Welcome to a new column called Geek Speak, in which we take on an aspect of geek culture each week.
The world championship of Magic: The Gathering is in Amsterdam this week. For the next four days, some of the world's best players will compete individually for the title of world champion, and on national teams in the World Magic Cup. Ten hours or more of coverage will be streamed online every day, and I'll be stuck to a computer screen every spare moment I can find, absorbing as much of it as I can.
In case you aren't familiar, Magic: The Gathering is a card game. Most people probably know it -- if they know it at all -- as "that wizard game the weird kids played at lunch." Players take the role of wizards and use powerful spells and ferocious creatures to try to kill their opponent. Sounds goofy, I know. But strip away the veneer of wizards and magic and what you're left with is an intellectually challenging, skill-intensive game that requires players to balance multiple resources to formulate and execute complex plans while at the same time anticipating and disrupting their opponent's plans. It is a great game, maybe the best game. At the minimum, it is my Very Favorite Game, and I say that as someone who spends as much time playing games I as I do on any other leisure activity.
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Weird kids still play it at lunch, but the players in the World Championship and World Cup are mostly professionals -- they earn their living, or at least a significant portion of it, playing the game, as well as writing about it and creating videos and other content for enthusiasts like me. The big tournaments -- and they don't get much bigger than the World Championship -- feature cash prizes of up to $40,000 for the winner, and total pots of up to $250,000. Those happen just a few times a year -- four in 2013: three Pro Tours and the World Championship -- while smaller tournaments called Grands Prix, paying out $30,000, with $3,500 for the winner, happen almost weekly. Most of these are covered extensively online, with streaming video bringing the play to any screen you can hook a computer to. Whenever I can work it into my schedule, I tune in to watch the game's best compete at its highest level. This weekend, if I'm lucky, that might mean squeezing in six or eight hours of coverage, but I'd watch more if I could.
Just so we're clear, that means watching two people sit across from one another, playing cards illustrated with dragons, wizards and zombies. It's frequently a slow game, with long, deliberate pauses while the players puzzle out what their best move might be. Even the action consists of laying cards down and/or turning them sideways while uttering arcane declarations like, "I'll dissipate your Thragtusk." There are commentators, as in any sport, although the commentary itself is aimed at experienced players, and is frequently laced with so much obscure jargon and slang that it may as well be in a foreign language. Occasionally they'll break away for the equivalent of sideline interviews, in which a player will break down his deck or strategy. It's not exactly visually arresting viewing, and for someone who doesn't play the game, watching this would be incredibly dull, not to mention inscrutable. To hardcore fans like myself, though, it is riveting. I'm sure that seems strange, but it's no different than watching poker on ESPN, or even a "serious" sport like golf.
I am, basically, a sports nut for Magic: The Gathering. I have favorite players, favorite strategies and a nearly endless appetite for coverage of the game.
This month Magic: The Gathering turns twenty years old. Monday, August 5 marks exactly two decades since the game's official release. That makes this year's World Championship feel extra-special, especially to a longtime fan like myself. I was first exposed to the game a year or so after it came out, and started playing a few months after that. I was a serious player in that first go-round. I organized and ran small tournaments in those days, and played in bigger tournaments whenever I could. The pinnacle of my success was winning a Pro Tour qualifier here in Denver, back in 1996, earning a spot on Pro Tour Dallas, the sixth pro tour event ever. I say the pro tour qualifier was the pinnacle of my success because I actually won that, whereas I finished a dispiriting No. 228 of 242 competitors in the actual pro tour. The winner took home $26,000; I took home the realization that maybe I wasn't as good as I thought I was.
In retrospect, I can always point to the fact that on the official results tally, even given my terrible performance, my finish is listed two spots above that of Tommi Hovi, a Hall of Fame player. See that, kids? I could have been a contender...
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Twenty years is an impressive lifespan for most games, but what's especially impressive about Magic is that it's never been more popular than it is today. More people, in more parts of the world, now play the game than at any other point in its history. It's not an easy game to learn, but that hasn't stopped millions of players from putting in the hours. Some small percentage of them -- the best, most dedicated of those players -- get to do it for a living. I haven't tried to compete at a serious level in well over a decade -- it's no pursuit for a married man with kids -- but I never tire of watching the best play the best, enjoying it for the beauty of the game and the intensity of the competition and, occasionally, learning a thing or two I can apply to my own game. I'll never win $40,000 playing, but that doesn't mean I can't still wipe the floor with the competition down at the local game store from time to time by using something I picked up from the people who do.