Magic au Naturel
- Sancho Napora
In the beginning Magic cards were naked and there was no shame in playing them out in the open — free and innocent just like the day they were created. Join Sancho as he reminisces about the paradise lost that was the early days of Magic without sleeves.
Sun, Steel, and Dusty Battlefields
The sun bakes down upon us making us sweat, and a drop runs down my arm and hits the land I am about to tap. The respiration mixes with spilled drink and creates a dirty little cake on the extremely dirty piece of cardboard. All around us boots, sandals, bare feet, and sneakers pound the gravel we play on keeping a cloud of dust afloat — that is, when it is not settling as a light brown film on our cards.
Backscratching the Sparkler
Given the bacchanalian nature of Roskilde Festival, one of the largest music festivals in Europe, it is surprising how vividly that one image of playing Magic on the ground outside the entrance has stuck in my memory. I remember it a lot better than that year's concerts with Beastie Boys, Black Sabbath, and Kraftwerk. I remember sitting cross-legged on the ground taking more care to protect my lukewarm beer from the thousands of drunk and happy festival goers passing by than to my deck. And I remember the big semi-circular scratches my cards got on their backs as I tapped them directly on the gravel.
Of course, I was only playing with the preconstructed deck named "The Sparkler" from the recent set Stronghold that I had just purchased at Dragon's Lair in the town of Roskilde, so no worries there. I did bring a couple of my more treasured decks to the week of concerts and all-night partying too. But these were well protected in penny sleeves, so I had some time to react and wipe off spilled beer and kebab sauce if an accident happened. Also I only played with those decks in our small home camp since they had more sought-after cards such as my valuable Shivan Dragons and my somewhat useful Revised Edition dual lands in them.
The Shame of Sleeving Up
I was a bit embarrassed that I had paid good money for plastic sleeves to protect pieces of cardboard. It was also something that some of my friends indeed commented on. We all knew that the expensive cards had been printed before we started playing the game. There was just no way any cards we owned would ever creep to the ridiculous prices of the power cards that did not make it into Revised Edition which was where our Magic collections began.
The first time I saw Magic cards in some sort of protection was exactly this: a deck with a Black Lotus and all five Moxen that Wizards had decided not to reprint in Revised. That sleeved deck belonged to some guy who used to come and play at the house I shared with three of my friends. He had paid ridiculous amounts of money for that deck with its off-centered Unlimited Edition Black Lotus costing nearly the equivalent of €150 and the Mox Sapphire being his second most expensive card at half that price.
This guy had proceeded to put each card into a plastic sleeve of the kind that were used for Danish library cards in those days and that almost worked for the purpose. They were only a bit longer than a Magic card but quite a bit wider. To the rest of us it made his deck look goofy and we laughed almost as much about that as we did about the price he had paid for the cards. We had our cards in their birthday suits just as Garfield intended and they were as innocent as Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.
Having Moxen and Tricks Up Your Sleeve
The oversized plastic pockets also made his deck a pain to shuffle. But that was no big problem, since he was a horrible cheater who went beyond the mana weaving — which we all practiced and accepted — and actually more or less just stacked his entire deck before doing a very light overhand shuffle. And when that wasn't enough, he cheated in every other possible way including lying about the rules just as he did his best to rip those less knowledgeable off in trades, but that's another story.
Those days we played Magic all the time and everywhere. We played on park benches, we played on the ground, and we played on the floor. Ggiven that most of us were young students, we played a lot on greasy lunchroom tables and on beer-soaked tables at parties and in those dark basement bars where you never know if it is day or night.
While there was an element of collecting involved when it came to acquiring cards for trying out various strategies, we did not see Magic as a collectible and by no means as anything akin to an investment. Cards were for entertainment and good cards were the ones that either won you games or, at least in our circle, the ones that allowed you to make fun and spectacular plays.
I think I have previously entertained Insight readers with stories of how we shuffled our bare cards for hours to get rid of the too new look and to give what we called "a velvety feel" to the surface. By this we meant making the cards less slippery so that our libraries did not fall over at the slightest touch. I personally had no problems with a little whiteness around the edges of the card backs and I was generally all for that worn feel and look.
My problems with playing my cards without attire arrived with the many spills of food and drink on their surfaces, and sometimes liquids even absorbed into the cardboard giving it a brittle feel. Since we were playing in the age of mainly white borders, another thing I detested were the sprinkle of tiny gooey dark spots dotting the whiteness around the card frame or the yellowing from coffee and the cigarette smoke that was still hanging in the air of every bar and many homes those days. Finally, I took the leap into what my friends and I considered something bordering on snobbery and shelled out for a bag of penny sleeves. The era of innocence had ended.
Leaving Paradise Behind Me
Sleeving up felt funny and shuffling and playing became a bit of a pain. So initially the sleeves were reserved for my most treasured deck that I had nicknamed Processen after the Danish title of Kafka's novel The Trial — it was my beloved mill deck.
As anyone who has tried playing with penny sleeves can testify to, these soft plastic pockets are a magnet for dirt, and they become very sticky in no time. As it turns out, it is actually easier to wipe spilled Cola off an unsleeved Magic card than off one sleeved in a penny sleeve. But I stuck with my sticky decks and soon all of my four decks were all dressed up.
That was also how I found them, when I came back into the game so many years later: four decks with the cards individual in what were by then very disgusting looking and sticky, yellowing, grimy sleeves. I could not wait to play with those decks again, but they were just impossible to shuffle, and I did not want to free them from their dirty clothes until there was a new way to protect them. Luckily, I soon discovered that a whole industry had grown up around protecting Magic cards by then. Likewise, card culture had moved on from the savagery of nudity to wearing perfectly fitting undergarments as well as colorful outer robes.
It was a happy day when I could throw out the tattered penny sleeves of yore. Finally a nice shuffle feel again without giving even the most disregarded bulk common the tiniest of scratches that might reduce its value by hundreds of euros in some faraway future. But I still can't help looking back at the days of unsleeved Magic with a pang of nostalgia.
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