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Why Magic The Gathering Was At Least As Cool As Pokemon, Why They Fell From Glory

Updated on July 29, 2016

This Card Was Worth $300 When I Played

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Battling

You start with 20 points of health. Creatures and spells can do damage to you, reducing your health.

Creatures have two basic attributes: Attack and Defense. The Attack number is listed first, followed after a forward slash by the Defense number. When a creature gets through (is not blocked) it damages you for the Attack number to your health. When it is blocked, the blocker deals the Attack damage to the attackers Defense number (and vice versa). If the Defense number is lower than the Attack number, the creature dies. These numbers are in the lower right hand corner of the creature cards.

What Are Magic Cards?

I'm willing to bet that almost everyone who reads this will know what Magic cards are. They'll know that it's a collectible card game based on the creation of "decks" of a minimum of 60 cards that each player shuffles and uses to play his side of the "duel." They'll probably know about "mana," or the energy source of the game that allows creatures and spells to be cast and the game to proceed. They'll probably know that each player takes his turn, and that each turn consists of different phases, proceeding from drawing cards to laying "land" (the "mana" generator) to casting regular spells to attacking with creatures to discarding. They will probably know that the way you activate or use cards is to turn them sideways, called "tapping." They'll know that when your creatures have attacked they get tapped, and when you get attacked, you can only block with untapped creatures. They'll probably know the most popular cards, from "lightning bolt" to "Shivan Dragon" to "Black Lotus" to "Ancestral Recall."

They'll probably be familiar with the beautiful, original art painstakingly created for each individual card. They'll probably know of someone, whether it be themselves or a friend, who was absolutely taken hold by the magic of "Magic: The Gathering."

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How Did This Game Start?

I can't be quoted on exact dates or sequences of events, but I do know that the game originated from the creativity of a Penn Graduate student named Richard Garfield. From what I remember, it became a bit of a craze amongst his friends.

The first official sets of cards were called "Alpha" and "Beta." Much smaller than future "sets," They were also full of cards that would prove to be too powerful and that would lead to the creation of super-decks full of these cards that were virtually unbeatable. As a response to the difficulty of dealing with decks full of particular cards, card number restrictions were introduced. The Black Lotus, an "artifact" card that you could play for free and sacrifice for three mana of any combination (there are five types of mana: Red, Green, Black, White, and Blue), for example, would become restricted to one per deck. Other restricted cards included Ancestral Recall, which would, for one blue mana, allow you to draw three cards from the top of your deck. Of course, what the cards do mean little to someone who hasn't played before, but, let me assure you that those were some heavy duty effects for cheap.

After Alpha and Beta came "Antiquities" and "Legends." These were expansion sets (there would eventually be two categories of card sets, one larger and containing mana, and one basic standard set that would contain all of the main cards that had always been in the game) that would double-or-more the number of available cards with which to compose decks. The limited quantities of productions of these sets made the cards highly sought-after for years to come as the game grew in popularity. These sets had themes based on general fantasy-lore. The eventual path the sets would trace would be towards a fantasy-story unique to the game.

The development of the story started with authors who would write books loosely based on the game. I remember my favorite one, a book titled "Arena." It was the story of an outcasted wizard whose family had been destroyed by the political scoundrels of the central town. He came back as a mysterious stranger to subtly invade the different "houses" (correlating to the different kinds of mana) and wreak havoc as well as eventually overthrow the man who had ruined his life as a child. It's one of the only books I read more than once. It was awesome.

I'll resume the progression of the game through time in the "Going Commercial" capsule. Next, why was Magic so damn cool?

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What Made Magic So Cool?

My favorite part of Magic was being able to compose personalized decks. The ability to make the game yourself, to design your character's weapon, the responsibility of your own choices being mostly at cause for how the duel played out, all of it adds up, to me, to something hands-down cooler than any board or video game. Yes, some video games you do customize your character, but it's not quite the same. You bought the cards, you traded the cards, you won the cards at tournaments with your skills at deck-building and dueling, you created this from billions of possible combinations. There's something about this amount of unique personalization and this amount of blatant-necessity of intelligence, craftsmanship and skill that I find almost intoxicatingly wonderful.

In addition to the mechanics of the game and deck-building, there was within the culture of magic the ability for a bunch of geeks to get together and have something to do and talk about and relate over. That was a large part of it, comic-book warriors coming together to chat and play a few games of Magic and exchange cards and deck-building tips, making friendships. The comic-shop was always a place where people hung out, whether buying comics or playing Dungeons & Dragons, but with the addition of tournaments and a game that let you completely design your own character there was a level of involvement and fellowship unseen prior. Magic brought people from many unexpected walks of life to the card table, and created friendships between people of different status, different locale, and different personality.

One of my favorite parts about it all was the tournament atmosphere and culture...

Tournaments Are Wicked Fun

Me, my brother Chuck, and my brother Jack. Jack was the first one to get cards. One Christmas, Mom had been at a bookstore and (as usual) ended up getting talked into buying the latest cute little board-game type thing in the store. This time, though, there was actually something interesting about the game. It had been the last Starter Deck of the Unlimited set in the store. Unlimited was the third basic set that had come out in the Magic world, and was about to become out-of-print when the Revised Edition was released. So, Jack ended up with 60 collector's items, something to do with his brothers on Christmas break, and a brand-spanking new way to waste hours and hours of time instead of doing homework!

As all of us got used to the game, got used to the rules and deck-building and strategy, it turned out that all of us had a knack for the game. Chuck turned out to be by far the best of us. He had always been the one who was the best at video games, games in general. It wasn't that surprising, but it was sort of frustrating. Chuck and Jack, being much older than I, would take to visiting the tournaments that were popping up at bookstores all over the area shortly after learning how to play. The tournaments were littered with other people who had similar interests to my brothers, people who were generally fairly intelligent, very enthusiastic about fantasy-gaming, and who played Magic. Magic was a great way to hang out for the first time, giving you hours and hours of time to talk while laying out cards on the dining room table. This was, as well as a place to test your abilities, a forum for just such hanging out to happen in mass quantities.

There was a bookstore about 20 minutes away that has since closed down (some minor chain I've forgotten the name of). This bookstore was one of the first to host Magic tournaments in the area. They had an island set up for selling single cards at all times, and a manager who was a Magic afficianado. The manager, of course, was the one who decided to start a tournament. The first time attending one of his tournaments was, for my brother Chuck, the first time winning a tournament. It was awesome! He made his way through a bracket of forty-or-so other gamers to win hundreds of dollars in store credit (or maybe cash? it varied by tournament). He proved to be, at least in this respect, a talented young man, and earned some level of respect in that crowd. Between all of the tournaments he won (which were probably numbering half of the ones he attended, the others he came in the top 3) he was able to amass a gigantic collection of cards including the elusive Mox and Black Lotus artifacts.

The general feel of it was just very exciting. The game was clever and fun, the people were interesting and friendly, and there was somewhat of a ranking system to rate your decks and skills by. This was the Golden Age of Magic: The Gathering!

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Going Commercial

Unfortunately, as time went on something happened to the game of Magic that caused it's inevitable downfall.

The pace of new card sets started increasing. As the sets kept coming, anyone who wanted to keep up in tournaments (there was a particular type called "Type II" that only allowed cards from the most recent sets, which became increasingly popular) was forced to buy enough of the new cards to get all the good ones for their decks. Really, you needed four of any of the good cards, four being the limit for any single card in a deck. After a few sets in the beginning, new "abilities" started coming on the scene, changing the way the game was played, the strategy, and the value of prior cards. Yes, with each set was some sort of neat new concept or new card that challenged you to change up your game and your deck if you wanted to compete. No, it didn't prove to be very popular.

Of course, I don't have any statistics on this. I'm going by the fact that many people I know gave the game up around the time new sets started popping up with all the new abilities. The only things I can go by are how often I heard about Magic, how many people I knew who played it, and how many places sold the cards. Every now and then I still take a glance behind the counters of bookstores and in the card sections of Walmart only to find Pokemon and Digimon cards, with few if any of their predecessor.

Surely, there is something to be said for the fact that many games that come out and rise quickly in popularity soon fade into practical non-existence. With my experience in the culture of Magic, however, I believe that there was within its cards the ability to become a worldwide phenomenon that would have staying power and continual growth. I personally believe that Magic tried too hard, came out with too many new products and changed the game too much to keep the interests of the people with whom it had made it's initial grand impressions.

There are still some Magic hold-outs out there, but, everywhere you look, the Devil is cute and brightly colored...

Oh My, Pikachu... The Real You!

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Pokemon Are The Devil

So, really, when you think about becoming cheesy and commercial, you have to think that Magic alone wasn't anywhere near capable of killing itself like a bunch of cute little muppets from Japan could. When Pokemon came out, it quickly overtook Magic and replaced it on the shelves of the comic book stores. The tournaments that you would see would be of the 12-year-old children variety, the cards in the cases would have yellow backgrounds, and the integrity of collectible card games, which was one of the attractive factors, was forever compromised. It didn't help that the same company that made Magic Cards made Pokemon Cards.

I mean, don't get me wrong, there are still many of the same attributes to Pokemon Card-gaming that there were to Magic, but, for me, all the "Magic" left with it's namesakes popularity. I am, believe it or not, a fan of the idea of Pokemon and even played a little bit. I believe that it's a mentally challenging form of gaming that lets kids use their mind instead of their thumbs, however cheesy the illustrations are. I will always prefer the idea of card games to the flash and pomp of video games.

There's really nothing wrong with Pokemon. Magic had it's day, and made a lasting impression on many of us, never to be forgotten. I do wish, though, every now and then, that I could grab 60 cards and sit down with some old friends for a night of MAGIC: THE GATHERING.

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