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ISSUE 117 VOL 4 PUBLISHED 10/10/2003

Magic: The Gathering

By Diana Frantz
Variety Editor

Friday, October 10, 2003

The game has been called “cardboard crack” and “Magic: The Addiction.” Its players have been labeled geeks or worse, freaks. The world of “Magic: The Gathering” has remained an obscure, unexplored subculture for many, even for those at St. Olaf where an unofficial Magic club meets every Saturday at 2 p.m. in the Mellby lounge.

What Magic is

Introduced in 1993 by a tiny Washington state company called Wizards of the Coast, Magic, an innovative new card game, quickly achieved international success. Ten years later Wizards of the Coast and Magic: The Gathering are still going strong with three new “expansion sets” of the cards released every year and even a recently developed Magic computer game on the market.

Magic is a card game set in the fantastic alternate universe of Dominia. The players become wizards, who use “land,” “creature,” “artifact,” “sorcery,” “instant” and “enchantment” cards to defeat opponents. Chris Stagno ’07 offered this description of the game; “It is kind of a cross between chess and poker where every card changes the rules.”

The illustrations on each card make the game unique. Countless artists have provided illustrations for the cards, their name appearing on the bottom of each card. Magic players often have a favorite artist whose work they particularly admire.

What Magic is not

Joel Nerenberg ’04, St. Olaf Magic Club president, said, “people often mistake Magic for the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, but Magic is not a role-playing game.” Members of the St. Olaf Magic Club emphasized that Magic, unlike role-playing, is not acting. Magic is ultimately a game of strategy and probability. And a little luck doesn’t hurt either.

Magic at St. Olaf

Nerenberg started the Magic club after identifying the demand for a unified Magic community on campus. For years, pockets of students have met in residence hall lounges for informal games.

The St. Olaf Magic community has even developed its own legend and lore. According to Noel Helgesen ’04, “There is a rumor that the group in Ytterboe passes down a huge collection of cards from year to year.” Iain Anderson ’04 and Jake Huseby ’04, two Ytterboe residents who play Magic, however, said that the Ytterboe Magic collection is no more than a myth.

The St. Olaf Magic club is definitely open to players new to Magic or those returning to the game after a long hiatus. Ten new players have joined the club this year. Phil Johnson ’06, a first-timer in the St. Olaf club, reported that he hadn’t played Magic since he was 16; his interest was rekindled when he saw the club playing Magic in the Mellby lounge a few weeks ago. The Magic clubbers are always willing to teach those who have never played or have forgotten how to play the game. They will always offer to lend “newbies” a deck of cards.

Nerenberg’s current goals are to bring together the various residence hall Magic groups and receive the funding necessary to become an official campus organization. Club member Weldon Green ’04 mentioned that funding may allow the club to participate in Minneapolis Magic tournaments. The club needs to buy newer cards, however, in order to participate in major tournaments.


Yes, one must pay to play Magic. With new cards released each year, older cards become outdated, though they can still be used in non–tournament play. Very serious players must keep up by purchasing more and more cards. Part of the Magic “addiction” involves the need to buy more and more up-to-date cards. Many non-Magic players have heard of people going broke, losing a job or failing out of school because of Magic. The St. Olaf Magic club is diverse in their monetary commitments to the game.

Helgesen, for instance, mentioned that he had spent thousands of dollars just on Magic cards. Huseby, on the other hand, inherited his brother’s card collection and as a result, has spent absolutely nothing on the game.

Nerenberg said, “It is possible to play cheap. Magic really isn’t any more expensive than any other hobby. For instance, people pay $30 a month on cable television.”

Time Commitment

Although there are those who eat, drink and sleep “Magic: The Gathering,” St. Olaf “Magic” players do not appear to spend an inordinate amount of time on their hobby. They meet on Saturdays at 2 p.m. and play for approximately four hours. Male players present last Saturday mentioned that their girlfriends and homework kept them from spending too much time on the game.

What’s the Magic type?

Do women play Magic? Some of the St. Olaf club members’girlfriends were reported to play Magic, but there were no women present at the club meeting last Saturday. Apparently, one St. Olaf female played regularly last year. Joel estimates that about 10% of all Magic players are female.

Are Magic players math geeks? Magic certainly appeals to mathematical minds that enjoy the game’s strategy and reliance on probability, but the St. Olaf Magic club members were definitely not clumped in one area of the curriculum. While a few of the Magic club members were math majors, others were English, psychology and biology majors.

Why play Magic?

Members of the St. Olaf Magic club mentioned that the flexibility of the game is a big part of its allure. There are thousands of Magic cards on the market, from which players may build their decks (each of which includes sixty cards). Then they must, of course, choose how to best play the hand of cards they drew. Building one’s deck and playing out the hands are Magic strategies that seem to give the game an almost endless variety of outcomes.

Future of Magic

While Magic: The Gathering has become less visible in the past few years, its future looks bright. The latest cards are flashier and appeal to a new generation of Magic players. The target group used to be older teens and younger twenty-somethings, but pre-teens and younger teens are now also becoming interested in Magic. In addition, Magic veterans have found that the game’s sophistication has increased over the years encouraging them to keep playing. St. Olaf Magic club members all expect that Magic will be played by all ages for years to come.

Alas, the world of Magic: The Gathering is not a strange mystery subculture haunted only by math geeks and gaming dorks. Although it does not claim the long history of such games as Scrabble, poker and chess, neither does Magic: The Gathering deserve the ridicule it sometimes receives from those who have never played the game. The rigorous intellectual demands and drama are certainly worth a nod. Would be scoffers are advised to play a hand and discover for themselves if they too believe in Magic.

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