Play Your Cards Right
How Magic: The Gathering will charm more combatants into playing
By Flash Steinbeiser | Photos by Andrew Renneisen
A green-scaled dragon landed on a wood table and faced a gangly winged scarecrow and a fanged skeleton. Their leering eyes and contorted physiques provoked an uneasiness, even as trading card illustrations. Resting aside the short deck from which they emerged, the mythical creatures clashed, casting the curses wedged on the lower half of the cards. Just before the scarecrow and skeleton overtook his dragon, Dan Barber grabbed a Phantom Centaur (which looks like your everyday human-horse hybrid but with a long white beard) card from his deck, and set it in the middle of the table.
This posed a problem for John Leary, Barber's opponent sitting on the other side of the table. In thought, he slid his wrinkled hand over his mouth. He drew a card from his own deck and sighed. It was a Daybreak Ranger, and as anyone here at the Legacy Gaming Company in Camillus, NY, could tell you, a human archer werewolf cannot withstand a Phantom Centaur's spells. Leary took the card and discarded it into the pile of his other forgotten and vanquished soldiers. He squirmed in his chair. Barber couldn't resist a smile. "I love pissing people off with my cards," he says.
These words go entirely unnoticed by Adam Blanden, who sat at the other end of the table in the round robin tournament of Magic: The Gathering. Every card drew him one step closer to defeat from his adversary Ryan Hiller. Pushing his long, brown hair back behind his ears, Hiller stared at the table. He wore a red polo shirt and loose jeans, his brooding shoulders contradicting his narrow jaw line and nose. Hunched, he drew a card closer resembling ancient text than anything found on a poker table. He turned it face up. Blanden flushed a slight shade of pink as he placed all his cards on the table. Defeat. Leary quickly did the same, conceding victory to Barber. Barber adjusted his black beanie and let one more smile creep into his dark, curly mustache.
The scent of pizza hung in the air, providing a sense of familiarity in an otherwise foreign land. Framed dragon paintings and a jester sketching lined the room. A cardboard cutout of knights and trolls leaned against the wall. But despite the glares circling them, the four men seemed comfortable. They joked while slouching back in their chairs, and discussed playing cards like football statistics, though Leary was the only one wearing a royal blue New England Patriots ball cap. Two of them are married and twoare not. One attends medical school while another still seeks a path after high school. But their backgrounds and differences don't matter much in this tiny shop, which Hiller owns and operates.
As Magic has matured from a hobby to an industry, so too have the players entrapped within its world. Casual play is far from enthusiasts' only option—they can trade, sell, and compete against elite players online and in international tournaments. The fantasy tropes, while distinguishing the brand and its fan base, have become secondary in an entertainment empire.
Magic: The Gathering began in 1993 when Richard Garfield, a mathematics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, designed a board game that could be both fun and intellectually stimulating. Garfield named his game "RoboRally," and presented it to an American gaming publisher, Wizards of the Coast. The company's president, Peter Adkison, liked the idea but said the company lacked the necessary resources to produce the game. But he was impressed with Garfield's designing abilities. Adkison asked him to develop a fantasy-based card game that players could enjoy during downtime at gaming conventions. Garfield agreed and Magic launched in 1993 with its inaugural set, Arabian Nights.
The market has only ripened ever since. In 2008, Magic's player base expanded 80 percent, with the average player spending 16 percent more money on the game than they did five years before, according to the company. The growing fan base served as a calling for then-unemployed Hiller. He always loved Magic. In his adolescence, he spent hours collecting cards and competing in local tournaments. He loved the complexity of structuring different decks and finding the right creatures for the best strategic advantage. For a high school art assignment, he even replicated one of his favorite Magic card illustrations: a smiling jester.
But Hiller eventually shut his passion away, opting to obtain a degree and enter the corporate world. Hiller spent several years bouncing from one corporate job to the next, conducting business and strategic work for larger companies. After failing to find satisfaction in any position, he dropped out of the job-circuit altogether. Then, about a year ago, his mother offered him a proposition: if Hiller presented a thorough business plan, she would front him the money needed to start whatever he wanted. It was an invitation to dive back into the world he loved so much. Hiller would open his own card shop.
After finding the tiny space behind Camillus' Main Street, Hiller received the money from his mother and opened his shop, Legacy Gaming Company. After the original artist gave Hiller permission, he turned the jester image drawn years earlier into the store's official logo. A town with a population barely breaking 1,200, Camillus may not seem like an ideal location for such a niche business. But it was perfect for Hiller. The tiny storefronts and small downtown space attracted him and appealed to his community values. "And this is a community center," he says, gesturing around the room.
Juxtaposed with Magic's sprawling business, community shops like Hiller's still thrive on the basic fantasy premise. Each time they start a game, players embrace the role of wizards—or Planeswalkers, to be technical. Through competitions, they search as these alter egos throughout Magic's fictional multiverse for "ultimate knowledge." By summoning spells and creatures, the Planeswalkers must dispose of their competition before their journey concludes. But in reality, Magic's a neutral plane for people from different walks of life to meet one another and engage in healthy competition.
Thanks to shops like Hiller's, Magic's volume has more than doubled since 2008. John Hickey, associate brand manager for Magic, says that the company recently recognized how integral specialty stores are to the company's success. By giving locally owned hobby shops the same time and attention as major tournaments, Magic creates social incentives for players to spend both time and money in their local business. Magic now hosts pre-release parties for upcoming deck sets and Friday Night Magic, a weekly gameplay format where shops on every continent can hold local tournaments simultaneously. Hiller holds a different event every day of the week. He says the store gives a second option for those looking to socialize outside of bars or parties.
This philosophy attracted Unlimited Gaming frequenter John Leary, a Camillus resident in his mid-sixties. He sported a blue polo layered under a white t-shirt bearing Hiller's jester. Leary's two sons introduced him to the game years ago, when he accompanied them on Boy Scouts trips. Though both sons grew up and moved out, Leary plays every chance he gets—"because I don't have a dog to kick," he says. He works about 30 miles west in Auburn, spending 12- hour shifts in a glass bottle manufacturing factory. He says his wife doesn't mind the hobby, since she spends just as much time at knitting and sewing clubs herself. When she's out of town, Leary says he calls his friends over to watch sports, and play Magic and other board games. He loves traveling to various local tournaments, meeting new people and gaining different perspectives on the game.
Personal background, career, and, most importantly, age rarely factor into a Magic game. Leary, who is old enough to be Dave Barber's grandfather, lost to him in the tournament's first round. By failing to draw a Wood card (one of five "elements" players use to enter their creatures into battle and fight), he had no way of empowering his Daybreak Ranger and Wooly Thoctar (a wooly mammoth but bigger and hairier), leaving him defenseless against Barber's attacks. But this paradigm shift where an elder can lose to someone younger is an integral aspect of Magic. After beating him, Barber explained how he would get out of Leary's situation. Brian David Marshal, a professional commentator for official Magic tournaments, cites this as his favorite part of the game: your real-world status doesn't matter at the table, he says. The game takes people from different points in life and places them on equal levels. He recalled former Magic prodigy Steven O. Schwartz, a 15-year old Wizard Grand Prix champion, as the perfect example. "There's no way that bossy, powerful attorney is ever going to ask a 15-year-old kid for advice on anything in the real world. But when it comes to Magic, you go over and ask, 'How do I do this?'" he says.
For all of its successes within the gaming community, Magic remained stuck in the isolated fantasy genre. Large pictures of pixies and faraway castles hung on Legacy's wall next to tie-dye dragon t-shirts for sale. But a small rack of DC comic books sat next to them, providing a visual oasis from the medieval images with bright capes, utility belts, and pointy-eared cowls. Hiller calls them "wallpaper." He doesn't care much for comic books, and says he's only sold after since the store opened.Their occupancy only offers a contrast to the the unidentifiable wizards and creatures and connects Magic to other pop culture genres.
Wizards of the Coast recently had this revelation. They realized people weren't into dragons and fairies as much as they were into Twilight and The Walking Dead. In a report for LCV2.com, a pop culture website geared towards Magic players and comic aficionados, John Paul Cupertino of Kryptonite Kollectibles in Wisconsin wrote how Magic's story and fantasy elements receded too far within their lore. Strange creatures and characters turned off potential customers, who found Magic to be "weird." The company addressed these problems with their latest set release, Innistrad, in September 2011. The new booster deck capitalizes on pop culture's current obsession with the horror genre. Open an Innistrad pack, and you'll find cultural phenomena like vampires, zombies, and werewolves. Players responded to this genre mix-up. Magic saw 14 percent more stores holding Innistrad pre-release parties, than for their previous booster, Scars of Mirrodin. Player participation at these promotional parties, where players receive select cards and M&Ms with the Magic logo, also rose 32 percent from Mirrodin. Familiarity eliminates the learning curve required for foreign creatures and their abilities, letting players focus squarely on the game. Vampires suck blood and take health away from the opponent. It's that simple.
As Magic releases future expansion packs, it's clear that the winning formula lies in new, more relatable genres. "Plus," adds Hiller, "it's just a fun game." He hopes that fun will also translate into profit. He plans on entering the expanded professional circuit. Back when he played regularly, Hiller says he ranked as one Central New York's best players. He knows it will be tough balancing his duties at the shop with his budding career as professional player. But his parents and girlfriend volunteer to run the shop while he's away at tournaments.
As the "Round Robin" wore on, Hiller took a swig from his small, plastic water bottle before sitting down to play Barber. His bloodshot eyes revealed his weariness from over two hours of play, but a smile remained on his face. After all, this was just practice for bigger tournaments. Poor Barber just didn't have the skills or experience. Defeating him, Hiller advanced to the championship round in a rematch with Blanden, a student at Upstate Medical University. Victory came much slower however, as Blanden rearranged his deck with more powerful creatures. Blanden shares a deep history with Magic as well; he's been in numerous tournaments and often plays with his brother-in-law as a way to bond.
With unlimited time on the clock, the game lasts for well over an hour. Blanden chipped away Hiller's life points and picked apart his werewolves and zombies until Hiller reached zero points. He lost. Blanden won the night's prize—a foil card worth around five dollars. Hiller sighed and threw on his jacket. He says it didn't matter if he won or lost—playing was fun enough. His calm tone and relaxed stance showed his sincerity. Locking up the store, he met his girlfriend outside in the parking lot and departed from the realm, if only for a little while. He's hosting the Magic Legacy Tournament the following night, after all.