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.
It's quite a change from the way it was only five years ago. Magic: The Gathering was created in 1993 by Richard Garfield, then a mathematics professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. He did it on a dare; Peter Adkinson, then a systems analyst with Boeing, had started a fledgling game company called Wizards of the Coast in his basement and needed a product to push. He challenged Garfield, whom he had met over the Internet, to design a portable science-fiction card game that could be played in less than an hour. Within a week, Garfield had come up with Magic, drawing on his longtime fascination with the works of Lewis Carroll and J.R.R. Tolkien as well as his experience with Dungeons and Dragons. Unlike D&D, though, Magic isn't a role-playing game where someone becomes a specific character; instead, it's a game where the cards are literally everything, a self-contained universe ruled not just by spells but by mathematics.
Garfield's genius was to come up with a world you could in part create yourself -- unlike, say, bridge or poker, Magic doesn't have a single deck that everyone shares; instead, it has thousands of cards from which players construct their own decks, with an eye to how they might fare against decks put together by potential opponents. It's also a world that you can tuck into your back pocket until you find someone else who lives there, at which point the cards are removed, spells are cast ... and a domain of power, set rules and predictable results is entered, a domain that those who don't know the rules find puzzling and, even better, impenetrable.
No wonder the game found a quick audience among teenage boys, to whom the real world, with its fluid rules, can sometimes seem a bit overwhelming. Magic players are "kind of dorky, really. Most are 16- to 20-year-old guys who are rejects," Coonce notes. "[They] have really bad sleeping habits. They stay up all night playing computer games." Magic is based on a five-color land system -- blue (islands) is mysterious, with crafty spells that counter effects; white (plains) is religious and defensive, designed to protect and restore; red (mountains) is volcanic, tending to be fast and fiery; black (swamps) deals with death and destruction; green (forests) signifies life, the most creature-oriented color. Magic cards, sized like regular playing cards, are renowned for the elaborate artwork that illustrates each card's function. The artwork is generally a notch better than what you'd find in a comic book. Wizards of the Coast, which has ridden Magic to become the nation's leading gaming company, is careful not to fall into the trap of sleazy babe art. The slightest hint of sexuality can stir the Magic community's unsatisfied libido.
At a recent tournament, the artwork for the Ekundu Cyclops card -- a naked, ax-wielding male Cyclops dancing madly while his hideous mate, dagger in hand, straddles a rising green phallic symbol -- created an uproar. "It was the rage of the set," says Tim Weissman, a part-owner of Empire and a sanctioned Magic tournament judge (see sidebar, this page). "I couldn't believe Wizards printed that. It was crazy, man."
It only took six weeks for the ten million Magic cards in Wizards of the Coast's first printing to sell out. Twelve expansion sets have followed, and now more than two billion cards, in nine languages, have been printed. An estimated six million people play Magic. Wizards of the Coast has expanded from its five-person basement office to a multinational gaming conglomerate with more than 300 employees and profits recently estimated at $150 million. Magic sales now exceed the sales of traditional games such as Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit.
"The original attraction was to beat your friends," says Weissman. Word of Magic spread through the teenage geek underground faster than solid information about it did. Early on, players more or less winged it. "We didn't know how to tune the decks," Weissman says. "We just played all our cards. Huge stacks. Then it was getting the cards [opponents] didn't have and surprising them. I was the first to have a Shivan Dragon. When that came into play, it was like tough shit."
Though initially drawn to the game's randomness, players end up being hooked by the construction of their own decks. Each year, Wizards releases two or three new sets of cards; to date, more than 4,000 different cards have been created, meaning there are myriad deck possibilities. Competitive players tend to limit their decks to 60 cards, and play only the most versatile cards. Many play theme decks -- exploding goblins, flying elephants -- while others stick with decks designed for quick kills.
There is no such thing as the perfect deck, but Magic players will sit around for hours and debate the untested. "Goblin Vandal is a good card," insists one player at Empire, "especially if you get it out on the first turn."
"No, man," responds another, "control decks get boring after awhile."
When a deck is flowing well, players smile or bounce in their seats or drum the table with their fingers. They often recite the descriptive words on their favorite card's front, such as these from the Northern Paladin: Look to the north; there you will find aid and comfort.
As interest in Magic has grown, Wizards has started positioning the game in the mainstream, distancing it from the gambling aspects it once encouraged, and removing the cards -- Demonic Hordes, Demonic Tutor and Demonic Attorney, for example -- that some people, Pat Robertson among them, have pointed to in an attempt to tie the game to devil worship.
Indeed, in 1995, a group of parents in New York State tried unsuccessfully to get Magic banned from local schools, claiming the game introduced children to the occult. That sort of reputation can be pretty keen if you're a kid who sees himself as an outsider anyway, but it's not keen if you want to take a cult game and make it more than that, and Wizards of the Coast definitely is looking to move beyond the cult. No longer relying on word of mouth, Magic is now touted in commercials during MTV's Real World.
In February 1996, Wizards announced its $1 million Pro Tour, an ingenious way to keep people playing, and buying, the game. Players purchase a Duelists' Convocation International number that tracks their wins and losses in sanctioned events. Wizards then tallies the world rankings. The top 50 players automatically qualify for the Pro Tour, and a first- or second-place finish at a qualifying tournament earns a spot in one pro tournament. There are five pro events a year, followed by a world championship each August in Seattle.
Wizards strongly regulates the type of decks usable in sanctioned events. Not surprisingly, deck format coincides with the release of new card sets. Players must spend between $500 and $600 a year to play with cards in the current format.
In the old days, local comic shops would host tournaments in a variety of formats. Now, the Kettle is one of a few places to find a "battlecircle," where up to 30 players participate. It is increasingly difficult to find people who play with the fun theme decks. For the most part, Magic tournaments have evolved into bloodthirsty affairs, with combatants vying for DCI points and Pro Tour berths. It's an ideal environment for card sharks such as Bob Coonce.
Coonce grew up in southeast Houston, playing Dungeons and Dragons in the summers, but only sparingly. Now 20, he wears silver, wire-rimmed glasses and black Birkenstock sandals and sports a tattoo of a jester's mask on his right ankle.
He first found out about Magic in the summer of 1994, through some friends who had picked up the game in college. His group played almost exclusively amongst itself. The games were competitive, though, and at the few tournaments the group attended, remembers Coonce, "we all did well. That's rare for an isolated group of players."
Coonce realized early that there was money in Magic. In its first few print runs, Wizards released cards that were too powerful for the game, cards that quickly became collectors' items. Mostly through trading, some shrewd Magic players started hoarding the power cards. Coonce was one of them. In October 1994, he invested in Magic. "Initially, I spent about $1,000 on the game," he says. "I bought everything. The Moxes, Time Cards. I paid about $10 for each of those cards. I had multiples of all the good stuff."
Though Wizards quickly banned these cards from official tournament play, at the time there really wasn't any official tournament play. Wherever Magic fans gathered, the game was played for both pride and profit. Wizards encouraged players to wager a card on each game. Playing a deck without the right cards was a downright losing proposition; it soon meant you had no cards -- and so, to the delight of Wizards, of course, had to buy new ones.
Coonce rented booths at gaming conventions and tournaments and peddled his wares. "People were crazy for Magic cards," he says. "I made $1,500 at my first convention, and I still had most of my good cards. And I bought good stuff, too. Dealers buy stuff from the players for cheap." Coonce worked shows in Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, and soon amassed a formidable collection. "Eventually, people figured out that if they needed good cards, they had to come to me."
With his wealth of game-breaker cards, Coonce created a legendary Magic deck he dubbed Weenie White. Coonce claims that at one point Weenie White won 30 out of some 35 local tournaments.
As part-owner of Legends, a comic and card shop in Clear Lake, Coonce sets his own hours and skips town every other weekend, often for Magic business. "My family doesn't think I'm doing anything, working in a card shop," Coonce says. "But I like what I do. I want to stay in it for a while. It's easy work." Over the last three years, Coonce claims to have earned more than $60,000 off the buying and selling of the game. It was Magic, he says, that financed his sleek, metallic gray Mazda RX-7. At a recent tournament, he sold two cards for $90 apiece. "Instant money," Coonce boasts. And though the playing environment is now more balanced, Coonce says he still wins between $200 to $400 a week in tournament prizes. He is, as everyone in Houston Magic circles knows, still the man.
To understand the Magic phenomenon, one must accept that we live in a world where early editions of comic books sell for tens of thousands of dollars, and action figures from Star Wars can cost as much as $1,500. Wizards of the Coast created Magic with collectors in mind. New sets of Magic cards are like baseball cards, best purchased by the box. If left unopened, a box's value will increase over time. A box from the Legends set, released in October 1994, originally sold for $65. It's now worth $1,200.
Comic shops have glass case after glass case filled with rows of individual cards for sale. Though the prices are usually on the high end, players purchase or trade these cards to complete sets, to strengthen decks or maybe because they like a card's artwork.
Most of Magic, however, is bought by the $2.95 booster pack. Each box contains 36 booster packs that contain 11 common cards, four uncommons and one rare. Cracking packs is an addicting proposition. Just as it's possible to draw a Michael Jordan rookie card from a basketball pack, so too can one pull the Shivan Dragon, the rarest of Magic creatures, from a Magic pack. Most of the time, of course, a player doesn't get the cards he wants or needs, so he buys more.
I know the addiction well. I rue that fateful night in August 1994, when my friend Spike introduced me to Magic. It took all of one game to become hooked. Spike and I played until daybreak, when I toured the comic shops, buying up as many booster packs as possible.
From there my life went downhill. I spent thousands of dollars. I maxed out my credit cards. I found myself playing Magic in Whataburgers at 4 a.m. with people I didn't know. I waged battles through e-mail and long distance. As a substitute teacher, I played Magic with my students. And when I found no opponent, I played alone, for hours shuffling and drawing hands, testing cards that could make my deck faster and more deadly.
I realized I had a problem on the night that my then-girlfriend called from the downtown jail. Incarcerated for outstanding traffic tickets, she needed me to bail her out. "Just one more game," I kept telling my friend Dave. Dozens of games later, we finally made it to jail. It was 5 a.m. and I was seven hours late. I'll never forget the look on her face, when, after being sprung from the pen, she saw us playing Magic on the floor of the waiting area. Talk about relationship closure.
Sending me, or almost any other Magic fanatic, to a comic shop is like loosing an alcoholic in a liquor store. I can't resist the temptation. I buy a handful of booster packs from Legends ($26) and then some more ($36). I split a box of boosters ($50) with my friend Dave. Coonce sells me a tournament deck ($40). My bedroom is littered with booster wrappers and stacks upon stacks of cards.
I am able to conquer the addiction only after stowing some 15,000 cards in a dark corner of my closet. There they are out of sight, and on most days, out of mind.
At a back table of his comic shop, Coonce plays magic with Team Legends, his cadre of game-playing friends and customers. "We play four to five hours a day," he says. "Everybody brings different things. We get a pretty good idea about how a deck plays and what kind of decks it'll have problems with."
Being part of a team has its advantages -- there is usually a split-the-prize agreement at tournaments. With a box of cards at stake, team members draft for each other, much like bicyclists in a long race. Should they play each other, they take draws -- or concede -- to improve their team's chances of making the finals.
The best team in the region is the Austin Knights, whose members consistently win tournaments. Team Dallas is also well-regarded. Coonce, though, stands by Team Legends, which prides itself on being the coolest team. Not only does it have Coonce, who looks far too cool for the average Magic nerd, it also has Eddie Zamora, who doesn't look like the typical Magic geek either. Zamora, who recently graduated from high school and is unsure of his future, wears beige corduroy pants and a black leather beret. He isn't sold on the idea of college, but he can tell what's in an opponent's deck in a mere two turns.
"During a tournament, I'll talk to my opponent," Zamora says. "There are tricks to the trade, bluffing, bullshitting. If he has just one card, I'll ask him, 'How many cards do you have? What is it?' Sometimes he'll tell me. It's really about getting in their heads."
Smoking a cigarette later, Zamora strokes his goatee and talks about nearly qualifying for the Magic Pro Tour in Oklahoma City. After a 4-0 start, he lost his final match and finished in ninth place, missing the semifinal cut by one.
"Oh man, I came so close," he says. "Really, I did just as good as the guy who got last. I got nothing."
Another Team Legends member is Ted, an 18-year-old high school student with a shadowy black mustache and acne-riddled skin. Ted is one of the team's stronger players. "He is so damn lucky," says Coonce.
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Coonce plays Ted with the deck he has sold me -- an all-red "burn" deck designed to destroy an opponent in fewer than seven turns. Their games rarely last longer than five minutes, with Coonce winning most of them.
Late in one game, Coonce summons Lava Hounds, a tough creature that inflicts four points of damage to himself. With Coonce's life points reduced to five, Ted plays Spite, a nasty black card that kills Coonce, suddenly and violently.
"Shit, a loss," Coonce says. "I hate losing."
"Man, you made the right play," Ted says. "How could you know I had a Spite?"
As they play, I pick up on the ritual of the game. The unspoken signals indicating the end of turn. How each player knows what's in the other's hand, and plans at least five turns ahead. Through all the boasting and bullshitting, I realize that when the playing field is level, the difference between the good and the great, the pro and the amateur, sometimes boils down to the luck of the draw. Watching, I find myself thinking that maybe in the end, the difference between Magic and life isn't that great after all.