Magic the Gathering: The people and the reasons

Imagine that you see yourself walking the plains of the world. You’re a magician, armed with only your library of spells and a mission to become the most powerful and greatest one ever. Suddenly, someone challenges you to a fight. You use your spells and they use theirs. You call on the forest about you, and from it, you conjure a bear with runes on its claws. It comes out and fights a giant and poisonous insect. It’s having a hard time, so you help your bear out by casting a strength spell. The bear kills the giant bug. After long battles with even larger creatures, you kill your enemy, and once again prove your incredible power!

This would be an amazing scenario, not to mention fun. This is what many players of the card game Magic the Gathering feel. Saul Merlin* is 19 years old and has played Magic the Gathering since his early middle school years, and he says that when he gets immersed in the game, he gets the coolest pictures in his head. He has spent a “modest” $400-$500 on his cards. He loves Magic the Gathering, and has been to over 10 conventions, where he has come close to winning most of the tournaments. One of his favorite stories he likes to tell is one where he was playing someone rude. This person was trying to rush things, and thought that he had the best decks and creatures. Annoyed, Saul decimated his opponent in a stunning 7 rounds, whereas most games take about 20-25 rounds. “Was that fast enough for you?” said Saul, leaving his opponent with a dumbfounded look on their face.

Likewise, Eric Wilsman* is 21 years old has been playing Magic for around 5 years. His card collection is worth about $500 as well. While he hasn’t been to conventions, he likes playing with friends and family, and is currently passing on his knowledge to his brother of 10 years old.

But what is Magic the Gathering, besides being a card game? What does it hold for the people who play it?

Runeclaw Bear

Runeclaw Bear (Image courtesy of gatherer.wizards.com)

First, let’s look at the game itself. The game is mainly comprised of two types of cards, each of which is tied to one of the 5 elements represented in the game. These card types are land and spell cards.  In order to use a spell card, there has to be enough “mana,” which is generated by playing land cards.  These land cards are represented by 5 colors: white, black, red, blue, and green.  These card colors come in handy later in the game.  The land types also correspond to the colors, and each match a certain personality trait.  White is for “Plains” cards, and is usually associated with spells and creatures that are righteous, healing, or of light.  Blue is for “Island,” and is responsible for cards that are for knowledge, trickery, logic, and anything having to do with water.  Black is “Swamp,” and is used for cards that are greedy or power hungry.  Most of these are associated with evil.  Red is for “Mountains,” and is usually used for spells or creatures that are more passion or creativity based.  Green is “Forest,” and represents cards that are geared towards creatures and spells that are more instinctive and independent.  These “personality traits” of the cards often determine the powers of the card, health and attack stats, and how it interacts with other cards.

The way the cards are played is also complex.  Each player has a turn in which there are seven steps.  These are Untap, Upkeep, Draw, Main Phase, Combat, 2nd Main Phase, and Ending Phase.  A player is allowed to put down one land card per turn.  Whenever a spell card is played, the land card(s) are turned on their side to show that they are “tapped,” or used.  On any creature or spell card, there are two numbers in the bottom right corner separated by a slash.  The number on the left is “power,” or how much damage the card will deal in combat.  The one on the right is “toughness,” or how much damage it can take.  The top right of the card shows how much mana a card needs in order to be used.  However, creatures can’t be used on the first turn on account of “summoning sickness.”  However, they can defend against attackers.  This “sickness” wears off by the beginning of the player’s next turn.  During combat different cards can be used for enhancement, based on who is attacking and who is defending.  Furthermore, an attacker may use spell cards to enhance other cards during Main phases, in which no combat is taking place.

(This is an educational video about Magic gameplay https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnKI2eG9WaM)

Card gaming and role play games have been around for a long time. One of the most famous was Dungeons and Dragons, which was popular in the 80’s, according to Don Farson*, someone who was in college during this time. He remembers most vividly when he had come back to his dorm from one of his classes and overheard one of his roommates complaining about their girlfriend. What surprised Don the most was when this “girlfriend” had wings and tried to fly away in the middle of something important. Some other stories include a friend of his that joined up with the D and D (Dungeons and Dragons) crowd for a little while, and decided that it wasn’t for them. In turn, the friend was harassed and even received death threats if he didn’t return and join in! Don laughs at the whole role-playing genre because he feels that it just wastes vast amounts of time and money. He says that it gives delusions of grandeur and in the end tends to make someone look pathetic and nerdy. He feels much the same way about Magic the Gathering, saying that it’s just a rehash of things that have already been done, and it still leads to the same place. He’d never join in, and thinks it’s dumb, but, “if they want to waste their money, let them.”

His wife, Ana*, has a different view on the whole thing. Ana is a very religious woman and tends to be very cautious about role-playing games. She feels that there is a certain spirituality tied to them. She says that involving oneself so deeply in anything like that tends to make a spiritual bond with the participant. Because of the game’s natural magical nature, it has some similar vocabulary and overtones of magick (magic is used for illusions and performed on stage, while magick is the study of the occult.) She fears that the people who play Magic the Gathering are putting themselves in harm’s way, and are making themselves vulnerable to occultic meanings. She won’t even look at the cards or pictures on them. As she says, “you may not care about demons, but they care about you.”

With such a strange field and stereotype, it seems that some of the concerns of others are well justified. Take Saul Merlin for example. He is skinny as a rail with brown glasses, and can be see frequently with a Star Wars shirt. His voice sounds slightly like he has a cold, and often becomes defiant and speaks in a tone that makes you want to put your inner defenses up whenever you even think about challenging his knowledge of trivia. He loves challenging others to a game of whatever, especially Magic, and likes going to conventions where he can kick some butt.

Or what about Eric Wilsman? He’s a marijuana advocate and enjoys listening to Insane Clown Posse. He is quite content sitting around in a darkened room and pacing around to his favorite head-bangers. He’ll never be caught dead at a convention A pot activist and ICP fan doesn’t exactly seem like he would go well with someone like Saul.

Yet they both are part of normal, everyday activities. Eric has many friends, and enjoys deep talks about psychology and tries to understand and help those around him. He often has friends that ask him for favors, and Eric expects nothing in return, save the continued friendship of those he helps. He loves people, and anyone knows when he’s in a room by his, “Hey! Look who’s here! Let’s get this party started!” sort of attitude. When he plays Magic the Gathering, it’s a strategy game that allows him to stimulate his mind.

Saul goes to college and spends much time doing things for his school’s Christian club, and even went on a retreat in October of 2014. He’s almost never in a bad mood, and likes to add something to the discussion. Most times they’re good ideas. Saul is quite intelligent and pretty happy with his life.

Even though Saul and Eric are very different and will most likely never meet in person or in any way, they still share something in common. Magic the Gathering still has made a way to get into their lives.

When asked why they liked the game, they both said something very similar. They were able to build the decks how they wanted. This meant that the things that they liked about the game could be brought to the forward, and everything disliked could be put aside. Unlike what people on the outside think, people who play Magic realize that it is just another way to express themselves. This is why they role-play. They can use and construct the cards in any sort of way they like, especially when it comes to personality and strategy.

Eric likes to use all the cards to his advantage, and try to strategically place them to crush his opponent in a battle of the minds. His favorite type to use, however, are the black “Swamp” cards. Saul likes to use defensive cards to exhaust an enemy deck, and then brings in his attack cards to finish off what’s left. In a world that otherwise stereotypes them as nerds or degenerates, they have a place where they have something in common.

Sure, whatever is in the game could be used for bad, but good things are used for evil all the time. The game wasn’t made for evil, it was made for fun. It’s a way to express what things a player likes. They don’t spend money because it grows on trees. They spend it because the cards are another way to feel accepted and have an identity beyond the one society assigns them.

How could a Christian be interested in becoming an occultist? How can a pot and metal head be into the nerdiest of things? It’s through the game that they’re able to express how they feel. They can interact with their opponents in any way that they deem fitting. It doesn’t matter what their other likes are, they are able to put their minds, imaginations, and personalities to the test. It seems society’s standards matters little when you can pull a Baneslayer Angel out of the plains…

Baneslayer Angel (Image courtesy of gatherer.wizards.com)

Baneslayer Angel (Image courtesy of gatherer.wizards.com)

(* denotes a name change to keep the parties involved anonymous)

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