Tuesday, June 19, 2007

History of Magic - Part 1

2 new posts today, make sure to read the comments in Design: Card for another post that contains alot of code.

This is Richard Garfield explaining how he created Magic: The Gathering, taken from the book the Game Design Workshop. I haven’t seen this anywhere else and I really enjoyed reading it.

The Creation of Magic: The Gathering
By Richard Garfield written in 1993

The ancestry of Magic
Games evolve. New ones take the most loved features of earlier games and add original characteristics. The creation of Magic: The Gathering is a case in point.

Though there are about a dozen games that have directly influenced Magic in one way or another, the game’s most influential ancestor is a game for which I have no end of respect: Cosmic Encounter, originally published by Eon Products and re-released by Mayfair Games. In this game, participants play alien races striving to conquer a piece of the universe. Players can attempt their conquest alone, or forge alliances with other aliens. There are nearly 50 alien races which can be played, each of which has a unique ability: the Amoeba, for example, has the power to Ooze, giving it unlimited token movement; the Sniveler has the power to Whine, allowing it to automatically catch up when behind. The best thing about Cosmic Encounter is precisely this limitless variety. I have played hundreds of times and still can be surprised at the interactions different combinations of aliens produce. Cosmic Encounter remains enjoyable because it is constantly new.

Cosmic Encounter proved to be an interesting complement to my own design ideas. I had been mulling over a longtime idea of mine: a game which used a deck of cards whose composition changed between rounds. During the course of the game, the players would add cards to and remove cards from the deck, so that when you played a new game it would have an entirely different card mix. I remembered playing marbles in elementary school, where each player had his own collection from which he would trade and compete. I was also curious about Strat-o-matic Baseball, in which participants draft, field, and compete their own teams of baseball players, whose abilities are based on real players’ previous year statistics. Intrigued by the structure of the game, I was irritated that the subject was one for which I had no patience.

These thoughts were the essence of what eventually became Magic. My experiences with Cosmic Encounter and other games inspired me to create a card game in 1982 call Five Magics. Five Magics was an attempt to distill the modularity of Cosmic Encounter down to just a card game. The nature of Cosmic Encounter seemed entirely appropriate for a magical card game – wild and not entirely predictable, but not completely unknown, like a set of forces you almost, but don’t quite, understand. Over the next few years, Five Magics went on to inspire entirely new magical card games among my friends.

Ten years later, I was still designing games, and Mike Davis and I had come up with a boardgame called RoboRally. Mike was acting as our agent, and among the companies he approached was a brand-new gaming company called Wizards of the Coast. Things seemed to be going well, so that August, Mike, and I made our way to Portland, Oregon to meet over pizza with Peter Adkison and James Hays of Wizards of the Coast.

Both Peter and James were very receptive to RoboRally, but informed me that they weren’t really in a position to come out with a boardgame right away. This wasn’t what I come out to hear, of course, but I didn’t want the trip to be a total waste. I asked Peter what he would be interested in. Peter replied that he really saw a need for a game that could be played quickly with minimal equipment, a game that would go over well at conventions. Could I do it?
Within a few days, the initial concept for a trading card game was born, based on another card game I had developed in 1985 called Safecracker. I hadn’t been one of my best games. But then I remembered Five Magics.

The first designs
I went back to graduates school at the University of Pennsylvania, and worked on the card game in whatever spare time I had. It wasn’t easy; there were three months of false starts on the project, there are so many aspects of card game design that have to be reconsidered when designing trading card games. First of all, you can’t have any bad cards – people wouldn’t play with them. In fact, you want to prevent too much range in the utility of cards because players will only play with the best – why make cards people won’t play with? Besides, homogeneity of card power is the only way to combat the “rich kid syndrome” that threatened the game concept from the starts. What was to keep someone from going out and getting ten decks and becoming uneatable?

It was a major design concern. I had numerous theories on how to prevent purchasing power from unbalancing the game, none of which were entirely valid but all of which had a grain of truth. The most compelling counter to this “buy-out-the-store” strategy was the ante. If we were playing for ante, the argument ran, and your deck was the distilled fruit of ten decks, when I did win, I would win a more valuable card. Also, if the game had enough skill, then the player purchasing their power would surely be easy prey for the players dueling and trading their way to a good deck. And of course there was the sentiment that buying a lot of poker chips doesn’t make you a winner. In the end, however, the “rich kid syndrome” became less of a concern. Magic is a fun game, and it doesn’t really matter how you get your deck. Playtesting showed that a deck that is too powerful defeats itself. On the one hand, people stopped playing against it for ante unless a handicap was invoked; on the other, it inspired them to assemble more effective decks in response.

The first Magic release was affectionately named Alpha. It consisted of 120 cards split randomly between two players. The two players would ante a card, fight a duel over the ante, and repeat until they got bored. They often took a long time to get bored; even then, Magic was a surprisingly addictive game. About ten o’clock one evening, Barry “Bit” Reich and I started a game in the University of Pennsylvania Astronomy lounge, a windowless, air-conditioned room. We played continuously until about 3:00 a.m.; – at least that’s what we thought, until we left the building and found the sun had risen.

I knew then that I had a game structure that could support the concept of individually owned and tailored decks. The game was quick, and while it had bluffing and strategy, it didn’t seem to get bogged down with too much calculation. The various combinations that came up were enjoyable and often surprising. At the same time, the variety of card combinations didn’t unbalance the game: when a person started to win, it didn’t turn into a landslide.

From alpha to gamma
Except for the card mix, little has changed about Magic since alpha. In alpha, walls could attack, and losing all your lands of a particular color destroyed the associated spells in play, but otherwise, the rules are much the same now as they were in the early stages of playtesting.
Moving from alpha to the beta version was like releasing a wild animal. The enjoyable game that was alpha now burst the confines of the duel to invade the lives of the participants. Players were free to trade cards between game and hunt down weaker players to challenge them to duels, while gamely facing or cravenly avoiding those who were more powerful. Reputations were forged – reputations built on anything from consistently strong play to a few lucky wins to good bluffing. The players didn’t know the card mix, so they learned to stay on their toes during duels. Even the most alert players would occasionally meet with nasty surprises. This constants discovery of unknown realms in an uncharted world gave the game a feeling of infinite size and possibility.

For the gamma version, new cards were added and many of the creature costs were increased. We also doubled the pool of playtesters, adding in a group with Strat-o-matic Baseball experience. We were particularly anxious to find out if Magic could be adapted for league play. Gamma was also the first version which was fully illustrated. Skaff Elias was my art director: he and others spends days poring over old graphic magazines, comic books, and game books searching for art for the cards.

These playtest decks were pretty attractive for crummy black-and-white cardstock photocopies. For the most part, the cards were illustrated with serious pictures, but there were a lot of humorous ones as well. Heal was illustrated by Skaff’s foot. Power Sink showed Calvin (of “Calvin and Hobbes”) in a toilet; after all, what is a toilet but a power sink? Berserk was John Travolta dancing in Saturday Night Fever. Righteousness pictured Captain Kirk, and Blessing showed Spock doing his “live long and prosper” gesture. An old comic book provided a Charles Atlas picture for Holy Strength, and a 98-poind weakling getting sand kicked in his face for Weakness. Instill Energy was Richard Simmons. The infamous Glasses of Urza were some X-ray glasses we found in a catalog. Ruthy Kantororvitz constructed a darling flame-belching baby for Firebreathing. I myself had the honor of being the Goblins. The pictures and additional players greatly added to the game atmosphere. It became clear that while the duels were for two players, the more players playing, the better the game was. In some sense, the individual duels were a part of a single, larger game.

1 comment:

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