Talking Sci-Fi, Math, and Chaos with the Creator of 'Magic: The Gathering'

25 years after its creation, Richard Garfield provides insight into how his love of breaking the rules helped him make the world's biggest collectible card game.
August 20, 2018, 6:23pm
All images courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Anyone who has played Magic: The Gathering has had some version of this encounter: Someone gives you a deck and you play a couple games. You think, gee whiz, that’s fun, and the person who taught you how to play says they want to show you a couple more decks. More decks? You think, and then they explain that this game has been going on for years, that there are thousands of cards, and that you can make decks that do anything. You can win the game by creating one giant creature that takes all of your opponent’s life in one hit; you can destroy all of their resource-creating lands; you can remove all of the cards from their library, winning when they go to draw a card and cannot.

You’ve played a couple games, so you know how it works, and the person explaining this to you reveals that you’re looking through a peephole at a vast, chaotic cosmos of gameplay with these simple little cardboard rectangles. And, if you were like me, that was enough to get you hooked.

I had the opportunity to speak to Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: The Gathering, ahead of the game’s 25th Anniversary on August 5th and his own announcement of KeyForge, his new card game. As you’ll see in the transcript below, we mostly talked about design in the abstract. I wanted to know about the big, weird parts of Magic and how it all came together for him, and I think we had a rousing conversation.

As you’ll see, we kept returning to questions of chaos and order, freedom and discipline, although rarely under those specific terms. For me, the legacy of Magic is all about the wide range of deck types that you can make with those cards that fundamentally alter the rules of the game. It is about expression within bounds. I was delighted to see that Garfield sees is roughly the same way.

After all, there are cards that give you additional attack steps, cards that reset the game, and cards that change the most basic assumptions we have about the game. You can make decks that are all about hoarding resources to create giant monsters, or you can craft a “prison” deck that stops your opponent from casting spells or attacking you. The breadth of the experience has only gotten more expansive in the 25 years since release. It is strange and chaotic and strange, full of surprise. Sitting down across from another player in any format could take you on a whirlwind that includes any number of unpredictable interactions.

And there’s one person to praise and blame for the game design that lets all of that happen: Richard Garfield.

Waypoint: What’s your earliest memory of Magic ?

Richard Garfield: It’s hard to put a start date on Magic because my game designs run together, they’re more evolutions than revolutions generally. The earliest memory I have of the concept of a trading card game is quite clear. That was in, I think, 1990 and it was at Multnomah Falls, and it hit me all at once that not all players had to have the same components, and that that could lead to some really exciting and different gameplay.

What’s the context of that moment, of realizing that you could have a card pool that people could pull from?

It was a couple things. First, on the surface, I had the ear of Peter Adkinson who was the head of this startup company called Wizards of the Coast, and he had asked for a game that was portable and quick. And so I was thinking about that, and I was excited to have somebody who was interested in making some of my games. I had pitched Robo Rally, which was a board game, to him, which we later published a couple years after Magic came out.

In the broader context, I had been thinking about games in which the cards changed the rules of the game as you played for quite a while. When I played Cosmic Encounter, it did that to some extent. Each player had a way to break the rules, and the combinations there excited me a lot.

Also I was very fond of tweaking games and changing the rules and seeing what happened, and so I think that there was this idea that everybody could do that if everybody had their own cards they could just drop whatever cards they wanted to break the rules into the game, and they would have what I enjoyed doing which was making their own game experience.

I know that later you ended up working on 3rd Edition _Dungeons & Dragons_**, but before** Magic were you playing D&D ? I’m just trying to get a sense of what other games you were playing that had fungible rules.

I was not playing any D&D, and I wasn’t doing much roleplaying, although I think it was formative. When I was in high school, and to some extent junior high, I did a lot of roleplaying and did play D&D. It was very influential in my journey to becoming a game designer because role playing really puts the player in the position of designing a game.

In graduate school, where I was at the time, I was more exploring traditional games like Bridge and Hearts and playing with the rules of those games. Adding and subtracting rules.

For example, there’s a version of Hearts that I made called Turbo Hearts, which incorporated some rules from Chinese Hearts and American Hearts, and it was quite popular among the grad students. Later on I published in Games Magazine a game called Complex Hearts, which is like Hearts but scored on the complex number plane. I was surprised that Games Magazine was interested in that, but there you go.

You have a PhD in Mathematics, and I think that probably had a lot of bearing on the design of Magic and these other games you’re talking about. Beyond card pool and deckbuilding, were there any basic principles that you came to for top-level design of Magic that came out of the academic work you were doing?

That’s always hard to say. I think the relationship between my math and games is hard to say in particular something which influenced [_Magic_]. But in general, one of the things that’s very interesting about math is that you have these rules and then you figure out what you can determine from those rules. You make theorems about the world that you live in with those rules. Games in their most general form are the same way, you have the rules of the game and then you see what the behavior of that game is. What the players can do within that framework.

I think that framework is what has made Magic such an interesting thing, because the framework is so large and so changeable. Do you have a memory of moment when you knew that Magic was catching on? Where you saw something weird that you hadn’t predicted?

Magic for the first four or five years perpetually surprised me. It was much more popular and exciting to the players than I had expected, and I kept readjusting my expectations because of that, and they kept on exceeding them again.

I know that from the very start, my philosophy was to put in... I was delighted whenever anybody used cards in ways that I didn’t expect because what I was trying to do was give people tools to do things that were their own, that they could take ownership of.

Specifically, it’s hard to name a particular one. I can rattle off a number of decks I saw: someone made a deck of all artifacts, which I didn’t think was possible; someone made a deck with all small creatures, which I didn’t think was possible; someone made a deck with all big creatures, which I didn’t think was possible.

I think it was around that time that I began to think about games as being something where you want the game designer to be surprised by what happens. That’s one of the distinctions between a game and a puzzle. A puzzle, you set up and people solve it, and they can never exceed the designer of the puzzle in some sense. But a game, you don’t expect the person who created Chess to be the best chess player in the world. You expect the game to go in places you don’t anticipate. I took a lot of pleasure in that.

In the early days of the game, were you doing any kind of conceptual worldbuilding stuff with the Alpha set? Or was it mostly like “here are ideas for cards and here’s how they work?” Did you have a sense that this might become a game with an ongoing story?

I had that in the back of my mind, but it wasn’t something that was a priority for me. I did do a little bit of worldbuilding; I tried to establish why magic worked this way in this world where two wizards would begin without much power and it would ramp up during the course of the duel and why there were things from all over the place. The first expansion was Arabian Nights, so why would there be Arabian Nights in this world? So I made this concept of having a multiverse, and I came up with the term “planeswalker” and the general way it worked, but not nearly to the level it has been developed since then.

Where did the ideas of the multiverse and planeswalkers come from? Are you a science fiction or fantasy fan?

I’m more of a science fiction than fantasy fan. I like both, but one of the reasons I like good science fiction is that it has a consistent set of rules that you can rely on. And you might change one or two things about how the world works on what’s been invented or something like that, but then everything proceeds according to rules that I understand. And when fantasy is good, that’s what it does as well. It’s something I like.

I’d say that most of the planeswalker and multiverse was less about science fiction or fantasy than trying to figure out what sort of universe would model this game that I created. A multiverse feels appropriate because I expected lots of different cards to be coming out and people to be able to mix and match those cards. It felt like it was bigger than one universe so: multiverse. And then planeswalker comes naturally from that because the player is using these cards from a bunch of different multiverses, they must be a planeswalker, they have to go between them. Those parts of the world were derived from the mechanics of trading card games.

What kind of science fiction are you into? What are some authors or series that you enjoy?

At the time, I liked Larry Niven and a lot of classics: Clark, Heinlein, Asimov. Larry Niven had a few fantasy stories which followed these science fiction rules very closely and the world worked in a way that I understood, and because of that I actually put a card in the first set of Magic called Nevinyrral's Disk, which is an anagram for “Larry Niven.” In his story, he created this disk which fed into itself sort of as a loop and was able to absorb all of the magical power and bring about the end of magic. And so that’s what it did in my game.

I have thought about that basically my entire life. I read The Magic Goes Away and the Larry Niven fantasy stories when I was a kid, and when I discovered Magic as a teenager and I was like “oh, this is just like that Larry Niven story!” It’s very gratifying to know I was on the right track.

Yeah, it was certainly part of my thinking. My modern science fiction, I really like Ian Banks and Neal Stephenson.

You worked on the original _Netrunner_**, were you a big cyberpunk fan in the 1980s or early 90s?**

I wouldn’t classify myself as a big cyberpunk fan, but I liked the world and I liked the idea. I had only maybe read Snow Crash and Neuromancer, but yeah, I liked and continue to like that world.

Were there any big roadblocks you ran into with the original design for Magic ?

When I first came up with the idea that everybody could have different decks, it wasn’t immediately clear that such a game could be made. [...] You look at Poker, Poker’s not better if people can choose their own cards, Bridge isn’t better, Chess isn’t better if you can choose your own pieces, so I wasn’t sure where to start. So right off the bat there was this challenge about where to get started as a concept.

My biggest design challenge was: how do you prevent the person who buys the most cards from winning all the time? Which is similar to choosing your own cards in Poker. That was forefront in my mind through the development of Magic so that getting cards wasn’t as big an advantage as you think it is. So my solution there was to make it so that the common cards were very useful and very strong. The consequence of that was that when people bought a few decks they had a lot of powerful cards.

They often didn’t appreciate that because they had a lot of common cards, and so they feel that they can’t be worth much, but we proved again and again that the system worked pretty well in the early years because we would go to game stores and have these local champions come up with their decks of all rare cards and we would beat them with a deck of all common cards and they were just amazed that, wow, you can do that with bears and Giant Growths?

When you think about it, the person who gets the most cards in a trading card game will always have an advantage because they have more choices. But what that did was that it made it so that your advantage went up logarithmically rather than linearly. I tried to make it so that rare cards were more corner cases and more complicated so that the person who invested more in the game would get these more weird things and less just getting power.

There’s a meme in Magic now where when you do something truly absurd, you say “just as Richard Garfield intended.” How do you feel about that?

I have never heard that, and it exactly calls back to earlier in this interview where I said I celebrated when people did things I didn’t expect. It is certainly not what I expected or intended, which is the point, but on the other hand it is exactly what I intended in that I wanted it to extend into places which I didn’t intend.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.