It’s been referred to as 'cardboard crack' and I’m starting to understand why.
Knees and fingers twitch compulsively. Eye contact is avoided. $150 is passed over a table for a pile of cards.
There’s the eternal shuffle. The empty can of Red Bull. The techno music.
The man sitting opposite me is gesturing with his hand out, like a conductor thanking his band, only he seems frustrated. He chops at the air, speaking Mandarin.
I finally realise it’s my turn.
I wipe my sweaty palms on my jeans and stare at my cards.
What the fuck is a Blight Herder?
My brother Jules and I have entered a card tournament in the bowels of Melbourne. We’ve walked down a flight of stairs to a place called Dungeon of Magic. Inside, giant posters line the walls.
There’s a voluptuous woman in a red dress with red hair and flames pouring from her face and fingertips.
Next to her, there’s a man that looks a bit like Chris Hemsworth. Varicose veins work up his biceps to a rusty axe. He frowns at me like I’ve done something wrong.
Then there’s the angel.
Her hair is thrown up in the sky by the storm but she controls her staff with ease. A glimmer of golden light pierces the clouds and illuminates her face.
She looks down at us.
Jules gazes back at her.
I ask for the bathroom.
The owner of the store, Adam, tells us that we’ll be playing Magic: The Gathering. Released in 1993, Magic is a trading card game that now has around 20 million players worldwide. Adam describes it as a cross between chess, poker and Lord of the Rings. The objective of the game is to play a combination of spell and creature cards in order to whittle down your opponent's life total to zero.
The store is littered with paraphernalia. Protective card sleeves. Official gaming mats. Boxes of cards. Figurines. Folders.
Then there are the four long black tables I would soon sweat, frown and swear over.
Adam says starting the business killed his love for Magic, but when I sit down at the tables and start getting schooled by the Chinese players I can see him watch from the counter.
His lips are all pulled to one side of his face. It’s as if he has a permanent look of condolence reserved for me. Somewhere in those contorted lips is a smile.
Cards are being passed down the table. We're playing a style of Magic called Booster Draft. We open a new packet of cards, choose a spell or creature to add to our army, and then hand the rest of the cards to the person on our right.
Legs start rocking beneath the tables again.
There’s a constant source of frustration for everyone involved. No one is getting the right cards.
Adam comes over to turn up the techno and all you hear between beats is restrained profanity.
Occasionally, someone lets out a long sigh.
I sit there with a bunch of cards in my hand and suddenly I get a series of flashbacks.
Jules and I playing Magic over candlelight in a caravan.
Feeling the first pangs of anxiety when I accidentally scratched my rare Platinum Angel.
Trying to teach my ex-girlfriend how to play in the Royal Botanic Gardens.
Getting ripped off by a man with a welt on his neck at Card Crazy.
It’s been a long time between spells, but it’s starting to come back to me. I ask the guy next to me, Alexis, why he plays.
'It’s the lore of Magic that had me hooked. Fantasy novels come out with each set of new cards. From there, I developed an interest in the game mechanics.'
According to the official website, the story of Magic: The Gathering takes place in 'the Multiverse – an infinite realm that contains untold numbers of fantasy worlds. These worlds are filled with heroic legends and whispered secrets.'
Alexis dreams of entering a Pro Tour. The Pro Tour is the highest level of competitive play for Magic: The Gathering. There’s a total of $250,000 up for grabs in each of these tournaments, with the overall winner taking $40,000. To take part, you must win a series of qualifying tournaments.
'I’d love to play in Pro Tours but it costs a lot of money. Buying the necessary cards to play in these tournaments costs hundreds of dollars. Money is the only thing holding me back right now.'
Magic cards can cost anywhere from a few cents to a few thousand dollars. Right now, there’s a card on eBay, the Black Lotus, being auctioned for $20,000. Alexis says it can be hard to keep up with the constant flow of new cards, but that he has a group of friends willing to lend a hand.
'When I moved from Canberra to Melbourne, Magic provided a great way to meet new people. I’ve made a bunch of friends that lend me cards and help me practice for tournaments.'
This seems to be a common theme.
Tye Soens, a Melbourne based professional player, started playing Magic after he was kicked out of home. He wandered around his hometown in Frankston, looking for something new to occupy his time. He remembers playing Magic for the first time in a local games store.
'I was hooked from my first game. The community aspect is really important. You meet a group of people with similar mindsets. That’s what kept me coming back.'
Four years later, he’s now playing competitively. He’s played in the Magic Pro Tour twice, where he went 8-8 (wins to losses). He says getting free flights to tournaments around the world is the biggest perk. It was through Magic that he got his first experience travelling overseas to Portland.
Chester Swords, a Magic player living in Sydney, has just qualified for his fifth Pro Tour. This year, he’s competed in Singapore and Auckland. Last year, he travelled to Japan and Shanghai. He says that the pressure during Pro Tours can be intense.
'In some cases, there might be several thousand dollars on the line. You definitely see players struggling to cope with that sort of stress.'
He says that this pressure can combine with personal egos to create a negative atmosphere.
'The Sydney player base is completely toxic. It can be pretty miserable playing here. There’s a definite sense of big-fish-small-pond syndrome. Even players in local tournaments can get huge egos. They’re incredibly obnoxious to be around.'
After the tournament, I threw my new deck of cards at Jules because I didn’t have enough mana to cast any spells.
We're lying on his bedroom floor next to a pile of cards.
We’ve been up all night.
There’s dog hair everywhere.
It’s all over my jacket.
Mosquitoes float through an open window.
Jules tells me to close it.
I can’t be bothered.
I stare up at the ceiling and tell him that I’m going to end it tonight.
That I won’t go to work tomorrow.
He fishes through a stack of cards next to me and asks whether I want to play one more game.
He looks at me with bloodshot eyes.
'You know, the first step is admitting that we have a problem.'
We’re silent for a while.
Then we start shuffling.
Gabriel Filippa is studying his Master of Journalism. He spends most of his time sitting on his arse watching films or playing video games. Sometimes, he gets up to write about something that has annoyed him.