My recent trip to China has definitely been an interesting cultural experience. While I’m no ethnographer on young people in China like my friend Christina, I want to capture little snippets of a subculture I am familiar with: Magic the Gathering.
Magic has a healthy following in China. Wizards prints a lot of Chinese Magic cards and brands Magic as 万智牌 (wànzhìpái). Even my favorite online Chinese annotator will translate 万智牌 as Magic. 万 means “ten thousand” or “many”, 智 is a combination of “knoweldge”, “widsom” and “intellect”, and 牌 here is “cards”. So Magic is literally a card game of many wits. How cute.
Since I play quite a bit of Magic locally, I wanted spectate a Magic event in China, to see what’s different and what’s cross cultural.
First stop was to find a friendly local game store. Game stores are the heart of local Magic communities, supplying cards and hosting Wizards sanctioned events.
While I’m impressed to find games stores in China listed on Wizard’s official store locator, the website didn’t load for me while I was there, because they use Google Maps. Google services are generally heavily throttled in China, slowed to the point that they’re unusable. (I made the decision to visit a game store last minute while I was in China, so I didn’t have the luxury of researching before my trip).
I found forum posts about game stores on Baidu and listings on a site that hasn’t been updated since 2013, but they didn’t seem reliable. I ended up going on Reddit and meeting an American Magic player living in the local area.
He took me to SGM 桌游俱乐部 (SGM board game club).
SGM is seclusively tucked away behind a shopping center. It is one the third floor of a mixed-use building, where residential apartments neighbor commercial offices, with little transition in between. One door could lead to a doctor’s office while the next could be someone’s home. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a mixed-used building before, but I hear they’re not uncommon in China.
The inside of SGM feels a little like being inside a large apartment that’s chalked full of Magic decor. It’s definitely a smaller game store that can probably seat a maximum of 30 players at a time. My favorite part of the store was the table on the balcony, for those who prefer the outdoors.
SGM is pretty update in terms of the latest Magic products. They give out the latest promo cards at Friday Night Magic events and has all the latest sets. Since Magic is becoming more popular, they’re getting more Chinese cards instead of English ones. Previously, the first Modern Masters sets they got were in English, but the second Modern Masters were all in Chinese.
Unfortunately, due to my crazy schedule (and poor planning), I visited SGM on a quiet night where only a couple of friends were playing. I was a little sad that I didn’t get to talk to the Friday Night Magic crowd, but I had fun playing a couple rounds of EDH Magic. From what I hear, local Magic is highly competitive. I’m not too surprised since, for the young people, they’re brought up in a highly competitive environment focused on the 高考 (gāokǎo), the college entrance exam that’s the sole determinator of which college they’ll attend.
Probably because we were playing with a German expat and a Chinese student, each of the decks we played with had a mix of German, English, and Chinese cards. While it felt natural to have multilingual decks there, I remembered I’ve never seen any non-English cards in a deck here. I was a little sad how monolingual we are in the States.
Overall, it was a really neat trip. Definitely not what I expected, though I’m not sure what I expected. I’m really happy I got to see a local game store in China and of course, always happy to play some Magic. I was really excited to finally play with Olivia Voldaren, which is an absurdly strong card. I sculpted a little token of her a while ago, for exactly EHD games.