Magic in Motion

Posted in Feature on July 26, 2010

By Kelly Digges

Kelly Digges has had many roles at Wizards over the years, including creative text writer, R&D editor, website copyeditor, lead website editor, Serious Fun column author, and design/development team member on multiple sets.

It's a familiar scene: you settle into your seat, get comfortable, lean your head against the glass, and watch as the landscape drops silently away or rolls serenely past your window. You sigh, surrendering to the inexorable illogic of stationary motion, and one thought suffuses your being as you sink drowsily into a book or a nap:


In the movies and on TV, these long stretches of nothing in particular are glossed over with montages—train wheels rolling, planes taking off, landscapes rolling by beneath or beside the protagonists. In a movie, getting from New York to Amsterdam takes the same amount of time as getting from home to work: you travel at the speed of plot.

You also never run out of bullets, never have to go to the bathroom, and always get the girl. Must be nice.

In real life, getting from New York to Amsterdam by plane takes eight or ten hours. Getting from, say, Seattle to San Francisco by car or train takes even longer. Despite all the miracles of modern technology, the world is still an inconveniently large place.

If you're lucky, though, you might find yourself traveling with a fellow Magic player—or several, if you're even luckier. This is most likely to happen when you're traveling to or from a Magic event with friends—something I heartily recommend—but if your friends and family play, it can come up on any trip, and that opens up the happy possibility of playing Magic on the move.

Whether en route to Pro Tours and Prereleases, riding the train down to Portland with my fiancée, or even just setting up shop for a quick draft in a café or hotel lobby, I've played more than my fair share of Magic outside the comfy confines of the kitchen table or the local game store. Over the course of my travels, I've accumulated a short list of tips and tricks to help out the Magic player on the go.

A word of warning: When you read many of these tips, you will scoff. Some of them will seem as trivially obvious, as needlessly precautionary, as the preflight admonition to turn off that deadly handheld of yours, or the reminder that, after 20-odd years, yes, smoking on the plane is still banned.

Go ahead and scoff.

But don't say I didn't warn you.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (and Restaurants & Cafés & Hotels ...)

Many of the things you have to take into account when traveling Magic-style depend on where you'll be playing.

On a plane ride, the most important consideration is sitting next to your fellow player(s). Trust me, you don't want to try passing draft packs between the seat gaps, and playing that way is pretty much impossible. Book early to get group seating, and double-check at the gate.

In the car, the toughest thing is finding a flat surface. RPG books and boardgame boxes work great for this, which I guess tells you everything you need to know about the people I travel with. Also: Don't let the driver play. Just ... don't.

Taking the train on intercity trips isn't too common in the U.S., but I personally love it—you get that sense of actually moving through a place that you don't get on a plane, but you can lay back and relax in a way that you can't in a car. If you book early, you have a lot of control over where you sit, and many trains even have sets of seats that face each other—perfect for playing Magic. Sometimes you'll have to run the RPG book / laptop / other-flat-thing in the lap plan, but often there will be a tray or even a full table between facing seats, and failing that, there's always (well, usually) the dining car.

If you're playing Magic on a boat, you're probably on the Magic cruise, in which case I think you'll do fine without my advice.

A lot of these tips will translate equally well to packing up your cards and playing at your local restaurant, café, food court, pub, or saloon.

Check Your Baggage

Before you ever set foot in your conveyance of choice, you'll want to make sure you've got everything you need.

First and foremost, you can't play Magic if you don't have any Magic. If you're playing with Constructed decks, you'll need to bring at least one deck per person. Magic cards are surprisingly heavy—as you know if you've ever tried to have them shipped—so you don't want to bring every deck you own. I usually pack five decks when I travel, so I've got some options and I can loan out decks as needed.

Whether you're bringing Constructed decks, Limited packs, or both, you want to make sure all of it is somewhere you can easily get at it. Your cards do you no good if they're locked away in the trunk, sitting in your checked baggage, or stuck in an overhead bin while the seatbelt light is on.

Bring the Basics

If you're playing Draft or Sealed Deck, you'll need to bring enough packs for everyone, and—I cannot stress this enough—you need to bring basic lands.

"Of course!" you say. "That's, well, basic. Who could forget that?"

You. Me. Everyone. Anyone. Lands are so basic that it's easy to take them for granted, and there are few things sadder in Limited Magic than watching an entire eight-person draft lose to mana screw. There are workarounds, such as using unplayed cards of other colors to represent basic lands, but they're not pretty.

Bring land. Bring lots of land. Be that person who always brings land. Bring land!

Watch for Dice

In addition to the bare minimum requirements for play, you're going to need some way to represent counters, tokens, and life totals. But don't just assume you should use the same methods you'd use at home. They take up space in your luggage, and have other problems besides.

Dice are an old standby, but they're actually pretty bad travelers. Planning to roll them to see who goes first? They're surprisingly loud in, say, a nice quiet café, and they're way too easy to accidentally toss into some inaccessible corner. Keeping track of life totals with them? Better hope you don't hit any turbulence. Using them for counters? Not bad, but for counter-heavy play (like Zendikar), you're probably going to run out.

Beads are a little better than dice, but still not great. They don't represent life totals well at all. They are equally susceptible to being knocked about, although at least most of them are cheap enough that losing one isn't a big deal. Wow, though, you do not want to spill your cup o' beads on your way out of your seat.

If beads and dice aren't so hot, what options remain for the Magic traveler's counter, token, and life-tracking needs? A lot of people just keep track in their heads, but I really, really like to have physical tracking, especially with the distraction and weariness that so often accompany travel.

Many tournament players are already in the (very good) habit of keeping track of life totals with a pen and a pad of paper, and that habit will serve well here—provided, of course, that you actually remember to bring a pen and a pad of paper.

The roughest, dirtiest methods I've seen use the cards themselves. Unlike in a tournament, you can use face-down cards from another deck as tokens. I see people just toss the tokens and tip cards from packs, but they're great—you can use them if you've got the right ones, and flip 'em over if you don't. I've also seen people tear up tip cards and even unloved commons to use as counters in a pinch.

As it turns out, you've probably already got a fine set of counters on your person in the form of loose change. Coins are great to use as counters, and make adequate tokens if you don't mind the tapped/untapped status being a little unclear. I've even seen people use coins of appropriate denominations to track their life total.

One word of caution about using coins: Folks in places with strict gambling laws may get antsy when they see money on the table, and can easily conclude that the money is changing hands. It sounds a little silly, but some fellow coverage reporters and I got booted out of a hotel bar in Paris for exactly this reason, and we've had to explain and even put the coins away on other occasions.

The Life You Track May Be Your Own

My usual method of tracking life when playing Limited is to use cards from my sideboard, a habit learned from many after-hours coverage drafts. People do it different ways, but generally they'll assign one orientation to represent 1 life and another to represent 5 (and, occasionally, a third orientation to represent 10). In my system, 17 life would look like so:

This method works best when you've got a little space; it's not so good for airplanes.

My fiancée and I actually have a small deck box with a bunch of tokens in it from the latest set, another box with fifteen of each basic land, and a third box filled with beads and dice, which are fine for us because we most often play in restaurants. Those three boxes plus seven packs for two-person Winston drafting fit nicely in a fat pack box, which is a convenient bundle to tuck under one arm or stick inside her (absurdly large) purse. Just be careful the bottom doesn't fall out; I usually hold it upside down.

Keep Security in Mind

One last word of warning about packing your cards: I've never experienced it personally, but I've spoken with people who have been pulled out of the security line because they threw a booster box and their cell phone charger into a backpack ... in other words, a bunch of small, tightly packed metallic-skinned objects and a bundle of wires. That would be pretty easy to sort out—you'll even find that there are plenty of security guards and border agents who play Magic!—but still, if you can avoid that particular configuration, you probably should.

Be Considerate to Your Fellow Travelers

It's trite, but it's true: When you play in public, you represent our hobby to the world. Less idealistically, if you annoy the other paying customers around you, odds are good you'll be asked to stop.

Keep it quiet. Rolling dice is loud, as I said. Shuffling is loud, much louder to the people around you than that it sounds while you're doing it. Heck, if we're being perfectly honest, Magic players themselves are often pretty loud. Just remember, this isn't the tournament hall.

Don't outstay your welcome. This applies particularly to setting up in restaurants and cafés. Remember, you're there on their sufferance—in addition to keeping it quiet, try not to take up too much space, keep aware of when the place closes, and maybe order another dessert every once in a while. I doubt you'll have any trouble finding someone to eat it.

Be prepared to draw attention. When you play Magic in public, as you've probably experienced, it's pretty common to get questions from confused passersby about what you're doing. Attendants and waitstaff are particularly likely to ask, because, frankly, you're a lot more interesting than their average customer. You may or may not have the interest that I do (both personal and professional, in my case) in teaching others about Magic, but whether you welcome it or not, you will have to deal with it somehow.

It's also quite common to get happy cries of recognition from other current or former Magic players. Be nice to them—you never know when you might make a new friend (or at least round out your draft pod).

Stick With Your Buddy

You may find yourself traveling with anywhere from one other player to a whole draft pod (or even, as has been the case on the way back from some of the more remote Pro Tours, multiple draft pods). In most travel situations, group games—as much as I enjoy them—are not really an option. If you've got a good-sized table handy, say on a train or in a hotel lobby, great. But in a car? On a plane? Not so much. That means you're probably going to be pairing off. My Constructed format of choice, EDH, is geared toward group games, but I've had plenty of great EDH duels, so that's no problem.

If Limited is your plan, things may be trickier. If you have at least four people sitting close enough together to draft, you're in good shape. You can switch seats as necessary to get different match-ups in.

If you're traveling with just one other person, you might think draft is out. Not so! Easily my most frequent way of playing Magic these days is two-player Winston draft, although rather than the six boosters as recommended in that link, I like to use seven, for a little more flexibility and deck power.

Winston Draft has proven my most valuable tool for Magic on the move—just grab the "Winston box" and go. Winston Draft is flexible; you can use seven packs of the latest set, a full-block experience like 3 Time Spiral / 2 Planar Chaos / 2 Future Sight, or a custom concoction like 2 Zendikar / 2 Worldwake / 3 Rise of the Eldrazi (which works better than you might expect). And although you might worry about busting seven packs to play one match, I've found it highly enjoyable to run the same two Winston decks against each other best three out of five or even five out of seven (or, most often, best I-think-you-won-more-than-I-did out of as-long-as-it-takes-for-us-to-get-bored).

Thank You for Flying With Us

So there's my brief checklist for playing Magic on the go. As I said, a lot of it seems obvious when you read it, but this is the accumulated knowledge of dozens of hours spent playing Magic in all sorts of weird places, and nearly everything in this article is based on some minor disaster or near miss I've experienced, seen, or heard about.

If you've got other tips, tricks, or anecdotes about travel and Magic, by all means, head to the forums and fire away!

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