Two straight-faced young men sit silently across from one another at a small table in a packed auditorium. Deftly, they shuffle and lay down cards featuring dark, artfully drawn creatures and complicated text. A crowd looks on as two announcers describe the action for Internet viewers using jargon so thick it's practically impossible for the uninitiated to comprehend.
"Voice of Resurgence, Cartel Aristocrat, Blood Artist are the drops that he has, and he decides to lead with the Voice of Resurgence," the play-by-play announcer says.
The color commentator replies, "Yeah, it's interesting that he wants to lead that way, instead of starting with the Cartel Aristocrat to try to bait out a removal spell because his deck doesn't play like a blue-white-red flash deck would."
The event is a recent Magic the Gathering Grand Prix tournament in Miami. It's one of several such contests that happen every year around the world, drawing thousands of people and awarding tens of thousands of dollars in cash prizes.
Many of the tournament players remember when Magic was brand new, the rules less defined, and the most one could hope to win was an opponent's card anted up before a match at their mom's kitchen table.
Today, the now-20-year-old game has spawned a lifestyle. People not only take home sizeable sums of money for doing well in tournaments but also for buying and selling the game's more than 12,000 different cards. With at least 500 new Magic cards introduced annually, rare cards can fetch upwards of $1,000 each, industry professionals say.
In the run up to this year's San Diego Comic-Con, rumors swirl of a collector's-edition five-card "Planeswalker" set available at the Hasbro booth. Whatever that means, card mongers have already posted presales of the set on eBay for more than $380.
At the same time, contest announcers are paid for providing narrated video content to websites. Magic paraphernalia, such as specialized notebooks, have emerged on the scene. And writing strategy articles about the game also brings in some coin.
"The ability to be a pro Magic player is winning in tournaments and getting recognized enough that I can write for magazines and websites," said competitive player Brian Kibler of Oceanside. "To this day, what enables someone to be a pro Magic player is the community around the game."
Available in digital form, Magic the Gathering is played by more than 12 million people in more than 70 countries, according to creator company Wizards of the Coast.
The game's complicated, ever-evolving rules have drawn a dedicated and brainy fan base. But, similar to high-stakes poker, the recent emergence of celebrity players has propelled Magic's popularity.
Kibler is one of 33 players who've been inducted into the Magic Hall of Fame, which was created by Wizards of the Coast in 2005. He's also ninth on the company's all-time-winnings list, having racked up more than $230,000 in tournament play.
"The Magic community has certainly grown," he said. "There are far more people competing. The community is altogether more diverse. There's a lot more female players."
The 32-year-old started playing Magic in 1994, one year after its inception. Like many enthusiasts, during the next 15 years, he traveled the country, playing in tournaments and honing his skills. After a four-year hiatus, in 2009, Kibler returned to the game, partially lured by the challenge of breaking into the emerging cadre of elite players—but also because he embraces the Magic-player identity.
"I love the sense of community," he said. "There's camaraderie and stories to tell. If people aren't there to witness it, it gets lost over time."
As Magic ages, so do its players, and many now share in the pride of passing on the game's traditions and history to the next generation.
"There's a specific texture to the community," said Patrick Sullivan, 31, who freelances as a Magic announcer. "I started in press coverage getting referred to as old-school in my late 20s. As the community's grown and there's new blood, I do feel a sense of ownership."
While professionals cast spells at each other in huge tournaments in places such as Japan and Rome, hobbyists and neophytes compete at local comic book stores. What's become known as "Friday Night Magic" has provided a business opportunity for people such as Jesse Lopez, who owns two card and comic-book stores in Riverside and San Marcos.
"I've been a seller and reseller of Magic cards since before I had a store," the 31-year-old said. "The growth is extreme. It's something that has roots."
Lopez also recently partnered in a company called Signin Blood Life, which sells Magic-themed T-shirts and notebooks. In the company's first three months, sales have done "extremely well," he said.
"People wear our shirts so that when another player sees you, they know you play Magic, but you're not wearing a shirt that has a dorky wizard on it," the merchant and casual Magic player said.
Fueled by the excitement of the Magic community, Kibler has also caught the entrepreneurial spirit. In 2010, he started a company with friends called Stone Blade Entertainment, which makes a fantasy card game called Ascension. His company has recently partnered with Magic creator Richard Garfield to make a digital card game called SolForge. In beta form now, the game is expected to be released this summer.
Innovation is Magic's hallmark. Not only do players choose from hundreds of cards to assemble a uniquely personal deck, but, also, new cards and rules constantly shift the dynamics of the game. It's this sense of possibility and imagination that's kept the game fresh, Kibler said.
"The thing about Magic is that the game is constantly changing and challenging me in new ways."