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Monthly Archives: September 2023

Magic and Loss, Part 2: Magic on the Screen

It seems poetically apt that Peter Adkison first met Richard Garfield through Usenet. For Magic: The Gathering, the card game that resulted from that meeting, went on to usher in a whole new era of tabletop gaming, during which it became much more tightly coupled with digital spaces. The card game’s rise did, after all, coincide with the rise of the World Wide Web; Magic sites were among the first popular destinations there. The game could never have exploded so quickly if it had been forced to depend on the old-media likes of Dragon magazine to spread the word, what with print publishing’s built-in lag time of weeks or months.

But ironically, computers could all too easily also be seen as dangerous to the immensely profitable business Wizards of the Coast so speedily became. So much of the allure of Magic was that of scarcity. A rare card like, say, a Lord of the Pit was an awesome thing to own not because it was an automatic game-winner — it wasn’t that at all, being very expensive in terms of mana and having a nasty tendency to turn around and bite you instead of your opponent — but because it was so gosh-darned hard to get your hands on. Yet computers by their very nature made everything that was put into them abundant; here a Lord of the Pit was nothing but another collection of ones and zeroes, as effortlessly copyable as any other collection of same. Would Magic be as compelling there? Or, stated more practically if also more cynically, what profit was to be found for Wizards of the Coast in putting Magic on computers? If they made a killer Magic implementation for the computer, complete with Lords of the Pit for everyone, would anyone still want to play the physical card game? In the worst-case scenario, it would be sacrificing an ongoing revenue stream to die for in return for the one-time sales of a single boxed computer game.

Had it been ten years later, Wizards of the Coast might have been thinking about setting up an official virtual community for Magic, with online duels, tournaments, leader boards, forums, perhaps even a card marketplace. As it was, though, it was still the very early days of the Web 1.0, when most sites consisted solely of static HTML. Online play in general was in its infancy, with most computer games that offered it being designed to run over local-area networks rather than a slow and laggy dial-up Internet connection. In this technological milieu, then, a Magic computer game necessarily meant a boxed product that you could buy, bring home, install on a computer that may or may not even be connected to the Internet, and play all by yourself.

That last part of the recipe introduced a whole host of questions and challenges beyond the strictly commercial. Think again about the nature of Magic: a fairly simple game in itself, but one that could be altered in an infinity of ways by the instructions printed on the cards themselves. Making hundreds and hundreds of separate cards play properly on the computer would be difficult enough. And yet that wasn’t even the worst of it: the really hard part would be teaching the computer to use its millions of possible combinations of cards effectively against the player, in an era before machine learning and the like were more than a glint in a few artificial-intelligence theorists’ eyes.

But to their credit, Wizards of the Coast didn’t dismiss the idea of a Magic computer game out of hand on any of these grounds. When MicroProse Software came calling, promising they could make it happen, Wizards listened and agreed to let them take a stab at it.

It so happened that Magic had caught the attention of MicroProse’s star designer, Sid Meier of Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, and Civilization fame. This was unsurprising in itself; Meier was a grizzled veteran of many a tabletop war, who still kept a finger on the pulse of that space. Although he was never a dedicated player of the card game, he was attracted to Magic precisely because it seemed so dauntingly difficult to implement on a computer. Meier was, you see, a programmer as well as a designer, one with a strong interest in artificial intelligence, who had in fact just spent a year or more trying to teach a 3DO console to create music in the mold of his favorite classical composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. In his memoir, he frames his interest in a Magic computer game as a way of placating the managers in the corner offices at MicroProse who were constantly pushing him and his colleagues in the trenches toward licensed properties. With Magic, he could have his cake and eat it too, pleasing the suits whilst still doing something he could get personally excited about. “It seemed prudent,” he writes dryly, “for us to choose the kind of license we liked before they assigned one to us.”

We cannot accuse MicroProse of thinking small when it came to Magic on the computer; they wound up creating not so much a game as a sort of all-purpose digital Magic toolkit. You could put together your dream deck in the “Deck Builder,” choosing from 392 different cards in all. Then you could take the deck you built into the “Duel” program, where you could participate in a single match or in a full-on tournament against computer opponents. If all of this left you confused, you could work your way through a tutorial featuring filmed actors. Or, last but by no means least, you could dive into Shandalar, which embedded the card game into a simple CRPG format, in which Magic duels with the monsters that roamed the world took the place of a more conventional combat engine and improving your deck took the place of improving your character’s statistics. Suffice to say that MicroProse’s Magic did not lack for ambition.

Like the cheesy advisors in the otherwise serious-minded Civilization II, the tutorial that uses clips of real actors dates the MicroProse Magic indelibly to the mid-1990s. The actress on the left is Rhea Seehorn, whose long journeyman’s career blossomed suddenly into fame and Emmy awards in 2015, when she began playing Kim Wexler in the acclaimed television series Better Call Saul.

Doubtless for this reason, it took an inordinately long time to make. The first magazine previews of the computer game, describing most of the features that would make it into the finished product, appeared in the spring of 1995, just as the craze for the card game was nearing its peak. Yet the finished product wasn’t released until March of 1997, by which point the frenzy was already beginning to cool off, as Magic slowly transformed into what it still is today: “just” an extremely popular card game. “This is the end of a long journey,” wrote Richard Garfield in his foreword to the computer game’s manual, a missive that exudes relief and exhaustion in equal measure.

In fact, by the time MicroProse and Garfield completed the journey a whole different digital Magic game had been started and completed by a different studio. Acclaim Entertainment’s Magic: The Gathering — Battlemage was Wizards of the Coast’s attempt to hedge their bets when the MicroProse project kept stretching out longer and longer. At the surface level, Battlemage played much like Shandalar: you wandered a fantasy world collecting cards and dueling with enemies. But its duels were far less ambitious; rather than trying to implement the real card game in nitty-gritty detail, it moved its broadest strokes only into a gimmicky real-time framework, with a non-adjustable clock that just so happened to run way too fast. “By the time [you] manage to summon one creature,” wrote Computer Gaming World in its review, “the enemy has five or six on the attack.” This, the very first Magic computer game to actually ship, is justifiably forgotten today.

Then, too, by the time MicroProse’s Magic appeared Sid Meier had been gone from that company for nine months already, having left with his colleagues Jeff Briggs and Brian Reynolds to form a new studio, Firaxis Games. In his memoir, he speaks to a constant tension between MicroProse, who just wanted to deliver the funnest possible digital implementation of Magic, and Wizards of the Coast, who were worried about destroying their cash cow’s mystique. “I was frustrated,” he concludes. “Magic was a good computer game, but not as good as it could be.”

I concur. The MicroProse Magic is a good game — in fact, a well-nigh miraculous achievement when one considers the technological times in which it was created. Yet Shandalar in particular is a frustrating case: a good game that, one senses, just barely missed being spectacular.

The heart of the matter, the Duel screen.

But without a doubt, the most impressive thing about this Magic is that it works at all. The interface is a breeze to use once you grasp its vagaries, the cards all function just as they should in all of their countless nuances, and the computer actually does make a pretty credible opponent most of the time, capable of combining its cards in ingenious ways that may never have occurred to you until you get blasted into oblivion by them. Really, I can’t say enough about what an incredible programming achievement this is. Yes, familiarity may breed some contempt in the course of time; you will eventually notice patterns in some of your opponents’ play that you can exploit, and the computer players will do something flat-out stupid every once in a while. (Then again, isn’t that true of a human player as well?) Early reviewers tended to understate the quality of the artificial intelligence because it trades smarts for speed on slower computers, not looking as far ahead in its calculations. These days, when some of our toasters probably have more processing power than the typical 1997 gaming computer, that isn’t a consideration.

The MicroProse game even manages to implement cards like Magic Hack, which lets you alter the text(!) found on other cards.

Wow. Just… wow.

Meanwhile Shandalar is a characteristic stroke of genius from Sid Meier, who was crazily good at translating lived experiences of all sorts into playable game mechanics. As we saw at length in the last article, it was the meta-game of collecting cards and honing decks that turned the card game into a way of life for so many of its players. Shandalar transplants this experience into a procedurally-generated fantasy landscape, capturing in the process the real heart of its analog predecessor’s appeal in a way that the dueling system on its own never could have, no matter how beautifully implemented. You start out as a callow beginner with a deck full of random junk, just like someone who has just returned from a trip to her friendly local game store with her first Magic Starter Pack. Your objective must now be to improve your deck into something you can win with on a regular basis, whilst learning how to use the cards you’ve collected most effectively and slowly building a reputation for yourself. Again, just like in real life.

The framing story has it that you are trying to protect the world of Shandalar from five evil wizards — one for each of the Magic colors — who are vying with one another and with you to take it over. You travel between the many cities and towns, buying and selling cards in their marketplaces and doing simple quests for their inhabitants that can, among other things, add to your dueling life-point total, which is just ten when starting out. Enemies in the employ of the wizards wander the same paths you do with decks of their own. Defeat them, and you can win one of their cards for yourself; get defeated by them, and you lose one of your own cards. (Shandalar is the last Magic product to use the misbegotten ante rule that the Wizards of the Coast of today prefers not to mention.)

After you’ve been at it a while, the other wizards’ lieutenants will begin attacking the towns directly. If any one enemy wizard manages to take over just three towns, he wins the game and you lose. (Unfortunately, the same lax victory conditions don’t apply to you…) Therefore it’s important not to let matters get out of hand on this front. You can rush to a town that’s being attacked and defend it by defeating the attacker in a duel, or you can even attack an already occupied town yourself in the hope of freeing it again, although this tends to be an even harder duel to win. When not thus occupied, you can explore the dungeons that are scattered about the map, stocked with tough enemies and tempting rewards in the form of gold, cards, and magical gems that confer special powers. Your ultimate goal, once you think you have the perfect deck, is to attack and defeat each wizard in his own stronghold; his strength in this final battle is determined by how many enemies of his color you’ve defeated elsewhere, so it pays to take your time. Don’t dawdle too long, though, because the other wizards get more and more aggressive about attacking towns as time goes by, which can leave you racing around willy-nilly trying to put out fire after fire, with scant time to take the offensive.


The MicroProse Magic was the first Sid Meier-designed game to appear in many years without the “Sid Meier’s…” prefix. His name was actually scrubbed from the credits completely, what with him having left the company before its completion. It was probably just as well: as he notes in his memoir, if MicroProse had tried to abide by its usual practice the game would presumably have needed to be called Sid Meier’s Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering, which doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.

Wandering the world of Shandalar.

You can accept quests for cards and other treasures.

When you bump into an enemy, you can either duel him for an ante or give him some money to go away.

You can reclaim towns that have been occupied by one of the enemy wizards, but it’s a risky battle, for which you must ante three cards to your opponent’s one.

Exploring a dungeon.



All told, it’s a heck of a lot of fun, the perfect way to enjoy Magic if you don’t want to spend a fortune on cards and/or aren’t overly enamored with the culture of nerdy aggression that surrounds the real-life game to some extent even today. I spent way more time with Shandalar than I could really afford to as “research” for this article, restarting again and again to explore the possibilities of many different colors and decks and the variations in the different difficulty levels. Shandalar is great just as it is; I highly recommend it, and happily add it to my personal Hall of Fame.

And yet the fact is that the balance of the whole is a little off — not enough so as to ruin the experience, but just enough to frustrate when you consider what Shandalar might have been with a little more tweaking. My biggest beef is with the dungeons. They ought to be one of the best things about the game, being randomly generated labyrinths stocked with unusual opponents and highly desirable cards. Your life total carries over from battle to battle within a dungeon and you aren’t allowed to save there, giving almost a roguelike quality to your underground expeditions. It seems to be a case of high stakes and high rewards, potentially the most exciting part of the game.

It makes no sense to risk the dungeons when you can randomly stumble upon places on the world map that let you have your choice of any card in the entire game. Happy as you are when you find them, these places are devastating to game balance.

But it isn’t, for the simple reason that the rewards aren’t commensurate with the risks in the final analysis. Most of the time, the cards you find in a dungeon prove not to be all that great after all; in fact, you can acquire every single one of them above-ground in one way or another, leaving you with little reason to even enter a dungeon beyond sheer, bloody-minded derring-do. A whole dimension of the game falls away into near-pointlessness. Yes, you can attempt to compensate for this by, say, pledging not to buy any of the most powerful cards at the above-ground marketplaces, but why should you have to? It shouldn’t be up to you to balance someone else’s game for them.

Even looking beyond this issue, Shandalar just leaves me wanting a little more — a bigger variety of special encounters on the world map, more depth to the economy, more and more varied quests. This is not because what we have is bad, mind you, but because it’s so good. My problem is that I just can’t stop seeing how it could be even better, can’t help wondering how it might have turned out had Sid Meier stayed at MicroProse through the end of the project. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try this game if you already enjoy the card game or are even slightly curious about it. The MicroProse Magic retains a cult following to this day, many of whom will tell you that Shandalar in particular is still the most fun you can have with Magic on a computer.

In its own time, however, the most surprising thing about the MicroProse Magic is that it wasn’t more commercially successful. “I’ve found a wonderful place to play Magic: The Gathering,” wrote Computer Gaming World in its review. “I can play as much as I want whenever I want, and use legendary cards like Black Lotus and the Moxes without spending hundreds of dollars.” Nevertheless, the package didn’t set the world on fire. Perhaps the substandard Acclaim game, which was released just a month before the MicroProse version, muddied the waters too much. Or perhaps even more of the appeal of the card game than anyone had realized lay in the social element, which no digital version in 1997 could possibly duplicate.

Not that MicroProse didn’t try. “This game is exceedingly expandable,” wrote Richard Garfield in his foreword in the manual, strongly implying that the MicroProse Magic was just the beginning of a whole line of follow-on products that would keep it up to date with the ever-evolving card game. But that didn’t really happen. MicroProse did release Spells of the Ancients, a sort of digital Booster Pack with some new cards, followed by a standalone upgrade called Duels of the Planeswalkers, with yet more new cards and the one feature that was most obviously missing from the original game: the ability to duel with others over a network, albeit without any associated matchmaking service or the like that could have fostered a centralized online community of players. Not long after Duels of the Planeswalkers came out in January of 1998, the whole line fell out of print, having never quite lived up to MicroProse’s expectations for it. Wizards of the Coast, for their part, had always seemed a bit lukewarm about it, perchance not least because Shandalar relied so heavily on the ante system which they were by now trying hard to bury deep, deep down in the memory hole. Their next foray into digital Magic wouldn’t come until 2002, when they set up Magic: The Gathering Online, precisely the dynamic online playing space I described as infeasible earlier in this article in the context of the 1990s.

I’ll have more to say about the Magic phenomenon in future articles, given that it was the fuel for the most shocking deal in the history of tabletop gaming. The same year that the MicroProse Magic game came out, a swaggering, cash-flush Wizards of the Coast bought a teetering, cash-strapped TSR, who had seen the market for Dungeons & Dragons all but destroyed by Richard Garfield’s little card game. This event would have enormous repercussions on virtual as well as physical desktops, occurring as it did just after Interplay Entertainment had been awarded the license to make the next generation of Dungeons & Dragons computer games.

For today, though, let me warmly recommend the MicroProse Magic — if you can see your way to getting it running, that is. (See below for more on that subject.) Despite my quibbles about the ways in which it could have been even better, Shandalar remains almost as addictive for me today as the card game was for so many teenagers of the 1990s, only far less expensively so. When I pulled it up again to capture screenshots for this article, I blundered into a duel and just had to see it out. Ditto the next one, and then the one after that. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Where to Get It: The MicroProse Magic: The Gathering is unfortunately not an easy game to acquire or get running; the former difficulty is down to the complications of licensing, which have kept it out of digital-download stores like GOG.com, while the latter is down to its status as a very early Windows 95 game, from before DirectX was mature and before many standards for ensuring backward compatibility existed. Because I’d love for you to be able to play it, though, I’ll tell you how I got it working. Fair warning: it does take a bit of effort. But you don’t need to be a technical genius to make it happen. You just have to take it slow and careful.

  1. First of all, you’re going to need a virtual machine running Windows XP. This is not as onerous an undertaking as you might expect. I recommend a video tutorial from TheHowToGuy123, which walks you step by step through installing the operating system under Oracle VirtualBox in a very no-nonsense way.
  2. Next you need an image of the Magic CD. As of this writing, a search for “Magic The Gathering MicroProse” on archive.org will turn one up. Note that these procedures assume you are installing the original game, not Duels of the Planeswalkers. The patches you install will actually update it to that version.
  3. Boot up your virtual Windows XP machine and mount the Magic image from the VirtualBox “Devices” menu. Ignore the warning about not being on Windows 95 and choose “Install” from the window that pops up. Take the default options and let it do its thing. Do not install DirectX drivers and do not watch the tutorial; it won’t work anyway.
  4. Now you need to patch the game — twice, in fact. You can download the first patch from this very site. Mount the image containing the patch in VirtualBox and open the CD drive in Windows Explorer. You’ll see three executable files there, each starting with “MTGV125.” Drag all three to your desktop, then double-click them from there to run them one at a time. You want to “Unzip” each into the default directory.
  5. Restart your virtual Windows XP machine.
  6. Now you need the second patch, which you can also get right here. Mount this disk image on your virtual machine, create a folder on its desktop, and copy everything in the image into that folder. Double-click “Setup” from the desktop folder and wait a minute or two while it does its thing.
  7. Now copy everything from that same folder on your desktop into “C:\Magic\Program,” selecting “Yes to All” at the first warning prompt to overwrite any files that already exist there. If you see an error message about open file handles or the like, restart your virtual machine and try again.
  8. Here’s where it gets a little weird. The “Shandalar” entry on your Start menu is no longer pointing to the Shandalar game, but rather to the multiplayer engine. Go figure. To fix this, navigate into “C:\Magic\Program,” find “shandalar.exe,” and make a shortcut to it on your desktop. Double-click this to play the game. If it complains about a lack of swap space, just ignore it and go on.
  9. You’ll definitely want the manual as well.

Shandalar, the Deck Builder, and the single-player Duel app should all work now. The first does still have some glitches, such as labels that don’t always appear in town menus, but nothing too devastating (he says, having spent an inordinate amount of time… er, testing it thoroughly). I haven’t tested multiplayer, but it would surprise me if it still works. Alas, the cheesily charming tutorial is a complete bust with this setup; you can watch it on YouTube if you like.

Note that this is just one way to get Magic running on a modern computer, the one that worked out for me. Back in 2010, a group of fans made a custom version that ran seamlessly under Windows 7 without requiring a virtual machine, but it’s my understanding that that version doesn’t work under more recent versions of the operating system. Sigh… retro-gaming in the borderlands between the MS-DOS and Windows eras is a bit like playing Whack-a-Mole sometimes. If you have any other tips or tricks, by all means, share them in the comments.



Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.


Sources: The book Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games by Sid Meier with Jennifer Lee Noonan; Computer Gaming World of June 1995, August 1996, May 1997, June 1997, and May 1998. And Soren Johnson’s interview with Sid Meier on his Designer Notes podcast.)

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2023 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Magic and Loss, Part 1: Magic in the Cards

 

Imagine a card game where there are hundreds of cards, with more being made all the time. Some cards are rare and some are common. You build a deck with whatever cards you want. You have no idea what’s in your opponent’s deck. And then you duel.

— Richard Garfield to Peter Adkison, 1991

Most revolutions have humble origins. Magic: The Gathering, the humble little card game that upended its industry in the 1990s, is no exception. It began with an ordinary-seeming fellow from the American heartland by the name of Peter Adkison.

Adkison grew up in rural Idaho in a family of Seventh Day Adventists, an idiosyncratic branch of evangelical Christianity. When not in church, the household played card and board games of all descriptions, a hobby for which the dark, snowy winters of their part of the country left ample time.

Adkison had moved to eastern Washington State to attend Walla Walla College when the Dungeons & Dragons craze of the early 1980s hit. Unfortunately, the game was soon banned from his college, itself a Seventh Day Adventists institution, because it was believed to have ties to Satanism. But fortunately, his mother, who had recently left both his father and the faith, gave him and his friends a safe space to play in her basement during vacations and holidays.

In 1985, Adkison graduated with a degree in computer science and went to work for Boeing in Seattle. Half a decade later, having grown disenchanted with the humdrum day-to-day of corporate aerospace engineering, he founded a would-be games publisher called Wizards of the Coast in his own basement. Looking for the right ticket into the hobby-game industry, he posted an open call on Usenet for designers who might be willing to sign on with a new and unproven company such as his. It was answered by two graduate students in mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, whose names were Mike Davis and Richard Garfield. They all agreed to meet in person on August 17, 1991, in Portland, Oregon, the home of Garfield’s parents.

Adkison realized quickly at that meeting that the specific design the pair had come to pitch to him was untenable for Wizards of the Coast, at least at this juncture. Called Robo Rally, it portrayed a madcap race by out-of-control robots across a factory floor, the players continually “programming” them a few moves ahead of time to deal with whatever obstacles looked like they were coming next. The game was (and is) pretty brilliant, but it required far too many bobs and thingamajigs in the box to be practical under Adkison’s current budgetary constraints.

Nevertheless, he was impressed by the pair — especially by Garfield, a PhD student in the field of combinatorics, who seemed the more committed, passionate, and creative of the two. Mind you, it wasn’t that he cut a particularly rousing figure by conventional metrics. “Then, as now,” says Adkison, “he wore mismatched socks, had strange bits of thread and fabric hanging from parts of his clothing, and generally looked like someone who had just walked into the Salvation Army [Store] and grabbed whatever seemed colorful.” It was Garfield’s sheer love of games — all kinds of games — that drew Adkison in: “His vision was clear, and went to the heart of gaming. He was looking for entertainment, social interaction, mental exercise, creativity, and challenge. I suddenly felt stupid, remembering the time I had refused to play Pictionary, even though I knew I would probably enjoy it.”

Still, Adkison recognized that he had no choice but to let this weirdly inspiring new acquaintance down as gently as possible: It’s not your game design, it’s my lack of the resources to do it justice. Whereupon Garfield spoke the words that would change both their lives forever: “If you don’t want Robo Rally, what do you want? Describe a game concept — any concept — and I’ll design a game around it for you.”

Adkison was taken aback. He had been hoping to serendipitously stumble upon the ideal game, and now he had the chance to have one designed to order. What made the most sense for getting his company off the ground? It ought to be something small and simple, something cheap and easy to produce. Perhaps… yes! A card game would be ideal; that way, there would be no need for the manufacturing complications of boards or dice or injection-molded plastic figurines. And yet it could still be colorful and exciting to look at, if he brought in some good illustrators for the cards. It could be a snack-sized game for two people that was playable in twenty minutes or less, perfect for filling those down times around the table while waiting for the rest of the group to show up, or waiting for that week’s designated away team to return with the pizzas. There always seemed to be a shortage of that kind of game in the hobbyist market, where everybody wanted to go epic, man all the time. It could be displayed next to the cash register at gaming stores as a potential impulse buy, could become a little stocking stuffer for that special gamer in your life. Such a game would be a splendid way of getting Wizards of the Coast off the ground. Once that was accomplished, there would be plenty of time for the likes of Robo Rally.

A nodding Richard Garfield took it all in and promised to think about it.

They all met up again at a Seattle gaming convention a week later. Here Adkison learned that, true to his word, Garfield had indeed been thinking about his requested snack-sized card game. In fact, he’d been thinking rather hard. He proposed a game in which the players would be wizards who engaged in a duel, summoning minions to do their bidding and hurling spells at one another. Thematically speaking, it wasn’t exactly groundbreaking in a gaming milieu that had J.R.R. Tolkien and Gary Gygax as its patron saints. Nevertheless, as Garfield expanded on his concept, Adkison’s eyes kept getting wider. And when he was done, Adkison ran outside to the parking lot so that he could whoop for joy without inhibition. Garfield’s idea was, he was convinced, the best one to come along in the tabletop space since Dungeons & Dragons. He could already smell the money it was going to make all of them.

The true genius of Garfield’s idea — the reason that Adkison knew it could make him rich — was ironically external to the core gameplay loop that is the alpha and omega of most games. That said, that loop needed to be rock solid for the rest of the magic of Magic: The Gathering to happen. And this it most certainly was. I should take a moment to go over it here before I continue my story.


You Can Do Magic: A Very (Very, Very) Brief Introduction

While it is possible for more than two players to participate in a game of Magic, we’ll play it today as a one-on-one duel, by far its most common incarnation in its glory days of the 1990s. Indeed, because we’re doing history here, I’ll be describing the game in general as it was played in the 1990s. The modern game had not changed markedly, but there has been some tinkering here and there.

Unless another number has been agreed upon, each player starts with twenty life points. The objective is to reduce your opponent’s life points to zero before she can do the same to you. Alternatively — and less commonly — you can win through attrition, by causing her to run out of cards to play before you do.

Each player starts with her own freshly shuffled deck of cards. How many cards? That’s a little bit complicated to get into right now, involving as it does the aforementioned revolutionary aspects of the game that are external to the core rules. Suffice for now to say that the range is usually but not always between about 40 and 60, and that the number of cards is not necessarily the same for both players.

These cards fall into two broad categories. There are land cards, which provide mana, the fuel for the spells you will cast. And there are spell cards, which represent the spells themselves. There are five different types of land, from Swamps to Mountains, and each provides a different color of mana. Likewise, most of the spell cards require some quantity of a specific color of mana to play.

One of the key attributes that sets Magic apart from most card games is its asymmetry. As I already noted, each player has her own deck of cards, and these decks are not identical, what with their contents being selected by the players themselves. Some might go with a completely White deck, some with all Black. Slightly more adventurous souls might mix two colors; the really smart, brave, and/or foolhardy might dare to blend three. To use more colors than that in a deck is generally agreed to be a recipe for disaster.

In theory at least, the cards of each color are equally powerful in the aggregate, but they lend themselves to divergent play styles. White (using mana drawn from Plains) is the color of healing and protection, and its cards reflect this. Black (Swamps), on the other hand, is the color of decay, corruption, and pestilence. And so it goes with the other colors: Blue (Islands) is the color of trickery and deception, Red (Mountains) of unbridled destruction and mayhem, Green (Forests) of nature and life. The Magic colors you prefer to play with are a sort of Rorschach test, defining what sort of player you want to be if not what sort of person you already are.

On the theory that the best way to learn something is often by example, let’s begin a sample duel. I’ll play a Red and Green deck against my much cleverer wife Dorte, who is playing Black and Blue.

At the beginning of the match, Dorte and I each draw the seven cards that compose our starting hand. The game then proceeds in rounds, during each of which each player takes one turn. I’ll be the starting player, the one who takes his turn first each round. (This is not always an advantage.)

Each player gets to draw one more card at the beginning of his or her turn, and each player is then allowed to deploy a maximum of one land card during that turn. I do both, placing a Mountain on the table in front of me.

Most spell cards require you to tap your store of mana — signified by turning one or more deployed land cards sideways — in order to play them. I happen to have in my hand a Lightning Bolt, which, I can see from the symbol at the top right of the card, requires just one Red mana to cast. That’s perfect for an early strike to wake up my enemy! I tap my freshly deployed Mountain and hurl the spell, doing three points of damage to Dorte just like that, reducing her life total to seventeen. “Instant” spells like this one go directly to the graveyard — known in most other card games as the player’s discard pile — once they’ve been cast. They’re gone forever from that point on — except under special circumstances, such as a spell that lets one pull cards out of the graveyard. (One quickly learns that every rule in Magic comes with that same implied asterisk.)


On her turn, Dorte draws a card, deploys a Swamp, and does nothing else. Presumably she doesn’t have any spell cards in her hand that cost just one Black mana to cast — or any that she wants to cast right now, at any rate.

The first round is now finished, so I can untap the Mountain I’ve already put on the table. This means I will be able to use it again on my next turn.

I draw another card to start my second turn. But after doing so, I find that there’s nothing else that I’m willing and able to do with my current hand, other than to grow my Red mana stockpile a bit by deploying another Mountain. Quick turns like the ones Dorte and I have just taken are not at all unusual during the early rounds of a game. Most spells cost more than the Lightning Bolt I happened to have handy at the start, and it can take time to build up the supply of mana needed to cast them. Because land cards that have been deployed in one turn stay deployed in those that follow, the amount of mana in play escalates steadily during a game of Magic, allowing more and more powerful spell cards to be played.

Unhappily for me, Dorte doesn’t need to wait around anymore. After drawing a card and deploying a second Swamp, she has enough mana to summon a Black Knight. As a summoned minion rather than a one-shot spell, he goes out onto the table in front of her, next to her supply of land. He will soon be able to attack me, or do battle with my own minions, should I manage to summon any. Thankfully, though, he is not allowed to attack on the same turn he is summoned. And so the round ends without further ado.

I get some luck of my own on my next turn; I draw the Forest card I’ve been looking for. I immediately deploy my Forest alongside my two preexisting Mountains, giving me one Green and two Red mana to work with this turn.

I use one of each to summon my first minion (or rather minions): a group of Elven Archers. (The symbols at the top right of this card tell me that it costs one Green mana and one additional mana of any color to play.) And then, because they too aren’t allowed to attack on the turn in which I summoned them, I can do nothing else.

Dorte deploys an Island on her turn, giving her one Blue and two Black mana in her reservoir.

Then she sends her Black Knight to attack me. I’m about to respond with my Elven Archers as defenders. Take a close look at both cards. The numbers at the bottom right tell us that both attack with a power of two, but that, while the Black Knight dies only after absorbing two points of damage, my Elven Archers are more fragile, dying after taking just one point of damage. Both also have special abilities. The Black Knight is invulnerable to White enemies, but this is irrelevant in this match, since I won’t be summoning any of them. On the other hand, both the Black Knight and the Elven Archers have a “First Strike” ability. This requires a bit more unpacking.

When minions clash, they normally damage one another simultaneously. A creature with First Strike, however, damages its enemy first; if and only if the enemy is left alive by the attack does it get to inflict retaliatory damage of its own. Yet in this case, both attacker and defender have First Strike. Their special abilities cancel one another out, causing them to inflict damage on one another simultaneously as usual. The result ought to be that both are killed, going to their respective players’ graveyards. I am, in other words, prepared to sacrifice my Elven Archers in order to get Dorte’s Black Knight — a slightly more formidable pugilist on the whole — out of the game as well.

But that’s not what actually happens here — because Dorte, who hasn’t yet tapped any of her lands, does so now in order to cast a Terror spell, killing my Elven Archers outright before they can move to block her Black Knight. With his way thus cleared, the Black Knight can attack me directly, reducing my life points to eighteen. And so the round ends.

On my next turn, I deploy another Mountain, giving me a total of three Red and one Green mana. That’s more than enough to summon another minion from my hand, a Gray Ogre this time. Having done so, I end my turn.

Dorte now deploys another Island, giving her a pool of two Blue and two Black mana. She uses one Black mana to cast Unholy Strength on her Black Knight, increasing his attack power to four and his hit points to three.

Then she uses one Blue mana to cast a Flight spell, giving the same Black Knight the “Flying” special ability, meaning it will be able to soar right over my (non-flying) Gray Ogre and do four points of damage to me directly. This match does not appear to be going my way.

But appearances can be deceiving. It so happened that I drew another Lightning Bolt on my last turn, and I still have one untapped Mountain left to use to cast it — not directly against Dorte this time, but rather against her augmented Black Knight. The spell’s three points of damage will be just enough to kill him, even with his newfound Unholy Strength; nor can his ability to Fly save him.

But I did tell you that Dorte is clever, right? Not wanting to lose her Black Knight permanently, she hurriedly casts Unsummon with her last remaining point of Blue mana. This allows her to take him back into her hand, to be summoned again on some future turn to fight another day — minus his buffs, which now go to her graveyard without him.

The outcome of the last round has been mixed, but by no means ruinously so for me. I’ve been able to avoid taking any more damage, have forced Dorte’s only minion out of play for the moment, and now have a minion of my own poised to take the offensive next round. I’ll chalk the round up as more successful than not, even as I worry about what Dorte might still have up her sleeve — or rather in her hand — for dealing with my Gray Ogre.

And so it goes. A game of Magic is a cat-and-mouse one of move and countermove, strike and counterstrike, feint and counter-feint.



Although the explanation above is highly simplified, the core gameplay loop of Magic really is fairly easy to teach and to learn. The game’s ability to obsess its players over the long term derives not from its core rules but from the cards themselves. Through them, a simple game becomes devilishly complex — albeit complex in a different sense from, say, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, with its hundreds of pages of closely typed rules. In Magic, by contrast, all of the rules beyond the most basic are literally printed right there on the cards. The rules thus rewrite themselves every time somebody brings a new card to a session. This was unprecedented enough in the early 1990s to be called revolutionary — and not only in the sense of pure game design, but in a cultural and commercial sense as well. For Magic, you see, was envisioned from the start as a collectible card game, the world’s first.

This meant that there wouldn’t be a single monolithic Magic game to buy, containing everything you needed to play. Each player would instead assemble his own unique deck of cards by buying one or more card packs from Wizards of the Coast and/or by trading cards with his friends. All of the card packs produced by Wizards would be randomized. No one — not Wizards, not the store that sold them, definitely not you the buyer — could know for sure what cards any given pack contained. You would have to pay your money and take your chances on whatever pack seemed to be calling to you from its shelf in the store on that day.

The concept was utterly original, arguably more so than anything that had been seen in tabletop gaming since Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had unleashed their “single-unit wargame” Dungeons & Dragons. But because of its unprecedented nature, Magic took a long, long time to turn into a reality. For, whatever its other merits, Magic did not live up to Peter Adkison’s request for a card game that would be simple and cheap to turn into a finished product.

First there was the work of making up hundreds of cards and their abilities, then of testing them against one another over and over to find out which ones were too powerful, which ones weren’t powerful enough, and which ones had been a bad idea from the get-go. Richard Garfield’s expertise in combinatorics was a godsend here, as was that of the other mathematicians who surrounded him at the University of Pennsylvania. “Richard would grab people for games all the time,” remembers one of those colleagues, the fellow who had the office across the hall from his. “If you said yes once, you were in the loop.” Magic became a way of life at the math department, threatening to derail graduations and theses. The University of Pennsylvania was the first educational institution to be so afflicted; it would not be the last.

The process of hewing a real game out of Garfield’s stroke of genius took so long that Peter Adkison came close to writing the whole project off, notwithstanding his bellow of enthusiasm in that Seattle parking lot after he had first been told of it. While he waited to see if Garfield would come through, he tried to bootstrap Wizards of the Coast by making supplements for established RPG lines. But his very first effort in this direction, a source book dealing with deities and their religions, nearly brought an end to the whole operation; the included notes on how to use the material with The Palladium Fantasy Role-Playing Game got him sued. He wound up having to scrap the source book and pay Palladium Books a settlement he really couldn’t afford. All he could do was chalk it up as a lesson learned. It wasn’t worth it to piggyback on anyone else’s intellectual property, he decided. Better for Wizards of the Coast to build its own inviolate empire with Magic.

Early in 1993 — fully eighteen months after that eureka moment in Seattle — Garfield finally delivered an initial slate of 300 different cards that he judged to be adequately tested and balanced. Now Adkison’s work began. He considered it essential that Magic look as good as it played; a part of the appeal of collecting the cards should be purely aesthetic. He farmed the illustrations out to a small army of freelance artists, most of them students at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts, who agreed to work for royalties and stock in lieu of the up-front fees that Adkison couldn’t afford to pay them; he also offered them the unusual bonus of seeing their names featured right there on the fronts of the cards themselves.

You would begin your journey into the realms of Magic by buying a 60-card “Starter Deck,” at a price of $7.95. After that, you could add to your deck’s possibilities by buying 15-card “Booster Packs,” which would sell for $2.45 each. Working out the top-secret algorithms that would dictate the card packs’ contents was an enormously complicated exercise in combinatorics, one that put even Garfield’s skills to the test. Starter Decks, for example, had to be reasonably playable all by themselves, with a balance between types of land and spells that required that color of mana. To introduce a modicum of balance into the Magic economy as a whole, Garfield classified each card as common, uncommon, or rare, with their proportions in a print run and in each individual pack within that run to be dictated accordingly. Adkison awarded the contract to print the cards to a firm in far-off Belgium, the only one he could find that was willing and able to piece together so many bespoke packages.

He planned to introduce Magic to the world in August of 1993 at Gen Con, the highlight of the hobbyist-gaming calendar. It very nearly didn’t happen. Having paid for a booth at the tabletop-gaming Mecca, he was flustered when the cards he intended to show and sell there failed to arrive in time from Belgium. He spent the first and most of the second day of the four-day show standing in front of the empty booth, telling nonplussed gamers about the revolutionary game he would like to be showing them but for a logistical snafu. Needless to say, it was not a good look.

At long last, on the afternoon of the second day, the truck he had been waiting for arrived from the East Coast. Adkison and his people ripped open the shipping boxes right there on the show floor and began stacking the card packs around them. The show attendees still looked skeptical, still didn’t quite seem to understand the concept: “What? Each player needs his own deck?” But eventually a few took the plunge on a Starter Pack, then a few more. Then a lot of people did so, even as the earliest adopters started coming back to pick up Booster Packs. And then the second wave of Starter Pack buyers returned to buy more Booster Packs, as the future of Magic played out in microcosm right there in the hallways, hotel rooms, cafeterias, and gaming halls of Gen Con. Adkison sold $25,000 worth of Magic that weekend. On Monday morning, he walked into Boeing and tendered his resignation.

Dragon magazine, the journal of record of hobbyist gaming on the tabletop, had a reporter on the scene at the show. Allen Varney’s article is prescient in many ways, although even he couldn’t possibly know just how big Magic would become.

Through the Gen Con Game Fair, people clustered three deep around the Wizards of the Coast table, craning to see the ongoing demonstrations of this game. Everywhere I went I saw someone playing it. In discussing it, some players showed reserved admiration, others enthusiasm, but body language told more than words. Everyone hunched forward intently, the way you do in deep discussions of politics or religion. Onlookers and devoted fans alike felt compelled to grapple with the idea of this game. It achieved more than just a commercial hit; it redefined gamers’ perspectives on their hobby.

The Magic: The Gathering card game, the trailblazer in what may become an entire industry category, combines card-game rules with trading-card collectability…

The Magic game requires a medium to large league of players to bring out its magic. Fortunately, its low entry price, simplicity, and quick play make this easier to achieve. It makes an ideal choice for conventions or lunch boxes. Its drawbacks seem minor beside its groundbreaking achievement.

Things happened quickly after Gen Con — so quickly that Dragon saw the need to append a hasty postscript to Varney’s original review in the very same issue in which it first appeared. Already at this point Magic could only be described as a “phenomenon.”

As I write this postscript, about six weeks after the game’s release, Magic has attracted legions of instant fanatics. The decks have sold out everywhere. Retailers frantically await follow-up shipments of millions of cards. I know lots of gamers who play the game long into the night, and weigh trade offers the way home buyers study mortgage contracts. I wonder what these junkies did before the game appeared; probably the junkies wonder too.

Yes, if you must know, I have become a junkie myself. The review above fails to highlight the game’s addictive quality, which clicks in when you appreciate the diverse strategies you can pursue in tailoring your deck or decks; you may create decks for different situations, like a golfer choosing irons. These decks display fascinating contrasts keyed to the colors and creatures they use, and to the players who use them…

Owning a large number of different cards seems to confer an odd, unspoken status. So does ownership of a particular rare card that no one else owns. Because every deck contains rare cards, this means a neophyte can buy one Magic deck and acquire instant stature among these long-time players: “Wow, he’s got a Lord of the Pit!” This seems to me something new in the gaming subculture, another sign of the game’s pioneering nature…

The allure of the rarest cards was partially down to the collector instinct alone; while those who called Magic the nerdy kid’s version of baseball cards overlooked much of the full picture, they weren’t entirely wrong either. In addition, though, uncommon and especially rare cards tended to be, when played properly, more powerful than their more plebeian comrades that might have been acquired inside the same cellophane wrapping.

It’s extraordinary to think that all of this was happening already just six weeks after Magic‘s debut. No other game in the hobby market had ever exploded out of the gates like this. Peter Adkison had used every dime he could scrape together from family, friends, bankers, and personal savings to fund an initial print run of 2.6 million cards, which he had thought should get him through the next year if the game took off like he hoped it would. It sold out within a week, leaving him scrambling to put together a second run of 7.3 million cards. That one too sold out in pre-orders before it had even arrived Stateside from Belgium. Not only were gamers demanding more cards in general, but also more types of cards. Adkison set Richard Garfield, who had just received a PhD after his name that he would never need to use now, to dreaming up and play-testing new cards.

Why was Magic such a hit? The answer is not that hard to grasp in the broad strokes, but there were some troubling ethical dilemmas lurking behind its success. While there’s no doubt that Magic was a genuinely great, compelling game, there’s also little doubt that it ruthlessly exploited the insecurities of its primary fan base: teenage males of a, shall we say, mathematical rather than athletic disposition. As anyone who has ever seen a computer-coding contest or a DOOM deathmatch can tell you, these kids aren’t a jot less competitive than the jocks that they mock and are mocked by; they’ve just transferred their competitive instinct to a different arena. It does seem to me that hyper-competitiveness is rooted in personal insecurity. And who is as insecure as a teenage boy of any high-school clique, other than perchance a teenage girl?

In practice, then, the story might go something like this:

A kid keeps hearing about this neat new game called Magic, and finally goes out and buys himself a Starter Pack. Now, he needs people to play with. So he shows his cards to some of his buddies, and convinces them to go out and buy Starter Packs of their own. They all start to play together — in fact, they start to play every chance they get, because the game turns out to be really, really fun. Taking less than twenty minutes to play a match as it does, it’s perfect for squeezing into school lunch breaks and the like.

So far, so good. But one kid in the group is having a bit more trouble than the others coming to terms with the game. He loses more than any of his friends, perhaps even becomes known as the pushover of the group, to be teased accordingly. Being a teenage boy, he likes that not at all. He’s been seeing these Booster Packs at the local gaming store. Could one of those give him a leg up? He decides to take a chance. And he’s rewarded for his initiative: he gets one or two powerful new cards, and suddenly he isn’t losing so much anymore.

Of course, the other kids in the group are hardly unaware of the source of their friend’s novel formidability. They grumble about how pathetic it is to go out and buy your way to victory. Eventually, though, one of them breaks down and buys a Booster Pack of his own. And so the arms race begins. Soon the boys are spending allowances, lawn-cutting and paper-route earnings, paychecks from Burger King on more and more Booster Packs. They tear each new one open, flinging the common and even uncommon cards into a big pile of the undesirable in the center of their bedroom, which sits there like vanities awaiting the bonfire while their owners look desperately for that Time Walk or Ancestral Recall that will let them dominate. The blessed day comes they do find what they’ve been looking for — but then they find that it’s still not enough, because the other boys have also upgraded their decks. And so the vicious cycle continues, fueled by the more cards that Wizards of the Coast is constantly inventing and churning out as quickly as a body ludic of adolescent addicts can absorb them into its bloodstream.

I hasten to add that it never had to go down this way. Theoretically speaking, a group of friends could decide to get into Magic, buy a Starter Pack or two each, and agree that that was as far as they would go. Such disciplined souls would be rewarded with an entertaining, deceptively intricate little card game that was well worth the relatively paltry sum they’d paid for it. But still, the chance that someone would give in to the shrink-wrapped temptations beckoning from the shelves of the local gaming store was always there. And after they did so, all bets were off.

I must acknowledge here as well that the motivation to buy more and more Booster Packs wasn’t always or even usually purely egotistical. Deck-building became a fascinating art and science in itself. Among advanced players, Magic duels tended to be won or lost before they even began, being determined by the mix of cards each player had in his deck. Remember that the number and types of cards in a deck were entirely up to that deck’s owner. Refining a deck into a precision-guided killing machine was an education in itself in probability and statistics. For example, how many land versus spell cards were optimal? If you drew too few land cards, you might find yourself unable to do much of anything while your opponent pounded on you; too many land cards, on the other hand, were clutter in your hand that just as effectively prevented you from getting summoned minions and other spells into play. And how many cards should you have in total, for that matter? Inexperienced players with more money than sense tended to assemble motley monstrosities of decks with 80 cards or more, only to learn that their probability of getting the right combinations of cards into their hand with such a deck was far too low. Lean and mean decks that did just a few things extremely well were almost always better than a random smorgasbord of even the rarest, most powerful cards.

All of which is to say that, at the most advanced level, Magic came to revolve around specific, devious combinations of cards that multiplied one another’s strengths in unexpected ways. Allow me to cite a simple example, laughably so by the standards of skilled players.

Consider the case of the Lifetap. This card is deadly against an opponent who relies heavily on Green mana, because it lets you gain one point of life every single time he taps one of his Forests for the mana he needs. It puts him in a place where literally everything he tries to do to kill you only makes you stronger. Yet it’s useless against an opponent who isn’t using Green mana, nothing but clutter in your deck. Or is it?

If you can put it into a play alongside a Magic Hack, it becomes an all-purpose game changer. For Magic Hack, you see, will let you change the word “Forest” on the Lifetap card to whatever land your opponent happens to be relying on most of all.

Of course, you have to balance the number of Lifetaps and Magic Hacks in your deck to give yourself a reasonable chance of getting them into play in combination, without having so many that you don’t see enough of the other cards you will need to win. And so begins the endless process of tinkering and honing that is the fate and the passion of the serious student of Magic

By way of summation, then, Magic: The Gathering was simultaneously a great game in its own right and a downright dangerous pastime for the right (or wrong?) kind of mind. It could deliver an enormous amount of satisfying fun, or it could eat up all of one’s money and free time, distracting from other, less zero-sum forms of social interaction and trapping its victims into a wallet-emptying spiral of addiction. Even teenage players could recognize its dangers, for all that they often couldn’t see their way clear of them; they took to calling those tempting Booster Packs “Crack in a Pack.” In Generation Decks, his thoughtful book-length history of Magic, Titus Chalk describes the unhealthily cloistered air of the shop backrooms in which Magic thrived.

These shops are turf. The tangible space a community has carved out for itself, and which it is loath to surrender again. Here there is safety in numbers. Reassurance in peers who look, act, and speak the same. And a comfort to looking inwards rather than out through cluttered windows. Hiding in the shadows, these places preserve the community’s cosiness, without holding it up to scrutiny or opening it up to others whose different values might enrich it. The physical environment is a symptom of its inhabitants’ insecurities. In gloomy backrooms, Magic cloaks itself in stigma.

How do you encourage a community to look outwards when it is so accustomed to lurking in the margins?

Richard Garfield insists that exploiting his young players was never on his mind when he was designing Magic, and we have no reason to disbelieve him. Indeed, his original vision for the Magic economy was actually quite different from what the reality became. He imagined that Magic would become primarily a trading game, in which a pool of cards that grew only slowly if at all would circulate busily among a community of players. Barry Reich, a fellow graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania who helped Garfield refine the game before its release, says that they imagined back then that “extravagant people might buy two [Starter] Decks and [thereafter] a Booster Pack or two a year.”

The game’s most notorious early rule stemmed directly from this vision of a semi-closed economy with only limited external stimulus in the form of new cards. That rule was the “ante.” It stipulated that, before beginning a game, each player would randomly draw one card from his deck and set it aside; the winner of the match would then get to take the loser’s ante card home with him. If you squint just right, you can sort of see this rule through Garfield’s eyes. The ante would get and keep cards moving through the Magic community.

Still, its problematic aspects ought to have been obvious even to an innocent like him. How much fun could it be for a new player, trying Magic for the first time, to pay for the learning experience by losing card after card? As if that wasn’t argument enough against it, the rule effectively turned Magic into a Wizards of the Coast-sanctioned form of gambling, one that was literally illegal according to the laws of many American states; you were, after all, playing a game with a strong element of chance for objects of real monetary value. The fact that the gamblers in this case were mostly underage only made the optics that much worse. Small wonder that, within a few years of Magic‘s release, the ante would be quietly retired and scrubbed as much as possible from the game’s history. Its only saving grace while it existed was that it was officially described as “optional.”

In the spirit that every rule in Magic comes complete with a card-provided asterisk, some early cards played with the ante mechanic. This one, which lets you draw seven new cards into your hand for the price of just one Black mana, is very potent. But you also pay for that potency by risking two cards instead of one on the outcome of the match.

Wizards of the Coast grew from a handful of people working out of Peter Adkison’s basement in 1993 to 50 employees in 1994, then to 250 in 1995. It even started publishing Magic novels — a rather cheeky move, given how thin the fiction and “universe” of the card game was, drawing indiscriminately on everything from the myths of King Arthur to the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. (Lots of Magic addicts bought the books mainly for the coupons to be found at the back of them, which could be mailed in to receive a card that was otherwise unavailable.) The company was drowning in money, with profit margins on the ubiquitous little cards that the makers of traditional tabletop games could only dream of.

It soon became all too clear that, although Magic was certainly drawing some new folks into the circle of tabletop gamers, most of its success was coming at the expense of every other company in that market — not least the 800-ton mothership, TSR of Dungeons & Dragons fame, the host of the Gen Con convention where Magic had gotten its start. The marketplace calculus proved to be as relentlessly zero-sum as a Magic duel: the new game’s young fans had only a limited amount of funds to splash around, so that every dollar they spent on Magic was a dollar they couldn’t spend on Dungeons & Dragons or the like. Anyone from the industry’s old guard who might have been sleeping at the switch was fully alerted to the magnitude of the crisis at the 1994 Gen Con, which seemed to be about little else than this little card game that was now celebrating its first birthday. “The joke of the convention was that if there was any horizontal space, Magic players were playing on it,” says Mark Rosewater, then a writer for The Duelist, Wizards of the Coast’s new in-house magazine. “As you walked through the convention halls, you could see Magic players camped out all over the floor.” The first annual Magic World Championship was held at the convention: 500 players dueling for the title of best in the world, overshadowing everything else that went on there. Soon there would be a Magic Pro Tour to compete with the World Series of Poker.

The growing chorus of grumbles about Magic that could be detected underneath all the hysteria was the very definition of sour grapes, on the part of gamers and companies who saw a silly card game stealing away from them a hobby that they loved. But be that as it may, there were valid points to be detected amidst the chorus. In Dungeons & Dragons, you lived through the triumphs and tragedies of the dice together with your friends; in Magic, you did your level best to beat them. Something about the game seemed to bring out the worst in many of its players. The vibes in the room at Magic tournaments weren’t always the most pleasant.

Then, too, Dungeons & Dragons was a creative endeavor in a way that Magic wasn’t. Although it was easy to forget amidst the torrent of source books and adventure modules unleashed by the TSR of the 1990s, Dungeons & Dragons had once taken it as a given that you would make up your own worlds and adventures from whole cloth, and that ideal was still lodged somewhere deep in even in the current game’s DNA; in principle, you could still have a marvelous time exploring realms of the imagination with your friends after buying no more than the core trio of rule books. Magic, on the other hand, belonged to Wizards of the Coast, not to its players; the latter could only play with the content their ludic overlords deigned to give them, content of which they were forced to keep buying more and more by peer pressure and the need to stay competitive — which were largely one and the same, of course.

Yet such philosophical objections didn’t stop the other gaming companies from doing what they felt they had to in order to survive: making Magic-style collectible card games of their own. TSR was actually one of the first to do so, rushing out a product called Spellfire, reportedly designed over a weekend and then slapped together using recycled Dungeons & Dragons art. When it didn’t set the world on fire, they tried again with Dragon Dice, which at least scored some points for innovation by replacing cards with piles and piles of bespoke dice. Many, many others joined the fray as well. There were collectible card games based on Mortal Kombat, on The Lord of the Rings, on Babylon 5, on Star Wars and Star Trek, even on Monty Python, to say nothing of the dozens of also-rans who tried to make a go of it without the benefit of a license. Some did okay for a while, but none came anywhere close to Magic numbers. This applied even to Netrunner and The BattleTech Collectible Card Game, both designed by Richard Garfield himself for Wizards of the Coast, both commercial disappointments.

And then too there was a Magic computer game, to which one of the most famous designers in that industry lent his considerable talents. It will be our subject next time…



Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.


Sources: The books Designers & Dragons: The 80s by Sheldon Appelcline, Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons by Ben Riggs, and Generation Decks: The Unofficial History of Gaming Phenomenon Magic: The Gathering by Titus Chalk, Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It by David M. Ewalt, and The Fantasy Roleplaying Bible, second edition, by Sean Patick Fannon. Plus the Dragon of January 1994 and the January 2018 issue of Seattle Met. Online sources include interviews with Richard Garfield on Board Game Geek, Vice, Star City GamesMagic F2F, and the official Magic YouTube channel.

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2023 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Another Year Down, Many More to Go

This new month of September being a five-Friday month, I’ve decided to take this week as an opportunity to bank an article. That way, I’ll be able to travel back to the United States for the holidays later on this year without missing two weeks of content in a row across my two sites. In lieu of a proper article — which you’ll get next week, I promise — how about if we pause today to take a breath and survey the territory behind and ahead of us?

As the more studious readers among you may already have noticed, we finally moved out of the borderlands between 1996 and 1997 and into the new year proper with my last article. That means it’s ebook time. You can find the 1996 volume of the ever-growing Digital Antiquarian archive, in .epub or .mobi editions and with or without reader comments included, in the usual place. I learned how to make these myself this time, but the tools I used to do so are still those of Richard Lindner. Thanks, Richard! I shouldn’t have to bother you so much going forward…

And speaking of going forward: here’s a taster of what I have tentatively planned in terms of 1997 coverage. Looking at the year as a whole, I must admit that I don’t quite see one bursting with perfectly formed classics. But I do, on the other hand, see a year of important experiments that laid the groundwork for classics to come, as designers continued to wrestle the many new technological affordances they had been granted recently into natural-feeling, playable forms. The flood of undeniable classics would come in 1998, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, some quick notes on what’s in store for the immediate future. Needless to say, if you want to be completely surprised by what appears on this site every fortnight, now is the time to stop reading!

  • I’m currently working on a two-parter about the Magic: The Gathering phenomenon, the first part being about the card game that upended the whole tabletop-gaming industry in the 1990s, the second about its digital adaptation, Sid Meier’s last game for MicroProse.
  • The Last Express
  • This topic is a little more unsettled than most of them, but I’d like to do something with sex. No, not in my personal life — I’m too old and too married for that — but in the context of the digital world of the 1990s. I have a minimalist and a maximalist version in mind. The former would look at games like Voyeur I and II, Psychic Detective, Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh, Blue Heat, and Tender Loving Care, which attempted to carve out a market for “adult” computer entertainment within the interactive-movie space. The latter would survey these games as well, but expand the story to encompass the emergence of an online pornography industry, the first folks to make real money on the Web. I lean toward going for the Full Monty, so to speak, but I’d love to hear your secret thoughts and innermost desires. Or, um, come to think of it, just the surface ones would be fine.
  • Japanese CRPGs, leading up to and then showcasing Final Fantasy VII. This is foreign territory for me in more ways than one, but the story of how this hugely popular strand of gaming emerged out of the Apple II Wizardry strikes me as under-told, while Final Fantasy VII itself is without a doubt one of the most beloved games of all time. It even fulfills the letter of my law of focusing on computer rather than console games here, since it did get a release on Windows…
  • Ultima Online
  • Age of Empires
  • Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror
  • Developments in the realm of the first-person shooter, especially Unreal and Jedi Knight. (I’ve already had a lot of fun playing Jedi Knight start to finish, a first for me with the genre whilst writing these histories. Maybe I can stop worrying and learn to love to run and gun…)
  • Fallout
  • Riven
  • Blade Runner
  • The Curse of Monkey Island
  • Zork: Nemesis and Zork: Grand Inquisitor

Feel free to chime in in the comments with suggestions of what you’d like to see. While I can’t promise to deliver on every request — I do have to follow my own muse to some extent in order to give you good articles, and I do have to keep moving so that our progress through history doesn’t start to take even longer than living through the real events did — I do take them all seriously.

And if you’re a regular reader who hasn’t yet taken the Patreon plunge, please do give that some thought as well if your personal finances are up to it. Your pledges are the only reason I can do this.

Last but by no means least, there is one thing that I can’t say enough to those of you who already pitch in: Thank you for your support! That includes not only existing patrons but all of you who take the time to offer up typo reports, factual corrections, and alternative perspectives in the comments and in emails. I remain as honored today that you consider me worth the effort as I was when all of this began twelve years ago. You remain, as ever, the best readers in the world.

See you next week!