series of Magic," by clicking here!

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