By Garnet Nagato
Recently I was at the Magic: The Gathering (MTG) M15 pre-release; an event that occurred in sweaty underground dens across Toronto, from the Hairy Tarantula to 401 Games and a number of other places (a more complete list of places where MTG is regularly played is appended at the end). As for myself, I was at my usual haunt in the east end of Toronto, at Dolly's, which for its idiosyncratic oddities, remains my favourite place for MTG. While it’s been a year since I’ve started playing, among the more hardcore I am still labelled with that pejorative term: ‘casual’… I’ll show them.
Most of these places are beaten out of the same metal (guess the famous TV show comic book store in the picture below). There is the obligatory comic book kitsch and there are campy video game artifacts, mostly Nintendo related. There is some kind of anime presence with its overt sexual associations (does my opponent really have hentai card sleeves?). There are board games that go beyond Sorry! and Monopoly, which are a subculture of their own. And tucked away somewhere there is a vestige of that great speculative market from the early 90's: sports cards. Through thick and thin their collectors remain, though it could only be a small devoted cadre now.
MTG, if you don't know, is a trading card game where fantasy tropes and card based strategic combat intersect. Attributes and abilities are ascribed to particular cards and are used in combat against each other, with each duellist assuming the role of a wizard in control of their own armies. In some sense it is the distillation of the fantastic elements of games like Dungeons and Dragons, with the role-play narrative elements decanted off. Nobody really thinks about the role-play elements anyway – let alone regards themself as a wizard – instead focusing on strategy, winning and the speculative valuations of cards. There are various formats of play but are largely categorized as either limited, in that decks are constructed at the event using booster packs with little preparation beforehand, or constructed, where you can build your own deck prior to the event. Having been around since 1993 and in competition with similar games – Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon, Vanguard, Weiβ Schwarz – its longevity would suggest it is doing something right.
There is the “neckbeard” label that sticks to the people involved in anything like this. I’m aware that there are a few people who fit the type. In truth the crowd is more heterogeneous and the labelling is largely unfair. But when I talk to the employees at these places, they tell me that the crowd that gathers is cool, pretense free and casual; a self-conscious admission that there are some competitive, socially undeveloped nerds that show up to these types of events, but no, they don’t show up here.
The matches, whether it be the M15 pre-release I was at, or any draft are all similar. There is the intoxicating smell of new, freshly opened packs (God why can’t I stop smelling these cards), and there is the very limited time to build a deck. There are all sorts of opponents, ranging from complete monastic shut-ins to DYEL types. Most matches are tense and – like the Japanese my parents speak – overly polite; suspiciously so. We are definitely setting traps; viz. counter spells, titanic growths, or oh God, are there tragic slips in this set? I didn’t do my research. Casual banter is soon enveloped in a thick miasma of our collective anxiety and perspiration. All of this to mask the calculations of risk, cost benefit, the crude statistical analyses and assessments of body language that occur at least in some minimal sense between opponents.
For what it's worth, I did win my first three matches, before losing to those with greater skill, greater clarity of mind and composure. As usual, there are a wide breadth of excuses to draw from: I was mana screwed, I should have splashed blue, I would have won if I had drawn (insert name of mythic rare card), et cetera. There’s always next time.
I would invite anyone interested to the various spots around Toronto that host MTG drafts, whether Friday Night Magic (FNM) events or other more specific events such as the constructed tournaments, which give you a chance to use the cards that you invariably accrue over time. The novice to the game need not feel intimidated. Workers at these places are generally eager to get you started and will often press gang someone loitering in the store to teach you how to play. I found this interesting to witness, for these places generally tend to know the people in their stores, sometimes by first name. For the mere casual, it’s a cheap hobby, but it can quickly metastasize out of control if you’re not careful. The crowds are friendly, there is a nice incubative warmth in these places and really there are worse things you can do with $12 (for a normal FNM draft).
*Author’s note: The comic used here is from cardboard-crack.com and really gives an accurate portrayal of what MTG is like. There are even books released! Check it out.
This by no means a complete list, but generally covers the area that I’m most familiar with. Other suggestions are welcome.
It is dark and murky and frankly the manga section looks like a fire hazard (though I could say this about every hobby store), but the Hairy T has a very healthy MTG culture. The staff was very helpful when my partner and I started playing. www.htnorth.com
Do you remember late night record shops? Well, 401 games isn’t quite ‘late night’ but they are open until 10pm and being situated on Yonge street makes for a loitering hole when other things are closed. Board games are also well priced (if you’re into that sort of thing). I have heard rumblings from others about the people here being ‘elitist’ but I have never seen any such thing. Really, the things people make up… www.401games.ca
If you blink you’ll miss it. They have recently started with MTG tournaments but the store is new (since moving) and air-conditioned (I can’t stress the importance of this) and it has what look like nice, ergonomic office chairs. But the store is not easily visible from Spadina especially among the hectic assault on the senses that is Chinatown and I really thought I was entering a parking garage at first. www.meeplemart.com
Why do we come here in spite of the lack of oxygen and AC? Because on pre-release day, after you are done drafting they give you TWO EXTRA PACKS. There is a reason why the place is so packed on pre-release day. Also, they feed you (pizza and pop) and seem to genuinely care about the people there. Nominally a crafts and sports card store, it is really neither of those two. Currently, I see lab coats and maid uniforms for sale there at some bargain rates. It just goes to show how a business can morph over time. www.dollys.ca
There are some great retro games in the A & C Games that are worth checking out as well, and it is nicely situated by Spadina station. www.acgamesonline.com/world
The Friendly Troll: www.friendlytroll.com
The Dueling Grounds: www.dueling-grounds.com