While card games have existed since time immemorial, collectible card games are a relatively new entry to the gaming sphere. The first and most famous of these is Magic: The Gathering.
In 1991, gaming company Wizards of the Coast was a small operation, running out of then CEO Peter Adkinson’s basement. The company produced mainly tabletop RPG games such as The Primal Order and their various supplements. That year doctoral candidate in combinatorial mathematics, Doctor Richard Garfield, approached Adkinson looking to have a board game he’d developed, RoboRally, published with the company.
While Adkinson was impressed with Garfield’s game, he felt the company did not currently have the resources or technical know-how to produce it. Instead, Adkinson asked Garfield if he could develop a simple game that could be played during the downtime that frequently occurred between matches at gaming conventions. The game would have to be able to be played quickly and be portable. Garfield agreed and took the task back to his workshop.
Garfield returned with a card game he called Magic. Adkinson loved the potential the game presented and agreed to produce it. During playtesting, Adkinson’s lawyer advised him that “magic” was too generic a word to trademark, and so the game’s name was changed to Mana Clash. However, everyone involved in testing continued to refer to the game as “Magic” so after some more advice from the lawyer, the game was rebranded as Magic: The Gathering. The game underwent general release in 1993 and debuted at the Origins Game Fair in Dallas, Texas.
Magic: The Gathering (referred to as MTG hereon) was a huge hit. The full stock of the game was bought up at Origins and Wizards had to hurriedly produce a reprint. Even that wasn’t enough, though, and Wizards had to continue to expand to meet demand. That game’s first expansion, Arabian Nights, was released in December of 1993. Including extensions and revisions to the base game, known as Core Sets, the game had printed over a billion cards by the end of 1994.
Due to the popularity of the game, a large tournament community grew up around it. This was formalized the DCI in 1996, who dictated how tournaments would be played and kept stats of player participation. It was among the first of its kind in the hobby gaming scene. Today, the price pools for DCI-sanctioned tournaments can reach up to $500,000 US.
In that same year, with the release of the Mirage expansion, Wizards began a scheduled release for MTG expansions and Core Sets. This, with some periods of experimentation, continues to this day with one Core Set and three expansions being released each year. In February of 2018 Wizards commented that between 2008 and 2016 they had printed some 20 billion MTG cards.
Due to the longevity of the game, various formats of MTG are now played. Basically, these can be broken up into three groups; Standard, which contains cards from the most recent six expansion and/or Core releases. Modern, which allows all cards released in the Eighth Edition Core Set (released 2003) and forward to be played. Legacy allows almost every card from Magic’s history to be used.
There are also other formats that change the way the game is played, or decks are built. An example of this is Commander, which is played with three or more players and allows players to have a 100-card deck but with only one copy of each card, rather than the usual 60 and 4, respectively. Another is Two-Headed Giant, in which teams of two face off and can use their cards to support their teammates and share the same life total.
In 2002, MTG ventured into the online space with Magic Online. The game is played in much the same way as paper Magic, complete with purchasable, albeit digital, booster packs. While not featuring a complete history of MTG cards, all sets from 1996 forward are represented. Now, new sets are released on Magic Online a week earlier than their physical counterparts. Magic Online’s popularity has lead to it having its own tournaments, and formats such as the popular Pauper format, which only allows cards at the Uncommon rarity level to be used, have grown out of it.
In 2017 Wizards announced a new, standalone digital game, Magic: The Gathering Arena. Similar in play to the popular Hearthstone, the aim of this was to introduce MTG to new players and also improve – but not replace – the older, somewhat cumbersome Magic Online service. While the game is still in beta, it has exceeded all expectations that Wizards of the Coast had for it.
In 2015, the MTG story, which had been going since the game’s release, brought together four of its most popular characters to form The Gatewatch, the Magic Universe’s equivalent to Marvel’s Avengers. Moving into 2019, MTG is gearing up for its biggest release yet with the War of the Spark expansion that will contain 36 Planeswalker cards, a card type that is much sought after and can change the course of a game. Wizards promises this expansion to be something fans will love and will allow new players to come into the game and have access to some fantastic cards.
It’s been 26 years since Magic: The Gathering first arrived on our tabletops, and this article is but the tip of the iceberg in relation to its history. With a game as popular and intricate as MTG, who knows where we might be another 20 odd years from now…