Chapter 5-The Basement Blues


The Basement Blues  

AS MAGIC-FEVER GRIPPED the David Rittenhouse Labs in Philadelphia, life 2,371 miles away in Peter Adkison’s basement was somewhat different. In the weeks following Adkison’s meeting with Garfield, the Wizards chief had moved his initial enthusiasm to the backburner. He and his small staff were focused on getting the company’s first-ever product out of the door. This was to bea role-playing book called The Primal Order, designed to complement other publishers’ rules-systems.  

Editor Beverly Marshall-Saling was steering the challenging project. She was helped in particular by Wizards’ new vice president Lisa Stevens. Stevens had joined from role-playing company White Wolf and brought with her one thing the company sorely lacked: gaming industry experience. Adkison was so keen to get her on board, he had driven her from Atlanta to Seattle, with all her worldly possessions in a U-Haul rental truck directly after his meeting with Garfield. It was Stevens who had now devised a strategy to get Wizards into the market place. First would come The Primal Order. Then a series of products for the role-playing game Talislanta. Wizards had bought the rights to the existing game by designer Stephan Sechi as a way to boost their slender product roster and attract an established fan base.  

As autumn 1991 began to set in and the final push on The Primal Order got under way, a parcel from Philadelphia arrived at the Wizards office. Adkison unwrapped the package to discover a box stuffed with Beta Magic playtest decks and a rough set of rules drafted by Garfield. It was Wizards’ first glimpse of the game so tantalisingly dangled before Adkison in Seattle a month or so previously. The reaction was immediate. “It was incredible,” says Adkison. “The office shut down for like three weeks because all we did was play Magic. That seemed like a pretty good sign.”  

Adkison could see that this was not simply another game – rather a paradigm shift in gaming, the creation of a whole new gaming form, as radical as role-playing (and his beloved Dungeons & Dragons) had been in its day. Immediately, it became the game he wanted to produce more than anything else. As Marshall-Saling and co-editor David Howell put the finishing touches to The Primal Order, Magic consumed all his time. He and his few Wizards employees were playing it relentlessly, trading with each other to tune their decks and mercilessly winning ante from each other. It was a sudden febrile outbreak — but one not without its dangers.  

 “We were very excited,” says Stevens. “But we were also scared, because we were such a small company, and we didn’t have much money at all. Here we had this great card game that we were all addicted to right off the bat. But we didn’t have the money to publish it and, if we showed it to anyone else, it might get stolen from underneath us.” From a base of almost nothing, the tiny role- playing company with not a single product on the market, had in its a lap a golden ticket. They just had no idea if they could cash it in. It was a daunting situation and one Adkison felt was best pushed aside, while Garfield developed the game further and tried, simultaneously, to rustle up a finished thesis. “You pretend it’s not there and charge forward,” says Adkison. But things got far, far worse before they got any better.  

ON APRIL FOOLS Day 1992, Wizards of the Coast took delivery of The Primal Order, the culmination of over four years’ work. When the product hit the shelves, it should have been the realisation of a long-held dream and the first step in a well-defined strategy, designed by Stevens. Unfortunately, it quickly turned into a nightmare. With their ambitious book, Wizards had hoped to allow role-players using different rules systems to play together more easily. But by referencing other manufacturer’s products, they were treading dangerous ground. A rival publisher took offence and decided to defend its trademarks. In June 1992, Palladium Books and its owner Kevin Siembieda instigated legal proceedings against Wizards for copyright and trademark infringement. It was an exhausting, expensive mess that dragged the young company into the mire. By December, Adkison was at breaking point — and writing the last pay-roll cheques he could afford for his skeleton staff. Wizards was on its knees.  

That meant Magic was in danger of finding itself homeless — or worse, of being snatched up by a rival publisher. Under extreme pressure, Adkison wracked his brain for a solution that would protect the new game from the wolves and preserve the great hope everyone at the company (and indeed anyone who had played the game) had for Garfield’s creation. His solution, when it came, saved the card game from a stillbirth: Adkison set up a new company called Garfield Games in which both Wizards and Garfield held stock. Garfield Games would own Magic, guaranteeing its creator an appropriate share of any profits if it really did turn out to be the hit it had the potential to be. The new company would also protect prospective investors from the fall-out of the Palladium. case. “If we hadn’t created Garfield Games,” says Adkison, “I don’t think we would have been able to raise the money to make Magic.”  

Still, Wizards was fighting for its life, haemorrhaging money on legal fees that it needed to release its Talislanta products and fund Magic’s development. Morale was low and life for everyone at the company had become a spirit-sapping grind; a masochistic labour of love. Stevens remembers shareholders coming to the office to make the dejected staff – who by the end of 1992 were working for stock rather than cash – a hot meal now and again. Paying the rent became impossible. And everyone was forced to take on part-time work while the Palladium case rumbled on. It was a bleak time, far removed from the fun outsiders might suppose a games company is all about. It was also a scene that was playing out simultaneously on the other side of the Atlantic, as my parents’ own games company went under. Days ended in tears, shed behind closed doors and wiped away when my sisters or I entered the room. Hair went grey overnight. Tempers and bonds and futures frayed.  

l am glad someone survived.  

ALTHOUGH PALLADIUM’’S CASE was thin and their pursuit of legal action primarily about being seen to protect their trademarks (an important aspect of intellectual property law), a preliminary court hearing failed to throw it out. As 1992 became 1993, it was time for Wizards to try a different avenue. Lisa Stevens’ gaming-industry connections would prove vital in finding it. She was friends with Mike Pondsmith, the designer of seminal future-noir role-playing game Cyberpunk. At the time, Pondsmith was also president of the Game Manufacturer’s Association (GAMA), an America-wide gaming-industry body. Stevens was able to convince him to mediate between Wizards and Palladium. Pondsmith was an honest broker with the diplomatic skills and peer respect to arrange a deal between the two companies. After his intervention, Wizards agreed to remove all references to Palladium’s games in future editions of The Primal Order and to pay a small amount of compensation over a number of years. It was a common-sense solution, but coming early in 1993, it was the breakthrough the company needed. Spring hit Kent, Washington, early, and Wizards put up green shoots, which strained for air, light and life.  

Thanks to the creation of Garfield Games, progress on Magic had not stalled completely. A few pieces of artwork had been commissioned and with these, Wizards had put on a number of local events aimed at generating investor interest in the game. Every cent brought in was a boon to the game’s development, but progress was slow and laborious. Convincing investors to back a completely new gaming form, designed by a maths student, and published by a largely unproven company was a tough sell. Thankfully though, some could identify with Wizards’ vision.  

Adkison was still working full-time at Boeing and using the superior computers in his office for Wizards business, after his colleagues had gone home. He had been pulling 80-hour weeks for two years straight, the charismatic captain at the wheel ready to go down with the ship, should it — as it almost had – go under. His dedication and belief were unflappable. And would result in one very special investment in Magic from an unlikely source.  

 “It was a very specific amount, I remember that,” says Adkison. “Something like $1,293.” It was written on a cheque and pressed into Adkison’s hands by Marilyn, his janitor at Boeing. She had seen Adkison working late every night and would stop by and ask him what he was doing as she made her nocturnal vacuuming rounds. Now – much to her family’s fury — she had decided to invest her life savings in Magic, buying stock from Adkison at 50 cents a share. “I don’t know anything about these games,” she told Adkison. “But I see how hard you’re working every night and that you’re so excited about what you’re doing. I think you’re going to make it.”  

It was a heartfelt vote of confidence, but a reminder to Adkison of the seriousness of his undertaking. He knew the risks of start-up companies and yet knew how desperately Magic needed investment if it were to see the light of day. Reluctantly, he pocketed Marilyn’s cheque and redoubled his resolve to make Magic the success it deserved to be.  

Raising money wasn’t the game’s only teething problem, though. Just as Garfield had struggled to figure out how a trading card game might work, Wizards were struggling to figure out how it might be produced. Up until that point there were two broadly analogous products to Magic on the market. These, though, were diametrically opposed to each other. On the one hand, trading cards existed as a pure collectible – they were printed on a glossy thick stock, suited to full illustration or photographs of the sports stars they usually represented. On the other hand, playing cards existed on springy, flexible card stock designed to be durable and easy to shuffle rather than carry lavish artwork. How to produce a card that was somewhere between the two was a huge barrier for Wizards of the Coast, a company that had been founded to publish rules books. Their enquiries with playing card printers received blank looks. Adkison meanwhile was reluctant to approach trading card producers who would be best-placed to snaffle the collectible card game idea and rush it to market before Wizards. Again, Stevens’ industry connections — plus a dash of serendipity — helped solve a problem that was giving everyone at Wizards headaches: Stevens’ former boss at White Wolf, Mark Rein-Hagen, was the key. When Adkison got really desperate in his search to raise the $100,000 he needed to bring Magic to market, he turned to other games companies. Everyone – including the famous Steve Jackson Games – turned him down. Only White Wolf could see Magic’s brilliance and agreed to back one of their peers.  

At America’s biggest gaming convention, Gencon, in 1992, Rein-Hagen happened upon a representative from a Belgian printers called Carta Mundi. Knowing that Wizards were desperately trying to find a printing solution, he dashed off to find them and did his bit in bringing the two parties together. Carta Mundi, whose card-printing expertise stretched back to the 18th century, assured Wizards they could print the cards they wanted. Figuring out how to collate them though, into the semi-randomised decks and packs that Wizards wanted… well, that would take a maths genius. Luckily though, Wizards knew one of those.  

Although most players who picked up the game in the earliest days may scoff at the notion that Magic was playable right out of the box, Wizards got their finest brain working on the problem — another first – of how to get 60 semi-randomised cards into a Starter Deck that could be shuffled up and played by a new customer. It was intended that each deck would contain two cards from the rare sheet (printed least), 13 cards from the uncommon sheet, plus a mixture of 45 common cards and lands (which in the earliest days were printed on the same sheet). Before the encounter with Carta Mundi, Wizards had been trying to devise a way to get a playable mix into the decks with some back-of-the-envelope blue-sky thinking, including such off-the-wall schemes as using a giant blower to mix up the cards. Once Carta Mundi were on board though, Garfield was able to work directly with them (even flying to Belgium to see how their plants worked) and devise an algorithm to collate the cards as they were cut from their respective sheets. It was important that if people got a number of blue cards in their Starter Deck, for example, that they also got a number of Islands (the land which taps for blue mana to cast those blue spells), too. For Garfield, it was just another puzzle-anda chance to instil some method in the Magic madness.  

ALMOST TWO YEARS to the day after Mike Davies had contacted Peter Adkison on Usenet, the first finished Magic cards began rolling off Carta Mundi’s printing presses. In mid-July 1993, as Adkison prepared to travel to the Origins gaming convention run by GAMA, he took a phone call from the Belgian company. They informed him they already had a small sample of cards they could send to him. The call took the still inexperienced Wizards CEO by surprise. He had been expecting to get his hands on the finished product a month later. With an excited “Whoop!” he asked Carta Mundi to courier the cards to his hotel in Dallas (Origins was to be held in nearby Fort Worth), so he could show Magic to the gaming public for the very first time.   

Asked how well Magic’s debut went, Lisa Stevens gives a rueful laugh. Having only had the finished cards in hand for a matter of hours before demonstrating them at the Wizards booth, the publishers themselves were as baffled as anyone by the new product. As Stevens concedes, they simply did not know how to build playable decks from the samples Carta Mundi had sent them. It had been Garfield, remember, who had sent Wizards playtest decks to get started with. That meant that at Origins, Wizards were jamming all manner of cards into big unplayable piles, which did little to entice punters. “The decks we were playing with were horrible,” says Stevens. “I’m surprised more people didn’t just say: ‘This game is stupid!”  One Origins attendee, John Scott Tynes – who would eventually work for Wizards – wrote about the experience in a later article for Tynes had been at Origins with his own small gaming company Pagan Publishing and after a few drinks with Adkison was talked into trying out the new game. “It was a disaster,” wrote Tynes later. “The game creaked past an hour and was an interminable bore. Peter assured us that this first batch mostly consisted of specialised rare cards, which in practice should only be used sparingly. Whatever. We left the convention thinking that Wizards had an expensive failure on its hands.” All in all, it was not the reception Wizards was hoping for, having bet the house on the game (literally in Adkison’s case – he had re-mortgaged. his home to print the cards). If Magic was going to fly, particularly at the all-important Gencon convention a month later, it would need all the help it could get.  

With that in mind, an increasingly frazzled Adkison decided to take drastic measures. A batch of Magic proper would be delivered to Wizards’ booth at Gencon in Milwaukee a day before the convention opened on 19 August. Adkison resolved to race it there, driving to the site with his then wife Cathleen. On the way, he would stop at every game store he could on the West Coast, before swinging up through Arizona, New Mexico and the centre of the United States, on towards Milwaukee. The most direct route from Renton, Washington to the convention centre was 1,990 miles. Adkison’s route took in twice that distance. But, he hoped, it might just convince gamers that Magic was a game worth backing – rather than snake oil being peddled by a travelling charlatan. With two weeks to go until the gaming convention which could make or break Wizards, Adkison slung a small amount of product into the back of a rental van. Then he waved his colleagues goodbye, braced himself for a long ride and put the pedal to the metal. Like every good story, Magic was a journey. Like every good American story, it was also, in part, an epic road trip.  

 “The first store I got to,” says Adkison, “they had received a small order of Magic. But it was still unopened in the storeroom. They were kind of embarrassed, so they opened it up and I taught like three people who were hanging around how to play.” It was not the most auspicious of starts. And at the next store Adkison visited, the reception was much the same. “Oh well, this is a waste of time,” he thought and climbed dejectedly back into the driving seat.  

But at the third store, things started to pick up a little. There, they had opened the small amount of the product they had ordered — and loved it: “One guy had put his Magic cards in a binder,” says Adkison. “That was the first time I ever saw someone do that, sorting them like sports cards and putting them away in plastic sleeves in a binder. We take that for granted today but I just thought, ‘Wow! That’s cool!”  

Little by little, Adkison began to make progress. For every uninterested store or tough crowd he fell upon, he found one which had opened its cards and was keen for more. Some players would even trail Adkison to his next stop, just to have a second crack at purchasing cards from the back of his van. As he wound his way south, the gaming public’s interest in Magic was beginning to stir. The Wizards founder, fretting about bankruptcy, could start to see light at the end of the tunnel. The game was coming to life before his very eyes. As he pulled up in Albuquerque, word of his trip and the game itself had spread. The first signs of a genuine phenomenon were appearing. “In Albuquerque,” says Adkison, “I was treated like a celebrity.”  

Around 70 people had turned up at local store Wargames West to greet the weary and saddle-sore traveller as he pulled into town. Staff at the gaming hangout had literally laid out a red carpet for him. And excited gamers had even brought video cameras to the event and captured Adkison on camera answering questions – “mostly incorrectly,” he says – about how to play their new favourite game. It was a reception to warm the Wizards CEO’s cockles. After an epic odyssey across the rolling asphalt between Washington and New Mexico, his spirits were up. With days to go until Gencon, he allowed himself some cautious optimism. Maybe, just maybe, Wizards would have a good show.  

ON WEDNESDAY 18 August 1993, Milwaukee’s MECCA arena was a frantic anthill of geek activity. Exhibitors at Gencon busied themselves preparing their booths for the four-day onslaught of frenzied gaming fans which would be unleashed the next day as legions of punters descended on the fair to explore, test out and purchase the latest gaming products. Having started in 1967 asa small gathering at Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax’s house in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (hence ‘Gen’), the convention had been growing year on year. Some 20,000 gamers would make their way to Milwaukee for the 1993 edition. The crowd who filled the venue only weeks later to watch Wizards’ fellow Seattleites Nirvana on their In Utero tour could not have been more rabid. This was the gaming convention that mattered —- and Wizards were primed to make a splash.  

Except that they weren’t. As other companies put the finishing touches to their booths and stacked them high with product, Wizards were anxiously awaiting a shipment of Magic to adorn their Spartan stand. The cards, on their way from Belgium, had been held up in port at Los Angeles. Lisa Stevens was desperately trying to get them flown out to Milwaukee to prevent impending disaster. Her fixing powers had proved invaluable so far, but now she was helpless, hammering the phone and imploring Wizards’ customs company to get the shipment unloaded, out of LA and on toa plane as fast as possible. Adkison was tearing out what little short-cropped hair he had: “We were calling the guys and they were like: ‘Yeah, yeah. It’ll be there… probably tomorrow,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Probably tomorrow? What the fuck?!”  

Thursday arrived. Gencon opened. The hordes swarmed in. Already, gamers who had encountered Adkison on his cross- country drive could be seen crouched in corridors with Magic cards in front of them, playing the game in the lulls between other events, just as Adkison had envisaged. Curious onlookers were asking what this strange new game was and were being helpfully told to speak to Wizards of the Coast. They would surely have cards for sale. Lines at the booth started building up – and were being turned away by the powerless Wizards staff. Adkison meanwhile was pacing the loading bay at the back of the convention centre, his normally bouncy and hyperactive demeanour giving way to nervous agitation. Still, his product did not arrive.  

It was not until late on Friday afternoon, with almost half the convention gone, that a truck finally swung into the loading area bearing precious Magic cards. (If you can find a sealed Starter Deck from Magic’s first printing for sale today, expect to pay around $9,000 for it.) With the exhibition halls scheduled to close at 6.00pm, the Wizards team swarmed to the loading bay and summoned a Herculean effort to get the long-awaited stock back to the booth in time to finally start selling their new game.  

As fast as they could open the shipping crates (and scrawl hand-written receipts), Wizards started selling Magic cards. The crowd of gamers who had been hovering near the booth for a day and a half pounced ~ and finally got their hands on the curious game that was proliferating amongst the Gencon crowd. It was a rush for Wizards, a flurry of activity that confirmed – albeit briefly – that they had a saleable product on their hands. As the first wave of buyers subsided, though, the unglamorous business of selling the game to the unconverted began in earnest. “What? Each player needs his own deck?” they would ask incredulously, before buying a Starter Deck and trundling off into the crowd, muttering under their breath. But as the lights went off in the main exhibition hall and Gencon activity moved to nearby bars, those same reluctant customers, refreshed with a cold beer, broke open their new game. After thumbing the Lilliputian 32-page rulebook that came in each Starter Deck, rifling through the full-colour cards which were like nothing they had seen before, and shuffling up their decks for the first time, they began, with a shrug of the shoulders, to play Richard Garfield’s brainchild. As the sun came up on the Saturday morning, they were still playing. Red-eyed, hung-over and wearing the maniac grin of zealous converts, they had just one thought on their minds: this game was pretty damn. cool!   

On Saturday, as soon as the exhibition halls re-opened, they returned to Wizards to buy their first Booster Packs.  

On Sunday, they came back to buy whole boxes of Booster Packs.  

And on Monday, an exhausted, euphoric Peter Adkison returned to work at Boeing having sold $25,000 of Magic in little over 48 hours. As soon as he reached the office, he handed in his notice. His boss Vince was only too glad to accept. Peter had been a hopelessly distracted employee of late. And besides, Vince had invested in Magic, too.