When I called the store, the employee who answered the phone said, “We host all-ages Magic events, so we expect a lot of under-eighteen players at the prerelease.”
But what she meant was, “If you show up for this tournament, you will be surrounded by frenzied children for four hours.”
That’s what I learned when I walked into Seattle’s Blue Highway Games in late January to play in its Magic: The Gathering prerelease event, one of many small casual tournaments hosted in game stores around the world in support of the card game’s latest set, Gatecrash. As I approached the gaming tables in the back, I saw maybe eight bewildered adults, adrift amongst a swarm of a couple dozen elementary schoolers. And in that moment, a fragile illusion I built for myself vanished in a poof.
My Magic story is a common one. A friend introduced me to the dueling fantasy card game fifteen years ago when we were in fourth grade. Then I played semi-seriously with a group of geeks in high school before they all quit and I lost interest in the game for a decade. But a flame for it always burned somewhere in my heart, and my passion reignited when I downloaded its iPad version, Duel of the Planeswalkers 2013 last summer. I soon discovered Magic Online, a full digital conversion of the game that I could play without a local group, and I got sucked in completely.
Since returning to the game, I’ve only played in places where I can drink whiskey. Not that I do, because Magic is hard, but I could, which is what matters. 99% of the time, this is in my apartment. The one event I attended in person (“paper Magic,” as it’s known) was held at a bar. The whole time, I imagined I was spending my time on a game for adults.
How easily I forget.
When I first played in fourth grade, I never realized the extent to which children lose their shit over Magic cards. Probably because I was doing the shit-losing back then. When kids open a good booster pack of cards, it’s like they’ve been hit by a geyser of emotion too powerful for their tiny bodies. All they can do is scream. “I GOT A BORBORYGMOS AAAAHHHHHHHH!” So when 30 of them tore into their boosters at the same time, the store turned into chorus of hysteria. Meanwhile, I was thumbing through my cards, passing by the same ones they were freaking out over, thinking, There’s no way I can play this thing. It’s ridiculously inefficient.
Our format for the afternoon was “sealed deck.” You open a bunch of packs of cards, build a deck with them on the spot, then play a few rounds. This style of Magic is particularly challenging because it tests so many skills at once: you have to be able to tell which cards are good and how they work together to build your deck, then you have to play well once the matches start. As a hardcore gamer, I can’t get enough of it. For less experienced players, though, it’s not the friendliest format.
That’s why the middle-schooler I played in my first match seemed miserable. His deck was bad, and he knew it. When I first sat down across from him, I tried to act upbeat and helpful, as I thought a responsible adult might. But halfway through my lesson on why writing down each change in life total is a good idea, I could tell he wanted none of it. He couldn’t have made less eye contact with me if he was blindfolded. So I played along by quickly and quietly stomping him (who wants to talk to a sulky thirteen year old anyway?). He slinked off.
My next opponent was a younger boy, maybe ten, who was clearly terrified to be playing against one of the dreaded grown-ups. He sat way down in his seat, spoke as little as possible, and waited to lose. Now, in Magic, typically when you know you’re defeated, you concede because there’s no point in playing out the game. My opponent had not yet picked up this point of etiquette. So when I attacked him for lethal damage, we just sort of stared at each other for a moment. I didn’t want to say “you’re dead, we’re done here” to a fifth grader, and he was not about to stick out his hand and tell me “good game.”
Finally, I said, “Uh, I guess that’s it.”
“Okay,” he said, clearly relieved to be finished.
After those two matches, I felt pretty weird about my participation in the event. So, I was spending my Sunday making kids uncomfortable, then steamrolling them? I desperately wanted to face an adult for my third match so I could play a good game of Magic and have a real conversation.
Instead, I was paired against my youngest opponent yet. I’m not great at ages, but let’s just guess he was eight. I walked over to the table, steeling myself for yet another awkward, lopsided match. But it quickly became apparent that this kid was not afraid to play against adults. He was actually super pumped to face the big kid. He got way into all the proper rituals of grown-up Magic, like cutting decks, announcing turn phases, and rolling dice to decide who plays first. He offered the post-match handshake with particular gusto. And throughout the whole match, he never stopped talking, which I will take over the opposite any day. I actually felt like I was interacting with another human being (if you count him telling me about his “tokens” deck three times to be interaction).
I decided to play my best because trying to play badly is actually more work. I had built a streamlined, aggressive deck, designed to come out of the gate hard and end the game fast. I got a good start, but it turned out my opponent had the perfect defense for my strategy: he played all the splashy, inefficient cards I scoffed at. So even though I landed a few good attacks early, when he managed to cast his sweet monsters, my practical ones couldn’t keep up. I honestly tried to win. I even killed his strongest dude, but he had another one waiting for me. So, I lost. To an eight year old. Legitimately.
It made me so happy. Seeing someone experience the pure joy of gaming, unspoiled by all the cynicism of snarky blogs and scummy forums, brought me back to my first days playing Magic. The hugest dragon was always the best, the one kid whose older brother played got to make up all the rules, and the tiny pictures on the cards were as big as my imagination. It was wonderful to see that these silly little cards can still do that.
Still, kids are fucking jackals. A friend who doesn’t play much anymore met me at the shop, and he very nicely gave me his cards from the event. I pulled the promotional dice out of his box to see if he wanted to keep it.
“Nah,” he said.
Some pug-nosed punk who was walking by stopped in his tracks and held his hand out.
“I’ll take it,” he insisted.
I shrugged and gave it to him.
So when an excited boy came up to our table and asked me if I wanted to trade, I let him rifle through my box. I turned back to a game with my friend, and a few minutes later, the kid butted in to offer me a deal.
Magic cards come in four rarities: common, uncommon, rare, and the elusive mythic rare. You’ll only find a mythic in one out of every eight booster packs. Some of the players at our event didn’t get any. I opened one (Master Biomancer, for the nerds keeping score at home).
Obviously the kid wanted the mythic. He had also pulled a rare and a handful of uncommons out of my box. He was offering me two rares, no mythics, and some chaff. This seemed like a bad deal for me, but I had read about one of his rares online (Frontline Medic) and the other one seemed, like, fine (Boros Reckoner). Besides, the kid would get more joy out of the mythic than I would anyways.
“Sure, I’ll do that,” I said.
Then the little bastard tried to take back the Frontline Medic! Fifth graders can’t bluff, though, so I told him that was the card I most wanted, and he immediately took the original deal. Then he scurried away to show off his shiny new mythic to his friends, who ogled it like only hopelessly consumerized geek children can. I scooped up my Medic and the other cards, feeling like a regular Santa Claus.
Two weeks later, Pro Tour Gatecrash took place in Montreal. It’s one of the three biggest Magic events of the year, and it’s even streamed online with full ESPN-style live video coverage. I tuned in for hours that weekend because it was the first major tournament where all the new cards from Gatecrash could be played. Like every other Magic junkie, I wanted to see what kind of decks the professionals built with them. (This was an event where players assembled their decks beforehand.)
The Pro Tour is also a huge deal for card prices. A heavily played card can skyrocket to $40 or $50 per copy as lower-level players scramble to put together decks for local tournaments based on what the pros use.
And that weekend, the biggest new card from Gatecrash was Boros Reckoner. Four of the top eight performing players used the maximum four copies in their decks. This is, more or less, the best possible way to drive up the price of a card. A few days later, the Reckoner shot up to $30, a ridiculous price for a non-mythic card in a brand new set. And I got one on accident from an unsuspecting little kid. The card I gave him was worth less than $10.
I briefly considered feeling bad about this. After all, hadn’t I just been reminded me of the purity of childhood gaming, or whatever? Then I realized that the kid doesn’t have to work and compromise his savings account to play Magic like I do. Besides, he tried to screw me. So forget him. I hocked the Reckoner so I could play more Magic Online.