Since Hollywood hottie Mila Kunis announced her love of online role-playing game World of Warcraft, fantasy games have never been cooler. Of course, celebrity endorsements matter very little to the gamers who have long dabbled in the realms of sorcery and swordplay, but it was enough of a reason for Time Out to search out some of Dubai’s more niche social groups. Imagine our excitement when we chanced across Wizards of the Gulf Coast. Much to our disappointment, these particular wizards don’t dress up for the occasion; in fact, they appear to be a group of very normal family men who happen to enjoy playing fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering.

This long-running card game was created by American mathematician Dr Richard Garfield in 1993. Heard of it? No, neither had we, which is why you’ll be surprised to learn that there are more than 300,000 registered players and more than three million social players worldwide. ‘It’s basically like playing cards with chess and backgammon, the reason being that you have pieces that keep changing,’ explains Nadim Nehmé, the 32-year-old Lebanese tournament organiser of Dubai-based Wizards of the Gulf Coast. ‘You also have five different ‘colours’ of magic, so that could be synonymous with four suits of cards. Different colours play in different ways. There’s also a chess-like strategy concerning when you play your pieces, when you attack with a spell and what you do with it.’

The cards are similar to elaborate Top Trumps or Fighting Fantasy cards – the top half features artwork that is specific to each card (each has a unique name), while the mechanics of the card are printed at the bottom. Nadim is quick to assure us that the game is easy to pick up, sticking with the chess analogy: it takes minutes to learn and a lifetime to master.

Each year, US games publisher Wizards of the Coast (a subsidiary of toy-making giant Hasbro, and the inspiration behind the group name Wizards of the Gulf Coast) releases a new game with a unique storyline and cards. Instalments are released on a quarterly basis, and Dubai-based players are able to buy the cards from Park ’n’ Shop on Al Wasl Road, near Safa Park. However, it’s possible for new players to turn up without anything, because Nadim and the rest of the Wizards can provide cards.

Magic: The Gathering is many things to many people – some love the fantasy aspect, others like the strategy and maths involved. Nadim, for his part, bashfully admits he’s always been a fan of fantasy and the artwork featured on the cards, as well as being a compulsive collector – he guesses he has about 70,000 cards and even has a special inventory programme installed on his PC to keep track of them all.

Nadim and the Wizards always welcome newcomers, and encourage anyone with a competitive spirit, active imagination and an inkling of curiosity to come along and play. ‘All our players are keen for new people to learn, so they’ll be patient and take newcomers through the rules,’ assures Nadim. ‘We teach them certain tactics and see how they get along. We even let them win a couple of games…’

The Wizards of the Gulf Coast’s free meetings are held every Tuesday and Friday at 7pm at various locations; meeting times may vary, so call ahead. (050 574 3415)

Other gaming groups
Dubai’s fantasy gaming scene isn’t limited to Magic: The Gathering – the city also boasts a huge following for Warhammer, a table-top fantasy war game. The game’s miniature lead figurines, which are collected, painted and utilised during gameplay, are available at Park ’n’ Shop on Al Wasl Road, which is also the HQ of Warcamel, the UAE’s foremost fantasy table-top gaming group. (050 553 2015). For more on Warhammer, see