If you don't like the cards you've been dealt, get a new deck. It worked for Peter Adkison and Richard Garfield, who cast a powerful spell over the game industry in 1993 when they unleashed a game called Magic: The Gathering.
Magic is a three-headed hybrid of a standard card game like bridge, a fantasy role-playing game like Dungeons and Dragons, and a collectibles hobby like baseball cards. Those three interlocking facets make the game both fast and absorbing, portable and intense.
But unlike any game played with a traditional 52-card deck, Magic employs an always-growing number of cards--currently more than 2,000--only a small fraction of which figure into any one round of the game. That makes each round entirely different from every other. Unlike Dungeons and Dragons, where the rule book contains hundreds of pages and can stretch one game into a weeks-long marathon, Magic has few rules; a novice can learn the game in less than half an hour. Finally, unlike baseball cards, these collectibles aren't just bits of a collection, they're functional parts of the game--amassing cards is a way for players to build their arsenal, not just gather more stuff.
"There's a high strategy element to playing Magic," says Max Szlagor, an 18-year-old from Schaumburg, Illinois, who has been playing the game since 1994. "There are about 2,000 cards available, but you have to build a 60-card deck that you think will be more powerful than the 60 cards each of the other players uses. The way the spells and powers [printed on each card] interact with each other makes it a different game every time."
That promise of endless permutations captured the attention of fantasy-game fans seemingly overnight. Just three years after the game's debut, the company behind it, Seattle-based Wizards of the Coast, has sold more than 2 billion individual playing cards--usually in $8.95 packs of 60. Although the company won't divulge financial figures, it's estimated to be at least a $50 million venture.
Indeed, the game's growth is nothing short of magical. In 1993, Wizards of the Coast could barely cover its five-person payroll; Adkison was subsidizing the venture with his "very small investments" and the $30,000 salary from his job at Boeing. Today, the company has 250 employees and operations in Seattle, Belgium, Scotland and France.
Another measure of Magic's success: A horde of imitators has already appeared, hoping to steal its crown. Still, the game stands solidly at the top of the heap--which seems only fair, considering it's the game that got the heap started in the first place.
"They're the typical story of being in the right place at the right time--and with a high-quality product," says L. Lee Cerny, executive director of the Game Manufacturers Association, a trade organization of the $750 million adventure game industry. "They started a new genre, the collectible card game, and in doing so vastly increased the size of our industry by attracting many new players."
Nobody knows exactly how many people play Magic because few players buy only one pack of cards. In their quest to put together winning decks, some devotees get fanatical; Szlagor, for instance, owns some 10,000 cards. That's the kind of repeat business you don't get for a game like, say, Monopoly.
"The concept was to make a game that is much bigger than the box it comes in," says Garfield. He designed Magic: The Gathering as sort of a spec job for Adkison, who was then running a failing game-development company called Wizards of the Coast from the basement of his Seattle home. "With most games, when you buy the box, the whole game is in it. But the concept behind Magic was `What if all the players had their own equipment and [pitted] that equipment against each other?' That way, when they buy a deck of cards, they buy a set of resources."
Set in a science fiction realm devised by Garfield, the game entails pitting cards with characters like Varchild's Crusader and Phyrexian War Beast--each equipped with special strengths--against each other. "Writing a game like Magic is a cross between writing a novel and writing a mathematical formula," Garfield says. Instead of one start-to-finish story line, he created a world, characters and background and set them loose to play out countless storylines, game by game.