It’s All In The Cards For Players Of Magic, The Gathering
By Greg Orlando
Across the battlefield a wizard 10 years my junior presses me with bis Samnite Healers. Tbree grizzled old men cross the scarred Earth toward my position and I think perhaps FDR was wrong…there is more to fear than fear itself. I look to my evil armies of the once living, but they are strung out and tired; they will not be able to hold.
In my hands, I hold a deck full of death and I’m just itching lo drop some of it on my opponent. His real name is Thad Clark. He’s 13 years old, half my height and about 15 times the magician that I am. Early in the game, Clark hit me with a had karma spell. The spell kills me in little pieces, to the point where I won’t be able to survive the Healers’ attacks. This is war.
Correction, this is Magic, the Gathering — an escapist fantasy game that has become its own phenomenon. Magic is Five Card Monte meets Dungeons and Dragons, but unlike your average, mamby-pamby card game, Magic is not restricted to a mere 52 cards. The game is played with specially designed Magic packs, and each player becomes a spellcaster out to destroy his opponent. Players can pick and choose the cards they use, and there are more than 1000 different ones to choose from.
Each player starts with 20 life points — lose those 20 and you’ve lost your life and the game. Magicians attack each other with spells or send out monsters to do some damage, crush, kill, and destroy the opposition.
Do the kids play it? Yes. they do, but it’s not just the kids. At Mighty Mick, a comics store on West End Avenue, the Magic groupies range in age from 10 to 40. For Clark, a Mick’s regular, the game is a neverending challenge: Simply put, its fun.
For Wizards of the Coast, makers of the game, Magic is…Magic. The game was released in August, 1993. Since then, more than 500 million individual Magic cards have been sold, Carrie Thearle, the company’s spokeswoman. Thearle says the game has gone through four basic editions and now also offers six stand-alone subsets of spell cards.
What hath Magic wrought? The game has inspired a series of novels and a monthly comic book. Wizards of the Coast is now publishing The Duelist, a magazine for hardcore fans, and established a tournament league whose members are ranked like tennis pros.
At Mighty Mick’s, owner Mick Bessone has set up a card table so people can play; many times now it’s strictly push-and-shove to get to the action. “It’s kind of gotten overcrowded,” says Regan McGee, a Mick’s sales clerk. “People come in and stay all day,” To meet the demand, Bessone plans to have a few permanent tables installed for use by his Magic customers.
And those customers get more than just a card game — sometimes they get a dose of poetry, too. With a Wall of Ice card, for example, a player gains a respectable defensive stronghold and a snippet from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. “And through the drifts the snowy cliffs/Did send a dismal sheen: Nor shapes of men or beasts we ken — The Ice was all between.”
Other cards contain wisdom from (among others) Alexander Pope, Lewis Carroll, William Shakespeare and Richard Adams. In the world of card games, Go Fish is a third grade reject and poker is a high-school dropout. Magic is at least a smart-mouthed college freshman.
Could Magic encourage kids to learn? Maybe. It might also fund their higher education if they manage to acquire some of the collectibles now associated with the game. “This,” admits Clark. “can be an expensive hobby.” Truer words have never been spoken.
The fabled Black Lotus Leaf, for example, sits behind glass, snugly encased in mylar behind a counter at Mick’s. It 1ooks like any other Magic card; it isn’t.
Plunk down the lotus leaf and it meats a cool three mana points are added to a player’s pool. The more mana a player has, the tougher he’ll be to beat. One problem: the card exists only in earlier editions, making it now extremely rare. The price tag? It’s $184, and Chris Baker, 20, has three of them. When he plays Magic, he keeps his real cards in heavy plastic sleeves. The cards he drops are proxies, substitutes, dupes. “The real ones are too expensive,” he says. Some of the fake ones are pretty expensive, too. Sitting in Mick’s, cabinet is the seldom-seen and hardly-ever-heard-of Summon the Brain card, yours for only 999 cash dollars. This treasure features the Brain, a cartoon mouse appearing on Warner Brothers “Animaniacs.” The card comes in glorious black and white and both McGee and Bessone am quick to point out the card is as fake as a $3 bill. Magic players are nothing if not fun people.
“Not a lot of people escape this game,” McGee says. He may be right.
What should be the last few moments of a life misspent pass nervously. The regrets pile up. I lament any involvement in Hulkamania, hope my underwear is clean and wish that I had never chosen to attack Thad Clark with black magic. Before the Healers come I bend my head low in silent prayer to some horrible demon. It’s dying time. I think.
Truth, sometimes, is stranger than fiction. The Healers cast their spells at me and instead of lining a casket, I find myself alive and relatively well and still evil enough to sic my horrible plague rats on Clark. Clark has healed me; thrown the game.
“Tin giving you another chance,” he says. “You better kill me.” I may be evil, but I am not stupid. Everything I have I throw at him. The game ends and Clark is plague rat chow. All is fair in love and Magic, the Gathering. In the real world, Clark and I shake hands. I thank him for teaching me the game and going easy on me. For a dead man. he looks pretty comfortable. Clark regularly hangs arounds Mick’s. He will play anyone, he says.
We leave Mick’s gaining table for a while and step out into the Nashville bake and burn. There is no magic in the heat.
Correction. There is magic in the heat. I’m just sweating too hard to see it.
A lot of eight-year-olds can play and, more importantly, understand Magic’s rules.
You can too.
The game is designed for two or more players and each magician deals doom and destruction from a 40 (or more) card deck. Magic cards are usually sold in comic book stores and baseball card shops; a starter deck of 60 cards and a rule-book runs about $8.
The rules put no limit on the amount of cards a player can use to play the game. Each deck must have at least 40 cards, though, and every player draws a hand of seven cards.
In Magic, land is roughly equivalent to power. Each piece of land, be it swamp or mountain, forest or island, contains life (or death) energy. A player builds a power base by dropping down land and “tapping” its life-force or mana. Mana can be used to cast spells, summon creatures and otherwise wreak havoc.
A coward may die a thousand deaths. Playing Magic, he or she might die a thousand and two. There are a lot of ways to die in this game. There are even more ways to kill. Thad Clark, 13, usually uses what he calls a “quick-kill” deck. He avoids using monsters to do his dirty work and instead concentrates on spells that deal damage to the other player directly. While his opponent might decide to attack with an army of monsters, Clark prefers to just toss a few lightning bolts. Others are monster backers, viewing them as the most efficient way to do damage with the added advantage that they stick around until they’re killed while spells can only be used once.
Herein lies Magic’s grand appeal: variety. In the game, sorcery comes in five distinct flavors or “colors.” Green magic takes its strength from the forest, for example, while black magic flows from the death and decay of swamps and bogs.
Each type of magic comes with its 0wn distinct spells and creatures to summon; the powerful, man-eating. monster-chewing, fire-breathing Shivan Dragon can only be conjured with red magic, for instance. Smart wizards will work two or three colors of magic into their decks.
Even smarter wizards will find out what color magic their opponent fancies before picking their own. Each color has its Achilles Heel, and it’s always a good idea to pit strength against weakness. Black Magic is traditionally foiled by either white or green. Green magic is weak against black and blue.
Would-be magicians can customize their decks and tailor their attacks. Each creature, from the lowliest Ornithopter to the near Schwarzenneggeresque Cosmic Horror, comes with a power and toughness rating. Power indicates a creature’s ability to soundly drub another creature. Toughness measures how much of a drubbing a creature can take. With the right spell, a wizard can either pump a creature up (power-wise) or deflate it. Cast a giant growth spell and even the wimpiest monster will become a fearsome fighting machine.