25 Years Of Magic: The Gathering, And How It's Changed The Gaming World

Sep 10, 2018

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Twenty-five years ago, the card game Magic: The Gathering hit store shelves. More than 30 million people are still playing in this fantasy battle world.

Guests

Neima Jahromi, editorial staff member and contributing writer at The New Yorker. (@NeimaJahromi)

Mark Rosewater, head designer for Magic: The Gathering. (@maro254)

Tifa Robles, founder and organizer of the Lady Planeswalkers Society. Former brand manager for Magic: The Gathering at Wizards of the Coast. (@TifaRobles)

Interview Highlights

On the premise of the game

Tifa Robles: “It’s a trading card game, meaning that there’s basically an endless amount of cards in the world that you can build decks from. As a player you take on the role of a planeswalker, which you can think of as a cool wizard. You have a deck of cards that has spells and creatures that you cast against your opponent. You use a resource called mana to cast these spells. The goal of the game is get your opponent down to zero from the health starting at 20, before your own health gets to zero.”

On the various appealing qualities of Magic

Neima Jahromi: “There’s this thing that players refer to as the metagame. These decks — the first edition of cards that came out, there were around 300, but you only had around 60 or so in your deck, and so you’re kind of compiling and building these decks. Back then when they were promoting it, they had this rule guide and they talked about how the decks were supposed to be like characters like in role-playing games, in a way. And so the games end, but your ability to change up your deck and change the way the game is played is kind of endless. And they knew from the beginning that their intention was to keep putting out new editions of the game. They were going to go to different universes, parallel universes, all sorts of different what they cal, planes, and explore them and create new storylines.”

TR: “One of the most amazing things about Magic and how it can appeal to all different types of people is that there is the art. Some people really get into it because of the amazing art. There’s flavor and stories that even go beyond the cards. You can find deep story on the Wizards website that they post weekly stories on. There are even novels. And the mechanics themselves in Magic are very unique and well thought out and designed and developed. There’s a little bit of something for everybody in Magic, and that’s one of the things that I really like about it. The lore is very deep.”

On what Magic means to those who play it

On Point caller, Sue: “My experience with Magic: The Gathering was actually my son Bradley’s experience. Brad had started playing the game around 2011, and when we were living in New York state, in Geneva, New York, he used to go to a place called Good Game, which was a game store. And he started playing this game with other guys there in this group. He started with a deck of cards and gradually just kept expanding, and he would show me all of these cards he had. And I was a little concerned at first, but then I realized, well, he’s actually doing a very interesting thing. And I saw his mood changing becoming happy and creative, and he was an artist.

“And I say ‘was’ because tragically my son passed away three years ago, in October. He was 24. He had epilepsy. He was extremely creative, he was also a musician. He had been in college and so on, in working, so he was independent. But this gave him socialization, because he was ostracized because of his disability for those who knew he had it, or some people who knew he had it. And he kind of came out of his shell. He loved art, he was an artist. And it gave him a measure of choices in his life. In his world, he didn’t have a lot of choices.”

On working for Wizards of the Coast, Magic’s publisher

On Point caller, Nancy: “I have some experience playing it, but more than that I used to work for Wizards of the Coast. I worked under Beverly Marshall Sailing doing editing of the cards, and then I worked under Kathy Ice editing the books.

“We were trying very hard to always have he/she, we deliberately put in cards that were female, in the books, the same thing. But we were always pushing against the culture of gaming, which was always very male-oriented at that time. Mostly younger men were playing. We were trying to get women playing. In fact, we would go out to local places with a deck of cards and just casually start playing a whole bunch of females in public.”

More on representation and diversity in the game

TR: “Honestly we’re in a big culture shift that is making it easier. So I think 10, 20 years from now there will be more women in that scene. But when the game started, gaming was a male-dominated field, and it’s taken a long time for that to sort of shift. Gaming has had to become more mainstream for it to be acceptable for women to play games. Video games have helped with that because a lot of young girls that grew up with video games are now adult women, and they realize, ‘Oh, this is something that is acceptable for me to be involved with.’

“When I started playing, there were not a lot of women, and it was hard when looking at the pro scene — you know I didn’t see myself represented at all. But for a lot of women that I know, it sort of pushed them to try to be better so that the next generation does have that to look up to.”

From The Reading List

New Yorker: “The Twenty-Five-Year Journey of Magic: The Gathering” — “Magic: The Gathering débuted in August of 1993, and had a modest initial print run of 2.6 million cards with fantasy illustrations to match. Over the next decade, it would inspire a genre of collectible-card games such as Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon. Mel Li, a game designer who has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and who worked at Wizards until last year, discovered the game in 1995. ‘I grew up in the suburbs,’ she said. ‘You spend a lot of time on your own.’ Magic gave her nerdy friends something to talk about in the schoolyard, a ‘common language.’ The next year, Mirage, a set of Magic cards with African fantasy elements, came out. ‘That was eye-opening for me,’ she told me. ‘It wasn’t a typical, Tolkien-esque vision of what a fantasy world should be.’ Her mom and dad thought it was a waste of time, so she kept her cards hidden in a shoebox under her bed. ‘I’d lay them out and make decks at night,’ she recalled, ‘when my parents were asleep.’

“In the game, players were fashioned as ‘planeswalkers,’ who cast spells and travel between planes of existence. The spells themselves were the cards, which could be purchased in places like bookstores and comic-book shops. It soon became a common sight to see kids ripping off the wrappers of Magic packs, and—as a blend of chemicals from the bouquet of ink and finish wafted up—taking account of what they possessed of the two hundred and ninety-five cards that Garfield and his colleagues had conceived. The cards had names like ‘Bad Moon’ and ‘Celestial Prism’ and featured beasts such as ‘Giant Spider’ and ‘Gray Ogre.’ Garfield devised a set of rules about how many cards to draw each turn, how to charge up magical powers, or ‘mana,’ from so-called land cards, and how to cast spell cards and summon creatures to bring an opponent’s life total from twenty points to zero. Flowing through this was a strain of wild invention: the cards often gave players the license to bend or change the rules.”

Happy Birthday, Magic!” — “This month, Magic: The Gathering celebrated its 25th anniversary. Not many games have survived this long, especially with this much success. Wizards has estimated that 20 million people across the globe play this amazing game, up from 12 million when I worked there over 5 years ago. That is some serious growth in 5 years and I can understand why.

“Magic changes lives. I know it sounds crazy, even silly, that some pieces of cardboard can change lives, but it’s true. Every convention I have people come up to me with their amazing Magic stories. I hear about how it’s broken introverts out of their shells, helped outcasts find friends that accept them for who they are, and helped couples grow stronger bonds. I’ve read stories about how Magic has helped people through serious traumatic events and illness. The amount of stories are endless. This game truly does make a difference in this world.

“Magic can teach children math and strategic skills. Magic helps us communicate and build meaningful relationships face-to-face in an age where we interact more digitally than anything else. Magic’s story is inspiring and the characters are diverse.”

Forbes: “For ‘Magic: The Gathering,’ Diversity Is The Marketing Strategy” — “I spent my weekend crammed into a convention center with roughly 5,000 other fans. We were there to play Magic: The Gathering, an analog card game. This is the Washington, D.C. Grand Prix, where players enter competitive tournaments to match wits at the fantasy game.

“For some background, Magic: The Gathering has been around since 1993. With its spell-slinging, creature-casting mechanics, it’s developed quite a nerdy reputation. Despite all that however, it’s one of Hasbro’s most lucrative franchises, beat only by Star Wars.

“As I squeezed my way through crowds of people, I realized this isn’t just a game for nerds. It’s a game for everyone. Previously the realm of mostly young, white men, Magic: The Gathering has become a high fantasy haven for people of all stripes.”

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.