All in the Cards

All in the Cards
Trading (Web) Cards

Allen Varney | 3 Oct 2006 08:00
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In a career riddled with mistakes of minor consequence, I look back at 1980 as the one blunder of colossal magnitude that proved me, beyond doubt, a hopeless dimwit.

While I waited with him in line for an event at Noreascon Two, the World Science Fiction Convention in Boston, Peter Olotka, co-designer of the brilliant Cosmic Encounter boardgame, described a notion for a game that players might play while, for instance, waiting in line at a convention. "They would each lay out their own cards," Olotka said, thinking it over, "and play them against each other, and the winner would somehow get the loser's cards." I pondered this, then said, "I don't see how that would work," and changed the subject.

In 1992, long after I blithely abandoned this 12-year headstart, Peter Adkison met at a convention with Richard Garfield. Adkison was a former Boeing engineer who had cashed in some stock to start his own little game company; Garfield was an amateur game designer and doctoral candidate in combinatory math at the University of Pennsylvania. Adkison, trying to scrape together the money to publish Garfield's boardgame RoboRally, was looking for intermediate projects. Having not yet met me or Olotka, Adkison independently inquired with Garfield about a game suitable for convention play. Garfield thought it over and, the next day, proposed a game where each player has his own cards, plays against others, and the winner gets one of the loser's cards. Adkison pondered this, grew excited and said, "This could make us a million dollars. Maybe two million!"

This is why a Boeing engineer revolutionized the game field and is now worth upwards of $50 million, whereas I scrounge a hand-to-mouth existence writing for online game magazines.

Those Were the Days
On the first day of the June 1993 Origins game convention in Fort Worth, Texas, as I sat with him at his small, neglected exhibitor booth behind unsold stacks of his roleplaying supplement The Primal Order, Adkison bubbled with characteristic enthusiasm. He showed me Garfield's decks of Magic: The Gathering play test cards - laser-printed on construction paper with cheap clipart - and explained the concept in almost the same way Olotka had described it to me years before.

Along with Garfield, Adkison's small Seattle company of six part-time gamers, Wizards of the Coast, had made several market assumptions. They hoped each Magic player would buy one 60-card deck and perhaps as many as six 13-card booster packs. Players would naturally form small groups (hence the game's subtitle) and play one another for "ante," a card from the loser's deck. In every player group, the available cards would represent a unique subset of cards from the game's larger universe; no one would have a clear sense of all the cards in existence. About eight months after they released The Gathering, Adkison said, Wizards planned (finances permitting) to release Ice Age, a companion "Deckmaster" game using the same card backs.

The next day at that Origins show, I stopped again at the Wizards booth and found Adkison even more jubilant than usual. He proudly showed me samples of the printed Magic cards, which had just arrived from the printer, Cartamundi in Belgium. I held what was, I believe, the very first printed card of the Hurloon Minotaur, which would become the iconic creature of Magic's Alpha, Beta, Unlimited and Revised sets. "Very nice," said Hopeless Dimwit, oblivious to the tide of history.

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