Illustration Graham Roumieu
Late one night in Rome, Marijn Lybaert is fighting for his life. Down two games to one, he is low on mana and fending off a blistering attack from Great Sable Stags and Goblin Ruinblasters.
At stake: a prize of $45,000 and the title of World Champion of Magic: The Gathering, a role-playing card game that might be described as baseball card collecting meets Lord of the Rings. Camera crews eddy around his table—the game is being broadcast live to a packed convention hall mere steps away from the Roman Colosseum—as a pair of hushed announcers speculate as to Lybaert’s next move. His opponent plays a card (a Bloodbraid Elf!), and Lybaert blinks, stunned. After months of rigorous preparation, three harrowing days and 18 competitive matches in which the original 409 contenders were winnowed down to an elite eight, he’s out.
For many people, Magic cards are—along with Sailor Moon, EverQuest and Jolt Cola—part of a pantheon of departed 1990s adolescent geekery. But for an exclusive set of diehard fans around the world like Lybaert, they are central to a still vital subculture.
“I’ve made a lot of friends playing in Magic tournaments,” says the 24-year-old Belgian architecture student, who looks like a cross between Harry Potter and the Jonas Brothers. “People from Japan, Belgium, even the United States.” And though he concedes that he was too depressed to hang out with any of them after his loss, he’s philosophical about the experience. “I learn bits of strategy at every tournament I go to,” he says. At this gathering, though, it wasn’t any particular strategy that beat him. “When it comes down to it,” Lybaert says, “the other guy was just lucky with his card draws.” —MATT THOMPSON