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Lucas Floren, left, and Alan Gielczyk play Magic: The Gathering April 4 in a room at Fan Zone in the Kandi Mall in Willmar. Dozens of gamers participate in weekly games organized by Aaron Hofland, one of the store’s proprietors. The games are usually held in an area between Fan Zone and the food court, but last week’s game was moved due to a mall event. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

For area Magic: The Gathering fans, it’s more than just a game

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Each week, dozens of gamers converge on a tiny alcove near the food court and Fan Zone store in Willmar’s Kandi Mall for a game of cards.

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They come from varying backgrounds: doctors, lawyers, students.

The diversion has no roots in five-card stud or Texas Hold’em.

But it’s just as fervid.

The game is Magic: The Gathering, and it has exploded in popularity the past decade.

A grand prix in Las Vegas two years ago drew 5,000 participants, a record for an event of its kind.

For those who master the game, a pro tour offers prize money in the tens of thousands of dollars. Others possess decks of cards worth more than any tournament check.

“It’s a fun and casual game,” says Aaron Hofland, a Magic: The Gathering enthusiast. “But it can also be fiercely competitive, because it requires time and commitment.”

For the past five years, Hofland, 33, of Willmar, has co-owned Fan Zone with fellow Willmar resident Rodney Staska. The business sells sports cards, autographed sports memorabilia and collectibles. It also markets an extensive Magic: The Gathering inventory, drawing some 50 percent of its business from a growing core of regional players, a number of whom frequent the gatherings Hofland hosts each Friday at 6:30 p.m. from that small nook near the store.

“There used to be another store in town that sold Magic cards,” Hofland says. “But it closed. We’ve now filled that gap in the marketplace.”

The Magic realm

Magic: The Gathering is considered the first trading card game. It was created in 1991 by Richard Garfield, then a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. Garfield, his online bio states, spent the next two years refining the game until its release in 1993 through Wizards of the Coast, a Renton, Wash.-based publisher of fantasy and science fiction-themed games.

Marketed to those aged 13 and older, Magic: The Gathering is an extensive strategy game played by two or more participants.

According to www.wizards.com, each participant has a customized deck containing a minimum of 60 cards and plays the role of a planeswalker — a wizard who fights other planeswalkers.

The decks are shuffled, and each player then draws a hand of seven cards.

A player begins with 20 lives and takes turns laying down cards. Each card played is then replaced with another from the deck. These cards represent the weapons, intricate spells and creatures in the planeswalker’s arsenal used to reduce the opponent’s lives. The game ceases when those lives have been whittled down to zero.

Learning from past mistakes

Unlike many baseball card manufacturers, Wizards of the Coast has avoided the limitations of the hobby.

As the sports card industry began to implode in the early 1990s — a byproduct of mass production — the largest baseball card makers began to charge more for packs that offered niche cards featuring minute pieces of game-used apparel or player autographs. This led to kids — once the nucleus of the fan base — being priced out of the hobby, diminished card values and a saturated market of devalued memorabilia, Hofland says.

He believes Magic: The Gathering’s popularity is ferried by the participants’ ability to design and build their own decks through trading the cards. He says the cards hold their value because Wizards of the Coast has been apt at keeping card volume low, introducing new cards just three or four times a year. He also says that dated cards can be combined with newer decks, “bringing life to older, forgotten cards.”

“As a hobby, it’s constantly evolving,” Hofland says.

Packs also have remained affordable, with 15-card booster packs retailing for about $4 and starter kits of the 60-card decks retailing for $14.99.

These factors contributed to Wizards of the Coast reporting a 30 percent increase in year-over-year revenues for the last four years, according to a Forbes report released at the end of 2013.

In the same Forbes report, Hasbro, Wizards of the Coast’s parent company, credits Magic: The Gathering as one of the primary reasons its games division has remained profitable while the majority of its other games lose money.

The holy grail of Magic: The Gathering cards, Hofland says, is “Black Lotus.”

Printed early in the game’s history, the card was released as part of Power Nine, a set of nine limited edition cards. All nine cards — due to their rarity and the power they offer a player when dealt — are now banned at numerous Magic: The Gathering tournaments. According to Examiner.com, a media company based in Denver, a gem mint 9.5-grade “Black Lotus” card sold on eBay in November 2013 for $27,302. Gem mint refers to a category in a grading system used by PSA Grading Standards to determine a card’s value. A grade of 9.5 denotes a near flawless card, PSA’s website states.

The grand prix

Hofland estimates his weekly gatherings are attended by a dozen to 60 gamers.

He also plans quarterly events when Wizards of the Coast releases new card sets. Those events draw upward of 100 gamers.

Of these players, Hofland believes a handful possess the adroitness to be competitive at the 2014 Magic: The Gathering Grand Prix in Minneapolis.

The event, scheduled May 9-11 at the Minneapolis Convention Center, is expected to attract upward of 2,400 gamers, some 20 of them from Hofland’s gatherings.

Some will attend for fun. Others will attempt to lay claim to the $4,000 first-place prize.

Mike Ulland falls somewhere in between.

“I just hope to make it to the second day,” says Ulland, 30, a Belgrade resident and frequent attendee at Hofland’s gatherings. He’s never claimed a cash prize at an event, but he has the reputation, Hofland says, as one of the preeminent Magic: The Gathering players in west central Minnesota.

A fan since Magic: The Gathering’s earliest days, Ulland says the field of competitors at the grand prix will be reduced to between 200 and 400 by day two.

“And believe me,” Ulland says. “ … Aaron (Hofland) will have the same goal. He’s modest, but he’s a great player. He’ll want to be there on day two.”

If the grand prix attendance peaks at the 2,400-mark, those who finish in the top 150 will claim cash prizes between $200 and $900, according to www.wizards.com. The top eight competitors will earn between $1,000 and the $4,000 grand prize, while receiving pro points and invitations to the Pro Tour Journey into Nix, scheduled May 18-19 at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta.

The winner of that event will claim a $40,000 first prize and an invitation to the 2014 World Championship in December at a yet-to-be determined location.

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Dan Burdett
Dan Burdett is the community content coordinator at the West Central Tribune. He has 13 years experience in print media, to include four years enlisted service in the United States Air Force. He has been an employee of Forum Communications since 2005, joining the company after spending two years as the managing editor of the Redwood Gazette and Livewire in Redwood Falls. Prior to his current position, Dan was the presentation editor at the Tribune.
(320) 214-4338
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