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$5,400 for a piece of cardboard? The allure of 'Magic: The Gathering'

Suddenly the peace is broken.

A mountain shoots out of the Earth and Planeswalker Mike Escalante begins amassing his army. A pack of goblins surf towards Planeswalker Matt Wilcox, but he is unfazed. He summons a demon - Archfiend of Depravity. Escalante’s reinforcements arrive on horseback just in time, squawks with pride, and Wilcox admits defeat.

“Yes. I did just lose,” says Wilcox.

The collectable card game Magic: The Gathering, with over 20 million players, is thriving. Magic started in 1993 as quaint and a little cheesy but it’s become a slick powerhouse. 20th Century Fox recently acquired the rights to start a film franchise, and this winter, Magic passed an essential cultural touchstone: there was a full episode of South Park lampooning the game. But how has a game from the 1990's managed to retain its popularity in the smartphone era?

First, the basics of the game. You collect limited-edition cards, build them into decks, and battle opponents. You are a Planeswalker - a wizard who starts the game with 20 life points and a hand filled with creature cards and spell cards. You and your opponents take turns using cards to cast spells against one another, to summon creatures to attack, and to prevent your life points from hitting zero. And the true test of a Planeswalker is at one of the traveling tournaments which this year was at the battlegrounds of... the San Jose Convention Center.

Welcome to Grand Prix San Jose.

“We have 1,965 players here today,” blare the event speakers. “Thank you for coming out and making this a gigantic event!”

Magic tournaments like this one used to be cozy. Look down the convention hall today and you see hundreds of tables, and every year there are more. Matt Wilcox may have lost that earlier game, but at this tournament, he has another chance. He's come to the tournament with teammates Michelle Roberson and Mike Conn. What do these warriors hope to accomplish today?

“If we can win 6 of our 9 rounds,” says Conn. “I’d be pretty happy.”

“So I guess that's our goal - right?” responds Wilcox.

They get their cards and start amassing clans of horseback warriors and mystical monks.

Walk around the tournament and you’ll see how dedicated people are to these cards. There’s Christine Sprankle who is dressed up as the character Gisa - a ghoulcaller from the game who raises the undead.

“I look like a demented bride,” says Sprankle. “It's my wedding attire and every night's my wedding with my ghouls. That's my weekend.”

Credit Jeremy Dalmas
Christine Sprankle, dressed as Ghoulcaller Gisa, shows off her ghoul-digging shovel.

There are the judges like Toby Elliott, who travel from tournament to tournament like fans for a band might.

“I’ve grown up with a lot of these people and spent a lot of time with them,” explains Elliott. “They are some of my dearest friends. These are our times to get together.”

And there are the artists who are here to sign cards the same way authors sign books. Right now Jason Felix is drawing one his characters for a fan.

“This one I’m working on now is called Ob Nixilis. The best way I can describe him: Kiss meets Iron Maiden meets demonic possession.”

I get a text - the team is at table 917. My visions of them as victorious warriors are dashed when I find out they lost their first round.

“Alright!” shouts the announcer. “This is the start of round two, you have 50 minutes you may begin!”

The edge of the room is lined with a dozen vendors each with hundreds of their best cards under Plexiglas. Magic isn’t just for playing - collecting is huge. Harrison Bates works for one of the vendors.

“Yea we came from LA.”

Good cards can start at about buck. But the most expensive card I saw was one called Black Lotus with a $5,400 price tag.

“There's a lot of money in Magic,” says Bates. “Yea. Hell yea.”

You can buy a pack of 15 random new cards for about three or four dollars. Wizards of the Coast, the company that makes the game, only prints so many of each card and the most powerful cards are often the rarest. Meaning, you have to buy lots of packs to find the cards you want, or you have to purchase those cards off of someone else who bought those packs. Bates is trying to find foil cards - shiny versions of normal cards.

Credit Jeremy Dalmas
High-end stock, with prices to match, from a Magic card vendor.

“I’ve been foiling out all weekend,” he explains. “I love the decks so much, so the deck should feel that I love it.”

In tournaments like this one, you can only use the newest cards, meaning you keep buying. There is no denying that this is an expensive hobby, and Wizards of the Coast has thought hard about how to keep players buying new cards year after year.

I get a text. The team is at table 505. One of our heroes - Matt Wilcox - is battling Phil Tacata, a biology teacher who brought students to the tournament. Wilcox has summoned a phoenix, but it’s no match for Tacata’s dragon.

“Oh no,” says Wilcox.

“Double dragons!!” boasts Tacata.

“You’re taking 14?” asks teammate Mike Conn.

“Yea that’s what it seems like,” responds Wilcox. “Good game.”

“Matt,” says Tacata “It was a pleasure.”

Our warriors aren’t doing that well. Wilcox explains:

“We are currently at one win and three losses. Not as great as we had hoped."

Meaning to achieve their goal they can’t lose any more games. But, of course, it isn’t just about winning. Teammate Michelle Roberson explains.

“I moved out here from Florida last year. This is a great way to make friends that love to same thing that you do. I've met other women who are really into the game, and you don't see a lot of women at Magic tournaments, so it's really cool.”

They rush off to the next battle.

“Sealed challenge players,” announces the loudspeaker, “your pairings are being posted. Please find your seats.”

Look around the room and it’s hard to miss that probably 90% of the people competing are young men, and that's no secret to Wizards of the Coast. Tom Lapille used to work there, and he says that the best way to have more diverse players is to have the cards be representative.

Recently they introduced the first transgender character in the Magic world.

“It was just incredibly supportive," says Lapille. That's not a given in the gaming world, it's not always that accepting of a place to be.”

More casual play isn’t as much of an issue, but it can be hard to make tournaments welcoming for women. One woman I asked at the tournament didn’t want to be recorded on tape talking about it because she was afraid of backlash. But there are more women coming to tournaments than used to, even if that number is small.

I head over to the team. They’ve lost four games and look a little glum.

“We're out of contention for any sort of prize,” says a tired Matt Wilcox. “We got here at nine in morning and it's about to be eight.”

“My voice is pretty gone,” Mike Conn is the most dispirited. “I personally let my team down more than they let me down."

But Michelle Roberson is more upbeat.

“Even though we were not successful in our Magic domination we still had a really great time.”

Our heroes pack their cards into their bags, hang their heads and head back home. Even the bravest warriors must sometimes admit defeat.

Crosscurrents San Jose