On a recent Saturday, sitting on a glass display case at the front of Universe Games in Uptown, a clock counts down the minutes, then the seconds. Cards are stuffed into colorful protective sleeves, shuffled and arranged on place mats. Players sit down face-to-face, card-to-card. As the clock hits zero, the green planeswalker Nissa and the white vampire soldier Adanto Vanguard are drawn and slapped against the place mats. The battle is underway.
The action was part of a tournament, the first of three Magic: The Gathering pre-release events that weekend where dozens of players gathered to test new decks.
Universe Games is a card and tabletop gaming store, part of a growing trend often referred to as friendly local game stores. The store, which opened in July 2005, holds nightly and weekend gaming events, like Star Wars: Destiny or this month’s Magic: The Gathering pre-release. The shop acts as a collaborative space to play and invites visitors to bring in their own board games.
“Places like mine, we offer a space for people to come and enjoy games together,” said Michael Angelo Russo, 38, owner of Universe Games.
Card and board games are making a comeback. In 2017, games and puzzles sales — which includes card games, board games, dice and figurine games grew by 24 percent, according to the marketing research firm NPD Group. Between 2013 and 2016, the sales of games and puzzles grew from $9.3 billion to $9.6 billion, according to Euromonitor International. YouTube channel Geeks and Sundry, which has over 1.2 million subscribers, also includes the TableTop series, where celebrity host Wil Wheaton (“Star Trek: The Next Generation”) plays board games with guest celebrities. Even the kids of the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things” play the fantasy tabletop game Dungeons and Dragons.
“I can say for sure that specifically with Magic: The Gathering that it’s part of my own personal identity,” said Russo.
Russo first heard of Magic: The Gathering, a collectible card game, in 1994, and has now played Magic: The Gathering for 24 years, 13 professionally. As a teenager, he spent a lot of his free time in storefronts similar to Universe Games, which he said helped him form “character.” After working as a wholesaler buying and selling cards to stores, Russo decided to open his own.
A gathering spot
At Universe Games, board games line the walls, including Ticket to Ride and Star Wars collectibles. Long, waxed wood tables host customers with laptops and opened board games. A glass cashier case holds cards and booster packs for games like Magic: The Gathering and Dragon Shield.
“It’s a way of socializing and interacting with each other,” said Russo. “You actually have a common purpose and you’re cooperating or playing against each other.”
The Magic: The Gathering tournament pairings were chosen at random, allowing for attendees to interact with other players, some competitive and some beginners.
“The crowd here is always friendly,” said Mirabeau Laing, 21, who has been playing Magic: The Gathering for five years. Laing was introduced to the card game through high school friends and liked the game’s “flavor,” citing the combination of art and fantasy.
“The cards have a story behind them and that’s what interested me, that you could concoct stories,” said Laing.
Gaming, like any passion, can become consuming. On June 18, the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Disease from the World Health Organization recognized “gaming disorder” as a serious mental health condition. While the study focused on digital and video gaming, tabletop gaming can have similar obsessive qualities. Russo’s game of choice, Magic: The Gathering, is so consuming it earned the nickname “cardboard crack,” he said.
“Just like anything, too much of it can be a bad thing,” said Russo. “Although I do [play] less frequently, I’m very choice about the time I spend and how I spend it.”
Games also have positive effects for players. Games have been shown to have cognitive benefits to memory, attention and decisionmaking, according to a 2015 Psychology Today article.
“I know that some people look down on different forms of gaming, but they’re all interconnected,” said Russo. “I’ve heard the joke that fantasy football is just D&D for jocks.”
Benefits beyond gaming
Online co-op or multiplayer games also have seen a rise in popularity, with games such as World of Warcraft and Don’t Starve Together relying on team building and communication skills. While online forums can act as a social space, the face-to-face competition that Universe Games helps foster also teaches good sportsmanship and respect in contrast to the anonymity of chat rooms in online gaming. Russo said that he often spends time with family and friends connecting over games.
“Games are a safe space to engage in,” said Russo. “There are very few real world consequences inside of a game.”
The pre-release tournament’s judge and event organizer, Dan Milavitz, 24, said he met a lot of friends through playing cards and has been coming to Universe Games for over seven years. As the event organizer, Milavitz helps answer questions and foster a respectful space.
“I can come here and play against people who I wouldn’t otherwise know,” said Milavitz. “There are a lot of players who play here regularly. I can show up on a Monday night and I would know most of the people in here.”
Milavitz said pre-release events are more focused on fun rather than competition. During the first match, an older player coached a newbie on proper blocking techniques. In the second round, a player called Milavitz over for clarity on cards in the new deck. As the 45-minute rounds ended, players shook hands and moved to their next match.
“People are never going to get tired of coming and gathering with other people,” said Russo. “That’s part of being a person and I think that’s part of gaming.”