Spell Casters, a ‘Magic: The Gathering’ Origin Story
Above: Richard Garfield, creator of 'Magic: The Gathering,' and Peter Adkison, founder of Wizards of the Coast. Image by Brandon Hill.
Down Interstate 5 and onto 405, past glassy office parks—the freeway’s reflection slicing by—past mid-rises and tree- speckled parking lots, past international shipping companies and health care equipment manufacturers, you come, finally, to an office building like no other.
Four floors of blue-tinted windows, a tiled lobby, some potted plants, as per usual. The door to the right, though, beyond which sit dozens of desks and computers, is labeled not “Sales” or “Quality Assurance” but something called “Dominaria.” Beyond that, a dreadlocked, spellbook-wielding mage greets visitors from his wall opposite the elevator bay. A statue of an armored warrior stands guard over the waiting area, forever locked in a staring contest with the eight-foot dragon lingering near the conference room. In between them, shelves and shelves of playing cards. Welcome to Wizards of the Coast, home of Magic: The Gathering.
You’ve heard of Magic. Even if you’ve never played a single game, its name has long loitered on the periphery of your life, displayed in window fronts of mall gaming stores and suburban hobby shops. The collectible card game might have at one point been code for socially awkward basement dwellers. More recently, with nerddom’s dominance over the mainstream, you may have unintentionally walked in on Magic nights at a local bar. And of course, knowingly or not, you’ve probably played games directly influenced by Magic.
Since debuting in 1993, the first collectible card game of its time, Magic: The Gathering has made billions of dollars and maintained stubborn popularity despite the ascendance of video games. A hybrid of traditional card and strategy games with the depth of fantasy role playing, MTG established the rules and systems that would become the bedrock of an entire industry. It has its own microeconomy, even, with particularly rare individual cards known to sell for over $20,000.
Those already initiated, who’ve battled across Ravnica, Zendikar, and the planes beyond, know all this. But what of Magic: The Gathering’s origin?
After all, the story of how two men changed gaming, over two years in the early ’90s, is not of this world.
Peter Adkison was a minister’s son. For all of the ’60s and most of the ’70s, the only child moved up and down the Pacific Northwest as his father joined different Seventh-day Adventist churches.
But ask Adkison now where he grew up and he’ll say Idaho, as a farmer. Because every summer the family put down roots at his grandparents’ home. Here, Adkison helped grow wheat, barley, peas, and tended to the 30-some cows and a couple of horses. And most nights the family got together around the dinner table and played games.
At first Adkison preferred the simple rules of Rook, which he played with his mother. Around the fourth grade he discovered Risk—the strategy board game in which players pit armies against one another to conquer the world map. From then on, it was all war games. In them Adkison finally found a connection with his old man. For years, father and son sat across the table from each other and recreated the great battles in history. They were particularly fond of titles like Gettysburg and Panzer ’44 whose tactical framework made the more mainstream Risk look like Candy Land.
Then the games stopped. By the time Adkison was 17 years old, his parents had divorced and his father abruptly moved to Korea. With the minister so went the traveling, and the remaining family settled in Walla Walla, Washington. Adkison doesn’t say much about the divorce, nor about the fact that he would rarely see his father for over a decade. These days he attributes 1978 to a more important milestone: the year he discovered Dungeons and Dragons.
First published four years earlier by game designers Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, D&D was entirely new to Adkison. Not a board game, not a card game, but a role-playing game (or RPG) set in a Tolkienesque fantasy world. One player, the “dungeon master,” uses rule systems to create an adventure for other players to traverse using their own personal characters: an aloof elf assassin, a silver-tongued bard, a headstrong warrior with secret affinities for antiquing. Anything players come up with has a place in the game.
Adkison soon became obsessed with this even deeper form of gameplay and the community it spawned. Not just D&D but eventually Rolemaster, DragonQuest, and many other pen-and-paper RPGs that flooded the market in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He played all through high school and then college, at Walla Walla University, where he earned a degree in computer science. He accepted a programming job at Boeing in 1987 and soon moved to the Seattle area, bringing a group of friends and their games with him. The years at Boeing, modeling launch vehicle systems at the Kent Space Center, were also spent battling leviathan monsters and cave-dwelling drow elves. He even started designing his own RPG systems to test out on his play group.
In 1990, Adkison announced there would be a meeting at his apartment in Kent, a common venue for game night. Only at this meeting he would announce the creation of a game publishing company called Wizards of the Coast, the name pulled from a Dungeons and Dragons session back in the early ’80s. At 29, he decided to make fantasy a reality.
Adkison soon began raising money for his first project, The Primal Order. It was a 230-page mythology-based “capsystem,” or role-playing book, meant to be played with existing RPG systems like Dungeons and Dragons. While this first Wizards project was some real nerd fodder, its author pitched it like a red-hot stock. Turns out, Adkison was quite the salesman.
“I was shameless,” he says. “Every time I talked to someone, I’d say, ‘Hey I’ve got this company.’ I was turning over rocks, finding investments from a few hundred dollars to maybe $1,000.”
Adkison also started spreading the word on Usenet, the early internet message board system that emerged as a forum for gaming subcultures to connect, trade ideas, and build worlds. One day in 1991, still proselytizing to his online cohort of fellow role players, Adkison received a message from a user on the East Coast. It read, “Hey, you should meet Richard Garfield.”
All his life, Richard Garfield didn’t so much play games as play with games. He’d tinker with different systems to find new ones: variations of chess, a hybrid between Monopoly and poker, and something called “turbo hearts.”
This fascination with design and function may have, in part, come from his architect father, who helped the renowned Louis Kahn build the famous Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban government building in Bangladesh. Mostly though, like Adkison, Garfield owed this passion to Dungeons and Dragons.
What struck the insatiably curious and analytical Garfield about D&D was its limitless potential. “Games are finite. They end,” he says. “But role playing broke all those rules. There is no winner in a role playing session. The possibilities felt endless. I realized the space of games is so much bigger than I had thought.”
Around the same time Adkison started reading business books and writing RPG supplements for Wizards of the Coast, Garfield—then a PhD candidate in mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania—began soliciting publishers for RoboRally, a board game in which players arrange sequences of cards to move robots through a hazard-ridden factory.
Armed with a handmade board, cards, and robot miniatures, Garfield play-tested RoboRally with Mike Davis—a former colleague from his short stint at Bell Labs in Chicago—who had been following the new Wizards of the Coast venture via Usenet. Soon after, Davis reached out to Adkison.
The three arranged to meet in Oregon, during the summer of 1991 while Garfield visited his parents. Adkison remembers being impressed by the ingenuity of RoboRally, but the logistics scared him. By that time the money Adkison had already raised would go further publishing role-playing books like The Primal Order than it would a complicated board game. Instead, Adkison suggested an idea he would print: “I want it portable and quick. Something you can play while in line at gaming conventions.”
Adkison drove back up to Seattle and let his prospective partner chew on this for a while.
Garfield was never short on ideas. His sharp eyes betrayed them, even while playing games, especially while playing games—like two windows lit up in an otherwise dark office building. Always working. But how to sift through these systems in his brain to find the one that would work for Wizards of the Coast? “Portable and quick” sounded like a card game, but what interested Garfield the most, still after all these years, were the infinite opportunities for customization in role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. A few days later, while contemplating a waterfall outside Portland, the idea hit him like a spell.
The next week, Garfield boarded the train for Seattle and Adkison picked him up at King Street Station. Sitting in the car in a parking garage near the Space Needle, Garfield revealed his simple but entirely unprecedented vision: “Imagine a card game where there are hundreds of cards, with more being made all the time. Some cards are rare and some are common. You build a deck with whatever cards you want. You have no idea what’s in your opponent’s deck. And then you duel.”
In other words—instead of playing from a set deck like in Uno or bridge—a card game where players buy packs of 15, like baseball cards, and assemble their own unique deck tailored to individual play styles. Infinite opportunities for customization. Endless possibilities.
With that, they both started shouting with excitement.
Garfield returned to University of Pennsylvania a week later to create a card game the likes of which had never existed. It would be a breathless display of communal creativity—one that would influence the gaming world in ways unimaginable at the time.
The goal of what Garfield then simply called Magic was to reduce the opponent’s life total to zero and protect your own by playing cards that attack and defend.
He imagined these cards separated into five colors, each with their own strategies and flavor of play: Red attacks aggressively, blue plays tricks with spells, green plays slowly but utilizes powerful creatures late in the game, black weakens enemies while strengthening allies, and white produces small creatures and protects life totals. Decks can be built using any combination of these colors. And each color fits into a larger lore mirroring the fantasy worlds in the role-playing games Garfield and Adkison grew up with.
Within a few months, Garfield created around 150 of these handmade cards, a playable set with synergizing mechanics. He’d Xerox them, 12 to a page, using whatever art he could get his hands on. Many of these prototypes incorporated Calvin and Hobbes, Tin Tin, and of course Dungeons and Dragons.
Garfield then solicited the help of test groups on campus to help refine existing cards and pitch new ones. Soon these groups coalesced into two factions: the math and physics grad departments, who played on campus at the David Rittenhouse Laboratory, and the traditional card players who met and played at the home of Bill Rose, a chemistry department employee whom Garfield knew from bridge club.
Soon, Garfield had a playable iteration of the game. A few months later, he’d settled on a version that would look much like the final core set.
By the fall of 1991, six months after that fateful meeting with Garfield, Adkison had raised around $100,000 from private investors. But much of those funds went toward publishing his own game, The Primal Order.
Aside from its founder, Wizards of the Coast then had only one full-time employee, Lisa Stevens, who had jumped ship from another role-playing game publisher to join Adkison’s start-up. Together, they worked with a small, occasionally paid part-time staff out of Adkison’s basement in Kent—everyone scrapping to put the finishing touches on the role-playing book while also producing Garfield’s new card game.
Stevens introduced Adkison to Jesper Myrfors, a Cornish student from Mercer Island who had taken an interest in the new company. Long haired, spectacled, and burly in a Viking sort of way, Myrfors looked like he knew how to draw a dragon. He became the game’s first art director, bringing on a horde of other Cornish artists (none of whom knew fantasy art, but were happy for the gig) to start creating the visual world of Magic.
“People don’t realize there wasn’t a whole lot of fantasy art back then,” says Adkison. You had the Dungeons and Dragons manuals, maybe a Larry Elmore illustration on a paperback, but all of it resembled the familiar tropes of the Tolkienverse. Elves were angelic and had pointy ears, ogres were brutes, and so on. But Magic’s Llanowar elves, created by those original designers, had mohawks, eye patches, and tattoos.
Wizards of the Coast offered shares of the company as partial payment for much of this art. But the other logistics of printing and packaging a card game proved costly. Adkison had passed on RoboRally thinking it wouldn’t be cost effective. But making Magic quickly proved to be even more expensive. And that was just the beginning of the trouble.
In the spring of 1992, Wizards of the Coast published The Primal Order, its first product. A few months after its release, game publishing company Palladium sued for copyright infringement.
The whole concept of RPG capsystems, games you can play within other games, existed in a gray area with regard to intellectual property. The Primal Order actually listed the names of other RPGs, like D&D and games published by Palladium, with instructions on how to play within those systems. Adkison, confident in his idea and perhaps overly ambitious, had it on legal advice that this fell under fair use. But Palladium, then notoriously stingy about IP, was having none of it.
The two parties eventually reached a settlement, but the damage was done, both financially and to the brand. Believing now that his company’s future didn’t lie in role playing, and worried the lawsuit would ultimately sink Wizards of the Coast, Adkison created a separate company with which to continue developing Magic: Garfield Games.
In the summer of 1993, two years after Magic’s inception, Wizards of the Coast (via Garfield Games) had a version ready to publish. The goal was to make a splash at that year’s Gen Con, the biggest tabletop convention in the country. But if they wanted to publish cards in time for Gen Con, they’d have to secure the last bit of funding at the Origins Game Fair, a trade show in Fort Worth, Texas.
With a box of cards, among the few in existence, Adkison set up shop at the Wizards of the Coast booth and began demoing the game with mostly weak decks (the only available in this particular box). Nevertheless, at some point a man with a shiny belt buckle and a cowboy hat sauntered over. He was an account representative for Wargames West, publisher of the sorts of historical tactical games Adkison used to play with his father.
As Adkison tells it, after about 15 minutes of demoing the game, the rep considered what he saw and said, “Hold on a minute, I need to show this to Phil.” Soon after, he returned with Phil, a taller man in a larger cowboy hat. Again, Adkison went through his spiel. “We should show this to Stan,” said Phil. And, as Adkison recalls, the two reps disappeared into the convention. About 20 minutes later they returned with an even taller man in an even larger cowboy hat. He demoed the game yet again. Stan turned to his partners: “We better go get Wayne.”
The three again slipped into the crowd. Another 20 minutes later everyone returned, this time alongside the roundest of the crew with by far the biggest hat. Wayne, it turned out, was Wayne Godfrey, CEO of Wargames West. After one last demo, Wayne looked up from the table and said, “We should take you to dinner.”
Adkison secured a $40,000 preorder of cards that day, enough to put him over the top. In late July 1993, Wizards of the Coast shipped its first boxes of Magic: The Gathering to distributors, the new name chosen late in the process since Magic alone couldn’t be trademarked. With a van full of cards, Adkison and his wife at the time embarked on a road trip to various hobby stores to drum up buzz for Gen Con. They’d first wind down the West Coast and jag over to New Mexico and Denver before boarding a flight to the big convention in Milwaukee.
At the first stop, in Portland, no one showed up but Garfield’s parents. In Astoria, another empty shop. Wizards had paid minimally for advertising and relied on word of mouth from distributors, store owners, and players to light the spark. But MTG was a game unlike anything on the market. Who knew how long it would take for such a game to catch on, if at all? Maybe this creation from the brain of Garfield, a perpetual tinkerer, always combining games with other games and tweaking rules, playing with games more than playing games themselves…maybe Magic was simply too complex for mass market appeal.
But when they hit California a few days later, the Magic debut tour started to meet its first players. San Francisco to Fresno to San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles, awaiting groups at each shop grew. “It was like we were watching it spread in real time,” Adkison remembers. By the time they hit Wargames West’s retail store in Albuquerque, at least 50 people waited for them. Some videotaped the van as it arrived. “It was like being rock stars.”
Founded in 1968 by Gary Gygax, who cocreated Dungeons and Dragons six years later, Gen Con turned the Milwaukee Exposition and Convention Center and Arena into a bustling bazaar of tabletop gaming. It looked like a cross between a poker tournament and a renaissance fair, with thousands of players browsing booths done up like castles and buying custom art of floating jungle islands, while others huddled around tables, unfolding board games and tossing 20-sided dice.
Adkison met up with Garfield the day before the convention only to learn their shipment of cards had not yet arrived. They waited at the loading docks the morning of the convention, but still nothing. Back on the show floor, players began hovering around a Magic: The Gathering booth absent the actual game. The first day passed without any cards.
By the time the cards finally arrived, on the second afternoon of the convention, would-be players had grown impatient. “Do you need any help?” they asked.
Twenty gamers joined MTG reps on the loading docks to pull boxes from the truck, carrying them through the aisles of the convention floor. Wizards of the Coast’s tenacious impresario, with an MBA in nerddom and the guile of a luxury car salesman, got right to work. “We immediately started writing receipts,” recalls Adkison. “And taking money.” People weren’t playing Magic: The Gathering while in line at a gaming convention. They lined up to play Magic: The Gathering.
Gen Con marked the first gaming convention for the normally crowd-shy Garfield. All his life, games made up much of the connective tissue of his relationships. He had organized game nights and shared his original creations because of his love for game systems. He’d get people around the table on campus to play something like RoboRally. “But when I left, I don’t think they kept playing.” Games were niche things, temporary. Even with all the time and energy put into MTG, he still felt unsure about game design as a career.
But then he taught his first conventioneers how to play this game. He watched as these players scattered about the show floor to teach their friends. The games themselves, Garfield came to recognize, however engrossing and ingenious, matter less than the act of sitting at a table with someone.
Between players and distributors, Wizards of the Coast would sell every one of the 2.5 million cards it brought to Gen Con.
Magic made nearly $2 million by the end of 1993, and Adkison quickly grew the team, hiring Bill Rose and various other members of the East Coast crew as card designers. In 1994, Garfield left his teaching job to join his old play testers at the new official office space in Renton.
Throughout the 1990s, Wizards of the Coast would ride a collectible card game craze it spawned, employing hundreds of designers, artists, play testers, and analysts to produce multiple Magic: The Gathering expansion sets annually. Yearly sales regularly topped $100 million.
In 1996 the company debuted an official MTG pro tour—a games-as-sports concept that paved the way for the billion-dollar industry known today as esports.
The next year, Wizards bought TSR, publisher of none other than Dungeons and Dragons. Two years later, Adkison cut another deal, this one for American publishing rights for a little-known Japanese trading card game called Pokémon.
Shortly after this sale, the gaming giant Hasbro bought Wizards of the Coast for $350 million up front. Adkison stayed on for another year, leading a team to develop a massively multiplayer computer game version of MTG, essentially World of Warcraft years before World of Warcraft would debut and rule the gaming world. But when Hasbro scrapped the project, Adkison left the company he started in his Kent apartment, retaining rights only to The Primal Order, his first creation.
In retirement, he purchased Gen Con, a move that in 2007 found him in another lawsuit, this time with Lucasfilm, which sought nearly $1 million over unpaid debts, causing Gen Con to file for bankruptcy that year. Adkison ultimately bounced back and still owns the convention that launched his career. These days, he creates online multimedia stories set in a world he calls Chaldea. He also still plays war games with his father, with whom he reconnected in 1994.
Richard Garfield, the mastermind behind Magic: The Gathering, and the entire trading card game industry, went on to publish dozens more card and board games with Wizards of the Coast (including RoboRally), nearly all of them well received in small pockets of the gaming community. He taught a handful of game courses at the University of Washington until the mid-2000s, and still gives lectures on the subject. His current company Three Donkeys consults with game creators large and small, helping iron out design issues and offering fresh advice. But in all of this, Garfield would always be revered as the creator of Magic.
Some of the original Wizards of the Coast staffers and East Coast play testers remained with the company through the decades, like Bill Rose, now a VP of Magic’s research and development arm. Rose and the others helped ensure that, 25 years after its debut, Magic: The Gathering remains a ubiquitous name in gaming.
In all my conversations with its creators, I always came back to the same question: How has this game with mohawked elves and cards called “Mizzium Transreliquat” or that read, “Destroy two target nonblack creatures unless either one is a color the other isn’t”—how has such a game remained popular over two decades of increasing competition for attention?
Justin Gary has one explanation. Before becoming a tabletop game designer in his own right, Gary made a career out of playing Magic, winning tournaments as a teenager in Florida, then traveling internationally, earning as much as $30,000 for championship wins. In 2000 he had the opportunity to play a few matches with Richard Garfield himself. But it turns out, compared to dedicated players, the creator of Magic was not particularly good at Magic.
“His thinking was always as a designer,” says Gary. Whereas a player looks to exploit systems and find advantages, “Richard thinks, ‘How do I craft this experience? What’s the emotional reaction like for the player? How does this system work together?’” Garfield always loved playing with games, after all. But having unlocked the formula that would click with so many players around the globe and influence everything from Pokémon to World of Warcraft, what’s left to tinker with?
These days, when people ask what’s Garfield’s favorite deck to play in Magic, he says the same thing: “I like to play whatever color people aren’t playing, see if I can find a treasure there.”