Do you believe in magic?
The confessions of a fantasy card game addict
I can remember the first pack I ever bought. It was probably around the third grade. That’s how they got me; I was young. Now no matter how many times I’ve tried to quit, I always find my way back. I still get that rush of endorphins every time I rip through that crinkly plastic and smell a fresh pack.
Unfortunately, my addiction doesn’t have the bad-boy appeal of smoking. No, my cruel mistress is the card game Magic: The Gathering. It’s a trading card game that took me an hour to learn but years to master. I have played on and off all my life, just recently relapsing after six years, a habit that has triggered a spiral into a dark dungeon of elves, goblins and dragons.
During those long elementary school recesses, my friends and I were too busy taking on the roles of dueling wizards to sneak to the bathroom for a quick smoke. Drawing from decks of cards we’d collected, we would cast spells, summon minions and use ancient artifacts to reduce our opponents’ life points from a healthy 20 to a horrible death at zero. My allowance was weekly deposited at Alex D’s Comics for booster packs of random cards, always looking for that next killer card.
My story is all too typical. I’m just another statistic lost in the millions of people who play the game worldwide, people like Kenny Ignacio. He’s been playing since middle school. We both spent much of our teen years in various Reno pizza parlors mastering the complexities of the game under the guidance of older players sharpening their skills for a pro circuit.
After an interview, Ignacio invited me to play a version of Magic he and his friends call “cube.” It’s based on an activity called drafting. Most of the time gamers bring their own decks, but when drafting, we open packs of cards and take turns picking the ones they want. Then we make decks on the spot and play them. Instead of opening fresh packs we create our own from a pool of 600 cards Ignacio accumulated of Magic’s rarest and most powerful cards. Six hundred may seem like a lot, but there are hundreds of thousands of cards in the game.
An exciting moment happened when I was playing with an old acquaintance, Daniel Neiman, now in his third year at University of Nevada, Reno. Each game starts the same way—we draw seven cards and take turns.
I summoned the first creature, but he found the wrong end of a death spell, ending up in the graveyard. After that, I was sending a 2/2 creature on repeated attack runs toward Neiman. Creatures all have power/toughness, some are 1/1, others are 6/10. The higher the number, the more power/toughness. Mine was able to subtract two points of damage from Neiman’s life points, but could only take two damage each turn before it dies. My guy wasn’t the most fearsome creature in Magic, but without creatures to intercept, my attacker was chipping away at Neiman’s life points: 20 points. 18. 16. I played a spell to give him a +1/+1 power boost: 13.
He played the spell Mind Shatter, forcing me to discard three of the four cards I had left in my hand at random, a crippling blow. However, the one card that survived was Akroma, Angel of Wrath. She hit the battlefield accompanied by gasps and expletives and the 6/6 powerhouse clinched the game in my favor.Hammer of the gods
That sort of play is like the back alley knife-fighting of Magic. More official tournaments are held at Heroes Games and Hobbies in Sparks and Games Galore in Meadowood Mall.
Magic is my poison. Others have their own monsters to grapple with, but sometimes those monsters are zombies or mind flayers. Games like Warhammer have a following that rival Magic, and the clash of hammers can often be heard at Heroes.
“Warhammer is known as a war game,” says Heroes regular and Warhammer veteran John Allison. “It’s basically a miniatures combat game that’s more advanced than a board game would be. You build your pieces and your own armies based on various rules sets.”
Each figure has its own point value, and each army has to adhere to different standards depending on the rules gamers want to play by. Players assemble huge armies of hand-painted soldiers and face off on vast miniature landscapes complete with tiny trees, hills and buildings. Each game lasts a few hours, and a whole tournament is a good way to kill a full Saturday.
The drums of war begin to beat around 11 a.m. most Mondays at Heroes as players gather for casual games. The store also holds a tournament every month or so.
Most games are won when one player accumulates enough victory points, gained by killing enemy units, but there are other ways to play. Some scenarios force players to fight for specific landmarks on the battlefield. Sometimes it rains, affecting shooting and armored units. Other times armies clash in a thick fog.
Gamers can play in sci-fi or fantasy settings. From space elves to orcs, each unit possesses different strengths and skills.
Much of the fun comes when units interact in unexpected ways. Allison recalls a clash between a group of orcs and space marines.
“The orcs charged the space marines unit, and they wipe out everything but one space marine,” Allison says. “And one space marine sits there surrounded by 30 orcs for several turns making all his armor saves, making all his protection saves and ends up jumping out of the battle, because he has a little jump backpack on, and runs off the board.”
The space marine won commendations for his valiant stand against the horde of orcs. The owner then repainted the figure, adorning him with symbols indicating his veteran status.
Allison says Warhammer’s enjoyment lies not only in the clash of armies, but their creation. Players spend weeks painting each individual figure by hand and balancing their forces. Certain figures aren’t manufactured, so some players modify existing pieces or sculpt their own. At bigger events, gamers compete for who has the most aesthetically pleasing army.
Allison says the process can be daunting at first, but there are players at the store who are more than willing to dispense advice. Heroes owner Kevin Murphy has been playing the game for 10 years, and can help new players get set up.He got game
Though Warhammer and Magic require different tools, they have the same appeal. They offer deep, rich gaming environments with tons of customization and strategies. The huge variety is what makes the games so fun, according to Justin Rusk, another relapsed Magic junkie.
“With Magic, you get to design how you want to play and what your particular play style is,” says Rusk. “If I was to play Monopoly, all right, I’m going to roll the dice, and I’m going to buy property. With Magic, I can say ‘OK, I want to build a very fast deck that is going to catch my opponent unaware, or I want to play something that prevents them from being able to do what they want to do, or I want to do a combo deck, or I can do anything like that,’ and it allows me to decide how I want to play the game within that defined set of rules.”
Allison is currently amassing an army of rat men to overrun his opponents. I’m fine-tuning a Magic strategy meant to control my foe and sap away his life, and Rusk is looking for the perfect deck to compete with in the upcoming Pro Tour. These armies and decks aren’t just things we play with, they are little pieces of ourselves, the way we choose to express who we are and how we like to play.
Part of why these games are so enthralling is new models and cards are always coming out. This keeps competition fresh and interesting. Ignacio says players may become bored with the game at times, but eventually they hear about a new card or strategy and get sucked back in.
People play these games for different reasons. Rusk enjoys the competition and mental challenge, but for Allison, it is just as much about artistic creativity as it is the game. For me, it’s an expression of individuality. I love building decks no one else has thought of—it’s a way for me to show my creativity. For Ignacio, it’s all about the numbers, calculating how he’s going to win. For all if us, it’s a way to make and spend time with friends.
“For the people it does hold on to, it appeals to them in ways other games really don’t,” Ignacio said. “It’s a very mind-intensive game, but at the same time it is incredibly fun, and it always varies.”