Oh Bituminous Blast! At Midtown's 'Magic' Gathering

by Noah Davis

Remember Magic: The Gathering? It was a game very popular in the ’90s, and if you were like me, you may have spent hours in your bedroom, the sounds of Nirvana or Soundgarden bouncing off the walls around you, flipping through your cards. But then it might have gotten too expensive (a pack of 15 cards went for something like five bucks then, which doesn’t sound like much except you were 16, had virtually no income and always needed more, more, more cards to compete) — or maybe you just moved on. But if you didn’t know, the game has been enjoying a recent resurgence, and if you need proof, you need only go to Citigroup Center, in Midtown, on a Monday night to see it.

There, in the plaza’s atrium, you’ll find about three to five dozen players, most of them guys, their ages usually between 20 and 40. This complex is a generic type of space, as close to an indoor suburban mall as you’ll find in Manhattan. A Terry May Concept Flowers and a 24 Hour Fitness Derek Jeter Signature Club overlook the atrium. Other people sharing the area use the free WiFi, take Kaplan prep tests, play speed chess, or talk intently on their iPhones, but the members of the loosely affiliated group focus on the expensive, colorful pieces of cardboard that lie in varying orientations in front of them. Brows are furrowed intently as the players process their thoughts: Is it smart to flashback Lingering Souls now? Or better to wait? A few observers stand, bouncing nervously from foot to foot, then table to table, between matches. Right here, right now, Magic is back.

The game, developed by Whitman College mathematics professor Richard Garfield, has been distributed since 1993 by Wizards of the Coast. It popularized the collectible trading card craze of the mid-90s. The game’s special appeal came from how it combined the tactile realness of baseball cards with the fantasy world of Dungeons & Dragons. Back then, I played every few weeks with my two best friends. Occasionally, we went to a card shop on Friday nights where we’d cram into a back room with other MTG aficionados who ranged in disposition from very nice to pretty sleazy. The space, generally, had the nice community feeling you would expect from a group of outsiders bonding over a common interest.

It was a simple game. (Over the years, it has become more complex but the general guidelines remain the same.) Each player starts with 20 life points and a deck of cards. There are five colors — black, blue, green, red, and white — each with their own cards and characteristics. Wizards or “Planeswalkers” (individual players) cast spells (play cards). Some are creatures that can attack and defend. Others takeaway life points, hurt or aid creatures, or produce one of many other outcomes. The first person to reduce his or her opponent’s life to zero wins.

The success of Magic spawned many imitators including the Garfield-designed Vampire: The Eternal Struggle and card versions of Star Wars and Star Trek, but the original game remained the most popular. It built momentum quickly due to the simplicity of gameplay and the increasing value of the cards. WotC released frequent expansion sets as a way to keep interest from flagging.

Inevitably, however, it did. The older generation of players gave it up due to cost new interests, and other commitments, while potential younger ones were consumed with Internet memes or priced out. The room in our collective cultural space for cardboard cutouts grew smaller and smaller.

But Magic never quite died. It continued chugging along, loved by enough members of a certain subset to stay afloat. (There has been, perhaps absurdly, a Pro Tour since 1996, featuring payouts of up to $40,000 for the winner.) Fast-forward nearly 20 years since its inception, and the game — inspired by nostalgia, new rules and strong expansion sets — is experiencing a renaissance. In late 2011, Hasbro, the toy company that purchased WotC for $325 million in 1999, claimed that Magic had 12 million players, an 80% rise over 2008. Sales doubled over the same period.

Which brings us back to 53rd Street. The Monday night meet-up is one of the many places around New York where people assemble to play. Most gatherings (puns!) are held in card shops or other places that charge participants a small fee or subtlety pressure players to purchase cards, but this one is relaxed by design.

“I think our success has much to do with my mission of creating a venue where players could enjoy their already exorbitantly expensive hobby in a no-fee, no-spending-obligation setting,” Matt Albrecht, a writer living in Brooklyn who planned the first event, wrote in an email. “This is the way I played Magic back home in the Midwest at my local game store (in a sort of Freemium setting, I suppose you’d say), and I aimed to bring that ‘keep business out of our hobby’ mentality to New York. I’ve been very dogged about that, much to the chagrin of certain enterprising entities.”

Albrecht is the originator and nominal coordinator, but the meet-up has outgrown his facilitation. In fact, inquiries into his whereabouts on the two nights I attended were met with quizzical looks and statements such as “I question the legitimacy of this organizer.” The loosely affiliated group has a momentum all its own. Between 40 and 60 people arrive every week, and the number keeps growing. It is a place where people of all shapes, sizes and ethnicity come to play a game they love.

While on the nights I went the attendees were almost entirely men, women are welcome as well. On one night, the lone female player sipped Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and argued that Giants were going to lose the NFC Championship if Eli Manning played conservatively. Caffeine ingested, she tossed her cup into a nearby trashcan and whipped out a Magic deck encased in blue-backed plastic sleeves.

When I returned a few weeks later, the Giants were Super Bowl champions. The group in the atrium was larger — one person credited the growth to the recent release of a new set — but inclusive, friendly, non-competitive nature remained the meetup’s key feature. There was no judging, no cliques, no rolled eyes at bad fashion sense. (Bad play, however, earned appropriate scorn.)

“There can be some neckbeards who are awkward and awful [at other gatherings], but the people here are just the normal nerds,” Vasu Balakrishnan said during a break between games with his friend Josh Harris, a freelance writer working on a novel.

Balakrishnan wore a button-down shirt, a tie — there are a surprising number of ties among the players — and the security clearance keycard from his software design job. He began coming three or four months ago. Like many of the people present, he started playing as a teenager but gave up the game when other parts of his life intervened. Balakrishnan returned to Magic in college after a broken wrist forced him off the Carnegie Mellon rowing team. As he played, he displayed the same manic energy that characterizes many players in the room. When it was not his turn, Balakrishnan ceaselessly shuffled the cards in his hand. When he got to go, he made moves quickly and authoritatively, almost seeming to start the next phase of his turn before completing the previous one.

There is no formal hierarchy or ranking of players at the meetup, but Balakrishnan and Harris are skilled combatants. They know all the rules (harder than it sounds) and understand how the cards interact with one another. “Bad players literally don’t read the words on their cards,” Balakrishnan said, appalled at the gall of these unseen offenders. When he and Harris play each other, they don’t need to speak because they understand their opponent’s move. At the end of the month, Balakrishnan and Harris, who wore a bright yellow “Goucher Athletics” tee shirt, will head south to play in the Magic: The Gathering Grand Prix Baltimore. Neither expects to win — Balakrishnan finished 296 out of 1,435 at a similar tournament in Pittsburgh — but winning isn’t the point. While Harris enjoys playing competitively because “it’s more fun,” he understands tournament play is not a lucrative option.

“There are some people who can sort of make a living, but there’s not a lot of money it in,” he said. “It’s not like poker.”

Or, put another way by his buddy Balakrishnan, “The very best pros don’t lose money.” And of course on Monday nights they can play here for free. The space is plain and barren, but that’s fine. The group does not require much.

“There are plenty of tables with four corners. What else do we need?” said Paul Narula, an editor and writer who started playing Magic again after making some extra money playing poker. “The tables are kind of messy but it’s okay.”

Some players set their individual cards, already encased in plastic sheaths, on rubber mats that depict dramatic fantasy scenes. I suggested he could bring one of those.

“Nah, I really don’t need to protect my plastic. And you…” he said, indicating his friend sitting one seat over.

His friend, Danny Hobbs, shrugged in response. About the pile of nicked cards in front of him, he said, “I really don’t give a fuck. It’s cardboard.” It’s an ironic statement given that he likely owns thousands of dollars worth of Magic cards. Hobbs has been playing since 1993 and never stopped. Some singles from the early sets are valued at $200 and up. Hobbs, a quiet 20something in a baggie Ecko hoodie, demurred when I inquired about the value of his cardboard portfolio but Narula answered for his tablemate: “He doesn’t pay attention to them, but he does.”

In some ways, Hobbs’ attitude — which I suspect is genuine but also contributed to by shyness, modesty, and an understandable unwillingness to reveal the true worth of his assets — symbolized the entire ethos of the meet-up. Money quickly infiltrated Magic, commoditizing the game and altering the motivations for playing and collecting. On their own time, some of the players in the atrium profit through buying and selling, wheeling and dealing, but such behavior is discouraged in the space. Claiming there’s a purity of play at the meetup would be a ridiculously overblown statement, but nevertheless there was a nice come-one, come-all attitude about the room. I easily wandered in and out, observing the games and chatting with the players. Mostly, the people gathered in the room simply wanted to spend time doing something they enjoyed. So they played their spells; they used iPhone apps to track life points; they paged through binders filled with precious reserves of cards. It hardly seems a lot to ask.

As I walked out, I noticed two youngish women in black tights and sweat-stained cut-up tees standing on the second-floor balcony outside Jeter’s 24-hour house of fitness. Their eyebrows were arched in the staple expression of the “cool kids” in every high-school movie. Down below, the card players continued their game — if they’re nerds, they’re in the comfortable position of being done with high school, free to do their own thing.

Related: The Bronies Take Manhattan and Why Will Leitch Burned All His Baseball Cards

Noah Davis has a bunch of dual lands he’s looking to sell.