After over 10 years clean, only playing the occasional draft in the meantime, I’ve gotten back into Magic: The Gathering, in a pretty big way. I’ve played in the last three prereleases held by my FLGS, and am playing another one this Saturday for the release of Magic 2013 core set. I’ve started playing both drafts at the FLGS, and organizing them at home. Perhaps most shockingly of all, I’ve pushed to play Magic at days when we could be doing other gaming like board games or RPGs.
The bug has bit hard. I’ve bought individual singles online, buy packs on a whim, keep up with the new releases, and spend a decent amount of time tweaking decks. I’m up to six Commander decks (with one or two more half-made) and two Standard decks, as well as the few decks I’ve clung to from the “old days.”
I Remember Banding
I was introduced to the game in the week after Revised (now sometimes called 3rd) edition came out at a convention. I managed to talk my parents into buying me a starter deck and a few packs, and I did a bunch of traded, and ended up with a big green stompy deck. I had some craw wurms, and man, when I managed to work my way up to a Force of Nature by the time the convention was over, I was like “WOAH HOW CAN THIS CREATURE BE THIS POWERFUL?” From there, I proceeded to hook some of my other friends in our D&D group with the game, though at least one DM was upset when we were playing off to the side during the campaign when our characters weren’t present.
In those days, we didn’t really have a local game store, and we couldn’t drive yet, so getting new cards was pretty rare. Legends missed us almost entirely because of this and distribution issues. Arabian Nights and Antiquities were almost apocryphal. I probably only knew about them from rec.games.trading-cards.magic. In the long gap between new cards when all we could get our hands on were more Revised cards, we started to invent our own cards because I was playing almost every day on the bus to middle school. They started out fun, and then eventually escalated into such balanced cards as an instant whose ability read “Dave wins the game.”
I bought cards with my allowance, and whatever I could trade for. In those days, science fiction conventions were overflowing with players, such that games were clogging hallways if the gaming area wasn’t properly prepared. I went to a convention in the middle of nowhere when the Dark was released, and everyone was opening packs like crazy and hastily incorporating them into decks to play there.
Back in the Ice Age and Mirage-era, I was attending tournaments and playing competitively. (/humblebrag) I still remember how much it stung to have lost in the final round of a tournament against a much older player who purposely obfuscated his life total. I played in a massive prerelease with a few friends at the University of Maryland, which since it was so far away, my mom had to drive us to and hang out until it was done. I even remember being yelled at by my dad for being out late playing in the new Magic league at a game store because we got lost on the way home.
During the league days of the Tempest block was when I started to drift out. I still loved the game, but money, time, and this thing called “girls” started to intrude- and to be honest, money was the biggest issue out of the three of those. When going off to college, my Magic habit pretty much died altogether.
(BTW, if you haven’t ever seen it, there’s a no-longer-updated Tumblr called “I Remember Banding” that’s pretty fun for people who start playing around the same time as me.)
A Momentary Relapse
Magic Online just celebrated its 10 year anniversary. I remember the launch day pretty clearly, because I had been dreading it coming. You see, prior to the launch, during the beta test, cards were free. If you were a part of the beta test, if I recall correctly, you were allocated a certain number of packs per day. You could open them and add them to your collection, or you could use them to enter booster drafts. Primarily, I did the latter, so it meant ending up with more cards in my collection anyway. Then I could use winnings from drafts to play more drafts. And so on. Soon, I not only had enough packs to keep playing drafts when I wanted, but also the cards to build a fun Madness-based U/R deck for pick-up “Type II” games online.
And it was all for free. That is, until the game officially came out, my collection was wiped, and I had to pay per pack. Since I couldn’t afford it in real life, I couldn’t afford it online either, so I stopped playing.
Years later, I was able to collect all the real cards to recreate that U/R deck, and it remains one of the few other decks I keep lying around to this day.
This is also the era that many of my friends had also largely lapsed, though we’d come together for a few drafts. Time Spiral was one we went out of our way to play, as it was a mix of new and familiar cards. This was the era that I now think of as “when nobody wanted to keep their cards afterward.” This attitude has since changed.
Back on the Sauce
While I never dropped my desire to draft, it was only recently that those draft cards started to pull me back in. Then there was the launch of Commander, which fascinated me. A format designed for multiplayer, where you have to use 100 cards and can’t have more than one copy of any card except basic lands? Sounded perfect for someone like me who had lots of old cards but not a playset of 4 of any card to make anything resembling a competitive deck. The weekend the Commander decks were released, I picked one up, and started hacking it immediately. Then I bought another. Then another. Then some other cards.
Soon thereafter came Innistrad, a really appealing new block that contained a pretty awesome backstory (it’s like Ravenloft, but in Magic) and new mechanics that seemed really fun (transforming Werewolves!) I played the prerelease- my first tournament in a long time, and I placed in the top 5. Combined with friends getting back into it for similar reasons- some lapsed, some who had been playing all along- everything added up. Being able to play Magic on Xbox Live just sealed it.
My old collection that I had been dragging from house to house post-college came out of storage and moved into fancy new card boxes. I know I’m not alone either, as Magic is bigger than it has ever been.
Is it “On the Wagon” or “Off the Wagon?”
Why do I like it so much, and what keeps me coming back? Is it like my mom always suspected and there are addictive drugs in the cardboard? I’ve able to pin down a few things:
- System mastery is rewarded. Nowadays, Magic is the kind of game that I would completely avoid: extremely difficult to learn, with lots of little exceptions to the rules, which are further broken by many of the cards played. However, because I have learned it, and played so many games, it all makes sense to me. That’s not to say there aren’t rules questions- in fact, I’d estimate there’s at least one rules question per game of Commander I’ve ever played- but rarely are they game-stoppers. I still wish the game were easier to teach, but against players of around the same skill level, it’s extremely satisfying.
- The most strategically rich game I play. There are so many levels to every game: what order I play cards in, what I think my opponent is holding, how can I combine these cards, do I play something now or pass the turn, compensating/depending on luck, and so on. And that’s just after I’m actually playing. Deckbuilding in and of itself causes me to think ahead in games when I’m not even playing yet. There’s also a psychological element that I really enjoy in games- it’s no surprise that poker is so popular with Magic players.
- Draft you guys. Draft. Drafting is like playing a satisfying mini-game, deckbuilding, and actually playing Magic all wrapped up into one. Everything I enjoy about Magic comes together, while also putting everyone on semi-equal footing.
- Replayability is through the roof. I enjoy games where each game feels unique. Magic has that in spades, between all the possible cards to include, the random initial draw, and so on.
- There’s always an element of exploration. The more I play a format like Commander, the more I experience all the cards that I had missed during my hiatus, and so there’s still plenty to explore in the game. There are exactly 1 bazillion cards in the game, which can be intimidating, but it also adds an element of excitement to nearly every match I play.
So that’s the whole portrait, from then until now. Maybe one day I’ll kick the addiction again, and my cards will fall back into storage, or get sold. Maybe the market will drop out entirely and it’ll be as discard as Spellfire. Or maybe I’ll turn pro! Who knows. For the time being, I’m having a great time opening packs of cardboard crack.
Now, if only they could fix the mana-screw issue…