Chapter 7-Unleashing a Monster


Unleashing a Monster  

HELLO ALL, BEGAN a cordial Michael Smith, posting on the Usenet discussion group on 5 August 1993. I have decided to post my opinion of the game Magic: The Gathering. Most of the previous opinions I have read on these groups are from people who insist on flaming a game before they actually play it. Not an informed way to make your opinions known…  

I have purchased two packs of the ‘Starter Deck’ to duel with a friend of mine who also has two of the Starter Decks. We love the game! We have played about a dozen games and have found it to be a very thought-provoking game. From what I have seen, there is no monster that is too powerful or no spell that is too useless. There are, of course, some combinations of things that give you a distinct advantage. There is no obvious limit to the number of these powerful combinations so I feel that they give no great advantage to either player.  

The marketing method, I admit, seems a bit unorthodox, but, it does add to the mystery of ‘I wonder what my opponent has in his hand?’ I believe that I have enough cards with two decks (of 60 cards for $7.95 each) to enjoy the game for quite a long time. If I wish a little variety, I can always plop down an additional $2.45 for a pack of fifteen more cards. Overall, I enjoy the game…  

While such a measured online post might itself seem archaic, the responses, too, reveal a different gaming age. One poster named Patrick Rannou sniped back regarding the cost of buying four decks for a total of $32. That’s a bit much for a card game don’t you think? he wrote. Personally, I’d even say it’s WAY TOO MUCH!!! (Emphasis his own).  

Thankfully for Wizards, Gencon ’93 proved that whatever the Rannou camp’s grumblings, the gaming crowd’s appetite for Magic – when stimulated by that lip-smacking first taste – was voracious. The curious marketing method that foxed sceptical customers foreshadowed the ‘freemium’ business model that has gone on to become popular in the digital realm. Players felt enticed to upgrade their decks and, from the get-go, pounced on any Booster Packs they could find. No wonder then, that after a mind-blowing four days at Gencon ’93, Wizards returned to the northwest dazed, giddy and $25,000 the richer.  

Peter Adkison and co had an unprecedented hit on their hands and the nascent internet would soon be swamped with talk about their astounding new game. Indeed, before the week was out, an official Wizards’ FAQ, written by production manager Dave Howell, was doing the rounds on and Another week or two later and playtester Chris Page was fielding rules questions online. By mid-September desperate players were trying to track down stores where they could buy the game; the game’s first degenerate combination of cards (or ‘combo’) Channel and Fireball, was being discussed; disgruntled users were calling for the creation of a separate newsgroup just for Magic and, by 17 September, Michael Smith had posted a full list of all the game’s cards for the frenzied first wave of buyers to check their collection against. Wizards’ first release of the game, dubbed Alpha like the first playtest set, weighed in at 2.6 million cards – enough, they thought, to last the first year. Instead, Alpha sold out within a week and a scramble ensued to get the second part of the first print-run back from Belgium. and out to the growing number of gamers eager to get their hands on the hotly tipped product. Beta, as the next 7.3 million cards released would be dubbed, fixed some of the small mistakes in the Alpha release: dies at printers Carta Mundi were sharpened to produce less-rounded card corners, seven cards which had been accidentally left out of Alpha were included (Circle of Protection: Black, Volcanic Island and an extra version of each of the five basic lands) and some typographical errors were fixed, including the casting cost of the card Orcish Oriflamme, for example. As fans clamoured for the new cards, the phones in Peter Adkison’s basement struck up a ring that would, as it turned out, never pipe down. Wizards did anything they could to get the cards out to punters. But still, they could not keep up with demand.  

Lisa Stevens remembers a typical scenario in the Wizards office in the period of Magic’s stunning early success. Demand on the West Coast was particularly high, spurred by Adkison’s epic drive to demo the game before Gencon, and retailers there were haranguing Stevens for cards. As she sat fielding calls, as exasperated as the retailers themselves at not having any cards left to sell, a distributor in Atlanta, Georgia called Southern Hobbies came through on her phone. “How’s it going?” asked Stevens, expecting her caller to tell her Magic was selling like hot cakes. “I haven’t sold a single thing and want to return my order,” said a miffed voice instead. Without missing a beat, Stevens told him she had a call from Europe coming through on the line and would have to call him back in five minutes to arrange a refund. What she actually did was call all the stores on the West Coast who had been nagging her for cards and gave them Southern Hobbies’ number. Ten or so minutes later, she called the distributor back. “OK, here’s how the returns are going to work,” she deadpanned. “Returns?” came the shrill, excited response. “We just sold out! I need more!” Never mind Alpha selling out within a week of its release, Beta, three times bigger, was sold out before it arrived on US soil. Conspiracy theorists cried foul and accused Wizards of trying to short the market to drive up demand. But that was nonsense: in reality, the mortgage on Peter Adkison’s house would only stretch so far. “The fans credit us with far more intelligence than we had,” says Jesper Myrfors. “There was no Machiavellian conspiracy. We printed all that we could afford to and tried desperately to get it out there.”  

THE GRAND PLAN for Magic, which required an immediate tearing to shreds, was to gradually sell the first print run and then to replace it with something completely different a year later. The limited-edition first print run of Magic: The Gathering would be available during the first 12 months, then would give way to a new set of around 300 cards called Magic: Ice Age. That way players would not get bored, thought Wizards, and would get to enjoy a completely fresh game environment. Already, groups of playtesters had been given responsibility for the future annual releases: Skaff Elias, Dave Pettey and Jim Lin were working on Ice Age. Bill Rose, Joel Mick, Charlie Catino, Don Felice, Howard Kahlenberg and Elliott Segal were working on a set dubbed Menagerie, which would later form the backbone of the sets Mirage (1996) and Visions (1997). Barry Reich meanwhile was back in Philadelphia, beavering away on a set dubbed Spectral Chaos. Although his work would be overtaken by events and shelved for many years, it would eventually provide many of the ideas for the block of sets Invasion, Planechase and Apocalypse, released in 2000 and 2001.  

Clearly though, with fans battering down game-store doors for the game (literally in fact: one game store was robbed of its Magic stock by ram-raiders), a new business plan had to be conceived to keep up with demand. Wizards and Richard Garfield flew to Philadelphia en masse to meet with the East Coast playtesters and come up with a new strategy. Locked in one big room all weekend, the Magic brains trust thrashed out numerous ideas on where to take the game next. Key would be an Unlimited Edition of the base set, printed with white borders around the card faces rather than black, to differentiate the cards from the first print run (Alpha and Beta) which the company had marketed as a Limited Edition. Secondly, after much discussion, it was decided that new cards should be produced in small expansion sets that were available concurrently with the original base set. The sets need not be as big as the original game or Ice Age as it was then conceived. This would be a quick fix for players, easy to collect and keep Magic visible at the stores where it was otherwise permanently sold out. The idea for Magic’s first expansion, Arabian Nights, was born – and Garfield disappeared to his proverbial woodshed to hammer it out. It was, says Lisa Stevens, seat of the pants stuff. “We had no idea what we were supposed to be doing!”  

That much would become clear as Arabian Nights neared completion. Garfield had decided that the expansion should have different-coloured card backs (like the originals’ but in a pink hue), so that players didn’t feel a new product that they had to buy was being foisted on them. If the expansion cards were immediately identifiable, he reasoned, they could be separated from players’ other cards and used apart.  

When rumours of the proposed change leaked out, players were horrified. They, in fact, were desperate to incorporate new cards into their decks, to experiment with wild new combinations and add variety to their creations. Alas, Arabian Nights had been sent to Carta Mundi with pink card backs and would, in a matter of days, begin rolling off the Belgian printer’s presses. One Friday in late 1993, with the final files for the first expansion sent, Lisa Stevens took a call in her office. The cards were to begin printing on the following Monday.  

 “We’ve heard that you guys are going to do different-coloured card backs on the new cards,” said the anxious caller from All- Star Games, a store in California. “I’m calling to tell you it is a huge mistake — and all my customers here want to speak to you about it.” One by one, the assembled local Magic players took their turn on the phone to bend Stevens’ ear about the changes. And with each complaint, the colour drained a little more from Stevens’ face. One hour of lobbying later and, she says, “I was freaking out!”  

Stevens called an emergency meeting of the whole company on Sunday at Peter Adkison’s house and relayed the appeals she had heard from the worried gamers. After much heated debate, Garfield was reluctantly convinced that changing the card backs would be a terrible idea. Instead, he agreed that adding a small symbol on the card face would achieve the same effect. A mad. trolley dash around the art department followed until an illustration of a scimitar from Talislanta was hit upon as the perfect emergency solution. Hurriedly, it was faxed to Carta Mundi with instructions to shrink it down and slap it on the front of all the cards, while the card backs from the original sets should be substituted for the new pink backs. Thankfully, the printers were caught just in time and able to execute the 11th-hour request from their client in far-off Washington State. The only clue that anything was ever amiss was a slip-up on the Arabian Nights packaging itself. There, on the display boxes for the eight-card Booster Packs, were images of the pink card back, a reminder for all eternity of what might have been. It was a close call, says Stevens: “We might have ended up killing the game.” As it was, with one almighty blunder avoided, the game could come into its own, as players learned to incorporate exciting new cards (indeed, some of the most powerful ever printed) into their favourite decks. While it was a chastening lesson for Wizards and Garfield in particular, Skaff Elias says it also spoke volumes about Magic’s creator. “In order to make the game, Richard had to make dozens of major decisions correctly,” says Elias. “If you make 40 decisions right in a row but are willing to be proved wrong and change your mind on the 41st, it says a lot about your character.”  

THE 78-CARD ARABIAN Nights set hit games store shelves in December 1993 and was an almost instant sell-out. A print run of five million cards was nowhere near enough to satisfy the growing legion of Magic card-slingers. The mooted Unlimited Edition – the white-border run of the main set — followed in the same month, but its name proved inaccurate: Wizards would end up printing 35 million Unlimited cards which were snaffled up in a frenzy of ripped-open Booster Packs. The game’s second expansion was rushed out of the door in March 1994. Named Antiquities, it too sold like cardboard crack and the 15-million print run was again insufficient to keep up with demand. As the months after Magic’s release ticked by and the number of players grew, Magic just kept selling out and busting all expectations. A Revised Edition of the basic set followed in April 1994 and represented a huge departure for the fledgling game. Certain cards deemed to be game-warping were removed from the core set (notably the ‘Power Nine’ cards which playtesters incorrectly thought would be too scarce to become overbearing), while some cards from the earliest expansions were reprinted with a white border (dear old Kird Ape, for example). Hot on its heels followed the hugely popular set Legends in June 1994, which introduced multi-coloured cards to the game as well as a new type of creature, legends, emblematic characters with powerful abilities. Along with Revised, it reached a huge audience, thanks to Wizards now having established a truly national distribution network. Both Revised and Legends would also break new ground abroad and become the first sets translated into a foreign language, in this case Italian, thanks to the efforts of publishing partner Stratelibri. Thirty-five million Legends cards were printed in English – again, nowhere near enough to keep up with demand – and speculation on the hard-to-get-hold-of collectible hit new highs. People were buying up boxes of the latest, hottest expansion and flipping them for instant profit.  

Playtester Barry Reich remembers Legends as a turning point in the perception of the game’s value. “That’s when I realised, ‘you know what? These cards are worth a lot of money,” he says. For the first time, he took advantage of a cheap deal the original playtesters had been offered and bought five boxes from Wizards for $35 a box, 40 per cent of the retail price. He then did the rounds of other playtesters and bought any boxes going spare – even returning to pay more to one friend when it was clear the prices were climbing steeply. By the end of his Legends shopping spree, Reich had accumulated 20 boxes of one of the most-loved expansions in the game -and he wasn’t alone. The scenario was being repeated all over the US, earning a pretty penny for the savvy investors with enough cashflow to snap up the sizzling new product. Although the ringing cash tills were good news for Wizards — who made that $2 million in the six months after the game’s release – rampant speculation on Legends was the first inkling that not all was well in the best of worlds. If players could not afford to buy product, because the market was being cornered by speculators, the risk of Magic being a bubble that burst – like almost every other pure collectible in the past – was very real. Something would have to be done, although quite what, remained to be seen. In the meantime, The Dark – a moody, gothic set designed by Jesper Myrfors — followed up Legends in August 1994 and sold in its millions (64 million cards to be exact), propelling the game onwards, despite complaints that too many new cards were being printed too quickly. Magic had its teething troubles, but no-one could dispute that its first year was one of mind-blowing success.