It's time for an admission. I play the trading card game Magic: The Gathering — and I like it.
Then again, maybe I'm a bit of a masochist. Considering that when I go to local weekly freeplay events, it's pretty much to get my ass handed to me. We're talking so bad that when I manage to take a game off of an opponent in a best-of-three match, it's cause for celebration. Despite my abysmal skills, I've found a group of players who let me flounder in style, and deal with my outbursts of snarky and, at times, profane language.
For some, trading card games such as Magic can be a tough pill to swallow. Magic is an amalgamation of Dungeons & Dragons (the fantasy tabletop game) and chess. It's a mashup of fantasy art and lore, complex strategy, a bit of luck and the ability to be played anywhere with anyone. (Literally, people have even played along the edge of a volcano!)
This weekend, geeks will reign in the Queen City, as Charlotte hosts more than 5,000 players for the only U.S. Modern Grand Prix event for Season 3. Competitors ranging from aging stockbrokers to teenaged, blue-haired punk girls will converge to compete for the grand prize of $4,000 and those sweet, sweet pro points which are needed to compete in invitational events.
So, what is Magic? Essentially, and bear with me here, you are a wizard who is casting spells to create an army to defend against and defeat a rival wizard. (See sidebar.)
Table-top and trading card gaming often get a bad rap. Despite its complicated rule set and hefty price tag — competetive decks can run between $300 and $600 — games such as Magic are often viewed by the uninitiated as something meant to be played by children.
To outsiders, Magic: The Gathering players (or really anyone "nerdy") are typically imagined as socially awkward and overweight white males with poor hygiene, unkempt facial hair and a bad case of plumber's crack. Like most stereotypes, this impression isn't completely unfounded, but your average player is so much more than that.
The game has been around since 1993 and has more than 12 million players in 11 different languages worldwide. Fans vary from 12-year-olds just learning the ropes to more-salt-than-pepper gentlemen who claim to "not be a day over 40." Both men and women play the game, with a recent survey marking 62 percent males to 38 percent females. They come from all walks of life, different economic brackets, races and creeds.
"I consider it a real cross-section of people." says Christo Scoggins, a relatively new player with only one-and-a-half years under his belt. "You'll play with real estate guys, bankers, construction workers and even people who work at Five Guys."
The players are assembled in a hallway outside the local comic book store Rebel Base Comics & Toys in Cotswold on this Monday night. There's game paraphernalia scattered across every available surface, on folding tables and purple wooden bench tops. A couple of guys chuckle at Scoggins' playful rib toward the youngest regular member of the group who brought french fries as penance for arriving late.
Primarily the same players show up every week to play their newest creations against each other in round-robin tournaments. There is a sense of camaraderie among the members. Magic is more than just collecting cards and building decks; it's about building relationships. Community is a big aspect of playing the game.
As part of their training, players all over the world get together every week for Friday Night Magic to pit their decks against each other. There are more than 30 different rulesets, 10 of which are played on varying competitive levels. Some play to win, some to break the mechanics of the game, others purely enjoy it for the social component of playing with their friends.
"You're only as strong as the people you play with," says Patrick Chapin, nine-time Top 8 pro player and Hall of Fame member. "Players get together to collaborate and share ideas."
Chapin has been playing the game for more than 21 years and has made a living from it through competition, blog writing, podcasting and is soon to publish his second book on deck building.
It's a family affair
Leon and Phillip Fortner started out playing games as a way for Leon and his son to spend time together. At first, it was the two of them, playing tabletop and card games in their home. Two grew into a few more, and soon game night was a regular occasion at the Fortner's Charlotte home.
From there, the family decided to invest in a small space with enough room to fit five tables in order to hold drafts and sell gaming related items to cover the costs. As demand began to exceed their space, Get Some Game moved into an old tile store just outside the NoDa neighborhood on Commercial Avenue, and has been growing exponentially since.
"People were playing outside on the cars and on the floor in the store. There wasn't enough space," says Phillip Fortner. Now they have enough space to hold two tournaments simultaneously.
As I enter the ornate doors, Mary Fortner issues a greeting from her alcove stuffed with boxes upon boxes of assorted gaming paraphernalia. Her friendly nature and open expression embodies the den mother who ends up bringing all the lost ducklings under her wing. Two rooms divide from the entryway, each with walls hidden behind bookshelves lined with free-to-play board games. There are even a few arcade games in the back, right next to the vending machines (one of which contains only packages of various card games instead of snack foods).
"It's like Cheers." says Phillip. "We know people by name. We try to bring in anyone who is new and sculpt them and teach them to be good players."
The Fortners' mentality is one of the ideas which makes being a member of the Magic community such an experience. There are a few rogue bad apples, but as a whole the community is a place where many find friendships with like-minded people.
"Once anyone comes in here, they are gamers. It doesn't matter what you are on the other side of that door," says Mary. The regulars become just an extended part of the family.
John Hartness, 41, has been playing since 1994. "I used to play poker. This is something that costs marginally less money which I can do with my friends. It's a lot like other geeky communities I am a part of. It's a big, goofy family."
Local gaming and comic stores become a happy oasis on the Island of Misfit Toys for those who may have trouble fitting in elsewhere. Hartness takes a few jabs jokingly at some of the other players sitting nearby, "You have the stoner cousin, or your stupid little brother to mentor."
Being a local is a big thing. There are a couple heavy contenders coming out of Charlotte who compete on the national level. Phillip is one of them. He's slated to go to the Pro Tour Invitational this year. Tournament play is nothing new to him — nearly every weekend he's packing into a van with friends to cavort across the country and play in tournaments.
"Everybody respects when a local can take down one of the big ones," Leon says. The group likes to travel together to cheer each other on at tournaments. Friends and family build great memories all based around playing Magic together.
"It's nice having so many locals," Phillip says about his group road trips to events. "Everywhere you look you see a friendly face."
Girls just wanna have fun
Trying to join in competitive play can be daunting. Like many other players, no matter their gender, Kasey Coggin, 23, says she is waiting to have confidence before jumping into the fray. She attends events to spectate other players and plays friendly matches with friends at home.
Watching another player as inexperienced as she feels playing at a local event asking the same kinds of questions she would have, gave her a bit of courage to bring her own green-mana beatdown deck to bring for next week. "All the encouragement helps," she says of her compatriots.
Ladies are one of the lesser represented demographics at Magic events. Despite polling at 39 percent of players, most of them are known to stick to "kitchen-table magic," staying away from the live one-on-one events.
"Some people think of [women] like a unicorn," says Richard Sponholz, a local 24-year-old, "but they're just another player." He decimated my Burn deck— focused on doing damage to an opponent — with a soul-crushing Infect deck — aimed at countering attacks.
Since many of the players are unaccustomed to unknown women in their midsts, things can get a bit awkward. Most of the discomfort comes from a kind place of well-meaning players, but it translates into a bit of condescension and hovering. Luckily, the local Charlotte scene does its best to be all inclusive.
Some of the more experienced players were hoving over the girls, directing their gameplay before they had a chance to learn. "The girls weren't getting a fair chance to play." says Leon of the female players who would visit his shop, "They weren't given a chance to play the way they wanted to play."
A group of the regular girls split off to play separately from the primary group. They had the chance to play by themselves, make their own mistakes and play their own strategies.
"Magic is male dominated. It can be uncomfortable walking into a group of men.' says Stori Kcorbin, 20, on attending local and national events for the past 8 months, "We are playing a game, but it is all about respect and boundaries."
"Those who play Magic aren't always the most socially graceful. Sometimes they subconsciously make women feel ostracized. There are always girls playing, and they do the same as guys, but you can tell that they sometimes feel uncomfortable." Phillip says. "Locally, they are more accepted because they're just another person."
Some of the girls placed at local events after all the productive practice. Going at their own pace helped them gain confidence to play with the heavy hitters.
"It's up to the people who are in positions of recognition to make it known that it is not OK and that the community is a safe place for anyone." says Brian Kibler, the current Dragonmaster (aka reigning champ) and well known public figure. "It is a community made up of people who have been excluded in other places who seem to fall into that role themselves."
This sentiment echoes through the community, pushing for acceptance of not only women, but transgender, gay, lesbian and racially diverse competitors. Most of the venom comes from behind the anonymity of a keyboard due to the strict rules in place by publisher Wizards of the Coast. Rude and disrespectful players have been removed from events and banned from competition. There is a conscious effort to create an inclusive and enjoyable experience for all players.
The fluidity and ability to evolve as a game and community is what has given Magic: The Gathering the staying power many copy-cats have been unable to replicate. Whether you're a fledgling still learning the ropes or a wizened veteran shaking loose the cobwebs, there are a plethora of people to meet, places to visit and gametypes to play to find your niche. That is why I love this game.
How to play: A basic rundown of how to play Magic: The Gathering
In the trading card game Magic: The Gathering, you are a wizard (or planeswalker) who is casting spells to create an army to defend against and defeat a rival wizard. Typically, that is through depleting the rival wizard's health points, but alternative win conditions are possible — from accumulating counters on a card or simply winning a coin flip.
Two or more people can play the game which is done using decks of the trading cards. There are two basic types of cards in Magic — lands and spells. Spells include creatures, instants, enchantments and sorceries. Each has its own role to play on the path to victory.
Lands, or mana, are used as a power source for casting spells and come in five different colors; black, blue, green, red and white. They are like your capital in the game, you need mana to be able to play the other cards in your deck.
Creatures act as your defensive line. They're the building blocks of your army, with their attack power (Strength) and blocking power (Toughness) displayed in the bottom right corner. The stronger the creature, usually the more lands are needed to cast it into play. Some have special abilities, such as attacking twice or only having the ability to defend.
This is where things get a little more complicated. Sorceries are spells which go into immediate effect, but a player can only use them on their turn. Instants are like sorceries which can be used at any time, no matter whose turn it is. Both types of spells dissipate immediately after their use. The final type of card is enchantments. Enchantments can be cast onto the field permanently, sometimes attached to a specific creature or land cards.
There are a few card types not yet mentioned, such as artifacts and planeswalkers, which are also used but often overlap with the ones above. This sounds convoluted, but it really isn't. Just like riding a bicycle, once you get the basic motions down, you'll never forget how to play.
Would you like to play a game?: Six local hotspots for Magic
In case you feel like drinking a bit of the Kool-Aid, here's a list of all the local spots that offer regular Magic: The Gathering events and carry the necessary goods. If you're new to the game, we recommend you scope the joint out before showing up to the main event and pick up a few starter decks (the shop gurus will happily lead you through the mists) to build a foundation. Then hop on into the fray with the rest of us, just be prepared to lose a few rounds first...
Above Board Games
985 Market St. #103, Fort Mill, S.C.
Be There Games
14015 Independence Blvd., Indian Trail
Get Some Game
1224 Commercial Ave., Charlotte
Parker, Banner, Kent and Wayne
21500 Catawba Ave., Cornelius
Rebel Base Comics and Toys
701 S Sharon Amity Road, Charlotte
2914 Mt Holly-Huntersville Road, Charlotte