From Our Darkest Past (Or… How I Sold My Soul for a Box of Antiquities and Learned to Play Magic)

“The only thing that could spoil {The Game} was people. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as {The Underground} itself.” –Erhnam Hemingway

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Magic is about about a lot of things. Most of the time, good or bad, it is about people. You collect cards. You play with people. It is more than a game, it is a community. And like all communities, it breaks down into smaller groups within itself. There is a place for everyone. You just have to find it.

My Place is the MTG Underground.

How did you first hear about Magic? How did you start playing?

For Most of us, we started because some bastard who was already hooked dragged us in. He had the drug, he needed the needle. If he could not find someone to shoot up with, he would be confined to the broken table near the basement stairs, shuffling his deck and drawing his cards against an imaginary opponent, eventually imagining games that would never be and talking to people that were not there. He would contrive terms and justifications for his actions, but this “goldfishing” would never give him satisfaction. He could not get high alone. He needed you.

You would not save him. You would become part of his disease. Suddenly, your symbiotic co-dependency would feel normal as you dwindled away the hazy hours of your life slinging cards instead of watching television. You would feel the high of games when you played and think about the next ones every time your brain was idle. Your other hobbies would fade and vanish, your free time would be playing or pursuing play, your extra cash would always buy cards, and you would be oblivious to your habit, aside from the need to get others hooked so you could keep getting your fix.

At first, you were a victim. But before long, you were a predator.

But maybe you are not part of any of that. Maybe you never were. You could be one of those people who has never touched a paper card, who never sits across the table from a live human, who never practices public drug use, tournament style or otherwise. You could be a child of Magic Online, getting your fix safely from home without the grotesque exchange with the shambling masses. You think you are not a junkie, but your inferior designer drug is still controlling you and you still need the fix. You think just because you can have it whenever you want, and choose not to, that you are not addicted. You judge our depravity from the darkness of your mother’s basement, posting scathing judgment on social media without ever tarnishing your pale face.

But probably not.  If you were that kind of junkie, living in a bubble of denial, you would not be here. The Underground is a lot of things, and it houses all types, but the majority of us are fiends of the most tangible and physical sort. A Black Lotus that was not printed in 1993 is not a Black Lotus. You do not find your way into the underground if you have nothing to run from. This is a haven for the Haunted, the Hunted, and the Hungry. This is a world full of monsters, and there is no room for those without secrets and scars.

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In the Spring of 1994 my brother bought a starter deck of Magic: The Gathering. He was examining the cards and trying to figure out how to make it work. He knew nothing more after a day than he did at the start, and I saw the opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of my fourteen year old intellect. I took the rulebook from him and set to work.

I was surprised by the complexity. There were some aspects that I loved (Math, Strategy, and Random Elements) and others that I did not (Fantasy Theme) but overall I found it hard not to be interested. I knew right away that my brother would never figure it out on his own. In order for his purchase not to be a total waste of time, I would also have to buy a deck. While I normally would have gloated and mocked him with this information, there was something in the small print of the Revised Rulebook that compelled me to want to play:

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My desire for degenerate gambling was present from the beginning, and the most appealing part of Magic at the beginning was the idea of having a reason to play, a purpose for winning. The concept of Ante made the Fantasy setting palatable, as the idea of battling wizards was boring until you added the idea of the victor stealing power from the fallen.

I was sold.

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A few years earlier some friends introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons. Having recently read Lord of the Rings, I was curious about the game and open to the idea of learning. But as I did, I found the game frustrating and pointless. There was no way to win. The things that I wanted to do were perceived as disruptive and I was quickly aware that my presence caused problems in their make believe world of good and evil. It was their community and I did not belong.

Magic was different. The rules were calling my name. They were begging me to play. They wanted me to learn. To master them. To teach others. There was not only a way to win, there was a reward for doing so. I read through my brother’s cards, read the rules again, and when I felt like I had it down I determined that I would buy cards at the first opportunity.

A friend of mine was an avid reader and collector of comic books. I was always big on reading, and I had a pretentious notion that comic books were childish pulp. Having yet to be exposed to anything remotely dark, I assumed all comic books were similar to the Marvel and DC Universe stuff I had encountered, and I emphasized my disinterest as I read everything I could find from H.P. Lovecraft.

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In 1994, in the absence of the internet, finding his work was challenging. It was still obscure enough to rarely be found in a bookstore, and there were yet to be practical or comprehensive collections of his stories. I had special ordered numerous books that had minimal overlap, but I had no way to determine whether I had everything he had written. My lack of interest in fantasy settings was replaced and amplified by my love of horror. On top of Lovecraft I was enchanted by H.R. Geiger, and I suspect if anyone had exposed me to anything from Hart Fisher or Verotik I may have changed my opinion on comics.

Every Wednesday his mom drove him to the comic shop so he could pick up the new releases. I decided to join him in the hopes of getting my first fix. We split at the door and I started my search. I was scouring high and low for Magic cards. I was like a fiend, already addicted and I had yet to purchase my first pack. When the search ended in vain, I approached the counter and asked the clerk, who looked vaguely like a character from The Simpsons.

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He was excited to help me. All of the cards were behind the counter, but they had plenty. I asked for a starter deck and three booster packs, and he obliged. I held them in my hand and felt only anticipation. I did my best to contain my excitement, but the clerk saw it and asked me how long I had been playing. I explained that I was just starting, that these were my first cards, and he grinned like Mephistopheles (who is still looking for his bike, anyone with information should contact @flusterstorm via twitter) as he told me everything he knew about his favorite product.

He told me about the expansions, and still had part of a box of the last one. He was closing it out, and offered to sell it to me for a good price. He had me. I dreaded the answer, but I asked him how much. He told me he had forty two packs left. He showed them to me. He counted them out in front of me. He stacked them neatly back in the box. I was gritting my teeth with anticipation when he finally offered them to me for fifty dollars.

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I had exactly fifty dollars. I was dealing with the devil.

Ah hour later I was opening packs under a desk lamp while my friend was curled up on his bed reading issue after issue. He stopped and looked up to tell me about some plot twist. I made fun of him, and he returned fire by making fun of the cards. I had opened all the Antiquities packs, and I was sorting them by color and name. I was fascinated with the art, but trying not to get caught up reading the cards. I was making the most of my experience.

Next I opened and sorted my revised Starter Deck. I went through it card by card, and while I knew nothing about rarity, it was clear to me which cards I liked and which ones I did not. My favorite from that first deck was Hypnotic Specter. I also had a Dark Ritual. And a Lightning Bolt. My preferences were established from the start. I did not completely understand the game, but there was no question about the direction I wanted to take.

Next came the three boosters. They cemented what the Deck started. Demonic Tutor. Another Lightning Bolt. Wheel of Fortune. Sedge Troll. Terror. These packs were amazing. Another Dark Ritual. In the final pack I opened a Sengir Vampire, and then the coolest creature I could have hoped for: Demonic Hordes!

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I went through all of the cards and started constructing a deck. Once I had a good feel for it, which is to say, once I had all of my black and red cards shuffled in with my swamps and mountains, I was ready for battle. I could wait no longer, so I said goodbye and headed home. I was eager to crush my brother. Maybe I could win some of his black and red cards.

We played all evening. I had more cards to build from, and I put together a crude but effective black and red deck. He just played with all of his cards, and the mana was always terrible for him. I had a better understanding of the rules, and from the start it gave me an advantage. We did not have everything right, as he attacked me numerous times with his Wall of Swords before he lost it to me as ante. By the end of the night he no longer had the 40 card minimum the rule book said was the minimum deck size, and though I was more impressed with Ante than ever, it inhibited our future play.

We could not play the following day because he still did not have enough cards. At no point did I consider giving him some of mine, but by the weekend I wanted to play so bad that I needed to fix the situation. I skipped lunch all week, saved my money, and first thing on Saturday I walked to a local sports card shop. I bought a couple packs for each of us and rushed home.

We played a few games on Saturday, and it became clear that he was developing a distaste for it. How could he ever win if he kept losing all of his cards? He managed to win one and take my hypnotic specter, my favorite card, and it gave him the spark he needed to continue. We were able to keep playing games until Sunday afternoon, when once again his collection had diminished beyond the point of being able to play. He was ready to just give me the rest of his cards. He rarely won and when he did I grew hostile. This was worse than chess. At least after losing at chess all weekend he could still play.

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The next week in school I saw some kids playing on the floor in the hall outside of the library. I watched a few games and tried to stay back and stay quiet. I did not bring my cards to school with me, but I was able to recognize some of the cards being played. There were things that I did not understand. They were not playing for Ante. They only played one land per turn (something we missed in our first digestion of the rules.) I asked about something at one point, and another observer snidely informed me that walls could not attack. I felt stupid and he felt smug. I decided to put him on the ropes by berating him with questions. He explained (poorly) phases and mana burn (I thought it happened at the end of the turn) and I confirmed everything I knew about combat.

Finally, when he was thoroughly annoyed and too exhausted to maintain his elitist pose, I asked him about Ante. He explained that it was a terrible rule and most people did not play with it. He went on and on about it, but I tuned him out before he finished. I learned as much as I needed. I watched the rest of a game where a player was attacking with a Force of Nature, and when it was over I headed off without introducing myself to any of them.

At home I taught everything I learned to my brother, including being limited to four copies of any card in your deck as well as playing 60 card decks instead of 40. This was terrible in his eyes, and he almost threw his cards, but I calmed him down and explained how Ante was optional and we no longer needed to play with it. I also gave him back a large chunk of cards (mostly gree and white cards, because they were terrible.) We played at every opportunity over the next week.

Back in school I found some more magic players, this time ones that I felt I could related to and engage. One of them, a shrewd bastard named Jimbo, was happy to teach me about the game and a newer set called Legends. He had a ton of cards I had never seen. I wanted them. He was happy to help me out and introduced me to the idea of trading. By the end of the day I had a play set of Cosmic Horrors and Mold Demons, and Jimbo had picked every piece of value from my collection. He was trading mostly for weirder cards, mostly from my Antiquities collection, and it seemed reasonable enough to me. I later learned that had a price guide. Jimbo robbed me blind.

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I learned a valuable lesson. I was hustled for the first of very few times in a long bout with my drug of choice, and I embraced the reality of it not for the purpose of becoming a hustler, but to stop those who preyed upon naivete. I now understood rarity and the value tied to it, the limitation of sets, and just how much a poor decision could cost. This was unfortunate, but it was equally unfortunate for Jimbo. Instead of breaking his teeth or teaching him how to eat glass, I became his friend.

Rarely a session of magic took place of the next year where I did not bring it up. Jimbo would have something I wanted, and I would pressure him to trade it to me. If he refused or tried to get an even trade, I reminded him of how he scammed me out of everything, and the guilt would inspire him to change his mind, often just giving me cards instead of bothering to find things he did not want. In the end things balanced out, and Jimbo also learned a lesson. I taught him the hard way not to be a Scumbag.

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It is now 21 years later. The Hypnotic Specter from my first starter is old enough to drink in bars in the United States. I have came and went. I kicked the habit two or three times, but there was always some fiend standing just around the corner eager to pull me back in. I now no that there is no way out, that only the grave can set us free, and even then at least a small number of us plan to be buried with our poisonous collections of cardboard.

I got sucked back in during the Spring of 2000 while I was living in Oregon. It held its grip on me and followed me back east, where Extended became Vintage and I first felt the high of the Pursuit of Power. It kept me enslaved for five or six years, but the demands of life forced me to get clean. I was a full time single parent with a full time job, and there was no room for my magic habit. I even sold my power to ensure that I stay clean, and for almost two years it worked.

But you are never free. When my daughter was back living with her mother I needed things to fill my time. I ran into some of the old Vintage fiends in a bar, and next thing I knew I was borrowing a deck and crushing side events at RIW Hobbies. I was winning some mana drains and a Library. I was hooked back in, and before long I was invested once more.

It would have lasted if life did not catch up again. This time it was legal trouble. For a while I was involved in some things that could be interpreted in a lot of ways, and it became important to get some money together quickly. The easiest way to do it was to sell some cards. I sold them all.

But eventually life settles down, and when it did I missed the game. I fought off the withdrawals and lasted for a while, but one night I was in a bit of a mess, fleeing and eluding, and the easiest way to duck the police was to hide out in my favorite hobby shop. It was late but there was always someone there, and this time they needed a fourth for a draft. I knew nothing about the cards, but Brian was not taking no for an answer. He introduced me to Mike and Patrick, and before long I was ready to resume my place in the world of magic. I sold my soul to it all those years ago, for a box of antiquities, and I understood finally that only in the presence of the game could I feel as complete as I was before that fateful day.

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This has been another installment from the MTG Underground. Up next is another old report, once I decide which to share first, and eventually I will get around to writing my Card and Board Old School Report, complete with the side quest against Kevin Sorbo and his toaster stealing ways. Until then, go do something worthwhile. Buy a beta card.

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5 thoughts on “From Our Darkest Past (Or… How I Sold My Soul for a Box of Antiquities and Learned to Play Magic)

    1. It was actually a kid named jimbo. I started playing with Scott after having met him through jimbo, who may have been James or j.j. or something similar. I can’t remember what happened to him. Scoot, todd, pete, you, Dan Wells, that’s all phase 2. It’s coming.

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