Welcome to the house of cards: The underground gathering in Wolverhampton where there's big money at stake

As we walk through Wolverhampton city centre, we start to get excited and our anticipation builds.

Welcome to the house of cards: The underground gathering in Wolverhampton where there's big money at stake

Hand it to her – Zoe (left) shows our Kirsty how to cast some magic

We’re heading to a specialist, underground room to learn the art of a card game that’s been captivating tens of millions of people all around the world for years.

Those that excel at it can make it through to huge tournaments in Las Vegas. The prize is eternal glory and a quarter of a million dollars to boot. They could find themselves showing their hand on ESPN, television audiences hanging on the turn of every card.

But it’s not what you’re probably thinking. We’re not off to play poker – we don’t need to don big shifty sunglasses or wear a visor. This isn’t the kind of card game Tony Soprano and his Mafia family would play in the back room of the Bada Bing on a Saturday night, smoking cigars and raising the stakes.

We’re off for our first foray into Magic: The Gathering, a card game based around a fantasy world of sorcerers, elves and zombies. Tonight, we’re more than journalists from the Star, we’re Planeswalkers; powerful mages armed with a deck of Magic cards representing creatures, spells and lands. The aim of the game is to summon creatures, cast spells and work against our worthy opponent to knock their life score from 20 to 0.

But we don’t feel all that magical when we arrive at Black Border Games, the only independent gaming shop nestled in the heart of the city. We’ve purchased our starter kit and have a little customisable box in which to keep things safe. But with our £20 stash of cards, we’re not sure what to do with them. All the gear, no idea, as they say.

Fortunately, owners Scott Shirley and Zoe Beamand welcome us in as though we’ve just walked into their living room. Scott, 28, has been gaming for years, and set up Black Border as a way of making his hobby his job. Zoe, 29, is a part-time games development and media lecturer at Wolverhampton College, so we’re sure that there are no two people better prepared to teach us the art of Magic.

And it really is an art. Zoe, who has the game’s logo tattooed on her foot, sits us down to try and explain the phenomenon.

“It’s what’s called a CCG – a customisable card game. You build a deck out of cards, but everyone’s decks are different as you create it to suit you. So there are two parts of it, the deck building – so you can be very good at creating a great deck – and the game itself.

“You buy boosters to get new cards, or you can trade with others or buy singles. It’s quite similar to Pokémon in that respect, but Magic was the first. It’s a massively collectable game. We’ve sold individual cards for hundreds of pounds. The Black Lotus is the ultimate in collectable cards. It’s a massively competitive and collectable sport!”

In 2013, a Black Lotus card sold for $27,302, and you can’t even use that in most game formats. We thumbed through our own deck and wondered if any of our cards were worth hundreds. How would we even know? There was a shiny one in there (or a ‘foil’ as it’s called in Magic crowds), but we didn’t know whether that’d set us apart from any other gamer.

Sitting alongside us at the gaming tables in Black Border’s gaming room are a mix of people playing everything from Magic to Jenga and Dungeons & Dragons. There are professional men in their 30s and young women. None of those in the room tonight play Magic on a top-flight level, but there are some gamers in the world that play Magic full-time.

“It’s competitive on a professional level,” explains Zoe. “Some people play Magic professionally and that’s how they make their living. It’s something that if you’re away from it, you just don’t know it exists. In America it’s televised on ESPN – it’s on a par with professional poker. People do consider it a sport.

“Some of the people that come in to Friday Night Magic come to play casually for fun, but others do come to collect points so they can get on the GP – the Grand Prix. They practice their decks against each other to prepare for that.”

Every Friday, Black Border Games and other games shops all over the world spend the night competing against one another – casting spells and defeating enemies. Both experienced gamers and beginners like us take part, and the shop buzzes with the sound of Planeswalkers doing battle. We’ve only been here for an hour and we’re thirsty to learn more, with the hopes of building a tournament-winning deck.

The prospects for a top-flight gamer are huge. On October 3, Black Border is hosting a preliminary pro tour qualifier, the winner of which could go on to the big-money Magic tournaments, competing for a $250,000 prize. The disappointment sets in that we’re not going to be ready by then. But as we play with Zoe and hear our fellow gamers laughing raucously, we’re reminded that it really is the taking part that counts.

“Scott and I have a massive friendship group because of the shop. There’s customers that come in that are loyal and committed and come to all the events we put on. It’s a community, and it’s a very easy way to make friends. That’s the best thing about it. It’s great for students that are new in the city and don’t know many people, or young people who perhaps don’t have many friends at school for example. They can come in and find somewhere to meet people that share their hobby, to make friends with to hang-out with and do stuff together. Especially now there’s an increasing problem that there’s nothing for people to do – not just kids but people in general. This is something that people can put time and effort into.”

As we put our deck away in our very professional-looking Deck Box, we admit defeat. We’ve as much chance of winning a $250,000 prize as we are using real-life sorcery to conjure up a rare Black Lotus card. But as we’re waved goodbye by Zoe and Scott, we’re more aware than ever of the true value of good company and a night mucking about playing games with friends. You just can’t put a price on that magic.

  • Black Border Games on St John’s Street, Wolverhampton, hosts Friday Night Magic every week. They also host other events for games such as Netrunner, X-Wing and Warhammer 40k. For details of forthcoming events, visit www.facebook.com/blackbordergames 

By Kirsty Bosley

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