Culture //

Cardboard Crack

Dom Ellis on Magic: The Gathering and chasing the dragon.

Somewhere around the ninth and final round of day one of the Sydney Grand Prix (GP), the largest event on the Australian Magic: The Gathering calendar, my competitor, a large bearded man, told me how about he’d lost four and won four of his eight games thus far.

“I haven’t been going well, and I’ve pretty upset about it.”

He was simultaneously shuffling his deck, preparing for our game.

“Up until I heard my seven year old son won his first game (after losing seven in a row) … Now I’m over the moon—just happy to be here.”

He told me that this year was the first time in 20 years that he’d played Magic competitively, having dug up cards that he bought back in high school. Now he’s teaching his son to play, taking him up to Sydney for the GP—from their hometown in New Zealand—to “throw him in the deep end”.

As an obligatory summary, Magic is a CCG (collectable card game) which, to make a reductive pop culture comparison, is something like Yu Gi Oh on steroids. The basic idea is that you generate ‘mana’ which is used to summon either creatures or other spells to try and drain your opponent of life. There are myriad ways to actually do this, ranging from brute force (cover the board in creatures and just keep ‘swinging’ [attacking]); to playing defensively and waiting for one big spell to do the deed.

Magic is usually played in one of two basic formats: constructed and limited. The former requires players to collect cards and pre-build decks, while the latter involves building a deck on the spot using semi-randomised assortment of cards given to you on the day. My personal preference is limited, largely because of its financial sustainability (what you pay to buy in to games you usually make back from the cards you win), but both formats share the same sort of complex gameplay and high-level logic. On a strategic level, Magic’s closer to chess than anything else, as every move requires short-term and long-term considerations, and one wrong move can cost you the game.

Magic is played by over six million people worldwide. Close to 15,000 cards have been made in its long history, with the most expensive valued around US$30,000. The Pro Tour main events—of which there are multiple per year—pay out around $250,000 in prizes. Though largely ignored by mainstream media, Magic, at least in a sporting sense, is the real deal. My trip to Sydney Olympic Park Hall 4 for the Sydney GP was fairly unsuccessful. I barely cracked the top 200 of the 1000 player pool. Luckily, the two players I went with (a sibling and a friend) both cashed out, making the top 50 in their first ever GPs and scoring around $800 and $500 respectively.We learnt a little later on that they were only a few places off qualifying for the pro tour and scoring free flights to Madrid.

At twenty-two years old—a year older than me—Magic’s appeal is multidimensional, offering a casual pastime for old-time nostalgics and a shot at glory for young, competitive up-and-comers compelled by the dream of a fulltime profession that involves pretending you’re a ‘planeswalker’ and summoning mythological creatures.

Wizards of the Coast, the geniuses who created Magic (because wizards make Magic, geddit?), once divvied up Magic players into three, unfortunately mono-gendered, ‘psychographic’ profiles who they called Timmy, Johnny, and Spike. Timmy is your kid-player, the seven-year-old upstart introduced to the game by his nostalgic dad. Timmy’s in it for giant dragons and momentous wins using the biggest and brashest possible cards. Johnny is all about style. He wants his deck to be centred around synergy and panache, and while he might not always win, as one commenter describes: for Johnny, “Magic is self-expression”. For Spike, by comparison, it’s all about competition and glory, and Magic’s just like any other sport. The Spikes of the world have made Magic into the competitive global game it is today.

These three profiles quite aptly characterise the game as I have learnt it from my three-month crash course. While the game certainly lacks diversity in the most meaningful sense, its players all love the game for so many different reasons, be it an appreciation of the subtleties of land art or a drive to be the best, and that’s kinda great.

The Sydney GP, the culmination of my three months of training, is the crème de la crème of competitive Magic events in NSW, and it saw all of Timmy, Johnny and Spike come together for a celebration of the beautiful game, in all its competitive and creative glory. In between the 1000-person main event, and the many other side events at the GP, fans lined up for signatures from their favourite Magic artists and uber-fans cosplayed. It was one of the most ludicrously over-the-top things I’ve taken part in—a who’s who of the people you probably bullied in high school—and yet it was kind of picturesque, an intersection of imagination and competition that you don’t really see in any other form.

At this point, I forgive you for wanting to beat me up and take my lunch money, but I won’t apologise. Magic is about as good as gaming gets.