Magic the Gathering
Club at CBC St John’s in Parklands

The following is a conversation with John Fourie, a teacher at CBC St. John’s in Parklands. He is in charge of the Magic: the Gathering club hosted at the school.

Why would you start a Magic the Gathering Club at a school?

Besides the educational aspects like teaching maths, language, and good sportsmanship it gives a space to kids where they can come in and healthily interact with each other. Whereas the way that the world is going, currently, people are staying trapped indoors, not going out, and not interacting with other people in the same way, post-COVID. So a lot of what I’m trying to do here is to encourage healthy interaction and ensure that we can have good sportsmanship amongst our kids as well.

How did you make a card game an official cultural activity within the school?

It was a bit of a process initially. I had floated the idea back in 2016 when I joined the school, and it was only in 2018, that it got accepted. Because from 2017 to 2018 we’ve had a massive rise in gamification in the school classroom. In this process of gamification, we’re trying to make things fun, we’re trying to ensure that the students can connect with information in a fun way to then take it in. I pose to our administration, all the benefits of the game of Magic, the little things, the hidden maths that you have to do every turn, the strategic element, and having to plan everything out in advance.

I always liken Magic to Chess, but it’s Chess where you choose the board, you choose your pieces, and the opponent has chosen their board and their pieces. You sit down against each other. Neither knows what’s happening until the first couple of moves has been performed.

It was quite a struggle initially, to get it approved by the administration. But once they saw the benefit of it, once they’d seen some of the kids coming through here, playing Magic, going out to the stores, and playing in tournaments there. Then bring that information back, getting more kids into it. It has kind of grown and become something that they recognize has value and merit here at the school.

How do you currently run the club?

Formally, we meet every Friday, we have a time slot in which we are meant to do our club duties. So that’s a Friday from 3 pm until 4 pm. Often though, we are here from 3 pm until 6 pm, when the school building closes. Occasionally we get kids and we all go out to a pre-release over a weekend, we have grown out of the bounds that were given to us.

Today, we’ve started exams, and our school day ends at 12 o’clock. I had everyone in here playing some games of Commander, teaching a couple of new people how to play and getting them to join in. My plan for this exam period is when the kids are burnt out from studying when they have just done that one exam that is the worst, I want them to be able to come up here and just pick up some games, get playing, have some fun together, just kind of destress from what’s going on with the exams. At the moment, we are playing a lot, we’re going to be playing pretty much every day. Because of that, we’ve gotten a lot more people involved.

We were all about trying to support the local stores as well. So I’ve been trying to prompt the kids to go visit Luckshack in Milnerton and go visit Sword and Board, go to Durbanville Games, and go and visit the stores that are in your area. I’ve shown them the importance of sleeves and trading, this is a trading card game, and we should be out there interacting with people trying to get things for our decks that we want.

During the Solarpop Warehouse sale that happened not too long ago, I ended up getting quite a lot of stuff for the club here. I’ve also been kind of getting up that excitement of opening a booster pack, seeing what you’ve gotten inside from that. It’s worked out rather well generating some club funds and ensuring that we have prize support for our tournaments here because I will on occasion run small tournaments at the school as well.

How have you seen this impact the students?

At the school, I’m an English teacher, as well as a technology and coding teacher. But mainly with my grade 10s and 11s that I teach English to. I’ve seen them come across these new words now on cards and go, “wait, what is this mean?” And they’ll come to take a look at it in the dictionary and figure out why it works with the artwork and the abilities on the card. It has shown in their marks where I’ve seen things that have popped up in tests and they’ve just been like, oh wait, this is something that I know this is something that I found at this point when I was reading Magic cards. So, in English, certainly, I’ve seen an improvement in marks over those that have come through the club.

And in Mathematics, it’s less of a direct correlation between playing and improving in the game and the Maths marks. One of the reasons being, how we assess mathematics. It’s one of the problems with our education system in terms of how we teach mathematics, it’s very formulaic. It’s taught as a science; you get told this type of question is solved this way. There’s no real room for the problem-solving aspect to filter through. Whereas while we teach Magic with the mathematics that we have here, you’re looking at all the possibilities to solve a very complex problem. It’s, how do I get these three other people from 120, down to zero? Using the game pieces that you have, how can you best approach that problem?

How can you best approach the problem of getting Magic to become a sport?

One thing that I’m going to be looking at in the next year, I’m currently chatting with our sports coach, our sports coordinator, and our cultural coordinator, because I feel that our classification as Culture, while it’s great, while it was a good foot in the door, I’m trying to get us moved over to be a Sport in terms of classifications here. Because Magic is an esport. Because card games in general are tournament-based. I would like to, by changing over to be recognized as a sport free up certain funds so that we can get kids to tournaments.

Some of the best times that I had, when I first started playing Magic were going and learning at tournaments, playing standard, playing modern, having fun, just seeing people succeed, and going and learning from them, how did they succeed? How did they manage to push through to this position that they’re in?

What formats do you play?

Commander is our most popular format here. It’s the group dynamic, just makes it easily accessible. And people get to play with their friends. I am working on trying to get them some standard decks here, so we can play some standard as well. I want to prepare them for Friday Night Magic tournaments. If we can get into those more, it’ll benefit them in terms of their Magic growth. 

The other thing is speaking with Terry at Solarpop, and he says he’s willing to come and teach them Pauper, with his Pauper Cube, which will be a lot of fun. We’ll probably get him in here in a couple of weeks just to run a draft with the cube and then show them that even just playing with Commons can be rather powerful.

Once the new Brothers War Jumpstart packs are available, I’m going to look into getting some of those for the club. That was my idea for onboarding them into Standard because shuffle two Jumpstart Packs together and you’ve got essentially a Standard deck. I bought the previous sets’ standard decks that were a mix of Keldheim, Crimson Vow, and Midnight Hunt. Bought those decks to teach some of the kids how Standard works and try to show them kind of the difference in immutability that you get between Commander and Standard. How there’s just a little bit more consistency in standard decks because you can run up to four of a card, how you have a very, almost direct theme of what you’re trying to do.

How many cards do you have in your collection?

I’ve been playing since 2003. So I have 19 years’ worth of cards sitting in my collection at home. I did a massive sort of my collection and anything more than my playsets or more than what I needed to keep in my collection to play with I donated to the club when I first started. So I have at the back of my classroom cupboards all full of magic cards and magic paraphernalia. It’s mostly commons and uncommons.

From time to time, like now, because it’s exam time, I’ve been building little 100-card commanded deck Starters, I then give these to the new players who are coming in wanting to experience the game. Also, when we play commander here at school, I’ll usually be playing with one or two of these decks, just so they can get a feel for how the deck should be played, what it looks like, and some of the interactions. And it’s great, I found it to be great on-ramp for those that are new to the game and coming in.

Commander games tend to be self-balancing, when someone is starting to become a problem, everyone can gang up on them and pull them back down. Those that are still learning tend to be left alone for the first sort of half of the game or so until they get to that point of like, “Okay, cool, I think I’m ready to start attacking, ready to start getting into it with everyone.” And so it’s been very successful so far.

One thing that has been, I think one of the greatest ideas that Wizards of the Coast has pulled off recently is the commander decks themselves. They’ve changed how they did the packaging. Previously, from the sort of 2013 to 2018 era, they had plastic packaging that kind of housed the deck. And so you’d have the face commander showing through the packaging. Since then, they changed to packaging where they print the actual commander on the box. So every time I’ve had myself or friends buying these commander decks, I’ve said, “Oh, please, can I have the packaging?” Because then I can cut out these commanders and have an endless supply now of these sorts of cardboard commanders to essentially hand out as proxies to the kids to use.

When was the club accepted? When did it start?

Had a small group of kids at the time and it grew through the end of 2018-2019. And then unfortunately 2020 COVID year, we shrank to almost nothing. I’d roped in two other teachers in 2019 to help me and so we were all three of us kind of keeping things going, keeping the kids up to date playing in separate games to make sure that everything was going well. 2020 hit and it was just the three teachers and one or two kids who were joining us with any consistency. And then last year (2021), towards the end of the year, we started picking up again, getting a lot more students involved.

Then this year has just blossomed wonderfully. I think we had three members at the beginning of this year, sort of regularly coming every week. But now, today I had 10 kids in here playing today. It has ballooned up quite spectacularly. Now with studying for the exams, with the extra availability on the space to everyone, I’ve had quite a few more kids give interest and say, Look, can I join on Tuesday? Can I come in on Monday? Can I come and see what’s going on? So I’m hoping that we will get be getting quite a few more enrollments soon.

How can other schools start a Magic Club?

The first step is just to kind of get the word out there that it’s getting started. People have the reference point that magic exists, or a lot of the kids have the reference point that it exists so that it’s something that’s there. And once the few that know of its existence, and know that the club is forming,  they will then come in and they’ll bring their friends, then it just becomes a case of ensuring that there is some volume of cards to play with. Be that speaking to one of the local stores and saying to them, “Look, do you have any spare cards lying around that we could get in?” I know that the local game stores are such amazing resources. I’ve been sort of semi-partnered with Luckshack in Millnerton, and quite often, they’ll have just boxes of draft chaff that people have left behind or donated. They’ll then donate that to the club as well. But if any school is interested, they really should speak to the local game stores. The game store could ask their players if they have any cards that they’re willing to donate, and then get that interest built up. Because having the cards available, and having a bit of interest from the kid side, they’ll kind of unite and then form a successful club. And then, of course, once that has happened, once there is a successful club going, it would be an absolute dream of mine to start a school League.

There needs to be a sort of staff member who is willing to be there, even if they don’t know the game themselves, even if they’re just willing to be a presence and to provide the space. That’s essentially all that’s needed. They don’t have to be the driving force behind the club. I’ve found that once you get a few of the kids interested, they are more than willing to keep it going and keep that kind of “Vooma” going with the club. It’s just been on the teacher to ensure that they’re able to support it, to have the club space available, to have the storage location if they are donations of cards, and to allow the kids access to them when they kind of ready to get into that.

One other thing is I know 100% All of the game stores are more than willing to provide space. They’re more than willing to lend a hand with organizing tournaments, and organizing contact with the cards, like letting the kids come through and rifle through files for hours on end. Once you have that contact point at the school, once there’s the teacher that’s willing to be there and to participate, they will also be able to benefit if they don’t play the game already, they’ll be able to benefit by learning about the game. 

Maybe download Arena and play a couple of games on there. I mean, that’s also another nice point for some of the kids. Saying to them, “Alright, well, you have a computer at home that you play games on already, you want to learn the game? Here. This is a link to Magic arena online. You can learn to play on there, you can start your journey with magic through that access point.”

Schools are going to be inspired by this.

Once we’ve gotten into school events, and maybe getting the kids to one of our official regional events or nationals. It would be great if we can get everything up and running properly, so we can start to see 15 to 17-year-olds participating in these tournaments at an international level.