Trump and checkmate – rampant popularity of card game ‘Magic: The Gathering’

Trump and checkmate – rampant popularity of card game ‘Magic: The Gathering’ – Brief Article

Eli Lehrer

Move over Dungeons and Dragons. A new game called Magic is all the rage. Fans say it’s more complex and challenging than bridge and chess. In fact, they call it an `intellectual sport.’

From a certain standpoint, the game seems similar to other upstart sports, snowboarding and jet-skiing, for example. Dozens of professionals make good money at it, and children dream of one day joining the pro tour. The championship finals air on a national network. The equipment can cost thousands. But there’s one big difference: This sport is a card game.

Introduced in 1993, Magic: The Gathering was the first of a now booming market for collectible card games, or CCGs. Participants take on the parts of potent conjurers, using cards to cast spells on one another. Each of the 3,000 or so cards cards represents a different set of powers, although players operate with a tiny subset of the cards during a given game.

According to Wizards of the Coast, Magic’s manufacturer, roughly 5 million people play the game, and thousands become hooked every week. Most, about 85 percent, are males between the ages of 12 and 30 with an interest in science fiction and comic books. “It’s a nerd thing, but it’s fun,” says Duffy Carter, a student in Denver.

Devoted players now describe the game as “intellectual sport”: a mainstream pastime like bridge or chess, with celebrated players and camp followers and, of course, media coverage. “In a lot of ways, card games are like football or basketball,” says the game’s inventor, Richard Garfield. “People play them socially; they teach you how to deal with winning and losing. They sharpen the mind. The only difference is that you don’t get exercise.”

Among younger generations, Magic already may have equal status to bridge and chess. At Cornell University, for example, a campus chess club barely attracts a dozen players to its weekly meetings. The gaming society, almost wholly given over to CCGs, attracts about 100.

Nevertheless, Garfield and Wizards of the Coast face obstacles in their efforts to mainstream the game. Unlike bridge and chess, Magic is a proprietary product with a patent on its collectible cards. Some feel the profit motive may dilute Magic’s spell.

Under tournament rules in force since last year, for example, cards more than 2 years old are ruled invalid for play. Garfield maintains that such rules apply only to “pro” tournaments, not casual players. Others disagree. “It makes it difficult for players who don’t have a lot of money to keep up, and it doesn’t improve the game in any measurable way,” says John Fletcher, from Cicero, Ill. “I don’t see what it does.”

Indeed, the Magic phenomenon may have more in common with the Hula-Hoop, once a proprietary product, than with bridge or chess. “It’s true sports, in general, have been public domain,” concedes Garfield. “We try to promote the game in ways that promote it in general rather than make us the most money. It’s in our long-term interest. It’s a tricky business.”

Among other things, Wizards of the Coast has charged reasonably low licensing fees to other companies that make collectible card games and spends huge resources play-testing anything it releases.

The company has mounted an advertising campaign directed at fans of TV shows such as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5, emphasizing the game as sport rather than pastime.

Even the game’s most ardent fans are skeptical, if hopeful, about Magic’s future. “I’m seeing more and more people who fall outside of that science-fiction-type crowd picking up the game,” says Marc Aquino, a 28-year-old in Madison, Wis. “It attracts people who want to think and play games. On the other hand I’ll have to say that the rate of growth is ebbing a little.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Playing the Game

The object Magic: The Gathering is either to inflict 20 points of damage on one’s opponent or cause his deck to run out. Players build a deck with a set number of cards but draw only a few at a time, and thus don’t have control over which cards they will be able to use at any specific time. Because of the huge variety of cards and their ability to work together in interesting and unexpected ways, building a successful “deck” can be almost as important as one’s skills in playing the actual game. The most powerful and useful cards can command powerful and useful cards can command high prices. The Black Lotus card, for example, sells for $400.

The game has four basic colors of cards, each of which has certain strengths and weaknesses. Players generally build a deck around one color of card. As Wizards of the Coast adds certain cards and bans others from tournament play, players’ affection for certain colors rises and falls.

Enhancements: Along with fast effects, artifacts and sorceries, these cards affect cards a player already has put in play.

Lands: Provide energy — called “mana” in game parlance — to power a player’s attempts to attack his opponent.

Creatures: Creatures are the core of Magic. Powered by mana and enhanced by other cards, they attack and defend a player.

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