Testament of an Expatriated Nerd
On Sunday I traveled to Colonie, New York with four other people to blow money on a children’s card game. Was it worth it? I still can’t tell.
Magic: The Gathering is a game based on myth and legend, transporting players to a world of elves, goblins and dragons, wizards and barbarians. Or maybe it just transports you to a flat surface where you can place your cards without them blowing away. You play the role of a spellcaster and a commander, using different collectible cards to build up your army and resources so that you can crush your opponents. The game was designed by a college professor the year before I was born and has a huge following with older crowds. Playing the game makes you want to listen to a bit of Rush or King Crimson, or if you really want to risk it, get lost in Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans. You’ll probably have a strong urge to marathon the Lord of the Rings movies or even watch the Labyrinth in its entirety without taking the necessary break right around the point where Sarah, Hoggle and Ludo make it to the Bog of Eternal Stench. It’s right up there with Dungeons & Dragons and Star Trek conventions on a list of things that seem to drive females and physically active people away.
Maybe I’m being too harsh. I’ve been playing Magic since I was in middle school, and I still like to play. I was a huge nerd back in those days, and I guess I still am. But like Bruce Banner, I’ve learned to control the beast within. In middle school I had little to no control over my nerd identity, what with the braces and the glasses and the ill-conceived notions of what was “cool”. I’ve since lost the braces, transitioned to contacts, grew my hair out, cut it again, transitioned back to glasses, and started wearing clothes that aren’t two sizes too large for me. I’ve changed quite a bit physically, but you can’t take the Force-sensitivity out of a Jedi.
I stopped playing Magic so much in high school. I knew kids who spent hundreds of dollars a year on these cards, these expensive pieces of cardboard. I just don’t see the appeal in spending that much money to play a game. More and more cards are released every few months, and as I stopped spending money to buy new ones, mine became outdated and obsolete. My opponents knew just how to defeat me because they knew what cards I used, and I never really went out of my way to buy more. So I stopped playing, and spent my money on things like music and food. You can’t live without either of those, but you can live without Magic cards.
Some would disagree with me. We spent four and a half hours in a card shop in Colonie on Sunday, an act I understood to be an attempt to try and disprove my opinion. With me were two veteran players, competitors in official Magic: The Gathering tournaments. Also accompanying us were two of my friends who had been playing for only two days, or in geek-speak, “noobs”. They had thought it would be funny if the two of them, who had never played Magic before, faced off against one another. What had started as a joke quickly became an obsession, and we hoofed it out to Colonie to help them get their fix.
As we walked into the store, the faint odor of Cheetos, Mountain Dew and cats crossed my nose. Several chairs were labeled with hasty, Sharpie’d “no more than 240 lbs.” warnings, and more than one type of lisp permeated the air. I knew I had entered a realm I had not set foot in since some time ago, and like a man returning to the country he had emigrated from, I began to remember the manners, customs and language of my native land.
The store was bustling, and either Colonie had a large population of sci-fi and fantasy enthusiasts or we had stumbled into something much larger than we had intended to. The man at the door, who wore a backpack for the entirety of his day-long stay at the card store, spoke “Are you guys here for the tournament?”. I understood this to mean that we would be unable to leave here for some indeterminate amount of time. One of the members of our scouting party succumbed to the siren’s song, and the rest of us set up camp in the shop for the long haul.
An hour and fifteen minutes in, I had finished my business. I had sifted through boxes of cards looking for strategic combinations and bargains, and in the end, had constructed a standard 60-card deck for the price of $8.25. Usually a pre-constructed deck of cards costs just about $12.99 and a pack of 15 random cards costs $3.99, so I felt I had made out pretty well. At this point, round one of the tournament was nearly halfway through. There would be three rounds, and I had already completed my mission and run out of rations. My three companions not involved in the tournament, the two new players and one of the experienced spellcasters, were still occupied by the boxes and boxes of loose cards for sale. I resigned myself to a corner of the store and took to reading the comic books for sale, making occasional suggestions to the novices.
The world I’d left has come back to haunt me. Now, three out of four times I walk into my dorm room, a game of Magic: The Gathering is being played. I like to play responsibly, and with moderation, but it’s just really tough to see your friends get caught up in something you’ve already kicked. One day you’re playing with Forests and Llanowar Elves, and the next thing you know you’re tapping lines of Dust Bowls and mana-screwing yourself into an Oblivion Ring.