For more than 20 years, people all over the world have been playing the strategic fantasy card game Magic: the Gathering. But the game has only recently found its way to Unalaska, where the island’s teenage boys have been going through a serious Magic phase for the past few months.
For the city’s recreation staff, that means a chance to offer a Lower 48-style experience: an official Magic tournament, which they hosted earlier this month.
By Unalaska standards, high school senior Kei Kawada is a Magic: the Gathering veteran. He’s been playing for eight months, more than double most of the rest of the boys in today’s tournament.
When Kei walks into the multipurpose room precisely one minute late, while the rules are being explained, the others aren’t too happy to see him.
Carlos Tayag: No one wanted you to show up.
Kei and 17 other friends and rivals are in for a grueling five hours of strategizing, spell-casting and card shuffling. All these boys are in middle and high school.
Tayag: So we’re playing legacy format, which is basically every card ever invented…
That’s referee Carlos Tayag explaining how the game is going to work.
Magic is the original dueling trading card game, invented in Renton, Wash. in 1993 and still based there today. There are thousands of cards, all with fantastical illustrations and names like “Kamahl, Pit Fighter.” Players use them to attack each other and defend themselves in games.
Tayag has been playing Magic for 10 years. He’s also been the youth programs coordinator for the city department of parks, culture and recreation since October.
“It’s probably been going heavily here for about six weeks that I’ve noticed,” Tayag says. “But I’ve heard that there are underground societies on the island where they’ve been playing Magic for longer.”
Full disclosure: Tayag and I are roommates, and he’s even gotten me dabbling in Magic. But I’m only watching and learning today.
Tayag: “One more thing. The youngest player chooses who goes first in this round.”
Round one is about to begin. Everyone shuffles their decks, draws their hands and gets their game faces on. Tayag starts the clock. And then… it get serious. Soon, all around, I’m hearing things like this:
Unidentified player: [card slap] “Cradle of Vitality. Whenever I gain life, I may pay one plains and any uncolored mana, and if I do, I can put a one-one counter on a target creature for each life I gain.”
Complicated? Definitely. But the basics of the game are simple. Every card is a spell – creatures, enchantments and more. They all cost a certain number of different-colored mana cards. You have to put those cards down before you can play anything else.
Players use spells to deal damage to each other or block attacks. You start with 20 points each and try to knock each other down to zero.
Players have to buy the cards to build their decks. You can spend a little or a lot of money, and you could make a deck that was pretty hard to beat. But there’s no card shop in Unalaska. So players buy cards online and barter with friends.
It’s basically a big trump game — and, Tayag says, a learning experience.
“They practice communication skills and really how to problem-solve with each other,” he says. “You have to decipher rules and they kind of get to figure out what works how, and why does it work, and why does one person win over the other.”
So far, Kei Kawada seems to have a good sense of that. He’s victorious after round one.
“It’s all about dealing damage,” Kei says. “I like it.”
But Kei’s a little nervous; now, everyone wants to beat him. Over the next two rounds, he has to be merciless, even taking out his little brother, Ryu.
Across the room, another younger player is climbing the ranks. Johnny Khongsuk, an eighth grader, has only been playing Magic for month or so. I asked him about his strategy before round one.
“Be a pain, and just like, make — tap his creatures, and attack when he has nothing to defend with,” Johnny says.
Johnny makes it through to the final — and so does Kei. It’s going on 9 p.m. and the room has emptied out by the time the championship match begins.
Soon, both boys are wiping sweat off their brows. This is one of the most intense games they’ve ever played.
Johnny pulls a spell he hasn’t used before. It lets him steal some of Kei’s cards.
Kei: “Dang, he’s just using all my creatures!”
Johnny: [evil laugh] “Using your creatures against you.”
But soon enough, Kei’s back on top, and Johnny can’t pull out the win — Kei defeats him. His championship prize? A big box of new Magic cards.
The community center plans to hold a Magic workshop in February, and maybe more tournaments later in the year. Carlos Tayag isn’t sure how long the Magic craze can last here, as players graduate and get interested in other things. But he hopes it’ll have some staying power.
“Not only is it an intelligent game, but it’s a social activity,” he says. “I’d much rather have kids playing card games in the community center than playing some other type of game over their videogame system, and they’re not really kind of connecting with the real world.”
And that social interaction holds true even if kids are playing in one of those so-called underground societies — maybe at Johnny’s house, next weekend.