If you’ve ever played Magic: The Gathering, odds are high that you were at some point obsessed with it. Or at least I was, along with millions of others, both as a dorky teen and recently again as a ridiculous adult. For more than 20 years now, Magic has maintained its well-deserved place among the most popular and—in my opinion—complex games in recent memory.
The creator of Magic is a man named Richard Garfield, a game designer with a PhD in combinatorial math. Though Magic is still his most popular design, Garfield is responsible for numerous other paper and electronic games, including RoboRally; Vampie: The Eternal Stuggle; Spectromancer; and King of Tokyo. Currently, Richard is working alongside notorious repeat Jeopardy! champion and writer of funny tweets Ken Jennings on a new game combining trivia with an egalitarian mode of play, wherein anyone, not just trivia buffs, can win.
A few days ago I got the chance to talk with Garfield on the phone about game design, competition, and his poker strategy.
VICE: What are the early elements that define the creation of a game?
Richard Garfield: People say that games spring from two major sources. One is from the mechanics, and the other is from the motif—the artifice of the game. So you look at a game like Clue, and it’s got this murder-mystery feel, and you can legitimately ask yourself, Did the author sit down and try to make a murder-mystery game, or does it have this deductive mechanic in the abstract that looks like chess, and then they decided it would make a good murder-mystery-flavor game? In most games, in general, it works in both ways.
So, with Magic, my game was inspired by the mechanics. I was interested in designing a game in which people could construct their own decks, and that was the root of the game. It wasn’t until months later that I came up with the idea of attaching a magical theme to it. But another game I designed, Pecking Order, which is kind of an abstract bluffing game, has the motif of birds landing on posts, and the better posts are occupied by birds higher on the pecking order. That was inspired by watching some birds vie for posts. I was looking at a game being played by the birds and modeled it into a strategy game.
Oftentimes, the things that inspire me are interesting systems, like evolution, or economics, or of course warfare. As you look at how the mechanics of these things work in real life, that gives rise to natural game elements.
I think the thing that has given Magic such longevity is the collectability aspect—people often become fanatical not only about the game itself but about acquiring the tools.
Right. The game bleeds into real life. There’s this whole world of how you get the cards, and how the cards circulate among people. You see that sort of thing in online games these days quite a bit. Back before the 90s, it was pretty rare to see a game like that, outside of sports with player trading. It was not just how you played your game in basketball or football, but how you manipulated your team, how you chose to trade your players, and who you managed to recruit. With Magic, I was mainly being driven by the idea that, if people could collect their own cards, there would be a huge amount of variety to the game. In fact, one way I viewed it was that it was like designing a game for a vast audience, dealing out the cards to everybody instead of designing a bunch of little games.
And the system continues to shift with each new expansion of the game, and each edition completely changes the game’s landscape. How much are you able to predict those changes when designing a new set of cards? Does it ever surprise you?
In the early days, Magic often shifted in many ways we didn’t understand or expect. It was something that really excited me. It felt like the game was so complicated that there would be no way to predict it unless you intentionally broke the game by making super-powerful cards that would dominate the others. But the whole idea is to make it so that there’s a wide variety of playable decks. There’s just no way you can test everything, and so sometimes the game would move in ways the designers expected and sometimes it wouldn’t. One of the things I really like about games is that many times, once the designer has designed them, people take the ideas beyond where the designer anticipated. If you solve a crossword puzzle, the most you can do is equal what the designer intended. But if you play a game like chess, you can move well beyond. The best basketball player in the world is not the person who invented basketball.
In some ways, the true personality of the game really begins to emerge when you see people who are new masters, and how they see the game differently than anyone else.
And one of the most exciting things in game play is when you have a regime of masters and they’ve taught everybody how to play, but then some young players look at it in a different way and see a different strategy and are able to overcome the old hierarchy. So in chess a player like Fisher comes out and turns the game on its head.
When you’re play-testing a prototype for a new game, how much attention do you have to pay to limiting certain aspects versus knowing when another sort of aspect should not be limited?
That answer changes based on your audience. When Magic first came out I was interested in keeping it as flexible as possible. We knew there were all these crazy things you could do with some of the cards and ways you could interpret their play, and ways you could put together decks that weren’t any fun to play against, but we wanted to leave maximum flexibility in there. And play groups control this. If I’m playing with you, and you always play a deck that isn’t very interesting, then you would be pressured into changing your deck, or I would be pressured into raising my game and trying to defeat that deck. We didn’t care that there were ways to work around the game that weren’t fun, because people would have fun in discovering them, and then they would make house rules to control them. The games that I grew up with were driven by house rules. Famously, Monopoly is hardly ever played by the written rules, and when you sit down with people you have to figure out what rules you’re playing by. But Magic is a much more networked game than Monopoly, meaning that you would play with me, but then you would go off and play with somebody else, and they would play with somebody else, and there is much more of a demand with Magic that there be a way to be able to interpret the rules. You’ll see that in any game that is played at the tournament level. There was a lot of rules we had to formalize and take control of. A lot of the things I would have published in ’93 can’t be published now because they would do something that wouldn’t be good for the tournaments.
These minutiae of rules really affect people emotionally. People lose their minds.
Passion evolves around any game that moves beyond being a pastime and into becoming a hobby or a lifestyle. Like Magic, or Dungeons & Dragons, or World of Warcraft... or the way many people play sports.
Are there any games that you’ve become that passionate about, personally?
I don’t think there are, for me. I’ve been passionate about games, but I’ve always been very flexible and bored in my view about what constitutes the rules. I like to see people interpreting the game in a different way. I like tinkering with the rules and seeing what happens.
So you wouldn’t say you’re a competitive person?
I’m competitive in that when I play a game I try to win. But in some ways, what we’re skirting around here is there are different psycho-graphics for players. One way I like to divide players up is into innovators and honers.
Innovators are the people who like to sit down to a new game and innovate new rules. An innovator who sits down to chess might get very excited because they are learning all these different strategies, and they’re seeing what their opponent is doing and incorporating it into doing it even better. But at some point they have to start studying opening moves, or in poker they have to start studying odds. It becomes for the innovator more work than it used to be, and less fun.
A honer, on the other hand, what they really like doing is taking this established way of looking at a game, and perfecting it, getting it so that they know the exact percentages, and getting an established method of play perfect. A champion might be able to do both, or enjoy both, but I’m more on the innovator side, where I like to come up with strategies, but then once you have to start to study it, I move on to something else or change the rules.
Part of the success of Magic is that it has ways to satisfy both the innovator and the honer. The innovator is happy because the card mixes are constantly changing, and everything is constantly in flux. And the honer can study the minutiae of the game down to whether you should have four of these in a deck or three, what you should have in your sideboard, when you should mulligan.
Do you have a favorite Magic card?
One of my favorite cards is Shahrazad. In a historical sense, of course, Shahrazad was the storyteller of Arabian Nights, and was famous for stringing her stories together and nesting stories within stories, because every night she kept the sultan entertained was a night that she wasn’t going to be killed. And so with the card, when you played it, you would then play a sub-game of Magic, and whoever won that would get a benefit in the parent game. I like cards like that, that mesh well with the flavor they are trying to convey, and also take you out of the game into a new space.
What is your idea of the perfect game?
When I was in my 20s I would have said Go. Now I say poker. Poker is simple. Anybody can play it. Anybody can win. But there’s obviously skill. It’s short, so you can play a hand of poker very fast; you can use it to fill up any length of time. It’s also very flexible. When I was in college we played a lot of dealer’s-choice poker, and there were so many games available; it was constantly changing. Poker is almost more like a game-operating system, rather than just a game.
I imagine you are the kind of player who likes to bluff a lot.
With all my games I try to take what people expect of me and do something a little different. I bluff when I think I have established a reputation for not bluffing, and I play very tight when I think people expect me to be bluffing. But that’s not atypical. And you’ll see that when I sit down to play Magic. If everybody is playing one of two different types of decks, red/green and blue/white, I will be trying to play a black deck. I want to use the tools other people aren’t using, or find some combination other people haven’t gotten to work. I take pleasure in trying to think outside the box in games. Both math and intuition are very useful. Without an understanding of odds, your intuition doesn’t make much sense.