Wizard zaps a geeky stereotype Game: 'Magic' national champion excels at just being a regular, well-adjusted teen-ager.

August 12, 1998|By Young Chang | Young Chang,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

As the new U.S. National Champion of the almost absurdly popular role-playing card game "Magic: The Gathering," Matt Linde has clearly earned the right to be called "wizard," a title favored among the game's 5 million or so players.

But Linde, 17, doesn't exactly conjure up the "wizard" stereotype: the obsessed player who spends all his time and money at the game shop or bunkered in his room sharpening his skills at manipulating fantasy creatures, settings, even spells. No, the Damascus youth seems like, of all things, a normal, even well-adjusted teen-ager. Even his mom isn't worried about him.

Joan Linde is "fine" with her son being Magic's U.S. champion. Matt doesn't play much during school, and he's not "obsessed with the game," she says.

"There's always a potential for something [like this] to get to be obsessive or cultish," Joan Linde says. "I have had reservations only in that I have seen some of the cards ... the cards can look kinda scary ... but he's not misusing or abusing it."

Or even getting very excited by it. Ask him about the fact he just won a national title, and he answers in a monotone of "yups" and "nopes" and "kindas." He doesn't sound like someone who's just won $25,000, or someone nervous about heading to the Magic: The Gathering World Championship today in Seattle.

Through Sunday, Matt and three other U.S. National Team members will compete against Magic players from more than 40 countries at the University of Washington. They'll play for world rankings -- and $250,000 in cash prizes.

As unimpressed as Matt might seem at his success at Magic, his friends and relations are surprised.

Joan Linde says she knew her son was good, but not "this good." Neither did Matt's good friend and classmate, Neel Gulhar.

"I guess everyone who found out ... was pretty much really surprised," he says.

Partly that's because Matt is not the type to boast about his skills to anyone, even a close friend. Partly it's because he's not the stereotypical computer-nerd player usually associated with the game.

Sure, he carries a perfect 4.0 grade-point average, and is a member of the Damascus High School National Honor Society, but you could, as Neel does, also describe him as "goofy."

"Sometimes he'll just act really crazy," says Neel. "He'll start reciting quotes from 'Saturday Night Live' ... or we'll be in math class and he'll just start laughing for apparently no reason."

You could also call Matt an athlete. He's a member of the high school tennis team, plays in recreational basketball leagues, and almost tried out for the school golf team.

If there's anything about Matt where "the [nerd] stereotype definitely applies to him," Neel says, it's his ability in things mathematic.

"He's a genius when it comes to the technical stuff," his buddy says. "You could call him a nerd."

That may help explain his proficiency at Magic.

Magic, produced by Wizards of the Coast Inc., also the maker of the more infamous Dungeons and Dragons game, is not your average board game. Described as the the world's best-selling trading card game, with more than 5 million players around the world, it is an intellectual game created by a math professor, Richard Garfield. Often compared to chess, Magic requires skill, practice and higher-level thinking.

When played at the highest levels, it is something that's "like way beyond" him, Neel admits. It seemed like everyone was playing the game about three years ago, he says. But Matt kept with it, "and obviously it paid off."

"Most of my friends at school don't play," Matt admits. But a few that did first sparked his interest about 2 1/2 years ago, and soon Matt began playing regular weekly games at Dream Wizards Games, an eclectic game and book store in Rockville, where "everyone was playing and trading."

The game requires serious players to purchase new cards as they are manufactured every four to five months; Matt owns about 2,000.

"He's a really -- how can I put it? -- he gets into the game a lot. He's really intense," says Sean Clark of Dream Wizards. "He has a very distinct personality."

That intensity likely helped Matt at the national championships held in Ohio last month, where he had to play Mike Long, whom many consider the game's best player. Though he won, Matt admits he didn't expect to. But now, having also played in three Magic "pro tours" in Chicago and New York, Matt says he considers himself a professional who is playing to compete, not just for fun.

As a result, his aim now is to make it into the ranks of the top 32 competitors in the world.

"He's pretty good," says friend and competitor Kyle Rose of Chester, Va., who's also going to the world championships. "I think he'll probably make top 32."

But for all Matt's intensity and diligence when it comes to Magic, his mom says she thinks he's "handled it really well" while also juggling school, sports and his involvement in Students Against Drunk Driving.

The soon-to-be high school senior is also thinking beyond his current run of Magic fortune. He hopes to attend either Northwestern University or the University of Illinois and major in engineering -- "or some form of it" -- and hopefully have "some sort of physics career."

Maybe because he finds the same kind of challenge in those complex fields as he does in Magic: The Gathering?

Nope. He just doesn't "really want to do anything with English or history."

Pub Date: 8/12/98

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