Thursday, November 1, 2012
GAME, MONEY AND MUDER IN "MAGIC: THE GATHERING" CARD GAME
For someone who doesn't play the fantasy card game "Magic: The Gathering," watching a round and trying to understand what is going on is difficult.
The pace is fast. There are cards and dice. A round can be over before you know it.
The game has recently taken the local spotlight for a very dark reason: Sean Dugas, 30, one of the area's most active players, was killed, according to police, by two Magic players who robbed him for his collection of cards.
In this descendant of the role-playing game "Dungeons and Dragons," players take on the role of "wizards," using their cards as their tools in fantasy battles.
They start with 20 "life points" with the goal of eliminating the other players by damaging them via attacks with their cards until they reach zero points.
All cards are not created equal, nor is there an equal power to every card. Some cards attack your opponent; others give you extra magical points; some summon mythical creatures to do your bidding.
It's a byzantine game that you have to learn by doing. If you don't live in the Magic subculture, and you listen to the players talking, you might think you're hearing Swahili.
"There's so many rules and different things you can get into," said Zach Short, who has been playing for about nine years. "If you think 'Hey, this is a really fun game,' sit down and try it."
Dugas' cards, valued at somewhere between $25,000 and $100,000, ultimately were sold in Pensacola, Georgia and Tennessee, police said.
Dugas' body was taken to Winder, Ga., where it was found Oct. 8, buried in a plastic container in the backyard of a home. Now held in Georgia, William Cormier and his twin brother, Christopher, will be returned to Pensacola to face charges in the homicide.
The killing has rocked Pensacola's close-knit "Magic" community of about 150 people who are stunned that a hobby, albeit one that many of them take very seriously, could bring about such tragedy.
This is simply a game with a collectible element, they say.
Much as with baseball cards, Magic cards are packaged at random. Just as a kid might go through several packages of baseball cards looking for his favorite player, so might Magic players buying package after package of cards looking for a powerful rare card.
A theft is conceivable. A murder is not.
"We've been doing this for 26 years, and we've never even had a fight," said Ed Nehring, who owns TBS Comics on Ninth Avenue in Pensacola, where Magic and its predecessors have long been played.
Created in 1993, Magic has more than 12 million players in more than 70 countries, according to Tolena Thorburn, spokeswoman for Wizards of the Coast, the game's owner.
To date, more than 11,000 cards, each with a unique illustration and a description of the card's value in the game, have been created.
"All wield terrifying magic and command armies of creatures torn from the endless planes of reality," a manual on the game's website says. "Your deck of cards represents all the weapons in your arsenal. It contains the spells you know and the creatures you can summon to fight for you."
The game has maintained its popularity in the Pensacola area.
"A lot of these fantasy games ... spiked way beyond Magic and tapered off," Nehring said. "There has been a sustaining line of success."
Short said the game, for him, has a lot to do with imagination.
"You can imagine yourself ... you're a sorcerer and I'm going to summon this creature to the battlefield," Short said. "And I can picture him on the battlefield going up against my buddy's creature."
The consensus among many local players is that there are two sides to the game - the social and the monetary.
The social side involves playing with friends on a regular basis. Some stores, such as TBS Comics, host a Magic night on Fridays, when many get together to play, trade and sell.
Members of The Gathering, the University of West Florida's Magic club, play all the time in the University Commons, said group President Calvin Rarie. The club has about 40 members, with 12 to 15 people usually playing each day, he said.
"We work to make sure that wherever we play, it's a good friendly environment," Rarie, 21, said.
The other side involves the money, through trading and going to large tournaments called Grand Prixs.
A select few locals, including Joe Halford of Walnut Hill, say they can make a living off going to the tournaments and trading and selling.
"It's well more than minimum wage," Halford, 24, said. "It's not necessarily upper class, but definitely middle class to lower-upper class status."
New sets of cards are released every so often, and the values fluctuate, he said.
The rarest cards fetch top dollar, both at shows and online.
On Tuesday, for example, a Black Lotus Magic card was listed on eBay for $100,000. Police estimated a Black Lotus card belonging to Dugas at $10,000.
The Pensacola scene
On Friday night, a few dozen people gathered at TBS Comics to play, trade and watch.
The players were on opposite sides of tables that resemble long workbenches. Their game mats were out, and many players kept score on their phones.
The atmosphere was calm. If someone got worked up about a move or an attack, it didn't get out of hand.
Everyone knew each other.
Nehring said a core group of up to 40 people regularly come to the store to play and buy cards.
"I've got at least four or five of my best friends that we play on a weekly basis, at least," Short said.
But the death of Dugas, a former News Journal reporter, left a big hole in the local Magic community. He was a constant presence, and some said he was sought by other players when they needed better cards.
"He was a dominant figure in the Magic community," Rarie said. "When news came of his death, it shook all of us."
The Cormiers also were mainstays of the Magic community several years ago but had dropped off the scene, according to several players.
That the game and the local community are now accused in connection with one of the more high-profile killings in Pensacola's recent history is a jolt that still shocks those who play.
"From going from a docile environment to something of this nature, it's frightening," Nehring said.
Pensacola News Journal