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Cassius Marsh, Linebacker and ‘Foil King’

The veteran pass rusher’s love of fantasy card games like Magic and Pokémon, and how he’s passing that love on to others.

Cassius Marsh appears over Zoom dressed in a Steelers sweatshirt and tiger-stripe shorts. The 6' 4", 254-pound outside linebacker is a splattered canvas of tattoos that stretch out to his knuckles. His stringy blond hair hangs over a black headband and settles alongside a golden earring dangling from his left ear.

He is sitting inside the space that will soon become his very own trading card store, Cash Cards Unlimited, in Westlake Village, California. They open Feb. 26 and specialize in Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon, along with various sports trading cards. Just inside the door, in front of a custom mural featuring Pokémon like Rayquaza, Charizard and Mewtwo, and Goku from the Japanese anime cartoon Dragon Ball-Z, is a glass display case of some of his “big hitters,” like a first-edition Yu-Gi-Oh! Box, the likes of which has sold on eBay for upward of $6,000, and single Pokémon base set blister packs, which could sell for more than $1,500 apiece for 10 cards (these are the cardboard-backed packages of cards you saw at the register of every toy store and pharmacy from 1996 to 2000 and cost $3 apiece at the time).

Cassius Marsh and business manager Nick Nugwynne outside their new store selling collectible cards in Westlake Village, California

Marsh (right) and business manager Nick Nugwynne outside their new store.

His goal is to make the rapidly ballooning trading card collectible shopping experience feel like you’re at a Louis Vuitton store. Indeed, you must check in on a sleek, encased iPad that also acts as a contact tracer before you’re escorted into the “show room,” which is just beyond the “vibe area,” lit with a contrast of neon bulbs. The main gathering space evokes a high-end boutique, or perhaps an expensive marijuana dispensary, with a few small tables featuring premium product. A black curtain cordons off the customers from a few industrial shelves full of sealed product that will either be shipped out, sold in person or opened on camera.

“I’ve always recognized the value in Magic Cards,” says Marsh, who, on social media, also calls himself the “Foil King,” named after the shiny, foil-like texture that special Pokémon and Magic cards have. “It was kind of this unseen market. To see what Magic has done, Pokémon cards have done in the last six months, sports cards, to see the explosion of collectables and trading cards, it’s pretty unreal.

“All of this stuff, it’s art. For the new generation, these cards are similar to buying a Picasso. They’re high-end collectibles. High-end art. A lot of these pieces are extremely rare. Some of these sports cards are one of one. It’s like getting a personal piece from a famous artist. It’s just in its infancy right now.”

If all of this seems out of the ordinary, that’s the point. Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon, specifically, have given a lot to Marsh, providing him with comfort as a young child being raised by a working single mother. Now, he can properly elevate the hobby’s aesthetic beyond its roots inside dimly lit, unfriendly card dungeons, tucked away in dated strip malls. (In case you were wondering, there is a hype video of Marsh online flicking Pokémon cards out of his hands like singles at a gentlemen’s club.) On a deeper level, his presence here as a person who looks nothing like the dated and damaging stereotype of a trading-card game obsessive (taped glasses, matted hair, inhaler affixed in hand) is also intentional. Parents have written Marsh and thanked him in the past for making Magic and Pokémon seem more broadly acceptable. He has since tried to take up that mantle.

In the past, it was a hobby Marsh felt an inclination to hide. His dad, former NFL receiver Curtis Marsh, and half-brother, former NFL cornerback Curtis Marsh Jr., knew little, if anything, about his affinity for fantasy card games. Now, he’s played Magic with the likes of former Seahawks wideout Doug Baldwin and Taven Bryan, the Jaguars’ 2018 first-round pick (who Marsh “crushed,” because Bryan was playing some “janky, not-tiered-up, not foiled-out decks”). Marsh attended some of The Gathering’s biggest professional tournaments and showcases, and appears on some of the genre’s most popular web series. In the NFL, he is a pied piper of fantasy card playing games.

By diving back into his childhood, Marsh has secured a rare slice of post-career purpose in conjunction with a market that is absolutely exploding in popularity. A first-edition Pokémon base set box (36 packs featuring 10 cards apiece, still in its original packaging) sold for $408,000 at a recent Heritage Auction. Marsh’s store has an empty base set booster box sitting in a display case out front, which could fetch upward of $350 on eBay. A Black Lotus card, the holy grail of Magic collecting, recently topped out at over $500,000 at auction. The former rapper Logic purchased a single Pokémon card—a base set Charizard—for more than $220,000 (or roughly the entirety of his final album’s opening-week sales) back in October.

But Marsh’s connection to his own past, and the past of his new followers and friends, ensures that this endeavor has a deeper meaning beyond the bubble.

“People anticipate you’re going to get picked on and made fun of,” Marsh says. “It’s made out to be a kids-only thing, which I just don’t agree with, man. If you’re a creative and you’re into the fantasy world, anime, all that stuff, it goes hand in hand …who cares?”

Josh Lee Kwai was born in the 1980s and previously worked in the film industry, so he is acutely aware of how the brick wall was figuratively built (and maintained) between those who fell into the two quintessential coming of age categories: Jock and Nerd.

The cohost of the Command Zone podcast, a weekly show devoted to a particular style of Magic: The Gathering gameplay and its wildly popular web series Game Knights, Lee Kwai and Jimmy Wong have racked up more than 100 million views on YouTube and are sponsored by Wizards of the Cost, the gold standard of the trading card industry, which manufactures Magic cards and originally produced the first (and, historically, most beloved) series of Pokémon trading cards.

So, it was with a bit of trepidation that Lee Kwai welcomed Marsh onto Game Knights a few years back at the behest of Wizards of the Coast. He was hopeful given his own sports fandom—he admitted that listening to NBA players Tim Duncan and David Robinson talking about playing the video game Starcraft back in the '90s was a cathartic experience—but nervous that a green hobbyist might come onto the show and get immediately snuffed out by the game’s detailed fan base. Guests do confessional-style interviews in the middle of a live game, forcing them to delve into their moves and why they made them, which makes knowing the game and having an ability to explain its intricacies critical. Being based in L.A., his show has been targeted by celebrities in the past, though they may not have had the requisite knowledge of Magic to carry them through an episode.

Their arrangement had a strange backstory; Marsh was revealed to the general public as a devout Magic: The Gathering player after his car window was smashed outside of a Seattle nightclub back in 2016 while playing for the Seahawks, and he tweeted that nearly $20,000 worth of cards were stolen (Marsh says that in today’s market, that number has probably doubled, given that the bag contained eight of the original “Dual Lands” cards, which are some of the more valuable in the hobby).

Wizards of the Coast made a trip to the Seahawks’ facility to deliver him a gift basket of Magic cards and added Marsh to their roster of influencers, often paying him in product (Marsh now has enough comped Magic cards to fill a school bus, which he’s using as initial inventory to help start the store).

“I think this is a failure in all communities, but I think our first feeling to be completely honest with you was, ‘Is this guy for real?’ ” Lee Kwai says. “You’re not sure how into it he actually is. He showed up and we weren’t sure what to expect.”

Lee Kwai’s doubts vanished the minute Marsh began talking about various card combinations he likes to play. A basketball fan who has played a great deal of pickup ball, Lee Kwai says he can tell what kind of player you are after a few dribbles. The same can be said for Magic players. He’d passed the test. He was fluent in the language (a sampling of Marsh’s confessional on a recent episode: “I blocked with the Guildmage. I don’t block with the Serra Angel because the creatures won’t be sevens-sevens forever, so I’ll still have one blocker”). The parameters of his latter visits onto Game Knights quickly changed; no longer was it a fear of carrying a novice through the show, it was a fear of whether their own decks were inferior to Marsh’s.

“When Cassius is coming on, it’s well known that we have to bring the good stuff,” Lee Kwai says.

Steelers linebacker Cassius Marsh warms up before a December game

On a larger level, Lee Kwai noticed the open arms of his viewers and followers. He joked that some of them are the kinds of people who would refer to any athletic competition as “sportsball,” a reflection of their contempt and a call back to the historically antagonistic relationship between those dated jock-nerd archetypes. Now, there was a kind of beautiful, mutual admiration. Marsh’s respect for the community was legitimate (he talked openly about the humbling experience of getting shellacked while a featured player at a Magic tournament). The community responded in kind, welcoming a guy who, maybe 20 years ago, looked like the avatar of someone who might have spiked their cards into the mud.

“I wish we were at the point where people didn’t feel nerdy,” Lee Kwai says. “I think that’s lessened now but it’s not gone. Absolutely the Magic community loves Cassius. Loves the fact that he’s a football player.

“Whatever it is, seeing an NFL player who likes the things that they like, it does matter. It totally matters. It does make them puff out their chest a little bit. It’s not just for nerds. It’s a cool thing that cool people like.”

Marsh’s favorite Magic card is a “Land” card called Misty Rainforest.

In gameplay, it allows the player to “search their library for a Forest or Island card and put it onto the battlefield. Then shuffle your library.” Marsh, though, loves it for the artwork, which depicts a lush, overgrown rainforest shrouded in a light haze. A peninsula juts out of a clearing in full view of several cascading waterfalls.

His girlfriend had a version of the card commissioned as a painting that sits on his nightstand. Both Marsh and his son, Cassius Jr., are in the artwork looking out at the water.

“It’s just a piece that makes me feel like I would love to live inside the art,” he says. “I tear up whenever I look at it or think about it. That card is pretty near and dear to my heart.”

Some of the cards in stock at Cassius Marsh's Cash Cards Unlimited

Some of the cards in stock at Cash Cards Unlimited.

Marsh’s first trip to a card store came when he was 11 years old. His mom gave him $5 to spend at A Hidden Fortress in Simi Valley, Calif., and he stumbled on a pair of grown men playing Magic. It seemed to streamline neatly with his other fantasy interests, like the Japanese manga series Yu-Gi-Oh! and the hours he spent hardwired to his GameBoy leveling up his Pokémon.

“My mom would be like, ‘We just drove two hours and you haven’t taken your head up from that game one time.’ And I just remember being like I have to get my Wartortle to evolve into a Blastoise, I remember having to get that done. It was just so much fun, and I continue to have so much fun with Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering.”

In those memories, Marsh brings up what seems central to the entire hobby: something we’re all universally seeking and sometimes thankfully find in a pack of cards. Comfort. The ability to zone out of the world for just a moment. The chance, as an adult, to play and to belong. Outside of young tech millionaires with disposable income jacking up the prices of vintage collectibles online and YouTube celebrities opening product every hour on the hour for free, that sense of comfort could be the biggest reason why Magic has endured for so long and other games, like Pokémon, are seeing such a comeback.

Feeling the game on that kind of level cements his authenticity in the community above anything else.

“I was in the house bored all the time, and my mom worked a lot. Being able to ride my bike to the card store and hang out and have a couple of guys that could interact with me and play a game I enjoyed, that was huge for me,” Marsh says. “When I come home from a long day, being able to open packs and collect and pull new cards I’ve been wanting and just sitting there trying to build out the most perfect deck, falling deep into that world, it’s definitely something I look forward to, something that I crave.”