I'm standing in a hall with over a thousand people. There's tables and tablecloths everywhere. Hundreds of people are queuing up; the lines stretch out the doors and to the stairs.
It's the last chance for people to enter Melbourne Grand Prix, one of the highlights of the calendar for aspiring Magic: The Gathering professionals in Australia and New Zealand. A strong result here could put them on the journey of a lifetime.
This is the world of professional Magic: The Gathering, the collectible card game designed by Richard Garfield that first launched in 1993. The card game that has had a professional circuit for over two decades. The card game that featured an Australian in the Guinness World Book of Records for winning hundreds of thousands of dollars before the word esports entered the popular lexicon.
It was a gathering of video gamers, just minus the cases or consoles.
Magic isn't the easiest to understand. That was best illuminated by a shirt I saw listing all the phases in a single turn. Untap, Upkeep, Draw, Main, Combat, Main and End, written in the Cards Against Humanity font. And within those phases there are additional quirks and nuances, and that's not factoring in some of the maniacal ways cards can bend rules.
They used to be bonkers. This card let you take an extra turn — and you could play it on your second turn. This card forced both players to stop their current game and start a new one with the cards left in their deck. One of the first iterations of the Planeswalker Jace Beleren — Magic's equivalent of hero units — was astronomically overpowered.
That's not to mention the regular rule changes. Or the introduction of new mechanics. Or the rewriting of old ones. Or that time when that expensive card you opened in a booster gets banned down the road because it's too powerful.
If the rules seem daunting for players, you should see what judges have to go through. Most are volunteers, although Wizards will offer judges at Pro Tour events, GPs and qualifiers a small amount of money for their time. Exams are mandatory for even the lowest level of certification, along with an interview and a recommendation from a higher judge. And if that seems like a lot just for a level 1 judge, check out the requirements for level 2.
But that complexity — in the cards, rules, and the environment itself — is part of the fun. Sashi C. Loco, a level two judge from Malaysia who doubles as an MC and a hip-hop artist, told me how he got sold on Magic when he was backstage at an event. "We were backstage, we were about to go on-stage to perform and we were doing a sound check and chilling in the hotel," he began.
"My friend came up to me and said, 'Hey dude, I got this game, it’s called Magic: The Gathering. And the other guy who plays [says], you like mind games right, you like games that require you to use skill,' because I was a chess player as well. So they played in front of me ... I was like, 'This game is cool!' And I was stuck ... I was crazy about the game for the first six months, I was literally sleeping with my folder beside me."
C. Loco's been judging Magic tournaments for 12 years. He's adjudicated around 40 Grand Prix's. Barring disease or some other catastrophe, he'll continue to judge. And that's a similar case for most of the 1100-plus people in the hall. They've been playing Magic for aeons, and they'll never stop.
Someone else who hasn't stopped is Aaron Nicastri, a veteran of the game and the Australian scene. He's not the highest ranked player these days although he was once at the peak, having been awarded Rookie of the Year, for his performances around the world, and the honour of captaining Australia at the World Magic Cup.
He's also someone I introduced to Magic, first through some old cards gifted to me as a present and then later a demo of the video game made by MicroProse. When I asked him how long he'd been playing, he replied: "Since we played 6th edition on your floor at your 14th birthday party." That's more than 15 years.
That extended experience — playing, studying, learning and for a brief period, living Magic — has taken its toll. "Planning. Maths skills. Gaming skills. A lot of the skills are very applicable to business. A lot of the skills are very applicable to moving markets," he said. "Moving around the spaces and things you really meet a lot of people, a lot of ideas, and you’re constantly surprised by people’s skills and their lines of thinking, how deep those communities go."
Magic's changed over the years as well. "It’s more inclusive, there’s more females, there are more stores so there are more places to play, the more connected that community ends up being. There’s more people who know one another," Nicastri explained. And it's not just visible in the queues stretching out the door for tournaments, but in analysts' projections as well.
Just as GP Melbourne was coming to a close, Seeking Alpha wrote that Magic: The Gathering combined with Monopoly to push Hasbro's games segment up by 8%. The Battle for Zendikar set of cards was also the most successful release for Hasbro "in its more than twenty years in business", with Oath of the Gatewatch (released) and Shadows over Innistrad (due out next month) expected to surpass that. There's even a movie in the works, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox. Magic isn't going anywhere.
But that growth hasn't resulted in Nicastri making Magic a professional pursuit. Locals only get access to two Grand Prix events a year, with the Pro Tour — an invite-only event with a US$250,000 prize pool — making its Australian debut in August. The top prize for the Melbourne GP? US$10,000.
It's not a lot compared to how much money is floating around video games. It's definitely not a lot if you compare it against how much some cards still cost, like the two Black Lotus's above. That was a picture from one of the official vendors, by the way. $40,500 for two cards. $21,000 just for the nicer one.
Even if you add up the investment players make in booster boxes, sleeves, card boxes, storage folders and individual cards alone, Magic can be an expensive business. So it's understandable for many that part of the fun of Magic isn't necessarily the tournaments themselves, but the secondary market operating beneath.
Justin Robb, a Grand Prix winner and an Australian representative in the World Magic Cup, described the trading scene as a sub-game within Magic. "There are some people who play Magic very casually, but what they really love is trading, and buying and selling," he explained.
Jason Chung, the one player from Australia or New Zealand for whom Magic is a full-time pursuit — thanks in no small part to his Platinum tournament status, which ensures he gains an appearance fee, travel and invites to major tournaments — agreed. To him and many others, the purchase of a card was a long-term process rather than a one-off payment.
"A lot of the time whatever we’re buying will still have value, and whatever we buy and use there’s value gained from the tournaments we play and using the cards," Chung explained. "It can be like an investment. There are certain people who spent thousands of dollars in Magic, but now they’ve got tens of thousands in value."
It also provides an outlet for betting, something which hasn't quite taken the world of Magic by storm the same way it has esports. "The only legal way for you to really bet on yourself, which people do do, is they’ll be testing on the Pro Tour and they’ll discover this new deck that think is the best in the format," Chung explained.
"You only need 4 copies in the deck, but they might buy 50 copies … It might have only been worth $5 before, but since it did really well in the Pro Tour everyone’s really hyped, demand for this card goes up and therefore this card is worth $20. And essentially you’ve just made money on yourself, that’s perfectly legal, that’s not betting or anything."
Another curious element of professional Magic, at least at the Melbourne GP, was how manual the entire process was. Like the cards themselves, much of the organisation relied on pen and paper. Decklists were submitted on sheets that judges perused over the course of the day. Tournament results were written down and signed off by both opponents.
Even the event pairings, which were compiled through the Wizards Event Reporter, were posted up on boards. It resulted in a sweaty shoulder-to-shoulder gathering outside as over a thousand players squeezed past each other to locate their opponents and allocated seating.
I asked some of the players why the event wasn't more digitised. Everyone has smartphones. If Wizards' tournament software automatically links into every player's account number and recorded statistics, why can't it post a bracket online and therefore offload some of the organisational chaos to the internet?
"But everything else is paper, mostly because it would require us making new software which would require money," judge C. Loco told me. "I guess it involves more money and more effort to actually digitise it."
It's almost a microcosm of the problems Wizards of the Coast has had in trying to digitise Magic in general. While their digital offerings — Magic Duels and the Duels of the Planeswalker games — provide a thorough tutorial for the basics, the online experience of Magic is still fundamentally disconnected from the real-life version.
"[Magic Online] struggles with a lot of the information, speed and the rules and the amount of things that go into it," Nicastri explained. "The way Wizards could make Magic Online really good is that every time you buy a pack of cards you get a little scan code and that’s your cards, you have you cards online you have your cards in real life."
Zen Takahashi, an 18-year-old prodigy from New Zealand, said Magic Online didn't cater for beginners at all. "Magic Online feels more like an outlet for people who know Magic — not necessarily competitive players — but people who understand the game."
But those barriers for new players hasn't restricted the game's growth. Like video games, Magic has benefited enormously from the advent of streaming. It's allowed players to trade off their personality and their results, as in the case of Kenji Egashira and Michael Jacobs.
It's also opened up the reality of what the height of Magic competition is actually like. "The most surprising thing I found the first time I went to the Pro Tour was how laid back everybody was," 15-year veteran David Mines said.
"I expected it to be super tense. But it was really enjoyable ... sometimes even the local events can get weirdly, intensely competitive and somebody's trying to shark somebody else. And then you play at the highest level and everyone is so laid back and happy to help."
Magic owes a lot to social media too. Beyond helping shatter the image of professional Magic players as surly card sharks, it's also given a heavily introverted scene an extra outlet to communicate and share information.
Because of that, it's a more sociable game. And it also leads to some incredible moments. On the first day's play, the press gathered for an impromptu draft to kill some time. One of the players gathered then proceeded to crack open an promotional Expedition land; on the day, the card could fetch up to US$250 at its highest.
A random player overheard the discovery and promptly offered to buy the card outright with cash. After briefly consulting the card's value, the two agreed on a price of $180. A quick stop to the ATM was made, and the card changed hands.
There really is nothing quite like Magic.
Update (8:40 PM): Corrected typo on Jason Chung's name and a reference to Zen Takahashi's tournament record; he has only placed in the top 8 of a Grand Prix before.
I travelled to GP Melbourne as a guest of Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast. Also, I'd like to thank all the pro players, judges, Wizards employees and very old friends who spoke to me in the process of writing this article.