East of Elmgrove

A Bit of Magic

I know what to get my boys for Christmas this year: Magic cards. No, not the pick-any-two kind owned by white-gloved magicians. I’m talking about cards from Magic: The Gathering, the fantasy …

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I know what to get my boys for Christmas this year: Magic cards. No, not the pick-any-two kind owned by white-gloved magicians. I’m talking about cards from Magic: The Gathering, the fantasy trading card game that is taking our youth by storm and turning my dining room into a poker parlor, minus the cigars and whiskey. A recent conversation between my son and a friend proves my point:

Friend: I’ll swing at you for 2, so you’re at 18.

Son: No, you’re at 17.

Friend: Yeah, you’re right.

Son: Okay, now I’ll tap 1, and I’ll regenerate him. I’ll swing at you for 5, and I’ll gain 5.

Huh? The game is far too complicated for my wee brain. I’ll leave it up to the young’uns to explain: “You’re trying to take away the other person’s life – pretty much.”

In its purest form, the game pits two players, usually best friends, against each other. Each player has a deck of cards representing magical lands, creatures and spells. The first to reduce his or her opponent to “0 life” or below wins.

One of the best things about the game is that players get to customize their decks, often through trades, hence those late-night phone calls in our house: “I’ll trade you Trostani’s Summoner for an Advent of the Wurm and a Rancor. No. Then how about Call of the Conclave for Axebane Stag?” The game’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast – all MIT graduates, no doubt – is always releasing new cards to enrich collections, thank you very much. Rite Aid even sells $3.99 booster packs.

Some parents might scoff at a game involving sorcerers and raven-haired vixens, but I like it. To play, you have to have a razor-sharp memory, an analytical mind and a competitive spirit. You also have to be able to translate sentences that could be lifted from an algebra textbook penned by a fantasy fiction writer trying to make a few extra bucks: “Nighthowler. Enchantment Creature – Horror. Nighthowler and enchanted creature each get +X/+X, where X is the number of creature cards in all graveyards.”

Again, I say, “Huh?”

Funny how things change as your children grow up. One minute they’re playing with Legos, the next minute they’re shuffling through their Magic cards to prepare for an all-nighter at the yellow house east of Elmgrove. Where does the time go?

When my kids were toddlers they swooned over fire trucks. I’m ashamed to admit that we had more than a dozen toy fire trucks at the homestead back in ’05. I’ll never forget my mother-in-law’s response when a Christmas pres- ent that should have gone to our house mistakenly went to her house and she opened it, only to find yet another fire truck. She called immediately.

“I was thunderstruck when I opened the package,” she said. “They have enough fire trucks.”

“But this one is made of wood,” I said.

Fire trucks soon gave way to Legos, which gave way to stuffed animals, which gave way to yo-yos, which gave way to sports gear, which gave way to bigger sports gear. We kept the yo-yos and a few toys for sentimental reasons, but most of the stuff has been handed down to the next generation. I don’t miss anything. We had too many toys. Maybe my mother-in-law was right.

Magic crept into our house on a darkand stormy night this year. The game, delightfully compact and light, came to us as all things come to us – through a friend, in this case, Eric. At first, our guests played on the coffee table. When that got too small, they pro- gressed to the dining room table, which provides a perfect surface for gaming: smooth as ice. The cards float across the table top, unfettered and alive.

Weekends are especially good for Magic. A boatload of boys stop by, each armed with cards bearing dis- tinguished names like “Slime Molding” and “Slaughterhorn.” The cards pop with illustrations that are fantastical and ghoulish: a castle on a sun-dappled hill or a mutant flashing pointy pearlies that could eat you alive.

There the fellows sit, bartering, exchanging minutiae, mulling over their next move, until, abracadabra, someone is victorious. Lucky duck. Give him a piece of Double Bubble. Popcorn and Shirley Temples for all. Let the next game begin.

The good news for Magic fans on the East Side is that you don’t have to go far to get cards. Two stores are nearby: Untapped Games, a funky shop in Pawtucket with a thriving online business, and Die Hard Games, on the Central Falls/Lincoln town lines. I am proud to say that I have been to both shops and was impressed by the professionalism of the staff.

Parents who worry that Magic is becoming more than a harmless pastime for their children can rest easy. Players who are really, really good can get college scholarships, thanks to a nonprofit organization called Gamers Helping Gamers.

According to The New York Times, the group was founded by Jon Finkel, a longtime Magic enthusiast. “There was just nothing enjoyable or fun about high school, so I got my mental stimulation elsewhere,” he told the newspaper. “I would play Magic until midnight and never do my homework.”

No slacker, he. He ended up graduating from Rutgers and is now a partner in a hedge fund. He lives in a roomy apartment in SoHo. Oh, did I say he’s only 35.

Finkel and his Magic pals look for highly intelligent kids who might not have a long list of extracurricular activities that, sigh, dazzle admissions offices. One scholarship recipient is now at Yale Law School. Think about it: a Gruul creature helped him get there.

Ho. Ho. Ho. Merry Magic to all.