You probably forgot that Magic: The Gathering existed years ago, but for more than fifteen years it has been a constant of nerd subculture. While Dungeons & Dragons carries a stigma of total escapism with all the late-blooming phys-ed nerds spending Friday
You probably forgot that Magic: The Gathering existed years ago, but for more than fifteen years it has been a constant of nerd subculture. While Dungeons & Dragons carries a stigma of total escapism with all the late-blooming phys-ed nerds spending Friday nights slaying orcs and trying to get their Charisma stat high enough to ask a girl to prom, Magic seems to attract dabblers who picked up a pack or two because the art was cool. Somewhere along the line, the game got big enough to have competitive leagues, cash prizes, and even professional players. Do you know what a Magic: The Gathering tournament smells like? There is no way I can do justice to the sheer thickness of the air. When you walk in you can feel the boundary between outside and inside. Outside was Edison, NJ at 9:30 AM. It was cool and dry and utterly suburban. Phalanxes of two-story houses with window-eyes and porch-mouths that give the impression of huge, sedentary animals. Big, roomy streets wide enough for easy driving. Blocks went on far enough that I was never quite sure if I was going the right way because street signs were just specks on the horizon. I had to follow the one other pedestrian I saw because I was certain we had the same destination. Twenty minutes later I walked into the basement cafeteria of St. Matthew the Apostle church and settled into a warm, humid cocoon of body heat, pizza grease, and the smell of unwashed ponytails. Over two hundred people from around the east coast, overwhelmingly white, teenage males, had packed into the room to compete for a ticket to Honolulu, free entry into a higher level tournament to be held there, and way more sun than they could possibly handle. Intimidated by the homogeneousness of the room, I made a beeline for a table of particularly older looking people:
How’d you get here?
DENNIS: We carpooled.
Do you have any carpool “get hyped for Magic” ritual or anything like that?
DENNIS: We mostly listen to 70’s prog. Only the best. Oh, here’s my son Chris, do you want to talk to him?
Who’s this Osyp guy everyone’s talking about?
CHRIS: He’s been around for a while. In one of my first tournaments when I was 11 or 12 I had to play against him. He’s huge and like 25 then and just destroyed me and totally killed my dreams that day. If you see him you should ask him about it, beating kids.
Do you have a “get hyped” jam for these things?
CHRIS: Larks Tongues in Aspic, Pt. 2. That’s the one, definitely.
Do you mind if I ask how old you are?
JIM: I am 41 years old.
What kind of deck are you using?
JIM: It’s a fairy-wizards control deck.
Can you explain that to me, as a layman?
JIM: It stops other people from putting their cards down until they lose or give up.
So when did you start playing?
JIM: I started 2 months after the game first came out, so October of 1993. I was the kind of guy who frequented comic and gaming stores and everyone was talking about this new game on and on for two straight months and finally I was like “Fine give me a starter, I want to try,” and I’ve just been doing it ever since.
So you’re a regular at stuff like this?
JIM: Yeah, I’ve had some minor success competitively but nothing big. Top 8 amateur in San Diego in 2007 and I played in the New Jersey Grand Prix in 2006.
Are you trying to make it in Magic?
JIM: Oh no, no way. I’m just playing because I enjoy it, it keeps me young, I get to hang out with a bunch of people that just aren’t really in my social circle and I know a lot of these guys. (He turns to a chubby kid with a Jewfro a few seats down) Hey, Ben! Ben! Drink and draft at my house on Saturday, you in? Cool! It’s gonna be big! (He turns back to me)
I like the tye-dye. Is that your lucky Magic shirt?
JIM: No! I usually wear my Rush 30th Anniversary Tour shirt, but I couldn’t find it today.
It seems like there’s a distinct predilection for prog around here.
JIM: A lot of these guys here, they style themselves intellectuals, they’re the smartest in the room. Prog rock appeals to a lot of people’s elitism: “Only I understand the art of prog and the strategy of the game.”
Are you playing here today?
VINCE: Um, no. I’m just observing.
Do you usually play?
VINCE: No, I mostly just watch. I trade too.
VINCE: I’m not very good at Magic but I like the game.
Okay, cool. Do you have any other hobbies or anything?
VINCE: (Long pause with thinking noises)
You can say “no” if you want.
VINCE: I play computer games.
VINCE: Mostly Civ 3.
What’s that like?
VINCE: You control a civilization and go through history until you rule the world or go to space.
Sounds pretty awesome. Do you have a family?
VINCE: Yeah I have a mom and dad.
I meant like wife, kids, a family you live with.
VINCE: That is the family I live with.
Okay, so you’re maybe the third girl I’ve seen here, counting moms. Wanna tell me what that’s like here?
NIKKI: What what’s like? Being a girl?
Being a girl in a room full of 200 nerdy, hetero dudes.
NIKKI: Oh yeah. It’s weird, it can be an issue. All these guys? When I play they all think I’m here with my boyfriend, I barely know the rules, I’m just here for attention. Stuff like that. Whenever girls play people think it’s for attention. They also try to cheat all the time and whenever someone I know walks by the table they have to go, “Hey you can’t do that,” and catch it. Plus I’m on the volleyball team at school and like 2 of the girls found out that I play Magic and now I have to hear about it every day. Like, we’re friends but they bring it up a lot.
What about getting away with stuff in the game, like guys letting you take back moves because you’re a girl.
NIKKI: Yeah that happens sometimes, but you know what, when I played against a girl she wanted to take moves back and I let her just because she seemed so nice and kind of lost.
What about the guys? Any of them ever get any ideas?
NIKKI: Yeah, probably, but it’s not like they are that good with girls. They might think I’m dumb but they’re also pretty scared of me just because they can’t talk to girls and now here’s one right across from them. The last time I played, though, I beat this guy and I could just see in his eyes how angry he was. When he sat down he didn’t want to play! He was completely sure there was some mistake in the match-ups and there was no way we could be paired but the judges told him they were sure and everything. So we sit down and play and when I won he snapped a bit. Just picked up his deck, cursed a bunch, and wouldn’t look at me. That’s because I’m a girl.
But is stuff like that a little satisfying, maybe? Showing up some dick?
NIKKI: Sure, but I don’t know if it’s worth it.
You’re Osyp, right?
OSYP: Yeah, why?
Everyone says I should interview you for this piece I’m writing.
OSYP: Yeah, alright.
How old are you?
When did you start playing?
OSYP: I was twenty-one.
Was that competitively?
OSYP: Not at first, but some stores had small cash games. Fifteen or twenty people would come and pay fifty bucks and then the winner, 2nd place, 3rd place would win money. And those were small so most of those guys sucked and I would usually make a bit of money. Then I started to find out more about serious, sanctioned tournies and going to them.
How do you usually do?
OSYP: Well, I’m semi-retired from the game now, but I’m one of the top players in the world. I’m the best here, I should win.
Big plans for Hawaii?
OSYP: Listen, no matter what I’m going to Honolulu. I qualify for that event just based on my rating, so I’m just going to buy a ticket and play out there. I’m just here because I live in the area and whatever, I could get free airfare.
Kinda sucks for the kids who happen to live in your neck of the woods.
OSYP: If it wasn’t me, it’d be some other pro-level player. And these guys are all excited to sit down with me.
So you’re a celebrity around here?
OSYP: Yep. I get asked to sign stuff every time, like my pro player card.
Tell me what being a professional Magic: The Gathering player is like. Trips, money, what?
OSYP: Well for five or six years I was on the gravy train. That’s when you’re qualified for every upcoming event. And because I was a known player, Wizards of The Coast, who publish the game, they would basically hire me and some of my friends who play to go play in events, they’d pay me an appearance fee and I’d go out to Tokyo or Paris or wherever. For those years I would usually make 30 or 40 thousand dollars a year traveling and playing the game. And you know people in every city because there’s always regulars so I know people in Japan and Russia and France because of my time playing.
What’s the Magic drug of choice?
OSYP: A lot of drinking. I won a Grand Prix hungover once. I had the worst headache and threw up between rounds but my deck was so good it didn’t matter. I mean I could tell you stories.
OSYP: Okay, like once we all did great at a Grand Prix in Copenhagen. We’re all in Denmark, drugs are easy to find. Last thing I really remember is getting back to the hotel room and guys are blowing lines off of our 2nd place plaque like “MORE WHITE MANA!” “SNOW-COVERED PLAINS!” (Those are Magic terms).
That’s pretty intense.
OSYP: Totally. I mean, I’m telling you that I wasn’t doing it, I was just in the room.
After 8 rounds of play and the playoffs it was 9:30 PM and there were 2 players left. Osyp, and another, newer pro, Josh Raskin. Almost everyone who had come and lost had left, leaving behind piles of foil wrappers, pizza boxes, candy bars, and an anti-climactic scene. Just two dudes with real jobs and plenty of money playing for a few hundred dollars of airfare and a seat at an event they already qualified for with a handful of kids they’d beat observing. Osyp won. I talked to the guy who lost.
You seem a ton more subdued right now than you were earlier today, what’s up?
JOSH: I always get down after these things. It’s exciting to compete and try to win but it’s a grind. It’s my profession for now and it’s something I have to do.
It’s not a social thing?
JOSH: It’s lost a lot of that. That’s why everyone starts playing but it changes. It’s enough money to turn a fun game into a serious, distressing competition, but it’s not like it’ll be enough to live on when I’m 30. I can’t do this forever.
Special thanks to Head Judge Steve
(players check who they’ve been paired up with)