Portrait of a Card Addict as a Young Man

Benalish HeroAfter 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…

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. Lou Wainwright says:

    I’ve had a similar path. Started playing Beta in grad school, played, bought, and traded heavily through Fallen Empires (wow, that was only a year…seems like longer), and then kept playing occasionally until 1996, when I sold all my cards (literally all, I didn’t keep a single one…idiot), and used the profits to fund my CCG and board game habit, mainly L5R, for the next 4 years. Then I moved, and stopped CCGs cold. Until this February. My 4th grade son said that two other kids at school were playing Magic while waiting for the bus, and so I bought him a deckbuilders kit and some boosters. And then I needed some cards. And then my 2nd grader wanted to play, and then boom, the floodgates opened.

    I can’t believe its really been less than 6 months. We’ve spent $150 on boosters, and about that much again on singles. My younger son and I played in a 2HG for Avacyn, my first MTG tourney since 1994, and came in 2nd of 8. My older son and I will be playing in the 2013 event this weekend. It’s become our go to game at night, and we probably play 10 games a week. And as Dave said, it is such a good game! I can’t believe how tight and well-designed it continues to be, and it has really helped the kids learn to plan ahead, probably more than any other game, including both while playing, and while deckbuilding, which is so nice to see.

    I’ve been holding off on Commander, because I want to see them really learn to make tight decks (they chaff at my ‘exactly 60 cards’ rule), but am considering Archenemy, to let them go two on one against me. Do you have any experience with that format?

  2. Being a few months short of a decade older than you, I recall the early days of magic. My starter deck was from “Unlimited”, I bought 2 Arabian Nights boosters and a pile of Antiquities. (I recall playing against decks made of dozens of Atogs, Ornoithopters and fireballs). I drifted off the game.

    I became much more interested in the game when Franky and I started playing it during the 6th Edition era and Odyssey Block) and I built decks I still have today,(U/G Madness FTW!).

    During the Onlaught block, my whole D&D group became engrossed in Magic and I started playing in tournament both in stores and online. My friends and I made Booster Drafts and Sealed Deck mini-events in our basements. We played like that for two years, tapering off around the Shadowmoor period.

    I’m still not back on the Wagon, but I love playing at conventions and I do miss the feeling of winning pre-release tournaments. Hell, I won a copy of Lords of Waterdeep at Pax East didn’t I? 🙂

    But in all those years, I still have unfinished business going back to Gen Con 2008. I want to beat YOU at Magic, once and for all. We have to close that loop this summer and boy, YOU’RE GOING DOWN!

  3. Lou: That’s a great story- I’ve seen a few cool stories about pre-releases with more and more kids.

    I do have experience playing Archenemy. I enjoy it, though it’s pretty tough to balance for 2 vs 1, and it’s VERY swingy, possibly moreso than any other Magic game. If the Archenemy pulls good Archenemy cards in a good order, he steamrolls, otherwise, he struggles. I’d recommend trying 20 life for the Archenemy in those circumstances and see how it works.

    Phil: You know it’s on like a Rabid Wolverine with 4 enchantments!

  4. Great article. I played Magic from the tail end of Unlimited and had a lot of Antiquities cards. I stopped playing around the time of Mirage/Visions and sold all my cards. I’ve played a few games since but have avoided getting back into it. Cardboard crack is a good term for it 😉

  5. I am also a fan of drafts, but since I’m pretty much only a fan of drafts I don’t do them often either.

  6. Cardboard crack was a common derogatory term for Magic I’d hear around conventions. One time, I was at a con and playing some Games Workshop games with official reps, and in between teaching and playing, they just were bagging on Magic constantly, calling it (among other things) “overpriced crap.” I kept my mouth shut 🙂

  7. GAMES WORKSHOP employees calling Magic “overpriced crap”!? Glass houses, stones, etc.

  8. TheMainEvent says:

    I have definitely considered getting back into Magic, and have gone through some pretty heavy online Magic phases, but have yet to go full-bore back into ‘real’ magic.

    I am looking forward to our Gencon Magic Drafts. Phil, I’m coming for you 😉

  9. It is a clause in my marriage agreement that if I ever start playing Magic again my wife gets to divorce me no questions asked. I started playing in Unlimited, and gave up while in college during Fallen Empires because I once spent all my food money on Magic Cards. I was clean until Seminary when a couple of guys in my D&D group started playing drafts of Mirrodin and I jumped back in telling myself it was okay I could limit myself…but then I blew $500 in one month on magic online. That’s when I had to face I had a problem.

    So now I limit my card playing to Game of Thrones. The LCG format is much more contained. I can tinker with decks to my hearts content, but there isn’t that slot machine feel of looking for rare cards when you open your pack. I just buy one pack each month and I’m set.

    But when I see my friends at the game shop playing Magic there is always that twinge….

    My name is Brian and I am a Magicaholic.

  10. Chris H says:

    I started during Revised, have a lot of Fallen Empires, a decent amount of 6th, and loads of Mirage-era, Rath, and Urza-block cards. Ask me a week ago, and I couldn’t have told you this, because I’ve spent the last week sorting through the thousands of cards I haven’t touched to organize them by bulk commons, bulk rares, and singles with the plan to sell everything next week to my FLGS.

    It’s been 10 years since I played my last game of Magic, and if I really want to get back into it, I’ll just draft and sell the cards at the end – I’m not really looking forward to restarting the whole “collecting” thing again.

    The saddest moment was pulling apart the 6 decks that I still had put together from 10 years ago, and realizing that just about all my decks followed the same combination – 2 or 3 powerful uncommons, maybe a rare or two, a ton of commons, and barely any land. No wonder I always seemed to lose 🙂

    Sadly, because I got in during Revised (and not Beta!), a lot of my cards are worthless. Thankfully, I have a ton of cards that never saw the table, so anything worth more than $0.50 should still be graded at NM or better.

  11. agamon33 says:

    Yep, I started just as Revised came out (and even those were tough to find in Canada), and played and heavily traded until around Mirage.

    Played a bit off and on with a friend in a booster-draft type of environment, where we would open a few boosters, make the decks we could, and then play each other with a random card to add to your pool from other boosters as the prize of each match. That was fun.

    I’ve played DotP and DotP12 on Xbox, but it wasn’t until after playing DotP13 recently that I decided to get back into the game. Dabbled in MTGO, but I think I’ll start playing at the LFGS. Going to miss the pre-release on Saturday, I have a poker tournament (spot on with the Magic/poker connection), but I hope to join the 2013 league there.

  12. A great read, and instantly took me back to those days. I can’t believe I started playing with Homelands, and that it was less than 3-4 years that we were really playing super often. I haven’t gotten back into it as much as you have Dave, but cannot agree more that Commander (though Archenemy really started to drag me in before that) and the Innistrad block have been huge in getting me back into Magic. The last few drafts we’ve done that I was able to attend were incredibly fun, and I hope we can play several more in the near future! I’m still expecting only one of you (between you and Phil) to return from GenCon.