Chapter 4-Testing, Testing: 1, 2, 3…


Testing, testing: 1, 2,3…  

 “THERE’S SOMETHING YOU should know,” Richard Garfield told Peter Adkison almost immediately after explaining his concept for Magic to him. “I’m not sure it’s possible to design this game.” It was a rare admission from the designer confident he could rise to any challenge. His concept was so radical and so vast – a game whose modular design could be endlessly expanded with collectible cards that even he was having trouble getting his head around how to execute it. To think he would be deterred, though, would be to misunderstand Garfield’s way of looking at things. Designing such a complex system was a game itself: a quest to be undertaken, a pushing at established boundaries and a tinkering with the rules defining what a game should be. Despite having lowered Adkison’s expectations, Garfield returned to Philadelphia to do what he did best: roll the proverbial dice and begin playing.  

Anyone looking for Garfield in those days would have found him camped out in the David Rittenhouse Labs, on the southeast corner of 33rd and Walnut. There, west of Philadelphia’s Center City, over the slithering Schuylkill River and past the ornate, art-deco 30th Street Station, was the University of Pennsylvania’s maths department. Like many PhD students, Garfield could be found in his office there at all hours of day and night. Ostensibly, he was hard at work on his thesis. But, more often than not, he could also be found playing card and board games with his colleagues. He was a good student — a great student even – but one whose love of combinatorics (the science of counting) was very much in the service of his true passion: games.  

Garfield was loath to waste his brainpower on anything else. He wore permanently mismatched socks, for example, having given up sorting them early in life. And indeed, sometimes even his teaching of undergraduate students was a game to him. In one infamous incident in the Penn maths department he and a colleague swapped roles to dupe a first-year maths class: Garfield stood in front of the lecture hall, prattling on – only to be interrupted incessantly by someone sat in the crowd, telling him he was wrong. As the interjections increased and the ‘teacher’s’ mistakes were brazenly exposed, Garfield feigned exasperation and stormed out of the room shouting, “Well if you’re so clever, why don’t you teach the class?” As jaws dropped amongst the assembled students, the know-it-all did just that — finally revealing that he was in fact the real teacher all along. Garfield was just playing a role for laughs. For a challenge. To see how far a game could be pushed.  

Barry Reich, who became friends with Garfield at the university bridge club, says his gaming buddy was fascinated by fun. By strategy. By the different shapes a game could take. “If you sat down with Richard in a restaurant he would have the salt shakers and sugar packets arranged into a game before you knew it – condiment chess or something like that. It wasn’t just silly, it was fun. Because Richard really understands what people want.” It was the same all-encompassing understanding of gaming that had so impressed Peter Adkison. It was also what destined Garfield to create a game like Magic, which, it would turn out, extends far beyond sitting down and playing cards with an opponent.  

Perhaps it was Garfield’s well-developed strategic instincts which had led him to downplay the possibility of making Magic work to Adkison. In fact, the avid game designer had had related ideas crystallising for some time. His variations for the traditional card game hearts, played competitively in the maths department, often included a number of special cards. He was also a huge fan of the cult game Cosmic Encounter, in which each player takes on the role of a different alien species. Each one is capable of breaking one of the game’s rules. This mechanic fascinated Garfield and would find its own expression in Magic’s interactions between card text and game rules. It is remarkable, though, just how quickly the ‘un-designable game’ began to fall into place. Garfield’s revelation was that both players need not have the same cards — and as he sought to build a framework for that idea, he was reminded of a card game he had been working on since the early 1980s called Five Magics. It, too, contained land cards and five different colours of magic, each with their own flavour, and provided the backbone of the prototype that Garfield would develop for his new game. Just a month or two after telling Adkison that creating the game could be beyond even his powers, he created a deck of 120 cards that demonstrated its premise. This was known as the Alpha playtest set: a single deck made up of small, business-card-sized cards, sometimes of confusingly different colours, covered in Magic Marker scrawls explaining their names and functions. While the finer points of the execution were perhaps too prosaic to bother Garfield, he was quietly confident his concept would work. Now all he needed was an opponent.  

 “HEY BIT,” SAID Garfield to Barry Reich, using the nickname he had bestowed on his diminutive, computer science-studying friend. “I’ve created this game and I want you to try it with me.” It was now the late summer of 1991. The invitation in itself was not surprising. Garfield constantly had a new game on the go. But Reich was more than happy to indulge his close friend, who he credited with introducing him to so many other great games. The pair grabbed some food, and then headed off to one of their preferred hangouts, the lounge in the university’s astronomy department. Located in the heart of the building, what it lacked in windows, it made up for with comfy seating and large coffee tables ideal for gaming on. Garfield produced his deck of cards, split it roughly in half and explained the rules to his first Magic guinea pig. The pair shuffled up their cards, then set aside one at random from each of their piles as ante for the winner (an unpopular rule that would be dropped officially in 1995, but unofficially much quicker by players who treasured their cards). Then they began to play.  

Things started slowly, but as the rules Garfield had invented held up, the pair began to play with more confidence. The game’s rapid pace grabbed Reich ~ a single game might last five minutes or 10 or sometimes 15. Compared to board-gaming, role-playing or tabletop wargaming, it was an instantly gratifying all-you-can-eat gaming buffet. The pair gorged on it, throwing down the unfamiliar cards in their rudimentary decks featuring spells of all colours, as well as colourless artifacts, with no regard for the time. Eventually, they battled each other to exhaustion. “I love this game!” Reich told his friend. “But it’s five in the morning, I’ve got to stop.” Giddy with excitement, the two collaborators stumbled out of the astronomy lounge and into the daylight. It was, in fact, 8.30am. They had played through the entire night. Both knew then that Magic, as it was almost instantly christened, was a special game indeed.  

The days that followed were a blur as Garfield, aided by Reich, figured out how to transform the single Alpha deck into a game that could be playtested more widely. Central to Garfield’s thinking was that cards would be unevenly distributed. Three levels of card rarity would exist – common, uncommon and rare – which would make the game a process of discovery and accentuate the collecting aspect. Each player would have to seek out the less frequent cards to score for their decks. Reich helped him devise the ratios for the distribution of the different cards, so they knew how many test versions of each rarity to mock up. Once the maths had been done, they could head to the David Rittenhouse Labs, which were well-stocked with everything a would-be game designer needed: not only computers, printers and assorted stationary supplies, but an army of fiendish gamers ready to try their hand at anything new. “You have to understand,” says Skaff Elias, whose office was across the hallway from Garfield’s, “Richard would grab people for games all the time. If you said ‘yes’ once, you were in the loop.”  

As he had done with Reich, Garfield introduced Elias to the game with the rudimentary Alpha deck. And like Reich, Elias was instantly impressed. The Pennsylvania native and fellow maths student helped to up Garfield’s production values for the full- blown playtest set. Sacrificing the stack of comics in his room in a flurry of scissor blades, he plundered artwork to help illustrate some of the experimental cards. Then, following the plans drawn up by Reich, the group of friends made up a sheet containing all the rare cards and printed it off in the computer room. They then photocopied it and stuck both sheets to cardboard backing, before slicing them up into individual cards. Then they made the uncommon sheet, following the same method, but producing more copies. Finally, they devised the common sheet (which also featured lands), photocopying it still more times to produce the desired number of playing pieces. This produced a mix of cards, notably featuring only two of each rare card (usually the most powerful cards in the game). Garfield felt this was analogous to the kind of mixture groups of friends would have access to when. the game was finished. Elias then stirred up the resulting card pool in a big black bin bag and dished out its contents to willing gamers in and around the maths department. What was known as the Beta playtest set was ready to go, and the game that Garfield had feared might be un-designable began to take shape.  

Although an attempt to draft a rulebook was not attempted until much later, the game would already have been graspable by modern Magic players. One of the key mechanical notions of the game, ‘tapping, was in place from the word go: Tapping – or turning a card through 902 until it is horizontal – is an elegant solution devised to show when cards are being activated or used. Tapped cards can then be untapped again at the start of the player’s next turn during the untap step. Basic lands are, for example, tapped to produce one mana each, which can be used to cast spells. The next turn they are untapped and can be used again to cast further spells. Creatures tap when they attack or use certain specially activated abilities. Artifacts, too, can in some cases be tapped to generate a powerful effect.  

The most striking difference with finished Magic cards was the way the casting cost of each spell was notated. Serra Angel, for example, is an iconic creature card that costs a total of five mana to cast, two of which must be white and three of which can be any colour. Today, that is notated with a “3”, then two instances of the white mana symbol. The playtest version of the card cost the same total amount to cast but was notated “5”, then “WW” – meaning five total, of which two must be white. While that notation would be simplified on the finished product, Garfield had otherwise got the game’s grand lines in place from the off. Although many new cards would be devised during playtesting, with many of the students contributing ideas that would make it into print, very few were taken out. As Reich said, Garfield’s strength was knowing what people wanted. He instinctively delivered a version of Magic that captivated its first audience. Even he would be surprised (and delighted) though, by some of the twists his game took during testing.  

ALTHOUGH THE SINGLE Alpha playtest deck had been adequate for demonstrating the actual playing of the game, when everyone had their own deck, Magic took on a new dimension. Some of the game’s individual elements may have existed before — but Garfield had brought them together in a new and brilliant synthesis. Most importantly, the game’s social aspect quickly revealed itself. For Elias, that was when Magic went from being “good” to being “a great, great, great game.” He says, “It was just amazing! And it was instantly like that for everyone who laid their hands on it.” The importance of trading cards to improve decks (often depleted by losing cards to the ante) shot to the fore.  

 “It was fascinating,” says Reich. “It was like a little stock market. Like an economic simulation that was occurring as we were playtesting. Some cards were clearly very powerful, like Time Walk [which for just one colourless and one blue mana reads ‘Take an extra turn after this one’], while others would rise and fall in value depending how people played them.” To tempt others into trades, the playtesters realised they could showcase specific cards in their decks while playing against their opponents and inflate the value of a card they no longer wanted before trading it away. Scruples went out the window as the playtesters got more and more hooked on the game and tried to master the rapidly developing environment. “The game took on a life of its own and did things Richard never expected,” says Reich.  

Over the winter, Garfield tweaked Magic’s rules and cards. Then he pressed the maths department’s computers, photocopiers and guillotines into service once again. Elias sacrificed more of his comics and together they printed a new, fully illustrated set of playtest cards named Gamma in the spring of 1992. The Rittenhouse Labs became a hothouse of Magic development. And as the academic year rolled on and Garfield hit the home straight of his thesis, the game’s first focused deck-building strategies began to emerge.  

Chris Page, a maths student and tester, remembers some of the ideas being concocted. Garfield, he says, had a Snow White and the Seven Dwarves theme deck built around a card called Super Hero and seven copies of War Mammoth. Others had picked up on how to abuse the set’s most powerful cards. “At that point Time Walk and Ancestral Recall were both common cards and someone was able to break those by using all small creatures with them,” says Page. After petitioning from the playtesters, Time Walk and Ancestral Recall were moved to rare in the final printed set. Today, the two cards are part of a long-out-of-print group of the game’s most powerful cards dubbed the ‘Power Nine’ by players for their game-breaking effect.  

Reich, meanwhile, was also innovating and highlighting the strength of Magic’s other power cards. A capricious player who had plunged headlong into the game since his introduction by Garfield, he had become particularly attached to the card Sea Serpent. Whenever he cast it, he would launch a toy plastic snake on to the table hissing like the monster in question. It was this same sense of fun that led him to pursue various thought experiments in building his decks, which would elucidate some of the game’s subtle interactions. “I bet I could make an all-artifact deck,” he told Garfield, who was sceptical about the idea of making a functioning deck with only one class of cards, albeit one that can be cast with any colour or colourless mana. Reich leapt to the challenge and began trading in earnest to build his theoretical deck. Key to his strategy was a sub-set of the game’s artifact cards dubbed the ‘Moxes’ or ‘Moxen’. There are five original Moxen – one for each colour. Each is a zero-to-cast artifact, which can be tapped to add one mana of a specific colour to its controller’s mana pool. At first glance, that is the same function as a basic land. But as only one land can be played each turn, the fact that a Mox is an artifact becomes relevant — it can be played as well as a land ina single turn, and with a casting cost of zero nets its controller mana. Each Mox highlights the brilliant complexity of Garfield’s design – because each Magic card has its own unique functionality, the game can constantly break its own rules. If you play a Land and a Mox on your turn, you have essentially taken two turns in a row, advancing the development of your resources while your opponent twiddles his or her thumbs.  

Reich managed to amass seven of the 10 Moxes available to the group (one of each of the five colours, each being rare and thus printed twice), a handful of Sol Rings (which can be tapped for two colourless mana) and a variety of other artifact mana sources. “It was hard because people were beginning to be clued in about the strength of these cards,” says Reich. “But because I wasn’t limited by the rule that says you can only play one land per turn, I could dump stuff down really quickly. I had a Hive to make Bee tokens and a Hill that generated Ants and I just swarmed and overwhelmed people. The fact that it worked at all blew Richard away.”  

Reich then used the Moxes he had amassed to make the group’s first fully functional five-colour deck, again using the artifact mana sources to break the one-land-a-turn rule. This allowed him to cast the biggest threats available in each of Magic’s colours. Reich’s strategy presaged some of the decks the wider public would build when Magic was released, as well as the value the game’s most powerful cards would accrue: “When I built these decks and used the Moxes to dump out mana sources so fast, everybody said, ‘Oh my god, these things are super-powerful!” he says. “The price skyrocketed and people tried to get them back from me. I might have traded one or two of them back, but only for exorbitant prices.”  

While Reich’s tinkering illustrated the inordinate strength of certain card combinations, the playtesters remained relaxed. As Chris Page remembers, the risk that anyone would amass as many power cards as Reich was considered tiny. “We were working off a different model before it came to market,” he says. “We thought that somebody might buy one deck [the game would initially be marketed in 60-card Starter Decks, alongside 15-card Booster Packs – the primary way cards are sold today]. Perhaps there might be a few extravagant people who might buy two Decks and a Booster Pack or two a year.” That meant the chances of any one player or group even discovering all the rare cards, let alone collecting them, would be slim. That was just the way Garfield wanted it: he hoped players would be blown away each time an opponent threw down a mysterious card they had never seen before. In fact, by the time Garfield had completed his thesis and taken up a teaching post in Walla Walla, Washington in the summer of 1992, he decided to play a similar trick on the playtesters. As he drew up the final list of all the cards that would see print (the Delta file which was never itself playtested), he kept the exact list of rare cards secret from all the testers. It would be as much a surprise for them as it would be for the Magic’s first real players. Garfield never could resist a little game.