Card Sharks

Believing in magic pays off for the creators of America's favorite fantasy game.
Magazine Contributor
12 min read

This story appears in the October 1996 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

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.

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.

Spreading The Word

Convinced Garfield had devised a truly outstanding game, Adkison carefully laid the kindling for the fire he thought Magic would set by getting the word--and the product--out all over the game industry. "We already had the distribution channels in place from our earlier games," he explains. "Even though none of our games had done very well, people were carrying our line and knew we had integrity, so when we called to say `We have something we know is going to sell better than anything else we've done,' they worked with us and ordered more."

One nationwide distributor in particular, Wargames West Distribution in Albuquerque, New Mexico, spotted the game as a future hit and pitched in with big advertising dollars, effectively hitching its wagon to Magic's fiery horses--and then had to hold on for dear life. "My initial order was for 24 units, my second was for 572, and my third was `Send everything you've got in the warehouse,' " recalls Wayne Godfrey, Wargames' CEO. Godfrey estimates he sold $700,000 worth of Magic card sets in the last five months of 1993, then 10 times that amount ($7 million) in 1994.

Godfrey decided to carry Magic after running into Adkison at a Ft. Worth, Texas, game convention. At 2 a.m. one night, Godfrey happened across Adkison wide-eyed and playing Magic with two teenagers in the hotel lobby. "This was obviously a guy who loved what he was doing," Godfrey says. "He wasn't in it for money alone--he had a passion." Godfrey concluded that Adkison was precisely the kind of entrepreneur he wanted to bankroll.

The next step for Adkison was to show the game to potential players. Having worked without a vacation for three years, Adkison and his wife, Cathleen, finally took one in August 1992, driving down the California coast with decks of Magic cards. They stopped at some 15 fantasy game stores and hobby shops to demonstrate and hype the game. As soon as they got home, they hopped a plane for Milwaukee, where they showed the game at GenCon, a convention for hobby gamers.

"That's where we saw word-of-mouth really take off," Adkison says. "It is incredibly effective if your product is genuinely better than anyone else's, which we knew Magic was. People think it's amazing, and they go home pumped up and tell all their friends about it. It pulls the product through the pipeline."

Garfield says that while he was always optimistic about the game's potential, he hadn't factored in the boost the game would get on the Internet, via the game chat rooms that first linked him with Adkison. "Word-of-mouth is one thing, but having people talk about your product on the Internet is like throwing kerosene on the fire," he says. "It took off."

Sales boomed so fast, Wizards of the Coast had to run to keep up. Ask Adkison how he managed employee growth from five to 250 in three years and he simply says, "Agonizingly." Moving out of the Adkison's basement into commercial office space in 1994 to make room for all those employees helped. And to better handle the boom, he recently enrolled in an MBA program at the University of Washington in Seattle ("I wish I'd done it before everything went crazy," he says).

Despite their inexperience, Wizards' founders managed to sidestep some potentially dangerous pitfalls. A big one was legal protection of their intellectual property--the characters in Magic. "We didn't know we were in a position where somebody could have taken everything away from us," Adkison says. "We got it all registered and protected just in time."

Avoiding such potentially dangerous situations is easy, he says, if you get good advice. "I always tell people to do what we [eventually] did: Set up a board of directors made up of people who have done what you're doing," says Adkison. "Everybody has advice for somebody starting a business, but the only advice worth anything comes from people who have done it themselves."

Winning The Game

These days, Adkison works on managing the company that Magic built. With offices in three other countries (to be close to the company's overseas printers and to "develop the international gaming community," he says), running the show involves as much strategic thinking as playing a championship round of Magic. The game has been translated into six languages, a line of comic books, and a four-novel series published by HarperCollins.

Garfield, meanwhile, works on developing new games. In 1994, after graduating from college and teaching math at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, he joined Wizards of the Coast as a full-time game designer and owns 25 percent of the company. Since the wildfire success of Magic, three more Garfield creations have rolled out: In 1994, came Vampire: The Eternal Struggle, and RoboRally, the game that first put him in touch with Adkison; the next year, the company unveiled The Great Dalmuti, a game where players try to outdo each other on the social ladder. Next on his agenda: networked computer games that would allow players at far-flung computers to compete against each other in real time.

And, of course, there's always another Magic tournament to play. This year's company-organized tournament is sponsored by MCI, which will also be releasing a set of calling cards in November featuring artwork from Magic's card decks.

Garfield and other staffers are normally barred from playing in the tournaments--which sometimes draw more than 300 players from 30 countries vying for cash prizes of up to $250,000. Occasionally, Garfield plays a round at an exhibition tournament. He also plays the game a few times a week on his own; Adkison does, too.

Although both say they use different strategies every time they play, you have to believe that two guys who saw their little card game turn into a multimillion-dollar worldwide phenomenon must have a natural affinity for the Phyrexian War Beast. On that card is printed the query, "Knowing its origins, how could they have thought they could control it?"

Dennis Rodkin is a freelance writer in Chicago.

Contact Sources

Game Manufacturers Association, P.O. Box 602, Swanton, OH 43558, (419) 826-4262;

Wargames West Distribution, 2434 Baylor S.E., Albuquerque, NM 87106, (505) 242-1773;

Wizards of the Coast, 1801 Lind Ave. S.W., Renton, WA 98055, (206) 226-6500.


More from Entrepreneur

Get heaping discounts to books you love delivered straight to your inbox. We’ll feature a different book each week and share exclusive deals you won’t find anywhere else.
Jumpstart Your Business. Entrepreneur Insider is your all-access pass to the skills, experts, and network you need to get your business off the ground—or take it to the next level.
Are you paying too much for business insurance? Do you have critical gaps in your coverage? Trust Entrepreneur to help you find out.

Latest on Entrepreneur