For us older folk, Magic: The Gathering—a fantasy-themed trading card game created in 1993—is a mature, strategic affair (or at least, as mature and strategic as any game featuring battling dragons and unicorns can be), played in dusty card shops nationwide. Playgroups vary, but the groups I have played with tend to be 20-something geeky dudes with ego to spare. Magic, in these circles, is as serious as a varsity sport. I would know: In high school, I spent hours crafting decks and researching strategies in hopes of ascending to Magic fame.
But there are always some ten-year-olds who wander into the shop, itching to play without knowing how. It is generally either mortifying or awkward when you are placed across the table from them. On the one hand, it looks bad for you (and your ranking) if you get beaten by a pre-teen punk. But on the other hand, you feel dirty using your 100-dollar deck of cards and five years’ experience to destroy them on turn two.
But I was that kid once, so I feel a bit differently. I played my first Magic tournament in third grade, with a bow in my hair and a deck of cards I had scrounged together by saving up allowances and “borrowing” cards from my older brother. I used a Lisa Frank notepad to keep track of “life totals.” In hindsight, I’m sure I looked perfectly ridiculous to the shop’s clientele. With more luck than skill, however, I managed to score a third-place finish. (The 20 bucks of store credit I earned was equal to five allowances!)
But that shop was small-time. Everyone there knew my mom, who dropped me off there, and my older brother, who often hovered over my shoulder and gave me tips on “how to suck less.” I would hear the older guys mention bigger tournaments—pro-level games in Nashville or Louisville. I wanted to be serious like them; I wanted to play in those big games. So, when I had an opportunity to go to the Kentucky State Magic Tournament right after my 11th birthday, I jumped at the chance.
I went in a carpool with a couple other guys from the shop—one college student and one of my dad’s coworkers—and my mother, who, despite knowing next to nothing about that silly card game, was willing to drive the three of us from Bowling Green to Louisville and back.
During the car ride up, the guys gave me all their best advice: how to spot a cheater, how to call a judge if there is a disagreement about the rules, what kinds of decks were getting played on the tournament circuit. I did not want to admit I was nervous, but I was. I shuffled the same deck over and over. Once we got to the tournament itself, I was staggered by its enormity. The biggest tournament I had ever seen back home had 30 people. This one had at least 300, packed into the largest room in the largest convention center in the entire state.
When the tournament began, I was on my own—my mom had left to go shopping somewhere in Louisville, and my carpool buddies were at opposite ends of the convention center. I sat at table 74, waiting for my opponent, and when he arrived, neither of us talked much. Like poker players I had seen on TV, I tried to make my expression inscrutable as we laid cards on the table, turn after turn. A strategic blunder lost me my first game, but there were still two games left in the match. I won the next game, then he won again—a 1-2 match loss. Managing my best smile, I said, “Good game,” shook his hand, and sauntered off.
I should have been disappointed, and to some extent I was, but I was really more excited than anything else. I had played a whole game in my first pro-level Magic tournament, and I had not totally embarrassed myself. Anyway, I was just getting warmed up.
I won the next round, then lost—and went on to sit through all six rounds. By the end of the day, I was having too much fun to manage the poker face. Between rounds, I chatted with other competitors, discussing deck archetypes and casually rattling off my win-loss record.
I walked away from that tournament having lost more rounds than I won, but I still felt an immense swell of pride. I had been in the same room as a state champion. I had played the best of the best, and I had not cried or whined or embarrassed myself. I was just another Magic player.
So, when “the kid” wanders into the shop nowadays, I do my best to give her a fair game—smiling, as excited to play as she is. That is all I wanted back then, after all.
—Columnist Julia E. Hansbrough can be reached at email@example.com.