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FEATURE ‌ Magic Kingdom

Fantasy gamers descend on Charleston

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Exactly two days from now, hundreds of competitors will battle head to head, using all their skill and strategy in a full-pitched race to victory and glory.

What, you thought we were talking about the World Cup? The NBA finals? Dude. Clearly, you've never experienced the geektacular bliss of incinerating an opponent with a 33-point Fireball spell.

We're talking 'bout Magic. As in Magic: The Gathering, the once and future king of the decade-plus-old collectible card game genre. This weekend the Charleston Area Convention Center Complex is ground zero for a serious Magic throwdown: 350 of the world's best Magic players will spend three days dueling it out for bragging rights. Oh, and cash. A total purse $240,000 large, in fact.

Any way you look at it, the 1995 creation of bow-tie-sporting math professor Richard Garfield, the founder and former owner of Seattle-based Wizards of the Coast, qualifies as a major cultural phenomenon. Hell, once upon a time ESPN2 even covered the Magic championships. At 1 a.m., in a half-hour special that featured about five minutes of actual game play — a milestone moment for the Geek Olympics.

A reductionist might call Magic the geek equivalent of poker, if poker were played with thousands of different cards, each one plastered with fantasy art representing powerful spells and creatures. The hook is one of the most brilliant game mechanics ever conceived: Drawing from a massive library of card possibilities, players must carefully configure decks that maximize card synergy and the laws of probability. Entire schools have sprung up around certain types of deck construction, with some brutally broken decks requiring as little as two or three unique cards to completely lock down an opponent. Like the West Coast Offense and the Cover-3 defense in pro football, the battle to build the next killer deck remains one of the game's sweetest draws. Well, that and the cash you can win in tournaments like the one that kicks off on Friday.

The game's brilliant collectible aspect became a marketer's dream come true: The most powerful cards were also the rarest. In the early days, players smashed open their piggy banks and stood in lines to load up on packs of the latest expansion, all in the hopes of scoring "broken" cards that could instantly tip the course of a match. The rarest of the rare fetched hundreds of dollars on eBay.

Wizards took the model online in 2003, somehow finding a way to make card-flippers pony up real dollars — again — for virtual copies of cards they already owned. The company just gave Magic Online 3.0 a virtual facelift.

Unlike Pokemon, that other Wizards creation that somehow never made it beyond grade-school playgrounds, Magic has managed to endure. And while some of the gaming world moved on to pursuits like the clicky-collectible appeal of WizKids' Mage Knight and the online killing field of World of Warcraft, a fair number are still here, frantically casting instants and interrupts and adding to the tonnage that fills their card boxes to near-explosion. Wizards puts the number of active players at six million worldwide. That's slightly less than the population of Hong Kong and about the same number as routinely watched Katie Couric do her perk-a-thon scthick on Today. In other words, a lot.

Here in Charleston, the numbers are more modest, but still enough to cock an eyebrow. Robert Carter, the down-to-earth proprietor of the Green Dragon in North Charleston, estimates that there are probably around 400 regular card-flippers hanging around our fair city. Around 100 of those are what you'd call tournament players, and only five of them are world-class tournament variety pros, the sort who'll travel the globe to hone their craft against the best in the world. (According to Carter, you can make a living on the circuit, but it's the sanctioned side events, not the actual tournaments, where the real cash and cachet can be earned.)

Magic cards are still among Carter's strongest sellers. Friday nights at the Dragon are still Magic night, and if the 20-some techies and engineers who drift in to see how the new Dissension cards mesh with their old faves don't exactly scream "world-class," consider this: When's the last time that many people congregated for a serious round of Stratego?

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