The last of the champions

Truels of Engagement

Nerds have overrun Fort Mason. None of the coastal batteries or fortifications could hold back this roiling, unkempt tide. Where battleships once docked and carried nearly two-thirds of the total American personnel deployed in the Pacific during World War II, a few overweight 30-year-olds with messenger bags and prolix t-shirts smoke cigarettes in the cool bay morning. A fort constructed to hold off Civil War naval offenses and move troops can’t stand up to this assault.

The only thing that seems to hold them back is a velvet rope. In the back of the San Francisco fort, which has been repurposed as a convention center since the 1970s, an orderly crowd gathers behind this flimsy barricade to witness one of the final rounds of the Magic: the Gathering World Championships.

Like any competitive event, there’s tension in the air around the feature match pit. Since spectators can see the players’ cards, they stand silent for fear of revealing crucial information to their opponents. Much like golf, players must often stop to think about their next moves, surveying the cards on the table like a golfer studies the green. The act of setting down one’s hand of cards and thinking about a move — known as “tanking — is a hallmark of high-level play, though it is not the sportsman’s idea of a blistering, sword-rattling battle of wills.

There are plenty of distractions for those bored with the slow pace of play. The entire center has been converted into a microcosm of the Magic world; it’s part bazaar, part arena and part social club. Giant, blown-up card portraits are everywhere, with everything from zombies to leather-clad swordsmen hanging from the walls. There’s also a distinct element of engineered sexiness to some of the pictures. Nerds have always had their cartoon women to fall back on, and Magic is no different. One of the largest tapestries in the whole place shows a red-lipped, hourglass-figured woman in a leather getup walking toward you, purple flames shooting from her fingertips. Hubba hubba.

The real women are few and far between at Fort Mason. Thousands of people mill about the hall, but only a few players are female. They walk with confidence knowing that hundreds of eyes follow them everywhere they go, the golden sheep of the nerd herd.

For the most part the competitors are gamers, through and through. People have come from all over the world to compete for a prize purse well over $100,000. It seems absurd that slinging cardboard could bring in a $40,000 payday for the world champ, but the accessibility of the game and its popularity among both casual and competitive circuits justifies a big payout for the top players. It’s just like any other professional gaming event, except players cast spells instead of making bets.

And things are serious at times. I was lucky enough to witness two titans of the game go head-to-head in the 15th round of competition. In the feature area there are scorekeepers, judges, photographers, videographers and official recorders at the head of each table. They all go about their jobs with a sort of grim purpose, a desensitized look that tells you they’ve been around Magic for a long enough time to know that despite how it looks, the players hold this game in very high regard. It might seem silly to be hired out as a professional photographer only to discover you’re snapping photos of a trading card game tournament, but for the professionals in the ring it’s another payday that demands courtesy.

There’s something about money that really makes this place tick, in a way. For the photographers it’s another day on the job, but there are people who make a living off Magic cards, and everyone who’s anyone in the card merchandise world is at the championships. There’s a huge secondary market for certain cards, which can fetch prices anywhere from a few dollars to hundreds, or even thousands for old cards like the famed Black Lotus.

But at the end of the day, it’s really just a bunch of people, under one colossal roof, who enjoy the same thing in different ways. Artists who paint card portraits, the players themselves, kids just getting started, shady cardmongers whose sole purpose is stacking bills — they all exhibit their love of Magic differently. And to see such desires unbridled, running wild through the convention center in a disparate tide of pimpled teenagers and prospect-barren thirty-somethings, brings joy to my gamer’s heart.

Come next year the tournament will no longer be the cattle call it once was. Instead of a field of hundreds of players in the main draw, it will be limited to sixteen players, the best of the best. It saddens me a little bit to watch the tournament cut down in such a dramatic way. Zoos are only fun when there are lots of animals to look at.

I just hope this nerd herd can safely migrate to greener pastures.