by Max Leighton
For Whitehorse gamers, the Friday night Magic card tournament at Titan Gaming & Collectibles is an institution, a chance to meet and test their skills against the best in the city for a modest store credit. Think old-timers hockey, but for the guys from your former high school’s AV club.
“The people who come out to these events are pretty social,” says Shawn Underhill, Titan’s co-owner. “It’s not like they are sitting home alone in their mom’s basement.”
Titan does, however, have several qualities of mom’s basement. Located in a lower level of the Hougen Centre on Main Street, Titan has the most comics, graphic novels and collectables in northern Canada; a dimly lit computer room; and more images of dragons and swords than a prog-rock album cover.
It also smells faintly of pizza pops, owing to an onsite kitchen, which boasts an impressive selection of fried goods.
“There’s nothing really like us,” says Underhill. “Even down south, I’ve never ran into a place as badass as we are.”
Titan is home base for fans of a number of card, role-playing and computer games but nothing holds sway over the local gamer’s imagination like Magic cards.
The game, officially titled “Magic: The Gathering,” was released in 1993, by American games publisher Wizards of the Coast. In the last two decades it has gained immense global popularity with an impressive aftermarket for collectable cards, and even a pro-tour, where professional Magic players can earn as much as $40,000 per tournament.
“It’s like chess to another level,” says Kincaid Murray, a 32-year-old, who’s been playing since 1998. “It’s about trying to figure out what your chances are and to analyze your opponent’s strategy. A good game of Magic is just like trying to put a puzzle together, and there’s a nearly unlimited number of strategies you can use.”
Frank Molund is the patient zero of the Whitehorse Magic scene. Twenty years ago he brought the rules home with him while on holiday from the University of Victoria, spreading the game to a core group, including Underhill.
“At the time we didn’t know how big it would be,” he says.
In the early days it was just six guys playing Magic at the former Wizard’s Emporium. Soon they were competing in Anchorage, where in 1995 they took all four of the top spots in the regional championship.
That year the whole team got sick from a bad breakfast at Denny’s and was forced to drive the whole way to Whitehorse in a blizzard. That tournament is still a source of enormous pride for Underhill.
“We used to really kick ass on those Americans,” he says, grinning.
The Alaskans improved after importing a former U.S. military intelligence officer to act as the local coach and tournament judge.
Yukon gamers still play Outside. Titan will be sending a group of five down to Los Vegas to compete in June.
“The friends I made 20 years ago are the same ones I am going out and doing this with now,” says Underhill.
Many younger gamers continue to come to Magic through Titan’s in-house Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon tournaments.
“We try to groom the kids from Pokémon up to be good winners and good losers,” says Underhill. “You want to have a good, positive community.”
Victoria Pumphrey is a 21-year-old Magic convert and one of few female regulars at the weekly event.
The comic book world is rife with highly sexualized female characters. Women often report harassment and pressure to prove their interest in comics to their male counterparts. That same mentality, when combined with the anonymity of online gaming, can be a threatening environment for female video gamers.
“I don’t play a lot of videogames partially because of that reason,” says Pumphrey. “I go and try to play and people don’t want to play with me — it’s really juvenile.”
Pumphrey says she feels comfortable at Titan — plus she’s good enough to keep most of the guys quiet.
“For the most part it’s a nice environment here and people are really friendly,” she says.
Pumphrey’s even started bringing her 19-year-old sister Maija along to the weekly tournaments.
“I think things are looking good for the future,” says Underhill. “I think we’ll be in a good place for sure, especially with the next waves of players coming in.”
Underhill hopes to be a part of the scene for many years to come.
“This is something that I love, so hopefully we’ll be at it for decades and decades,” he says. “Two decades so far, so I’ve got to keep it going.”