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Magic: The Gathering is one of the most important and influential games of our time. It was an instant hit when it first appeared at the Gen Con game convention in 1993 and has grown steadily in popularity since. This is a special two-part look at the creation and development of the game as written by the designer, Richard Garfield. Richard wrote the first part “The Creation of Magic: The Gathering” nearly 10 years ago when the game was first released. In it he muses about the design challenges of a collectable trading card game, and he recounts the game‘s fascinating playtest history.
The second part “Magic Design: A Decade Later” is a retrospective on the original design notes. In it Richard provides insight about how and why the game has evolved the way it has—including thoughts on today’s Magic Pro Tour, Magic Online, and the next ten years for the game.
by Richard Garfield (written 1993)
Games evolve. New ones take the most loved features of earlier games and add original characteristics. The creation of Magic: The Gathering is a case in point.
Though there are about a dozen games that have directly influenced Magic in one way or another, the game‘s most influential ancestor is a game for which I have no end of respect: Cosmic Encounter originally published by Eon Products and re-released by Mayfair Games. In this game, participants play alien races striving to conquer a piece of the universe. Players can attempt their conquest alone, or forge alliances with other aliens. There are nearly 50 alien races which can be played, each of which has a unique ability: the Amoeba, for example, has the power to Ooze, giving it unlimited token movement; the Sniveler has the power to Whine, allowing it to automatically catch up when behind. The best thing about Cosmic Encounter is precisely this limitless variety. I have played hundreds of times and still can be surprised at the interactions different combinations of aliens produce. Cosmic Encounter remains enjoyable because it is constantly new.
Cosmic Encounter proved to be an interesting complement to my own design ideas. I had been mulling over a longtime idea of mine: a game which used a deck of cards whose composition changed between rounds. During the course of the game, the players would add cards to and remove cards from the deck, so that when you played a new game it would have an entirely different card mix. I remembered playing marbles in elementary school, where each player had his own collection from which he would trade and compete. I was also curious about Strat-o-matic Baseball, in which participants draft, field, and compete their own teams of baseball players, whose abilities are based on real players’ previous year statistics. Intrigued by the structure of the game, I was irritated that the subject was one for which I had no patience.
These thoughts were the essence of what eventually became Magic. My experiences with Cosmic and other games inspired me to create a card game in 1982 called Five Magics. Five Magics was an attempt to distill the modularity of Cosmic Encounter down to just a card game. The nature of Cosmic Encounter seemed entirely appropriate for a magical card game—wild and not entirely predictable, but not completely unknown, like a set of forces you almost, but don’t quite, understand. Over the next few years, Five Magics went on to inspire entirely new magical card games among my friends.
Ten years later, I was still designing games, and Mike Davis and I had come up with a boardgame RoboRally. Mike was acting as our agent, and among the companies he approached was a brand new gaming company called Wizards of the Coast. Things seemed to be going well, so that August, Mike, and I made our way to Portland, Oregon to meet over a pizza with Peter Adkison and James Hays of Wizards of the Coast.
Both Peter and James were very receptive to RoboRally, but informed me that they weren’t really in a position to come out with a board game right away. This wasn’t what I had come out to hear, of course, but I didn’t want the trip to be a total waste. I asked Peter what he would be interested in. Peter replied that he really saw a need for a game that could be played quickly with minimal equipment, a game that would go over well at conventions. Could I do it?
Within a few days, the initial concept for a trading card game was born, based on another card game I had developed in 1985 called Safecracker. It hadn’t been one of my best games. But then I remembered Encounter called Five Magics.
I went back to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, and worked on the card game in whatever spare time I had. It wasn’t easy; there were three months of false starts on the project, there are so many aspects of card game design that have to be reconsidered when designing trading card games. First of all, you can’t have any bad cards—people wouldn’t play with them. In fact, you want to prevent too much range in the utility of cards because players will only play with the best—why make cards people won’t play with? Besides, homogeneity of card power is the only way to combat the “rich kid syndrome” that threatened the game concept from the start. What was to keep someone from going out and getting ten decks and becoming unbeatable?
It was a major design concern. I had numerous theories on how to prevent purchasing power from unbalancing the game, none of which were entirely valid but all of which had a grain of truth. The most compelling counter to this “buy-out-the-store” strategy was the ante. If we were playing for ante, the argument ran, and your deck was the distilled fruit of ten decks, when I did win, I would win a more valuable card. Also, if the game had enough skill, then the player purchasing their power would surely be easy prey for the players dueling and trading their way to a good deck. And of course there was the sentiment that buying a lot of poker chips doesn’t make you a winner. In the end, however, the “rich kid syndrome” became less of a concern. Magic is a fun game, and it doesn‘t really matter how you get your deck. Playtesting showed that a deck that is too powerful defeats itself. On the one hand, people stopped playing against it for ante unless a handicap was invoked; on the other, it inspired them to assemble more effective decks in response.
The first Magic release was affectionately named Alpha. It consisted of 120 cards split randomly between two players. The two players would ante a card, fight a duel over the ante, and repeat until they got bored. They often took a long time to get bored; even then, Magic was a surprisingly addictive game. About ten o’clock one evening, Barry “Bit” Reich and I started a game in the University of Pennsylvania Astronomy lounge, a windowless, air-conditioned room. We played continuously until about 3:00 a.m.—at least that’s what we thought, until we left the building and found that the sun had risen.
I knew then that I had a game structure that could support the concept of individually owned and tailored decks. The game was quick, and while it had bluffing and strategy, it didn’t seem to get bogged down with too much calculation. The various combinations that came up were enjoyable and often surprising. At the same time, the variety of card combinations didn’t unbalance the game: when a person started to win, it didn’t turn into a landslide.
Except for the card mix, little has changed about Magic since alpha. In alpha, walls could attack, and losing all your lands of a particular color destroyed the associated spells in play, but otherwise, the rules are much the same now as they were in the early stages of playtesting.
Moving from alpha to the beta version was like releasing a wild animal. The enjoyable game that was alpha now burst the confines of the duel to invade the lives of the participants. Players were free to trade cards between games and hunt down weaker players to challenge them to duels, while gamely facing or cravenly avoiding those who were more powerful. Reputations were forged—reputations built on anything from consistently strong play to a few lucky wins to good bluffing. The players didn’t know the card mix, so they learned to stay on their toes during duels. Even the most alert players would occasionally meet with nasty surprises. This constant discovery of unknown realms in an uncharted world gave the game a feeling of infinite size and possibility.
For the gamma version, new cards were added and many of the creature costs were increased. We also doubled the pool of playtesters, adding in a group with Strat-o-matic Baseball experience. We were particularly anxious to find out if Magic could be adapted for league play. Gamma was also the first version which was fully illustrated. Skaff Elias was my art director: he and others spent days poring over old graphic magazines, comic books, and game books searching for art for the cards. These playtest decks were pretty attractive for crummy black-and-white cardstock photocopies. For the most part, the cards were illustrated with serious pictures, but there were a lot of humorous ones as well. Heal was illustrated by Skaff’s foot. Power Sink showed Calvin (of “Calvin and Hobbes”) in a toilet; after all, what is a toilet but a power sink? Berserk was John Travolta dancing in Saturday Night Fever. Righteousness pictured Captain Kirk, and Blessing showed Spock doing his “live long and prosper” gesture. An old comic book provided a Charles Atlas picture for Holy Strength, and a 98-pound weakling getting sand kicked in his face for Weakness. Instill Energy was Richard Simmons. The infamous Glasses of Urza were some X-ray glasses we found in a catalog. Ruthy Kantorovitz constructed a darling flamebelching baby for Firebreathing. I myself had the honor of being the Goblins. The pictures and additional players greatly added to the game atmosphere. It became clear that while the duels were for two players, the more players playing, the better the game was. In some sense, the individual duels were a part of a single, larger game.
Each playtest set saw the expulsion of certain cards. One type of card that was common in alpha and beta was rare in gamma, and is now nonexistent: the type that made one of your rival’s cards yours. Yes, Control Magic used to permanently steal a creature from your opponent. Similarly, Steal Artifact really took an artifact. Copper Tablet no longer even remotely resembles its original purpose, which was to swap two creatures in play. (“Yes, I’ll swap my Merfolk for your Dragon. On second thought, make that my Goblins—they’re uglier.”) There was a spell, Planeshift, which stole a land, and Ecoshift, which collected all the lands, shuffled them and re-dealt them—really nice for the user of four or five colors of magic. Pixies used to be a real pain—if they hit you, you swapped a random card from your hand with your opponent. These cards added something to the game, often in the form of players trying to destroy their own creatures before their opponents took them for good, or even trying to take their own lives to preserve the last shreds of their decks. However, in the end it was pretty clear that the nastiness this added to the game environment wasn’t worth the trouble, and no card should ever be at risk unless players choose to play for ante.
It was around this time that I began to realize that almost any decision made about the game would be opposed, often vehemently, by some players. The huge amount of dissent about what should and should not be part of the card mix has led players to make their own versions for playtesting—a significant task that involves designing, constructing, shuffling, and distributing about 4000 cards. Each of these games had its merits, and the playtesters enjoyed discovering the quirks and secrets of each new environment. The results of these efforts will form the basis of future Deckmaster games that use the structure of Playtesting a
The Gathering, while containing mostly new cards.
Deckmaster game is difficult. Probably the only games harder to playtest are elaborate, multi-player computer games. After developing a basic framework for Magic that seemed fairly robust, we had to decide which of the huge selection of cards to include, and with what relative frequencies.
Common cards had to be simple, but not necessarily less powerful, than rare cards—if only rare cards were powerful, players would either have to be rich or lucky to get a decent deck. Sometimes a card was made rare because it was too powerful or imbalancing in large quantities, but more often, rare cards were cards that were intricate or specialized—spells you wouldn’t want many of anyway. But these design guidelines only got us so far. The whole game’s flavor could change if a handful of seemingly innocent cards were eliminated, or even made less or more common. When it came down to actually deciding what to include and what to do without, I began to feel like a chef obliged to cook a dish for 10,000 people using 300 ingredients.
One thing I knew I wanted to see in the game was players using multicolor decks. It was clear that a player could avoid a lot of problems by stripping down to a single color. For this reason, many spells were included that paralyzed entire colors, like Karma, Elemental Blast, and the Circles of Protection. The original plan was to include cards that thwarted every obvious simple strategy, and, in time, to add new cards which would defeat the most current ploys and keep the strategic environment dynamic. For example, it was obvious that relying on too many big creatures made a player particularly vulnerable to the Meekstone, and a deck laden with Fireballs and requiring lots of mana could be brought down with Manabarbs. Unfortunately, this strategy and counter-strategy design led to players developing narrow decks and refusing to play people who used cards that could defeat them flat out. If players weren’t compelled to play a variety of players and could choose their opponent every time, a narrow deck was pretty powerful.
Therefore, another, less heavy-handed way to encourage variety was developed. We made it more difficult to get all the features a player needs in a deck by playing a single color. Gamma, for example, suffered from the fact that blue magic could stand alone. It was easily the most powerful magic, having two extremely insidious common spells (Ancestral Memory and Time Walk), both of which have been made rare. It had awesome counterspell capabilities. It had amazing creatures, two of the best of which are now uncommon.
Blue magic now retains its counterspell capability, but is very creature poor, and lacks a good way to do direct damage. Red magic has little defense, particularly in the air, but has amazing direct damage and destruction capability. Green magic has an abundance of creatures and mana, but not much more. Black is the master of anti-creature magic and has some flexibility, but is poorly suited to stopping noncreature threats. White magic is the magic of protection, and the only magic with common banding, but has little damage-dealing capability.
Sometimes seemingly innocuous cards would combine into something truly frightening. A good part of playtest effort was devoted to routing out the cards that contributed to so-called “degenerate” decks—the narrow, powerful decks that are difficult to beat and often boring to play with or against. Without a doubt, the most striking was Tom Fontaine’s “Deck of Sooner-Than-Instant Death,” which was renowned for being able to field upwards of eight large creatures on the second or third turn. In the first Magic tournament, Dave “Hurricane” Pettey walked to victory with his “Land Destruction Deck.” (Dave also designed a deck of Spectres, Mindtwists, and Disrupting Sceptres that was so gruesome I don’t think anyone was ever really willing to play it.) Skaff’s deck, “The Great White Death,” could outlive just about anything put up against it. Charlie Catin’s “Weenie Madness” was fairly effective at swamping the opponent with little creatures. Though this deck was probably not in the high-win bracket of the previous decks, it was recognized that, playing for ante, Charlie could hardly lose. Even winning only one in four of his games—and he could usually do better than that—the card he won could be traded back for the island and the two Merfolk he lost, with something extra thrown in.
In the end I decided that the degenerate decks were actually part of the fun. People would assemble them, play with them until they got bored or their regular opponents refused to play against them, and then retire the deck or trade off its components for something new—a Magic version of putting the champion out to stud. Most players ended up treating their degenerate decks much like role-players treat their most successful characters: they were relegated to the background, to be occasionally dusted off for a new encounter.
After the pursuit of sheer power died down, another type of deck developed: the Weird Theme deck. These decks were usually made to be as formidable as possible within the constraints of their theme. When Bit grew bored of his “Serpent Deck” (he had a predilection for flopping a rubber snake on the playing surface and going “SsssSssSs” whenever he summoned a Serpent), he developed his “Artifact Deck,” which consisted of artifacts only—no land. It was fun to see the “Artifact Deck” go up against someone who used Nevinyrral’s Disk. But the king of weird decks was, without a doubt, Charlie Catin. In one league, he put together a deck that I call “The Infinite Recursion Deck.” The idea was to set up a situation where his opponent couldn’t attack him until Charlie could play Swords to Plowshares on a creature. Then he would play Timetwister, causing the cards in play to be shuffled with the graveyard, hand, and library to form a fresh library. Swords to Plowshares actually removes a creature from the game, so his rival has one less creature. Repeat. After enough iterations, his rival was bloated with life given by the Swords to Plowshares, having maybe 60 life points, but there were no creatures left in his deck. So Charlie’s Elves started in—59 life, 58 life, 57 life—and the curtain closes on this sad game. I still can’t think about this deck without moist emotional snorts. The coup de grace is that this league required players to compete their decks ten times. And, since his games often lasted over an hour and a half, he received at least one concession.
It was not just determining the right card mix that players and designers found challenging. This becomes increasingly clear to me as I participate in the never-ending process of editing the rules and the cards. As my earliest playtesters have pointed out (in their more malicious moods), the original Magic was the simplest game in the world because you had all the rules on the cards. That notion is long gone.
To those who didn’t have to endure it, our struggle for precision was actually rather amusing. My concept for own rules discussions about card wordings were mostly with Jim Lin, who is the closest thing you will ever encounter to a combination rules lawyer and firehose. A typical rule-problem session would go:
Jim: “Hmm—there seems to be a problem with this card. Here is my seven-page rules addition to solve the problem.”
Richard: “I would sooner recall all the cards than use that. Let’s try this solution instead.”
Jim: “Hmm—we have another problem.”
Richard: “This is silly—only incredibly stupid and terminally anal people could possibly misinterpret this card.”
Jim: “Yes, maybe we have been thinking about this too long. If you’re playing with that kind of person, you should find some new friends.”
A specific example of something we actually worried about is whether Consecrate Land would really protect your land from Stone Rain. After all, the first says it prevents land from being destroyed and the second says it destroys the land. Isn’t that a contradiction? It still hurts my head getting into a frame of mind where that is confusing. It is perhaps a little like wondering why anyone would give you anything for money, which is, after all, just paper.
But, then again, I could never tell what was going to confuse people. One of the playtesters, Mikhail Chkhenkeli, approached me and said, “I like my deck. I have the most powerful card in the game. When I play it, I win on the next turn.” I tried to figure out what this could be; I couldn’t think of anything that would win the game with any assurance the turn after casting. I asked him about it and he showed me a card that would make his opponent skip a turn. I was confused until I read exactly what was written: “Opponent loses next turn.” It was my first real lesson in how difficult it was going to be to word the cards so that no two people would interpret the same card in a different way.
Another thing I realized in the second year of playtesting really surprised me. Magic turned out to be one of the best economic simulations I had ever seen. We had a free-market economy and all of the ingredients for interesting dynamics. People valued different cards in different ways—sometimes because they simply weren’t evaluating accurately, but much more often because the cards really have different value to different players. For example, the value of a powerful green spell was lower for a person who specializes in black and red magic than for one who was building a deck that was primarily green. This gives a lot of opportunity for arbitrage. I would frequently find cards that one group of players weren’t using but another group were treating like chunks of gold. If I was fast enough, I could altruistically benefit both parties and only have to suffer a little profit in the process.
Sometimes the value of a card would fluctuate based on a new use (or even a suspected new use). For example, when Charlie was collecting all the available spells that produced black mana, we began to get concerned—those cards were demanding higher and higher prices, and people began to fear what he could need all that black mana for. And, prior to Dave’s “Land Destruction Deck,” land destruction spells like Stone Rain and Ice Storm were not high-demand spells. This of course allowed him to assemble the deck cheaply, and after winning the first Magic tournament, sell off the pieces for a mint.
Trade embargoes appeared. At one point a powerful faction of players would not trade with Skaff, or anyone who traded with Skaff. I actually heard conversations such as:
Player 1 to Player 2: “I’ll trade you card A for card B.”
“That’s a moronic trade. I’ll give you card B and cards C, D, E, and F for card A.”
Players 1 and 2 together: “We are not trading with you, Skaff.”
Needless to say, Skaff was perhaps a bit too successful in his early duels and trades.
Another interesting economic event would occur when people would snatch up cards they had no intention of using. They would take them to remove them from the card pool, either because the card annoyed them (Chaos Orb, for example) or because it was too deadly against their particular decks.
I think my favorite profit was turned during an encounter with Ethan Lewis and Bit. Ethan had just received a pack of cards and Bit was interested in trading with Ethan. Bit noticed that Ethan had the Jayemdae Tome, began to drool, and made an offer for it. I looked at the offer and thought it was far too low, so I put the same thing on the table.
Bit looked at me and said, “You can’t offer that! If you want the Tome you have to bid higher than I said, “This isn’t an offer for the Tome. This is a gift for Ethan deigning to even discuss trading the
Bit looked at me in disbelief, and then took me aside. He whispered, “Look, I’ll give you this wad of cards if you just leave the room for ten minutes.” I took his bribe, and he bought the Tome. It was just as well—he had a lot more buying power than I did. In retrospect, it was probably a dangerous ploy to use against Bit—after all, he was the person who was responsible for gluing poor Charlie’s deck together once, washing a different deck of Charlie’s in soap and water, and putting more cards of Charlie’s in the blender and hitting frappé.
Probably the most constant card-evaluation difference I had with anyone was over Lord of the Pit. I received it in just about every playtest release we had, and it was certainly hard to use. I didn’t agree with Skaff, though, that the only value of the card was that you might get your opponent to play with it. He maintained that blank cards would be better to play with because blank cards probably wouldn’t hurt you. I argued that if you knew what you were doing, you could profit from it.
Skaff asked me to cite a single case where it had saved me. I thought a bit and recalled the most flamboyant victory I had with it. My opponent knew he had me where he wanted me—he had something doing damage to me, and a Clone in hand, so even if I cast something to turn the tide, he would be able to match me. Well, of course, the next cast spell was a Lord of the Pit; he could Clone it or die from it, so he Cloned it. Then each time he attacked, I would heal both of the Lords, or cast Fog and nullify the assault, and refuse to attack. Eventually, he ran out of creatures to keep his Lord of the Pit sated and died a horrible death.
Skaff was highly amused by this story. He said, “So, when asked about a time the Lord of the Pit saved you, you can only think of a case where you were playing somebody stupid enough to clone it!”
Selecting a card mix that accommodated different evaluations of the cards wasn’t enough; we also had to develop an environment in which the cards could reasonably interact. Establishing the right setting for Magic proved to be a central design challenge. In fact, many of our design problems stemmed from an attempt to define the physics of a magical world in which duels take place and from building the cards around that, rather than letting the game define the physics. I was worried about the cards’ relationship to each other—I wanted them to seem part of a unified setting, but I didn’t want to restrict the creativity of the designers or to create all the cards myself. Everyone trying to jointly build a single fantasy world seemed difficult, because it would inevitably lack cohesion. I preferred the idea of a multiverse, a system of worlds that was incredibly large and permitted strange interactions between the universes in it. In this way, we could capture the otherworldly aspects of fantasy that add such flavor to the game while preserving a coherent, playable game structure. Almost any card or concept would fit into a multiverse. Also, it would not be difficult to accommodate an ever-growing and diverse card pool—expansion sets with very different flavors could be used in the same game, for they could be seen as a creative mingling of elements from different universes. So I developed the idea of Dominia, an infinite system of planes through which wizards travel in search of resources to fuel their magic.
In its structured flexibility, this game environment is much like a role-playing world. I don’t mean to suggest that this setting makes Magic a role-playing game—far from it—but Magic is closer to role-playing than any other card or boardgame I know of. I have always been singularly unimpressed by games that presumed to call themselves a cross between the two because role-playing has too many characteristics that can’t be captured in a different format. In fact, in its restricted forms—as a tournament game or league game, for example—Magic has little in common with role-playing. In those cases, it is a game in the traditional sense, with each player striving to achieve victory according to some finite set of rules. However, the more free-form game—dueling with friends using decks constructed at whim—embodies some interesting elements of role-playing.
Each player’s deck is like a character. It has its own personality and quirks. These decks often even get their own names: “The Bruise,” “The Reanimator,” “Weenie Madness,” “Sooner-Than-Instant Death,” “Walk Into This Deck,” “The Great White Leftovers,” “Backyard Barbeque,” and “Gilligan’s Island,” to name a few. In one deck I maintained, each of the creatures had a name—one small advantage to crummy photocopied cardstock is the ease of writing on cards. The deck was called “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” containing a Wurm named Snow White and seven Mammoths: Doc, Grumpy, Sneezy, Dopey, Happy, Bashful, and Sleepy. After a while I got a few additional Mammoths, which I named Cheesy and Hungry. There was even a Prince Charming: my Veteran Bodyguard.
As in roleplaying, the object of the game in the unstructured mode of play is determined largely by the players. The object of the duel is usually to win, but the means to that end can vary tremendously. Most players find that the duel itself quickly becomes a fairly minor part of the game compared to trading and assembling decks.
Another characteristic of Magic which is reminiscent of role-playing is the way players are exploring a world rather than knowing all the details to start. I view Magic as a vast game played among all the people who buy decks, rather than just a series of little duels. It is a game for tens of thousands in which the designer acts as a gamemaster. The gamemaster decides what the environment will be, and the players explore that environment. This is why there are no marketed lists of cards when the cards are first sold: discovering the cards and what they do is an integral part of the game.
And like a role-playing game, the players contribute as much to an exciting adventure as the gamemaster. To all the supporters of Magic, and especially to my playtesters, I am extraordinarily grateful. Without them, if this product existed at all, it would certainly be inferior. Every one of them left a mark, if not on the game itself, then in the game’s lore. Any players today that have even a tenth of the fun I had playing the test versions with them will be amply pleased with Magic.
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