It's in the Cards

If you ask my kids and their friends, Magic: The Gathering is a wonderful, exciting, and unique game with no decent parallel anywhere on the market. For me it is
all of those, and yet for those of us who seek a better world through social and personal transformation, the game has areas of concern.

Let me state very clearly that this game does not have the negative role-playing aspect of Dungeons & Dragons. Though I have never played that game, I understand it has a tendency to draw some young players into acting out the part of an individual character; the game was blamed for some teen suicides.

Here's a little about the game. Magic, though a card game, has some similarities to chess in that each player has cards that have their own strengths and weaknesses. In chess, checkmate can occur with a rook, bishop, or even a pawn as easily as with the queen. Likewise, in Magic
the most powerful card can be stripped of its effectiveness by a card that is perceived as weak.

Magic creatures require mana from the land to function, a great ecological concept. The five lands are associated with a color to make things easy: Mountain-Red, Plains-White, Forest-Green, Swamp-Black, and Island-Blue. Like all card games, the cards are shuffled before each game, so two players can play repeatedly with the same deck without any of the games being the same. In this way it is a vast improvement over television or video games, which seduce children into hours of mindless inactivity. It also differs from playing solitaire because each player is interacting with an opponent, trying to think of new ways to use a specific card.

For example, one player builds a wall to protect himself or herself. (Inclusive language is used throughout the game!) The other player hopes to get a tunneling dwarf to destroy the wall's usefulness. Meanwhile, a "circle of protection" might be cast by the first player to protect from dwarves. Spells can be cast to remove spells; earthquakes destroy land (you cannot play without land); insects from The Hive can get past Grizzly Bears. The possibilities are endless and can be very creative. Some games are over in less than 10 minutes, some games can take an hour or more.

A DEFINING FEATURE of Magic is that you can change the makeup of your deck, adding a new card here, removing two there, to increase your chances of winning. There are 1,500 to 2,000 cards out there, making the game quintessentially American: The way to get those cards is to buy more decks. The makeup of each deck for sale is random, containing mostly common cards, but usually including one rare card.

Like so much else in this country, the person with the most money can buy the most cards, and, by default, can create wonderful playing decks. To the credit of those who dreamed up the game, they tried to make this an equalizer. Anyone, they argue, has the chance of buying a deck and getting a much coveted card. (My son's best friend bought his first deck and got Shivan Dragon, a card that has not been seen in the 30 or so decks that he and his school friends have bought since.) What has erupted in the past year is that gaming stores now display Magic singles-individual cards for sale-their price depending on the market. Rare cards generally go for $5 or $6 each. Now, if you have the money, you don't have to buy those random decks; you can purchase nothing but the best.

As my wife, Linda, and I talk about it, women are dealt with well, not being pushed to the margins of the game. (Women are as likely to be an Elfish Archer as a male.) Our primary concern with the game is one of racial stereotyping. While the racial makeup of individuals on the cards is of no consequence, Swamp creatures (black cards) tend to be ugly, wraith-like, monsterish, and generally vile, while Plains creatures (white cards) are doves, mythic castles, and angelic. Although there are five colors (not pitting white against black), those of us trying to work against racist images could wish for more diversity in the makeup of characters in each land type.

Without a doubt, the names and illustrations on the Swamp creatures are the major issue that people should have with the game, regardless of the color of the card. (Ghouls licking knives, the undead rising from a graveyard, etc., are hardly images one should want to foster in pre-teen kids.) One potential compromise-the one Linda has made-is to buy cards and not play with Swamp at all.

If the game had none of these creatures in it, I would have no reservations about it beyond the economics mentioned above. But it does, and as with the major cultural enticements of television, movies, and video games, one must decide where to draw the line in the sand and say "no further." For me, my son plays Magic
a few times a week, but he won't see Terminator for years to come.


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"It's in the Cards"
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