Where do I begin?
It all started in Birmingham, Alabama. I was a lad of sixteen, yearning for a way out, looking for something to pass the time. There had to be a place better than this. My house smelled like cigarette smoke. I needed a place away from the screaming and pills and blankets covered in cigarette burns.
One day, armed with deck and dice, I decided to go on an adventure.
After some rudimentary research, I learned of a few different comic book stores around town. I'd heard somewhere that comic book stores were some of the biggest retailers of Magic: the Gathering. I'd been playing for a few years already, but finding people to play with had never been easy. I'd tried to teach my brother once, but he could never sit still for more than thirty minutes at a time. Eventually, he'd get bored and want to go do something outside, and I usually went with him. I'd occasionally try to play games against myself, but you can only do that so much before your parents start to wonder if you're going crazy.
Late one afternoon, after checking out a few places around town, I pulled up to a strip-mall and scanned the stores for a place called Empire Comics. It wasn't hard to find. Stickers of well-known villains and heroes lined the glass windows. Actually, the entire store front was just one big glass window. The stickers made shadowed outlines on the ground and walls as the sun beamed in behind them. I opened the door and heard a bell ring. The dusty, concrete floors reminded me of somewhere I'd been before, but I couldn't put my finger on it. The sawdust from years of renovation and half-finished shelves assaulted my nose. I breathed deeply and coughed.
It was a fixer-upper.
The clerk behind the counter, Edward, met my gaze with a smile. I walked up slowly, unsure of what to say. I wanted to know more about anything and everything in this place, but I didn't want to seem lost. I didn't want to make a bad first impression.
"Hey, I was wondering if y'all sold Magic: the Gathering cards?"
"Yeah we got tons! And if you want to come back on Friday night, a lot of people get together to play all night!"
Seriously? A lot of people come here to play Magic? I'd only known five or six other people to ever play the game. I didn't know how big it was. I didn't even know that tournaments existed for it. I was a super casual who'd only played against a few middle school friends. How many was "a lot?"
We continued our conversation for about 30 minutes. I had a lot of questions. Edward had a lot of answers. I wasn't a big nerd at this point. Magic was my only real "nerdy" activity outside of video games, but just about everyone my age liked video games. But what was the rest of this stuff? Comic books? Board games? The shelves were covered wall-to-wall with things I'd never even heard of. Of course, I knew some of the greats. Batman, Spiderman, all their villains, but who were these other people, and what were their stories?
Edward seemed to know everything about the thousands of comics and games that rested behind him. He had the perfect answer to every question I had, and even gave me some recommendations to try out for myself. On top of the Magic cards I bought that day, Edward handed me a comic book that he thought might pique my interest. I sat down with the trade paperback of Transmetropolitan and tucked in, content to have somewhere to sit and breathe clean air while no one was yelling or fighting around me.
I talked with Edward over the next few hours, learning more about Empire and all things Magic. It was more than I'd ever imagined! There were weekly tournaments around town. There were large groups of people just like me who would congregate on Wednesday and Friday nights, looking for people to play with, trade with, or just hang out. Friends I could make. Friends with interests that aligned with my own. People who came from all sorts of backgrounds, some similar to mine, and some a bit worse or a bit better.
Oddly enough, most of the regulars were significantly older than me. But I didn't mind, and neither did they. We liked the same things, and that was enough. Every Wednesday and Friday we'd meet up, order some Chinese takeout from the place nearby, and play Magic into the late hours of the evening. Edward was there all the time, and eventually I gathered up the nerve to ask if he wanted to hang out after the store closed. And soon after, I started going over to his house nearly every weekday night, watching Adult Swim while we ate a late dinner.
Edward's roommate, Blair, also played Magic, and would come by the store pretty often to hang out. He taught me to draft. He taught me about Standard and all the various formats. And he ended up being my gateway to tournament Magic. He'd been playing for a very long time and knew all about PTQs and Grand Prix and Nationals and the rest. It didn't take long for me to get the PTQ bug, and we started going on three- or four-hour road trips every Saturday morning for months on end. And eventually, I got my first Top 8. And then a second, and third, and fourth. And while I couldn't seem to take one down, I kept trying.
I hung out with Edward and Blair almost every single night, playing Magic, talking about Magic, burying my head deeper and deeper into the sand, hoping that I'd never have to come out. It was bliss, but midnight would eventually strike and I'd turn back into a pumpkin. Sluggish and somber, I'd drive home, hoping everyone else in the house was asleep.
Some days after school, I'd just go to Empire Comics without bothering to stop by home first. Edward worked nearly every day, and over time introduced me to all the things that the shop had to offer. Edward was a comic book aficionado and introduced me to some of his favorites. I loved reading as a kid and was always a big fan of Spiderman and X-Men. But Edward dove deeper, giving me the good stuff he knew I hadn't read before. I got into The Ultimates, which would eventually be the basis for the entire Avengers universe. I got into indie comics and read some of the classics.
Some days I would show up and no one would be around except for the owner of the store, Paul. He was an older man with a kind face and a good heart. He was genuinely excited to see me whenever I came into the store. Like Edward, he knew everything there was to know about the content of his store. But he seemed busier than everyone else and a little bit more tired. After all, he usually worked seven days a week for ten or more hours, keeping the lights on and the people happy. Paul was a curious character, for sure, but I never thought anything about him other than "he's a hard worker who loves his business, and loves his patrons."
I started to get older, but I kept going back to Empire two or three times a week. I'd swing by on holidays, weekends, or whenever I had free time. Even if no one else was there to play games with, I'd pick up a comic book and sit on that old couch near the front window. And you can bet your bottom dollar that I beat every single game on the Neo Geo that blared in the corner. My Metal Slug skills are on point.
I grew up at Empire. I made friends, spent my free time and extra money, and ultimately gained relationships that shaped me as a person (for better and for worse).
Eventually, it was time for college. I'd gotten a full academic scholarship to a school a few hours away. I didn't know many people around campus, so I ended up driving the two hours back to Birmingham nearly every single weekend. The best part of the week was Friday afternoon, because I knew I'd be playing Magic with my friends in just a few hours.
Long story short, I busted out of school. I was depressed from a long relationship that went south, stopped going to class, and eventually just stopped showing up altogether. And once I'd lost my scholarship, I knew I had to move back home. It took me weeks to tell my mom. I knew she'd be disappointed, and I couldn't bear having her look at me that way. But eventually I swallowed my pride and asked her if I could move back in with her until I got on my feet.
I played some Poker, made some quick dough, and quickly fell back into my old routine. I started going to tournaments and hanging out at the comic book store again. It felt right, but I wasn't on the trajectory that I expected or ultimately wanted. But I've never been one to worry too much about the future.
That fall, I fell short in a PTQ once again, but the night was still young. We got back into town around 10pm and decided to go meet up with Edward at Empire Comics. He'd be getting off work soon and wanted to hang out. As we walked into the shop, I saw Edward sitting with someone I hadn't seen before. She was…beautiful. She was my age. She was playing Magic.
Her name was Kali.
I introduced myself, sat down, and struck up a conversation. She was funny, smart, and I was genuinely interested in learning everything I could about her. She told us it was her second night in town, and that she was attending our local college, UAB. She asked for some help building her deck and I happily obliged.
After an hour or so of us all hanging out at the comic shop, I invited her along to Midnight Sushi, a "happy hour" for sushi at a local Japanese restaurant. She quickly informed us that she didn't like sushi, or fish, and wasn't keen on Japanese food, but thought it sounded fun. Like me just a few years before, she was in a new place just looking for like-minded people to spend her free time with. She enjoyed Magic but hadn't been playing long. But she loved the game, the culture, and the people.
That night, I asked her out on a date, and she said yes. Unfortunately, I am not great with words, and what I actually asked her was "if she wanted to hang out again tomorrow." In her mind, we'd all be doing the same stuff again. In my mind, I'd be taking her out to dinner and a movie. The next night, we met up at Empire Comics and I relayed to her my plans. She looked a bit mortified, but went along with it anyway. We went to a Japanese Steakhouse where they cook the food in front of you. Afterward, I asked her if she wanted to go see a movie. She chose The Skeleton Key (she loved scary movies).
After the movie, she invited me back to her dorm room to watch Adult Swim. I was nervous, and ultimately turned her down. As I was driving home, something snapped inside of me. "What are you doing, you idiot? She wants you to come over! Go! Go!" The voice inside my head wouldn't stop, so I called her and asked if I could still come over and apologized for turning her down earlier. I liked her a lot. I was just nervous and didn't want to mess anything up.
I arrived to her dorm, and was surprised at how someone could make such a huge mess after living in their dorm for less than a week. Regardless, we sat down on her bed in her very small room and turned on the television. I did my best impression of Meatwad from Aqua Teen Hunger Force and made her laugh. She was sweet and sensitive and made my ears grow red. I stopped, with a pit in my stomach, and looked into her eyes.
"Can I kiss you?"
All the air rushed out of the room. The look on her face destroyed me. It was horror and confusion and I didn't know what else to say. So I waited.
"I have a boyfriend," she replied. "I thought you knew! I talked about him at dinner last night!"
"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't know."
I stood up and left as quickly as my feet would carry me. I was embarrassed and didn't know what else to do. Leaving felt like the appropriate response. She didn't call me. We didn't talk again for a few weeks. It was my fault, of course, but I was too embarrassed to do anything about it. But after a few weeks, I called her to see if she wanted to hang out with the gang again. After all, she was an awesome person, and I could swallow my pride. I'd rather be friends with her than never talk to her again.
We become close friends in the coming months, hung out all the time, and learned virtually everything there was to know about each other. And eventually, she decided to break up with her boyfriend who lived back home.
Now, we've been married for almost a decade, have four cats (I know, I know), and we both work for StarCityGames.com®. Blair was the best man at our wedding and Edward was a groomsman. And while we miss our friends back in Alabama, I'll never forget how they shaped me as a person. I see them at Magic tournaments on occasion, and most of them have moved on and started families of their own. It's strange how this game connects us on a deeper level. It's something you only get face-to-face and one of the reasons why Magic is still around today.
Magic is the reason I've met most of my friends and the love of my life. It's the reason we own a house. It's the reason why I'm not working at a job I hate. It's why I'm surrounded by amazing people who love me. My mother never understood it and my father regularly made fun of me for it. How did he not know he was raising a nerd? Why was Magic so much different than all the video games I'd played? But through it all, nearly twenty years later, Magic is still here and I am still playing it.
I know I'm lucky. I get to write articles and make videos about a game for a living. I think about how lucky I am every single day, and the impostor syndrome bubbles up every now and then makes me question if I'm actually good enough or worthy enough to be here. Well, I'm not. I know I'm not. I'm just lucky and know how to sling a card or two. I've got a little bit of charisma and don't mind writing the equivalent of a term paper every single week. I can stand in front of a camera and talk about Magic for hours.
Someone once said "Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life." That person was an idiot. A job is still a job and working forty or more hours a week on anything is draining, even if you're enjoying the time you spend on it. I'm happy for the friends and family I've made along the way, but mostly I'm thankful that Magic gave me so many opportunities in life.
Magic was my escape from reality. It was a hobby, but it was also my salvation. I was able to separate myself from the insanity of my household for hours on end, sometimes days, and that was enough to keep me going. If it wasn't for Empire Comics and the wonderful nerds that called it their second home, I don't know where I would be today. I don't know who I would be today. And whether or not you've found your second home away from home, just know that there are people out there who are just like you.
Find your Empire Comics. It'll save your life. I know it saved mine.