This post is sponsored by A Reader.
In the course of my life, I have ponied up at least $3000 on the trading card game Magic: The Gathering. Possibly much more–the room I grew up in has thousands upon thousands upon thousands of cards, neatly and recently sorted into white boxes designed for the express purpose of card housing. But my financial stake is relatively mild, at least by the standards of serious Magic players (no one calls it by its full name, probably because that “the Gathering” suffix sounds ridiculously cheesy. Or a Juggalo-style cult.) Some men spend more than $3000 in a single year on cards; they play every week after work, compete in every tournament, and discuss the strategic nuances with anyone who will listen. And, to generalize correctly, it is men who do this–it is an intensely male arena designed for a particularly obsessive brand of nerd-masculinity, a place where maleness is so expected that it becomes invisible. We’ll talk more with my friend Molly about that later on. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Magic: The Gathering is the most popular trading card game in the world, involving a fantastic (and quite theoretical) showdown between two wizards, played out on thin slices of cardboard. Which of course sounds ridiculous, but I have played, on and off, since the 3rd grade, and spent so much time and money on it that the mechanics of the game no longer feel silly in any way, but instead are a part of what the pretentious version of myself wants to call “intellectual muscle memory.”
The game is turn based, but not for the sake of narrative–it is nothing like, say Dungeons and Dragons, except that both share a fantasy milieu. Quite simply, the goal is to kill your opponent. A straight-up wizard vs. wizard cardboard cage match, with no actual bloodletting. Each player starts the game with twenty Life each, and whoever can get his opponent to zero (or lower) wins. For the sake of time, the game also ends if either player runs out of cards to draw from their main deck, but the vast majority of games end with the death of the wizard-player much, much sooner.
Most (Ed.: lengthy explanation of exceptions excised) Magic cards come in one of five colors that determine their affinities, their allegiances, their strengths and weaknesses. Green tends to signify elves and verdant forest relics, big, lumbering beast-hulks, wurms, wolves, gigantic, typically landlocked killing machines. Red, the ideological opposite of green, features fire, mountains, dwarves, goblins, scorched-earth style destruction spells, fast, aggressive cards without much in the way of defense. Black is the color of decay, of necrosis, of disease, of zombies and swamps and ogres and missing limbs, of all that stirs in the dark of night. White is black’s counterpart, with soldiers, surprisingly violent clergy members, griffins, overeager paladin-types, angels, knights and more; white wears its purity on its sleeve. Blue has no direct opposite, featuring the most trickery, wizards, flying beasts of all shapes and sizes, sleight of hand, counterspells; it is often reactionary, tricksy, and evasive.
I have seen terrible goatees. I have seen unironic fedoras. I have seen handsome men with neither or both who still look handsome with trading cards in their hands. I have seen pristine binders meticulously organized with cards in special laminated plastic. I have seen friends negotiate trades like my grandfather negotiates used car purchases–that’s well, thank you very much. I have seen bald men in their sixties who come to a game store every Friday. I have seen twelve-year-olds beat middle-aged men who have been coming every week for years. I have seen fathers and sons who come every week. I have seen ill-fated mother-son team-ups–well, okay, just one, but it was memorable. I have seen a vastly male subculture rarely talked about, a safe place for a certain brand of obsession that is probably bizarre to the uninitiated.
I started playing in 3rd grade, a year when one of my best friends to this day and his brother conned me and my brothers into trading away our rare dragons away for pennies on the dollar. (Magic, unlike video games, can be as much about the collecting, the physical aura of the cards, as it is about the gameplay). For a time, my brothers and I would play constantly, and as the oldest and most well-read, I would selectively apply the rules in my favor. I cheated like a maniac, basically. I’m not even sure why. I guess I just wanted to beat my brothers, to win. Winning mattered despite how low the stakes really were.
The person who set me straight on the rules is also the best pure Magic player I’ve ever known. Her name is Molly Abbattista. She is wonderful, my oldest friend in the world, someone who I plan to love and be friends with until I die. We met when I was two and a half and she was three.
“I like psychoanalyze myself all the time, and I still don’t know after 12 years why this is true, but I am most comfortable inside my own head, when it’s just me and a group of boys,” said Molly via Skype. “I don’t know why. Which is not to say that I don’t have girlfriends who I really adore and who are really important to me, and who I spend lots and lots of time with. But that sense of being alone, the only girl, or being different was never uncomfortable for me. I do have distinct memories of it being pointed out to me.”
I tried to teach her the game myself when we were in elementary school but basically bungled it in a traditional outburst of longwinded bluster. Molly learned the real rules in middle school, which for her was a distinctly out-of-the-ordinary private school called Alpine Valley School (AVS). The school is open to all ages, kindergarten through 12th grade, and when Molly went there for two years there were 40 kids. Total. The whole idea behind this school is that the most valuable kind of learning is “self-initiated” and as such the school functions as a democracy, where the staff and the kids have basically equal say in determining curriculum. So if all you want to do is play Magic all day, well, no one is gonna stop you.
“We had short fads, like Capture the Flag or like building stuff out of blocks fad (that happened), but the fad for Magic was very long-lasting, and very pervasive,” said Molly. “It was like a bedrock part of the culture of the school that I was going to. All of the boys who were a little bit older than me, were all Magic players, and I wanted to be doing the things they were doing so I could spend time with them, and I also was completely and utterly fascinated by this game, so it was a really good combination of events to lead to an obsession.”
These kids took Magic very seriously. Which Molly loved.
“They would have these really complex rules discussions and really intense debates,” said Molly. “They would call the Magic hotline and figure out the answer. You could like call the hotline and be like, ‘I have this question’ and they’d be like, ‘I’m a level 2 DC judge, I will answer your rules question.’ And then we’d give them the rules question and they would solve it, and that was like an unwritten law, you just had to abide by whatever the Magic hotline said the answer to the rules question was. And we were always looking up the Oracle text. This was a very serious two years of my life. These people who I was playing with, who were like the first people I was really exposed to playing Magic a lot with were taking the rules very seriously, and wanted to understand the very complex mechanics of the game, wanted to really understand them. And so that was very formative for me, I think. My first real experience with Magic was in a group of people who were trying to understand it, and not being very casual about it. From there, it was a very natural transition from there to playing in more formalized settings.”
Molly left AVS after the 7th grade, but her obsession with Magic did not leave with her. The company that makes Magic cards, Wizards of the Coast, helps run regular sessions of play called Friday Night Magic, and Molly at a certain point discovered one of the most popular formats, the Booster Draft. Each player gets three 15 card packs, and they have to build a deck by taking one card from each pack then passing them, until all the cards are gone. (Drafting is the most fun of all the different formats because you don’t have to have the cards beforehand, so simply being rich enough to buy your deck does you no good).
Pretty soon she started going to draft at a game store called The Wizard’s Chest every Friday. She did this consistently from 12 until she was almost 17. To pay for it she would do a deep-clean of her mother’s house once a month, for which she was paid $80, exactly enough to pay for a month of drafting, though after a while of coming every week she would get the employee discount. When I came along, her dad would pick us up, after midnight. It was innocent and exciting.
“The major miracle of this still is that my dad let me do this every week, that my family let me do this every week,” said Molly. “I would bike or bus to Cherry Creek on Fridays, and I would be there all night, and my dad would come pick me up at 1 in the morning. It was always me, and some teenage boys, and a bunch of 40-year-old men. And this was my crowd, these were the people I was hanging out with until 1 am on like every single Friday night. And my dad was like, ‘Uh, whatever.’”
Not only did she have a community of people she loved hanging out with, she was really really good at the game, which is not an easy thing. Her name was on the first page of the online rankings. Needless to say, there were no other women on that first page. She remembers beating some men who got madder at her, she thinks, than they would have if she had been a different gender. Though when she was a kid when she started, the patronizing actually got worse as she matured.
“When I was like twelve and playing, people like thought it was novel and hilarious and thought I was just like a kid, doing a funny kid thing,” said Molly. But when I was like 16, and just didn’t really look, or sound, or act anything like anyone else who was around, people were like, ‘Why are you here?’ And I think sometimes it was patronizing and sometimes it was just like honest curiosity.”
But Molly defends the kind of people who play Magic. She always felt secure, despite occasional mild lechery and patronizing. Truthfully, the “why are you here?” question was an honest question a lot of the time, because Magic is such a male thing. Molly never worried about the stigma behind seriously playing a trading card game, which I always admired.
After a certain point, my love of Magic only made me feel ashamed. I realized that my going out on Friday night to draft Magic cards would be something that I would have to hide. There is a time before self-consciousness in childhood, before one considers how girls might look upon one’s activities, and going past that point was painful for me. In adolescence, I grew defensive about my Magic habits, which, out of context, might be the theme of a young adult novel about a character that eventually learns to harness their innate magical ability and simultaneously grows into themselves or whatever. Somehow I felt like I should be out trying to make something happen, not in a game store surrounded by tweens and older men.
To be candid, I think my whole complex had to do with sex. Almost no one is trying to get laid at a Magic draft. Importantly, there isn’t even an opportunity to fail at getting laid at a Magic draft. It’s a male refuge, of sorts, though describing it as such fails to do justice to how fun those things are.
“Sure, I do nerdy things sometimes,” I would say to anyone who found out, “but I’m not a nerd.” Sure, I loved playing this trading card game, and sure, I loved it enough to spend money and time on it, but I justified it as an intensely fun kind of recreation. It didn’t define me. Right?
Looking back, though, I was defensive because I wanted to preemptively strike back at the stigma upon that kind of intense, nerdy obsession. I wanted to at least prove that I was aware of the stigma. Molly used to distinguish between “Magic players with social skills” and “Magic players without social skills,” always putting us firmly in the former category. I desperately wanted people to know that I wasn’t one of those guys, those impotent man-children, those beta-males, those…losers. Even though I, by any definition, fit right into that group.
I could never own my nerdy habits, like many of my other friends. I could never embrace the vibrant Magic community in an official way, despite the fact that no one really gave a fuck other than myself. The people who play every week get so much out of it that the game alone cannot explain it–a sense of community should not be undervalued, pretty much ever. I don’t have an answer for why men largely play Magic and women don’t, because it’s a question so large and so basic it almost doesn’t seem worth asking. Magic cards are a tiny subset of already male-dominated game activities. Playing Magic seriously revolves around constant discussions of strategic nuances. Pure strategy can feel absolutely transcendent; it is never technical, never mundane. That’s what games are—an intense, immersive experience which lets you forget the mundane and strive for a kind of mental glory.
I have spent many a Friday night in otherwise closed game stores surrounded by adult men in plain t-shirts, feeling adrenaline pump through my system as a win condition appeared to be a turn or two away. And though I have decided to stop spending money on Magic, I am no longer ashamed of when I did. Winning is a rush.