The Excel Centre, London is the battleground in which my fellow Magic: The Gathering competitors faced each other in combat.
What it lacked in carnage, it made up for in humiliation.
It’s getting tense. My hands are a little clammy, my brain is full of numbers and I’m swamped in a catalogue of fantasy mythology that makes The Lord of The Rings look like a children’s preschool book.
My opponent has two creatures out (both tapped), no cards in hand and only three Mana to play with. Meanwhile I’m sitting pretty on this side of the table with a board full of goblins that can attack in for at least 17 damage knocking him down to one health – I’m going to do it, this is going to be my first winning match of the weekend so long as my opponent doesn’t top deck a Stoke the Flames.
He’s already played one so if he’s running four in his deck, the statistics are on my side. He flips the card over in dramatic style as if we’re playing to a crowd of thousands and not stuck at the back of the Excel Centre in London, on the losers’ table of the Magic: The Gathering Grand-Prix, the largest event in the country for wannabe players to have a shot at the big leagues.
Bugger. I repress the urge to fly over the other side of the table and see how well this encounter would go if it moved away from our fantasy card battle and into the realms of the real world (I’ve easily got 75lbs on the guy and have been in an actual fight before), but this is a gentleman’s game so I politely scoop up my deck and move onwards to the next round. There’s sure to be another person here who has no idea what they’re doing.
For those of you who haven’t already guessed, I’m a massive nerd. I like the word though, I don’t see it as a shameful thing that I’m into stuff that other people find a little weird, which involves elves and dwarves. It used to be comics, but everyone else took that from us.
Superheroes are now something that the cool kids are into so we’re not allowed to like them in case we spoil it for the mainstream. We nerds are used to having things taken from us: glasses, lunch money, underwear, pride (not that we had much of it to begin with) and finally the things that we care about most… our geeky little hobbies.
However Magic: The Gathering is something that still solely belongs to us – the Alamo of Nerdom, that I will stand shoulder to shoulder with my brothers in arms to keep as ours (but you’re obviously all invited to join, it’s not a clique).
It appears there’s a lot of us who are into it as well, a ready and waiting army. More than 3,000 Magic players ventured out into the sunlight for the first time in a while and packed into two sections of the Excel centre in London a few weekends ago to compete in the London Grand Prix 2015, a competitive tournament with big prizes on offer and a seat at the big table over in Vegas for the pro tournament (yes there are people who play this game for a living if only they dare to dream).
I saw my dalliance into the big leagues as the underdog story where I would rise out of obscurity to the top in my first real event, there might even be a documentary or suitable indie film starring Zach Braff as the gruff bespectacled hero one day. Though it seems that I was an underdog to the underdogs in this one. A lapdog that a pug might deign to have sit on its knee if it was feeling particularly generous that day.
I discovered Magic a year ago when I watched South Park’s Cock Magic episode. When the credits rolled I jumped on the computer and got myself a duel deck pack (the place that most beginners start, so the kind people of the internets told me) and became determined to convert friends (you need more than one player to get started) to the idea that playing with a children’s toy was a good idea. It didn’t take much to convince a few of them and slowly we started to find that we were enjoying a few rounds a night of a game that seemed part poker, part Dungeons and Dragons and part chess. A little harmless break from the drudgery of the everyday that was competitive, fun and had a little bit of luck involved to spice it up.
I soon became obsessed and was regularly Googling what the top players were up to, and what the new releases of cards might mean for me if I somehow acquired them and I began to realise that it wasn’t often the most expensive or powerful cards that would decide a winner of a match, but how the deck ‘talked’ to itself. Overnight, deckbuilding became a secret passion of mine.
You get 60 cards to play around with in what’s referred to as your library and I spent my evenings trying to find the synergies that no one else has discovered that will allow you to squeak out a win with a few cards that combine together. I saw it as a little like tinkering with an old vintage car I had under a tarp somewhere in the garage. The thing might never run, and it was draining both my time and resources, plus its was putting stress on my hypothetical marriage, with my hypothetical wife insisting that she was going to leave me and go live with her hypothetical sister, but damn it if I wasn’t going to try and turn that thing into the best piece of rusty metal that it could be!
Eventually I decided that Magic (what those in the know call it) was something that I fancied taking a little more seriously and moved onto finding ways that I could play against other people. In my naïve optimism I found there was going to be this huge tournament in London when I was on holiday in August so I booked my ticket with little to no idea of what I was getting myself into and only the vaguest idea of how to even play.
In the game there are various different strategies that you can play with and against. I weighed up my options for London and decided that I didn’t have the time or the brain power for anything complex so went with the most direct line of attack: trying to kill an opponent with big powerful creatures as quickly as possible finding ways to try and make them bigger and bigger each time it was my go.
It turned out that being a brute in this game isn’t the best way to go about things and often other players had worked round my ‘fool-proof’ strategy before I’d even provided them the big reveal that was obviously going to squash them. Although I struggled at first, I hit my stride a little too late into the tournament and finished the day with two wins, six losses and one draw. However, the weekend wasn’t over and I signed up to some of the side events that were going on.
One of them was the ‘sealed’ event where the playing field was a little more even, with players forced to build a deck blindly with only six packs of cards and then fight one another to imaginary death. I did alright at that, picking up a few wins which earned me some prize cards to add to my ever growing collection that is stored under my bed like some dirty magazines that I shouldn’t have (stored correctly and arranged in both colour and numerical order, you’ll be happy to hear.)
Although the tournament might not be considered a victory, I won’t be heading to Vegas to compete for big money prizes and worldwide Magic fame, but the weekend was a roaring success in my eyes. Where else in the world could you debate which is the most rowdy type of goblin, who would win in a fight between the different clans of elves, or if a variety of cards should be banned in the standard format, and not be instantly considered crazy? I loved playing my nerd game with my nerd friends, for a weekend I was part of an instant community of people from various walks of life that truly were passionate about something, and I can’t wait to be able to do it all over again in Manchester this coming May!
Follow Methods Unsound on Twitter: @MethodsUnsound