Cult Corner: The Drug-Like Allure of Magic: The Gathering

click to enlarge Cult Corner: The Drug-Like Allure of Magic: The Gathering
A pile of Magic: the Gathering cards.

By Will Thompson

Magic: the Gathering is the heroin of hobby gaming. It takes all your time. It takes all your money. It separates you from everyone who doesn’t play. Conversely, you share a special bond and language with those who also know the game. Had Nancy Reagan been in the White House when Magic debuted in 1993, there undoubtedly would have been “Magic: the Gathering -- Just Say No!” posters in schools and ensuing “inspirational” (i.e. guilt-inducing) speakers to decry the potentially addictive dangers of strategy games.

Ask anyone who has ever dabbled with Magic, even if it didn’t become their primary vice, they surely felt the pull. Like a drug habit, there are many ways in. Here’s how Magic does it.

Booster packs are the marijuana of Magic, the gateway. Just like collectible sports cards, Magic cards come in packs with cards of varying rarity available at game shops and big box stores. Buying packs can’t be called gambling because cards of certain types are guaranteed, but there could be even better cards than the minimum, including shiny foil versions of some cards.

With cards of varying rarity and availability, it goes without saying that these cards can become highly collectible. Assembling a binder of cards of both power in the game and personal significance is akin to a stoner’s, “Remember that time we…” stories. The apex of collectability is the Black Lotus. It sold for more than $166,000 on eBay in 2019, which was nearly twice what it sold for not long before that. Don’t expect recently printed cards to be anywhere in that ballpark, though there is plenty of money to be made on Magic.

Speculating, buying and selling cards as a hobby, side-hustle or full-time job is often referred to as MtG Finance (MtG being an acronym for Magic: the Gathering). In drug parlance, these are the dealers, and grateful we are for them. This work requires deep knowledge of the game, past and present, and tons of diligence, somewhat similar to the stock market. Just check out #mtgfinance on Twitter, where traders speculate, sell, and turn the wheels on the money side of the game.

click to enlarge Cult Corner: The Drug-Like Allure of Magic: The Gathering
Players study their cards during a round of Magic: the Gathering.

Largely but not entirely unrelated is the lore and artwork of the game. Magic has nearly three decades of storytelling behind it, all of which are deeply integral. The central story focuses on Planeswalkers, powerful beings with skills and identities closely tied to the color of mana (magic) they represent. Cosplaying as these characters, and others within the universe, is a common site at any Magic event. Artists line convention halls selling prints and originals of Magic artwork. Nerds are willing to shell out for originals, too, and they’re not cheap. In keeping with the drug theme, these are Magic’s Bob Marley posters and blacklight artwork. This is a poor analogy, but I have a theme to uphold.

That’s nearly 500 words talking about a game, and we haven’t even discussed playing it yet: the actual drug in question. Magic has multiple formats in which particular guidelines govern the rules, types of cards that can be played, and so forth. There is a basic rule set that can get incredibly deep and nuanced, and cards can change the flow of a game at a moment’s notice, which is when it becomes a gorgeously intricate dance of rules, strategy and chance -- a rare approximation of life itself. There’s a reason there is a pro circuit for Magic players; it’s a game of skill, both in playing and assembling a deck. The game, though, can be enjoyed at any level of expertise. Like any good drug, no experience is required, though a knowledgeable guide is recommended.

When COVID-19 isn’t ruining social interaction, Magic: the Gathering can be played in Clarkston at Game Play, in Moscow at Safari Pearl and in Pullman at Palouse Games. Online Magic events are being listed on their social media pages. Magic Arena, a digital version, is playable on PC.

Thompson enjoys putting somewhat carefully chosen words in relatively meaningful order. He has been to college. He lives in Lewiston and can be reached at