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A Rhinelander game shop just hosted an exclusive competition. It's a sign of the area's thriving gaming community.

Tucked among downtown Rhinelander’s supper clubs and coffee shops is a gaming store. It’s where people gather to play games like Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: The Gathering and Warhammer. The store has such a devoted following that it was recently hand-selected as one of just three Wisconsin locations to host an exclusive competition for a new card game.

Inside the Magic Man Games shop, competitors pair up and take seats along a row of neatly numbered tables.

Players shuffle thick decks of cards, then carefully place them on intricate game mats as they try to wipe out their opponents.

They’re playing Flesh and Blood, a card game that came out just three years ago but has quickly gained notoriety and spread across the world, making its way from New Zealand to Rhinelander, Wisconsin.

“Today we’re hosting the Flesh and Blood ProQuestfor season three,” says Zach Hext, the game shop’s owner.

Zach Hext owns Magic Man Games in Rhinelander.
Erin Gottsacker
Zach Hext owns Magic Man Games in Rhinelander.

His store was hand-selected by Legend Story Studios, the maker of Flesh and Blood, for a ProQuest tournament, placing Rhinelander on a map alongside major metropolises like Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis.

“It is surreal,” Hext says. “Rhinelander is tucked away, in the middle of nowhere, in a sense, but we’re seeing competitive play. Besides us, the closest events were Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Chicago, so it’s cool to see that we’re on par with some of those bigger locations.”

The winner of Rhinelander’s competition will receive an invitation to compete at the Pro Tour in Baltimore. It’s a strong enough incentive to attract people like Jon Tapio, who made his way to Rhinelander from Marquette, Michigan just for the chance to compete.

“It’s a huge event,” Tapio says. “I’ve never been a part of any higher-level tournaments in any other card game.”

Other competitors drove in from Eau Claire and Milwaukee.

Hext says Rhinelander was selected to host the competition in part because of its geographic location. Rhinelander is removed from other cities in the region.

But his store was also selected because the local gaming community is consistent and growing.

People like Nathan Abrams play games in the back of the store four to five days a week.

They don’t just play Flesh and Blood. The repertoire ranges from Dungeons and Dragons to Warhammer to Pokémon. The store has events and game nights practically every day.

“There’s so many people that play games. It’s just crazy,” Abrams says. “The gaming community in Rhinelander is something that’s a lot. It’s a crazy lot.”

Nathan Abrams (left) competes in round three of the Flesh and Blood ProQuest at Magic Man Games.
Erin Gottsacker
Nathan Abrams (left) competes in round three of the Flesh and Blood ProQuest at Magic Man Games.

Hext says the gaming community has grown so quickly that he is considering expanding his store, maybe adding a basement level or upstairs.

He doesn’t want to give up his location on Rhinelander’s main drag because it’s so accessible, and easily walkable from the local schools. That’s important to him as he tries to create a space that’s not just centered on gaming, but one that’s safe, welcoming and positive.

“I feel warm and fuzzy inside to be part of this,” Hext says, “and to be able to make sure that everybody is happy and to grow this fantastic community of great players.”

With the opportunity to host competitions like the Flesh and Blood ProQuest, the gaming community Hext has worked so hard to cultivate could grow even faster.

Since turnout at this event was high, he’s hopeful Legend Story Studios will continue to select his shop for future competitions and pre-releases.

That wouldn’t just be good for business, he says. It’s a way to continue connecting people around a common love for games.

Back at the game tables, a timer ticks down to zero as players wrap up a round of Flesh and Blood.

Some beam in the aftermath of victory. Others reshuffle their cards. No matter the outcome, they’ll get another shot because after one round ends, another begins.

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Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.