This is part one in a two part series.

A little over a year ago, I was playing at a local game store. It was a draft night and while waiting to start a new person came into the shop and was interested about the game. She was casual about it and asked a few random questions to the players about the game. She did not participate in the draft and just watched people play. This occurred for a many more weeks and I thought nothing of it. Most players were helpful and she was willing to learn more about the game and how to play. Everything seemed normal until one day her dark secret was revealed.

She was an Anthropology student at a local university and decided to study the culture of Magic players. She was Jane Goodall and were were the primates she was observing and interacting with. She silently observed our behavior and interacted with us. She was writing a paper on the Magic culture for a class. After she did her research, she disappeared from the shop and went back to her studies. Other topics, other papers to work on I assume. After a year, she was gracious enough to send in her report on he findings of the Magic culture.

It is text heavy so I decided to split it into two posts. Remember, this is a scientific report on an outsider’s observation of the game and it’s culture. I thought it was a good read and I hope you enjoy it as well.


Magic: Why They Gather

Kara Thagan


The world of trading cards is often stigmatized and stereotyped. Its inhabitants are dismissed as obsessive, as geeks, or antisocial nerds. To outsiders, the identities of these players are often inexorably linked to their participation in the subculture of the chosen activity. People view the culture as self-contained, rarely intruding upon the general public. As such, to date there is little anthropological literature available on the topic of trading card “gaming,” particularly in relation to Magic: The Gathering. Through ethnographic methodology, this paper addresses the lack of knowledge about this growing subculture. Do the “Magicians” identify themselves as a Magic culture? How invested are they in the game? Is the culture internally homogeneous? Through observation of and participation in tournaments and games, the researcher entered the culture as a beginner and was taught the basic principles of the game just as any other newcomer. Establishing rapport and connecting with informants to gain perspectives on the culture, the researcher conducted interviews and gathered data from a wide range of players. The study confirms that Magic is like many other hobbies, with hobbyists occupying a spectrum from barely engaged to completely involved. The participants lead varied lives that merely happen to converge on an interest in a challenging and complex card game. For the most part, these “gamers” do not appear to be any more obsessive or antisocial than amateur athletes, antiquarians, or even stamp collectors.

Keywords: Magic: The Gathering, trading cards, social hobbies, gaming stereotypes

Study was done only on humans because cats can’t play magic. (It’s in the rulebook!)



Come, cast your spells, craft enchantments and summon horrific monsters to do your bidding in epic battles of intellect and brute force. Dragons, zombies, pirates, gnomes and wizards all await you in a fantastic world that you control with magic that stems from the very land itself. Magic: The Gathering is a card game far removed from classics like Spades or Bridge. Like Pokemon or Yu-gi-Oh, Magic is a complex trading card game, certainly the most complex of the three, in which the player commands fantastical creatures and powerful forces to defeat an opponent in battle.

In Magic, the player assumes the role of a powerful wizard who battles other wizards in a never-ending quest for glory and omnipotence. Players collect cards through purchasing and trading; using them to build their own decks. Players participate in tournaments and play against each other. The game changes every time it is played, with every deck and every hand a new combination of possibilities. Thus every opponent is a wholly original foe to conquer with each new game. There are different variations of the game, and each variation has different allowable cards and rule sets. Even the standard format is updated with newly released card sets about four times a year. Thus, the game is kept evermore challenging and engaging. Trading cards have the fortunate ability to provide entertainment whose cost is controlled by the participant.

Beyond the entertainment value of Magic, the game has spawned an active secondary market for trading and selling the cards. Somewhere, there’s a playing card being sold for thousands of dollars. Scores of websites are devoted to tracking the trade value of individual cards and providing a venue for selling and shipping them. With several million players in over fifty countries (Bosch 2000:2), the game is enormously popular and yet seems to stay off the radar and out of mainstream or popular culture in America. There is a certain social stigma applied to the entire arena of fantasy games, be they trading card, video, or role-playing games. Enthusiasts are often branded as antisocial nerds or geeks. They are sometimes thought of as obsessive or addictive personality types, unable to relate to real people or real life, and that let their entire lives be consumed by the game. I wanted to uncover the truth behind the stereotypes with my project.

There is little anthropological material available specifically on the subculture of Magic: The Gathering players, which allowed me to choose my own path for the study. Uneasy with the categorical nature of the stigma, I decided to verify it. I designed two research questions. First, is the subculture internally homogenous and uniform? People seem to accept “Magic player” as the ultimate identity of Magic players, dismissing the multi-faceted culture without glancing even at the face value. I set out to discover if Magicians were awkward, nerdy clones or integrated individuals. Secondly, how invested are the players, in terms of time, money and emotion? Players of fantasy games are often portrayed as spending enormous amounts of money on cards and paraphernalia and being freakishly obsessed with and devoted to the game. My hypotheses propose that the subculture is like that of any other hobby, in which members share a common interest. Members otherwise have widely varied lives and interests, and have many levels of investment. I studied two separate and distinct populations of Magic players, one at a comic and games shop and one at a local university.



            To begin any sort of scholarly or academic research, it is vital to examine any relevant literature available on the subject or in the field. All research should build upon the previous work of other scientists and peers. Scientists publish their results not just for personal recognition or advancement, but to advance knowledge as a whole and to provide a foundation of information for later researchers. Lacking a plethora of information on Magic, I found ten scholarly resources relevant to either Magic or to fantasy gaming, gaming, and hobbies in general.  During my search, I found that Magic could be studied through any number of disciplines, from economics and art to psychology and mathematics.

In “Role-Playing and Playing Roles: The Person, Player, and Persona in Fantasy Role-Playing,” authors Dennis Waskul and Matt Lust, examine the nature and symbolism of the player or character in role-playing games. The boundaries between the real and imagined roles taken on by the participant are questioned and explored to see if they can be reapplied to life in general.   Both authors were experienced role-players, having played between them over half a dozen role-playing games. The research in this article was supplemented by Brett A. S. Martin’s “Using the Imagination: Consumer Evoking and Thematizing of the Fantastic Imaginary.” Again, the boundaries between what is real and what is imagined are considered in the minds of Martin’s 15 Magic-playing informants. While Martin’s informants actively imagine fantastic action scenes during game play, Waskul and Lust are interested in the creation of personal roles by the players, the fulfillment of which seems to be the purpose of the game.

The first Magic cards were released in 1993. “Successive editions of the game introduced over a thousand new card types, some more rare than others, sold in random assortments. Players and collectors developed various trading mechanisms for obtaining desired cards from each other” (Reiley 2006:198). Because Magic has been played for nearly two decades now, it has become a staple of the trading card community and market and its influence is now felt worldwide. The secondary market for Magic cards is enormous and constantly evolving and developing. Articles analyzing the Magic market have been published in multiple scholarly economics journals, and proved equally as fascinating as the anthropological literature available. In his “Field Experiments on the Effects of Reserve Prices in Auctions: More Magic on the Internet,” David Reiley traces the development of the Magic trade market on the internet. In noting the internet auction strategies, he declares Magic to have had a great influence on the development of online markets. Reiley points out that even before eBay and other online-auctions, “the email-based market for Magic cards foresaw the amazing variety of e-commerce now accepted as commonplace and quotidian” (Reiley 2006:198).

“Using Field Experiments to Test Equivalence between Auction Formats: Magic on the Internet,” by David Lucking-Reiley, describes the preliminary research into Magic auctions on the internet. Lucking-Reiley reports the founding of a newsgroup devoted to the discussion of Magic shortly after the game was introduced. “In addition to discussions about the rules of the game and strategies for constructing decks, many of the messages on this news group were buy, sell, and trade offers for individual cards” (Lucking-Reiley 1999:1066). Not only does this article speak of the rapid formation of the trade market, it also highlights the immediate initiation of social interaction among Magic players.

“Optimal Card-Collecting Strategies,” by Robert A. Bosch applies mathematics to card-collecting, using simple probability methods to figure methods for collectors to get the best cards at the cheapest price without accumulating an excess of common cards. The article provided valuable statistics and facts and allowed me to question informants about links between mathematics and card games. Although I was fascinated by the possibilities, none of the Magic players I encountered used mathematical strategies for card-collecting, and most seemed quite surprised by the idea. Because this relates directly to the value of investment, the figures and statistics used in the article were exceedingly worthwhile.

Anthropological literature related to the symbolism and role of game-playing in cultures in general is far more abundant than that relevant to trading card games specifically. In Peter Dwyer’s “Mamihlapinatapai: Games People (Might) Play,” Dwyer models “the logical structure of strategic interactions between actors who engage in exchange transactions and to identify paradoxes, opportunities and uncertainties that confront those actors” (2000:231). He outlines three types of exchanges: sharing, barter-trade and prestige service. (Dwyer 2000:231) All three types were found in my study of Magic exchanges.

As far as anthropology and basic gameplay, the foundation of the game is a type of magic noted throughout classical anthropological literature. “Mana” forms the basis of the game of Magic, it is the resource from which all spells and actions are cast or completed. The concept comes from a Polynesian and Melanesian religious system and was adapted to the fantasy game format. In the religious system, mana is an ever-present force somewhat like The Force in Star Wars, it can be used for good or evil and to animate or control spirits, creatures, and things. In Primitive Magic and Mana, by H. Philsooph, the ideas of magic and mana are systematically explored to give a greater understanding of the cultures that revolve around them. Being able to appreciate the history of mana and magic greatly enhanced game play and participating in my study.

Finally, Free-Time Activities in Middle Childhood: Links with Adjustment in Early Adolescence analyzed the effects of leisure activities in childhood with social development. Studying 198 children, the authors of this article were able to establish demographic tendencies toward certain types of play and disparities between the effects of play time between genders. They found that choice of activity was gender-divided, and that the chosen activity directly correlated with time spent with parents, which directly correlated with academic performance. (McHale 2001:1772) Among the many generalizations about Magic players, there exists an idea that girls just don’t do it, or if they do, that they are rarely good at it. Thus the idea of games divided along gender lines throughout childhood carries through to teenager and adult games and even applies to Magic, in some degree.



As mentioned above, there is little anthropological literature devoted to Magic: The Gathering alone; thus there is opportunity to expand knowledge. And as Julia Crane and Michael Angrosino state, “no analysis, no matter how statistically elegant, can be meaningful in human terms unless it has been filtered through the deeper layers of meaning that only one who has taken part in that community’s activities can possess” (Crane & Angrosino 1992:70). Because generalizations are so regularly made about fantasy gamers, it is helpful to verify the basic assumptions from within the culture and discover at what levels generalizations can be made. It would be fallacious to assert that all Magic players are obsessive or antisocial. It would be just as incorrect to imagine that no Magic player is ever socially inept or fanatic about the game.

So what generalizations can be made? What are the similarities and commonalities among players? Every player I ever observed had huge stores of impatient energy during games. While waiting for an opponent to complete his or her turn, players shuffle the cards in hand, pack down decks, tap feet and fingers, shuffle the card deck, straighten cards on the playing field and rock in or tilt the chairs. When asked, players said that they were impatient because people take forever to play their turn or that it helps them to think. I think this action could be generalized to all Magic players, not quite a universal, but an effective generalization. Every Magic session opens and closes with trading and bystanders trade for the duration of each game. Every seasoned Magic player has a trading folder as well as two or more decks built at any time. A commonality that amazed me was the fact that every player knows scores of cards by type, by name, by color, and by in-game use. A newcomer has only to mention a card name and is immediately welcomed into a deep debate over the power of the card and how it could be used best or promoting another card in place of it.



Anthropologists use many methods of ethnographic data collection, three of which were used in this study:  participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and informal interviews. To conduct observation and interviewing, I had to select the fieldsites and informants. Two fieldsites were chosen; a local comics and games store and a local university. The game shop, “Goldfinger’s Comics and Games,” holds Magic tournaments every Thursday evening that last for roughly two and a half hours and players often arrive early to play informally with one another and to try out non-sanctioned versions of the game. At Cherokee State University, students meet on campus Monday through Thursday from 11:00am to 6:00pm, with students dropping in as they move between classes. Participant observation, according to H. Russell Bernard,

involves going out and staying out, learning a new language (or a new dialect of a language you already know), and experiencing the lives of the people you are studying as much as you can. Participant observation is about stalking culture in the wild, establishing rapport and learning to act so that people go about their business as usually when you show up. If you are a successful participant observer, you will know when to laugh at what people think is funny; and when people laugh at what you say, it will be because you meant it to be a joke (Bernard 2006:334).

Participant observation means to immerse oneself in the subject culture and become accepted by its members. This was the essence of my project. I spent hours at Goldfinger’s every Thursday. I came early and watched people play the informal games and participated in the draft (explained below). I stayed late to chat with Goldfinger’s associates and with the players. On occasion, we went out for something to eat after the game. I learned how to build a deck and how to play a non-sanctioned variation of the game. At the university, I visited the student center three or four days a week, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for six. I built rapport by hanging out with the students at an apartment on campus as they tried to teach me how to play. I took copious notes during this stage, most often head notes.  However, when I wasn’t participating as much as observing, I also took proper, detailed field notes.

After participating and observing for four to five sessions, I selected my key cultural consultants through purposive or judgment sampling. According, again, to Bernard, “in purposive sampling, you decide the purpose you want informants (or communities) to serve, and you go out to find some” (Bernard 2006:190). I watched to see which people were looked up to within each community, which people seemed the most informed and respected. I was looking for an informant that knew a lot about the game and the culture. I wanted my informant to be accepted by the culture either as exemplary or as representative of the whole. I selected two key informants from each location to be interviewed: Mike and Indiana from the shop; Connor and Nick from the university.

At Goldfinger’s, Mike was eager to accept a new player and appointed himself my unofficial sponsor. Ready to answer any questions I might have and provide me with detailed knowledge of the game, he was an invaluable help throughout the project. Mike, twenty-three, began playing Magic in middle school, and then dropped out for several years. After relocating, he got back into the game to meet people in his new town.

Indiana was my second friend at Goldfinger’s. At twenty-eight, he’d been playing Magic for fourteen years, off and on. He started playing with friends on a football field and now plays mostly in shops, citing the convenience of lots of open tables. Indiana enjoyed the social aspect of the game, but noted that it’s better if your opponent is a good player. Perhaps more serious about the game than the others at the shop, Indiana was acutely aware of the differences between casual games in informal environments and intensely competitive games in high-strung atmospheres.

My first interviewee at the university was a senior named Nick. He is twenty-two years old, majoring in Information Systems and of the group, he has been playing at CSU the longest. Because of his tenure, as well as his trading and deck-building skills, he was looked up to by the rest of the group as an informal leader, without authority but with great influence. Nick has thousands of cards but has never purchased a card with his own money. He built his enormous stash of cards through trading and winning tournaments after finding his first cards in a closet. He plays regularly (Monday-Thursday) at the Student Center, arranges trips to Magic tournaments and also hosts Magic games in his apartment on campus.

Through Nick, I found my second interviewee from CSU. An education major in his sophomore year, Connor is actually a Magic judge. As a level one judge, Connor is certified to oversee Magic tournaments and resolve disputes within the game. An avid Magician, Connor also plays regularly and spends a lot of time on campus with the Magic crowd.

Once I had procured signed consent forms and offered the opportunity to choose pseudonyms, the interviews began. The interviews were semi-structured. I prepared a list of questions beforehand, planning to have one question build upon the previous one, transitioning smoothly from one to the other, as in a conversation. Mike was the first, and an excellent first interviewee. I had but to speak a sentence and he volunteered the information necessary to answer and gushed related information for several minutes longer. This being the first interview, I was looking for themes and a glance at the emic perspective, and Mike provided a fantastic sounding board and foundation for the other sessions.

Indiana was more direct and concise, requiring some probing and occasional prodding to get back on track, but his interview was entirely successful as well. Nick was also very helpful, a midpoint between Mike’s verbose response and Indiana’s succinct answers, while Connor was slightly preoccupied during the interview and did not produce as much information as hoped. Nonetheless, Connor’s interview provided a valuable judge’s perspective that I would have been unable to access otherwise. Transcribing the interviews and converting the field notes into digital files took hours of work but also allowed constant exposure to raw data. This kept it fresh in my mind and brought new focus to details I had missed or glossed over previously.

To assist me in analyzing this qualitative data, I used NVivo, a qualitative data assessment package available online for a small fee. With NVivo, I ran word frequency searches and then searched for specific words to see where they came up within the text of my transcripts and notes. Because I knew the data through collection and transcription, themes emerged pretty quickly. Within the interviews, the social aspect of Magic games was brought up over and over again by every informant. All four highly valued that aspect, and it became one of my themes.

The same thing happened with value of investment. My consultants constantly differentiated between formal and informal as players who take the game too seriously and those who just enjoy playing a game. Aside from the emotional investment, all informants recognized that staying current with the game requires a bit of financial capital. Connor estimated that $300 to build a good deck could be the only investment for up to two years, until those cards are phased out of standard play. Discovering themes that rise directly from the data (as opposed to creating themes and fitting the data into them) and labeling them is known as the grounded-theory approach. (Bernard 2006:492) Once I familiarized myself with the material and developed themes, I coded the data for more efficient reading.



Stay tuned for part 2