A night in Madison's Magic wonderland

Madison is a small but powerful hotspot for the world's most popular trading card game.

A pile of cards kept around for communal play at Netherworld Games. Photo by Scott Gordon.

A pile of cards kept around for communal play at Netherworld Games. Photo by Scott Gordon.

Friday night is when most of the Magic happens in Madison, but fortunately not all of it.

There are some Commander sessions on Thursdays, and some events on other days throughout the week. By and large, though, Friday gets all the action because of the long-enduring Friday Night Magic event, where players may engage in one of many formats depending on which store they play in.

I'm talking, of course, about Magic: The Gathering, the most popular trading card game in the world, and a largely unknown fame factor for our isthmus.

Magic is a game between two (or more) players, who take the role of powerful wizards called planeswalkers. Each player starts with 20 (or more) life and a set amount of cards in deck, depending on the format. From there, planeswalkers take turns casting spells, summoning creatures, doing weird combos and many other things in hopes of dwindling their opponents' life total to zero.

Madison is known as a fantastic town for the card game in spite of its modest size, and is also an important landmark in the game's 20 year history. Indeed, you may be hard pressed to find a higher rate of magic players per capita anywhere else in America.

If you aren't part of this cardboard-wizard contingency, however, no one would blame you for being in the dark on Madison's vibrant MTG scene.

Unlike the more visible sports fan, a player of the mostly fantasy-based card game hardly make his or her presences known to the general public. In lieu of reveling up and down State Street and The Square, such a person prefers to keep to warm, friendly spaces, whether that be a shop or a fellow planeswalker's house, to play their game of choice.

One such place is Netherworld Games, a compact store that specializes in Magic and doubles as a play space for all sorts of games. The official closing time of the shop just off State Street says 9 p.m., but the shop's employees say this is simply to maintain a veneer of professionalism. In reality, players, both casual and competitive, have rolled dice and slammed cards into the wee hours of many a morning during the shop's 12 years of existence.

I arrive at Netherworld at 5:30 p.m. on a  Friday in July, a few hours before the store's long-running Friday Night Magic draft nights, where I will nervously compete. I've been playing Magic on and off for six years now, but never in Madison and mostly in causal contexts.

Friday Night Magic in progress at Netherworld Games in downtown Madison. Photo by Henry Solotaroff-Webber.

Friday Night Magic in progress at Netherworld Games in downtown Madison. Photo by Henry Solotaroff-Webber.

I get there a few hours early so I can chat with some of the store's employees to get a better lay of Madison's MTG scene. The space is filled with a small number of people, mostly employees. A few of them are playing a complicated-looking board game involving spaceships in the back while a few people sneak some games of Magic closer to the front. I'm greeted warmly by Shariq Moore and Andrew Boudwin, two employees at the shop roughly in their mid-to-late 20's.

I ask them about the notion, gleaned mostly from Reddit, that Madison is a fantastic town for Magic: The Gathering, especially given its size. Andrew says it's true for both competitive and casual play. Magic's creators debuted the game in Milwaukee at a 1994 event called Gencon. This, says Andrew, combined with the influx of intelligent people that UW brings in, had a hand in creating one of the first nexuses of professional magic players long before the game established its global grip on roughly 20 million players.

From then, those original players have passed on their knowledge of the game to other players in the area, propagating a consistent pool of high-level Magic talent in Madison. This process of intellectual inheritance applies to local stores as well. Multiple stores in Madison, including Netherworld Games, have been owned by professionals and Magic lovers through their years of existence.

Despite this history, Andrew says Madison's professional scene is in a slight downswing at the moment. He estimates that the current pool of professional/semi-professional players living in Madison ranges from 20 to 30, though no one present is entirely confident in that estimate. A significant number of players have sought out bigger cities as of late.

Andrew, a very talented player in his own right, does not seem very concerned with this development. He explains that in his opinion (which he describes as controversial) professional players do not have a large impact on any Magic scene's vitality as a whole.

"The vast majority of Magic players are non-competitive magic players. They're not even aware that those pro players are around them. Anyone can enjoy it in a vast amount of ways. People kind of inflate the importance of the pro community," Andrew says.

Casual Magic is growing the way the game's publisher, Wizards of the Coast, has intended, and Madison is no exception to casual Magic's worldwide growth. His previous claim is somewhat to the chagrin of some of the other players gathered at Netherworld. Jed Robinson, another high-level player present, offers a rebuttal. Professional players, Robinson says, offer newer players both the motivation and the means to improve themselves. You can't get better if you don't play against better players. It's also hard to know how advanced and subtle Magic can get if not exposed to it directly.

Andrew concedes this point, but emphasizes the importance of casual Magic players in Madison, whose number he estimates around 600, though it could be much more. He also unpacks the importance of store employees like himself and Shariq. Though professional players offer an incentive to improve, it is employees like him who offer initial introductions to games. They are the ones who explain rules, jam some games with people trepidatiously buying their first packs, facilitate playgroups and also plan fun and stimulating events for players new and old alike.

Store owners and employees are also responsible for keeping scenes healthy and welcoming for everyone as brand ambassadors. As a facilitator, Andrew and his co-workers strive to create a fun environment where every magic player can find what it is they are looking for. He also has disdain for anyone who lets their individual pursuit of the game harm the play space as a whole.

Andrew Boudwin (left) and Shariq Moore preside over a Friday night session of Magic gameplay at Netherworld. Photo by Henry Solotaroff-Webber.

Andrew Boudwin (left) and Shariq Moore preside over a Friday night session of Magic gameplay at Netherworld. Photo by Henry Solotaroff-Webber.

"People that are not fun to play with do a disservice to the game," he says. "The game will get competitive, but 99 percent of all people will come down off that and say, 'hey sorry if that came off wrong' and be totally fine afterwards. Some people, though, take the game really seriously and maybe go too far for people that aren't there for the same reasons they are."

There is also the relatively-big elephant in the room for any gaming community, IRL or online—male dominance. It's something that Andrew and Shariq both acknowledge exists and is something Shariq has read about from various female Magic player perspectives on the topic. Sexism or any -ism for that matter is not tolerated in their store, but it can still happen here, just as it can in any male-heavy setting.

"I'm not saying that people saying sexist stuff doesn't happen, but just that most of the people that come here are cognizant of that these things do happen. Some things are said that are maybe not as tempered as they should be," Andrew says.

As we wrap up our interview, Andrew and Shariq detail, one last time, the community Magic can provide if done right. For me, a wildly antisocial adolescent back in New Jersey, Magic provided something to do on weekends. Andrew says he's seen the same thing happen for many kids that were in my shoes as well as other kinds of holistic good come from Magic.

"I know a lot of people who were going through hard times and Magic helped them get out of bed when they didn't want to. I've also seen some magic communities come together to help people when they are down in life, with things like hospital bills. You'll find, just like in any community that when people spend their time around one another, they're going to roll out the rug for other people part of their community."

By game time, Netherworld is nearly filled to its 40-ish person capacity as Andrew and Shariq begin the task of trying to facilitate the evening's proceedings. Warm and rapid conversations fill the room.

The players are a mix of young and old, mostly male but not quite as overwhelmingly male as one might assume. It's also among the most ethnically diverse crowds I've seen at any Madisonian social gathering. Not all of them are there to play Magic, which makes the vibe that much more impressive.  

Around 7:30, Andrew announces that it's time to begin registration for the night's event: a draft.

Draft is a format of Magic where, instead of playing with cards you own, you buy three packs of 15 cards at the store and make decks out of those. The catch is that you don't just take your three packs. Instead you draft them in a pool, per the name. Groups of players each open the first pack and select the best card from among them. They then pass the remaining 14 cards to the left, and receive a different 14 from the right. This process repeats in descending fashion until no cards remain. Repeat with pack two (to the right) and pack three (back to the left).

Despite some grumblings about player numbers not being quite correct, everyone eventually settles. Two pools of drafters are formed, with one more competitive than the other. I'm in the other pool. I sit down with 10 other players, an even mix of newer and older players based on the amount of questions asked and answered. I unwrap my first pack of cards. The choices overwhelm me but I make a selection and hand my cards to the player on my right.

As players begin to assemble decks out of the newly formed pool of cards, I begin to see with my own eyes the kind of hands-on role store employees have at these shindigs. As I muddle my cards into a deck, Shariq does the same in the other draft, having joined to even out the numbers. At the same time, Andrew is helping both novices and veterans calibrate and fine tune their decks.

After getting some of that help for myself, I've built my own deck—with some powerful and luckily-obtained rare cards and what Magic players and office managers alike call synergy. My deck has the potential to be greater than the sum of its parts.

With these 40 cards I am paired with my first opponent, a 20-ish male. Initially my plan for this article was to interview a series of opponents during our play sessions. This was under the assumption that said games would proceed in the same fashion as my casual sessions with friends in the past. My opponent, though, isn't interested, so instead just simply play. This isn't to say that he, or my next two opponents, who also aren't into it, are rude, just that they would prefer to focus on the task at hand. Andrew would later tell me that, while he makes a point of talking with opponents during any match, this is hardly common. Magic can often a be a largely silent affair, due to the concentration it takes.

My first two opponents defeat me handily on our best-of-three matches, though they are each slightly impressed by the deck I've managed to assemble/luck into. When I play one card in particular, a Crested Sunmare, my second opponent's eyes light up. He excitedly begins to offer me trades and we later strike a deal. He has recently returned to Magic after a nearly 15-year hiatus, and wants my card to form a deck for a different format. For many people trading is a way to circumvent the high monetary cost competitive magic can often entail. It's a quintessential experience for new and older players alike.

I actually manage to beat my third opponent by drawing just the card I need at the last moment, an occurrence known to seasoned MTG players as "a last second top-deck." I also manage to assemble a sick combo in one of the games we play tapping into that synergy I mentioned earlier. This progression draws the interest of some players passing by our table, and I receive compliments the feat I've managed to accomplish (or again, luck into).

And though I'm surely experiencing a bit of beginner's luck, it's here, when several players gather around myself and my opponent, where I see the true sense of camaraderie a game like Magic can provide.

Though the conversation in a room full of Magic players can be insular, seemingly threadbare and largely limited to the game itself, this is because the game is engrossing. Magic is like a gripping fantasy novel mixed with poker. It's a narrative you get to read but also enact with adversaries in real time. The reason the conversation can be limited is because, like a good book, the dialogue is only a fraction of the appeal. The text, subtext and all movements in between are more important, and largely unspoken. One can't underestimate the importance of setting either.

If you're interested in getting into Magic, watch this video and/or visit any of the following Madison stores for more information.

Netherworld Games

Misty Mountain Games

Pegasus Games

Mox Mania

I'm Board

PowerNine Games