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It's early summer, 1995. I'm at my first year of Boy Scout camp. The older scouts are playing card games I've never seen or heard of. Magic: The Gathering, Star Wars, and Rage. I'm watching them play Magic and they're attacking each other with things with names like "Diabolical Machine" and using "Circles of Protection" to save themselves. The other games look cool. This one looks amazing.
It's later that summer. I'm backstage at rehearsals for Little Men, an original local theater production of the Louisa May Alcott classic in Lititz, Pennsylvania. The stage manager, Colin, teaches my friend Mark and I to play Magic during breaks. He owns what seems like an impossible number of cards in long cardboard boxes (what I would later recognize to be cards from Revised, Legends, The Dark, and Fourth Edition). This game couldn't be more appropriately named. It is magic.
I'm at the Toys R Us near my house, scouring the game aisles but coming up short. Surely, they must have this game? Then my mom and I spot them on the end of the rack, facing the main aisle: Fourth Edition and Chronicles. I grab a gift box of Fourth Edition (~6 booster packs worth, but with a felt drawstring bag of glass counters) and (I believe) 6 packs of Chronicles. I get both a Shivan Dragon and a Serra Angel. I build a red/white deck.
Back at the theater, Colin is a collector. He has a list of cards he's looking for and leaves it with us while he does his job. If we have a card on his list, we can put it in his card box and take any cards we want that total up to the same cost using InQuest magazine's price guide. I trade him a Fourth Edition Mana Vault for dozens of Revised commons. I feel like I won the lottery. I immediately subscribe to InQuest, which I will religiously read for the next 5 years. By the end of the year, I've make my own collection checklist in Student Writing Center on my new Gateway PC and start collecting everything.
It's Christmas and it's time to open "the big present". Except it's obviously a clothing box, slid across the floor to me. Except... it's heavy? I open the lid... and it's dozens of packs & decks of Magic cards, mostly Ice Age, plus two acrylic deck boxes. If my sixth grader heart could've arrested, that would've done it. I probably doubled my Magic card stash that day, and spent the rest of it opening packs and reading cards.
It's cold and we have to go outside for recess, but my friend Chris and I diligently head to our card-playing spot under the overhang at the top of a few stairs that lead to a side door. We squat over and kneel on the cold concrete, seeing how many games we can cram in before the bell rings and we have to stash our decks back in the coat room. Sometimes a couple other friends join us. No one ever bothers us.
My friend Chris is over at my house; we have sleepovers and game nights frequently. He wants my Chronicles copy of Aladdin really bad. Like, super bad. But I'm a collector and it's my only copy. Finally, the ultimate temptation: 20 cards I'm missing from Homelands, several of them rare, for my $2.50 Aladdin. Deal and we shake on it. It's by far the best trade I've ever made... but I never manage to find another copy of Aladdin to trade for in the next 5 years. Homelands eventually was the first set I ever completed, and it was 100% by card trading. I never bought a single until adulthood.
I read in InQuest about older cards: Arabian Nights. Antiquities. Legends. The Dark. Dual lands! Moxes! I've never seen these cards. In my play group, I started playing first, so my Fourth Edition are the oldest cards anyone owns. It's like a myth: these black-bordered wonders from an age gone by. In reality, I missed it all by maybe 18 months. To a middle schooler, that is a lifetime ago. I find packs of Legends and The Dark in a distant card store one day. I cannot afford them. A Black Lotus is nearly $300 which is complete, utter insanity. Not that I could even find one if I could afford one.
I'm on vacation with my family in Cape May, New Jersey. We're on the main thoroughfare, a pedestrian-only street lined with shops, stopping into little stores along the way and getting ice cream. I stop into a gifts & collectibles store. They're selling Magic cards. It's 1997 and Fifth Edition is the new core set. I scrape together what little cash I have left and buy a starter deck (~3 packs + lands) plus a few packs of whatever else they have. We leave the store and I open my starter deck while mom goes into another store with my sister. But... something's weird. There are no commons. The rare + uncommon slots are all filled with rares, and the common slots are all filled with uncommons. My eyes go wide as saucers. This is like 12 packs for the price of 3! I desperately ask to borrow money from my mom, and run back to the store. I grab the last two Fifth Edition starter decks in the display and buy them... and they're the same! It's a booster box worth of rares & uncommons in 3 starter decks. To this day, I cannot fathom who bought the other 9 decks of that display without figuring it out and buying the rest.
It's 9th grade and for the first time I can afford to buy a booster box from the local game store. I plunk down my $90 and mom drives me home to open my 36 packs of Urza's Legacy all over the living room floor. I feel like Uncle Scrooge swimming in his vault. Some of them are even foil now! Collecting those is way out of reach, but they're fun to find. I open a foil Tinker I have to this day.
I buy another box for Urza's Destiny. But not as many friends play Magic any more, the next set after that wasn't nearly as fun, and high school starts pulling my attention elsewhere (not anything cooler, mind you, mostly drumline and Boy Scouts). Those booster boxes were probably the high water mark of childhood Magic playing. I don't make much effort at collecting the sets that come after. We still play on Boy Scout campouts, sometimes.
I stop by the old game store many more times in late high school and college, picking up a fistful of packs of whatever's current, but never booster box levels of cards. They're organized by color, then alphabetically in 800-card white cardboard boxes, then organized by threes into old pizza kit fundraiser boxes for easier carrying.
When I move to Detroit, I neat stack them in two large plastic bins, and fill a third with my collection binders - four 3" gray laminated D-ring binders my dad scored me from his office one day, each filled with expansion sets, and a large black one I bought for my core sets. In a fourth box goes all my paraphernalia: Magazines, deck boxes, empty packaging, promos, and some papers. It all goes into my parents' storage unit with a dire warning: never touch these. I will be back for them. One day.
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