EDITOR’S NOTE: Everyone seems to collect something, from beer cans to salt and pepper shakers. Today, in the first of a three-part series, we look at card collecting. Monday, it’s stamp collecting. Tuesday, it's coins.
Ken Russ knows the mystery of the Black Carriage.
He understands the power of the Dazzling Beauty, the strength of the Raging Goblin.
For some, the Rainbow Crow, Opal Avenger and Tainted Specter are just fiction on cardboard. For Russ, the Phantom Tiger, Goldmeadow Dodger and other imaginative creatures are pure Magic.
The 29-year-old Colonie resident has been collecting cards that admit fantasy fans into the mystical world of “Magic: The Gathering” since its introduction in 1993. Players buy the cards, and enter a world where wizards, spells and fantastic creatures hold sway.
Some collectors aren’t as dramatic. They prefer cards illustrated with hearts and spades, kings and queens. Or appreciate sports cards that feature Tigers and Dodgers with less ethereal origins.
Russ, who manages the Friendly’s restaurant on Altamont Avenue in Schenectady, has been a magician since the beginning. He was 13 when he first heard about the game, but was not immediately hooked. A friend’s aunt reviewed new products for a magazine, and asked if the two boys were interested in the bonanza of “Magic” cards she had received.
The guys were not impressed with the battling wizards and opted for basketball instead.
“Six months later, we saw them in a bookstore at Crossgates, and I said, ‘This is the thing your aunt was talking about, let’s buy it,’ ” Russ said. “We’ve been playing pretty much ever since. The cards his aunt offered us for free are like $400 apiece now.”
The basketball careers never worked out, so Russ can smile about the missed start-up investment from his youth. He’s made up for early losses, and has about 56,000 “Magic” cards packed into 50 boxes and binders.
While some collectors lose interest in cards or comic books during high school, he has never lost the wizard’s way.
“They keep the game interesting,” he said. “Every time they come up with something new, it’s like, ‘Yeah, this is still good.’ ”
He will be at his card store, Flights of Fantasy on Sand Creek Road in Colonie, this month to watch his money magically disappear — the latest “Magic” addition, “Magic 2010,” was released on July 17. He doesn’t mind the expense: each 16-card pack of “Magic” costs $3.50, and it’s $100 for a full boxed set. He’s spent about $15,000 on his entire collection.
“There are different reasons to collect each card,” he said. “There are cards you collect because they’re good to play with, cards you collect because they’re just cool cards. Some of the dragons aren’t really useful in a game, but you sort of like to have them.”
He doesn’t use the cards the way he used to. There are no more road trips.
“I don’t go to tournaments,” he said. “There’s nothing more embarrassing than getting your ass kicked by a 12-year-old.”
And the collection can be considered an investment. Like stamp, coin and book collectors, Russ can always sell valuable cards if he needs capital for other purposes.
He never gets any persuasion from family and friends that want him to move away from collecting. “My fiancée [Jessica Tesoriero] plays, both my brothers play, friends play,” he said.
“I think everybody collects something,” he added. “Whether it’s DVD movies, TV shows they follow, different things.”
Deborah Dunbar’s different thing is jokers and jacks. She collects playing cards and has about 350 decks in hand.
“My late father liked to play cards. I remember many fun afternoons as a child playing Crazy Eights, Go Fish and War with him,” said Dunbar, who lives in Stillwater. “Then I would play cards with the neighborhood kids, teaching them the games my dad taught to me.”
Later, she noticed novelty decks offered in Christmas catalogs. She began receiving playing cards as presents under the Christmas tree.
Fantasy and baseball card fans can easily indulge at card shops. Dunbar has to look around for queens and kings in strange cuts and sizes.
“I am a garage sale enthusiast,” she said. “I have found many of the decks in my collection at garage, tag, estate sales, auctions and thrift shops.”
Her favorite cards are the ones that have fun pictures on the back. “Like landscapes, animals and advertising,” she said. “Also the novelty decks like the largest deck, 5-by-7 cards and the smallest deck, five-eighths of an inch by 1 inch. Try shuffling. And oddly-shaped decks and the deck where the suit colors are reversed — spades and clubs are red, hearts and diamonds are black.”
Like Russ’s assorted goblins and avengers, Dunbar’s cards are functional. She just needs someone to play with.
“With so many online gaming sites,” she said, “it’s becoming more difficult to find an actual person to play a game of cards. I do like gin rummy, Hearts, Crazy Eights, and I’m a self-taught bridge player.”
Out of the lineup
Baseball cards have always been the kings of the sports cards. “It’s not just the cards,” said Bill Hodges, who runs Bill’s Card Shaq in Waterford. “People want what they had as a kid.”
He said baseball cards were the top kid collectible during the 1950s and 1960s. But adolescent tastes changed, and slot car racing tracks and Hot Wheels miniatures boomed during the 1970s. Transformers, the toy vehicles-robots now popular at the movies, were a 1980s fad. Video games and computers boomed in the 1990s, and are still booming.
“The kids today don’t want baseball cards, all of them are into video games and computers,” Hodges said. “I have four kids of my own and they don’t want anything to do with sports cards. Kids are buying video games.”
People who have kept their baseball cards will dump them on eBay, the online auction house. Others will keep them close to their hearts, and close to their homes.
“It’s still America’s pastime,” Hodges said. “Most males have played baseball at one time in their lives; most of us weren’t any good at it. The kid inside us still wants to be good at playing baseball.”
Russ expects to expand the interest in his “Magic” hobby as he expands his family. He and Tesoriero have two sons, 2-year-old Jordan and newborn James.
Jordan is already a “Magic” novice.
“He’ll see me playing with the cards and he’ll demand some,” Russ said. “I have to protect the rare ones, give him the common ones that have basic animals on them like snakes, birds and tigers. He’ll hold them up and say, ‘This is a bird.’ Once he learns how to read, I’m sure he’ll eventually play the game.”
That means Russ will keep buying.
“I see myself maybe stepping back from it someday, but one of the benefits, even if I stop buying cards — even if I don’t have 10 years of new cards, I’ll still have the old ones — and I’ll still be able to play as well as I can now.”