DUBAI // The small function room may not look much like a battlefield. But here, with the Burj Khalifa towering just outside the window, an epic clash is unfolding for control of the mystical multiverse of Dominia.
A score of mighty sorcerers summon enchantments and wage war with fearsome beasts. Their aim: to vanquish their opponents in the fantasy role-playing card game Magic: The Gathering. Among the men locked in battle are JR Egalla, a 29-year-old Filipino architect, and Olivier Gheysen, one of the organisers of the event. "We're both wizards in this tournament," says Mr Egalla. "We're casting creatures and sorceries, which are spells."
At their disposal are cards featuring hand-painted depictions of forces such as Lava Axe, Gargoyle Sentinel and Sylvan Ranger. Sitting eye-to-eye, players take turns introducing ever more powerful cards to drain their foes' "life" points. "Think about these as your resources," says Mr Gheysen, holding up his carefully constructed deck. "These will help you destroy your opponent. We both have 20 lives, and you want to get the other guy to zero."
Rarer cards pack a bigger punch, he says, but must be played wisely. The Belgian, who works in Dubai selling hobby games, began playing Magic in 1993, shortly after its debut in the US. An estimated six million people now play in 52 countries. As "Wizards of the Gulf Coast", he and two Dubai businessmen organise Magic matches in the UAE. The Wizards have around 70 registered members, though a typical 12-hour Friday night session draws 20 players. Tournament results are compiled into a regional ladder.
The players have had their problems, however. Tournaments at a local hotel ceased for several weeks earlier this summer after police suspected them of gambling, even though no money or cards are ever traded. "They saw cards; they saw dice," says Mr Gheysen. He and his lawyer met representatives of Dubai's Department of Tourism to persuade them to let the events continue, which they did only a couple of weekends ago.
Some players are willing to travel great distances to compete. Jiri Vysbejn, a Czech engineer, lives in Qatar, but flew over to Dubai for this tournament, so eager was he to try his hand with a newly released set of cards. "It's a one-hour flight for me just to play," he says. "The whole journey back and forth is worth it. I always welcome any opportunity to play and there's not much to do in Qatar."
The game can be fiercely competitive, with players sometimes ripping cards in half, exchanging harsh words and even storming out in fury. "We used to have another UAE national besides me, but he stopped playing," says Omar Sharif, a 28-year-old Emirati who works for the Dubai Water and Electricity Authority. "He talked too much. A lot of players talk smack. There are people who hate losing. They'll slam the deck or start swearing in a foreign language. We used to have a player who would throw his cards in the air."
Trevor Van Cleave, a 38-year-old project developer for Emaar Properties, says the element of chance can be frustrating. "You could be the most tactical person, a Mensa member, a complete genius knowing every card, but that one element of luck can just break all the strategy," he says. He estimates he has sunk "hundreds of thousands of dollars" into his collection. "The most valuable one I own is 'Time Lock', a sorcery that allows you to take an additional turn. That's it. That's all it says." The card is listed online for as much as US$799 (Dh2,900).
Magic is not a passion one immediately broadcasts to women, says Nadim Nehme, 30 and from Lebanon. "If you're going to go for the stereotype, though, I mean we're not all geeks. We've had players who play with their spouses or partners. I play with my girlfriend," he says. "But yeah, we've lost a lot of good players to girlfriends." Amateurs curious about the game can borrow a starter pack from Wizards of the Gulf Coast to play with. For more information on local tournaments, visit www.wizardsofthegulfcoast.com.