When these guys gather, it's Magic

Sunday News Correspondent
April 13. 2013 9:00PM
A typical Friday Night Magic crowd at Comics Plus in Goffstown. (HENRY METZ/Union Leader Correspondent)

GOFFSTOWN - For devotees of the card trading game "Magic: The Gathering," Friday is an important night.

That's because in thousands of venues around the world, players get to indulge their passion for the game at weekly tournaments called Friday Night Magic, many of which can last up to five hours.

On any given Friday at Comics Plus in Goffstown, you'll find between 15 to 30 players - all with varying levels of experience and ability - trying to best their opponents in a fantasy card game that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

"What I like to compare it to - it's a lot like chess," said Comics Plus owner and Friday Night Magic host Scott Abeels, who opened his store at 3 Church St. about a year-and-a-half ago. "It's like chess, but it's so much bigger. There's a lot more in play."

"Magic: The Gathering" was a game conjured up in the mind of Richard Garfield, who, was a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania when he came up with the game's premise. After Garfield created the game in 1993, the rights to his patent were purchased by fantasy-games publisher Wizards of the Coast, which also publishes the Pokemon card-trading game. In 1997, Wizards of the Coast acquired the rights to "Dungeons and Dragons," a franchise that had fallen on difficult times.

"Magic: The Gathering," like so many other fantasy and role-playing scenarios, involves conflict marked by the push and pull of competition. In the end, there is no stalemate or ambiguity; there is only a winner.

For "Magic" enthusiasts, it matters whether they end a particular round as the victor or the vanquished.

As explained by Abeels, the game involves what are called "planes of existence," which are too numerous to count. These planes are part of a "multiverse," and only certain characters are able to travel from the various planes within the multiverse. Detailed storylines are part of the game, and they include characters known as Planeswalkers who move from one multiverse to another.

When the uninitiated ask questions that reveal a misunderstanding of the intricacies of the game, they get a roll of the eyes and a knowing glance between experienced players that says, "They don't get it."

But thousands of people around the globe do get it, and they collect cards so that they can keep on playing. Part of the allure is the ability to trade up, or even trade down, if it will help the player improve the odds of success.

That means building a competitive deck of cards can get expensive.

Some players who participate in the Goffstown tournaments (admission $5) have spent as much as $500 compiling their personal decks, which they hope will win them rounds in the future.

"That's where the trading comes in" explained Abeels, who said individual cards can range in price from $1 to $40, with booster packs ranging upward from $3.50.

"The packs that they buy - it's all random," Abeels said of the their contents. "(Players) may have some cards in there that they don't want to play, so that's where the trading comes in. Sometimes they'll trade a real expensive card for a much cheaper card if that'll help their deck."

Abeels said the mark of a decent "Magic" venue is whether the players are willing to assist younger, less experienced players in the buying and trading aspects of the game.

"We have a lot of good players that trade fairly," Abeels said. "There are some other places where that doesn't happen."

Ask Goffstown's Alex Neal, 26, what he likes most about the game, and he'll tell you it's the strategy.

"There's endless amounts of combos and endless amounts of stuff you can do," he said. "Plus, it's the competition."

On a recent Friday night, Neal sat down and played with fellow "Magic" enthusiasts Tyler Bellotte, 23, of Goffstown, and Oren Lefkowitz, 21, of Henniker. Neal addressed the issue of whether the game was more reliant on luck than skill. He acknowledged that, as with any card game, there's a degree of luck involved. But in "Magic," he said, a player has to demonstrate more skill than luck if the player is to be successful over a long period of time.

For Neal, the most compelling evidence that "Magic" is more a game of skill than luck is in who wins the major tournaments. What he's observed is a consistent group of individuals who've established their "Magic" bona fides.

"That doesn't keep happening if it's just luck," he said.

In Goffstown, the Friday Night Magic tournament is something that exercises the brain, Abeels said.

"There's a lot of thought that goes into this game," he said. "There's a lot math involved, and it's the kind of math where you can't use a calculator. You have to think inside your head. It gets you thinking about numbers on a whole different level."

Matthew Dodge, of New Boston, had been familiar with the game for some time, but it wasn't until he got a deck as a present last Christmas that he decided to get involved in the Friday Night Magic tournaments at Comics Plus.

"You get to personalize your decks," Dodge said, explaining why he likes the game so much.

Abeels said it's because of stores like his that the game continues to thrive.

"There's actually been a lot of new players who started who never would have done it if we didn't open in Goffstown," he said.

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