YAKIMA, Wash. — Every Friday night, people gather at the back of Ron’s Coin and Collectibles for what seems to a casual observer to be a card game.
Some have been coming for years, while others are newbies getting their feet wet. But this isn’t a poker night.
It’s Friday Night Magic, where fans of the card game Magic: The Gathering come together for an evening of fantasy game play and camaraderie.
“It’s better than going to a bar and drinking,” said Yvonna Zimmerman, a store employee who oversees the event and plays the game herself.
Players say Magic is more than a game; it’s a diverse community of people who share a love for the 26-year-old card game.
Magic was first released in 1993 as a game that could be played almost anywhere, even while waiting in a line at a science fiction and fantasy convention.
In the game, players assume the roles of “Planeswalkers,” beings capable of moving from one universe to another. In the game, they use spells, creatures and other things to attack each other, with the goal of running someone’s life count from 20 to zero.
To do this, players assemble between 40 and 60 cards — depending on the type of game — in decks that give them various skills, resources and abilities. During game play, the deck is shuffled, and players deal themselves seven cards in their hand with which to cast spells, command creatures, attack, defend or generate resources.
While the game has gone digital, like many things in the 21st century, millions still use the trading cards, amassing thousands of them as the game continues to evolve with new characters and abilities.
And there’s even a pro tour, Zimmerman said, with prize payouts of up to $750,000. Players can also gain rankings through local competitions.
One such event is Friday Night Magic, where fans can gather at various locations to play, sometimes for serious competition or just for fun.
Since the mid-2000s, Ron’s has hosted Friday Night Magic, said owner Joe Mann. He first started hosting the event at the store on West Nob Hill Boulevard, but now the games are played at the back of the North Second Street establishment.
The Friday night games at Ron’s alternate weekly between “standard” games where players bring their own carefully crafted 60-card decks to battle, and “draft nights” where players are given three packs of game cards and take turns drawing cards from each pack to assemble a 40-card deck with which to play.
It costs $10.82 to play, and draft players get a 40-card deck to keep.
“Some people will come down and play (every week) for six months or a year, and take a rest,” Mann said.
About eight to 20 people show up each week, Zimmerman said, with a mixture of experienced players and people who are checking it out for the first time.
Zimmerman was asked to supervise the game night, and decided she better learn how to play the game.
“I had a few friends who played it, and I kind of fell into it,” Zimmerman said.
For her, the game’s appeal is in its different levels of competitiveness, as well as the types of characters players can use, ones that either fit their personalities or embody something different.
Austin James Hatfield, a 20-year-old warehouse worker from Yakima, was introduced to the game when he was around 12.
“I was always in the nerd group, and my friends played Magic all the time,” Hatfield said. “I started getting into it and making friends, so I stuck around.”
About four years ago, he started going down to Ron’s for the draft nights, and has become a regular. Now, he’s introducing his younger brother to the game.
The drafts, Hatfield said, are less intimidating as you don’t have to play against someone who has built a powerful deck, something that can cost thousands of dollars.
Hatfield’s own collection of cards was at 42,000 the last time he looked.
Ron’s, Hatfield said, is welcoming to new players, with the more experienced ones willing to help out and give new players tips on how to play the game.
One of those new players is Erica Parker, a Selah High School student. She was introduced to Magic in August by a friend and likes the game and the atmosphere at Ron’s.
“They kind of memorize everybody’s name, and they just sign you up (when you come in),” Erica, 15, said.
Erica and Hatfield say the game is a combination of luck and skill. The luck comes from the fact that players draw seven cards from a shuffled deck, not knowing what is going to be in their hands.
But once a player has a hand, it becomes a game of strategy, requiring players to know what playing cards a certain way will do for the game, while trying to assess what your opponent has in his or her hand.
Hatfield compared it to chess, in that players must think several moves ahead if they are going to win, a skill he said spills over into other aspects of his life.
“It has helped improve my critical thinking over the years,” Hatfield said.
But there is also a social element. Magic, and other games at Ron’s, bring together diverse groups of people who might not otherwise interact with each other except for the game.
And it is a great way to find friends in a community.
“If I were to go on Facebook and say I play Magic, I would have people coming over to play,” Hatfield said.
While camaraderie keeps him coming to Ron’s, Hatfield said he is planning to move soon, and one of his first orders of business will be to find a place to play Magic.