Tabletop Heroes

Recent release of expansion pack for Magic: The Gathering highlights culture of tabletop card gaming in the Flathead Valley

By Molly Priddy
Chris Ingraham plays Magic: The Gathering at Sports Cards Plus in Columbia Falls on Sept. 28, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

COLUMBIA FALLS – It wasn’t a long battle when the angels and the werewolves fought near U.S. Highway 2, with massive wings beating fruitlessly against relentless attack from the shape-shifting horde.

It’s not always like this, such a bloodbath of angels. But the werewolves were fast and ready this time, starting battle immediately with several angelic casualties in the first few seconds, followed by lycanthropic shifting en masse.

Within 10 minutes, the angelic host was vanquished, the werewolves lived to howl and bite another day, and John Sommers stood up from the card table to stretch.

“I stomped his face in,” Sommers said of his opponent, Chris Ingraham.

Ingraham, armed with 204 total ounces of various drinks and a soft smile, laughed and shuffled his Magic: The Gathering cards back into a respectable pile, and his angel deck went back into its protective cover.

After Ingraham’s swift loss, two other Magic players in Columbia Falls’ Sports Cards Plus, a trading card and memorabilia shop, started ribbing him, flinging insults based on a vernacular so specialized that, like any intricate hobby, it sounds like its own language to outsiders.

This is business as usual here in Columbia Falls, where epic confrontations on battlefields are fodder for everyone in the shop, from the folks there to check out sports cards and various pieces of precious memorabilia to those dedicated to the card games – and lifestyles – of Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Pokemon.

The social culture around the game is part of the reason Magic has lived as long as it has, more than 20 years in the making. Sept. 30 marked the release date of Kaladesh, the most recent expansion for the game, its 72nd update or addition since the game began in 1993.

“To me, it’s one of the best games there are,” Sommers said. “It’s something I enjoy doing and I enjoy teaching other people to play.”

Kyle Lane looks through a deck of Magic: The Gathering cards at Sports Cards Plus in Columbia Falls on Sept. 27, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Kyle Lane looks through a deck of Magic: The Gathering cards at Sports Cards Plus in Columbia Falls on Sept. 27, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

This gathering spot is new for Columbia Falls.

For years, there wasn’t a hobby or card shop in town, according to Tony Sibert, who opened up Sports Cards Plus a couple years ago. He originally ran a trading card shop focused mainly on sports from 1990 to 1996 in Evergreen.

But a bubble in the sports cards market burst after the nine major card producers had flooded too much product too fast in the mid-1980s after investors caught wind of the potential money-earning potential in collectibles.

“We hadn’t experienced anything like this before,” Sibert said of the bubble.

His shop closed down, and other than Heroic Realms, a hobby and trading card store in Evergreen since 2001, the valley’s card shops went largely dormant. This was before the Internet was a mainstay in everyone’s lives, when people who wanted to play Magic had to find each other through chance or friends or stores like these.

So when the storefronts weren’t plentiful, many people assumed trading cards left with them, Sibert said.

“The collectors stayed because the collectors are pretty constant,” he said. “It left the valley, but it didn’t leave the world.”

Sibert decided to reopen a card shop a couple years ago. The market is strong and interest is high, he said, largely due to the Internet. It didn’t kill trading cards or their games, Sibert said, but rather enhanced them.

For example, now that his shop is up and running again, Sibert has one of the best collections anywhere of cards autographed by Houston Texans NFL quarterback and Kalispell alum Brock Osweiler. He found his first one through eBay, not in Montana or Denver or Texas — all places Osweiler has played — but in Germany.

American sports heroes have proliferated in places overseas where the NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS, and NHL have contact, Sibert said. These days, there are only three sports card producers in the market, he said: Topps for baseball, Upper Deck for Hockey, and Italian company Panini for baseball, football, basketball, and NASCAR.

The producers learned their lessons from the mid-80s bubble and now only make limited numbers of cards, sometimes just one or two. These are ultimately collectible, Sibert said.

“The whole industry premise is the individual card,” he said.

Beckett, the official pricing guide for sports cards, now runs a service through hobby shops that allows patrons to send cards through the shop to Beckett for a condition appraisal. Cards are rated on a scale of one to 10 for their condition, 10 being absolutely pristine and perfectly printed mint. They come back authenticated, serial numbered, sealed in a hard plastic case, and with the score. Autographs are also scored.

Sibert recently hosted the first trading card convention in the valley in decades, and had plenty of interest from out-of-state visitors, but few locals. He thought it was due to the lack of card shops in the valley, an out-of-sight, out-of-mind phenomenon.

But even with the reboot of the sports card market, Sibert knew he couldn’t survive on sports alone if he wanted his shop to thrive. He has devoted about half of his store’s space to Magic, YuGiOh! and Pokemon cards.

“I said, ‘I’m not stupid — I’m not going to make the same mistake twice,’” Sibert said.

The card games equal about 50 percent of his business, with sports taking up the other half. He recently moved locations to give the shop 12 extra feet of width, allowing for more playing tables.

Chris Ingraham, left, and John Sommers play Magic: The Gathering at Sports Cards Plus in Columbia Falls on Sept. 28, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Chris Ingraham, left, and John Sommers play Magic: The Gathering at Sports Cards Plus in Columbia Falls on Sept. 28, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Magic is extremely intricate and expansive at the same time, and Sibert wasn’t well versed. So he accepted Sommers’ offer of help to advise and work on the Magic side of things while Sibert attends to the sports and memorabilia.

The shop now hosts weekly Magic tournaments and free play, including league play on Wednesdays. Every event there complements those at Heroic Realms, Sibert said, because there’s no sense in splitting up the valley’s players.

“Magic has changed quite a bit in the sense of it’s grown,” said David Blythe, who founded Heroic Realms with his friend Chris Beadles 15 years ago. “We have a dedicated player base, and gaming in general has changed significantly.”

Despite being around for more than 20 years, Magic continues to change and evolve, with Wizards of the Coast – the company behind Magic – putting out something new every three months. The game changes and moves, almost like it’s alive, Blythe said.

“I enjoy that change,” Blythe, who has played Magic since its release in 1993, said. “I have a hard time with stagnant games, like poker or Monopoly. I love chess, but at the same time I dislike the game, too, because it never changes.”

In Magic, a person playing for 15 years has advantages, sure, but the landscape is always shifting. No one is an expert all the time, each person interviewed for this story reiterated, making it an exciting and inviting game.

So many changes also mean a significant investment on the players’ parts. Sommers estimates his Magic collection sits above 10,000 cards, despite only technically needing 60 to 100 cards to play. Players develop unique, strategic decks based on their preferences. Sommers’ werewolf deck exists because he loves werewolves in general, and started playing Magic when the creatures were introduced around 2011 or 2012.

Not only are cards important for full decks, but Magic cards are individual collector items like sports cards. It’s also still a hobby in which a player can buy a pack of cards for $3.50 and still have the chance to pull a $200 card from the pack.

Sommers, Blythe, and Beadles all mentioned the same joke about Magic: “Start your kids off on Magic because they’ll never have the time or money to ever do drugs.”

Blythe said there are 200 to 300 dedicated Magic players in the valley, but finding them 20 years ago was a challenge. He used to sell Magic cards out of the back of his car just to get people interested, he said.

“There weren’t too many people in the valley who actually played at all,” he said. “That was back when we didn’t have any Internet at all so you couldn’t get in touch with people.”

Tournaments started up in about 1996, and a series of hobby shops cycled through the valley — Northland Hobbies, Collector’s Best, Home Run, Someplace Else, among others. Blythe and his friends got rededicated to the game in 1999, and he and Beadles started planning for their own shop.

Hunter Ryan flips through a deck of Magic: The Gathering cards at Sports Cards Plus in Columbia Falls on Sept. 27, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Hunter Ryan flips through a deck of Magic: The Gathering cards at Sports Cards Plus in Columbia Falls on Sept. 27, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Heroic Realms has served as the valley’s consistent source of Magic since 2001, and through that became an irreplaceable social hub.

“That’s the goal of our store,” Beadles said. “When Dave and I started it — we both have kids — and our mission statement was we wanted to build a game store where we would feel comfortable leaving our kids.”

The gaming room is a place of refuge for gamers, with a similar feel to the camaraderie in Columbia Falls.

“We watched a bunch of people who didn’t have too many friends and things become regulars and be able to come together as a community to have a bunch of friends,” Blythe said. “We understand each other as gamers; we play things that others don’t. We provide a different lifestyle. For some, it is their life. This is the social outlet for a lot of these guys.”

At a pre-release party for the Kaladesh expansion pack, the shop was full with 54 gamers. Women aren’t as common as men, but their numbers are growing, with perhaps one to three on Friday Night Magic league night at Heroic Realms.

So while Blythe might now be running tournaments instead of playing in them, Magic is still a huge part of his life. Keeping up on the everyday news is part of his business, but like many dedicated to the game, it’s not quite a hardship.

“For me, keeping up on Magic is a day-to-day thing. I read articles when I get home, but I’ve also got kids and a wife, so I have to make time for it,” Blythe said. “Magic is an everyday thing. I don’t want to say we live and breathe it, but I do.”

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