What I Learned From 4200 Magic: The Gathering Players

by | Mar 14, 2014 | POLITICS

The first thing my intern Joe and I notice as we walk into the Richmond Convention Center’s massive event hall was the smell.

The first thing my intern Joe and I notice as we walk into the Richmond Convention Center’s massive event hall was the smell. If you want to bottle the essence of cheeto-fingers and Mountain Dew, you could probably start your search here. And it’s only the opening night of the Magic Grand Prix – the largest collection of Magic The Gathering (MTG) players ever.

Joe and I navigate the crowd. The line to sign in for tournament play stretches a good 100 feet past the door. Vendor stands are set up around the sides of the venue, which is entirely dominated by wooden folding tables – lots and lots of wooden folding tables.

A massive corner display is set up with an information desk and projection screen. A table sits along side the screen on an elevated platform with two chairs waiting to be filled by commentators. They will explain all of what’s going on in real time to a massive internet audience. Yes, there is a massive online audience for watching people play MTG – the official MTG channel on TwitchTV has over 20 million views.

I walk behind the commentator’s table and meet up with Jamie Noell. He’s the Marketing Assistant Manager of Video Production at StarCityGames.com, the organizers of this event. He hands me a media pass and we sit down for a minute so I can get a crash course on MTG before I dive into the masses.

“It was the first, it was the original trading card and collectible card game,” says Noell about the game, which had its first print run in 1993. “It has depth and complexity – a rich history to it.”

Magic: The Gathering is a trading card game which pits players in one-on-one battles using different cards and strategies. Starting with 20 life points, players summon creatures to attack and defend; they use spells and artifacts to bolster themselves or their troops. But in the end, there can be only one winner – and the steps people take to win are as varied as the nearly 17,000 total cards printed in the game’s 21 year history. Cards are divided into different colors, mana
cards are used as currency to use other cards, there’s elements of skill as well as random chance.

My connection with MTG is probably similar to other nerds my age. I played in middle school, dabbling with starter decks and a few expansions. I’ve still got a binder full of cards marked as “rare” or otherwise. When I quit playing, the cards went into my closet and haven’t been touched since.

Even though I quit, the world of MTG continued to grow. New decks, or series of cards, are released several times a year.

One of seven MTG game types can be played, and the differences deal with what cards from what series are still allowed, or other varying rules. The Magic Grand Prix is a “modern deck” tournament, which means almost any card from 2002 forward is allowed to be played. A more constrictive game variant, Standard, only allows cards from recent decks – this makes some cards obsolete within a year, forcing players to buy or trade for even more cards. There’s also a “Legacy” and “Vintage” game which allows older cards to be played.

It’s complex, to say the least, but if you’ve got a friend with a deck and the ability to walk you through it, it’s not a hard game to pick up.

So I’m still sitting with Noell pretending to know what he is talking about. World tournaments, $10,000 cash prizes, judges being flown in from Europe to handle the massive numbers of players coming into Richmond for the event: these concepts are easy to understand. But there is a much broader language to the game, and it’s even more confusing.

Mana blue deck, side boarding, valid decks, polis decks, 8 rack, meta games – these concepts are thrown at me as I speak with Patrick, an engineer from Connecticut who’s made the trip to RVA to play and trade this weekend. He’s respectable looking – glasses, sturdy backpack to carry his card binders. He’s in his late 20’s and tell’s me he hadn’t played MTG since high school, but he picked it back up about 3 months ago.

He starts to get into game theory. “This is a game that involves real variance, – it’s a numbers game.” Then he starts comparing it to chess, a game he’s played since childhood. His “numbers game” argument comes full circle when he starts talking about playing poker competitively, and talking about card counting and what is and isn’t legal in MTG. When I finally get a break in his near stream-of-conciousness speech about MTG, I ask him why he’s picked the game up again and a look of clarity comes to his face.

“Anything where something optimal is presented to you and you have the option to tweak it and create a meta-game makes for a robust environment,” he says and I look back still confused.

“Guys who can run track or cross country never quit, because you can’t run a race in zero seconds,” he says as an analogy. “In the same way, you will never create a perfect MTG deck, but you can always try.”

From there, the rest of the weekend starts to make sense. MTG, just like any other competitive sport, is about winning, proving you’re the best, having the best strategy, and finally, the glory of being a champion.

And that glory is theoretically available to anyone. The Magic Grand Prix is open to any soul with a deck and the money for entry. The winner gets an invitation to the pro league and the chance at even more prestige.

Eric, a local kid who was excited to take part in the event, is waiting to start his first round. He’d played in a number of small card-shop tournaments, but couldn’t believe the crowd before him.
“It’s a lot more competitive here. If you make a mistake here, judges call you out,” he said. This structure is what really sets this event apart from small card shop events where playing with friends allows for mulligans and take-backs.

Another characteristic which makes this event so different from a local tournament, besides the thousands of players in attendance, is seeing the different play styles from local card shops around the country mesh together. The “meta-game” is different depending on where you play. Some card shops might be dominated by blue and red decks, others by faster cards, others by summon cards. The growth of the game and it’s success online has narrowed the meta-game variability though.

When someone wins a pro championship event with a certain kind of deck, two schools of thought emerge – one which aims to replicate that deck and the other which aims to counter it. And this cycle repeats itself every time a new champ is crowned. This happens at the local level too.

“It’s more complex than other card games – there’s more options in what you can do… it’s the strategy behind it,” said Emerson, another kid waiting to play a round, as he shuffled his deck between practice games. He hadn’t played in 4 years, but picked the game back up in time to come to the Grand Prix.

“This is massive – when I played, there would be like 16 people. The organization here, the scale, it’s huge,” he said. “Everyone takes this more serious. It’s a completely different environment.”

Emerson explained he came back to the game because he really loved the strategic angle to it. He said there was so much strategy to it that in his mind, setting up his deck is an entirely different game.

Many of the people we spoke to talked about playing the game years prior and then coming back. Chris VanMeter is a contributor to StarCityGames’ website and has been playing Magic since 1996. He was sitting at the signing booth, signing cards and memorabilia from fans.

“I was always into fantasy stuff as a kid – the fantasy element is fun, but the competitiveness keeps me coming back,” said VanMeter as fans dodged in and out of our interview.

He too made the comparison between MTG and chess, which he played competitively as a child. “The thought processes are exactly the same, but there are variances in Magic, and none of that in chess.”

VanMeter’s writings about MTG are different than other game commentators. Most blog rolls around the game are in-depth strategy guides – commenting on meta-games and deck building. But VanMeter
prefers a personal approach, and details his own experiences with the game. He think’s it’s this personal connection which has lead to his success.

“Because of the age of the game, a lot of people started playing when they were younger. Maybe they took time off for college or starting families, but they get into their early 30’s and get back into the game,” says VanMeter. “Being able to relate to someone who basically did the same thing makes it appeal for them to continue to play.”

“Because there’s money behind the cards, we’re able to put on more events and content and give the game more accessibility – it makes it more popular, allows it to grow,” VanMeter says, touching on what I think is one of the more interesting parts of MTG – the money.

With over 4200 registered players at $40 minimum registration fee, the Magic Grand Pix was a $172K event. That’s a lot of zeroes for a card game tournament. But beyond the entry fee, when you gather this many trading card players into one room, it’s the back room deals and under-the-table trades which account for even more moolah.

Many of you might scoff at the idea of paying a large sum of money for a card game, but considering MTG cards can go for literally thousands of dollars, don’t think there isn’t a real market there.

Take Tyler, for example. He drove up from Mississippi with four other friends to play in the tournament, but also to make some dough. “We had a lot of cards we wanted to sell,” he says before clarifying he had made $1300 on the first day.

That’s part of the allure of a national tournament – Tyler says events like these grant access to cards he’d never see back home. But it’s not just about making money; he’s gonna spend a lot too.

Tyler spent $600 on four cards that afternoon (foil Snap Casters). He’s excited to play them, but seems more excited to sell them when he gets home. He admits he paid for most of the cards with trade credit, so it was “only $280 out of pocket.”

I laugh, but bite my tongue when I feel tempted to explain that sum was equal to a large portion of many people’s rent.

Before you all go out and buy starter decks of magic cards, realize the value in these decks is debatably preset. When you buy sealed starter decks or booster packs, there is a minimal guarantee you’ll get at least 1 rare card. That rare may not be really all that rare, either.

But don’t let that totally stop you. As you purchase, and as you build and trade, you end up with a collection of cards which has value. And the value of a card can jump in minutes. If a pro plays a seemingly innocuous card in a tournament, and they win with it, the card will jump to 5x its previous value.

I’m back talking with Patrick the engineer. I ask him about how much he’s spent on cards so far. He says $200, and I still think he’s nuts. “You have price fluctuations in the cards you play,” he explains. “But this is an investment that does not depreciate.”

I ask him about the card binder I’ve got sitting in my closet, if it could be worth anything.

“It depends on what’s in demand,” he says. “If you haven’t had them looked at, and you were playing when you were 12, then you might be sitting on a grand.”

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

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