By Alex Silady
There is a long-standing joke among fans of Magic: the Gathering, the trading card game published by Washington-based gaming company Wizards of the Coast that pulls in $200 million in annual revenue and growing and that parent company Hasbro refers to as “the United States’ largest game brand.” When asked why they love what seems on the surface to be a simple card game so much, they may respond with a wink and a comment about something in the ink.
“The addictive ink is a persistent legend,” said Wizards of the Coast research and development head Mark Rosewater. “And it’s one that I can neither confirm nor deny.”
Rosewater referred on his Tumblr blog to the urban legend which goes that Wizards of the Coast prints the cards with an addictive chemical that’s absorbed through the skin, which is why it’s so hard to give up playing. Of course, that’s untrue in a literal sense, but there is an essential truth to the spirit of it: Players just find themselves coming back to the game year after year and set after set.
In a global gaming industry worth $70 billion a year, where success seems to be defined by how high-tech you can be–by having the best graphics, the best frame rate, the most detailed worlds–Magic seems to be an anomaly. Even while competing against phenomenally popular fantasy-themed video games like World of Warcraft and Skyrim as the object of gamer obsessions, it has remained resolutely as low-tech as the day it was first printed twenty years ago.
The concept behind Magic is a familiar one to anyone who knows fantasy literature: The players represent powerful, dimension-hopping wizards aiming to best one another by depleting their opponents’ entire decks or life totals with cunning spells and armies of magical creatures. People are initially drawn to Magic for a variety of reasons, but commonly they don’t just pick it up on their own; a lot of current players were introduced to the game by a friend, a brother or sister, or a coworker. Dillon Brown, who works for Nintendo at the company’s Seattle offices near where Wizards of the Coast develops Magic, says he’s been playing since 1994 and got into the game because his social circle at high school was playing.
“Hard to think that was such a long time ago and I’m still doing it,” Brown said. “It’s stayed as fun as it was on day one, though.”
“I think Magic has been such a success because part of its model is a kind of repeat performance aspect that most video games don’t have,” said Brian David-Marshall, former owner of Neutral Ground, the biggest gaming store in New York, and current official commentator for the online broadcasts of Magic: the Gathering’s professional league. “The game was designed, so many years ago, so that every experience would be different and customizable. And now, with the sheer volume of cards that’s only more so.”
Magic was first printed in April 1993 and since then has never been out of print. Its business model is much different from that of video games. Whereas a video game is sold as a single $60 computer disk, meaning the publisher will not profit from a particular player until it puts out an entirely new game, Magic is sold as $3.50 booster packs of sixteen randomized cards, of which a player will need to buy many if he or she is to get the cards he or she wants. Magic has persisted, according to David-Marshall, by being innovative from the start, and by never stopping that innovation.
The game’s creator, Richard Garfield, wanted to “keep only the basic framework of the game intact and totally change the mechanics every year when a new set was released,” David-Marshall said. Even though Garfield is no longer with the company full time, choosing to instead consult for the R&D department on rare occasions, the design principles that went into the first set are still followed.
“I don’t think that would have been nearly as successful as the game as it is. There’s a sense of continuity that would have been lost. Regardless, we know he embraced change from the very beginning.”
According to Rosewater, Garfield came up with three core ideas that have allowed the game to stay dynamic, consistent, and popular. The first was the concept of a trading card game itself. Before Magic: the Gathering, the card games that gaming companies published were similar to board games in that everything required for them came in a single set, with no addition or variation to the pieces. Garfield hit upon the idea of allowing players to purchase randomly assorted cards out of which they could construct decks themselves. This drove sales by giving gamers a sense of identity and personal connection to the games they played.
Garfield’s second idea was Magic’s resource system called mana. Essentially, Garfield designed it so that the “currency” at players’ disposal used to pay for taking different actions in the game would grow from turn to turn, allowing games to build excitement.
“Some people don’t like the mana system because they say it’s too self-limiting, but I guarantee the game would get boring way faster without it,” David-Marshall said. “The typical structure of a game of Magic is players testing each other with small and conservative plays in the first few turns and then gradually getting to full-bore assaults that finish with them throwing everything they’ve got at each other. You’ve got to admit that’s exciting.”
Garfield categorized mana into five colors; each of the sources of mana (called lands) could only generate one. In this way, he forced differentiation between decks, since one could only feasibly play two or three of the types of lands at once, and made every matchup a new experience, especially for players just starting out.
“When Richard came up with the color system he listed them in a pie chart, and that’s a good metaphor for a number of reasons,” said David-Marshall. “You can’t have too many slices of pie at a sitting or you’ll get sick. But when there are five entirely new and different flavors of pie sitting out in front of you you’ll eventually want to try them all.”
Each of the colors was mechanically differentiated, meaning that, for example, blue (the color that represents knowledge, trickery, invention, and the ocean) cards often had effects that drew lots of extra cards, which red couldn’t do; but red (which features cards that have to do with intense emotion, fire, dragons, and war) got to damage opposing players directly, which blue couldn’t. This furthered the sense of identity and cohesive themes inherent when players built their own decks and encouraged them to buy more cards in order to mix and match their preferred colors.
“Ultimately I think the most enduring element of Magic’s appeal is the combination of luck and skill in playing it,” David-Marshall said. “There’s as much joy in drawing a perfect hand as there is in completely outfoxing your opponent with well-tailored strategy or psychological manipulation or what-have-you. There’s thrills in winning and in losing and that’s what keeps people coming back to it.”