On a recent trip to Australia and New Zealand, I had a nostalgic moment that made me recall my entry into the world of Magic. As my flight from Sydney to Christchurch was taking off, I popped open the Kindle app on my iPad looking for something to read. The trip was around 3 hours and, unlike the 15-hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, I wasn’t tired. I happened upon a book I’d downloaded probably a year ago and been excited about when I bought it, but somehow hadn’t gotten around to reading. It’s called So Do You Wear a Cape? and, as a longtime Magic player, I was engrossed in it immediately. Its author, Titus Chalk, is about my age and discovered Magic around the same time I did. Coincidentally, he had just moved to New Zealand and happened upon it when—like me—he was unable to ingratiate himself into any of several cliques at school and finally gravitated toward the nerds, who introduced him to this peculiar new game.
It’s been roughly 20 years since I picked up the game as well, so this seems like a fine time to revisit my introduction. I had this epiphany riding in a car going from Christchurch to Queenstown. I was in 8th grade, and it was around the turn of the year (end of ’94 or beginning of ’95). I don’t remember the exact date, but I distinctly remember walking into the cafeteria one day and seeing my friends Stanley and D.K. playing a card game I’d never seen before. However, I didn’t give much thought to it at the time. Gradually, though, I saw that more and more kids were playing it every day, and they looked like they were having a lot of fun. So I began to pay attention to this new game. Eventually I discovered the collectible aspect of the game, and that you could spend quite a bit of money on it if you were so inclined (I heard there was a card that was worth $150! Seriously?! For a card?!?) I didn’t have a lot of money, so before I plunked down a few of my hard-earned dollars to invest in this potential new hobby, I wanted to try it out.
One Friday afternoon, while some sort of free-play activity was going on, I convinced my friend Craig to let me borrow a deck and play with him. He gave me an all-black deck and chose a red and white one for himself. He went first, dropped a Dwarven Hold, and passed the turn. As Richard Garfield intended, like so many other cards (for me at the time, anyway), I didn’t know what it did. I read it, and he explained that, basically, it would accrue mana every turn he didn’t use it.
I had the same curious ignorance about most of the cards in my deck, having seen only a handful of them before. I had no knowledge of the paradigms of control and aggro—indeed, at this point, they were scarcely loose concepts even in the minds of the great players I hadn’t yet heard of—so I simply played whatever I could. As I laid down various dorks like Drudge Skeletons and several varieties of Thrulls, I discovered a brave new world of endless possibilities. At one point, I played a Frozen Shade, which I found particularly interesting, as every turn I could make it as big as I had the mana for. Also, in my first Vorthosian moment, I wondered why it didn’t fly. I mean, the picture showed a flying creature. Or at least hovering. Why didn’t this thing fly?
Anyway, I wouldn’t say I dominated the game, but I took the lead in life. For a while. At some point Craig emptied the Dwarven Hold and threw a Fireball at me for something like 19 damage, which was enough to kill me. I hadn’t won the game, but I’d had fun and I wanted to play again. Perhaps trying to preserve the moment, not knowing when I’d get another chance to play the game, I regarded the board and my hand. One of the cards I had been holding was Evil Presence. I don’t know how long I had been holding it, or why I hadn’t given it much thought. Turns out, if I’d played that card on his Hold, I’d have ruined his plan and possibly could have won the game. Every time I think back on that game, I can’t help wondering how it could have been different.
But I was hooked anyway. On a field trip to Washington, D.C. a couple of the guys brought Magic cards. I borrowed another deck and had a great time playing a group game that lasted until after midnight. At school soon after returning to Texas, I was enlisting a friend to buy me a deck when he went to the comic store that weekend when another guy overheard me and offered to make me a deck for half the price. Did I have $5 on me? Turns out I did. He put together a red and black deck, as I asked, and I bought into the game for the first time.
I don’t remember the first game I won. But I played a lot of Magic with that deck, bad as it was. It was mostly commons from Revised and Fallen Empires, and probably wasn’t actually worth quite the $5 it cost me, but I didn’t know that at the time, nor did I care. I was just happy to be playing. Of course, I learned, and bought and traded for new cards. Eventually I acquired a Nightmare, a rather fearsome creature that was the envy of a number of fellow new players. I got numerous offers to trade for it, even some that probably would have been decidedly in my favor on a monetary basis, but I wouldn’t budge. It was my pride and joy, and I rarely lost games when I was able to play it. Of course, the game was very different back then…today you’re very unlikely to see cards like Nightmare in constructed decks as the game has evolved over 20 years. At any rate, I was far from the best player, but I began to gain a little respect in the small circle of players at my school. And things were fine. Until I quit.
One day I had been arguing with a classmate of mine most of the morning, and it spilled over into lunch. At one point, I think I told him off while I was enjoying a game of Magic. He got mad and grabbed half of my deck and ran off. Like an idiot, I instinctively took off after him and he gave the cards back. When I got back to the table where I had been playing, though, the remainder of my cards were scattered all over the table. My deck had been ransacked. I picked up my cards and discovered that, of course, my Nightmare was missing*. Nobody spoke up, though. It was gone.
*I knew who had taken it, too. It was the guy who pestered me the most trying to trade for it. But since I couldn’t prove it and nobody else would say anything and he was a bigger kid than I was, I didn’t push it. Sure enough, a few days later he started playing with his new Nightmare. I tried not to think about it.
I was rather distraught at first. Overreacting like kids often do, I decided I didn’t want to play anymore. I gave what remained of my cards to a friend or two, and thus my adventures in Magic were over. Until a few weeks later when I walked into 1st period one morning and discovered a plastic bag with a deck of Magic cards in it on my desk. I looked around to see if anyone else was looking for their lost cards, but nobody was. Coincidentally, my friend Craig was sitting at the table next to me. He saw me looking around for the cards’ owner. “Silence is golden,” he said.
I debated what to do with the cards. I thumbed through them. There wasn’t much of value; the vast majority of them were commons. The deck could probably have been had for about $5 or less. There was no name on the bag. Going around to all the kids in school that I knew played, asking if any of them had lost $3 worth of cards, might have been the honorable thing to do, but it would have taken forever, and anyone could have lied about it anyway. I decided that, if no one came back looking for them by the end of the period, I’d keep them. Nobody did.
So I started playing again. I had a red, black, and white deck. It wasn’t very good; in fact, it had a number of cards in common with my first deck. But I decided quitting wasn’t the answer. I started over, and, 20 years later, here I am. Magic is a huge part of my life. Without it, I wouldn’t have made a lot of my friends, and I have no idea what I’d have done with all the time (and money) I’ve put into it.
I have occasionally wondered about who the anonymous, probably unknowing, donor that got me back into the game was. (I’ve even wondered if it was Craig, planting them there for me.) I probably owe him or her something for getting me back into the game that’s brought me so much over the years, as well as teaching me not to overreact so much. Whoever you are, thank you.