Today in Amsterdam, a very special World Championships kicks off. A tournament featuring gifted brainiacs rather than beefcake brawniacs, battling with their wits, rather than their physical skills, chasing glory, tens of thousands of dollars in prize money, and, well, possibly chucking a few goblins round to boot. Such is the strange world of the collectible fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering, which celebrate its 20th anniversary in August and kicks off the festivities with a star-studded tournament featuring the world’s best pros. That will be pored over by the game’s millions of fans worldwide via live internet streams broadcasting the game with all the sch-bang of an elite sport. Things have come a long way, since the fledgling internet itself helped bring the game’s creator Richard Garfield together with an ambitious role-playing publisher Peter Adkison, who was working out of his basement on the other side of the United States.
Garfield was a maths phd student at the University of Pennsylvania, nominally writing a paper about combinatorics (the science of counting), but really spending every spare moment gaming, talking about gaming or designing games. A friend who had heard about Adkison’s tiny role-playing game company called Wizards of the Coast in a news group on Usenet, the pre-cursor to the world wide web, recommended Adkison and Garfield meet. And although Adkison could not afford to produce the board game that Garfield pitched to him on a visit to Seattle where Wizards is based to this day, Adkison did have another idea: What about designing a quick, portable game that role-players could play in their downtime at conventions? Garfield, an endearingly gnomic individual with a blisteringly fast mind, nodded and wordlessly set his mental cogs into motion. A week later, he returned to Adkison with a radical new game idea: Magic – a completely modular card game, where instead of buying one set or box, each player would collect and curate his or her cards of differing rarity into a personalised deck to face off against their opponent. There would be one set of rules for the game – but each card would also have its own rules text printed on it, meaning each one could essentially break the rules in some small but delicious way. It was a brainwave, not just a new game but new gaming form – and when the lavishly illustrated cards hit the street in August 1993, punters around the world rushed to buy up every single pack they could, tearing them open to find what potent additions they included for their decks and collections. It became an instant hit, selling out the initial print run of 9.9 million cards in a matter of weeks and hitting its billionth card printed by the end of 1994. As the tiny start-up desperately tried to keep up with rocketing demand, the rarest, most powerful cards zoomed up in value, creating a secondary market for cards which functions today like a mini stock market worth millions of dollars a year.
I got sucked in years ago – in late 1994, when I was a home-sick and miserable teen in a hostile new school in New Zealand. For me, the game was a fun and helpful way to make new friends, whilst also indulging my inner geek, a trait inherited from a fantasy illustrator dad, who was a lifelong wargamer and who had read me 2000AD in bed every week when I was an impressionable young mite. Suddenly, instead of being lonely, I had a gang of mates around me with whom I could travel to nearby Auckland almost every Saturday to play an awesome new game with on the tables at the back of our new sancutuary Pendragon Games, whilst desperately trying to trade for new cards with the shop’s more hardened and experienced gamers. It was a thrilling time for so many reasons. Of course, as a teenager, anything that gives you a peg to hang your ill-fitting identity on is welcomed, cherished and fondly remembered. But for me, there was and remains, a therapeutic element to the chase for Magic cards, too. My parents’ business had gone bust in the recession. We had lost our house. And washed up in New Zealand to rebuild our lives. Being able to accumulate something, small treasures that seemed to speak directly to my bruised soul, was a way of climbing out of a dark and miserable place. Of being able to own something cool again, when money was painfully tight. Of treating myself to something at once worth nothing (a simple piece of cardboard) and a small fortune by teenage standards – both financially and emotionally. It was powerful bond to the game, which for me, though interrupted occasionally in later life by distractions like booze, girls and raving, would never break.
Today, the table I am writing at is strewn with cards, the cupboard next to me is packed with seven or eight thousand of them and yet, every time I snap up one on ebay, be it for 50 cents or 590 Euros (the most I have ever spent on a single card), I get the same deep and nourishing thrill I did when I was 14. Although that can sometimes feel like an end in itself, each card I collect is one more that I can cram into a deck, which in turns gives me another opportunity to play. And it is putting the playing of the game at Magic’s heart that was Wizards of the Coast’s masterstroke. In 1996, the company were terrified that Magic could burn out like any other red-hot collecting fad, in a blaze of wasted pocket money, playground indifference and incomplete dreams gathering dust. To combat that, they launched Magic’s very own “Pro Tour” – an event that would reward the winners of an annual tournament series with tens of thousands of dollars, adding up to millions of dollars in prizes each year. It was a brilliant decision – not only did it cement playing the game, rather speculating on its collectible value, at the centre of its proposition, but it provided a showcase for the best players to prove their skill at the game.
Magic players rely on a combination of creativity in deck-building, strategic and mathematical chops to figure out the best lines of play in any given situation and a slim dose of luck, too. That makes the game a shade less skilled than say chess where, because there is no variance inherent in a game with all the pieces on display at once, the best player should always wins. Magic, where each player draws hidden cards from his or her deck, accumulates resources turn by turn, then attempts to play spells and creatures (goblins, elves, zombies, dragons, you name it…) from their hand to whittle their opponent down from 20 life points to nil, can sometimes hinge on the flip of a single card. While the most skilled player wins maybe 60 or 70 per cent of the time, a slim chance for underdog victories or unlikely turnarounds is designed into the game, which makes for dramatic and exciting gameplay. The Pro Tour latched on to that drama whilst also proving that the game was primarily one of great mental skill, in which the cream – newly motivated by significant prizes – would rise to the top.
While it created aspiration and investment in a player base who desperately wanted to emulate a new generation of Magic celebrities whose stories were all over the rising internet, it did something far more important for wider society: Whilst your grandma might hold no truck with goblins, she will understand what a cheque for $40,000 means. In that respect, the Pro Tour not only sustained Magic as a perennial game rather than a fleeting fad, but it helped legitimise gaming in a culture which has become progressively more brainy over the last 20 years. Kids who were being brutally bullied at school, like former Magic World Champion Jon Finkel, where suddenly raking in cash and going on to jobs on Wall Street. Magic provided them with an outlet for their intelligence and by backing them with a currency mainstream society understood, let them prove it was OK to be smart. Stigmatised nerds became self-identifying geeks and mental athletes could suddenly look at themselves with the same self-esteem their sporting peers did. In the same way, the game’s makers Wizards of the Coast earned the respect of the business community too, going from a tiny, rootsy role-playing company to a division of toy giant Hasbro following a 1999 sale for $325 million. In that sense they were trailblazers for start-ups in the muchtrumpeted knowledge economy and with their innovative product and processes presaged Silicon Valley culture. Richard Garfield, meanwhile, pocketed more than $100 million from the deal.
Today, the game is going stronger than ever with records for tournament attendance being smashed on several occasions already in the game’s anniversary year. In June for example, 4,492 players attended a tournament in Las Vegas, which many in the community likened to Magic’s very own Woodstock moment. Watching the action from home via the internet (140,000 unique viewers tuned in), I wished I was there too, slinging cards in a windowless, air conditioned hangar in the Nevada desert. For while Magic is not always glamorous, it can be a rich and rewarding community to belong to. Yes, there is a high quota of blokes in faded Red Dwarf T-shirts to contend with at any event, but subtly over the years, the demographic who plays the game has diversified and indeed grown up as society around Magic has become more game-friendly and as the early generations of players have matured into well-rounded, interesting people with real-life interests outside of simply winning a game of cards. Certainly, there are plenty of ambitious adolescents out there, playing the game as ruthlessly as possible in the hope of reaching professional status – and I can understand how important that is for them in their formative years. But for me, Magic has become something comforting and friendly, a backdrop to hanging out with some smart and fascinating people, who all share – on a sometimes unspoken level – the same fascination for game’s intricacies, the same powerful love for the cards (many now out of print and extremely rare) that compose it and the same gratitude at having been brought together into something bigger than themselves by a game almost serendipitously brought into being two decades ago. And that really is Magic’s secret – the way it spoke to an awkward generation still caught on the cusp of the internet-connected, knowledge-based world we take for granted for today and gave it a reason to hang out together, to speak up, to be happy with themselves, to step up and do something smart with their lives. In that sense, I strongly believe Magic: The Gathering has changed the world since its release in 1993. One grateful geek at a time.
Titus Chalk is the author of the e-book So do you wear a cape? The history and mystery of Magic: The Gahering, out on all e-book platforms in September. For more information follow @tituschalk