A sweaty Pittsburgh Steelers jersey stars in one of the most recognized commercials of all time. In a 1979 ad for Coca-Cola, a kid slips past the crowd at a game to follow Mean Joe Greene, his favorite player, on the way to the locker room. Joe’s had a bad game, but this unaccompanied minor just wants to say, well, he still thinks Joe’s the best. And commercial magic is made:
I’m sure Mean Joe Greene had 300 jerseys just like that one. And if not, I’m sure Mean Joe Greene could get 300 jerseys, for no good reason other than he felt like staring at 300 of something (weird ritual?) before every game. The point is that to Greene, the jersey is meaningless. But the kid has never been happier to receive someone’s laundry.
Context is what turns objects into artifacts. To most people, things are just things, unless we’ve decided to attach value—a memory, an explanation.
I recently cleaned out my childhood home before my parents moved. Only since they live in the Chicago suburbs, and I’m in Brooklyn, the process happened remotely. My mom or brother kept calling me up with lists of things I had to decide on. Would I like my sixth-grade report card? My Pinewood Derby cars from Cub Scouts? Three sets of tangrams? My “coin collection” that consisted of one of every type of coin in the U.S. treasury? Sure, I guess I could use the $1.91, but the other things no longer carried any intrinsic value to me, so what was I to do with them? It felt weird to just toss them, and I doubted someone out there was clamoring for my hermetically sealed Michael Jordan Wheaties box.
Then the topic turned to my collection of Magic: The Gathering cards. This time, though, I felt like I’d put off my choice long enough. Were they worth anything to me anymore?
Now for the obligatory “What the hell is Magic?” paragraphs: Magic is a card game with mythological beasts to summon and ancient sorceries to cast, using what’s called “mana”; the more powerful or complicated a card, the more expensive it is to get into the game. Two players face off against one another, using decks they’ve constructed with cards they’ve either traded for, collected in packs, or purchased individually. Cards come in five color varieties (red, blue, green, white, and black), each with its own associated land card to produce the proper color of mana. (Swamps produce black mana, islands produce blue, etc.) Lands are cheap and plentiful, and since cards often require specific mana colors, you try to strike a balance between land and non-land cards when building a deck.
The goal of every game is to knock the opponent’s life total from 20 to zero, and there are myriad strategies to employ. Perhaps you ambush your opponent with tiny red goblin creatures and cheap fire spells; maybe you play super-defensively as you build up your mana reserves to cast a massive green giant called Force Of Nature. Each color has a personality in terms of possible strategies, and you can mix and match to your satisfaction. Victory is a product of your deck, your wits, and a bit of luck.
I played Magic for a little more than five years, from seventh grade through the beginning of my junior year of high school. Which meant that for those five years, I spent a great deal of time building decks meant to play against others, but mostly road-tested against myself, alone in my room. I managed to find a group of guys who also played, and we got together every day at school during our free period to play, trade, and talk about the new rules the company Wizards Of The Coast was implementing. I was socially awkward, so these guys became my friends by default, united around a shared obsession with a game that already attracted those prone to obsession.
We’d play for hours while a) actively avoiding drugs or girls, and b) making stupid jokes, one of which sticks with me even to this day. See, in Magic, your creatures “tap” when they attack, meaning you rotate them 90 degrees and they become unavailable to defend when your opponent attacks. I had this card called a Serra Angel, though, a particularly well-known card that doesn’t tap when it attacks. One day I quipped, “That Serra Angel is pretty hot… but you can’t tap that.” Uproarious!
My obsession showed no signs of abating as the years went on. When I wasn’t getting the cards I wanted by buying stray packs, I took to buying entire cases. There was a suggested amount of money associated with each card, dictated by some WOTC-sponsored magazine I remember consulting, but the cards’ value went beyond that. They became important because I wanted them to be. While winning was the social currency I collected at the time, having an impressive collection was a close second.
It definitely caught people’s attention. One day in high school, I played a game against this kid Danny Ernst, who wasn’t really my friend (he was kind of a rough kid, and I was a neurotic goody two-shoes), but was nevertheless impressed with my goods. That day my cards were stolen; two weeks later, Danny played my own deck against me. So, you know, I had my hunches.
“Hey, Danny, um, those are my cards that you obviously stole,” I said.
“No they aren’t, and no I didn’t,” he replied, not-suspiciously.
“I’m going to go talk to the dean,” I wittily retorted.
“If you do, I’m just going to deny it, so you might as well give up on ever seeing your cards again,” he said.
It worked. I didn’t do anything about it, which as a 30-year-old man, hurts my brain and a bit of my soul. But it hurt a hell of a lot more in that moment, when the pain and sadness felt deeply personal. It made me realize these cards had real value to me. I felt like a part of my identity, which I’d fought so hard to achieve, had been taken away—that all those hours I’d spent pouring myself into my hobby had suddenly been retroactively canceled out. To him, they were just some dumb cards; he likely had a whole bunch he’d snatched from other unsuspecting dweebs. But this was my Mean Joe Greene jersey.
This wasn’t the straw that broke the Camel (a card from the Arabian Nights expansion)’s back, but it was close. When I tired of playing people at school, I started frequenting tournaments at local comic-book shops. I wasn’t bad, actually, and since most of the players were older, I got a sense of pride from attending. But I couldn’t keep up. Shortly after my cards were taken, I decided to try and replace them, but realized new Magic editions were coming out at a rate that would leave me bankrupt if I wanted to stay competitive. Eventually, I filed my cards away in boxes, to be brought out of retirement when I saw fit.
The time had come for me to decide the future of my Magic cards. And while my toss-off response had always been to sell them, I was thinking a lot about all the time I spent playing. Magic: The Gathering was a large part of my childhood; it was fun, and I was good at it. Would the magic of Magic remain as an adult?
I needed one last hurrah before ditching my cards, and the game, entirely. So I opted to attend a sealed-deck tournament, or “draft,” at Twenty Sided Store—a badass Williamsburg, Brooklyn hobby shop that could not have been nicer or more accommodating to someone who hadn’t played the game in 13 years. (Unpaid endorsement.)
In a draft, you sit in an eight-person circle, and everyone gets three packs, each with 15 cards. Everyone opens their first pack, surveys the cards, picks one, then passes the remainder of the pack down to the next person. So first you’re picking from 15, then 14, and so on, until somebody hands you the one card left. And so on. I figured this was ideal, because not only did it require me to bring zero cards, it threw me directly into the fire of a thousand Shivan Dragons. There are a lot of new rules to modern Magic, and I learned by doing.
I arrived at the store early and was immediately blown away by how many people were there. When I used to play in tournaments, there were, like, seven people present—sometimes upward of 12. There were easily 50 people milling about in the back of Twenty Sided, where long tables were arranged cafeteria-style; three-quarters of the entire store is playing space.
I took a second to be the creepy guy lurking behind pick-up games, and I didn’t understand a damn word being said. Everyone was playing cards I’d never heard of, with rules I couldn’t possibly wrap my head around; they even changed some of the lingo I thought was standard, replacing “attack” with “swing,” as in “swing for two [damage].” It’s like the time I stupidly took that 400-level math class as a college freshman. God bless grading on a curve!
Suddenly, as if on some bizarro Ellis Island, all us draft-night folks were corralled and herded outside to receive our table assignments. As names were called, the others whooped with excitement; clearly most of these people had been there before. My name elicited no such response, just confused looks.
I took my seat and sheepishly admitted to the guy sitting across from me—I think his name was Rob? Let’s go with Rob—that it had been a while since I’d played. “Well, we’re gonna get you through this,” Rob said flatly, but with confidence. Apparently he was prepared to deliver my Magic baby. “Just take your time.” We opened our first packs.
Now, I should mention that I’ve done sealed-deck tournaments before. I remembered a few basic strategy points to follow: stick to two or three colors; limit cards’ casting requirement to one of a specific-colored mana. But mostly, I just treaded water that first round. I spent so much time reading the cards, worried I was holding up the draft, that I barely got a chance to absorb any information. As the piles of cards queued up behind me, I simply started taking whatever seemed least complicated. Out of habit, I realized I was grabbing black and green cards—my colors of choice back when I played.
Then I opened my second pack, and for the first time, I saw a familiar face. One too good to pass up. An expensive white card that didn’t fit into my deck at all. I took it without thinking, and decided to base my entire strategy around getting that card into play at all costs.
Serra Angel. I still can’t tap that.
I spent the remainder of the draft kicking myself for all the good white cards I’d passed during round one, but nevertheless, having that Serra Angel made me feel a lot better. It wasn’t that the card is that good, or even that rare, really. (It used to be.) It was just that it was mine. It reminded me of those moments playing Magic when I felt like I had complete control. The card represents the best qualities of the game from my past: Even if my angsty teenage life wasn’t making any sense, this game was conquerable.
I wound up compiling a respectable white/black/green deck. The cards I scrounged together post-Serra Angel (links below for those who care about specifics) are focused around giving me lots of tiny creatures, then adding guys who benefit from having plentiful little peeps around: Crusader Of Odric; Odric, Master Tactician; and a few other non-Odrics.
Now comes the part where I describe the actual playing. I’m sure there is nothing less interesting than a blow-by-blow of a Magic: The Gathering game, whether you play the game or thought this was an article about The Alliance Of Magicians from Arrested Development. So I will promise only minimal super-nerding-out. Cool? Cool.
The tournament was three matches, best out of three. My first match was against the person next to me in the draft, John—the one stacking my piles. I stopped him a bunch of times during our first game so I could read his cards, at which point I felt he wrote me off. I put up a solid showing, but he clearly had the advantage, and my defeat was pretty swift. He barely muttered any words of encouragement while prepping for game two, and I started to worry I was in over my head.
But that first game was a fluke. Come game two, I got just the right amount of land to cast the spells in my hand, and I drew the bigger cards later in the game, when I was more prepared for them. The few card combinations I’d been relying on showed up together. I was anticipating what was coming next like an MIT blackjack player, and unconsciously planning accordingly. It’s similar to the feeling I get when I wake up and drink coffee; I felt Magic: The Gathering slowly rewiring my brain for the mental-gymnastics routine ahead.
The second game took a very, very long time to finish. I was playing more aggressively, and John was struggling to keep up. He was obviously a better player, with no cobwebs to dust off, but he was surprised by just how many cards I forced him to deal with. We went back and forth until I whittled him down to zero life after about an hour. They called time before we could start a third game, so my first match ended with a draw. Better than expected!
Then I played Rob and got creamed 2-0.
It didn’t really matter. I was having a lot of fun. I was starting to rely on my cards, and in a weird way, they were taking on a personality of their own. There’s this one, Cathedral Of War, that I’d snagged without thinking. It just happened to show up at clutch time, every game, slightly turning the tide in my favor. I felt better once I got it into play, or even when I saw it in my hand. Even when Rob was pummeling me, somehow always managing to be one step ahead, that freakin’ Cathedral Of War stood strong, scoring me a few extra damage whenever I needed it.
I came to this tournament with nothing and expected to leave with nothing, but I started to wonder if I should take the card with me, and, I dunno, put it in a drawer somewhere to provide me some out-of-context sense of comfort. I had grown attached to this piece of flimsy cardboard with no inherent value, just because I played a game with it. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of similar paper squares sitting in a storage locker in the Chicago suburbs, most of which I used to have a similar affinity for.
I remembered how Magic can feel all-encompassing as I began my final match against a tall, perpetually upbeat dude named Zac, by far the sweetest and most personable guy I met that night. We chatted throughout our matches about different cards; when he put one down, he faced it toward me so I could read it. We marveled at the changes to the sets over the years—he’d been playing a while, and remembers the era when I quit—and laughed at how insane some of the early cards were. We had an instant rapport, and I felt like I was talking to an old acquaintance from college whom I hadn’t spoken to in years. We didn’t even venture off the topic of Magic, but we went through something, he and I, and we had a shared language for it.
I hardly noticed I was winning. My mind had acclimated to the hectic Magic environment, and I was instinctually making decisions I hadn’t anticipated when I constructed my deck. As with euchre or The Legend Of Zelda, I have lived with the rhythm of Magic: The Gathering for so many years that the second I stopped thinking about it so much was the second I started doing really well. Brains are funny like that, and mine can best keep track of the game’s statistical cacophony when I banish all other chatter. When I was younger, this took the form of sharpshooter focus; now I can let the program run in the background, so to speak, as my brain, much like the computers that nourish/destroy it, has become more sophisticated.
In the end, I beat Zac 2-0, thanks in large part to my Cathedral Of War and Serra Angel—my Cathedral Of War, my Serra Angel. It was enough to, momentarily, make me wonder when the next game would be. I had these cards now, right? I could easily get a few more, put together a deck, and return. We could start a new life, Magic and I—build a house in the woods and live off the land! Double meaning!
That’s when some kid sitting next to me spoke up. He’d been listening to Zac and me talk about how I was just testing the waters. “So, are you going to keep that Cathedral Of War?” he asked.
This snapped me back to the reality with which I’d entered Twenty Sided Store: Magic was an important game to me because I stopped. I gave a lot of my life (and money) to it, and it returned the favor by providing me with a social circle when I needed it most, and the feeling that I was adept at something when I felt like I wasn’t great at anything. I’m a different person now; I get those things from my work and my decidedly more outgoing lifestyle. Perhaps Magic could fill another gap, one reserved for occasional fun times—like buying a nice meal, or wearing Birkenstocks.
But the truth is, no, I wasn’t going to keep that Cathedral Of War. I sold it to that kid for $3. Then I offered the rest of my cards to Zac for free, and he politely declined. He had enough cards, he said, exhibiting restraint I never had as a player.
I headed to the counter to see how I did overall, and it turned out that not only did I tie for fourth place out of eight (not last!), I’d won a free pack of cards. I collected my prize as a boy cornered me. He was probably 12 years old, with a broad grin on his face. He was telling me about some insane game he played, or might have played only in theory. It’s hard to tell. “Imagine casting a blahbadeboo right after a samaladam while holding onto a goobideegok and a shimminyshim!” he excitedly mapped out, using words that might as well have been fictional. “The look on your opponent’s face would be priceless as you swung for 248 damage in one turn! Can you believe it?!”
I replied with what I said countless times to campers at summer camp, when I had no idea what they were talking about: “Really? Cool.”
His mom entered to pick him up, and he broke away to talk to her. “How did you do?” she asked, stroking his head.
“I didn’t place, but I did okay,” he replied, sounding a little defeated. His two friends joined up, reassuring him that he did a good job. His mom smiled politely, checked her phone, and they got ready to leave.
Things are cliché for a reason. I suddenly saw a little of myself in that kid. I remembered being thrilled, and a bit relieved, at tournaments where I met likeminded people who were older and seemingly well-adjusted. I thought they were cool, and for the first time in my life, I understood how I could be cool, too: by being gracious and continuing to play. They might have been secret sociopaths who ate their own hair, but Magic was a great equalizer to us all. We were singularly obsessed people, finding friends in the depths.
Plus, the mom’s fake-caring thing got to me.
“Hey, do you want these cards?” I asked him, holding out my haul.
His face lit up as he eagerly snatched them from my hand, thanking me and furiously sifting through them all. He turned to his friends, and I heard him chatting as I walked out the door. “Can you believe that guy just handed me a pile of cards, and this one is on top?!” I guess he really needed a Sunpetal Grove.
There was a time in my life when Magic: The Gathering cards had a lot of meaning. They no longer do. Thus, I like to imagine that final minute playing out like this:
I’m limping out of the store, but it’s a victory limp, so it’s actually more of a strut.
Kid: Mr. Heisler? You need any help?
Me: Nah. I wasn’t expecting to win anyways.
Kid: Well, I just want you to know I think… I think you’re the best ever.
Me: Yeah. Sure.
Kid: Want my Coke?
Me: No, it’s okay.
Kid: Really, you can have it.
Me: I’m really fine. I’m over 21, and probably going to get a beer.
Kid: Gee, you sure are cool. I bet you get so many ladies!
Kid: Well, see ya around.
Me: Hey kid. Catch.
I throw my cards over to the kid, but they spill all over the floor because it’s really hard to neatly throw a large handful of anything.
Kid: [Sarcastically.] Thanks a lot, Mean Steve. I added the “mean” part in there because that was a genuinely mean thing to do.
[Singing.] “Have a Coke, have a smiiiiiiile!”