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RMS club is keeping the Force alive

Rosemount Middle School teacher Mark Walseth looks on as students Nick Papaleo and Emma Schneider wrap up a game of the Star Wars collectible card game. RMS students keep playing the game more than a decade after the last new cards were produced.1 / 2
Students come back to Walseth's room to play Star Wars long after they've moved on from Rosemount Middle School.2 / 2

The Force is strong at Rosemount Middle School.

Hunched over desks after school on a recent afternoon, students play out epic battles between good and evil, light and dark. Using cardboard cards and their strategic thinking as substitutes for blasters and light sabers, they play for pride or for practice or just for fun.

As they do, they are breathing life into a game that more and more people are leaving behind. There haven't been new cards for at least a decade for the Star Wars card game that captures students' attention every Thursday after school. When RMS students travel to tournaments, which they do a few times a year, they usually make up more than half the field.

Star Wars is a collectible card game along the lines of Magic of Pokemon -- though don't let RMS teacher Mark Walseth hear you make that comparison. Competitors play the game with decks of cards that look a little like baseball cards, if professional athletes were swapped with multi-limbed aliens and RBI stats were exchanged with damage and defense numbers. Each one has different values, and players deploy them in an effort to clear away the cards played by their opponent. There is a lot of math involved, and a lot of strategic thinking.

Walseth describes it as "like chess, except instead of six different pieces there are hundreds."

He doesn't like the comparison to some of the other popular collectible card games, he said, because there is a lot more strategic thinking involved in the Star Wars game.

"You need to be able to think three or four steps ahead," he said.

The game stays strong at RMS in large part because of Walseth. He started the club to give students something to do after school. He taught them the game, which he has played for years. And things took off from there. The first few years he had between eight and 20 students a year. The number of new students has declined in recent years, but once kids get involved they tend to stay involved. That recent Thursday afternoon session had kids from eighth grade up through high school seniors. There are even a few college students who still come back to compete.

RHS senior Calvin Kurten is one of the students who returns to his old school to get in a game. He learned the game from Walseth when he was in eighth grade, and it quickly became an obsession. He chooses to come back to RMS because he knows he can find other players there.

"It's a good setup. It's lots of different players," Kurten said. "There's a ton of people here."

That's one of the advantages of the club, Walseth said.

"The biggest thing I say they can take away from this is expanding their social skills," Walseth said.

Walseth takes advantage of the age range by having experienced students mentor youngsters. At the end of the year he holds a tournament for eighth graders. This year, the top finisher will win a prize for his or her mentor. Top finishers will also earn a trip to the Minnesota state championship.

Eighth grader Emma Schneider showed up to play after Walseth recruited her. Schneider, said some of her first memories with her friends involved playing Star Wars-related games. She enjoys figuring out the cards and learning the strategies for playing a successful game.

Walseth has thousands of cards to help new players get started. Some continue to use his decks, but others dig up old cards on ebay or from other sources.

Walseth has considered shutting down the club. He doesn't have as much free time now as he used to, and many of his students are now better players than he is. But every year it seems like he hears from a seventh grader who has learned about the club from a friend or an older brother and is excited to join. As long as he's got players, he figures he can keep the Force alive a little longer.

"As long as there's an interest, I'll be here," he said.