Friday, December 21, 2012

A Gathering

Quite the cast of characters has assembled in the basement of New England Comics on a Saturday afternoon in mid-November. And no, it’s not the Justice League. It’s a bunch of regular guys you would probably run into at any suburban mall.  Ari is in the second year of his residency at Beth Israel Hospital. Dillon runs tech support for one the leading law firms in Boston. Luke is working on his PHD in Physics at Boston College.  And Hunter scored a boatload of Tootsie Rolls to snack on for the afternoon.
Hunter is also in seventh grade.
“Got any trades?” he asked while jawing on his chocolate candy.
What could bring all these people together in a basement lined with boxes of back issue comic books? It’s Magic: The Gathering, a fantasy-based trading card game that has over 12 million players worldwide. Magic is a game where two people battle with trading cards that feature an array of mystical creatures, sorceries and enchantments. The game has been around since 1993 and most people associate it with pimply nerds who don’t get enough sunlight. That’s not quite the case. Magic attracts a variety of people from all age groups. People are playing at New England Comics for a variety of reasons. Some hope to sharpen their game skills. Others play for nostalgic value. Some love the community and camaraderie.
On weekends, the comic book store basement becomes part trading floor, part social club, and part battleground for cardboard creatures. Dillon Barfield is a thirty year old tech-support professional helps run the Saturday afternoon games. He’s got a slight blonde beard and is wearing a red t-shirt featuring a cheerleader wielding a chainsaw. He’s also one of the friendliest guys there. He helps explain some of the more complex cards to younger players and knows the real-life dollar value of most of the cards.  “Dillon’s House of Cards is open,” said another player as Dillon quoted a price for a rare creature card. “I check the website once or twice a day at work,” he said, referring to the Magic Price Guide.
“I’m real happy with the community we’re building here,” said Ryan Barr, a goateed law student wearing a backwards flat-brimmed Red Sox cap. Ryan helped set up the weekend games about a year ago and is proud of the fact that it has developed into a friendly community. Saturdays are reserved for booster draft tournaments, which are the equivalent of a pickup game. Other types of tournaments features decks that players have spent a lot of time and money building. Today players pay $15 and receive three packs of cards which have fifteen cards each.  The players build their deck during the draft.  Each player selects one card from their pack and passes it on. This process is repeated until all cards in all three packs are claimed. It’s an easy way for the casually interested player to get back in the game. Two law school students are playing for the first time in years and their excited to tap into their inner nerd again. “I saw my brother-in-law’s Amazon account and noticed that he bought a lot of cards,” said Evan, who goes to Boston University Law School. Evan thought he could get back into Magic as well. He’s stoked to play again.   ****
The object of Magic is to get your opponent's life total from twenty to zero. There are five different colors of Magic cards: red, blue, white, black, and green. Each color represents a different theme and subsequent strategy for playing the game. On the Magic online Wiki, Red magic is described as “filled with fire, frenzy, and storms of rock and lava.” Red has powerful cards that create a lot of damage. It’s up to the player’s taste, skill, and quick thinking to figure out what type of deck they want to build.
The main types of cards are lands, creatures, and sorceries.  Land creates “mana,” which is the cost for playing other cards.  Players take turns putting creatures and spells into the battlefield by paying their “mana cost.” A player “attacks” with the cards after they are in play. The opponent can defend with their creatures or play other spells in response.
Creature cards have two numbers on the bottom right corner that show their strength and toughness. If an attacking creature's strength outnumbers the defending creature’s toughness, the weaker creature is sent to the graveyard. For example, a 7/7 Axebane Stag, which looks like a pissed off Dr. Seuss character, would crush a 1/1 Bellows Lizard.  However, a player could play a card called Avenging Arrow, a spell that says, “Destroy target creature that dealt damage this turn.” That Axebane Stag would then die as well.  That is just one of literally thousands of battle scenarios that could take place in Magic. The set being used today, Return to Ravnica, has only 254 cards. However, there are over 11,000 Magic cards total. It requires an encyclopedic knowledge of the cards to put together the best battle plans.
Magic  players do not just use their imagination to fight dragons and wizards, like many kids do in their basements. They develop efficient and effective strategies to win battles. Mosby, a skinny seventeen year old with a blonde afro has been playing since he was 12. He now plays regularly in tournaments and comes to Magic games on Saturdays to stay sharp. “I’m just playing to get more experience,” he said. He’s giving his deck a test run by dealing out a hand of cards to himself. One can see that he’s thinking about this harder than he will about anything else for the rest of the weekend. To win in this fantasy world, you need to be well-rounded in the liberal arts. ****
Like with most things designed by adults, there are also adult issues that come with Magic. Money plays a big role in Magic. These cards aren’t cheap.  If you want to get good at Magic, you’ll have to pay up. Dillon, who regularly plays in tournaments, estimated that a good tournament deck in the “standard” format (the most popular) will cost between $300 to $600 dollars to build. The best players on the Magic pro tour can earn money in the five figures. This is a game that can be mastered by a teenager.
Some also try to make a return on the day. Luke, the physics PHD student,  views the afternoon as part fun and part investment, “If you go out drinking you’re not going to get your money back. With Magic, you’ll probably get your money back,” he said. Luke sold his cards at the end of the day. He haggled with some other players, but many of them said that they had spent too much money on cards already. Luke found and buyer and they settled for $15. “It’s like drugs,” he said. However, this transaction is small change. Black Lotus, one of the rarest and most sought after cards, can go for up to $100,000 on ebay Luke got sick the huge time and money commitment that is required of a serious Magic player. He sold all his cards last year -- a number in the thousands -- and got $2,500 for them. Now, he just plays in booster draft tournaments to have fun on the weekends for fun. He enjoys this style much more.
Magic: The Gathering gathers hyper-intelligent people who speak the same language and appreciate the same culture. It attracts a variety of people across age groups and incomes. The cardboard creatures and spell brings people together like few other things can.
In between matches, Hunter gets anxious. He wandered over to Dillon at the far end of the table.
“Got any trades?” Hunter asked.
“Yeah, take a look,” Dillon said as he opened up his binder.

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