The Helpful Nerd: How I learned to stop worrying and love Magic cards (for a while)

Hey-ho, faithful reader!  This is the start of the new format for the Helpful Nerd; since I realize a lot of you might be familiar with the subject matter of the Nerd Topic in question, I’ve decided to separate my personal experience with said Nerd Topic into the first section of the post while going into the gritty details of the Topic afterwards.  So, if you’re just curious to hear my take on the Nerd Topic, feel free to ride off into the sunset after the first section, or, if you are here for help understanding why the hell your boyfriend/girlfriend/roommate/delightfully-eccentric-uncle/Siri-enabled phone is so into this particular Nerd Topic, read on into the second section for terms and a basic breakdown of what the damn thing is.  Enjoy!

How I learned to stop worrying and love Magic cards.

Requested by Nyree Macpherson

It was the summer of ’96 (not a dyslexic moment), and I was visiting my buddy Russ in Vancouver.  Russ was always one step ahead of the curve in my eyes, he liked Metallica before I did, bought me my first rock CD (Big Shiny Tunes 2, an eternal favourite; Song 2 -which is also track 2, incidentally- by Blur was the coolest thing I had ever heard in my life, ever.) and I would always glean new interests from Russ that I would quietly stow when I got back to Mississauga, as my friend groups had other interests.  In ’96 it was all about the marbles.  Russ had gotten me into them the year before (I visited every summer) and we’d spent the summer of ’96 rocking out with said marbles.  It was pretty sweet.

But there was a dark cloud on the horizon.  I distinctly remember still being super excited about the marbles I only busted out once a year in Vancouver, but Russ was out of sorts.

“No one at school wants to play marbles anymore,” my world began to shake, “They’re all into these stupid magic cards now.”

My first thought:

 A school full of magicians?  Someone should write a multimillion dollar kids’ book series about this!

At the end of the summer, I took my marbles and went home.  The next summer, Russ had defected.  The magic cards, as it turns out looked like this:

 That’s magic with a capital M, 11 year old Tommy.  (Yeah, I was a Tommy)

Magic: The Gathering to be precise, by Wizards of the Coast (whose success with this franchise allowed them to later buy the rights to Dungeons and Dragons).  It is a collectible card game that casts the players in the roles of powerful wizards (called Planeswalkers) who draw power from the elements (using Land cards to produce ‘mana’) to summon creatures and cast spells with the goal of defeating the other player by reducing their Life total to zero.  At its core, that’s the game.  There are a shit tonne of extra rules that have been layered on over the years (Wizards of the Coast quickly realized that they needed to make each edition of the game make the prior one obsolete so as to continue to sell cards).  But ultimately, that’s it.  There’s also the joy of trading and hunting rare cards, often by flipping through binders at comic book stores or buying ‘booster packs’ of random cards and hoping for gold.

My experience with Magic was great most of the time, but then went a bit sour.  My friends  in Vancouver and I (and then a couple intrepid folks in Mississauga) spent countless hours hunting cards, choosing what to put in our decks, and playing games and making occasionally heartbreaking trades.  Then the updates started coming fast and furious, and we realized we were being had by the company (which would render our favourite cards and decks useless every other month) so we quit, for a time.

 Luckily, that trend in business has stopped…oh.

Then they started releasing pre-made decks and all my friends in Mississauga got back into it.  I reluctantly followed suit, vowing not to buy any more cards…and then ate my words, diving back in head first.  For a time this was awesome, but then the problems began: since my previous brush with Magic this new-fangled thing called the Internet had become much more accessible and thus strategy was not longer found through trial and error, or passed about through word-of-mouth, but looked up.  Cards had also become easier to find, for better or worse, and my love of hunting for that one awesome card you’d heard about was killed by an increased supply.  Instead of luck, now you needed money; which in turn led to a pretty sharp division amongst my friend group.  Some had disposable income at their disposal to stack their deck with anything they wanted, others of us (myself included, as I was also spending cash on video games and Warhammer…yep, rock star.) who spent little on buying specific cards and thus began to fall behind the curve.  The cards also became increasing absurd, as Wizards of the Coast tried to one-up their previous cards: it went from old cards with powerful, but limited, powers to a particularly memorable: “If this creature damages you, you lose the game” card essentially declaring the Age of Reason dead and the era of Absurd Super Bullshit a go.

And then came the ‘proxy’ cards, which were cards my friends would print themselves (eat it, SOPA), that stuck it to the system and made the game affordable, but drained any last remnant of scarcity, making every combination possible; with balancing the game through scarcity of the best cards gone, the ‘now I have infinite life’ combos began…which basically broke the game.  It became a game of one-up-manship as professionally designed tournament decks became the norm, rather than the patchwork labours of love that my earliest decks were.  It was a disappointing commercialization of the game and stripped away the individualistic quality I enjoyed so much.  That did it for me.

I’ve still got my cards, though-if anybody wants a game…?

The Helpful Nerd Presents: A Primer on Magic the Gathering

The Card

There are a number of card types in Magic, but the two I’m going to go over are creatures and lands.


Here’s the breakdown of a creature card:

A lot of these are tiny works of art, with beautifully painted dark fantasy images and often witty flavor text.  For a long time, there was a running plot in the Magic universe that played out on the cards and in books, some of which were incredibly fun fantasy epics.  They’ve since redesigned the cards to more closely resemble their major competition, Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! which is a damn shame.  In the early days, I liked feeling like I was part of something more mature and dark, now it’s a bit too cartoony for my taste.

The casting cost refers to how many land cards (see below) need to be used to cast the creature.  The icons refer to specific types of land (the water drop means islands) the grey can be any colour.

The special abilities affect how the creature works; in this case the creature has Flying which means only a flying creature can block it.

The flavour text is a little passage to flesh out the story of the game and the cards.

The attack/defense scores refer to how much damage the card does when it attacks and how much damage it can receive.

Land Cards

These are essentially the currency of Magic, you ‘Tap’ these (the most common action in Magic, involving turning your card on its side to denote that it has been used, or what you aim to do after picking up a hot Magic card after a few drinks at the bar) to generate mana which is spent to cast cards from your hand.  There are five basic types which correspond to the different deck colours:

Colours of Magic

There are five, associated with different elements and themes:

-Black: Swamps, necrotic and undead, destruction based spells

-White: Plains, Healing and defense, angels and knights

-Green: Forests, Abundant creatures and mana, jungle creatures and elves

-Red: Mountains, Fire, destruction, goblins and dwarves

-Blue: Islands, Spells, water, tricks and illusions

The Game

Players draw a hand from the deck they have constructed beforehand and then each take turn playing cards.  Each turn you are able to put down one new land card and then as many things as you have mana to cast.  Turn by turn, you play creatures, enchantments, and spells and use them to either attack the other player (who is given a starting life value of 20) or to attack/interfere with the opponents’ creatures.  If a player is attacked, they can opt to block with a creature or cast immediate effect spells to stop or reverse the attack and all manner of hijinks result.  The game ends when only one player remains.  Then comes the grumbling, changing of decks, and commencement of another game, or possibly the purchasing of many, many more cards.


When attacking, you select a creature or creatures to attack with and declare that you are attacking.  Creatures have an attack and defense score, denoting how much damage they can give and receive.  So, if I attack you with a 1/1 and you fail to block, you will take 1 point of damage.  When you defend with a creature, the two deal damage to each other instead of to the player, so if my 2/2 attacks and you defend with a 1/1, my creature deals 2 to yours, yours deals 1 to me, so your creature dies and mine wins, but deals no damage to you as a player.  If yours was also a 2/2, they would destroy each other.  If a creature survives a fight, it heals back up to full defense following the fight, so my 2/2 that took 1 damage in the fight is back up to a 2/2.

There is a huge variety of ways to go about winning, whether it’s hammering your opponent with a blitzkrieg of tiny monsters or just messing with your opponent’s ability to play cards while you whittle them away.  The style and tactics are up to you and chosen before the game by altering the structure of your deck.

To sum up:

Magic is a collectible, competitive card game, where two players face off with epic powers and abilities, in an attempt to destroy each other.

Like the Republican Primaries…but with cards.

Posted on January 27, 2012, in the Helpful Nerd and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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