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I’d Tap That

January 18, 2013

This goes back almost 20 years. In my mid-twenties, I became obsessed with Magic the Gathering. Seriously obsessed. Unfortunately, I never became any good at it. Thankfully, it only lasted a few years. And a few thousand dollars. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For those that played MtG, or still do, you don’t need any introduction to the game. For those that don’t, it’s a collectible card game (or CCG). Let’s go through CCG’s first.

A CCG is basically a card game that isn’t played with a standard 52-card deck. Instead, it’s played with custom cards and rules. CCG’s are collectible because the cards are sold randomly, meaning you have no idea what’s inside the package. Typically, there are ‘starter decks’ and ‘booster packs’; starter decks contain a bare minimum of the necessary cards to play the game, while booster packs contain somewhere between 10-15 cards. Starters and boosters contain rares, uncommons, and commons, in a random mix. These are what they sound like: a ‘rare’ card isn’t printed as often as an uncommon, and is therefore harder to get (usually, only one random rare is included in either a starter or booster). CCG’s that become popular are divided into sets, which usually contain several hundred individual cards, at varying degrees of rarity. For instance, Ice Age was a set of MtG, containing around 383 cards (121 rare, 121 uncommon, and 141 common cards). You can see from the spread that, even if you could guarantee you would get a different rare in each booster pack, you would still have to buy 121 of them to collect them all. One last note on sets: they don’t get reprinted, and are usually on the market only a few months before being replaced by another.

CCG’s almost immediately generated tournament play, with lots of additional rules designed to level the playing field between players who had just started, and players who jumped on the bandwagon at the beginning and had more cards. It reached a point where players could compete (and earn a living!) simply by playing CCG’s. One of the more popular (and lucrative for stores) types of tournaments is the ‘booster draft’, where everyone buys 1 unopened starter and several booster packs and plays with whatever fortune has gifted them with. The players like it because drafts of this sort are played for ‘ante’, meaning each player sets a card aside each game…the winner keeps both cards.

MtG was the first CCG, and still remains one of the most popular. Richard Garfield sold MtG to Wizards of the Coast (WotC) around 1993, and they have made a lot of money off the game, which has generated well over 80 distinct sets, and over 18,000 unique cards (I’m an avid collector of many things, but that is too much to handle, even for me).

It’s hard to explain MtG in a paragraph, but it’s a game of resource management. Typically, it’s a two-player game, with each player assuming the role of a ‘planeswalker’, a wizard who can use mana points to summon creatures for attack and defense, cast spells, and create permanent enchantments and artifacts that alter the game. Mana points are generated by a special type of card called lands. You can win a few ways: reduce your opponent to zero life (each player starts with 20), run them out of cards (you have to be able to draw cards from your deck into your hand each turn), or play a few special cards that introduce a win condition (for instance, if your opponent doesn’t meet a condition within x turns, you win the game).

Now, MtG isn’t the only CCG on the market. At the time I stopped playing (around 1997), there was probably over 100 CCG’s on the market, and I don’t doubt that number has quintupled since. While most focus on fantasy, sci-fi, or horror, there have been many genres and many licensed properties (both Star Trek and Star Wars had CCG’s at the time I was playing).

How do you assign value?

The value of cards in CCG’s is a bit of a sliding scale, but it’s basically a function of a couple variables: how many are in circulation versus how powerful the card is within the game. For instance, while I was playing MtG, the card ‘Counterspell’ was a powerful card, but it’s a common, meaning there was a lot in the game. So, it was only worth a buck or two on the secondary market. On the other hand, ‘Badlands’ was a rare and a very powerful card, and it was worth a lot more…around $50. Both of these cards were in the same set. Because cards that are found to dramatically unbalance the game are rarely reprinted, they end up being worth more. In MtG, the most valuable card is from one of the earliest sets, ‘Black Lotus’, which still can fetch hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

How restricted the card is within tournament play is also a factor. In MtG, certain cards are restricted…you can only have one per deck. In addition, older sets are cycled out of certain types of tournament play to level the playing field for newer players. This effects demand which effects value.

Now, is there any real value? Well…no. Most dealers get the cards at a steep discount, and can afford to open a crate of each set and sort it into singles for resale at collector’s prices. They don’t need to buy back cards until they’re out of print, and even then, if the game is popular, there will be more cards on the market then there are buyers. So, the street prices for most cards are inflated and bogus. You will rarely get more than 30% of the street value of the card, and only for rares…uncommons and commons are practically worthless.

How I almost lost my shirt over pieces of brightly-painted cardboard

It’s an insanely expensive hobby, and I still have trouble understanding how people can afford it and still put food on the table. Of course, in Toronto alone there’s probably several dozen tournaments of various CCG’s held weekly, and most tournies have prizes for the winner. If you’re consistently good, and have the means to travel to local hobby, comic and gaming shops in and around your city, you probably have a shot at getting most of the expensive cards without paying the street price or picking up hundreds of booster packs. You can also just get lucky.

I was never good or lucky. But I did have a credit card and a total lack of understanding of how to budget money. All the game companies really had to do was come up with a cool fantasy game that forced me to collect cards to play and, well, a few thousand bucks and a few years later, I was broke with a shoebox full of mostly worthless cards.

I did have fun, if that counts. I did participate in a few tournies, one constructed and one booster draft (I lost both in the first round). I played mostly with a few friends, who regularly trounced me without paying a fraction of what I did in cards. I should have caught on sooner.

I even created a few cards. A friend (who now lives in Singapore) was having a birthday, and he was (probably still is) a fan of Roger Zelazny’s Amber series. I took several characters from the series and made cards for them by rubber-cementing new text and artwork onto old cards, and then colour-xeroxing and gluing playable cards together. I still have the originals.

Aside from the obscene amount of money I spent before realizing I would never be even a minor tournie champ, I have some other regrets. I never collected an entire set, even though I had cards from close to 10 of them. I also never was able to assemble a ‘land deck’, a deck comprised almost entirely of land cards, but was still playable. At the time, this was an almost absurd goal, but kicking around a bit, I’ve just found a tournie winning deck that’s almost all land.

Eventually, the game just bled me dry. I ended up giving away all my cards to another friend, the one I had played the game with the most. I wonder if he still has all the cards? With both our sets, he could probably have traded the works to a store for $100…maybe a bit more. Compared to what we spent, this is peanuts, but he has a mortgage, and every bit counts.

The game that inspired ‘Gamification’

MtG was the game that really cemented gameplay and collectibility into one phenomenom. Web sites like foursquare owe their existence to it. There are now mobile apps that are based on the CCG concept, where you buy boosters and individual cards from the company, and play competitively against other players. They’ve tried several times now to port MtG into a computer game, but have never really been able to capture the rules accurately (like traditional pen-and-paper role-playing games, many of the rules are fuzzy and have to be interpreted by judges at tournies). Apparently, though, Wizards now hosts an online version of the game.

Scratching the itch

Every few years, I really get the urge to play Magic again. I just can’t afford it, either the cost of buying enough cards for a competition deck, or the time to relearn all the rules and subtle twists on them. I also don’t want to be the whipping post for the pros at tournies.

But…when the urge really hits bad, I will buy the occasional starter, just to look at the rules, the new cards, and have a little bit of fun for myself. Every 4-5 years. Hey, after spending thousands, what’s $15-20 every 5 years? You can always toss the cards into Value Village, where they will be found by other collectors.

I recently felt that itch, and was in for a bit of luck. The antique/thrift/flea market that’s open every Sunday beside St. Lawrence Market had a dealer selling a stack of MtG cards for $2. These are all cards from 15 years ago, when I was playing. For $2, how can you go wrong?

When I opened it up, all I could think was, “finally…a person with worse deck-building skill than I ever had”. There were only a few cards worth more than $10 (Mana Vault: $10 and Helm of Obedience: $25). I doubt I could trade them in for even $5…which would still be a profit, come to think of it.

Game-bashing

‘Kit-bashing’ is a term used by hobbyists to refer to taking a bunch of model kit parts and creating something new. It’s how most of the props on science-fiction films actually get made (the Millenium Falcom was built off a custom frame that had dozens of parts from model cars, ships and planes glued onto it).

It would be nice to see a CCG that could be kit-bashed. You would buy a set of blank cards and a rulebook for what you could add to each card. Let your imagination be your guide. Each time you encountered another player, it would be different. Tournaments would be awesome. Sort of like Second Life meets Dungeons and Dragons.

A good bit of game-bashing is Cards Against Humanity, which is a very basic, very silly, and incredibly vulgar game. It’s also CC-licensed, allows you to make your own cards, and extend the rules.

Another interesting take is wtactics, which doesn’t yet seem to have anything downloadable.

Amber meets MtG

For the record, here’s the stats for the 4 MtG creature cards I created for my friend:

  • Corwin

    Type: Summon Amberite

    Cost: {3} {W} {R}

    Power/Toughness: 2/2

    Game Text:

    {B}: +1/+0 until end of turn

    {W}: +0/+1 until end of turn
  • Benedict

    Type: Summon Amberite

    Cost: {3} {U} {G} {R}

    Power/Toughness: 1/4

    Game Text:

    Benedict cannot be the target of any spell. All creatures blocking or blocked by Benedict are destroyed and cannot regenerate at end of combat.
  • Merlin

    Type: Summon Amberite

    Cost: {3} {W} {R}

    Power/Toughness: 2/2

    Game Text:

    {2} {B} {W} {T}: Destroy any target card in play except any Summon Amberite card.

    {T}: deal 1 damage to target demon.
  • Random

    Type: Summon Amberite

    Cost: {3} {R} {G}

    Power/Toughness: 2/3

    Game Text:

    During your upkeep, put a chaos counter on Random.

    {0}: Remove {X} Chaos counters to deal {X} damage any way you choose between any number of target creatures or players.
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