Chapter 10-Scriptures and Shrines


Scriptures and Shrines  

OVER TWO DECADES on from Magic’s birth, it is hard to imagine a world where Usenet was the internet. Where writing a book did not feel somehow anachronistic. Or, where information was hard enough to come by, that it would be slowly digested, savoured on the mind’s palette and then shared with selected members of a social network, known, back then, as ‘friends’. Today, information (at least in most democratic regimes) is one big, jolly free-for-all. Knowledge, a vast soup of noughts and ones, is pervasive. Vigilant devices in our pockets, on our wrists and in our glasses chatter to the cloud. And yet, it might all be cobblers, a distorted feedback of Wikipedia mistakes, Photoshopped news pictures, conspiracy theories and memes. Perfect access to imperfect information. The media sphere is so busy and deafening, we can barely make out what is important to us. But, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee, we have it all at the tips of our fingers. With filters, search engines and peer recommendations we slog through it all, dodging fake Viagra, mail order brides and magnanimous benefactors in Uganda. It is great. But time was, life was a little simpler.  

When Richard Garfield assembled the Delta card file – the final list of cards spawned from playtesting that would become the Alpha printing — he did not even reveal to the playtesters what the final rare cards would be. He wanted Magic players to exist ina world of imperfect information. That way, the potential for wonder would exist at every turn. Mystery would enrich his game, just as it had done for early adopters like poster Michael Smith. But the scarcity of information only fed curiosity. The same Smith who had at first revelled in discovering his opponents’ cards, was the guy who a few weeks later collated a complete card list online. Magic was so fascinating and so new, that the hunger for information about it was huge. The potential for learning about the game, understanding it and sharing experiences seemed infinite. Magic was a sky full of stars yet to fall into familiar constellations; a universe to explore and savour, card by beautiful card.  

Anticipating the clamour for information somewhat, Wizards took a gamble and printed up an eight-page flyer called The Duelist to hand out at Gencon’93. It was not much ~a couple of news articles, a guide to putting together your first deck — but it was the first stone laid in a material Magic culture, an acknowledgement of a gut instinct felt by those who had encountered the game at its inception: here was something not only worth playing, but also worth discussing. That instinct proved to be correct. And the great Magic talking shop was open for business.  

BY THE TIME I got my sticky adolescent hands on cards in New Zealand, in late 1994, Magic was already a game too big to be beyond easy cognisance. Over 1,000 different cards had been printed and the game had a past, as well as a present, not easily accessed. Booster Packs of the product – even of the current set, Revised Edition – were extremely scarce and the supply of older cards on the far-flung islands was miniscule. Somehow, what should have been a hindrance to enjoying the game – like missing half the tiles from a Scrabble set — only added to Magic’s mystique. It was no role-playing game. But it did present its own world to explore, with quests to undertake (the hour-long slog in the backseat of someone’s parents’ car to the nearest game store in Auckland, for example), which all came as a welcome refuge from the pains of adolescence, homesickness, spots and fancying terrifyingly cool girls.  

If Magic had reached us in New Zealand, it was because it had exploded beyond all expectation. It had outstripped not just the confines of a gaming hardcore, but also outgrown the small pool of early internet users. Richard Garfield had no need to fear – the vast majority of players in those early years were un-networked and for them, Magic was still a world of imperfect information. Indeed, it was a deeply thrilling world on some visceral level that only youthful discovery can be. For us, the printed word was still the first port of call for information. Along with Wizards’ official mouthpiece The Duelist, two other magazines quickly became canonical: Scrye, launched in June 1994, and its louder, brasher cousin Inquest, which came out a year later. Their success was largely down to card lists published in the back of each issue, detailing every Magic card in existence, along with its current (by print standards) value on the secondary market. It was these price guides that allowed us to get an idea of what was and what wasn’t a good trade. However, the lists did not explain what the cards actually did – all that most new players could do was run their fingers longingly underneath cards, whose evocative names and staggering prices sent them into convulsions. Card lists would be snatched out of friends’ hands, for the thrill of consuming the knowledge first, fastest, most completely. Of possessing it. Recalls Rich Hagon, now one of the game’s foremost personalities, “Even in the late nineties, I can remember literally trembling as I read Scrye and looked at these card names: Bazaar of Baghdad, City of Brass… You didn’t even know what they did – but you were desperate to find out.” Unlike a computer game, though, there was no cheat code, no surreptitious way to unlock clues. Just burning, unrequited desire.  

The Scrye price guide was amammoth piece of work, esoteric in its beauty and as impenetrable to the uninitiated as the latest stock prices in the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal. It was the brainchild of the magazine’s first editor and publisher, Joanne White, who had been introduced to Magic by Peter Adkison at Origins in 1993. White already had a role-playing magazine in her stable, but immediately saw the potential for a publication about the fascinating new game and the genre it could spawn. Scrye was born just as Magic was going nationwide and the scramble for cards was reaching its peak. And while eager readers may have scanned the pages for news and strategy, what really kept them coming back was the sprawling price guide which, uniquely, listed a low, median and high price for every card in print. It was a sophisticated snapshot of the Magic secondary market and one made possible by White’s nous, diligence and eye for detail. Her price guide was a living one: between each issue (printed sporadically at first), she would send out copies of her guide to retailers to mark up with the prices they were selling single cards for. She would then input all the returned data into a Byzantine spreadsheet to calculate the three price points for each card. Retailers were paid for their input and the budget for the price guide easily matched that for actual written contributions. It was a mind-boggling undertaking, but one that established the magazine as the number one tool for Magic traders everywhere. Scrye was stuffed into rucksacks or sat, heavily thumbed, on the shelf of every games store. Even photocopied price lists did the rounds and would be diligently consulted in the middle of any complex trade.  

The Duelist, meanwhile, as Wizards’ official publication, could never include a price list. To do so would leave Wizards on tricky legal ground, as denoting an official value to individual cards in their randomised packs would essentially turn Magic into an unlicensed lottery. Instead, the title grew quickly from an eight-page pamphlet into an all-singing, all-dancing magazine, which could provide players with Magic information straight from the horse’s mouth. With unrivalled access, high production values and an official stamp of approval, it was the Maybach of Magic magazines and set the standard in editorialising the game’s rapidly crystallising culture. Lisa Stevens recruited a journalist named Kathryn Haines (who originally knew nothing about the game) to head up the magazine. Despite her lack of expert knowledge, Haines deployed solid editorial instincts to provide readers with a fantastic breadth of stories: spotlights on local scenes, interviews with artists, a regular column from Richard Garfield and strategic pieces on the emerging science of deck-building. All helped give readers around the world a sense of belonging to a wider community —just as role-playing magazines had done for Wizards’ founders. The Duelist was also in a position to address players’ questions about the game (particularly issuing official rulings on problematic cards and clarifying blind spots in the game’s rules themselves) and could recruit contributors from its readership. Both these aspects re-enforced Wizards’ customer-centric approach. While pastimes and passions have always been for people who want to belong to something, The Duelist helped cultivate the sense that there was something meaningful for Magic players to belong to.  

A wider part of that was the establishment of a Magic slang that seeped into articles across the board, reinforcing the growing identity that players were adopting for themselves. John Jackson Miller, who would become Scrye’s second editor in 1999, says the birth of Magic argot was vital to the community’s emergence. The terminology used to discuss the game was popularised by the triumvirate of magazines on the market before internet use became widespread. Pet nicknames for decks, like ‘burn decks’, featuring red direct damage spells, and ‘weenie decks’, featuring swarms of (often white) small creatures, dotted the texts in Scrye, The Duelist and Inquest. From there, they became part of the lingua franca in classroom back rows or in comics or games stores. “Somebody had to coin those terms,” says Jackson Miller. “They came from the hobby, into the magazine, then went back out to the wider world.” In so doing, they helped knit together the disparate local Magic scenes coalescing the world over into a more homogenised movement. Many adolescents learning the game in countries like France (where I finished secondary school) and Germany (where I live today), could bandy around Magic patter in English before they could order a coffee, ask directions or book a hotel room – the practical stuff their teachers were trying to impart on them. Magic’s vocabulary was a badge of belonging. It helped nurture the thrall the game held players in, vocalising what it meant to be suddenly, hopelessly obsessed with it. At the same time, it furthered theoretical understanding — as language always does – of the subtle forces at work within the game.  

IF PLAYERS HAD anything to talk about at all, it was because Magic had arrived at the cusp of the internet boom rather than in its very midst: it had been conceived as a physical product rather than as a video game or indeed as a smart phone app, as it might have been today. What that did mean is that every player opening Booster Packs with the relish of a puppy tearing open a pillow needed opponents. For many, that meant visiting a game store or one of the comic stores rapidly adapting to stock the new product.  

Before editing Scrye, John Jackson Miller edited a trade magazine called Comics Retailer. His stint in charge of the title began in November 1993 – a precipitous time for the industry. Comics were coming off the back of a booming year, one vastly and artificially inflated, which did not augur well for the following 12 months. As well as a swathe of distributors pumping out sales to a dizzying number of stores in North America (the number taking Comics Retailer jumped from 3,000 in 1990 to 11,000 in 1993), a wave of serial investors had infiltrated the hobby to suck up what value they could. Jackson Miller dubs them ‘locusts’ and believes they started actively buying up comics in the early 1990s following the collapse of the sports card market. This created an unsustainable bubble in the industry. And, when it burst in 1994, the locusts would move on to pastures new. A certain collectible card game fell into their sights…  

What all this means, though, is that in late 1993 when Magic was released, comic-store owners were in a unique position: On the one hand, they were nervously looking ahead to a crash that would only be a matter of time in coming. On the other hand, they were liquid enough after a strong 12 months to take a punt on a potential new earner —- something their customers were already clamouring for. At the time, for example, Brian David-Marshall was working in the marketing department for a chain of comic stores in New York. As he was also a gamer, he would field questions about that hobby, too. It quickly became apparent to him that his customers were hungry for one product above all: “Someone literally grabbed me, shook me and said, ‘Where the hell can I find Magic?” he says. “I was like: ‘Holy crap! We need to get this!”  

Thus, clever comic-shop owners began to diversify. Using the cash flow provided by a meteoric comics glut, they took a bet on a product they thought might keep them in business when superheroes lost their lustre. Some cleared space in the back of their shops and set up tables for Magic players to play on. And, eventually, even Comics Retailer changed its name to Comics and Games Retailer. As comics nosedived in 1994, Magic was the lifeblood that allowed a number of stores to stay alive. “I think a lot of retailers insulated themselves by buying Magic then marking up the single cards,” says Jackson Miller. “Suddenly, you began seeing display cases full of cards appearing in comic stores around North America — and I believe that Magic, in 1994, saved at least 500 shops.”  

IF YOU AREN’T looking for the shop, you’ll probably miss it. Sure, you might notice the group of gangly youths hanging around outside to get some rare natural light, smoke a cigarette and imbibe a fizzy drink. But most likely, you will put your head down, quicken your step and skirt around them. I can’t blame you. It’s easier that way. Easier than wondering what they might be doing at this address, just outside the town centre where the rents are cheaper, the units a little rundown and where the high street’s franchise invasion has shunted the few remaining independent shops. A glance up at the window will leave you none the wiser: rows of sun-faded boxes, perplexing and gaudy point of sale, dusty paraphernalia… what does any of it mean?  

This is a typical game store. And, for better or worse, it is many Magic-players’ natural habitat. On almost any day of the week, they can come here to play, to trade, or to stock up on dice, card sleeves, deck boxes, playmats and all the other assorted gubbins which compose a Magic player’s kit. These little shops, often run by one or two people, sometimes a couple, are the foundation upon which the Magic community is built. Here, a curious kid will shell out his or her hard-earned pocket money to buy their first cards -—and, hopefully, return a few weeks later, armed with the makings of a deck and in search of an opponent. These places, often badly lit, poorly decorated and ripe with the funk of late-night gaming sessions, are where players come to practise, learn new skills and deepen their knowledge of a relentlessly challenging game. They are ramshackle and intimidating, akin to the specialist record stores parodied in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity; shrines for reverent Magic players in search of enlightenment. But they are also a place, increasingly, I can understand you walking by.  

Often, in fact, I have to brace myself before entering, slipping between the figures hovering at the door and summoning my civility to nod to the owner behind the counter and its cascading wall of glittering Magic Boosters. It is a very different world in there. One that I suppose part of me thinks, I should have outgrown by now. This is a space that exists away from the society I have grown up to bea part of, which espouses some values as adult and relegates others — particularly ‘play’ – to juvenile status. When 1 rationalise and remind myself that I need not espouse those same values; that Magic is about more than play and that play in and of itself is not necessarily bad, I am fine. I can settle into some kind of ease with my hobby. But my rational mind is always in a tussle with my deeper programming. And in the game store world, at least in that initial step through the door, that plunge through the water’s dark surface, it is my instincts that grab the upper hand. Here I am, they say, leaving the world I tried very hard to belong to again after the upheaval of my teens. Here I am, they say, stepping willingly back to the margins. Here I am, ducking into the shadows, shame still a monkey on my back.  

There was a time I could love these places and their strange psychic energy unambiguously. My first pilgrimage to one was to Pendragon Games in Auckland, soon after learning to play. The journey quickly became a regular trek, undertaken every Saturday that someone’s parents could be talked into the drive down Highway 1 to the nearest thing New Zealand has to a gleaming metropolis. They were cramped journeys, with us packed four to the backseat, but they went by in a blur. After a week of playing only at school, where the opponents were always the same, we would anticipate excitedly what cards we might be able to trade for with the Pendragon regulars — or indeed what cards they might deign to show us from their heaving folders packed with seductive older cards we had never had the chance to procure pack-fresh.  

Pendragon itself was located in a basement at the bottom of Queen Street, Auckland’s main shopping thoroughfare. Decked out like a dungeon with faux stonework and accessed via a narrow set of black steps, it was an evocative place to play fantasy games. You could barely tear my best friend Simon and I away from it. All day long we would stand at the one main table in the store – previously used for tabletop games but now firmly in the hands of the Magic players — slinging cards until our ride home beckoned. In all those hours and hours of playing, I cannot remember once drinking a glass of water or going to the toilet. Our only break would be a lunchtime dash to the nearby Baron of Beef for a steak sandwich and curly fries. We played and played and played – innocent teenagers swept up for the first time in a scene bigger than ourselves and excited at being able to contribute to it, even only as cannon fodder for the more experienced players stalking the crepuscular space.  

These are places that many (especially those undergoing their own teenage transformation) still love and I can see why. Abstracting the fact that the crowd is almost exclusively white and male, the individuals composing it are usually decent enough people. The same thing goes for the owners. These are people who are led heart- not head-first into the business. They sacrifice evenings and weekends to stay open for gamers. Provide coffee and snacks. And in Berlin, land of cheap rents and big spaces, they even often provide a toilet, which they must clean every evening once it has been liberally sprinkled with gamer piss. This is not an endeavour driven by dreams of financial success. These are people who care about the community and who relish their leading role within it.  

But, just like the library at Mahurangi College was, these shops are turf. The tangible space a community has carved out for itself and which it is loath to surrender again. Here, there is safety in numbers. Reassurance in peers who look, act and speak the same. And a comfort to looking inwards rather than out through the cluttered windows. Hiding in the shadows, these places preserve the community’s cosiness, without holding it up to scrutiny or opening it up to others whose differing values might enrich it. Maybe I’m getting old, but it is a myopia that, to me, seems self-defeating. Magic is competing in a cluttered marketplace for the public’s entertainment budget; up against bars, gigs, the cinema, you name it. And no longer the wide-eyed teenager lurking at Pendragon, I cannot pretend I want to spend my Friday night in most game stores. The physical environment is a symptom of its inhabitants’ insecurities. In gloomy back rooms, Magic cloaks itself in stigma.  

How do you encourage a community to look outwards though, when it is so accustomed to lurking in the margins? Greeted with a grunt, as you step into your average game store today, it can feel like a very distant goal. In fact, it took sewage leaking through the roof back at Pendragon Games for us to leave the place. Even when it moved to an anonymous inner-city mall and lost much of its soul, we were still stalwarts at its gaming tables. In fact, it is entirely possible I spent every weekend of 1995 there until I left New Zealand for good in early 1996 for another new start in France. It was a scene being repeated all over the world at the time. Magic players were discovering something they had never had before: a home away from home. And, it turns out, they didn’t want to leave it.  

By 1994, coMIC-STORE stalwart Brian David-Marshall had (perhaps fearing more customer dust-ups) dived head first into Magic and was organising tournaments for New York players as fast as he possibly could. Hundreds of players were coming out to play the game and, he says, it was all he could do to get them to leave whatever rented venue he had found to house them in, once the final rounds had been played. “We were even getting charged extra money,” he says. There had to be a better solution.  

In 1995, together with business partners, David-Marshall founded what would become the ultimate Magic shrine -a place far- off gamers like myself could only dream about. Called Neutral Ground, it distilled the early experience of comic and games stores into a new format, dubbed a ‘tournament center’ by the founders. Instead of being a small mom-and-pop store with a space cleared. for a table or two, it was a 2,500-square-foot space in the Midtown Manhattan loft district, packed out with tables. Up on the ninth floor, accessed by a rickety lift affectionately nicknamed ‘the elevator of doom’ by regulars, it was not somewhere likely to pick up passing trade. This was a destination, a resort, a sanctuary: a gaming space with a store attached, rather than the other way around. Neutral Ground quickly became the centre of gravity for the finest players on America’s East Coast – some of whom would sleep on benches at the nearest station rather than going home, before rocking up the next morning to play again.  

For David-Marshall, it was the realisation of a long-held dream. As a child of the Dungeons & Dragons generation, he had been shunted back and forth between friends’ houses as and when their parents got sick of the gaming teenagers under their feet. He had played at food courts and malls. But he had never had a safe all-ages environment in which to do what he wanted to do most: play games. Neutral Ground, open every day bar Christmas and Thanksgiving, filled an unspoken need for hundreds of players ina similar boat — old enough to be allowed independence, but not yet welcome in many of the places adults go to socialise, especially in the US with its draconian drinking laws. As such, it quickly became a hub for a whole community of people who would never have met – or indeed may not have had a community to call their own – if Magic had not existed. With a roof over their heads and a language of their own, a more self-confident generation of gamers was stirring.  

Meanwhile, the influence of Neutral Ground and of the plethora of comics and games stores equipping themselves with tables would be significant, not only for Magic but for gaming as a whole. Previous iterations of gaming — successively war-gaming and role-playing — had been time-consuming and difficult to set up, either because of the number of pieces required or the number of players needed. But Magic’s rapid gameplay and visual appeal helped lay the groundwork for another revolution in gaming which would follow on its heels: the rise of the ‘German-style’ boardgame. According to John Jackson Miller, by putting in place the infrastructure for Magic, retailers had inadvertently developed the perfect space for showing off a new wave of board games that began with the release of Settlers of Catan in 1995. All shop owners had to do was to lay them out on their new in-store tables, unpacking all the high-quality and beautifully illustrated components in front of a captive audience of lunching Magic players looking for a change of pace. A new market — and new marketplace – was born. Settlers of Catan has since gone on to sell over 15 million copies worldwide and has been huge in shifting hobby gaming ever more towards mainstream acceptability.  Wizards of the Coast, meanwhile, acknowledges the central importance of physical game stores to Magic’s continued health. Helene Bergeot, director of organised play and trade marketing at Magic HQ says, “Store-run events are actually the key drivers for growing the Magic community.” She has overseen the implementation of more and more in-store events, notably the hugely popular ‘Pre-release’ tournaments which take place a week before the official release of each set and give excited players their first chance to get their hands on the new cards. Whereas previously Pre-releases were run on a regional level for hundreds of gamers at a time, they have since 2012 become firmly entrenched in local neighbourhood stores. Brian David-Marshall says this has been the single biggest boon for the game in years: “It makes people want to open stores, it hones people in on where the stores are in their area and more importantly, if I go to a store 15 minutes from my house and I meet you or someone else who lives in the neighbourhood, we might say, ‘Wow let’s both come back on Wednesday and play Commander [a popular casual format]. That sounds awesome!” Although David-Marshall sold Neutral Ground in the early 2000s to pursue a career writing, commentating and designing games of his own, he has never lost sight of the lessons he learned in that Manhattan loft. “I talk every day to people I met there who have become part of my life,” he says. “The social aspect is tremendously important to Magic and bricks and mortar stores are crucial in fostering that.” However alien, elitist or plain unappealing many of them may look, game stores exist as a portal to a community that is, at its core, good. It needs people like you, though, to make it better. So next time you see gamers lurking outside their favourite haunt, try stepping in, instead of around. It is a leap of faith we can take together.