The fantasy worlds of modern fiction are cruel places, made up of vying factions, of loyalties forged, bent and destroyed, of cutthroat competition and nailbiting peril.
The voyeurs that would inhabit those imagined worlds sometimes find themselves in similar situations in their real lives: scratching for survival, swearing (or deigning) allegiance, sharpening their skills ... well maybe it's not that heated, but there are rumblings in the small, tight-knit empire that is Humboldt County's legion of Magic: the Gathering players.
It's a discontent that stems from the recent Myrtletown opening of a business that caters to gamers who dedicate their nights and weekends to the pursuit of Magic. The problem? Nu Games (which has an Arcata store as well), opened directly next door to a competitor: Sports Cards and More. It's a move that has highlighted a divide between the hardcore and the hobbyist and the loyalties they hold.
Why does Magic engender such passion? On its face, the game is simple. Each player begins a game with a deck of cards and 20 life points. Using the cards — which contain a variety of strategic spells — you attempt to knock down the other players' points before you're knocked out yourself. But Magic's storyline, of sorts, and the fantasy elements that make roleplaying video and tabletop games engrossing and personalized, have made it a huge success.
Perhaps more importantly, the game doesn't have uniform decks: Players can trade and buy their way to more and more powerful cards, giving them the advantage in tournaments that offer yet more powerful and unique cards as prizes. Coupled with a savvy marketing scheme, Magic has become perhaps the most popular fantasy game in history: Its parent company, Wizards of the Coast, bought out the makers of Dungeons and Dragons in 1997 and was a $325 million company by the time Hasbro bought it in 1999. It's since ruled the tabletop and trading card roleplaying game industry.
Shops sell sealed packages of cards right from the manufacturer, but more importantly they sell individual cards whose values rise and fall based on their effectiveness in the game. The constant drive for players to enhance their decks has formed a secondary market and allows a small community like Humboldt County, with 250 Magic players (by one shop owner's estimate), to support five Magic retailers.
"It's a fantastically fun, strategic game," said Jesse Williams, who opened Lost Coast Wizards in January to serve a growing demand, he said, for individual cards. "Like baseball cards, the vast majority of cards are worthless," but cards that perform well in national tournaments (under the careful playing of professional players, of course) can rise in value — sometimes hundreds of dollars.
The competitive, strategic and customizable nature of the game has developed a niche community. And while Magic could easily be played at home among friends, Laura Montagna, owner of Nu Games shops in Arcata and Eureka, has made a business out of hosting gamers and tournaments in addition to selling the cards they seek.
"You can certainly play a game with your friends," she said, but that gets repetitive. "You play poker with your wife, you know each other's tells."
Form a gathering space, Montagna said, and people will come, from in town, from the far reaches of the county and beyond.
Bill Feist has owned Sports Cards and More in Eureka for 14 years, the last eight years at its Myrtle Avenue location. Inside the unassuming exterior, Feist buys and sells a variety of collectible cards, with the store's focus on the "more" — most of his income comes from the sale of Magic cards.
Feist and Montagna have known each other for years — they bought Magic merchandise from the same distributor and used to talk frequently. Feist even shared advice as Montagna sought a Eureka storefront.
"I had an opportunity to go in with her but she wanted to control Magic: The Gathering, which is 80 percent of my business." Feist said. Feist said he warned Montagna to steer clear of Old Town (Magic tournaments take place mostly at night) in favor of a quieter part of Eureka. In July, Nu Games' Eureka shop landed right next door to Sports Cards and More.
Feist isn't upset, or if he is, he doesn't let on, about sharing a wall and a landlord with a niche business competitor in such a small market.
"I'm not gonna bad mouth her or anything else," Feist said, adding that he's reasonably confident that the local Magic community can keep both shops in business. He said he offers lower prices for cards, while Montagna offers space to game. Still, he said, business has been down. "I wish [Montagna] luck. I hope she can afford the rent."
Montagna said her and Feist's shops are different enough for both to stay afloat. "I decided to open because we were not necessarily competing," she said. "Bill's shop — he doesn't hold events, he doesn't know the game of Magic."
She says Nu Games, and Magic itself, provides an outlet for teenagers and young men to stay out of trouble and learn to socialize and compete with etiquette.
But Montagna's decision to open next door to Feist doesn't sit well with some in the community. Kyle Falbo, who has traveled across the U.S. to compete in Magic tournaments, easing his travel costs by selling Magic cards on Craigslist in communities along the way, is dubious of Montagna's good intentions. "It would seem to me a very high risk for somebody to start next door to their competitor if they didn't have some long-term plan to eliminate their competitor," Falbo said. "And I think that's what the community is worried about."
Since Montagna opened in Myrtletown, Falbo said he won't shop there anymore, instead supporting Feist's Store and Arcata's Lost Coast Wizards. He took the opportunity to suggest that Nu Games' tournaments — which he said are run according to the most casual Magic rules ("no cheating," essentially) and with little officiating — were a "detriment" to the local Magic community. He also suggested that Montagna offered lower value prizes, and charged higher prices, than national standards.
Jesse Williams, the latest merchant to wade into the North Coast's soft-spoken Magic melee, has opened a store that, even compared to Nu Games and Sports Cards and More, seems modest. Lost Coast Wizards opened in a small space on I Street and Samoa Boulevard in Arcata in January.
"I kept on hearing a lot of my friends say they wanted more options — especially buying individual cards," Williams said. He acts as a broker of sorts: Customers task him with finding a particular card to enhance their deck and he'll network with other locals to find it and arrange a deal. "I can usually find it for them throughout the community," Williams said.
In addition, he focuses on a more competitive brand of Magic tournament, where the stakes are higher. It's been a "moderate success," he said.
Despite his displeasure with the Nu Games model, Falbo said the North Coast could likely support the five shops that now cater to Magic players (the fifth, North Coast Role Playing, sells decks of Magic cards and hosts occasional tournaments). "The community feeds itself." But, he said, "It does take good shops, good shop owners, who take care of their players."