Magic’s early days saw it spread out through Europe like wildfire. While in America hobby shops were the main vehicle for introducing the game to new fans, there were fewer such stores across the pond. Many of the earliest North European players have fond memory of playing Magic in… pubs! Drinking beer is allowed from a much younger age in places like Belgium and Ireland, and so players would get together over a pint and play for hours.
For many of the younger players in the early days of Magic the game had a very nice side benefit of helping them improve their English. I’ve met players who started playing the game when they spoke virtually no English at all, but were interested enough that they would memorize what the cards do and pore over a dictionary when a new set would come out.
It wasn’t until a few years later that Magic cards were released in a number of languages. Over a period of 1995-98 Magic cards became available in over a dozen languages. Most of the European languages were followed by translations into Japanese, Chinese and Korean. After a few expansions, Wizards stopped printing Korean cards (it is the only language to date in which Magic cards have been discontinued). No new languages have been added either. For a long time there has been talk of translating Magic into my native Russian, but unfortunately this project never ended up going through.
Outside of United States, Magic found its biggest fan base in the land of the rising sun. Japanese fans took to Magic quickly and with incredible levels of interest. Older cards were highly prized among Japanese players. Their first exposure to the Pro Tour was when the World Championships were held in Yokohama in 1998. At the time, dual lands in Japan were selling for approximately $30 (they were worth just over $10 in United States at the time). Other older cards were just as overvalued.
Just as the success of Magic inspired a wave of imitators in America, Japan saw dozens of collectible card games – most blatant rip-offs of Magic – flood the market over the next few years after it initially showed up. Among them was immensely popular Pokemon. It targeted a younger demographic than Magic and used an ingenious multi-format campaign, essentially marketing the game through the TV cartoon, comic books and video games. Wizards of the Coast eventually brought this game to United States and it became the first TCG ever to outsell Magic. This was especially important because it introduced many younger kids into the hobby of playing games. A healthy percentage of them graduated from Pokemon to Magic as they grew older. Even today, Japan is Magic’s second largest market – that is why the Asian Pro Tour always takes place in that country.
Play groups around the world have developed different customs some of which have survived to make the mark even on high level tournament play. For example, it is customary in Asia to lay out the sideboard cards (face down, of course) in between games, to show that there are exactly fifteen cards there. Another useful custom I picked up while traveling to play Magic (though I no longer remember where I first saw players do this) was to lay down and count the seven cards at the beginning of the game before taking them into my hand. This not only proves to an opponent that you are not drawing any extra cards, but also prevents a relatively common mistake of accidentally drawing an extra card – something that can be penalized as harshly as a game loss in a tournament.
I have been very fortunate in that I’ve had the opportunity to play Magic on five continents and in over twenty five countries over the course of four years playing Magic professionally. I’ve had many great experiences meeting players and making new friends in places like Australia, South Africa and Japan. If I had to choose though, my favorite place to visit must have been Brazil. Nowhere were the people I met more friendly and open. Although I no longer travel to tournaments nearly as much as I used to, the memory and experiences of these trips are something I will never forget.
When all is said and done, no matter how many minor differences you might find, you will realize that Magic players around the world are essentially the same in all the ways that count. Like any good hobby, Magic is great at bringing people from different cultures and walks of life together. You do not need to speak the same language or share similar backgrounds to enjoy the game together.