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Digital Subscriptions > Tabletop Gaming > July 2018 (#20) > 25 Years of Magic: The Gathering

25 Years of Magic: The Gathering

The world’s biggest card game remains just as enchanting and utterly engrossing a quarter-century on. Designers, artists and fans join us to celebrate the ultimate creature comfort


25 years ago, Richard Garfield changed gaming forever with a groundbreaking card game that turned into a cultural sensation.
In his own words, he tells the story of Magic: The Gathering’s early years

I was ending my first year and about to start my last year teaching math at Whitman College in Eastern Washington. Magic: The Gathering was launched that summer, and it turned my life upside down.

The core concept for Magic was a game where the players had different components. The idea hit me all at once and I was swept away with excitement for the possibilities that opened up. But at the same time, I didn’t even know if you could make such a game any good. I remember telling Peter Adkison, the head of Wizards of the Coast, that poker, bridge, or chess wouldn’t be good if players could choose your own components – so it wasn’t obvious to me how to make a good game with that characteristic.

I tried a few possibilities before settling on a framework I had been tinkering with for perhaps nine years. The game I started working with was a magic-themed game I called Five Magics. This game was inspired by Cosmic Encounter, a game in which all players could break the rules in one or more ways. I was taken by how different each game of Cosmic was from each other – and how the interaction of the special powers lead to often unexpected results. I thought that a game where every card broke the rules in some way would lead to a chaotic world which was barely predictable. I thought that would be like magic – and so I started down that path.

Magic was also a good theme because it let me get away with anything. Draw cards? That’s a ‘Braingeyser’. Gain energy? Well of course – that’s a ‘Dark Ritual’.

My game design constantly starts and stops, and often crossbreeds with other designs. That is why it is hard to say when I began the design of Magic – was it in 1982 with my first magical-themed card games, or in 1991 with my first prototype that looked like modern Magic? Certainly my earlier designs made the final design richer, since I had already put thought into the different colours of Magic and the relationship they had to each other.

That first prototype – I called it Alpha Magic – was 120 cards that I split randomly between the two players.My first opponent, Barry Reich, and I played all night long with these completely untuned five colour decks. I am sure by today’s standards it would be painful watching us play. Sometimes we would wait and wait for a land that we might not even have in our deck – but we had a blast.

After that was Beta Magic – where my playtesters were given a random selection of maybe 60 cards. The cards were shuThed in trash bags and given out… land and all. Players quickly learned they could improve their performance a lot by focusing on two or three colours. Some players even traded down to one colour.

The next version was Gamma Magic, and it was very close to what was finally published in 1993. During Gamma the playtesters started developing their own methods of play, which included drafts and leagues with various rules. Drafts in those days were more like drafting baseball players – with all the cards available for selection at any round of the draft. It is telling that the largest number of cards a playtester got at any point was, if memory serves, four decks of 60 cards – which they were not allowed to mix with their other cards. That was the most I could really imagine players getting in real life – there would have been no point, in my mind, to test as if all cards were available to all players – which is the most common way playtests are done today. The play balance was designed for these limited environments rather than the rich ones that quickly evolved.

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About Tabletop Gaming

Magic: The Gathering 25th Anniversary Special: In a massive 10-page celebration of the world’s biggest card game, designers, artists and fans tell us why Magic remains so enchanting a quarter-century on – including a look back on the game’s origins by creator Richard Garfield, an interview with head designer Mark Rosewater about his lifelong love of the game and Magic memories from famous fans, artists and pros. RuneQuest: As the fantasy icon returns this summer, creators Steve Perrin and Greg Stafford tell us how they changed roleplaying forever with their revolutionary RPG set in a world of gods and myths. Plus, we give our thoughts on the latest edition, Roleplaying in Glorantha! Champions of the Galaxy: Tom Filsinger has been devising storylines, characters and mechanics for his ambitious dice-based wrestling game for over 30 years. He looks back on his time with the game, reveals its beginnings, and considers how his outlook and his process as a designer has changed over the years. Ogre: Legendary designer Steve Jackson revisits his influential 1977 wargame that put players in the seat of an unstoppable monster tank. CIA Games Declassified: We play the previously top-secret board and card games created by the US intelligence agency to train its agents, and reveal how you can try them for yourself at home. Capstone Games: Clay Ross discusses the rise in popularity of complex games and his work to resurrect some of the tabletop’s heavyweights. Reviewed: Century: Eastern Wonders A Song of Ice and Fire: Tabletop Miniatures Game Dungeons & Dragons: Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes The Mind Decrypto Kero History of the World Imaginarium Shards of Infinity Space Base Big Trouble in Little China: The Game Fantastiqa: Rival Realms Drop It Fae Plus much, much more!