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In the crowded back room of Empire Comics on Shepherd, a fierce battle is being waged for Dominia, a fantasy land in which strategy and magic rule, and hipness is the exception. Seated across from each other at long tables are today's socially disaffected -- young male twentysomethings who wear Coke-bottle glasses and tube socks with their Birkenstocks. Their hair is oily, their faces greasy. Their Star Trek shirts are faded and smelly. Their eyes are bloodshot, but they are far from tired.
The contest at this weekly tournament is Magic: The Gathering, a fantasy card game that pits wizards against each other in a battle to the death. The players caress decks of cards that they have tuned like fine instruments. In neat rows on the red felt tablecloth, they rotate (tap) their land cards to generate the power (mana) that enables them to cast sorceries, enchant the world and -- most important -- control the game. The action is fast and furious. There is little small talk.
"I summon Ball Lightning and a Viashino Sandstalker," says one young wizard with a wicked smile. "They attack this turn. That's ten points of damage. You're dead."
"Did you see that clutch pull?" shouts another. "The only card that could save me is the Necratog. That's the clutchest Necratog ever!"
To anyone wandering in, the language being spoken would be as arcane as the game itself. Magic players don't shuffle their cards, they riffle. Their play decks are given names such as Turbo Behemoth, Mwaha, Gallowbraid, Senor Stomp and Buried Alive. Poor players are scrubs or shmreks. A player who draws a game-breaker card -- a phatty -- is a top-decker. Cocky players deface their cards with derogatory messages such as "Game Over" or "Blast that Ass!" Crushing an opponent is a beatdown. Victory in five turns or less, a turbo beatdown.
For hours these combatants blast each other with fireballs, summon armies of blood-lusted goblins and resurrect creatures from their graveyards. They maintain life points with opaque beads, 20-sided dice and tiny, pointing bronze wizard statues that rotate on numeric pedestals.
In the feature match seat, Bob L. Coonce works to defend his throne as Houston's top wizard. Coonce stands out in this room -- for him, image is at least something. His long brown hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail. He wears a faded green polo shirt and khaki shorts. He carries a cellular phone so the girls -- the forgotten gender in this almost exclusively male subculture -- can reach him.
"Who believes that I'm done with the first game already?" he asks the room. In less than ten minutes he has disposed of his first opponent, a bearded older man in a faded Bert Wills shirt. The only damage Coonce takes is self-inflicted. "I'm bringing the package tonight," he says. "I feel baaaad!"
He plays with an aura of confidence that intimidates and confuses. He is a master of the Jedi Mind Trick. "Fireblast me," he taunts an opponent. "Come on, Fireblast me. You know you want to." "Autumn Willow?" he taunts his next opponent, referring to a particularly unusual card. "Who the hell plays with Autumn Willow?"
In a game of statistics, gradated curves and probabilities, Coonce has a transcendent clairvoyance. He randomly pulls five cards from a deck and correctly predicts 40 of the remaining ones. His opponents have been known to concede immediately, rather than be humbled by him.
"People are afraid to play Bob," says Eddie Zamora, Coonce's friend and playing partner. "They remember how he dominated in the old days. It's like, 'I think I'm gonna lose.' They're intimidated, and they make mistakes. It's a big advantage for him."
Coonce is the 440th best Magic player in the world -- a ranking that takes on more significance when you realize that the number of Magic aficionados ranges into the many millions. He is also one of only three Houstonians to qualify for the next stop on the Magic Pro Tour. Next month, he will fly to an event in Chicago, where he will chase both prize money -- first place pays $26,000; the total purse is $150,000 -- and a greater destiny. Bob Coonce yearns to be the world's greatest Magic player.
In between his matches, two kids playing at a counter challenge Coonce to battle. He tells them that he's game, but only if they're willing to ante up a substantial payoff for the winner. The price to play the best is a ten-card wager. No mercy. Coonce's offer is refused.
"Those guys over there are just dorks who talk shit," he says, loudly. "If they do play for ante, they lose. You don't talk shit unless you're going to win. You want to be the man, you gotta beat the man."
Every night of the week, you can find groups of Magic fanatics playing Magic somewhere in Houston. On Sundays, the Book Browser hosts a tournament in its spacious side room. On Fridays, Phoenix Comics hosts open gaming nights that last until midnight. And on Tuesdays, hordes of gamers flock to a Kettle restaurant on FM 1960, where the service is friendly to wizards and the games continue until 5 a.m.