Wizards, start your engines!

At the world championship of Magic, professional role-playing is an extreme (and lucrative) sport.

Forget the waning roar of the Gold Cup hydros or Sahalee’s sodden all-star PGA Championship. An even more intensely hard-fought competition just concluded this past Sunday at the University of Washington’s HUB center: the fifth annual Wizards of the Coast “Magic: The Gathering” world championships.

More than 200 individual seeded competitors endured 21 grueling matches of the fantasy card came over three days to reach a final round of eight, while four-person squads representing 40 nations competed in a one-day international team tournament. Some 2,000 other fee-paying amateurs took part in related games over at the giant Wizards of the Coast game center on University Avenue.

To the uninitiated, Magic is often associated with the mid-’70s Dungeons and Dragons scene. (In fact, Renton-based Wizards now owns D&D, having bought up its parent company a year ago.) But last week’s competition proved definitively that times have changed in the medieval-tinged realm of fantasy role-playing games. Those who lived through the brief Camelot-like heyday of D&D may recall its small pariah subcaste of game players—mutually despised by jocks, stoners, and preppies—and will now naturally scoff at the thought of these swirly-deserving dorks engaged in a putative sport, let alone a world championship offering $250,000 in prize money.

All those old stereotypes spring readily to mind before entering the HUB. One prepares to confront a pallid tribe of teenage boys plagued by the usual afflictions of the obsessive game player: chronic acne and downy moustaches; clacking retainers; M.C. Escher T-shirts and perfect 800s on the math section of the SAT. The doors open in anticipation of a veritable Geekapalooza.

Yet in the lounge where players rest between matches, the scene largely confounds such preconceptions. “After my sideboarding in the second deck, I coulda taken him!” one adenoidal player exclaims. Neither he nor most of his fellow players exhibit the usual hallmarks of the classic D&D geek. They wear baseball caps instead of jester’s hats, shorts and T-shirts instead of embroidered capes, and there’s nary a wooden walking staff in sight. Indeed, the majority of these kids are more phat than fat. Their demeanor is boisterous, sweaty, and intense, as competitors shuffle through their preselected 60-card decks to warm up their fingers and frontal lobes. There’s a buzz of excited post-match analysis among the players, who are more twentysomething than adolescent, and virtually all male.

Inside the large game room, a hush of concentration quickly settles over the neat rows of felt-topped tables. Beneath the banners for tournament sponsors MCI and Yahoo!, a computer-packed podium acts as the NASA-like control center for dozens of judges and Wizards of the Coast event staff—all wearing official T-shirts and laminated passes, all taking their jobs a bit too seriously. Featured matches between top players take place in a specially roped-off section where fans intently study their strategy. One or two female onlookers might actually be interpreted as Magic groupies.

Eavesdropping on spectators, one begins to develop a sense of how the pros must be internally weighing their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses:

Do my Mogg Bombers trump his Serpent Warrior?

How do I play my Samite Blessing against the Wall of Razors?

Crovax the Cursed does count as a vampire, but his Skyshroud Troopers have the power to summon Elves!

What happens if he plays a Goblin Bombardment against my Nomads en-Kor?

And the perennial rumination:

Check out the rack on that Enchantress!

Indeed, the cards’ artwork suggests some of the game’s appeal to young, fanciful minds yearning for an ahistorical golden age of chivalry, combat, and the occasional flagon of mead. Equally beholden to Lewis Carroll and Dr. Timothy Leary, Magic artists have placed their characters squarely in the PG-13 universe between Xena and Ozzy Osbourne. There’s little overt violence to the game (especially compared to comic books).

In conversation, these intense young card sharks reveal a telling gulf between the stodgy, old-school D&D era and their own Magic spirit of kickin’-it new school. Forget about role playing, these guys are here to win and keep score. Wizards’ meticulous point-based ranking system ensures that every official contest matters—with clear-cut winners and losers—unlike the forgiving, all-geek-embracing ethos of D&D. Understanding probability and numbers is necessary to excel at the game. As Magic creator Richard Garfield, a former Whitman College math professor, has said about the game’s conception: “Somewhere in my mind I was thinking about bridge.”

The hottest US player this year, Jon Finkel, a modest, affable 20-year-old college junior from Fanwood, New Jersey, has every bit of the obsessive bridge player’s demeanor and focus—helping him amass more than $69,000 in Magic career earnings. He now contemplates switching majors from biology to economics, explaining, “Working on Wall Street is probably the closest thing you can get to playing a game for money.” Twenty-three-year-old Brian Hacker of San Diego—bright, articulate, and blue-haired—candidly admits what draws him to the Magic competition: “I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for the money.”

Sounds like a typical professional athlete. Indeed, confirming that the sedentary Magic has credibility as an “extreme sport” among ultracompetitive ’90s kids and the advertisers who want to reach them, ESPN2 was on hand to broadcast the finals. Seventeen-year-old Brian Selden of San Diego won $34,000 by beating a 15-year-old in the final match, while the youthful US team split $22,000 for its victory—nicely embodying a lucrative demographic group with notoriously fickle tastes. (Just recall the demise of D&D.)

For now, Wizards of the Coast will continue to sponsor tournaments and sell quarterly $3 “booster packs” of cards to players needing to keep their decks fresh and competitive. But its executives should heed the ancient Talruum adage from one of their own cards: “When Torahn bellows, none survive—not even the warrior whose horns he rides.”

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