Chapter 28-Meeting the Maker


Meeting the Maker  

I’M CUTTING IT fine. Lost in a sprawling upscale mall in the affluent Seattle suburb of Bellevue, I am hunting for a branch of Starbucks that seems to have disappeared in a distant corner of the TARDIS-like shopping pantheon. By the time I realise my mistake – the Starbucks is in a separate annex, where coffee goes to percolate in peace – I have to pace it there frantically, with my nerves already a-jangle. This is the moment of truth. Meeting the man who started it all; meeting Richard Garfield.  

When I do find the Starbucks, Magic’s creator is already there with his long-time friend and collaborator Skaff Elias. I grab a tea, absorb the tasteful, subdued décor that finds its way into every Starbucks on the planet and attempt to break the ice. My first question concerns Garfield’s socks, which have famously always been odd. As the words escape my mouth, I realise that it is entirely possible that every interview with him over the last 20 years has begun with this question. Certainly, as I later discover, an interview with him in the very first issue of The Duelist goes into great detail on the subject. In it, Garfield describes the time-saving qualities of his sock-box — a collection of odd socks he can pluck from blindly every day, without wasting precious brain power on matching things up. An apocryphal tale says that Albert Einstein did something similar. The physicist supposedly owned only identical sets of clothes so he wouldn’t have to waste attention selecting what to wear. And while that might not be wholly true (Einstein was a sucker for a plain grey sweatshirt in later life, though), it does hint at the kind of lineage Garfield descends from-a proud tradition of gently ‘mad’ geniuses, consumed by concerns more scientific than sartorial. Indeed, Garfield is the great-great- grandson of President James A. Garfield (the United States’ 20th President, for 200 days in 1881), while his great-uncle invented the folding milk carton and held patents for another 200-or-so devices. A certain kind of unbridled smarts runs in the family. But just as Einstein’s second wife Elsa instilled a level of practicality into her husband, styling him for his public sorties, so Garfield today says he has someone in his life who makes sure he has matching socks. “My original intent was to save the amount of time I spent on socks,” he says. “But it has actually meant I spend a lot of time talking about them.” As ice-breakers go, I could have chosen a different question.  

Garfield is – complete with matching socks – dressed casually. His outfit is just the kind of garb Seattle and its surrounding landscape calls for: practical with a hint of outdoorsyness, suggesting the wearer could go from office to light ramble in a flash. In fact, Garfield has always enjoyed the outdoors and has a penchant for cross-country skiing and crayfish hunting. When in search of inspiration, he has also been known to head outside, just as he did in 1991 after meeting Peter Adkison for the first time. Back then, Garfield was the distracted games designer in mismatched charity shop clobber, who made an instantly positive impression on the Wizards’ boss, despite his anarchic outfit. “My first impression was that he was either a genius or a complete misfit,” says Adkison. “Either way, I was happy to work with him.”  

As Garfield pondered the brief Adkison had given him for a quick-to-play, convention-friendly product, a card game he had had in his closet since the early 1980s, sprung to mind. He called it Five Magics. The game boasted five colours of magic power, each with their own distinct feel and relied on land cards to generate the resources a player needed to use their spells. The gameplay itself was constantly in flux, as Garfield intermittently pulled it off the shelf, incorporated a new idea, tinkered with the rules, gave it a quick play, then, never completely satisfied, shelved it again. It was at the time just one of 50 or so other half-completed games he had on the go. The framework of a decent game was there. But it needed something else, a spark, to take it to the next level.  

To this day, Garfield does not understand quite how the inspiration hit him. But he does remember where he was when it did. Having returned to his parents’ house after meeting Adkison, he sought out the verdant Oregon countryside, hoping to fill his lungs with fresh air and oxygenate his deft and dextrous brain. A hike took him up to the nearby Multnomah Falls; 600 feet of cascading icy water that tumble into the Columbia River Gorge in two spectacular stages. It was here, perhaps touched by the sublime, that Garfield had his eureka moment. A vision for a different type of card game. Instead of having one deck for all the players, why couldn’t each player have their own? It was the moment of sudden insight that sparked the eventual transformation of Five Magics into the game we know today, even if the implications of that breakthrough, tumbling through Garfield’s mind like the torrent in front of him, at first left him overwhelmed. “I was all at sea,” he says. Thankfully, over the coming months he would steady himself and, with pen, paper, glue and assorted other gaming gubbins, begin the process of fashioning the world’s very first pile of Magic cards.  

GARFIELD’s FLASH OF inspiration may have hit him like a zap of cosmic wisdom, beamed to him via the rebellious hair which sticks up antennae-like atop his now thinning pate. But it was almost certainly made possible by the cultivation of gaming knowledge that has been his stock in trade since he was a child. Growing up in an itinerant family, the young Garfield was introduced to games by his parents as a way to entertain himself and make friends in new and unfamiliar surroundings. Before that, though, they had slipped into family life as a surreptitious protective measure. During a stint in Bangladesh, where Garfield’s architect father was working, a game of “hit the ground!” regularly took place in the household. Whenever the Garfield parents yelled the phrase, Garfield and his two little sisters would throw themselves down, ostensibly out of fun. But, outside the confines of the Garfield home, dangerous times were unfolding. The game’s real aim was to drill the children in what to do should the house get hit by gunfire. Thankfully, it was never used in earnest and after a few weeks in violent, revolutionary Bangladesh, the Garfields were evacuated to safer environs.  

They pitched up in Nepal next, and it was here that Garfield got to grips with gaming proper. At the US aid centre, he found a copy of the military boardgame Stratego, in which battling opponents control armies fighting over a flag. The seven-year-old Garfield loved the game so much that he painstakingly made his own detailed copy of it. In the evenings, meanwhile, he would play boardgames and cards with his parents, discovering not only games’ social function but also, increasingly, their inner workings, too. The young Garfield was hooked and never turned down a chance to play. Games became a cornerstone of his life that he would lean on again after another move – this time to somewhere a little less exotic.  

When he was 11, Garfield’s family settled in Eugene, Oregon. Having grown up in far-flung realms, surrounded by the kind of fabulous flora and fauna most kids only experience in books or at the zoo, he could not help feeling like an outsider. The excitement and adventure (however dangerous at times) of his travels had left him brimming with experiences beyond his age. That meant, that instead of slotting easily into a new social group, the worldly Garfield was left looking for one that shared something in common with him. It was on this quest that he stumbled upon a copy of Dungeons & Dragons in his local game store. It was the perfect antidote to his incongruity – a fantasy world he could plunge himself into, to rediscover the visceral excitement of his peripatetic upbringing. From that point on, gaming became Garfield’s number one hobby and he spent all his time scouring game stores looking for new ways to play. Inside every box, he found a gateway to a wider world. “Games are a great way for people to get to know one another and to learn to deal with one another, particularly if they are introverted or less socially capable,” says Garfield. Armed with fistfuls of dice, a rulebook’s guiding lines and a reason to get together with people, Garfield found a connection to new friends.  

However much Garfield loved his games though, he realised early on that, in 1980s Oregon, the career path to becoming a games designer was an obscure one. It was certainly not the kind of job he could ask his careers adviser about or circle with a red pen in the back of the newspaper. Instead, Garfield sunk his academic energies into maths, which presented the same sort of mental challenge as games, while also offering a path towards a tangible career. By 1987, he had started his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, which, he hoped, would leave him plenty of time to indulge his passion on the side.  

Garfield’s curiosity for games never abated. He investigated them with the same rigour he did his chosen field of combinatorics, not just playing them anymore, but looking under the hood, poking around and getting his hands thoroughly greasy. “I was academically interested in games,” he says. “I would research games that I had heard of and try and figure out what made them tick, including games from different cultures.” What amazed Garfield, though, was that no-one in the academy seemed to share his excitement. Games were still, it seemed, poo-pooed or deemed unworthy of serious study. Instead of the vast shelffuls of books on film or literature Garfield could find in the library or bookstore, the games section invariably stocked a couple of books on gambling and something on parlour games. And that was it. “It was a huge intellectual area that was completely raw,” says Garfield. “It was pathetic.”  

Thankfully though, times have changed. Despite the difficulty of developing a critical language for a field as diverse as games, there is at least an acceptance that they exist and are made by clever, dedicated and creative people – just as Magic was by Garfield. Indeed, his book The Characteristics of Games would at least be a first port of call for anyone digging through the library shelves today looking to become a game designer. Combined, of course, with a colossal video-gaming industry edging Hollywood into the shade, Magic’s success has helped make games more legitimate and the career path that seemed non-existent to the young Garfield, a realistic ambition. It is perhaps no wonder then, that Garfield is revered by a legion of fans. Their childhoods – and increasingly after 20-odd years, their adulthoods – are bound up with the game he created. The adulation is something Garfield describes as ‘daunting’. He admits to feeling a keen sense of responsibility for the impact he has had on the lives of everyone who has shuffled up a deck of Magic cards. That is why, despite his fame, he tries to remain accessible to his fans, to conduct interviews like this one and to stay humble – even if the hobby-gamer he once was has long since become a multi-millionaire; the sire of a generation’s fevered cardboard dreams.  

While Garfield remains solidly down-to-earth, he is still prone to the odd bout of what Skaff Elias calls his “spaciness”. “You can immediately tell he’s a very deep thinker – or a former drug addict!” jokes Elias. “Sometimes, he looks like he’s thinking about something else at the same time,” he adds. “Because he probably is.” But that is all part of what makes Garfield so engaging and endearing. There is no hint of ostentation about him, no trace of aloofness. He is utterly obliging and in many ways the same Garfield that invented Magic two decades ago — “just with less hair”, says his friend. He is also someone so wholly identified with Magic that at times, it must have proved challenging to step away from it.  

Almost instantly, though, once Garfield had designed the first Magic expansion Arabian Nights, the need to pull back from the game arose. Garfield knew he could not respond to the huge demand for new cards single-handedly and was soon surrounded by Elias and the other East Coast playtesters in a new office at Wizards HQ. He handed over his baby to the newly founded R&D department and in turn, they raised it, nurtured it, and helped turn it into a phenomenally successful game that continues to go from strength to strength. How hard was it, though, for Garfield to pass Magic on to new custodians? “From the stories I’ve heard, I think it sounds like other people have had far more difficulty passing on their creations than I did,” says Garfield. “There were a couple of things that helped me with it: one was, just as I wanted there to be real variety in the card art, I really wanted to get a broader palette of designers involved. The only way to do that was to get them creatively invested in the game – so not a situation where they design and I okay it. It had to be, ‘you guys make your decisions, I’ll advise you and you really feel like you’ve got the autonomy to go where you feel you ought to.’ That helped everyone improve.  

 “The other thing which allowed me to hand it over was that I really wanted to design other trading card games and I knew I couldn’t if Magic was going to be my full-time job. So, I went on afterwards to Vampyr: The Eternal Struggle, Netrunner and Battletech and different card and board games, to explore that territory.”  

It would be fair to say, though, that no other game designed by Garfield has had – nor probably could have had – the same success as Magic. Although there have been popular titles, like his recent dice-based monster game King of Tokyo, they are evolutionary additions to the gaming realm, rather than revolutionary new gaming forms in the way that Magic was. But Garfield has had the pragmatism to accept that such paradigm shifts occur only rarely. Pinning his hopes on instigating another would be futile. “Pretty early on, I realised that trying to make the next Magic was going to make me unhappy,” he says. Instead, he has resigned himself to being forever in his creation’s shadow, while resolving to never stop doing what he loves most: making great games. Today, the number of unpublished creations in his closet is even bigger, as he continues to research, experiment, tinker and tweak.  

Garfield left his full-time role at Wizards in 2002 and initially invested his energies into the online gaming world. He has since become disenchanted with the medium, having become frustrated at the huge investment of time and energy required for relatively little payoff. Instead, he describes himself today as a “game designer and game academic,” trying to further the understanding of gaming, trying to add to its canon and critical language. With each new insight he gleans from diving into new games with the same relish he did as an out-of-place teenager, he feels he is, in some modest way, contributing to the future of games. But what should not be underestimated is the impact he has had on the future of games, simply by creating a new generation of designers. They have been inspired by Magic to apply their intellects to serious and smart play, in just the way Dungeons & Dragons inspired Garfield’s generation. Some have struck out on their own, like The Deck’s creator Brian Weissman (Path of Exile) or Hall of Famer Brian Kibler (Ascension and Sol Forge). Others, like Randy Buehler or Mark Rosewater, made their way to Wizards of the Coast and deployed their talents there to elevate the craft of making games to new heights, perpetuating Magic as an archetypal model for a perennial and professional mental sport.  

It is perhaps no wonder then, that the lure of R&D’s pit can prove hard to turn down. Garfield is all too happy to spend his time hanging out with his protégés and making great Magic cards. Although no formal relationship exists between R&D and Garfield, he still chats regularly with Bill Rose (vice president, Wizards of the Coast R&D). He also, as he puts it, “comes in now and again to work on an expansion,” which he did most recently with the extremely popular gothic horror-themed set Innistrad. It is, says Garfield, a blast returning to Magic even after 20 years. “It’s so much more rewarding working on Magic than my other games,” he says. “New games are a lot of work, with an uncertain outcome. I enjoy doing them, but they may never be published or may never find an audience. With Magic, though, you know there are so many people out there who appreciate it. Plus, it’s so easy, because I’m. so good at it by now and there are so many people who are good at it that I can correspond with. The only limitation is that if I let myself slip into it, I could do that for the rest of my life – and 1 want to do something else.”  

That means continuing to put his trust in the game’s current designers, just as he did when he handed off the game the first time around. Is he satisfied with R&D’s work? “By and large,” he says. Garfield is someone who has always been willing to recognise when he is wrong – just as he did when he backed down over Arabian Nights’ putative pink card backs. Therefore, although he sometimes argues against developments coming out of Wizards HQ, he does accept that he is not always correct. “For example,” he says, “I don’t like the planeswalker cards,” referring to a new card type added to the game in 2007, a sort of hybrid design. Each planeswalker represents a powerful wizard character, has several abilities, but can be attacked like a player and killed like a creature. Garfield admits that were he in charge, they would never have been made, as he finds them both too complicated and too restricting in their design. “On the other hand,” says Garfield, “I do acknowledge that they create a focal point to the game and an identification to the world and its characters, that I’ve always been weak at. I also acknowledge that, while they are much more complicated than I would choose to do, if you spend a ‘dollar’ from your ‘complexity budget’, you want to make sure you get at least that much back in gameplay. These cards are very expensive complexity-wise, but they do pay off a lot. Are they worth it? I wouldn’t have done it. But I acknowledge the other side, that they’re pretty fun to play with and a lot of players love them.”  

Planeswalkers aside, Garfield is confident that after over 20 years, Magic is in a robust state, which should see it endure for at least as long again. The environment the game finds itself in today has been hugely changed and gaming, be it Magic, poker or on consoles, tablets or smartphones, is an increasingly mainstream pursuit. Two decades into Magic’s lifetime, the conditions are in place for it to cement its place in a public psyche ever more in tune with intellectual fun and the face-to-face interaction it can provide. “Games as a genre can have credible longevity,” says Garfield, pointing out a milestone more important perhaps than Magic’s recent 20-year anniversary. “If there are people now playing Magic who weren’t born when it was designed, there’s no reason why the next generation won’t play as well, just like Scrabble or poker. There are no guarantees, but for the first time I might actually bet on it!”  

Certainly, he is not alone in hoping that the game continues on its stable footing, surviving changing tastes, economic uncertainties or any potentially bad business decisions. Life without Magic would be unthinkable for the millions of players it has touched – perhaps for its creator, too. “As most people, I’m sure, I wish I had many lives to live,” says Garfield. “I did enjoy mathematics, for example. I’m sure this is the life I would have chosen, but if you’re intellectually engaged in a lot of life, you just don’t have enough time to do it all. Magic has opened up many, many doors, but we only have so much time and I couldn’t go through all of them.”  

With that, Garfield does find one door to go through, rushing out of Starbucks with a caffeine-fuelled spring in his step. Parental duty calls and he must collect his kids (who also now play Magic) from school. Garfield being Garfield, though, it is hard not to imagine his racing mind exploring new ideas for cunning gaming mechanisms as he dashes to the school gates. As he disappears rapidly into the distance, I realise with sudden certainty that I have just met a hero. Not a celebrity, not a star necessarily, but someone who has had a huge impact on my life in a way he might not even believe. Someone, who after a childhood on the move, fashioned the antidote to another child’s upheaval. Right then, right there, in that identikit coffee shop corner, I want to burst into tears. Seeing that figure walk away — all illusion of intimacy and friendship that establishes itself during an interview blown away – creates an instant void in me, a realisation that I have just lived the emotional peak of this story and might be left contemplating a steep downhill gradient. It is impossible not to feel deflated in that instant, not to feel like it all went too quickly, that the questions I asked were somehow insufficient, that I failed to internalise the experience as fully as I should have, or even impress upon the man just how grateful I am to him. Garfield inadvertently gave me something I badly needed in my life and his game continues to sustain me to this day.  

Of course, according to the cliché, you should never meet your heroes. But it is something I have always shrugged at. I have interviewed plenty of sports stars in my day job as a football journalist, though perhaps never realised how limited my actual affection for them was. Here though was a hero, not just to me, but to a whole community who would have had no reason to call themselves such if this one particular man hadn’t been so passionately possessed by the idea of making great games. If this one man hadn’t cared quite so much about other people’s fun. Or hadn’t sensed quite so keenly from his own upbringing what it meant to be an outsider. Magic is steeped in Garfield’s generosity of spirit. And it is for this reason that it has opened life’s doors for everyone who has played it.