The Leaderboard: A Long Road to the Gathering

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Garrett Martin contemplates setting aside years of contempt and learning how to play Magic: The Gathering.

We called them the vampires. They didn’t suck blood (at least I don’t think so) but instead of sleeping they’d stay up all night playing games. This enclave of friends and like-minded compatriots occupied the entirety of the other half of our dorm room floor. They specifically requested those rooms, staying in a dorm even though, unlike almost everybody else in the building, they weren’t freshmen. They built their own shadow fraternity on the second floor of Creswell Hall, a long row of double-occupancy rooms filled with gamers, Goths and other isolationists with socially maligned obsessions. The supposedly normal guys on our wing were outwardly civil towards them, but regularly mocked them behind closed doors.

They played Doom and Dungeons & Dragons and above all Magic: The Gathering, that peculiar card game that spread like pinkeye through the underclassmen at my high school the previous year. They’d be playing Magic in the common room between the two wings when I’d get home late from a rock show or party. They’d still be playing the next morning when I left for class. I could appreciate a shooter and a good old fashioned AD&D jaunt, even though I no longer had interest in either. Magic felt like too much, though, a reductive deconstruction of the role-playing game that removed everything good about the form, replacing cooperation and imagination with clichéd fantasy art and the addictive kick of gambling. I didn’t like Magic, and I’m pretty sure the Magic players didn’t like me.

Relations eventually cooled. By the end of that year I had a few friends on that side of the floor, and was an enthusiastic spectator of an epic game of Axis & Allies one night. I learned how to make four-track tape loops with answering machine cassettes from a guy who dressed like Marilyn Manson every single day. They were just people trying to have a good time and brave enough to do what they liked in public without worrying about what others thought.

I still hated Magic, though. Hatred might be a strong word—to hate something requires effort. I forgot Magic even existed. When confronted with the evidence I would wince and feel a little depressed. Why would any adult willingly play this in public, I’d grouse, failing to hide my resolute contempt for Magic.

Years passed. I fell hard back into videogames during the Nintendo 64 and original PlayStation era, sucked back in by Final Fantasy Tactics, AKI wrestling games, baseball simulators with co-op season modes and an ever-growing stack of cash earned from a summer driving for Domino’s. Though I was an adult, this time the habit stuck and lead to a (not that) lucrative side gig writing about games for money. I embraced games without reservation, unequivocally and eternally, even if I occasionally struggled to contain my inner cynic.

I still avoided board games that I didn’t play as a kid, card games that required anything beyond a standard deck and, most of all, Magic. I resisted those first two because most of those games are dauntingly complex and because I could already barely balance videogames with my day job and other obligations. I resisted Magic because it was Magic.

Over the last few months I’ve slowly gravitated towards board games, especially after going to the first two years of PAX East and finding the board game nook to be a refreshing antidote to the promotional overload of the main show floor. I found friends that are as into board and card games as they are videogames. I learned that friends I didn’t realize were into games at all, bandmates even, hold biweekly Catan nights. My resistance gradually started to buckle.

A few weeks ago a friend introduced me to Dominion. I loved it. I appreciated the relative restraint of the game’s non-fantastical renaissance faire aesthetic, which eschews typical high fantasy trappings in favor of real world ideas. More importantly I easily understood how to play and quickly realized that it wasn’t just an overly elaborate remake of a game that could be played with a traditional deck. Dominion is its own experience, grounded in timeless concepts but with a style and particular set of rules that distinguish it from other games.

Dominion is expensive, though, and can’t be enjoyed alone. Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer can be, at least on the iPad. I read that Ascension was similar to Dominion, but with a far more fantasy-centric concept, and downloaded the iOS version the day after playiing Dominion with my friend. It quickly monopolized my attention. I’d play it anywhere I could, on my lunch break, during traffic jams, while watching The Wire with my wife (not the optimal way to experience either, of course). Even though I found the artwork and general milieu severely off-putting, I was hooked on Ascension.

I was just like those guys from the dorm, only I didn’t even have friends to play with. I procrastinated on writing assignments and playing games for review in order to spend more time with this iOS card game. It made me wonder what Magic is really like. If a relatively unheralded card game can seize my attention so thoroughly, what would happen if I finally tried the undisputed leader of the form?

I’m almost afraid to find out. I get obsessed too easily. If I get into Magic I might wind up in the dingy backrooms of comic book stores begging for one last chance to win back my best cards. I might stop dropping money on records over at Discogs and spend it on rare cards instead. Because I struggle at letting a good time end, I might stay up all night playing a game I once disrespected for mostly the wrong reasons.

It’s time to find out. I was never any better than those guys we used to look down on. I was decidedly worse, a judgmental young man who couldn’t understand why these people weren’t uncomfortable being themselves in public. I wouldn’t give their favorite card game a fair shake, but now I will. I’ll start slow, downloading the recent Magic adaptation that came out for Xbox Live Arcade, but if it goes well perhaps I’ll spring for a deck. Maybe if I ever run into that Marilyn Manson doppelganger again we can sit down and play a hand or two, if he isn’t a lawyer with a family in the suburbs now. Maybe I can relax and not reject what other people like just because I don’t understand it. And maybe I’ll realize Magic is more than just a complicated form of poker with wannabe Vallejo art and notes cribbed from a Dungeon Master’s guide.

Garrett Martin is the editor of Paste’s games section and the videogame critic for the Boston Herald. He’s a total hypocrite.

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