Some time around 2003, thanks to a couple of friends at my school, I got into a little known card game called Magic: The Gathering. I was thirteen, and anything I had to spend on cards was squirrelled away by not using all of my lunch money, but I was able to buy occasional packs at my local Ottakar’s bookshop (rest in peace).
This was a hobby that at the time was mostly driven by wanting to share a common interest with friends, but after picking up a couple of eighth edition theme decks, I was able to get my brothers in on it too. We convinced our parents to get us more packs here and there, but we ultimately made do with the cards we had.
The set that really hooked me came in 2004 with the release of Champions of Kamigawa, because it merged card games with another interest I had at the time – Japan. This was before I knew what an anime was, but me and my nerd friends would regularly chat about foreign cartoons like Dragon Ball Z and Tenchi Muyo.
Champions of Kamigawa would be the first pre-release I attended, after begging my parents to let me go. I did very poorly, only winning a single match out of the six or so I played that day, but I got to smack people around with samurais, spirits and snake people, and that meant I had a good time.
Magic: The Gathering would remain a hobby of mine even after I left mandatory education and went to college, but it became something to do occasionally around schoolwork and my part-time job. After I left home for university in 2008, my collection of cards remained at home at the back of a wardrobe to collect dust.
We skip ahead to 2020, specifically the first UK lockdown at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. I’d heard about a Magic format called Commander that lets you use one copy of basically any card ever printed in giant 100-card decks, so I was rooting through my old collection hoping to throw something together.
This would mark my re-introduction to the game, but it wouldn’t be until the beginning of this year where it’d become (relatively) safe enough to attend another in-person pre-release, just like I’d done eighteen years ago. It also wasn’t a pre-release for any old set, but specifically for the long-awaited sequel to the Kamigawa sets that I played as a teen. Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty was a return to the Japan-inspired plane of spirits and samurai, but this time with a cyberpunk twist as the story picks up over two thousand years later than our previous visit. I can tell you with utmost confidence that smacking someone with cyberpunk samurai, spirits and snake people felt pretty good too.
There’s a bit more to this whole collision of hobbies thing than just ‘the card game I like did another Japan set’, however. In fact, the largest reason I’ve not watched any Japanese dramas this year, and why you’re getting this weird, meandering story about trading cards instead, is because I got back into reading manga.
As part of preparing for an upcoming house move, I rediscovered my worryingly large collection of physical manga. Very much a remnant of my time in university, and something that I still need to shift before loading my worldly possessions into the back of a van. However, while I have no interest in owning physical books any more, it did push me to check out some digital manga.
After catching up on the latest two volumes of Yotsuba, and reading everything available for ‘new’ manga like Spy x Family and Chainsaw Man, I found myself looking around for other things to read. Among the scanlated manga series’ I was looking at was something called Destroy all humankind. They can’t be regenerated.. It’s a manga with a name that might sound familiar to you if you’ve played Magic before.
I will admit that, despite the title, the last thing I was expecting was for it to actually be a manga about Magic: The Gathering, not least an official one. But what makes this really interesting is that it isn’t some tie-in story to help sell the latest set, but rather a realistic retelling of what the Japanese MTG scene looked like in 1998.
It’s not as dry as that, of course. Funnily enough this is a romcom, with fictional characters in a love triangle, misunderstandings based on things people have overheard, and all the other romance tropes you could possibly hope for. All of this surrounds tabletop Magic games in a style similar to the Yu-Gi-Oh TV series, with plenty of card names being yelled out and characters reacting physically to losing life points.
As a Magic fan, it’s really interesting to learn more about the meta decks of the time – how they changed with each new set release and when cards were banned, as well as the interactions and combos of the time. Heck, some of these don’t actually work now, as the fundamental rules of the game have changed (see: damage on the stack). Plus there’s the insight you get on how people were enjoyed a niche card game back in ‘98, from an author who was clearly part of the scene at the time.
One of my favourite scenes in the manga is when it covers the release of Unglued, a joke set that was only released in English. Apparently this set was still released in Japan, which leads to a pre-release that’s wacky not just because of the set itself, but because the players are having to best-guess their way around the card mechanics.
But on top of this, it provides a fascinating snippet on Japanese life in the late nineties, at least to someone like me who knows next to nothing about it. The manga is packed full of translator notes (big thanks to Fallen Angels and Maou Scans!) that don’t just touch on Magic terminology, but also music and TV show references of the era. While the card game stuff is the main draw here, there might also be something in it for folks who want to see what it was like to be a nerd in late nineties Japan.
It’s a shame that there’s no official route for reading this in English, but I highly recommend checking out the scans if you’re interested. Nonetheless, I do own every Japanese volume of the manga despite literally trying to shift my physical manga collection. In case you’re wondering how that happened, it’s because they come with promo cards and I simply can’t help myself.
Anyway, this is what happens when I don’t get around to watching Japanese dramas in time for the end of year blogs. I don’t know if this’ll be at all interesting to anyone, but hopefully this thinly veiled cry for help from my wallet will at least bemuse you. Merry Christmas!
A big thanks to Fallen Angels and Maou Scans for their hard work, and their subsequent damage to my finances.