Magic is Friendship

Magic is Friendship

by Michael Channing

The First One'll Also Cost Ya

The one game I have played more often and with more people than any other is Magic: the Gathering. Being a Magic player defines you as much as being a chess player, a baseball player, or just a player. I started in college, and I have incorporated Magic into every circle of friends and nearly every social setting. I’ve played at work, in coffee shops, conventions, comedy clubs. My card collection has been in tow for twenty-plus years now, a tangible part of my past, relics that paint a picture of who I am.

I bought my first starter deck and a couple of booster packs at Pastimes, my local comic and game store back then. The main set was Revised, which meant I missed any chance of finding one of the “power nine” by about a year. If I'd managed to pull even one of those, I'd have a good start on my daughter's college fund right now. The best I got was a Shivan Dragon.

So I had a deck with a pretty strong core creature. Now all I needed to do was conquer my social anxiety and talk to another actual human being person. James, my dorm mate across the hall, was a quirky guy who would randomly break into show tunes, liked violent video games, and wasn’t afraid to argue almost any topic from all sides. He seemed the least likely to laugh at my attempt to find a gaming partner. Plus the close proximity meant I didn’t have to go outside and talk to strangers.

I knocked on his door, he opened, I asked if he had ever heard of some game called Magic: the Gathering, and he immediately closed his door again.

Then he came back with about two deck’s worth of cards in a Ziploc bag.

So many things fell into place to change my life, and they all began with James’ plastic baggie of cards. There's a subsidiary business that thrives on creating specialty boxes and notebooks to store, transport, and display your Magic cards, and I've given them a bit of money over the years, but James had his entire collection in something made to store sandwiches. Even on day one, playing my first ever game on the floor of James’ dorm room, I knew that simply wouldn’t do. Not only was that too plain a container for such a holy artifact, there was no way I was going to be satisfied with this tiny collection of cards. You know what else comes in baggies? Drugs. And I was immediately addicted to Magic.

Popular All of a Sudden

So about that Shivan Dragon. The next time I bought a booster pack, I got another. Friends Bob and Ian, who had bought far more cards than I, were insanely jealous. This was a trading card game, so why not trade? They each put together a blind bid, a selection of cards in an envelope, and presented it to me. I retreated to a room and deliberated over their offers.

Bob’s offer was a bunch of commons. In hindsight that would have been a killer trade for him: a bunch of cards priced at literally a dime-a-dozen, all of which he would eventually have (if he didn’t already) in overflowing abundance. But I was quite bereft of basic cards like Disenchant and Counter Spell. So while it would be crazy to even consider his offer now, back then it was actually tempting.

But Ian came to win.

Among his offering, I remember two specific cards. There was a promo card that you could only get by sending in a coupon clipped from one of the Magic: the Gathering novels and only within a certain time frame, which made it pretty rare. It was minimally useful, but owning it would be a nice bragging point. The other standout card, however, clinched it. A Sorceress Queen. She had the power to turn any creature, no matter how gargantuan, into a wimpy, bite-sized snack for another creature, say a dragon for instance. She could take a colossus down a few pegs and make it an easy kill for a lightning bolt or fireball. She was awesome, and she was mine. Ian got his Shivan, and I got to be man of the hour for an hour.

As I bought more cards, I kept attracting Shivan Dragons. James started having me pick out his booster packs for him, hoping my mojo would work for him. Mojo is apparently non transferrable. I ended up with six of the things, two more than allowed in a deck, four more than are really viable to play with.

I’ve never had a very large collection. The folks I met at tournaments and conventions all had suitcases of expensive cardboard, and they would barely bat an eye at my meager trade pool. But they always paused at the fistfull of Shivans. At least they did back then. I’m pretty sure a Shivan is considered rather puny compared to current sets where nearly every card from common to land is a game-changer. I remember a trade session that resulted in me giving up a Shivan in exchange for a Doppelganger and a Clone. I felt like Bilbo must have felt when he realized what the little bauble he’d been carrying around really was. And like Bilbo, it wasn't always easy to hand over one of my treasures, because giving up the precious meant forfeiting what made me special in everyone’s eyes.

Spin the Wheel

The best Magic deck I ever played was a Kird Ape deck. A Kird Ape is a red creature with 1 strength, 1 toughness, and cost 1 mana. It’s not until you read its ability that you start to see how incredibly strong and potentially broken a card it is. As long as you have one Forest in play, that 1/1 little ape becomes a 2/3 raging gorilla-la-la-la. If you have a land that counts as both Mountain and a Forest, then you have a 2/3 beastie on turn number one. Even if you’re unable to do that, you can still drop a forest on turn two and send a newly-pumped ape on the attack. That’s a huge advantage. So much so that the powers that be banned the Kird Ape for years.

The rest of the deck was designed to efficiently remove any defense my opponent could muster. With a one-mana Lightning Bolt that did three points of damage, it would knock out any early blockers, clearing the Kird Ape to deliver its damage. If my opponent managed to summon a larger blocker a few turns later, I would have enough mana to cast Disintegrate or Fireball and erase that blocker, too. Then the ape, together with one or two of his friends, would tear into my defenseless opponent.

Though the Kird Ape was eventually reclassified as uncommon when it was finally brought back into publication, it was a common card in my day. All those direct damage spells were, too. Which meant that other than a couple of exceptions, one being the rare dual lands, my deck was entirely made of commons. And it would routinely shred through decks built of more expensive and flashier cards. The linchpin to the deck, however, was a rare and extremely flashy card: Wheel of Fortune, a card broken from the start and limited to only one per deck. It caused both players to discard their hands and draw seven new cards. After a few rounds of play, I would use up my initial hand of direct damage spells, and my opponent would finally be able establish a defense against my apes, which were powerful first attackers, but useless against any hulking creatures. That’s where the Wheel of Fortune came in handy.

It didn't matter that we both got to draw a new hand. All that mattered was that I drew enough firepower to blast my opponent directly for his few remaining life points. In the seven cards granted by the Wheel, it was almost a guarantee one would be a fireball or disintegrate. Game over.

The deck was a reliable winner. Its composition of mostly dime-a-dozen commons was bonus salt in the wound. I loved it. My friends, however, got tired of losing to it. So I had to find a new place to play.

Everyone has a place like this, a perfect place you stumbled into by accident, a place seemingly built to accept you and give you a home, or at least a corner to rest in. Vincent’s Ear was my favorite hang-out in Asheville. It was a bar and a coffee shop and a music venue and an art gallery. It was peopled by artists and students and slackers.

On Thursdays, Magic players met on the upper level for drinks and games. James first told me about the gathering at Vincent’s Ear, urged me to go. I only went once. I put it off because, as I alluded before, I get the scared-puppy shakes at the thought of having to interact with crowds of humans I don’t know. I never returned after the first time because it was among the greatest experiences of my life. Any attempt to recreate it would only render disappointment.

I ordered steamed milk and walked up the spiral staircase, where the cigarette smoke was thinner. The loft was furnished with tables and chairs, couches, a couple of bookshelves holding paperbacks, indie newspapers and zines.

One end of the loft overlooked the stage, and below were a jazz-rock-funk-fusion band called The Average Black Band. They were music majors at the same university I attended. I’d seen them play a free show on the quad once then talked to the guitarist during their loadout. Three of the members were black, the guitarist was white. He said he was what made them average. On that night they were far beyond amazing. All night they grooved tight and fluid, each a master of his instrument, together a Voltron force of brilliance. I can’t find a thing about them online, which is a shame. When everyone’s every meal is captured forever as if in the logbook of God, to have such a fantastic band exist as only the static fuzz between aging synapses is loss beyond loss.

With the perfect soundtrack playing from below, I loosened up, but I still wasn’t ready to start approaching random strangers. I needed them to break the ice. I sat at a table with my cards in front of me and waited. Eventually someone asked if I wanted to play. Sure, yeah. I do happen to have some cards here.

I won a lot of games that night. The Kird Ape deck was the only one I brought, and I could see the frustration in people’s eyes as I repeatedly locked out any defender they attempted to play and beat them down two damage points at a time. The best part was playing the Wheel of Fortune, watching their faces light up as they drew one of more of their own prize cards only to be struck down in the same turn by double lightning bolts. I remember there was one guy who simply could not believe such simple cards could be so ruthless. He kept challenging me and would win maybe one game every five, which only brought him back for more punishment. Every lucky break reinvigorated the conviction that his was the better deck. But most folks were complimentary, if a little tired of facing the same cards every time.

I was proud of that deck. It was the only one I ever made that performed that well. Usually I only owned one copy of a linchpin card and had to fill in the missing pieces with inefficient or non-complimentary cards which caused the engine to misfire more often than not. But for one night, against the most excellent musical backdrop, I was a boss. I connected with people. I celebrated and felt confident of my own abilities. I didn’t press against the wall and shrink into myself. I spoke out loud to folks I didn’t know and gladly took a seat at their table. A stack of 60 cardboard playing cards allowed me that transformation. When the night was over, the band loaded into their trailer, the cool kids below all paired off and scattered to the dark, I slid those cards into a box, the box into my jacket, my jacket onto my back, walked to my car and drove to my dorm. Music still hummed in my head. My fingers felt the memory of a thousand shufflings. But eventually my hands remembered to be calm, the reverb went silent, and I was average again.

Dueling in the Shade

When I did stand-up on the regular, I met John through a mutual friend. Sitting between us two comedians, John announced he wanted to try his hand at stand-up. He was a natural. He had a bit where he almost told a joke, acting as if he couldn’t remember what the punchline was, drawing it out and pulling the audience along with him. It worked surprisingly well, and I was in awe. During the usual after-show hang out sessions, I tried to get John to enjoy Pantera, and he preached to me the gospel of Bad Brains. Neither of us made a convert, but we did swap comic book recommendations. And we discovered a shared hobby: Magic.

We got in the habit of playing before shows, and, because the audience refused to sit up front, we usually ended up dueling at a table near the stage. When the show began, we finished our game. We didn’t play during anyone’s set. That would have been rude. But oh, did we take flack for doing what we enjoyed. The host would almost always bag on us for being dweebs before moving on to describe his weed use and masturbation schedule to strangers. Comedians would sometimes single us out during their sets, calling us nerds, taunting us for playing a card game while everyone else was drinking and chatting up.

Look, people play games in bars. Nobody calls darts throwers dorks or pool shooters pansies. So why does Magic automatically make us fair fodder for your ridicule? It’s a strategy game with more variations than chess. There are world tournaments with prize payouts in the $100k range. It’s been on ESPN… um, 2. Not all things concerning wizards and magic are children’s fare.

Play Anything

Between my junior and senior years of high school, I attended the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Humanities for a month. I met and fell in love with several girls there, tried to maintain contact with a couple. In my first semester of college, I spent a day with Audrey from Governor's School. It was to be a fun day of hanging out, talking and reflecting, nothing more. But my silly, winged heart hoped soon to nestle next to hers. Perhaps, I dreamed, we might even kiss, bringing the total number of girls I had kissed to two.

For my day trip, I brought along my Magic collection. Placed the large box in the floorboard behind the driver’s seat of my Chevette. Removed the lid, turned it upside-down, and put a no-bake cheesecake in it for safekeeping. Looking back, I guess these were things that made me feel safe, things that brought me comfort, and I wanted to share them with another person.

We took a slow drive through the mountains, walked through the park, ate a picnic lunch. She had small piece of pie, but we didn't play Magic. I showed her my cards, and she laughed just a little. I think she appreciated my preparation, but I came on a little too strong. She wasn't ready for that level of connection so soon.

Iron Pyrite in an Exploded Mine

Magic was the first game to hook its users--I mean players--by preying on the brain’s natural desire for random rewards. Its massive success sparked an explosion of collectible card games (CCGs) in the mid-1990s. There were CCGs in every possible genre: superheroes, computer hacking, horror, science fiction, fantasy, western, martial arts, city planning. Oh so many of them sucked, but we bought them because we wanted in on the ground floor of that sweet collectible market. The secondary market for individual Magic cards was already thriving, and everyone was trying to guess which product would become the next big investment and maybe discover a fun game as well. Hobby stores often guessed wrong when stocking their shelves. Pastimes bought cases and cases of Dragon Dice, a collectible dice game that really should have worked. Gamers already stockpile prettily-colored polyhedrals, why not make a game of exactly that? What they forgot to do was make a good game. You couldn’t give the things away. When Pastimes had to move to a lower-rent location, the building was razed. The owner told me the story of visiting the crater where his shop used to be and seeing jagged bits of Dragon Dice scattered throughout the rubble.

Even Magic overproduced several lackluster card sets. I remember scouring toy stores all over town with friends when Fallen Empires started to wane in popularity. You could find them for a dollar or less a pack. Just about all those cards are now practically worthless, but at the time we thought we were scamming Kay Bee Toys. My hands shook as I acknowledged the miraculous price and handed over my pizza delivery money for a stack of booster pack crack. I opened a bunch of weak cards I already owned and one new card for which the word “rare” described not only its distribution but also how much I would actually use it. But still, good deal, right?

Bob bought a box of Ice Age cards and put them aside in hope they would gain value over the years. Nope. There were a few good cards in that set, but most are now considered feeble. We eventually broke open the packs and ran our own private sealed deck tournament in his living room.

Though I do own a few cards that might fetch a nice price on the collector’s market, most of the cards I ended up with have been outgunned and outpaced by all that came after. I suppose if it came down to it I could liquidate my stash for half a month’s rent. But I’ve held on to my collection years after I stopped playing because it’s worth more than cash. There are life-long friendships in that box of cardboard; beautiful nights soaked in sodas and cigarette smoke; fuzz-muddled radio and conversations shuffled into the stacks; lost tournaments and at least one broken heart. How could I sell off any part of it for something so useless as money?

Every Little Thing

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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing

July 28, 2018