Urbana Pokemon: not just for kids

Erica Magda

By Emily Thiersch

In a strip mall in Urbana, on Philo Road, there is a game store that few University students have probably heard of. The store is virtually unmarked. No sign is visible from the street; rather, the store’s name is written in small letters on its door: Master Consignment Game Store.

But on a Saturday night at 7 p.m., just inside, the place was packed. Kids faced off against each other with their decks at hand and cards laid out on the tables in front of them.

“He’s paralyzed, correct?” said one boy.

“Yes,” said his opponent.

“Sacrifice,” said the first.

Middle-aged men and women sat at tables with card binders in front of them, some of which were packed with hundreds or thousands of cards.

The Master Consignment Game Store League holds Pokemon tournaments every Saturday. The Master Consignment has more than 70 members, making it one of the largest leagues in the state.

A typical showing for a Pokemon tournament on a given night is about 15 members, but some nights 25 or more gamers have shown up. According to one of the store’s owners, De Urban, Master Consignment is “Urbana’s best-kept secret.”

About 500 people come into the store to play each week, Urban said. She has to keep up-to-date on the rules of all the card games for which the store is certified to hold tournaments.

On any Saturday night, the store is filled with the Pokemon crowd: a motley assortment of kids, adults (most of whom have come with their kids) and teenagers. Everyone seems to know everyone else’s name.

“Three hits and that’s dead if I use my Pikachu,” a small boy said to his opponent.

Players sit facing each other at tables in two-person games, with their cards in front of them; some cards lay beneath dice or marbles. To someone unfamiliar with the rules of Pokemon, their cues to each other are inscrutable.

“Yes! I have a full evolution! I have a really good start!” said an 8-year-old boy.

The Pokemon Organized Play Web site generates the lineup for each round of the tournament. Players mark who wins each round and input their scores online at the end of the night. Players are ranked online by points.

Players can win Pokemon Organized Play packs if they win certain rounds of the tournament.

These players, even the youngest ones, know their Pokemon.

Tim Wiskus of Rantoul, Ill., plays Pokemon in the league with his daughter and has a binder of plastic sleeves filled with cards, separated into sections by sets.

A new set comes out every three months, with new characters as well as updated versions of old characters with different fighting capacities. There are six sets out with 150 to 300 cards in each, though many cards are repeats of already existing characters, and may be “updated” or “evolved” versions.

Only certain sets are playable in city, state, and regional tournaments, though players use whatever cards they have in tournaments at the store, Wiskus said. Thus, to stay competitive in higher-level game play, players need to invest in the best new cards.

One Charizard card, for instance, arguably one of the best Pokemon cards – can fetch 800 dollars, Wiskus said.

He added that he had been collecting cards for several years, and some of his sets are nearly complete.

“It’s all about putting together the best deck you can. Half of it is luck, half is having the right cards,” Wiskus said. “Some decks are stronger than others. But you have to play to your strengths.”

Players tend to develop preferences for certain types of cards, Wiskus said. Much of players’ preference is based on their artistic taste.

Some, like Champaign resident Maya Gouliard, who works at the store and whose daughter, Piper, plays in the Master Consignment League, collect cards primarily out of admiration for their artistry.

“I love the art,” Gouliard said. “After a while, you get picky, like me. You get used to playing angels.”

Pokemon games last about 10 minutes, and tournaments are typically three rounds long. The online Pokemon Organized Play system pits players randomly against each other.

Depending on the number of games a player wins in local tournaments, which are tallied online, a player may be invited to tournaments at the city, state, regional and national levels.

A lot of players in Urbana move on to higher-level tournaments, Wiskus said, though not to the national or world level. One boy from the league, for instance, recently went to a regional tournament held in a mall in St. Louis, which he won. He has a sweater he has covered in badges, grouped by tournament level.

Some people also come in every week to play what Urban called tabletop role-play games. In these games, a player has to make choices in a simulated adventure. Urban, who is certified as a game-master, invents roadblocks and conflicts. For instance, she might ask a player trying to get through the forest for a life-saving mushroom, what do you do if a badger jumps out in your path? Do you befriend it, or attack?

“I have to keep up with all the rules for all the companies,” Urban said. “I always have to know the most up-to-date floor rules. It’s a lot of work.”

Running a game store, interestingly enough, is not all fun and games. Urban said she works 90-hour weeks.

“There’s an illusion that a game store is fun to work at,” she said. “It’s a job. It’s a real job.”

Urban said she struggles to get kids the supplies they need: cards, card sleeves, binders, etc. She said donations are essential to the kids’ ability to play. A cheap starter deck costs about $15.

The store relies on donations from its customers. One customer recently bought $100 worth of Magic: the Gathering cards, taking only the few he wanted and donating the rest to the junior league, Urban said.

She sees the game store as a haven for kids with few other viable forms of entertainment.

“Some of these kids don’t have computers or cable TV. They play out of the penny box because it’s all they have,” Urban said.

The store is an important agent of socialization for the kids who spend the most time there. Kids may learn an obscure lingo that only those in the Pokemon world understand – for example, one kid said to another, “Sand attack. Go.”

His friend replied, “I am going to search for a larva.”

But they also learn to resolve conflicts, make friends, and teach new members the rules of the game.

“It gives them the freedom to be kids while also learning social skills in a safe environment,” Urban said. “It’s amazing what positive reinforcement can do. At the end of the night the store is trashed. I can get kids to help because I have packs in my pocket.”

Many of the kids in the league have grown up on Pokemon.

“I’ve known about Pokemon since I was about two,” said a boy named Corbin. “When I was four I started playing.”

Pokemon also helps kids hone their math and reading skills said Bloomington resident Vicki Staley, head of the Master Consignment Game Store League.

Many of the kids who play have memorized dozens of Pokemon characters’ names and their particular abilities.

They have to tally damages done against their opponents, which can be multiplied or augmented by combining them with other cards, and determine which of their opponents’ cards they want to ‘knock out.’

Wiskus said his daughter, who is autistic, began to learn Pokemon before she could read. She is now two years ahead in math and science because of playing Pokemon, he said.

“This is where I choose to spend my time off,” Urban said. “I volunteer my time as a mentor to these kids.”