Back when other children were spending recess playing kickball or standing on the sidelines wishing they had been picked to play kickball, I spent my time playing Magic: The Gathering.
Oh, sure, I had other ways to occupy myself on the playground--pretending I was the captain of my own starship or using the swings to travel back through time--but it was usually a safe bet that at some point I'd end up sitting against the side of the school building, amassing an army of fantasy creatures and waging war against my friends with all manner of fantastic sorcery.
Magic, at the time, was relatively new and still fairly straightforward: organize a deck of 60 cards, about a third of which were mountains, forests, and other types of terrain that you could "tap" to draw forth colored mana energy (black, white, red, blue, and green) to play other cards of a corresponding color, such as swarms of plague rats that got stronger with each rat you owned, and counterspells that obnoxiously returned the cards your opponent played to his or her hand. There were also precious artifacts that defied coloration and could be played using any combination of mana--these were my kinds of cards, and I felt like such a hotshot when I played with more than three or four artifacts in my deck.
The aim of the game was to drive your opponent's life point total into negative numbers with an onslaught of creatures and spells. The majority of the cards I played with involved dealing or preventing damage, destroying my opponent's cards, restoring my life points, gaining mana out of nowhere, and drawing more cards for myself. Anything card whose function required more than two sentences of explanation was "weird" and usually got traded away for another Lightning Bolt.
The game required some effort to learn, and at the time, I think we made up more house rules than we realized. Still, I enjoyed the friendly competition that was just as much battle strategy as it was advance preparation. You see, playing the game was only a third of the fun. The other two thirds were collecting new cards and creating the perfect deck.
My parents treated me to a booster pack of Magic cards at the local comics shop from time to time, long before I had any idea that comics shops sold anything other than Magic cards. I relished the joy and surprise that randomized packages of 15 cards could bring to a small child. I savored each and every one of the cards, never looking at the next one until I had finished taking in the eye-catching artwork of the one in my hand. In my head, I pieced together how these reinforcements would interact with the other cards in my deck, and what my hodgepodge fantasy army would look like in a movie, or on a real (imaginary) battlefield.
The limit of 60 cards per deck caused me to frequently switch out cards and construct brand-new "theme decks," consisting of nothing but instant-damage spells, or too many goblins for my own good. Everything that wasn't in one of my decks either got filed away in a binder filled with sheets of plastic card sheathes, or was used in negotiations with my friends to acquire new cards.
At some point I received a rather comprehensive handbook of rules clarifications and cards listed by rarity, which automatically made me the resident expert on Magic: The Gathering. I confess to abusing this newfound knowledge by occasionally conning my friends into parting with some impossibly rare cards (all of which, I might add, are now worth a buck fifty at best--the cards, not the friends). In retrospect, I must have been conned out of my fair share of rare cards that I didn't realize were rare, so we're probably even.
It didn't actually matter whether the cards were any good--if the book said they were rare, I would hide them away in a special, individual plastic sheath and bury them safely at the bottom of my big plastic deck protector, a funky black box with a monstrous look about it that transported my favorite deck around town.
At one time or another, I was the proud owner of a Shivan Dragon (which was cool because he was featured on the box of the starter set), a shiny card signed by someone who had used it in an official tournament, and a Force of Nature (think Swamp Thing on fantasy steroids), as well as several cards that were not all that exciting other than the fact that they were from a discontinued print run, or in German.
Rarity aside, the cards I favored were red (lots of instant damage--shoot first; think up strategy later), white (lots of fidgety little disposable creatures and excessive amounts of healing magic), and green (lots of big monsters with special abilities). I tended to avoided black (too many undead creepy crawlies with ugly pictures on the cards) and blue (which did all sorts of crazy things except deal damage, therefore requiring too much complex thinking for this elementary-schooler to cope with).
I'm sure my tastes and strategies would have evolved if I'd had the opportunity to continue playing, but when I moved and started sixth grade in a completely different town, I found that most people hadn't even heard of Magic: The Gathering. I managed to rope my sister and one or two of my friends to play a few games here and there, but there was no one to trade with, and no surprises in combat, because we almost always played with one of the decks I had created.
I did keep in touch with one friend from elementary school, and any time I got to see him, we'd bring our Magic cards and have ourselves a little duel. Typically, unless I lucked out and got four Lightning Bolts in my first hand, he would use some elaborate system of elves and forests to summon the most powerful monster conceivable from the depths of his deck, and have enough mana available to pull him out and decimate me before I could rally my goblins to glorious...defeat.
Eventually, it didn't matter how carefully I crafted my deck, or how lucky the draw--my cards and knowledge of the cards were outdated, and without having the luxury of testing my mettle against other people's carefully crafted decks, I had no idea how to face these sleek new cards that required more than two sentences to explain.
I had all but given up on Magic by the time I left the sixth grade. No new challengers, and only one old challenger with decks that were impossible to beat. Plus, schoolwork started to pick up, and I started pursuing other hobbies.
Still...I continued to collect booster packs--if only one or two a year--to keep a loose grip on the pulse of the game, and to keep the flame of hope alive that someday, I could rally my armies once more to trample an opponent who never quite developed a strategy to defend against a barrage of Lightning Bolts.