Magic Kingdom

There was no stigma when I started playing Magic: The Gathering. In
1996, the game caught on like wildfire at my parochial school in Akron,
Ohio. Being a dweeb was never part of the picture—tapping mana and
summoning wizards felt as natural as riding a bike or tossing a
baseball.

As with most youthful
pastimes, our interest waned in a card game that, like Hearts or
Euchre, involves using luck and skill to outmaneuver an opponent but
uses the Hill Giant and Throne of Azrael instead of aces and jacks. By
high school, I found myself drifting from the fantasy world of elves,
wizards and dragons. New music and better parking lots in which to smoke
more potent marijuana became my priorities. My friends got married, had
kids and bought houses on the country roads we used to speed down
blaring crappy alt-rock and tossing empty Natural Light cans.

So why did I find myself playing the game against 1,000 other sweaty guys in a convention-center basement at an intense Magic tournament in Atlanta in July? I’d sworn off the game a decade ago, but I imagined that showing up to an über-competitive MTG
tournament—like the one happening in Portland this week—dressed like
the guitarist of a shitty post-rock band who makes your latte would give
me some sort of tactical advantage over a bunch of doofuses. I was
wrong—very wrong.

Those of you who spent your formative years lettering in varsity sports and
attending various school dances might need a refresher: Magic: The Gathering
is a collectible card game developed by Renton, Wash.-based Wizards of
the Coast in the mid-’90s. It has been wildly popular the world over
since it was originally seeded in comic-book stores back in the
pre-Internet dark ages.

Game play is simple enough: Two players square off in one-on-one combat, each armed with a custom deck of at least 60 cards, the construction of which is
considered the key. Each starts the game with a random selection of
cards, which is where the skill of mastering a game that’s mostly random
comes into play. While taking turns, each player dispatches a variety
of threats and defenses to thwart their opponent’s plans. The cards are
designed with rich storylines and a classic fantasy element in mind, but
it doesn’t matter. “Hell, I’d bash with Justin Bieber cards if that’s
what was in the arsenal. I just love playing Magic,” says one of my friends.

This was a reference
to my custom Justin Bieber playmat, an oversized mouse pad one uses to
keep dirt, bacon grease, bong resin, and everything else from mucking up
the tables in a multiday tournament.

I expected a Magic tournament to attract the geekiest hardcore gamers—guys fresh off the waterbed in their mother’s basement or the Astro van parked outside their ex-wife’s condo. I only met one guy who matched my composite sketch of an adult Magic geek. My fourth opponent of nine, the portly Rory, from Long Island, N.Y., had a shock of pink hair dangling from an Insane Clown Posse beanie and a faded Deadmau5 shirt, complete
with armpit holes and an archipelago of grease stains on the chest.

Rory was equally
unimpressed with me. The second I sat down, he began scribbling
feverishly in a well-worn spiral notebook, narrating his thoughts out
loud. “Round four. Opponent: Portlandia. Justin Bieber playmat. Probably drinks PBR and listens to Pavement….”

As Rory joylessly
handed me a thrashing, I realized the stunt I thought I was pulling was a
lot like ironically taking a date to Applebee’s: It’s hilarious only
until you realize you’re at Applebee’s. On a date. The people who
actually get it are patently unimpressed, and other people have no
inclination to notice.

A look of smug
indifference and a neon-green fanny pack stocked with beef jerky and
trail mix gives one little to no tactical advantage over the thousands
of other bloodthirsty players when there’s $3,000 and glory on the line.
I’ve now spent six months as a tourist in a world I thought I knew
well. I’ve learned this: Showering daily is a non-factor. Go figure.

Grown-up MTG
players compete on a national scale at Grand Prix events, including my
debut at a tournament held in the sub-basement of the Peachtree Center
Hyatt Regency in Atlanta over a weekend that averaged 105 degrees.
Organizers describe it as “festival-like” and I can agree inasmuch as
the food was fried, the air smelled like a petting zoo, and the
restrooms were pushed to their limits.

In that tournament’s
format, called Legacy, the card pool is infinite and dates as far back
as the game’s origin in the early ’90s. Given the scarcity of some of
the more powerful cards, it’s fairly common to see players who have
invested several thousand dollars in their deck. My average-looking
opponent in round three wore a shirt that read, “My deck is worth more
than your car.” Frank actually turned out to be an OK guy: married, two
kids, owned his own roofing business based in a small Alabama town. He
beat me in under four minutes both games.

In fact, with the
exception of Rory, each of my opponents that day defied my assumption
that being smug and cooler than this stupid game would win me prizes and
glory.

Christian,
from Jacksonville, Fla., looked like a member of the Hells Angels but
ended up being the nicest guy I met all day. After a hard-fought match
that ended in his favor, we had a good 15-minute conversation about all
sorts of things: instrumental metal, baseball, chicken, waffles and
sportsmanship. The conversation became somber when I took notice of a
tattoo on his left shoulder that read “Ranger” above an outline of a
paratrooper kneeling in prayer.

“Mogadishu, 1993,” he
said quietly as he set down his backpack on the table. “I still have no
effing clue why we were there. I guess I never will.”

“My
dad was a Ranger in Vietnam,” I offered as a friend approached
Christian, asking if he was ready to go. He filled out the paperwork
from our match without a word, then looked at me squarely. “Tell your
father I said ‘Thank you.'” He firmly shook my hand.

As I
put on my Yeasayer T-shirt and generic neon Wayfarers the morning of
the tournament, I thought maybe having a detached, above-it-all
mentality would put my head in the right place to flippantly win the
whole shebang. Instead, I had a human moment involving someone I’d be
unlikely to talk to outside a game of elves and wizards.

Run-ins with
dubstep-loving street urchins aside, I find myself having a blast at
these tournaments. For every Timmy the Power Gamer you’re tempted to
bludgeon to death with a bag of dice, there’s someone like Frank or
Christian.

Winning is fun, but
so is having an excuse to go to a new city and peel yourself off a
friend’s floor at 8 am after drinking 16 tall boys and dancing
suggestively with a divorced kindergarten teacher at an electro show to
play a gloriously dumb card game in the basement of a hotel. Forget the
fanny pack. Forget the sunglasses. Hell, forget the shower. I’ll be at
the StarCityGames.com Open in Portland this weekend, geeking out with
everyone else. 

GO: The StarCityGames.com Open Series:
Portland is at the Oregon Convention Center, 777 NE Martin Luther King
Jr. Blvd., on Saturday-Sunday, Sept. 8-9. More information at
starcitygames.com.