Card Sharks

On A Role

Considering the game that hit so big for Wizards of the Coast is all about combining strategy with magic, it's no surprise that those are the key elements of the company's phenomenal success. Adkison is the strategist, Garfield the magician.

Strangers until 1992, both men had enjoyed role-playing games since boyhood, but neither had ever been satisfied with the available games on the market. For years, each had tinkered with game plans, trying to create something that would be more fun. In the mid-1980s, Garfield came up with a game called RoboRally, which involved racing robots. His friend Mike Davis spent several years trying to sell it to game manufacturers but got no bites until 1991, when Davis stumbled across Adkison in a games chat room on the Internet.

In 1990, Adkison, then a 29-year-old systems analyst with Boeing, and some friends had launched Wizards of the Coast. To say they hadn't done well was an understatement: "We probably would have gone out of business within the next year," Adkison says.

RoboRally piqued Adkison's interest, so he contacted Garfield, who was working toward a doctorate in math at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and laid out a strategic challenge: Design a science fiction game whose sole component is playing cards. It may have been the only strategy Adkison could afford to pursue while his fledgling company was on the ropes; it's much cheaper to print paper cards than to manufacture game boards and pieces. Nevertheless, it was the perfect springboard for Garfield's talent.

"In one week, Richard jumped from the little description I had given him to the game that eventually became Magic: The Gathering," Adkison says. "It was a pretty big `Eureka!' " That's typical of the way Adkison the tactician defers to Garfield the magician. Amiable and not shy about the remarkable success of the company he launched, Adkison nevertheless takes credit only for the business end of Magic's success--which he's quick to point out is meaningless without a great idea. "My sole contribution to the game was telling Richard what kind of game I'd like to see," he says.

Though he now makes and plays games for a living, Garfield still talks like the mathematician he had studied to be: carefully, slowly and thoughtfully, as if he's working through complex equations with half his brain while using the other half to answer questions. He admits he still can't figure out where his great idea came from. All he knows is that it clicked instantly with Adkison, who asked him to work up a prototype and send it to him so he could test it out.

"From the first time he described the concept, I knew the possibilities were huge," Adkison says. "It was something that had never been done before in gaming."

When the prototype arrived in late 1991 from Philadelphia, where Garfield was still a student, it was an instant hit around Wizards of the Coast's office. "Everybody was playing it," Adkison recalls. They continued to play it for another two years while the game slowly evolved into something marketable. They played even after they weren't being paid to; the money had run out, and the staff had all been laid off for the interval until Magic: The Gathering started bringing in revenue.

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This article was originally published in the October 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Card Sharks.

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