A picture of a squirrel. After seven years of playing the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, this is what my collection of cards amounted to. This 2.5”-by-3.5” picture of a squirrel. It’s not even a very good looking squirrel. It looks like an IKEA painting.
But this particular squirrel—a card that’s considered a “token” in the game, in that it does nothing except stand in for a bead or a little scrap of paper—is worth about six dollars, which is pretty impressive given the sad state of my Magic cards. For the better part of a decade, the cards had been sitting in the closet of my childhood home in the Chicago suburbs. The cards finally arrived in Brooklyn a few weeks ago to be assessed by my friend Joel—who, upon finding out that I used to play Magic, offered his appraisal services up for free. That’s right, folks. In this day and age, willing Magic players will sift through your collection in their own free time and tell you what’s valuable.
When I was a regular Magic player, I meticulously organized my cards into binders. When the time was right, I would collect them in decks crafted from hours of play-testing, mostly against myself. Most were sequestered inside hard plastic cases so they wouldn’t bend in a stray shuffling incident.
Arriving fresh out of my dad’s storage unit, my cards, numbering in the thousands, were now littered throughout a series of castaway shoe boxes. Joel went through every single one, separating out cards that he thought were worth more than a buck, those worth a few more, and those so rare they deserved special treatment.
There were seven cards in that final pile, including Señor Squirrelisimo. When Joel informed me it was worth something, I slid it into a case.
You don’t know humility until you learn that a seven-year-long obsession amounted to seven cards.
You don’t know humility until you learn that a seven-year-long obsession amounted to seven cards. Magic was my life when I was in junior high and high school. My ability to best opponents was not only a feat of skill, it was a triumph of my individualism. My decks were of my own design, and though my peers valued conformity, Magic rewarded the unexpected—the alchemy of two cards in action, as hypothesized by the player. I could be really good at something for a change, and therefore I valued cards that seemed to be an extension of the way my brain was already thinking. They were winners, and only I could see it. They were my Mighty Ducks.
Monetary value was an afterthought. A really good card was usually pricier, sure, just as packs and starter sets cost money. But I was more concerned with building good decks than becoming an obsessive collector. I wasn’t one of those people who was just waiting for the day when a handful of Black Lotuses could cover college tuition. I didn’t have a ton of excess cash, so what little I spent went to making me a badass player—not some reclusive squirrel hoarder.
Still, I played for a really long time. I amassed a hefty number of Icy Manipulators and Jester’s Caps. Those weren’t anything to sneeze at back in the day. Well, gesundheit. As Joel informed me, most of the cards I remembered being pretty rare had been reprinted a half dozen times, and might as well be free. Or, they’re no longer in demand. Living Death was all the rage when people first started manipulating their graveyards. (Trust me, this is a thing people do.) Now that multiple cards have the same effect, it’s merely okay.
Joel continued sorting, and I watched as my stockpile, no longer a source of personal pride, dwindled from a jackpot worth four figures to a modest nest egg worth three—a very low three. It turned out that Wasteland, a card I remember being only relatively rare, had skyrocketed in value; I was theoretically $150 richer for holding on to three of them. That was a good start. Also promising: I had one of the most overpowered cards in the game’s existence, Force Of Will. So powerful, in fact, they’d made proxy versions of it with the golden stamped signature of some long-forgotten champion who used it in his deck. That’s the one I had, the one that’s not tournament legal. Another minor treasure was a novelty two-part card called B.F.M. (Big Furry Monster)—I had both halves, a prize to few. And that damn squirrel token. These were the goodie bag giveaways to the lifelong-collection pity party.
These were the goodie bag giveaways to the lifelong-collection pity party.
There were painfully few cards that caught Joel’s interest, so I sold them to him at a fraction of what they’re probably worth. (Most of what he wanted were land cards, which are the most common type of card in the game, but these particular lands came from an old edition that Joel was fond of.) He left, and I realized I’d secretly hoped he’d taken them all. Without any fallow stacks of cards to look at, there’d be no sinking feeling that something I once loved was no longer important. No break-up memory.
When you’re a kid, your world is only as big as you can see and feel. The perfect birthday present or an unexpected “A” on a geometry test means more than being an adult and winning a Pulitzer. Because those early surprises made the impossible possible, whereas I know now that a Pulitzer exists, and that it’s something I could theoretically have. Part of me longs for that childlike wonder still, and giving up my Magic cards is yet another reminder that I’ll never have it again.
But things are important because they end. The guy who stays a college student forever is a weirdo, and the true test of self-awareness is knowing when to call it quits. I gave up on Magic long before Joel came by. I guess this was the first time I realized it.
Yet there were all my cards, still. Most of them, at least. So I sat down and shuffled through the unwieldy boxes, wondering what to do with those Llanowar Elves that were in my first winning deck. Or my many Goblins Of The Flarg. The box that once housed my Nikes sagged with the weight of games won and lost, friends I’d bonded with complaining about new tournament rules. But mostly the weight of cardboard. Like any break-up, the good times rush back to your mind first. There’s doubt.
Then I got to that damn squirrel. There are only a small handful of cards that require the use of squirrel tokens. One is Deranged Hermit, a witch doctor with an army of squirrels at his disposal. I have no Deranged Hermits. But I still have that squirrel. Maybe somebody wants it.