Magic the Gathering: a coming-of-age story

For some readers, Magic: The Gathering is a carefree pastime. For me, it was a cruel mistress, a cardboard school of hard knocks, a game that taught me that dragons die in the cigarette-scented storage rooms of hobby stores.

NOTE: For those of you unfamiliar with Magic: The Gathering nomenclature, I've tried to keep the game's arcane terminology to a minimum. Apologies in advance if some jargon sneaks through.

The last time I played Magic* was when my freshman year roommate and I played a friendly match as an icebreaker. Granted, neither of us had touched the game since early high school (when a freewheeling Friday night equated to a two-hour tournament at the neighborhood sports memorabilia/POGs shoppe, calzones, and Sliders; real Wild in the Streets stuff) but the fact that the two of us had been erstwhile cardslingers slipped out during student orientation.

Luckily, we had each smuggled a spare deck in our luggage for laughs. My deck was a Type 1 Necroburn optimized for card advantage, as I had eschewed Nevinyrral's Disk for the infinitely more efficient Infernal Tribute and instead utilized a dapple of white mana for Disenchants (a bald-faced contingency plan implemented via Scrubland and City of Brass, duh).

His deck was a hodgepodge of fairies, ogres, and other stock critters that wouldn't have been out of place in The Last Unicorn. It was a bloodbath.

For our first game, I spent the first 15 minutes slaughtering his creatures with a rote joylessness until I suddenly drew a "lucky card" and overwhelmed him with a swarm of crappy knights and clerics with names that sounded either like offshoots of the Black Panthers ("The Order of the Ebon Hand") or white power organizations ("Knights of Stromgald").

After three more games of the same, I called it quits because A.) I was bored; and B.) didn't want to jeopardize our future living in the same 12x10x15 cube for the next 9 months. My roommate seemed a twinge disappointed — I think he reveled in being a zany warlock, tossing out phalanx after phalanx of doomed gnomes and golems.

Of course, my roommate was a casual player, so he could afford to act like a drunk Saruman. I envied him. My skills had been forged half a decade earlier in the crucible of the neighborhood sports memorabilia/POGs shoppe, in a Marlboro-befogged storage room where a fantasy game girded you for the stark realities of adulthood.

Magic wasn't always such a grim exercise. In the beginning, I dueled my brother and cousin. We built our decks around fauna we liked (i.e., dragons, sea serpents, sharks) regardless of strategy. We had no idea what the hell we were doing, so games lasted for hours. Our tenuous understanding of M:TG's mechanics allowed family members to play — after 10 minutes of our slapdash instructions, my aunt was a latter-day Morgan le Fay. It was sort of like how we played Milton Bradley's role-playing game Hero Quest with the punch-drunk physicality of Atlasphere.

Magic the Gathering: a coming-of-age story

All this changed when our Magic games left the family hearth. I took my decks to local POG and sports memorabilia stores, where rules mattered and giant sharks didn't win games.

My naivety and love of kaiju made me an easy mark for unscrupulous adults. I traded expensive, rare, and useful cards for Moss Monsters, Elder Dragons, and other unplayable abominations that looked good on paper. Cards with boring names (like "Strip Mine" and "Stasis") couldn't win games — shit cards with evocative titles (like "Nameless Race" and "Exorcist") were where the action was. My childhood officially ended the first time I read a price guide.

I stopped collecting the biggest djinns and vampires and became a cutthroat player. In those days, my family didn't have the internet, so the bilious back room of those sports memorabilia shoppes (the POGs were déclassé by then) became our vivariums and laboratories. I learned the older players' tricks and eviscerated them. Scrye, The Duelist, and InQuest were tantamount to Sun Tzu.

Up until then, adults — my parents, my teachers, McGruff the Crime Dog — had an aura of infallibility. Magic the Gathering was probably the first time I could beat a grown-up at something. This sounds like an exciting revelation, but as soon as I got good, the older players either plateaued, quit, or left for venues that didn't resemble opium dens. I didn't have a driver's license, so I quit too. I could conjure wyverns from candy floss, but I couldn't legally pilot a Toyota Previa.

I won't say I didn't have fun playing Magic (M:TG, along with the Harry Hamlin Clash of the Titans, inculcated in me a lifelong appreciation of krakens), but it was like Aesop's Fables for $3 a pack. You learned the rules and the rules changed. You played the game and everyone quit. Demonic hordes could be killed by carrier pigeons. Your clothes smelled like a bingo hall. Sliders went off the air.

Comic books never put me through this, but nobody ever dies in comic books. In Magic: The Gathering, you kicked it up to 10 times an hour. Only by first learning how not to die did I truly learn to live.

*That summer, I sold my entire collection online for booze money.