Magic: the Gathering: A personal retrospective, part 1 of 3

With Magic: the Gathering celebrating its 20th anniversary this week, I wanted to look back at my own history of this incredible game. So here’s my tale…

When I first started playing Magic, I was introduced to it by my brother in the summer of 1994, only a year after the game had debuted. My brother and his best friend collected basketball cards and were exposed to the game thanks to visiting sports card stores. I don’t know how he ended up with a handful of Revised cards, but he “taught” me the game with great rules like Fireball always returning to his hand and my lands getting destroyed after using them once.

I lost. A lot.

I don’t think my brother was good at Magic either. But like many things, I tried to shadow my brother’s interests. Soon he set the cards aside and never picked them up again and we moved on.

The winter of 1995 resulted in my family going to a family reunion of one of my mom’s friends. I know, it sounds weird, but we went on a skiing trip to Killington, Vermont and hung out in a giant lodge for a few days. One day while we were there, it snowed so hard that the mountain closed and we all got snowed in.

While wandering the massive lodge, I stumbled across three guys huddled in the corner playing cards and talking about Wolverine and Cyclops (in my memory, they all looked like Joco, but I think that’s a false memory). I was immediately intrigued because I had never heard adults mention superheroes before and walked over and started talking to them. Their main subject was about the newly started comic storyline – “Age of Apocalypse.”

Now a little perspective here, I was 9 years old at the time and these guys were the first people to explain alternate timelines to me. Know what blows your mind when you’re 9? Alternate timelines! So after having timeline diagrams drawn and listening to their theories about what was going to happen, they went back to their game and I saw that iconic card back and declared I knew that game!

The guys laughed, but when I was able to explain how you could cast spells with lands, they knew I wasn’t completely making things up. But they soon found out I didn’t know what I was doing and tried to teach me. I don’t remember much of learning the game, but I do remember seeing cards from this brand new set: Fallen Empires.

It’s funny in retrospect to think of just how influential those three guys were to me when I was young. Prior to this, the only people I knew who played games was my brother and the only person who read comics was my cousin. It’s a shame I’ll never be able to thank them for literally everything they did for me.

The next day, the snow stopped and we returned to skiing. I never talked to those guys again, but I knew there were other people who played Magic.

That spring, my family traveled to Iceland and Europe for a vacation. At a random gift shop in the Netherlands next to some windmill, I found a store selling boosters of Fallen Empires for what worked out to only $1 a pack. I cobbled together my coins for souvenirs and bought three whole packs of the set – 24 cards! So many cards that I remember needing two whole pages in a binder to store them! I was in awe of Vodalian Soldiers and Thorn Thallid (while utterly terrified of Necrite and Thallid). My parents didn’t understand why I bought something I could buy in the states, so I also got a paper model of a windmill.

I don’t know what happened to that windmill.

Upon returning home, I knew I wanted to play Magic but encountered one issue: I had no one to play with. Now Maine is home to some excellent card stores, but when I was growing up, there weren’t any DCI sanctioned stores of any kind. My brother wouldn’t play, but he gave me his handful of cards (in what I’m sure was some horrible trade on my behalf for a Ninja Turtle or something). So I had the cards and invented my own games with them for a year.

Then my family moved before I started fifth grade. I didn’t play that year at all. I was still bitter about moving and how it ruined my life (it didn’t) and how I hated my parents (I don’t).

Then one day in sixth grade, everything changed. My best friend Adam came up to me on the playground and said he had to show me this awesome new card game he just found out about – Magic! He showed me his cards (a hilarious stack of Portal, Weatherlight and Tempest cards in retrospect) and wanted to play. I was elated and couldn’t wait to get home to find my old cards to play!

So we split Adam’s deck in half and played a game. Well, we tried to. A lot of cards had abilities we didn’t understand and there was a long argument about whether or not a Zephyr Falcon could block a Deep-sea Serpent because the serpent was so far underwater, the bird would drown.

It didn’t go well, but then I learned there was a whole group of kids who played every day at lunch on the playground. One kid offered to sell me a collection for “only” $5, and I took him up on it (it was a bad investment) and was soon playing Magic every day.

Granted we were playing with hundred or more card monstrosities, unsleeved and ruthlessly beaten on the picnic tables under the trees. With the variant of “all mana down,” our decks were terrible and it never occurred to us to abuse the format. Hell, we thought “Attacking doesn’t cause CARDNAME to tap.” Meant you could attack as many times as you wanted. Why yes, I will attack with my Ardent Militia five times!

We were dumb.

But at the picnic table there were whispers of two people who had unbeatable decks. Matt had a Shivan Dragon and John had a deck that could kill on turn five – both of these were impossible things to us! But Matt refused to play anyone all mana down and John was always playing soccer or something.

Then someone in the group got a rulebook because they went to a store and bought cards from the newest set. A Tempest rulebook to be precise and it meant we suddenly had actual rules to this game. We learned about land drops and sixty card decks. We learned about the 4-of card limit! We learned what the word “Upkeep” actually meant and suddenly we started building new decks and playing real Magic.

I still remember the first time I was able to finally make one deck of each color – granted my red deck needed every nonbasic land I owned and every artifact just to hit 40 cards.

So we learned we could buy cards ($2.50 a booster) at a local antiques store that specialized in guns and china. It was a weird store and gradually our collections grew and grew. One day Adam stopped by a collectibles store and bought a pack of the newest set: Exodus and was shocked to learn that cards now had their rarity established on the card! This was a huge deal to all of us for three reasons: we started buying boosters with spare change, we now knew rarity was an established thing and we knew more cards kept getting made.

Then we entered junior high school.