By Etelka Lehoczky

If there were such a thing as a type AAA, Robert Liszka would be one. His eyes dwell fretfully under cantilevered brows. Every hair in his angled black crew cut reveals the careful snipping of a stylist. His build is that of a soccer player or Cybex habitue.

Even the first time I spoke with him on the phone it was clear he was serious–about his life (he’s studying engineering at Washington University in Saint Louis), his frat (Theta Xi), and, most of all, a fantasy-oriented trading-card game called Magic: The Gathering. Talking about his plans to attend “Midwest Magic ’96,” a big tournament to be held at Rosemont Convention Center, he mulled over his strategy.

“I’m probably going to lean toward a burn deck–lots of fireballs, lightning bolts for damage, then control the deck with my total-destruction spell,” he said, talking fast. “My main problem is I got in kind of late, so it was hard for me to get some of the expensive cards.”

“Late” means anytime after 1993, when Magic first boggled the role-playing subculture with its unique, perversely consumeristic strategy. The Los Angeles Times called it “something of a common ground between fantasy role-playing and bridge,” but it more closely resembles a stockbroker’s training exercise, albeit with broadswords and flowing robes.

Magic is–surprise–about casting spells, and different cards represent spells of varying strength. Of course, that’s like saying chess is about pushing wood. The game is fiendishly complex, so much so that Wizards of the Coast, the game’s maker, has devoted a large part of its Web site to resolving rule quibbles.

At the same time though–and this is the key to its success–the game’s strategy can be reduced to a few simple principles. To play you assemble a 60-card deck from the more than 1,100 cards available. To win you’ve got to have powerful–and usually rare–cards in your deck. And to get those cards, you have to pay.

At first players simply tried their luck with the grab-bag booster packs sold for $2 to $3. But once the game caught on, an army of collectors cropped up. Individual cards now sell for prices ranging from a few dollars to $500, and those who got in early saw their modest investments balloon.

One player sold his collection and bought a computer with the proceeds. Another put a down payment on a Ford Bronco after her “sellout,” which netted $3,000. The whole thing resembles the 17th-century tulip craze; instead of trading miles of land for single bulbs, these devotees spend thousands to acquire two-by-three-inch cards with names like Blue Elemental Blast or Bog Imp.

Query Liszka on how much he’s spent, and he asks if he should include tournament fees. Wizards of the Coast is doing all it can to encourage the growth of a Magic “circuit,” and Liszka wants to be a contender. His biggest victory so far was just getting a spot in the first tournament of the “pro tour,” held in New York in February.

“The senior division was full in two hours. I called and called, and my parents called and called, and we got through. I got in.”

In New York he got to rub elbows with the game’s top guns, competitors who’d come from all over the U.S. and Europe to try for the $60,000 in prizes. “Midwest Magic ’96” is small potatoes by comparison, but the winner gets a spot in the national finals. Liszka figures he has a shot.

Out at Rosemont, there’s little evidence of the scope of the Magic myth: the tournament is being held in one of the farthest-flung ballrooms where, presumably, it won’t exude whiffs of subculture to crinkle the noses of those attending the quilt show. So you walk–and walk–through a mazy, Plexiglas-covered suspended pathway that looks like something out of Logan’s Run. Every now and then a tributary comes into view, a subtube leading who knows where. The utter quiet, combined with the diffused, watery sunlight, gives this trek the feel of a mythic journey.

Well, for me at least. The two guys I’m following are just pissed they’re lost.

“Where the hell is it?” the hefty, crew-cutted one says as we encounter yet another unmarked branching. He angrily shifts a toolbox–some players use them to organize their card collections–into his other hand.

The slender one with the ponytail glances down at the road below.

“Wait a minute–those guys look like they’re going,” he says. He’s right: the guys passing underneath us are instantly recognizable Magic players, if not for their toolboxes and ponytails then for the looking-for-a-fight expressions on their faces.

We turn a corner, go down some stairs, and find that look duplicated, in varying intensity, nearly a thousand times. It’s particularly noticeable in the foyer, where a ragged line of (mostly) guys cranes its collective neck toward the clot at the registration tables. Off in the red-carpeted ballroom the aggression seems to have banked a bit. Hundreds mill and subtly posture, eyeing one another with a mix of wariness and deliberate cool. Some wear T-shirts designed to intimidate or amuse: “It’s not the size of your deck, it’s how you use it.” “Real men play for ante.”

The walls are lined with booths set up by game stores, many specializing in Magic, which display their cards in glass cases under high-intensity lamps. People stop to stare at the famous “Black Lotus,” a card that lets you “add 3 Mana of any single color to your Mana pool,” and other particularly notable offerings.

I buy a brightly colored pack of cards and sit in a corner and flip through it. The cards’ design reflects the peculiarly self-referential aesthetic pioneered by Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy games. The backs are drawn to resemble tooled leather decorated with cabochons in the five colors significant to the game: red, green, blue, black, and white. The faces feature pictures illustrating the nature of the card–in the case of Phantom Monster, it’s a many-toothed blue thing, while Phantasmal Terrain is a deserted field–and an array of numbers that express its power.

To my shock, I begin to experience a vague flicker of the collector’s compulsion. I like looking at my cards. The pictures are colorful, and some include lines of verse by Shakespeare or Poe (“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! –King Lear”). Each card seems to tell a story–a muddled, shorthand story that I’d be hard-pressed to decipher, but a story nonetheless. I wonder what I’d do if one of my cards turned out to be worth something. I don’t know if I’d part with it that easily.

Not that everyone’s out to buy. Hard-core gamers, who play other games besides this one, sneer at the prices and insist that they’re just here for fun. These old-timers often complain that the swarming dollar signs have wrecked Magic.

Take Seth Thomson, for instance. Thomson is the captain of Bad Mana, a team that the Comic Relief chain of stores put together for this tournament. The Bad guys can be seen all over the ballroom, instantly recognizable in their matching black T-shirts decorated with weird white runes.

Thomson’s also a veteran Comic Relief employee, the host of a cable-access TV show called Comics Explained, and a psych major. He likes the game because “it integrates a lot of different concepts. You’re a wizard fighting creatures who are casting spells on you. At the same time, it’s got the strategy of chess. It’s kind of mind-expanding.”

A couple nights before the tournament I asked him how much he’s spent on the game.

“Uh, spent? That’s a hard call. I’ve made more–I’ve made more than I spent. I bought one set and sold it for 20 times what I paid.”

When he mentioned that he owns every Magic card in existence, I asked again how much he’s spent.

His eyes took in the middle distance for a few seconds.

“Two or three thousand.”

Despite this figure, Thomson is critical of the game’s escalating prices. He’s turned much of his attention to other role-playing games and insists that the Magic fad is fading.

“Magic’s hit hard,” he says, “and it’s here to stay–though not at its present level. A lot of the older players got disgruntled and sold out when Wizards of the Coast reprinted some of the original cards.”

Nevertheless, the scene at Rosemont bears all the signs of a phenomenon careening mainstreamward. There are several parents with kids. One dad shepherds three ten-year-olds across the ballroom, asking who wants some peanuts.

Significantly, the crowd includes a small number of women. Most fantasy games are played only by guys in their 20s and 30s. Unlike countless others, Magic has managed to catch the interest of the gamers’ sisters and girlfriends. Julie drove in from the University of Northern Iowa with her boyfriend. Amy, also here with her boyfriend, came up from Emporia, Kansas.

“Men are into these strategy games where they get to go out and kill their opponent,” Amy says. Raising her hands, she pantomimes a strangulation. Her boyfriend watches blandly. She turns her palms out and shrugs. “Me, I just like to play.”

Moments later the word goes out: the first round is about to begin. The tournament’s organizers were surprised by the turnout–nearly a third more people than they’d expected. As a result the first round has been delayed two hours. Finally the pairings are posted.

Magic will never be a spectator sport. Hundreds of players sit in neat rows, dealing cards and contesting one another’s moves in low voices. Reporters have recorded fights breaking out at tournaments, but there’s no such luck today.

The tournament ends up running until 5 AM. Sometime after midnight the finalists have to move to a suite at the Hyatt to finish their games. I don’t stay that long; I just wait to track down Liszka between rounds. He’s wearing a black T-shirt that says “What are you looking at, dicknose?”

Liszka’s a little out of sorts; it seems that too many people are using “necro decks” and “red and green strategies.” I call him a couple of days later to see how he did.

“Well, I finished with 36 points. You needed 39 to get into the final 32, so it was close.” He says he’s looking forward to the next qualifying tournament. “That’s the best you can hope for.”

Liszka has a way of shuffling his words, and some of them get mixed up in the process. I think he means that he’ll be hoping for the best.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of 4 Magic fantasy cards.