Jacob Wishon shuffles a five-card hand. The plastic sleeves gleam in the fluorescent light as Carla Schlueter winces across the game table: "Oh God,” Schlueter says. “Oh God, what’s he got? What are you going to do?"
“Wouldn't you like to know?” Wishon replies.
It’s Friday night — tournament night — and Gamer’s Haunt on Merrimon Avenue is crowded. Well, it looks that way to the uninitiated. “It’s actually a pretty low turnout,” says Dale McKinney, the retailer and game venue’s owner. “There’s a big tournament in Atlanta this weekend, and a lot of our regulars are down there.” Even so, the store’s bustling.
"Dale!" calls a player: "You wouldn't happen to have any Festering Newts, would you?"
McKinney looks up from behind the counter. "Because I need Festering Newts,” the player says. “Lots and lots of Festering Newts." McKinney’s a relatively new citizen of the Land of the Sky, still finding his way around and “all the good places to eat,” but his livelihood here is attributed to one of his most enduring passions. "You know you can only have four per deck," says McKinney. Gamer’s Haunt trades exclusively in the complex, widespread card game Magic: The Gathering.
A gamer’s primer
The setup is simple: You are a wizard, fighting another wizard, using spells in the form of summoned creatures, allies, demons and destructive “magicks” to defeat your opponent. The game’s intricacy of character and plot makes for a steep learning curve. Some cards have extremely minute effects and procedures.
There are cards that give special bonuses, cards that trigger actions when another card is "destroyed" and sent to the "graveyard," cards that can summon other cards, cards you can't play until you have enough mana (magic power), mana here being represented by "lands" on even more cards that themselves can have special attributes.
Each player uses his or her deck, drawing one card per turn, in literally millions of possible permutations until they wear down their opponents’ hit points, represented by the numerical standard of 20. Each deck has 100 cards, and the player selects each card they want to have in, building a deck all their own.
"It's extremely addicting," Charla says between rounds. "And expensive. But man, oh man, is it worth it."
"I've been playing since last fall," Charla says. "My fiance and I, we always liked, you know, board games and card games. So one day I just brought Magic home on a whim. It seemed fun." She laughs. "A year later, here we are."
Her experience is demonstrable. Tournament Fridays at Gamer's Haunt are round-robin style, and plug into official national Magic: The Gathering tournament standings. Each match win for a player — taking two out of three games — earns the player three points. Draws earn one point, and losses … "Well," Charla says. "You know. Zero."
It takes a lot of time to build a deck and a lot of money and dedication. Paul's deck, lovingly crafted, is just not powerful enough to stand up to Charla's. Cards prices vary wildly; rare cards used more for collection than play sometimes run several hundred dollars. Even cards that are meant to be played can get up to $20 to $50 dollars. With a 100-card deck — you do the math.
"It's funny," says McKinney. "But you can almost see a microcosm with world politics in Magic. You'll have a group playing together just for fun, then one kid will save enough money to buy a really good card and starting killing the other players. Then the other players start buying better cards and suddenly you have an honest-to-god arms race in a playing group."
McKinney works hard to make sure Gamer's Haunt stays inviting, even to novice players. "You get to a big tournament, and you make a mistake, the other player can call foul and have you disqualified. I don't do that here. It’s more about teaching them to play and keeping them excited about it. Then when they feel confident enough to go to a bigger tournament, they can."
Tonight McKinney’s hopping everywhere, posting the round match-ups, taking score slips, serving candy bars and soft drinks to hungry patrons, and, as always, buying and selling cards, sometimes to the very players participating in tonight's tournament.
"It's definitely what keeps the store running," says McKinney. "I don't charge for tournaments. No one does, really. At the most you're just going to charge just enough to cover cost. So you pay the rent with those $60 cards."
McKinney has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the game. Cards come into play with paragraph-long instructions that both Charla and Jacob seem to not need to read. Jacob plays a card written entirely in Kanji and assuages your correspondent’s suspicions by pulling up a smartphone app that can search for any card and show its English version.
"That's one of the best things about Magic," McKinney says. "It's so accessible. You can find something to like about it, whoever you are."
McKinney has a decade-long relationship to the game, and when the opportunity came earlier in 2013 to take over Gamer's Haunt after the original owner decided to sell, he went for it. "I'd been working with computers for the last few years and I was ready for something else," he says. "This this came along. I'm so appreciative to Roy [Thomas, the previous owner] for getting me the store.”
The store changed locations several times prior to McKinney's ownership, but he has no plans to move. "Asheville is a great location. It's very laid-back, and there's a large Magic community here, and so little stress."
Under the spell
Perhaps not at this moment however: Charla and Jacob are both glaring at their cards as if willing one to transmute into something more powerful. The game has stretched to the time limit. Finally McKinney calls out, "Match times over! Finish your game in five turns or draw."
The stakes get higher. If it comes to a draw both players will have to settle for one point each and probably put to bed any chance of either one of them getting in the top four. Yet somehow one of them will have to win in five total turns.
"It can teach you so much," says McKinney. "It helped my reading, it helped my math and, honestly, analysis. You really can learn a lot about yourself playing this game. Why you attack here, why you build the deck the way you do, how you respond to an opponent. It's by far the best thing I've ever invested money in."
It's that factor that keeps everyone coming back to Gamer's Haunt . It’s the community of players, the buying and trading of cards, and building your own deck that encapsulates you — your strategy, thought processes, personality. And playing with and meeting new friends and simply getting better at this activity to which you've devoted your time, money and attention. It's about having fun, really. Winning is almost a side note.
Charla would definitely agree, though tonight, that’s easy for her to say. She goes on to win the tournament.