Titus Chalk is a Berlin based games and sports journalist best known for his work with the likes of Deutsche Welle, Tagesspiegel, and FourFourTwo. He’s also a massive fan of Magic the Gathering, and has recently written a book called Generation Decks: The Unofficial History of Gaming Phenomenon Magic: The Gathering. We caught up with him to find out more.
STARBURST: What’s the elevator pitch for Generation Decks?
Titus Chalk: It’s the story of a life-changing card game called Magic: The Gathering, which captured the ‘90s Zeitgeist before becoming a worldwide gaming phenomenon that millions of people play today. The book tells the story of the business misfits who made it – bagging millions of dollars in the process – and the community who fell completely in love with the game – including myself. In American high school movie parlance, it’s how the nerds went from jock bullying victims to self-identifying geeks – because someone came along and believed in their smarts and gave them a platform to use them.
How long did it take you to put together the book?
The idea first came to me in 2010, when I left my job at Haymarket Publishing in London, moved to Berlin and went freelance. On some level, I was convinced there was a story to tell about Magic and that, having gone freelance, I might have the freedom to do it. But it took another couple of years for me to actually get cracking on it – a mixture of gaining more experience and confidence as a writer, and a few other things falling in place in terms of earning money and being more established in my new home. Some time around late 2012, I realised Magic would be turning 20 years old in August 2013 – a good time to get a book out. I didn’t really know what I was doing in terms of publishing – so had clearly left it too late to work with a paper publisher. But I discovered self-publishing and felt very empowered by that. I then spent all of 2013 working mostly 6 or 7 days a week to bring in money, whilst also researching and writing the book. I self-published an early version of it at the end of that year – then realised, “Hey, this is an actual book. And Magic’s story is worth more than just a one-off anniversary telling.” From that point on, I began hunting for an agent and eventually found the right publisher to work with in Rebellion. All in all, a pretty long trek from initial idea to it hitting bookshelves!
How would you describe Magic the Gathering to a non-gamer?
A popular shorthand to describe the game is a cross-between poker and chess – there’s the card-playing aspect of poker, the randomness of what might come off the top of your deck. But there’s also the strategic element that goes with chess. The big difference to those games – or indeed to any game when it came out in 1993 – is that with Magic, instead of sharing a deck or a set, each player collects their own cards and tailors the deck they want to do battle with against their opponents. With well over 10,000 different cards in the game these days, it means there are huge strategic implications to how you build your deck – each card has a unique effect on the game. And it also means that no two games are ever really the same. It’s a deep and addictive game, with so many levels to engage on – from the complexity to the fantasy flavour. Its creator, Richard Garfield once called it, “The game bigger than the box” and he’s absolutely right. It’s always evolving, with each new card printed meaning as a player you find yourself thinking about Magic long after you’ve actually set down your cards and finished a game. Magic’s variety and perfectibility are what keep us players hopelessly hooked on it.
Why is this story interesting to those who don’t play Magic?
Well, Magic came along at a pivotal moment in our popular culture – just as the world was tipping from the analogue world into the digital one we know today. The game itself, the company who make it, Wizards of the Coast, and the players – all of them were at this amazing juncture and kind of took the bullet first if you will of this huge change in society. They rode out the worst of this sudden change, dug out new opportunities and really presaged in many ways how we were going to get to grips with a more connected culture. The game was so huge when it came out and appealed to such a technical crowd, that Magic players were one of the first big communities online. They showed what would happen as the underground coalesced and went overground thanks to being better connected. Many went on to be professional gamers – something we take for granted today with the advent of eSports – but was radical back in the ‘90s. And the business itself had an amazing ascent (after a flirtation with disaster), which gave the world a taste of dot-com era Silicon Valley culture, before Silicon Valley itself. The book’s the story of a game, of a business and of a community – all shaped by one of the biggest shifts in connecting and communicating the world has ever seen.
What style of Magic do you play?
I’d say I’m a semi-competitive player. Which I guess means a competitive player who isn’t very good! I was a much more casual player when I was writing the book, but after interviewing so many professional players and diving deeper into the community than I had ever done before, I got hooked on playing all over again. Whereas I have always loved what’s called Vintage Magic (using the game’s oldest) cards, I recently started playing Standard again (that’s with the newest cards, available to everyone) for the first time in almost 20 years. By writing about the game in such an in-depth way, I really got a new appreciation for it – just how much fun the actual playing of the game is, how fun it can be to learn and compete, and how rewarding it can be to feel part of this big community worldwide who are all hugely invested in Magic.
Why the blend of semi-autobiographical and factual?
Once I really began writing the book in earnest, it became clear to me that I was going to be interviewing a lot of high-level players who had achieved great things in the game. While their story is very important – a kind of rags-to-riches tale in some cases – I also wanted to tell a story that the bang average player could relate to. I discovered the game at a very painful time in my life, after my parents’ business had gone bust and we had had to move around the world to New Zealand, having lost our house. I was 13 at the time and, as a teenager in a new and completely different school and country, I felt awful. My friends were thousands of miles away, back home in the UK, and there I was, awkward and sad and painfully aware of how different I seemed to my new Kiwi classmates. Magic gave me a way to fit into a new community, and while every player has a different story I think many will relate to that feeling. Magic – and games in general – are so important because they allow people to find something in common. To interact with each other in a structured way that helps them make new friends. And I think sometimes that’s a role that mainstream society overlooks when it thinks about the gaming culture.
What do you have planned next?
Right now, I’m trying to move on to writing some fiction – short stories about the world I see around me as an ex-pat, living in Berlin. I can’t say I’m an expert yet, but it’s a great challenge to take what I’ve learned as a journalist and to try and progress my writing in that way. I’m hoping to land in the US at some point, perhaps do a post-graduate writing course there. In the meantime though, I’m chipping away in my local library. And jamming games of Magic – usually online – whenever I can!
Generation Decks is out April 6th from all good book shops.
Find your local STARBURST stockist HERE, or buy direct from us HERE. For our digital edition (available to read on your iOS, Android, Amazon, Windows 8, Samsung and/or Huawei device - all for just £1.99), visit MAGZTER DIGITAL NEWSSTAND.
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