In 2004, Phil Yam found himself alone in the sprawling, unfamiliar streets of San Francisco. He was a fresh-faced college graduate who had just moved to the city to start a career as a software engineer, and with it, the first chapter of his adult life. So he did what any 21-year-old would do — he went to a local tabletop game store to play a fantasy trading card game called Magic: The Gathering.
It wasn’t long before he heard about a group of players that met on Wednesday evenings for semi-competitive tournaments at the now-defunct Canvas Gallery. Curious, he did some digging online, found a Yahoo! Groups page, and added himself to the email list.
He’s been playing Magic: The Gathering almost every Wednesday ever since.
“When I moved out west after college, a lot of the new people I met were through Magic,” he tells me. Now 37, Yam has been the organizer of the Drafts @ Kennedy’s Pub group for the past six years. He’s attracted over 160 members on MeetUp.com, maintained an average turnout of roughly 15-30 people per week, and even met his now-fiancée during a weekly tournament. The crew’s core circle has been coming out for beers and friendly competition for over a decade now.
The group is but one of many in San Francisco, which is home to a robust Magic: The Gathering scene characterized as much by love for the strategy and lore as love for the community. But for a game so centered around gathering in close proximity, what does it mean when the act of coming together around a small table is no longer safe?
Luckily, the game’s popularity afforded players a few options. Originally released in 1993, Magic: The Gathering is widely credited with birthing the trading card game genre. Over 20 billion printed cards and 35 million players later, its enduring popularity has led to the release of two online clients — Magic: The Gathering Online and Magic: The Gathering Arena. For many players, however, the reigning way to play is still the original version, with its collectible printed cards and face-to-face interaction with opponents.
Yam ultimately made the decision to move the group’s tournaments to Magic: The Gathering Arena, supplementing the social aspect with video chats (and beers) over a messaging app called Discord. While it’s the safest option until a vaccine is widely available, it hasn’t been the most ideal. Turnout is down by 50 percent, and it’s become more difficult to connect with other players.
“Online is comparable, but no substitution,” says D. Veloz, owner of Versus Games. “You can’t exchange binders after the match to trade or walk around and talk to other players and trade cards. You can’t check out other matches. You can’t make a night out with your friends. Right now, it’s just Magic, not Magic: The Gathering, because we can’t gather.”
Veloz knows a thing or two about the Magic community in San Francisco. His store, Versus Games, is the only tabletop game store dedicated to Magic: The Gathering in the Bay Area. In normal times, Versus Games hosted events and tournaments every single day of the week, attracting up to 100 enthusiasts per day and sometimes even 900 in one weekend.
When the pandemic hit, Veloz quickly closed in-store browsing, cancelled all in-person events, and transitioned to a curbside pick-up and home delivery system. He had a similar experience with online events — attendance eventually tapered off, and engagement was low — but is currently exploring webcam events, which would allow customers to play with their physical cards and interact more closely with each other.
While there’s been some social and financial pressure to reopen, Veloz is firm on his decision to stay closed until a cure or vaccine is available. He’s explored options for hosting in-person events, such as plexiglass set-ups, outdoor settings, and temperature checks. But ultimately, he determined that the risk of aerosol transmission was too high.
“Stores should not be hosting [in-person] events, period. It would be dangerous and irresponsible for us or any store to host in-store or outside events and risk the health of our staff and players. There is no way to host an event safely,” Veloz says.
For some Magic players, however, the itch to play is worth the risk.
When the city of San Francisco announced that socially distanced groups were allowed to meet in parks, Jeremy Sammons saw that as a chance to return to some sense of normalcy. He’s the organizer of the SF Casual Magic Players group, which has over 600 members on MeetUp.com and dates back to at least 2004.
“I think getting away from the stress in life and from being cooped in the house, being able to see people you haven’t seen in a long time, and getting back to playing is super important and beneficial to those of us in this community,” Sammons says.
He made the decision to resume in-person meetings after careful consideration of CDC and city guidelines. Those who do attend events must wear a mask, maintain a 6-foot distance from other players, and modify their play style to refrain from touching other players’ cards. As opposed to the group’s normal turnout of 20-30 players every Sunday, only 6-8 players currently meet at a time.
“I’ve mentioned multiple times to people: don’t do anything that’s going to violate those rules, or you’ll be asked to leave the group or not to come back,” Sammons explains. “That’s one of the things that we can try to do to keep people safe in what is normally a very social game.”
But it hasn’t been easy. With masks on, players can have a hard time hearing each other. The unstable air quality and unpredictable weather have posed issues for outdoor play. And the gusty San Francisco winds have also been bad for games, prompting Sammons to come up with the unique solution of purchasing magnetic strips and asking players to bring nuts and bolts to weigh their cards down.
Not all players share the same opinions on whether it’s safe enough to play in person. But across the board, they’ve made it clear that Magic: The Gathering and the sense of community it provides is important enough to be worth the consideration.
“People always say making friends when you’re an adult is really hard. But with Magic, it’s really easy,” says Nico Sandoval, who met one of his best friends through the SF Casual Magic Players group. “We’ve been to weddings together, even to my 30th birthday in another state. And we met [because of] Magic.”
For Christopher Grant, a member of the Drafts @ Kennedy’s Pub group, the game represents a way to stay positive through hardship. “It’s brought a lot of enjoyment into my life, especially during the hard times recently. Like, I’ll always have my friends to play cards with,” he tells me. “It sounds cheesy, but I feel like I’m a better person because I know the people that I know — because I have this outlet.”
Sammons, who is 47, has been playing for over 20 years. And he doesn’t see himself stopping any time soon, pandemic or not.
“Magic is a game, but it’s a lot more than that. In this group, we form a lot of valuable connections and connect with a lot of people,” he says. “And so it’s important to keep that going.”