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Magic : The Gathering – Part Three, An Interview with Richard Garfield, Ph.D.

It was something of an honor to be able to sit down with Richard Garfield, the father of Magic : The Gathering, and thereby an influential force in my psychological development. Despite battling against a bad cold, Garfield was courteous enough to answer all of the questions that Brian (a writer for Geek Monthly, who was also covering the event) and I posed to him about Magic and himself.

Garfield has had two actual Magic cards based on him and his name. First off, there’s Phelddagrif – a flying purple hippopotamus, and in a later set of intentionally jokey cards, ‘Richard Garfield Ph.D.’ appears as a nearly omnipotent ‘Legendary Human Designer’.

So, where did it all come from?

“I had been designing games for years. In fact, I was structuring my life around the assumption that I couldn’t get into game design as a living, because it’s a hard place to make a living. At the same time, I was trying to do games seriously on the side, and I was going into academics. I love math, and was teaching and learning math, and I figured I could fit some game design in.

“I think Magic came about from one particular thing I like to do with games – modify them. So, when we played chess, we often played chess with different rules. We’d, for instance, play ‘Bomb Chess’. We’d choose a guy who had a bomb on him and you could blow him up as a move. We’d play Monopoly where every time you passed go, you’d play Poker, and things like that. I loved doing that, and my friends enjoyed it, so I think that Magic was my way of learning to extend that to other people, because when people make their deck, they’re really constructing a game in a similar fashion to the way I like to modify games.”

Did you like fantasy stuff while you were growing up?

“I did, but I wasn’t a fantasy nut. I was the last one of my friends to read The Lord of the Rings and so forth, and I did like Dungeons and Dragons, but what I really like in fantasy is the shared fantasy that anything is possible, and the shared mythos that everybody has. There are so many parts of fantasy that you don’t need to explain. You see a troll – you’ve got a lot of ideas of what it does, and that works well in a very flexible, expandable game.”

So, where did the seed of Magic come from?

“Well, the epiphany, and there was a ‘Eureka‘ moment, was in ’91 in Oregon. I suddenly realized that not all of the players had to have the same equipment in the game, and that seems obvious now, but back then it was a real revelation. And it was such a revelation in fact that I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and at the same time I wasn’t 100% sure that you could make a game like that. I got people excited about what this game might be like, but the examples I had on hand didn’t work well. For instance if I said ‘let’s play poker’ but you could make your own deck, or ‘let’s play chess’ but you could choose your own army – none of those are good games. You need a new foundation, a new paradigm, and it was a few months after that when I began to figure out techniques for making it work.”

So you decided on the fantasy aspect because anything was possible?

“Ultimately, yes, although I did play around with some other ideas while I was casting this around, like science fiction, and I did some abstract design that was more Uno-esque and that sort of thing.”

Why is it called Magic : The Gathering?

“Well… there’s a few answers to that. When it first came out, we said ‘the gathering’ was a gathering of friends, a gathering of people, and a gathering of cards. It seemed like a good descriptor for our first set. We were expecting our second set to be ‘Magic : Ice Age’, and to have chapters in this book going along, but that was before we sort of ran them all together. So all the cards are now part of Magic : The Gathering – which originally going to be like the first chapter.

“My name for it was ‘Magic’, and the reason we didn’t use that is simply because ‘magic’ is a hard thing to own, and there were all sorts of really terrible names that were floating around that we could own – but Magic : The Gathering was a good final resting spot because we could own ‘Magic : The Gathering’ and people could still call it ‘Magic’.

What were some of the other ‘terrible’ names that were floating around?

“Let’s see… the one that was closest to being used was ‘Manaclash’, which actually became a card in the game – a joke about that name. And then there was also ‘Manaflash’. There was a big debate about whether calling them flash cards was too academic, or cool. Oh, ‘Lords of Dominia’ was another.”

What is your involvement with the game now?

“The last card set I designed was published two years ago – Ravnica. I’m still working with Wizards – or sort of hanging out with Wizards, I should say – but I’ve got no real relationship with Magic other than going to shows right now. I occasionally pitch them some game ideas, and certainly wouldn’t be surprised if one day in the future I work on another set, but currently, my involvement is pretty much right here.”

Do you still play?

“I play off and on. Usually when I go to a show like this, I begin playing again and learn what the environment is like, and hang out and do some stuff like that, do some different Magic play formats, but then I quit. And mostly that’s just to get stuff done. Magic is one of the very few games that I have to stop playing in order to get stuff done. There’s a few other paper games that I play that way, a few computer games, and eventually I just have to put ‘em down. But I love returning to them. It’s a lot of fun. It’s not something you can really get bored with.”

What do you do outside of Magic? You have a Ph.D. in MATH!

“I haven’t been working with math since ’94. Magic came out in ’93 and it grew for a year before I left academics – but I do teach a game design class at the University of Washington in their Honors Department. We’re building the curriculum – we teach one class a year. You can’t major in game design, but they’re talking about that. They don’t have enough courses yet.

“Even though it’s in the Computer Science Department, our focus on games in universal – not just on the computer. So somebody who sits in our class will see examples from games that are thousands of years old through World of Warcraft and Doom and games published in the 70s, 60s, 50s, back in the 1800s – we have a very historical sense of games.”

What’s your favorite game that’s come out recently?

“I play all sorts of games, and I’m in and out of touch with various genres of games. My favorite computer game of recent years has been Quadradius. It’s a small Flash game, and it’s outstanding. I’ve gotten together with the designer because I liked his designs so much and it’s almost totally unrecognized – though Wizards did recognize it; they gave it an award. And what I like about it is in a very special area of games for me, which is computer games almost entirely seem to focus on player skill. That is, you can sit down and play a game with some people and the most skillful player will win, time and time again. For some games, that’s okay, but one of the things I really like about paper games is that I can find a game for any audience, and everybody can have a fun time playing it. Quadradius has a hell of a lot of luck and a hell of a lot of skill, and it’s like in the poker sort of area.”

What do you like most about the MtG game, or the culture, or… whatever?

“I think the breadth of player that play it. It’s not just one type of player that plays Magic. People play for different reasons. Some people are very competitive and like to minimax their decks, and they’re sort of like the old hot rod tinkerers, where they’re trying to get their engines to perform as much as possible. Other people are interested in driving to old Edsels, or flashing around in weird cars of their own construction, so to speak. There’s a remarkable expressiveness in a Magic deck. That’s what I like the most.”

What your favorite mana color to play?

“Well, the true answer there is that I like to play whatever’s not being played, so if nobody’s playing green, I want to make green work, and I’ll play with green. For an answer which is less tethered to the environment, I’d have to say blue – but what I don’t particularly like in blue is the countering – the counterspelling. I like the trickiness of blue, so I don’t necessarily like preventing you from doing what you want to do, but I like the meta-game stuff in blue and all the weird stuff blue can do. There was a certain point when I became one of the game’s most fierce critics of blue’s counterspelling abilities, because one too many of my decks just got completely shut down, and that’s just no fun. I don’t mind that blue makes me think, but when I want to have something to think about.”

There was a story that you had proposed to your wife through Magic cards.

“It is true. I asked my fiancee (at the time) what her favorite artist was, and she told me Quinton Hoover, and so I contacted him and asked him to make a piece of Magic art for me called ‘Proposal’. A friend of mine out at the company marked up cards using the art – using the layout program, he made these cards that looked exactly like real cards, using land cards with film attached to them, and he gave me nine of them because I wanted to stack my deck. Even though I did not – I played fair. I played with one, which I viewed as fair. I don’t know if it was really fair. And I played with her for hours before I was able to cast the spell. She was just cleaning my clock, but eventually I managed to get it in play, and it said ‘Allows Richard to Propose marriage to Lily. If she accepts, both players win and we mix our decks as a shared deck’. And so I got a Royal Assassin out of it also.”

[Editor's note : Quinton Hoover's 'Proposal' card was stolen at a Tokyo show in 1999. The art has otherwise never been revealed.]

What was the casting cost?

“It cost four, all white. Later on, I actually made cards for the birth announcement for my kids. So, four green was my first child, ‘Splendid Genesis‘ was her card, and four blue mana was ‘Fraternal Exaltation‘, her brother. The Proposals were not genuine cards, though, in that they looked like real cards, but weren’t really printed.”

So they won’t help you win a game?

“Arguably, one of the will get you a wife. There are nine of those [birth announcement] cards – we gave one to each of our bridesmaids and our wedding party, and one to the artist, and one to the man who put these cards together. They were actually printed for me by friends at Cartamundi, there’s probably around 100 of each of those. I sent them out in cards to people.”

So, Magic is HUGE. Is there anything we left out?

“Well, the most important thing on my mind right now is that I just released a couple of games – Schizoid on XBOX Arcade, in case anybody is interested in what I’m working on, and Spectromancer is about to come out. The beta is on Spectromancer.com, and that’s going to be on PC. We just found a new distributor after our old one fell through, but I can’t talk about it right yet. For both of those, I had a lot of partners in the game design element, and Spectromancer was done with a Belorussian partner – real clever guys I met when I was in Grand Prix Moscow.”

How do you feel about the fact that your game idea has spawned such a vast collection of players?

“It’s very gratifying. Every time I come to one of these events, I’m overwhelmed all over again, and I’m grateful that the stars aligned on my game concept and it really caught on, because I’ve certainly seen a lot of great concepts not catch on in the past. So, it’s certainly way bigger than me.”

There’s even more to come. Click here for part one and click here for part two of the 15th Anniversary of Magic Celebration.


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Pharao Richard Garfield es como una planta que ha crecido bajo un buen sol. Se ha forrado, y me alegro por él. Estuvo en el sitio justo porque se lo curró, y ahora es una celebridad. Looor to King Richard! ;-) February 9th, 2010 at 7:15 AM

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