November 2, 2004
Excerpts: The Medici Effect - Part III
Richard Garfield is a measured talker. He takes his time to think about a question before answering it. Still here, still here. Im just formulating my answer, he says unassumingly during a phone call. His comments are precise, yet also tentative as if he wishes to give a clear answer but still leave some room to revisit it later on. Maybe it was his Ph.D. background in combinatorial mathematics that paved the way for such an exacting nature, or maybe it was his background in game design that kept him open to possibilities. Whatever the reason for his makeup, it is clear that this is someone who loves every aspect of games and gaming.
Magic was Garfields hobby for a long time. He would keep it on his shelf only to take it out every couple of months to tinker with it for a little bit, play with my friends perhaps, and maybe test out new rules. Then it went back on the shelf, sitting there until the next session. All in all, he had tinkered with Magic for eight years before it actually went to market, although that only represented a couple of months of real work. But Garfield does not directly credit these eight years for coming up with the idea of Magic. He credits it to one day spent in the country. Everything about my game making is evolutionary. The one exception to that is Magic. The idea that made Magic into something special came one weekend while I was visiting my folks in Oregonwe had gone to Multnomah Falls. I can remember exactly where it happened and exactly when it happened. I had this Eureka. And the idea . . . the idea seemed to come out of nowhere.
To understand what was so revolutionary about Garfields idea we must first understand a little about how the game works. In Magic two players face off against each other with their own sets of cards. These cards are divided into categories such as creatures, lands, and spells. The point of the game is to use your cards in various strategic combinations to destroy your opponent by bringing his or her life-force points down from 20 to 0. So far this seems like nothing spectacular. It may remind you of a slightly more elaborate cards version of chess; in both games you can develop multitiered strategies with pieces that have different functions.
But Garfields idea at Multnomah Falls gave Magic a crucial design difference; one that made it distinct from virtually all other games that had preceded it. The great breakthrough with Magic was when I realized that not all the cards had to be the same for all people, Garfield recalls. Before a game starts, each player assembles a deck of sixty cards by balancing monster cards, landscape cards, and spell cards. These sixty cards come from the players private collection. One players collection can look very different from another players because there are hundreds, even thousands, of cards in total circulation.
This is how it works: When a player buys a deck of cards he gets sixty, but those sixty represent only a fraction of the available cards in the entire card set. If the player buys another deck, he will probably get some cards he already owns along with a bunch of new ones. This means that when one player uses, say, a Juggernaut monster card, the other player may never have seen it before. Even so, the other player will quickly understand how this new card affects her own strategy and can therefore easily integrate it as the game keeps going. Because players bring their own decks, they can actually play an entire game with cards that none of their opponents has seen.