On Tolkien, Old Friends, and the Resiliency of Magic

This post is reblogged from a Magic: The Gathering forum in which I participate. Though it’s relevant to this blog’s interests and themes, consider yourself warned: those who have never slung spells at their friends in a dingy nerd-gaming store may find the following rather arcane.


For reference: orco (Quenya, pl. orcor, orqui) and orch (Sindarin, pl. yrch) are the two most common Elvish words for the servants of Morgoth and later Sauron, in the Common Speech often named “goblins.” Any distinctions between them (orc, goblin, hobgoblin, uruk, etc.) depend strongly on dialect/locality and refer only to variations in size, intelligence, breeding, or superficial features. “Orc” is merely the Westronized (read: Anglicized) form of the Elvish words, and thus can indeed be interchangeable with “goblin” depending on context.

51DVTBCQ4WL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Freshman year of high school I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time, and so began the rest of my life. I remember one school night sitting in the Maple Grove Barnes & Noble, comparing The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game Core Book and the Star Wars Roleplaying Game Revised Core Rulebook. I had been a fan of Star Wars for a lot longer than Tolkien, but at that point in my life there was no contest. It was a question of, “Will we play both, or will we just play LotR?”

Core rulebooks are expensive. I made the correct choice, and every Friday night onward I was in Stu’s dining room narrating a fellowship of absurdly overpowered heroes through the dangers of Tolkien’s Beleriand. We didn’t understand the rules very well early on, so Stu was routinely decapitating eight orcs with a single swing of his Dwarven axe and my wizard guy collapsed mountainsides to save the company from the minor inconvenience of finding an easier way around.

Subtle and quick to anger, and such.

Then senior year came along, and Magic: The Gathering started to creep into our circle of friends. For some I suppose that should read “started to creep back in,” but I had never played before. I vaguely remembered a bunch of nerds at a certain lunch table every day in middle school slinging their spells at each other, but beyond that I’d had no exposure. I find a lot of memories from high school harder and harder to access these days, but somehow I ended up at the Maple Grove Shinders buying the Elvish Rage and Zombies Unleashed preconstructed decks from Legions. We can partly blame my fondness for tribal decks on Tolkien, and partly on the Onslaught block, the most tribally-oriented bunch of expansions up to that point in Magic’s history.

blastodermMagic and I got off to a rocky start. On the one hand, it was great for spending early mornings in Wahlin’s classroom and avoiding the majority of our graduating class, most of whom I considered to be wankers anyhow. (Some I still do.) Many a time do I remember sliding two of those shamefully cramped desk-chair hybrids together, climbing in across from Stu and praying for a Blastoderm (which I had added to my Elf deck) so I could wreck his mono-red burn. I also enjoyed attending the Shinders Legacy tournaments, though I can’t ever recall doing particularly well until I turned my vanilla zombies into Zombie Clerics and started sacking Dark Supplicant to dig Scion of Darkness out of my library (who generally turns up with a horde of 2/2 Zombie tokens thanks to Rotlung Reanimator). I also had a B/R Dragon Reanimator for a while, which in hindsight I imagine was quite a pile, but could swing for lethal on turn 3 (Dark Ritual –> Buried Alive into Reanimate or Exhume targeting Bladewing the Risen andDragon Tyrant). It also allowed me to play 4x Terminate, which still remains on my shortlist of kick-ass creature removal.

But on the other hand, Magic also started creeping into Friday night LotR RPG, which as Narrator and resident guy-who-likes-Tolkien-so-much-he-learned-to-speak-Elvish I was decidedly not happy about. Roleplaying games are time-consuming affairs, and they require a lot of preparation; folks have to create characters, order pizza, make sure there are approximately 10,000 cans of Mountain Dew in the fridge, and so on.

So those of us not directly involved with LotR preparations camped out at one end of Stu’s massive dining room table and started dealing 20 in the meantime. As you might guess, the Magic-fever was virulently contagious and LotR-night quickly devolved into nine guys sitting around that same table in a massively-multiplayer Mexican standoff.

I’m not saying I didn’t have fun, but in a way Magic was the demise of a Friday night ritual that to this day claims the lion’s share of my favorite memories with the guys I still count as my best friends.

entombBut it was already senior year, and change is the only constant in the universe. The Geek Squad dispersed to their chosen institutions of higher learning, and I dropped out of Magic for a while, returning to it briefly with some guys in college, and again a couple years later when I discovered Reanimator (possibly my favorite pet deck of all time) was stomping the shit out of Legacy after the unbanning of Entomb and by adding blue for (surprise!) Force of Will, Daze, and silly things like Mystical Tutor — which was later banned, largely for the ridiculous ease with which it fetched every single answer AND every combo piece Reanimator cares about.

Several hundred dollars later, I stopped just long of 4x Polluted Delta and just short of 4x Underground Seas when I realized I wasn’t having any fun. A lot of the guys I was playing against at Monster Den in Minneapolis were incorrigible douche-bags, and moreover they spared no expense on their combos, while I simply could not justify paying over 150-200 dollars for a single scrap of cardboard. I was “employed” by AmeriCorps. What had I been thinking?

Luckily Magic cards don’t depreciate, and I recouped a lot of my financial losses and, incidentally, some of my self-respect. There was also the added bonus of getting back in touch with Derek, whom I hadn’t seen very much through my college years. I remember Jack playing some variation of Dead Guy Ale somewhere in there too, and maybe even Stu behind the wheel of Zoo.

Anyway, we tried LotR RPG again here and there, but it’s hard these days to make a game like that stick. People have jobs, people have kids, and some of us have a lot longer journeys to undertake than others. Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game was never the same, and at this point I suppose I regard its passing with an appropriate symmetry to Gandalf’s final words on the shores of Middle-earth: “Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”

But the brevity of a single game of Magic has allowed it to outlive the more involved of our nerdy pastimes. When the Sundering Seas of modern adulthood deign to part we can still fling elves and orcs and lightning bolts at each other without feeling like our time is at a premium, and without feeling burdened by the frustrating notion that our story will end prematurely — as they almost always did anyway with tabletop RPGs, even back in high school when we had all the time in the world.

And Peasant Magic specifically accommodates the other reality of living in a capitalist society: money. We’re all paying off school loans or a car; some of us are public school teachers or we work for non-profits; some of us have kids and a mortgage, for chrissake. Peasant means everyone has equal potential to build and play the best deck in the format, regardless of whatever other financial concerns they may have — which in turn means that the emphasis is on having fun and spending time with friends. (Sometimes I think it should be called Proletariat Magic, but we’ll not speak of politics where Having Fun is our primary concern).

Whew. Sometimes… I get really serious about stuff. To lighten your mood, I submit these cards for your amusement. Feel free to call the goblins “orcs”; they already hate you anyway.

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