Magic and Loss, Part 1: Magic in the Cards

08 Sep


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.


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


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49 Responses to Magic and Loss, Part 1: Magic in the Cards

  1. Yeechang Lee

    September 8, 2023 at 4:57 pm

    Thank you for this article. I have always been aware of Magic: The Gathering but knew nothing about how it works.

    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.

    Reminds me of this infamous Reddit post: I participated in one of the biggest Magic: the Gathering tournaments of all time this weekend. In an effort to document it, I posed for pictures near people with exposed asscracks. I present to you Grand Prix Richmond Crackstyle.

  2. Sniffnoy

    September 8, 2023 at 5:52 pm

    I don’t have a source offhand, but I believe Garfield has said that the idea that each card would effectively have its own rules on it was inspired by Cosmic Encounter.

    Also, I get the impression that two-color decks are more common than mono-color decks, and three-color decks don’t seem to be all that rare these days. Four-color and five-color decks do happen too! Indeed, they go a ways back even; “The Deck” from 1996, the first known Magic deck to be given a name, was a five-color deck. Of course all of this is quite reliant on nonbasic lands, which I guess you didn’t discuss. :)

    • Gnoman

      September 8, 2023 at 7:46 pm

      There’s been a lot of changes in the game over the years, as I understand it. Modern cards are much less likely to require a huge investment in a single color, with the bulk of mana costs being “grey”. There’s also a lot more nonbasic lands than there used to be, which can give multiple of a color, or more than one color.

      These combine to make multi-color a lot more viable, which can lead to some absolutely hilarious themed decks – White/Black is potentially a stunningly powerful combination, sending angels and demons alike at the other player6.

    • Brent

      September 9, 2023 at 11:44 am

      I too was surprised that there was no mention of Cosmic Encounter, as Garfield was always very quick to point to it as a primary influence.

  3. Not Fenimore

    September 8, 2023 at 6:43 pm

    > 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.

    It’s my understanding (I haven’t been in magic too much since way back in junior high – Tempest through Nemesis) that this is actually one of the most popular formats nowadays, at least for casual players: a group gets together when a new set is released, collectively buys some starter decks or booster packs, divvies them up by colour or by drafting or however, and then plays with those decks.

    Of course, paying top dollar for broken old cards is also still a thing, too.

  4. jsn

    September 8, 2023 at 7:26 pm

    “…hit him like a Great Plains gale.”

    If this metaphor is supposed to relate to Adkison’s past, it doesn’t work based on what’s told in the article. Idaho and Washington aren’t on the Plains.

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 8, 2023 at 8:42 pm

      I have a tendency to mix up Idaho and Iowa. Thanks!

  5. John

    September 8, 2023 at 7:50 pm

    There must be something to this Magic business, but whatever it is I confess it leaves me cold. My apologies, Jimmy, but I couldn’t even finish the play-by-play in this article. My possibly unfair impression of the game is that it’s one fiddly little arbitrary rule after another, every card and every possible action constituting an edge or special case. Ugh. By contrast, the history of the game is fascinating, and I’m looking forward to the next article in the series.

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 8, 2023 at 8:46 pm

      You ain’t seen nothing, my friend. ;) The core game is actually pretty elegant and simple, but when people start playing all those bespoke cards lots and lots of edge cases tend to crop up. Many a Magic tournament has ended in screaming rows over questions with no obviously correct answers. When working on the computer game, Sid Meier frequently had to call Wizards of the Coasts with fiddly questions about the priorities and interactions of the different cards. The initial answer, as I understand it, was often, “We’ll have to get back to you on that.”

      • Sniffnoy

        September 8, 2023 at 11:49 pm

        Likely when the game was being made, there weren’t even definite answers. In the early days, the game simply didn’t have a comprehensive rulebook that could answer such questions, and rulings were more or less made case-by-case, with general principles being stitched together out of those. Really early on, even such basic questions as “how exactly does protection from black work?” didn’t have definite answers!

        I don’t think there was a proper comprehensive ruleset that could answer such questions systematically until the 5th Edition rules (which I believe actually went into effect with Mirage, earlier than 5th Edition). Now, Mirage came out in October of 1996, so (not having played it) it’s not obvious to me whether it would have been made with the 5th Edition rules in mind. If not, of course that was their answer! And even if it was the 5th Edition rules were so notoriously complex that it’s said that nobody truly understood them, so a “we’ll have to get back to you” would be pretty understandable even with them.

        Of course, with 6th Edition they threw all that out and made the giant overhaul that was the 6th Edition rules, much simplifying the comprehensive rules to the point that a reasonable number of people could understand them (not that most playes would ever bother to or need to). And the 6th Edition rules remain the basis of the rules to this day (although there was a second series of big changes in 2010, but these were smaller than the 6th Edition changes). But 6th Edition wasn’t until 1999, too late to have affected this game…

        • Sniffnoy

          September 9, 2023 at 1:03 am

          Oops, that should say 2009, not 2010 (the set was called Magic 2010, but it was released in 2009). Well, that’s immaterial to the point, anyway.

        • Can

          September 13, 2023 at 5:20 pm

          This sounds correct to me. I started playing when Mirage came out and stopped a few years after but I’ll forever think of 5th Edition as “the new one.

  6. arthur

    September 8, 2023 at 8:42 pm

    Magic definitely sped up the demise of TSR. Although, they were doing a great job of mangling their business already!

  7. Opiter

    September 8, 2023 at 9:26 pm

    I can’t believe it, an article I’m actually qualified to post nitpicks about!

    “While it is possible for more than two players to participate in a game of Magic, it works best and is played most frequently as a one-on-one duel.”
    Given the popularity and support of the multiplayer “Commander” format these days, both parts of this sentence could certainly be challenged.

    “(This is not always an advantage.)”
    I have to at least bring up one of the most wild Magic decks ever made, Manaless Dredge. If you hate edge cases, then you’ll loathe a deck whose entire game plan is to go second, discard a card to hand size (you can only have 7 cards in your hand at the end of your turn), and then proceed to work entirely out of the graveyard, never playing a single land (hence the name). Out of fear of this website’s spam filter, I will just tell you to Google it if you are interested.

    “At the beginning of his or her turn, each player gets to draw one more card. I do so now, giving me a total of eight in my hand.”
    The first player’s first turn does not involve drawing a card, both in the computer game and now.

    “This one, which lets you draw eight new cards into your hand for the price is just one Black mana, is very potent.”
    Contract from Below’s original wording is rather nonsensical, but nevertheless you in fact only draw 7 cards, and put the eighth card into the ante.

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 9, 2023 at 7:23 am

      Thanks for the nitpicks! Edits made.

      • Ryan

        September 10, 2023 at 9:46 am

        In the original rules the first player did draw a card. Here’s a mostly working link to the original rulebook ( ).

        At some point tournaments started using the ‘first player doesn’t draw’ rule to try to balance out the advantage, and then later on it was added as an official rule.

        Mulligans were also very much a house rule, with different groups having different rules for what they did and when you were allowed to use them. Our group’s rule was “no land or all land” lets you reshuffle your opening hand once.

        Other than Ante, Mulligans, and the play/draw rule, the shape and structure of a match has barely changed at all despite the many iterations on the rulebook, and most old cards still mostly make sense with the current rules.

        • Sniffnoy

          September 10, 2023 at 6:23 pm

          Hm, it’s a bit hard to tell, but it looks to me like “play or draw” may not have been added until the 5th Edition rules (i.e. Mirage); it doesn’t appear in the 4th Edition rulebooks I can find online. Huh, guess that’s later than I realized!

          No idea what the computer game does, not having played it. Although this may tell us something about whether the game is using 5th Edition rules or not…?

          (Wondering whether Ice Age had the play-or-draw rule. But I can’t quickly find an Ice Age rulebook online…)

          • Jimmy Maher

            September 11, 2023 at 4:45 am

            Having just looked it up in the manual and tested it out in the program, I can say that, in the MicroProse game, everybody draws a card every turn, including the first. So, the original text here was correct on that point.

  8. Mateus Fedozzi

    September 8, 2023 at 9:57 pm

    Oh, Magic. I was the only nerd in my group that didn’t play the game. It always felt pay-to-win for me. But it speaks a lot of its success the fact that this was one of the first American table games released here in Brazil with the official licence (D&D and HeroQuest also came officially before it, but neither was a financial success, even if they became cult hits). Pokémon TCG came soon after, and I think it was the only game that seriously challenged it, although it’s public was slightly younger.

    Magic has kept its flame around here through all these years. My brother-in-law still plays it along with some of his oldest friends. It has at least accomplished one thing: it kept its fans being consumers and always drooling for more even through its lowest lows. But there are so many clones and variants, and derivative works now, that I doubt it will make many new fans going forward.

    • BlueTemplar

      October 4, 2023 at 8:40 am

      Somewhat counter-intuitively, it has expanded a lot in the recent years, *especially* during the Covid pandemic, thanks to its digital version Magic Arena.

      Which was the 3rd official simulator – counting the six 2010’s “Duels of the Planeswalkers” games as one – but the first one to achieve widespread popularity – it’s very well done for casual players, with a top notch tutorial (though of course still not comparable to playing it in real life, also quite sluggish and underfeatured for experienced players).

      And this despite (partially, thanks to) intense competition from Hearthstone and similar.

  9. M. Casey

    September 8, 2023 at 10:35 pm

    If you were a certain kind of gamer at a certain kind of age, those early years of Magic burn themselves into your memory. I was one of those who fell into its thrall as a teenager. Pre-homeroom Magic. Lunchtime Magic. After school Magic. Getting a job to pay for Magic.

    It’s incredibly impressive what Garfield and pals did with the design: they were the first and might have been the best, even now. (Are there any other CCGs still being made and in wide play? Pokemon and Yugioh maybe?) Of all the sins of the original rules–yeah, ante didn’t really work, interrupts and the distinctions between mono and continuous artifacts were superfluous, power levels of cards had extreme variance–the only one that couldn’t really be fixed was “mana screw,” though sets these days try to minimize its effects whenever possible.

    And having the second main phase… I think a lesser designer would’ve left that out, but it’s such an easy and wise way to add tactical depth to the game.

    Anyway, I’m glad you’re writing this up Jimmy. I could reminisce about it for some time.

  10. Jaina

    September 8, 2023 at 11:27 pm

    He spend the first and most of the second day of the four-day show” Spent

    draw eight new cards into your hand for the price is just one Black mana” of

    with piles and and piles of bespoke dice.” Technically a typo, but certainly emphasizes the amount needed

    Magic is really fun. But the criticism is valid. I think it’s interesting how often you defaulted to using solely ‘he’ in this article, in contrast to the usual policy of ‘she’. Pretty telling about the way Magic is viewed, and… yes a pretty well earned reputation as a boys club, especially in the early days.

    And I know it’s a side note, but it is hilarious to me how much early Magic embraced the demonic vibe. A looottt of cards that wouldn’t be printed nowadays, even if the conservative frenzy over Satanism has… evolved, I guess.

    I dislike the extreme prices in the secondary market, but man do I wish I spent a lot more for the Alpha/Beta etc early packs. Unfortunately, I was more Fallen Empires and Homelands era, which… were not…. great expansions in many ways…

    • Sniffnoy

      September 9, 2023 at 1:02 am

      And I know it’s a side note, but it is hilarious to me how much early Magic embraced the demonic vibe. A looottt of cards that wouldn’t be printed nowadays, even if the conservative frenzy over Satanism has… evolved, I guess.

      It’s not clear to me why you say this. Magic did for some time stop printing demons (and also removed pentagrams and such from artwork) due to the frenzy over Satanism you mention, but starting with Onslaught in 2002 they started printing demons again, and there’s plenty of demon-themed cards these days. Is there some difference between early Magic demons and current Magic demons that I’m not noticing, that makes the former more demonic in tone?

      • Tyler Bartlett

        September 9, 2023 at 10:26 pm

        I think I remember Mark Rosewater saying on a podcast that the popularity of shows like Charmed and Buffy made demons in pop culture less controversial.

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 9, 2023 at 7:26 am


    • BlueTemplar

      October 4, 2023 at 8:47 am

      For those that wouldn’t know : like D&D, Magic was targeted by some Christians over the representations of evil, and quickly changed to a policy of demons, devils, and the like not being included on cards any more (they went for a more Borg-like evil aping aesthetics of Alien), which has lasted for at least a decade I think ?

  11. Hadean

    September 9, 2023 at 12:55 am

    I still have my old all-white (paladin themed) deck filled with original alpha and beta cards. I won so many tournaments with it that I loathe to sell the cards, even though I know some are apparently worth quite a lot (okay, I just checked and I have two Balance cards worth $3000+… now I’m rethinking things though they aren’t in mint condition).

    But anyway, I was that kid that had a part time job and spent a lot of it on booster packs… and waiting for them to arrive each time. And honestly? I don’t regret it. Me and my mates had fun for years every lunch hour… sure, it was less creative than D&D (which I do now) but it was the perfect game at the perfect time. (Though saving for uni would have been nice too! ;-)

    Like all of your articles, I appreciate this trip down memory lane.

    • Not Fenimore

      September 10, 2023 at 5:35 pm

      Heh, I have an Ice Age Necropotence – worth apparently about $250, I think. Except that it’s in “heavily played” condition, and my local games store has a heavily played Ice Age Necropotence, for sale for $3.25.

      • Keith

        September 11, 2023 at 5:56 pm

        My wife and I played during the 4th edition/Darkness/Ice Age era, when they were starting to work the kinks out of the rules and card power. We played in Friday night tournaments at our local comic book shop, competing for store credit which we then spent to buy rare singles. At this time, you could still grab a Black Lotus or Mox for $30-40… even alpha or beta versions. My wife and I both owned a full set of mixed beta and unlimited moxen, since you couldn’t be competitive without them. When we decided to get out of the game, we sold the whole collection to another player (and probably traded those moxen back to the shop for more than we paid.) Occasionally I look at what those cards, that we casually shuffled and scuffed all over the tabletops, sell for now when in good condition. It’s nuts.

  12. Gordon Cameron

    September 9, 2023 at 2:53 am

    My brother’s group of friends was fully into Magic by the summer of ’94 when I visited from college. I played the game more thoroughly myself around ’96, I think. I remember once being so broke I sold a Shivan Dragon for a few dollars to buy a combo meal at a fast food restaurant. My interest in the game waxed and waned over the years, but it was always a nice thing to be able to play with friends. I was never remotely competitive. The only other CCG I really got into was its computerized descendant, Hearthstone. (Unless you count other types of games that have incorporated CCG mechanics into their structure, such as Slay the Spire.)

  13. Jonas

    September 9, 2023 at 2:49 pm

    “Something about the game seemed to bring out the worst in many of its players.” It reminds me of an anecdote: I remember I was playing D&D with some friends in the back of a comic shop (Which was also the place where Magic players hung out). Suddenly a nervous Magic player comes to the place and shouts “I can’t find my deck, no one is leaving here until I check the bags of everyone present!” Once said and done, he began to go through each of the belongings of all the people in the premises (including mine). In the end he didn’t find it, after a while someone told me that the deck had been hidden by his wife, for spending the money that was for his daughter’s school on Magic cards.

  14. Narsham

    September 9, 2023 at 4:02 pm

    1. Your example of play is wrong: if you destroy or bury a blocking creature after blockers have been declared, the attacking creature is still considered blocked and deals no damage to your opponent (unless it has trample).

    2. I think you’re underplaying the gambling aspect to the game and how much it mattered to its success. Not only is there a good comparison to be made between the booster packs and loot boxes (you’ll receive some reward, but not necessarily what you’re looking for), but even the physical phenomenon of opening a booster pack to reveal the cards inside shared aspects of the carefully curated casino experience. Pulling down to open a pack shares some commonalities with a slot machine lever, though of course you’re guaranteed to get something in the pack. I wouldn’t claim it was deliberate, any more than I think that “new card smell” was deliberate and not simply a result of the manufacturing process, but it was undeniably powerful.

    The rise of the “singles” market for purchasing single cards, and then the Internet facilitating the purchase of single cards online, chipped away at this gambling aspect, but I would guess that current players still get that endorphin rush of opening a new pack. The way the PC game handles that is effective but still diminished.

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 9, 2023 at 4:44 pm

      1. Hmm… Did this change at some point? I could swear the computer game from 1997 works as I described it. Most of my example of play is actually drawn directly from the tutorial in the computer game.

      2. Yes. It’s very possible to argue for Magic as the first “pay to win” game, making it a dubious sort of pioneer indeed. My first draft of this article had a lot more about that — and also about how Magic destroyed TSR — but I elected to save most of those discussions for the future.

      • Jaina

        September 9, 2023 at 9:48 pm

        one-on-one duel, by far it most common incarnation in its glory days of the 1990s.” It’s? And a minor quibble, but I don’t think calling the 1990’s Magics glory days is entirely accurate. It was a phenomenal new type of game, sure. But like WoW is still the giant behemoth of MMOs, so too is Magic entirely relevant and popular and only has a couple of current competitors.

        And as for #1, as a 90’s only player, I agree with what Jimmy wrote. My admittedly vague memory of terms like the stack and instants means that of course terror means the creature is instantly gone and thus can’t be used to block damage. Ahhh Magic and your rules.

        • Jimmy Maher

          September 10, 2023 at 6:45 am

          Thanks! I’m pretty comfortable with the term “glory days” here. Yes, the game is still popular today — and in a more healthy, sustainable way at that — but it was a full-on phenomenon in the 1990s.

        • BlueTemplar

          October 4, 2023 at 11:13 am

          Note that the stack itself didn’t exist before the 6th edition.

          And the rules of combat have changed quite significantly several times : most notably damage of creatures during combat going on the stack after the 6th, and not going on the stack after M10 :

      • Tyler Bartlett

        September 10, 2023 at 12:34 am

        I can’t find any indication that blocking ever worked the way you described under any version of the paper magic rules (I’ve never played the MicroProse game). Are you absolutely sure Dorte cast Terror after blocks were declared, rather than before?

        • Jimmy Maher

          September 10, 2023 at 7:04 am

          It turns out you’re right. From the MicroProse manual:

          Here’s an important rule. Once an attacking creature is blocked, it stays blocked — no matter what happens to the blocker. Killing or removing the blocker doesn’t “unblock” the attacker — nor does casting a spell which, if cast earlier, would have made the block illegal, nor does otherwise changing the attacker’s abilities. So, for example, you can still use Jump to give a creature Flying after the block has been declared, but it won’t do any good.

          You learn something new every day. I rejiggered the sample narrative slightly. Thanks!

  15. Christian Studer

    September 9, 2023 at 8:49 pm

    If you are an early Magic player (I started during third edition) and read this article just for the nostalgia of it, I can recommend further reading: Back in my day…

    • Christian Studer

      September 9, 2023 at 9:09 pm

      Oh, and I find it pretty awesome that I’m playing the essentially same game 25 years later with my kids now. It held up incredibly well.

  16. Captain Rufus

    September 10, 2023 at 8:07 pm

    Ah Magic the game that basically changed the entire industry of Hobby Gaming and mostly for the worst. Its not a bad game but its got a terrible (and thanks to modern Capitalism ever worsening) business model and a player base that tends to be utterly vile.

    It more or less props up every comic book or other nerd store that exists these days but in many cases has to as it runs everyone else out or marginalizes other games and communities especially on release days.

    Its also turned Gaming into a hyper competitive money gobbling treadmill where games are popular because they are popular where you are always buying more stuff to play in organized events.

    Basically it ruined Hobby Gaming as I knew it and want it to be and it can suck my butthole.

    Which is an extra shame as its honestly a pretty good game.

  17. Robert Barron

    September 11, 2023 at 5:56 pm

    This might be a conscious choice, but the images of the cards look much fuzzier/pixelated compared to your usual standards.

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 11, 2023 at 6:05 pm

      It’s because they’re the digitized versions taken out of the MicroProse computer game.

  18. Jacob S

    September 20, 2023 at 6:10 pm

    When I was in college, there was a role-playing group – a student organization. I was never a member, but I was kind of adjacent to the group in the sense of (1) being kinda-friends or classmates with some of them and (2) often doing my homework in a seat in the campus center next to where they hung out.

    Anyway, I was able to observe how the role-playing group suddenly became the “doing nothing but playing Magic in the corner of campus center” group and … it’s been a lot of years … but in my memory it sure seemed like that game just ate up a lot of those students. My whole impression was that it was something viral and unhealthy for them, and I just gave it a very wide berth.

    I appreciate this article for giving me some insight into, and appreciation for, the game’s design. As a combinatorics-loving mathematician myself, I spent most of the week after reading the article thinking, “Wow, that designing and testing sounds like SO MUCH FUN.”

    • BlueTemplar

      October 4, 2023 at 11:20 am

      Yeah, I know at least one board (including D&D) games association that pretty much had to ban Magic in their… gatherings, because of how “contagious” it was. And that was around 2013, not 1993 !

  19. Swiftish

    October 11, 2023 at 8:33 pm

    I guess I’ll chime in here… I haven’t played the game in several years, but I got into it during middle school and played fairly regularly for a long time. I was definitely more of a casual and social player, and found that I didn’t have to spend much money to have a lot of fun with the game. (I was always kind of a cheapskate anyway, and happily scooped up a lot of those commons and uncommons that the hardcore gamers threw away). Of course I had occassional bad experiences with other players who took the game much more seriously (or who were perhaps just jerks in all aspects of life). But generally my experiences with the game were good. It helped me make a lot of fast friends when I moved between schools, and later I got involved with the armchair card design community online, and that was a lot of fun.

    • Swiftish

      October 11, 2023 at 8:35 pm

      Also forgot to say, I enjoyed the article. It’s a story I’ve heard before, but your writing is always compelling, and it’s interesting to get a little perspective from someone who’s a fan of gaming in general but not necessarily a Magic superfan.


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