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Magic: The Gaming Fad That Wouldn’t Die

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A group of junior high school boys huddles in the corner of the lunchroom. Before them lie piles of cards covered in paintings of monsters, wizards, and strange landscapes.

The boys talk softly and in terms few outsiders can understand. Their eyes dart left, right, down the hall, and then back to their cards. They look like a clan of pubescent meerkats, anxious that a bully might roam the halls. Or a girl.

Anyone who grew up in the 1990s probably passed by (or took part in) a card game like this. The game was Magic: The Gathering. And it was the biggest thing since Pogs.

Players take on roles as wizards, who battle one another with spells, creatures, and territories. Magic had all the traits of a fad: crassly capitalistic, niche, and dorky. It was poker for Dungeons and Dragons kids.

But, while other collectible card games rose and fell (Spellfire, Blood Wars, Babylon 5), the one that started it all is still going strong more than 15 years after it first hit the market. “These were the first people to take a card game like poker and give it a collectability value,” says Adam Barnello, a 27-year-old engineer in Syracuse, N.Y., who’s been playing Magic since he was 12.

Magic Still Going Strong

Magic remains imposingly successful and profitable. As of 2008, the game had annual sales of close to $100 million –– a success based largely on how it continually renews itself. Each year, the company that makes the game, Wizards of the Coast, retires four sets of cards and introduces four new sets. To continue playing, you’ve got to keep buying. “That’s the way they keep it fresh,” says Barnello. “That’s the way they keep people interested in buying new cards.”

And the retired cards? They become instant collector’s items or part of the Legacy version of Magic. Retired cards don’t have to sit in airtight collector’s displays. Legacy allows players to use retired cards –– any card ever produced, all the way back to 1993. But to make things fair, Legacy bans cards that it calls “mistakes”: those that are too powerful, rare, or expensive.

Legacy started with a few players around the country: northern Virginia, southern California, Portland, Ore., and Syracuse, N.Y., says Barnello, who volunteers as one of six administrators for MTG: The Source, a web forum dedicated to Legacy. Now the game has support from Wizards of the Coast, and even has its own Grand Prix, an open tournament that is just one level below the Pro Tour.

Wizards organizes a multi-tiered professional gaming program that culminates in the Pro Tour, a series of four annual tournaments held around the world. In September, the tour will arrive in Amsterdam, where organizers will award nearly a quarter-million dollars total in prize money.

Payoffs

Even for the everyday player, the game provides a payoff that others don’t. “I have hundreds of dollars of old card games that turned worthless when they all died,” says Joe Easton, 25, an Onondaga Community College student in Syracuse and gaming enthusiast who started playing Magic two years ago. “And with Magic that’s not gonna happen. The collectability is really worthwhile in this game.”

Those kids in the lunchroom still probably want to be wary of bullies –– but not as wary. Nerd-chic makes popular culture more willing to accept pastimes like Magic. “You can point to the pro-tour, and you can point to the pros,” Barnello says. “You can point to these guys and say these guys have made hundreds of thousands of dollars in their career playing Magic.

“And people start to think: Maybe it’s not really that nerdy.

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