On Magic: Part 1 — The Origin Story

James Hsu
15 min readJul 29, 2015

Update: The full book is published! More details here.

I’m here to tell you why I play a card game called Magic: The Gathering.

This is an account of why I started playing this game in my teenage years, what kept me going in my twenties, and why I continue to play this game as I approach my mid-thirties. This is not a propaganda piece extolling the virtues of this game. Nor is it a rant about the state of gaming and its negative effects. This is neither an endorsement nor denouncement of the game.

I have no agenda, other than to examine myself critically, exorcise some demons, and to try and arrive at a conclusion: at the end of the day, should I keep investing time in an activity like this, or call it quits? Should I get out while I’m ahead and “on top”? Is there even such a thing when it comes to a pastime like Magic?

I’m basically asking myself the most critical question of all — should I keep playing this game? Is Magic something I should keep playing, at the age of 33 years? And if the answer is no, what’s different this time around?

These are the questions that I will try to answer. It is self-indulgent. Then again, any first-person piece is. Don’t expect any revelations. As much as Magic can imitate organized religion or take over one’s life, there will be no catharsis here. What I promise to provide, however, is brutal honesty tinged with regret. I also promise to hold no punches when it comes to criticizing myself, and other Magic players. Bridges can burn, and that’s OK.

If you play Magic, you may see a bit of yourself in my first-person account. You may even be offended. If I’m doing it right, you will be offended.

If you do not play Magic, this account will still give you insight into my addictive personality, stubborn attitude, and all of my inner flaws.

These are the last words I will ever spill on the subject of Magic. Once I publish this, I’m done. There will be no more.

I’m going to go out swinging.

Are you with me?

Ask anyone remotely interested in gaming about Magic: The Gathering and you’ll get some knowing nods.

“Oh yeah, man, Magic! I played that in summer camp with my buddies. I had a Vampires deck, it was sweet.”

“Dude, Magic was awesome. We used to play that in the Science Fiction club. I had an unbeatable flying Faeries deck.”

“Magic? You still play MAGIC? My mom threw my cards out when I was in grade school.”

The rules of the game are simple. Each player builds a “deck” of cards using the cards that they own. Players challenge each player to a duel. Players shuffle up and draw their cards. The objective is to defeat the other player by reducing their life total from 20 to 0. Players do this by playing spells from their deck, summoning powerful creatures to the battlefield to fight for them, or a million other cool fantastical things. No game is exactly the same, and a match can be played in as little as five minutes.

The closest thing I can equate the Magic movement to is poker. They are games about individual accomplishment, and appeal to both the casual and hardcore gamer. It can either be an innocuous hobby or an all-consuming abyss of addiction. The pendulum changes for people over time, as they move in and out of the game’s ebb and flow.

As winning and losing is predicated on a combination of skill and luck, it casts a wide net. Players play the game for different reasons. There is the seasoned professional player, who plays Magic for a living through winning tournaments and acquiring sponsorships. There is the casual tournament player, eager to try his luck against the competition whenever there are events in his area. There’s also the fun-loving, quirky expressionist, who likes to build quirky decks and use out-of-the-box strategies. Magic is about style; the cards themselves reflect the personality of the player.

There is a deep “flavor” element to Magic. Cards are adorned with fantasy images and themes. One could play to win, or one could assemble theme decks with Elves and Goblins and Angels and Dragons. Each card is illustrated, and fits into a thematic collection of cards. The fantasy element becomes a draw for many players, who love to collect small pieces of cardboard with gorgeous pieces of imagery on them. The unique identity of cards also impacts the value of cards, and ensures that there is a secondary market for buying and selling.

For many Magic players, the game is about competition. At the highest levels, there are organized tournaments and prizes up for grabs, in order to satisfy players’ competitive urges. Each year, the Magic tournament body organizes “Pro Tour” and “Grand Prix” tournaments held all over the world. These large-scale tournaments decide world champions, and help to attract both professional and non-professional players from all walks of life. To Magic’s credit, its organizers realized early on that promoting the competitive scene would pay dividends for both casual and competitive players, and would be a boon to the growth of the game. Players hear about strategies that are successful at the highest levels of competition, and want to acquire the cards to do something similar. It’s not unlike kids wanting Nike shoes or Beats headphones to imitate what they see the athletes do.

There is an online component to Magic. First, online coverage and streaming of live competitive matches exist all over YouTube and Twitch. These streams are generally well done and contain commentators to spice up the action. Second, there is an online version of the card game that players can play (think live poker vs. online poker). Many competitive players play online so that they can get more practice in, from the comfort of their homes. Third, there are “entry” level games such as Duels of the Planeswalkers that can be found on Xbox Live, PSN, Steam and other gaming platforms. They help introduce new players to the full Magic experience.

Magic is a well-oiled machine created by a company called Wizards of the Coast (now owned by Hasbro). From its inception in 1993, it has grown to become an international sensation. Cards are printed in languages such as English, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, German, French, Spanish, Hebrew and Italian. At brick and mortar stores, one can find Magic-branded merchandise such as hats and t-shirts for sale. As of 2011, Magic has 12 million players, and the number is growing annually. It’s big.

Before we get into present-day introspection, I’d like to give some background about myself. I’m a complete unknown in the world of Magic. It’s not possible to find any online information on me. I have no high-profile tournament finishes, and I am certainly no Michael Jordan when it comes to Magic. I am merely an enthusiast of the game, albeit someone who has enjoyed his hobby a little too much. What I can rightfully claim is that this hobby has taken me on quite a journey for the past twenty years. It has, more or less, defined me as a person.

Let’s go back in time to 1994. You can never forget your first. The first time I encountered Magic was in a gaming shop located in Burnaby, British Columbia, on the West Coast of Canada. This was the era of shrink-wrapped software and Ninja Turtle action figures. Stores like Radio Shack and Doppler were still relevant, and I was a fat little guy in grade school.

Like any Asian nuclear family, my brother, mom and dad took me to the shopping mall back then. There were a lot of cool things in gaming shops that appealed to me. I loved looking at the Ral Partha miniatures for the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game. There were board games from Europe that were too expensive for me, so I could only admire the packaging. I loved flipping through the players’ handbooks for roleplaying games like the aforementioned Dungeons & Dragons. My brother and I played the occasional board game, but they lacked the gloss and polish of these hardcore gaming products.

And then, resting on the store’s shelf, was the two-player starter set of Magic: The Gathering.

Right as my brother and I entered the store, we couldn’t take our eyes off of this starter set. It was a fairly large box that housed two “decks” of cards, one for each player. There was an oversized rulebook, and a pouch with crystalline counters to keep track of players’ life totals. The box itself was shrink-wrapped, but the store had an open set displayed next to the unopened one. Below the shelf was a glass counter filled with some of the most amazing things we’d ever seen. The store not only sold “unopened product” of Magic, in sealed packs, but it also sold individual cards. Those cards were spread out, face-up, in the glass case — images of dragons, wolves, vampires, angels and other bits of fantasy-themed motifs adorned each small piece of cardboard. Every card was labeled with a price — $1, $5, some were even $20, though we didn’t know why at the time.

We didn’t have enough allowance money to buy individual cards, but the starter set and the sealed packs available for sale gave us a bit of hope. It was priced low enough that we could convince our parents to buy it for us. Perhaps we could try our chances with the starter set, get lucky and pull a $20 card, and learn how to play a cool game in the process. We were already quite familiar with collectible sports cards, with the notion of “chase cards” and valuable rookie cards. But you couldn’t play a game with Larry Bird or Wayne Gretzky. This was familiar and yet different — cards that could be collected as well as played.

And so, after urging our parents to pony up for the two-player set, we took it home and tore the thing open. We hastily opened up the shrink-wrapped decks inside and started to learn. As this was a two-player set, we divided things up fairly, one deck to each player.

Like all beginning Magic players, my brother and I had to understand how the rules worked. Despite our attempts to read the rulebook from start to finish, there were still obvious “gaps” in our knowledge. To get around this ambiguity, we made things up and improvised. If something wasn’t clear, we made house rules to resolve the issue.

And boy, did we ever play this game! We “dueled” each other more times than I could remember. Every session of Magic was different and memorable. In one game, I would summon my Sengir Vampire to beat up his creatures. He would kill the Vampire and respond with a Mahamoti Djinn. In another game, a quick Scryb Sprites would fly over his land-locked army, and I would “boost” the Sprites with add-ons to make it more powerful. Each game was slightly different and filled with awesome fantasy flavor. Each game could also be played in minutes, and so we did the only thing we could…which was to keep playing and playing.

Back then, we played for “ante,” where a card was randomly selected from each player’s collection and the winner of the match would permanently win the ante card. Ante cards would be revealed at the beginning of the match, before the game started. When we knew that our most powerful cards would be on the line, we would compete fiercely to protect our “collection,” and to try and win the other guy’s valuable asset. More than a few arguments broke out when we tried desperately to win the others’ cards.

Magic was addictive. The more we played, the more we became hooked. We started buying more packs of Magic to add more interesting cards to our collection. I played throughout my middle school years, until a stronger drug came along.

See, Magic was a big success in the gaming community. It wasn’t just my brother and I — gamers across the world couldn’t get enough of it. With success, hundreds of collectible card game imitators followed suit. Companies witnessed the success that Magic achieved during the 1990’s, and wanted a piece of the action. A few of the subsequent card games to come along were awesome, well designed, and possessed lasting power. Most games, however, were complete garbage — cash-in attempts using franchised brands like Dragonball Z. It surprised no one that the terrible card games sold badly and were relegated to the trash bin within months.

Decipher’s Star Wars card game existed in a space between great and terrible. That didn’t mean it was mediocre, either. It was in a class of its own, and I was about to get sucked into the addiction vortex.

Mind you, I’d always been a fan of the Star Wars movies, and a collectible card game based on the adventures of Luke Skywalker was a fantastic thing. The first time I actually heard about the game, ironically enough, was an introductory article printed within The Duelist, the official Magic: The Gathering print magazine.

The article was an interview with one of the designers of the Star Wars CCG, interspersed with the author’s commentary on the game. At first read, it did not sound appealing at all.

Apparently, the most powerful cards were so rare that players couldn’t win without them, and the stores would charge an arm and a leg for them. Magic was already fairly expensive — in a tournament setting, for example, you needed to have the right cards, and those cards were in the $20–30 range. But the rare cards in Star Wars, like Darth Vader or the Millennium Falcon, absolutely trumped everything else. And they cost upwards of $50. $50 for a piece of cardboard was insane! If you were trying to compete, even casually, with some no-name storm troopers against Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia, you would get royally curb-stomped. Star Wars epitomized some of the worst stereotype that befell card games at the time — you needed to spend a lot of money to compete. To beat Obi-Wan, you needed Darth Vader, and Vader didn’t work for free.

The play mechanics, as described in the article, also seemed unfriendly. The idea of the cards representing one’s Life Force was on-theme and on-point, but there were random draws during battles akin to rolling the dice. The game was also incredibly “swingy,” where one critical event would decide an elaborate session, and give one player an insurmountable way to come back. Compared to Magic, it lacked grace and majesty.

But there are two things you should know about me at this point. First of all, at the tender age of 15, I wasn’t outside playing basketball or chatting up girls. I was reading a magazine about a Star Wars card game. Second, even at this age, I was determined to be the pre-hipster, the guy who didn’t want to play Magic because all the nerds at the school were already playing it. No — I wanted to play Star Wars because it was still exclusive and out of reach enough. It was the Velvet Underground of card games.

So what did I do? I bought a few decks and started playing the game. I spent all of my money on it. And unlike Magic, which I only played casually at home or at school, I started playing Star Wars in tournament settings right away.

It was hard to find players for Star Wars because it was so underground. I couldn’t practice with a friend. So if I really wanted to play, I needed to go to the local card store and play in their monthly tournaments. Luckily, the store was great and it was located near my home — a quick Yahoo web search yielded the answer I was looking for. Soon, I started asking my mom to drive me to tournaments.

With any game or hobby, how a person is introduced to the game forever defines their level of enthusiasm for it. It is the difference between a near-lifetime of wasting time battling cards in a dank card store with misfits, or muttering “fuck this” and walking away for good. A warm, welcoming environment generally does a lot to encourage new players from staying with the game. Ask any well-known/famous Magic player like Pat Chapin or Randy Buehler, and they’ll tell you that their local Magic scene shaped their formative years. In my case, it was no different with Star Wars.

I was fortunate that the card store I frequented was a great place to play. The store owner, a classy and educated woman, played the game with us, and she was a class act. As a result of the owner’s affinity for Star Wars and Star Trek, the store had a strong science fiction theme. As a result, the corresponding card games received even stronger backing than Magic. The tournaments were well run and welcoming to younger players. When I look back at the “scene” I played in, it was certainly one of the best places that I’ve ever gamed in.

While I was new to playing in tournaments, I had already developed a willingness to hang out and play with strangers. I wasn’t an outgoing kid in school, but I never felt uncomfortable socializing when I had to. Some people don’t feel comfortable going out to the local court to play pick-up basketball. Others aren’t able to watch a movie or eat dinner by themselves. Not me. I was (and still am) most comfortable going anywhere and doing anything individually, as long as it was fun. Fun to me meant playing cards with people and competing. I’ll never fully understand why my competitive streak overruled my shyness, but that’s how I’m wired.

A combination of these dispositions made it easy for me to embrace Star Wars. Soon, I was fervently researching the game and how to build decks and harness strategies to ensure victory over less-prepared players. While I lost time and time again to the top players at the store, I came back for more. I was eager to lose if it meant that I could learn from the losses and get better.

After playing in a few tournaments, I was “all-in” on Star Wars. I needed to fuel my passion with cards, cards, and more cards. I said goodbye to a previous passion and traded in my Magic collection for Star Wars cards. Those Magic cards that I traded away have grown 200x in value over the last 15 years — and that’s not even accounting for inflation. (As for my beloved Star Wars cards? They are now relegated to the dustbin of my room, completely worthless in value after the game died a quick death in the 2000’s.)

I kept plugging away at the Star Wars card game, and soon I was seeing some results. It was still the relative dark ages of the Internet, and there wasn’t a wealth of information on everything online as there is today. I did my research as best I could. I read my gaming magazines, strategized with other players, bought new cards as they came out, and immersed myself in studying the game. Soon, like a moderately compulsive gambler, I worked my way up to become one of the better players in the area. I was young, so it didn’t matter that I spent inordinate amounts of time doing this. I spent most days in school thinking about an upcoming Star Wars tournament, and formulate strategies in my head on how to beat the players I lost to last time.

The dark side of this fascination with gaming is that I would feel absolutely terrible when I lost. The more I invested myself into the game, the worse it felt to lose. I never believed that luck had anything to do with losses, even though it clearly did. I was stubborn about associating my results with my self-worth. Though card games were more akin to poker than chess, I critically self-examined myself with each loss, and gained more confidence with each win. This was fun, I told myself, because winning was fun.

At a young age, I began to validate my self-worth through the act of playing a card game. For whatever reason, I was a mild-mannered person in daily life, in social settings, and at work. But place me into games like Magic, Street Fighter, poker or sports, and I would be competitive to a fault. If I won, I wanted more. If I lost, I wanted to improve myself so that I could win the next session. After a while, I didn’t even know if I enjoyed winning, as much as I needed it.

To be continued…in Part 2

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James Hsu

Co-founder / CTO, CardBoard Live. Author. Podcaster.