'Magic turned my life upside down'
26 years ago, Richard Garfield changed gaming forever with a groundbreaking card game that turned into a cultural sensation. In his own words, he tells the story of Magic: The Gathering’s early years
I was ending my first year and about to start my last year teaching math at Whitman College in Eastern Washington. Magic: The Gathering was launched that summer, and it turned my life upside down.
The core concept for Magic was a game where the players had different components. The idea hit me all at once and I was swept away with excitement for the possibilities that opened up. But at the same time, I didn’t even know if you could make such a game any good. I remember telling Peter Adkison, the head of Wizards of the Coast, that poker, bridge, or chess wouldn’t be good if players could choose your own components – so it wasn’t obvious to me how to make a good game with that characteristic.
I tried a few possibilities before settling on a framework I had been tinkering with for perhaps nine years. The game I started working with was a magic-themed game I called Five Magics. This game was inspired by Cosmic Encounter, a game in which all players could break the rules in one or more ways. I was taken by how different each game of Cosmic was from each other – and how the interaction of the special powers lead to often unexpected results. I thought that a game where every card broke the rules in some way would lead to a chaotic world which was barely predictable. I thought that would be like magic – and so I started down that path.
Magic was also a good theme because it let me get away with anything. Draw cards? That’s a ‘Braingeyser’. Gain energy? Well of course – that’s a ‘Dark Ritual’.
My game design constantly starts and stops, and often crossbreeds with other designs. That is why it is hard to say when I began the design of Magic – was it in 1982 with my first magical-themed card games, or in 1991 with my first prototype that looked like modern Magic? Certainly my earlier designs made the final design richer, since I had already put thought into the different colours of Magic and the relationship they had to each other.
That first prototype – I called it Alpha Magic – was 120 cards that I split randomly between the two players.My first opponent, Barry Reich, and I played all night long with these completely untuned five colour decks. I am sure by today’s standards it would be painful watching us play. Sometimes we would wait and wait for a land that we might not even have in our deck – but we had a blast.
After that was Beta Magic – where my playtesters were given a random selection of maybe 60 cards. The cards were shuffled in trash bags and given out… land and all. Players quickly learned they could improve their performance a lot by focusing on two or three colours. Some players even traded down to one colour.
The next version was Gamma Magic, and it was very close to what was finally published in 1993. During Gamma the playtesters started developing their own methods of play, which included drafts and leagues with various rules. Drafts in those days were more like drafting baseball players – with all the cards available for selection at any round of the draft.
It is telling that the largest number of cards a playtester got at any point was, if memory serves, four decks of 60 cards – which they were not allowed to mix with their other cards. That was the most I could really imagine players getting in real life – there would have been no point, in my mind, to test as if all cards were available to all players – which is the most common way playtests are done today. The play balance was designed for these limited environments rather than the rich ones that quickly evolved.
One of the changes over the course of these early playtests was the abandonment of cards that changed ownership of cards during the game. For example, there were pixies which, when they hit the opponent, would swap two random cards between their hands. I wanted these sorts of cards in the game because I felt that circulating the cards would make the game more dynamic, and I didn’t trust trading to be the entire driver of that card circulation. Quickly, however, it became apparent that some players were not playing to win, but were playing just to improve their card resources. That didn’t seem healthy for the game, I couldn’t think of any way that wouldn’t happen, so I removed those cards.
An exception to that was ante, and ante cards. When first released, the game officially called for players to wager a random card from their deck, and some cards did interfere with the ante in a variety of ways. I left this in because, again, I wanted some way within the game for cards to circulate, and ante didn’t on the surface of it encourage people not to care about winning. It did encourage players to play with more common cards – but I regarded that as something to balance the values of the cards; increasing the risk of playing a card in general hurts rarer cards more than common cards.
That isn’t to say that rare cards were, as a rule, more powerful than common cards. One of the design insights I had which I am happiest with was that the common cards should be solid parts of any deck. If players were allowed to choose their own cards, the player who bought more would always be at an advantage, since they had more options. But you could make that effect much smaller if the commons were good. I tried to make the rares interesting and specialised, while commons were simpler and broad. For many years after Magic was released people on the design team would enjoy going to card shops and conventions beating the local champions with all-common decks – a testament both to how inexperienced players were back then and how underrated common cards were.
Some of the original playtest cards created for Magic: The Gathering and the same cards in their published forms from the game’s first released set, Alpha (Credit: Richard Garfield)
One of the earliest questions facing Magic was how it was going to expand. My initial concept was that Magic was a standalone experience – it could be reprinted but, like most games that preceded it, Magic wouldn’t change significantly with future printings. Instead, new versions would be released – Magic: Ice Age and Magic: Menagerie (later Mirage) were being designed even as the first set was being released. These were intended to provide new standalone experiences for the player. I saw each as giant distinct games in which players could buy a hand.
Immediately though, the hunger for new content was immense. Peter asked me to do an expansion that could be mixed into the base game, and I quickly put together the first expansion, Arabian Nights. This was really exciting in some ways – I was rapidly growing in design skill for Magic and there always seemed to be more room to explore. However, I had two serious misgivings about the project. First, not having years to playtest the new cards was going to lower the quality and, second, I didn’t want players to feel pressured to buy the new cards, since I expected some players wouldn’t care for the new cards and no-one likes to be strong-armed. My solution to this was to make the new cards a different card back; Jesper Myrfors – our art director – came up with some handsome purple backs. My thought was that this bold distinction would make it clear that the cards were optional, and different than the base set. People would easily see if their opponent was playing with Arabian Nights, and could accept that or ask them not to. If the new set was bad, the overall game wouldn’t be poisoned.
The response of the customers on the forums, and many of my playtesters, was strongly negative to this plan. I was committed to this solution, and in the face of protests Peter was expressing his worry, but was also clear that he would support the decision. At the eleventh hour, I believe I was on the phone to Peter who was on the phone to our printer in Belgium who was just about to start printing, I reversed myself and told him to use the same card back.
It is clear this was the right decision, but it did contain the seeds of many challenges that would face us down the road. For example, a steadily growing pool of cards would mean that each set was less interesting than the previous one, since it had to compete with all the previous cards. This risk was well illustrated by a review of Ice Age, which claimed there were two usable cards. Ice Age was a complete game which had been developed even longer than the original Magic – with designers who were designing far less in the dark than I was – and some players saw the entire value boiled down to two cards.
On the surface of it, a reasonable solution to this problem was to grow the power of each successive set of cards. I am never a fan of power creep, but it isn’t even a sustainable strategy in a game like Magic. Perhaps it is a hidden blessing that the original Magic was designed for more limited play – a consequence of which was that the fully constructed environment was degenerate: there were plenty of first turn kill decks. There was one early tournament where the best decks were determined by which got the most consecutive first turn wins. Even if these cards were controlled, a power creep would tend to bring us back to that state, and people within the company that might not have been averse to the idea of a regular power creep could see that it wouldn’t lead anywhere good.
The solution to this, and many other problems, was the introduction of a standard form of play that only allowed sets from the previous two years. In many ways this is a compromise between my original idea that each set stands alone, and the other extreme which was that all sets can be played with each other. Of course, you can’t stop players from playing their old cards in any combination they please – and I wouldn’t want to. Private playgroups could play by the rules and limitations they want to – but Wizards was going to focus on the quality of play in standard, and run tournaments in that format.
"Good games are evergreen – they last forever, and, in fact, they usually get better the more you know them."
When Magic was published we couldn’t print enough to satisfy the demand. This jumpstarted a speculator bubble which threatened the survival of the game.
Boosters would hit the shelves and immediately be marked up to $20 (£15). Speculators were buying up all the product a store had. There were many that thought it was intentional, a tactic to make the game hotter. It was not, although there were a lot of people in Wizards that were delighted by the prices the game was commanding.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that wasn’t good for any long-term prospects for the game, and I still harbour some anger at those in Wizards that wanted to cultivate Magic as a collectable rather than a game. It showed no faith in the game as a game – no-one was going to play Magic at the prices it was being sold at. Their attitude was that of someone who thought it was a fad, and reasoned that you may as well make it as big as possible in its short lifetime. Good games are evergreen – they last forever, and, in fact, they usually get better the more you know them. There is no reason for them to burn out.
At first we were printing the amount that stores were asking for and then, inevitably, the demand was higher once the product was available, and we had to proportion what the stores were allotted. Then they started to play games, asking for much more than they wanted so that when they were scaled back they might get what they actually wanted. This put us in the position of having to guess what the real demand was – and since the speculators were buying everything up anyway, the real demand was always simply bigger than was printed. There really was no correct answer.
This lead to an intentional overprinting of the expansion Fallen Empires. We knew the numbers the retailers were asking for were grossly exaggerated, but we used them anyway, and we managed to get the speculators out of Magic. I remember a lot of clamour that Magic was done for – that the fad was over. I remember a mixture of confidence and fear: confidence in Magic as a game and fear that the speculators had already pushed out too many players, and that the poison they spewed over the crash would keep the players out.
It quickly became apparent that Magic was going to survive this, and the playing community grew in a much healthier way with access to plenty of cards. One lasting legacy of this time is Fallen Empires’ undeserved reputation as a poorly-designed set – it might have been the best-designed expansion up to that point, or at least the best after Antiquities.
Magic will sometimes be called a trading card game, a TCG. More often it is called a collectible card came, a CCG. This time in my life has made me a staunch advocate of the term TCG, which emphasises these as games and not as a collectable.
Magic: The Gathering players at a London GP in 2018
I have always been fascinated by serious game play. I have read strategy books on chess, Go, poker, Scrabble, backgammon, and Dots and Boxes – to name a few, not to become a premier player, but because I love reading about players’ exploration and analysis of games. I had a hope that some level of serious play would be engaged in with Magic.
That came about in large part due to Skaff Elias, who advocated starting a circuit of tournaments which paid enough prize money to allow people to be professional Magic players – the Magic Pro Tour. This was controversial within the company for many reasons. Some people thought it would make the game too serious. Some thought that it was offensive to give that much money to Magic players – rather than, for example, giving Wizards employees extra bonuses.
As far as taking the game too seriously, I was certain this wouldn’t be an issue. We used the NBA as an example – would there be more or less casual play without the NBA? The answer seems obvious – even though the vast majority of players don’t harbour dreams of being professional basketball players, the existence of the NBA increases the number of casual players along with the number of serious players. The professional community acts as an anchor point around which a large and diverse community can build.
As far as giving a lot of money to Magic players being offensive – I think it betrayed a widespread contempt for the players, and gamers in general, among many employees at Wizards. This bias is illustrated well by a board meeting I was at in which we were discussing how to increase our connection with the customer. I suggested we hire Magic players to departments outside R&D and it was laughed at – many on the board thought I was making a joke. The idea of hiring someone into marketing who was a Magic player was, apparently literally, laughable. Laughable, I believe, in the same way it was laughable to talk about giving players money for winning tournaments.
The Pro Tour changed things fast. I would guess that almost immediately the best players in the world no longer worked for Wizards R&D. The level of understanding of the game exploded, both within Wizards and without. Soon Wizards was hiring pro players and the development of Magic sets – previously a highly specialised job – was now something that could be done by many people.
The way players saw the game changed. Before the Pro Tour you had lots of voices crediting wins on luck or number of rare cards owned; after, there were people in every community that were playing in serious tournaments – the game was being seen as one of skill, both skill in play and deck construction – and it was standing up to that test. Good players began to command some respect.
One story a friend told me illustrated how this helped legitimise his hobby. Before the Pro Tour he shied away from telling his co-workers he played Magic. Afterwards, he found the derision he sensed on the topic would fade away when he would say he won $500 (£374) at the weekend. Suddenly the hobby sounded kind of exciting.
The influence on the community was far broader than just among the players who competed for money. One easy example of that was the large network of judges and tournament organisers that came into being. Players who loved the game but didn’t want to compete in this way had a path to being a part of it in a different way – one that gave a sense of belonging that wasn’t attached to just their quality of play. Becoming a judge, or qualifying to run official tournaments, wasn’t always easy and could give a sense of accomplishment. They became representatives of Magic.
Ultimately it is hard to separate the effect of the Pro Tour from the general mainstreaming of games that has been happening over the last 20 years. I believe, though, that the biggest credit for legitimising Magic in the long run, and making a sustainable community, goes to the Pro Tour.
"Magic was such a big game that it couldn’t reach its potential if it had to be squeezed through one designer."
As I look back now, I sometimes find myself surprised that there was a time when I wasn’t sure a trading card game could be designed, or that there was a time when putting lots of money on a tournament was radical – esports do it all the time now.
Very early on, I opened the doors to new designers and let them make their own designs, while I advised and invested myself in designing other games. I figured that Magic could consume my life if I let it – and that it was such a big game that it couldn’t reach its potential if it had to be squeezed through one designer.
I left Wizards of the Coast in 2000, and don’t really know about the trials they have faced in the intervening 18 years. But whatever they are, they seem to have overcome them – I return every few years to put some time in with the designers and developers of Magic; most recently for the 25th anniversary with Dominaria. It is always fun to get back into the game and see where they have taken it.
This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming as part of a celebration of Magic: The Gathering's 25th anniversary. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.