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.