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House of Cards

    From schoolyard swaps to pizza shack tournaments, Magic cards are all the rage. But can Wizards of the Coast cast a spell with its new Homelands game?

    By Gretchen Giles

    Far off in the nether reaches of the imagination lies the world of Dominia. Stiffened by icecaps, blazed by fire, and lost for centuries in ages as dark and macabre as any the human race has ever known, Dominia has also been ravaged for thousands of years by wizards, whose evil games have decimated the native populations for war and for sport.

    Roamed by creatures both awful and kind who cower and grovel before the most powerful of these wizards, Dominia is ruled by the Planeswalkers. These entities can summon creatures to do their bidding, choosing to sap the life from their enemies through strategies that change with the flick of a card.

    After all, this is just a card game.

    But don't tell that to the thousands of devotees who gather in homes, coffee shops, pizza parlors, and convention halls to play the fantasy card game called Magic: The Gathering, within which dwells the land of Dominia. To many of them--primarily boys and young men, ranging in age from 10 to 35--Dominia is not just a story told through a collection of fantasy trading cards; it's a way of life.

Magic: The Gathering: WOTC's site, chock full of info on Magic, including announcements, rules, cards, and tons of links.

Web Across Dominia: A monthly Magic Web zine that lists gaming stores and Net resources. Also features Magic playing tips and Q&A. Warning: This page may tax your computing power with its elaborate graphics and image maps.

Plexal/Third Planet's Magic Trading Post: Trade in your old cards for new--there are currently more than 300,000 offers listed!

    Sitting in the early evening gloom of Petaluma's Pinky's Pizza Parlor, a handful of devotees gather each Sunday night to play Magic. With braces and a Phoenix Suns baseball cap twisted backward over his long strawberry-blonde ponytail, 12-year-old William Yeager is cheerfully losing a game to 25-year-old Ed Dininger.

    While Yeager jokes about Dininger's power, Dininger--a mason, dressed immaculately in black jeans and a fancy Western shirt--maintains a steady, professional grin while lethally knocking out all 20 of Yeager's life points. But last week, Yeager won.

    "It's all a mental thing," Deninger says during a break in the action. He's been a Magic player for about a year and is there for the strategy. Compiling packs of 60 cards from the more than a thousand of the fancifully illustrated cards available, players color their decks for strength or force or defense, usually creating several different decks to use against different opponents.

    David Collins, a 27-year-old redheaded photo lab employee, likens the game to poker. He and his friends play for ante, turning over the top card from a well-shuffled deck and playing to keep that card. With some rare Magic cards running upwards of $250 dollars each, risk is certainly a factor. "It's like gambling," he says simply, "and I like the artwork."

    Produced by the Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) company, Magic hit the gaming industry two years ago like a tempest called up by a dark sorcerer. Generating perhaps as much as $100 million in sales in the last year alone, and causing some companies--like Dungeons and Dragons makers TSR--to run for cover, WOTC (pronounced by employees as watt-see) has sent other companies scrambling to duplicate the product, trying to ride the huge crest created by this game.

    Based just outside of Seattle, WOTC won't comment on the actual sales figures, though CEO Peter Adkison will concede that they've sold over 1 billion cards since Magic premiered in August of 1993, when they issued their first cards, hoping for a six month run of sales. They sold out in six weeks.

    Developed by resident genius Richard Garfield, a 31-year-old math professor, Magic is based on the idea that while trading cards are fun to look at, they should also do something. With this simple concept, he created a game that tells a fantasy story on cards printed with lush illustrations and upon which the individual actions and limits for each card are printed. That allows not only many different cards to be played, but also for trades and collections to occur. Building from an original deck--called a starter pack--players can add to their decks with eight-card booster packs and with cards from several specially issued expansion series that continue the story of Dominia.

    "I was intrigued by the idea of people playing a game where they didn't have all the [gaming pieces] that were out there," Garfield says. A pale, thin man with tousled brown hair and a clean, wrinkled shirt that obviously came from the bottom of the laundry pile, Garfield has a quick, shy smile that transforms his somber face. "One of the objectives of Magic was to keep it in that category as long as possible," he says, a slight British accent, culled from a childhood spent in Bangladesh and Nepal, coloring his voice. "And that's where the concept of a trading card game came in. It was a way to print a 1,000 different cards without making the player buy all those cards. They could just have a little piece of them."

    The newest and widely anticipated expansion set is entitled Homelands. Positing the idea that the world of Dominia has been trapped in a bottle, allowing the diverse civilizations upon it to grow and prosper for several centuries without the evil workings of the wizards to disturb them, the game is now taken up when the bottle-glass is beginning to thin and crack, allowing wizards to have access once again.

    At age 20, Kyle Namvar is one of the co-designers of the new Homelands expansion series. Tall and boyish, Namvar is also the director of customer services for WOTC, which had hired him away from college while he was still in the middle of his communications degree. Like most of the employees at WOTC, Namvar is hyper-intelligent--having tested right out of high school after the education staff gave him an IQ test to check for a possible learning disability. His intelligence is a cubist combination of math and science smarts with a love of art and literature.

    Sitting around one night almost two years ago, he and his friend Scott Hungerford were arguing about one of the Magic expansion sets named Antiquities. As the two went back and forth over the merits of the set, Namvar suddenly hit on the idea of Hungerford writing a new one. "It would be fun," Namvar said.

    And so, just for fun, the two gradually devised a new story, developing characters and rules for each card. "The original version had a lot of in-jokes," Namvar smiles. "There were cards that were just named after friends and friends-of-friends, and a lot of inspiration came from random things around the house. I have a ferret, for instance, Loki. There's a card we have that's named Jovan's Ferrets. It's very hard to catch a ferret. If it doesn't want to be caught, it won't be. So the card reflects that," he laughs.

    Namvar is obviously excited about this release. "I was moved to tears when I saw the first art on the sheets," he admits. "And l when I got the first cards, I just went into my office and closed the door, and opened them up like a child. Last night I got the designer's box, and I just sat on my bed, and I had all these wrappers out and I was sitting on all these cards, and I looked like one of those dragons sitting on their hoard."

    Looking decidedly young, Namvar smiles impishly and says, "My dad said to me once that all this gaming crap was never going to get me anywhere.

    "Well, surprise."

    Homelands will debut on Oct. 18 at a huge New York trade convention with interactive virtual-reality equipment allowing visitors to literally walk through the world of Dominia, and a sealed deck tournament in which players begin the game with unopened starter and booster packs of the new series, playing in competition with cards that they've never seen before.

    While this idea may not seem radical to someone outside the gaming industry, within the industry Magic has been tantamount to the revolution that occurred when a board game was developed by Parker Bros. in 1935 in which players buy real estate and build monopolies.

    If you haven't heard of it yet, you will. Magic is big.

    Situated in a row of ugly, squat new buildings in an industrial complex in the Boeing-burg of Renton, Wash., about eight miles outside of Seattle, WOTC isn't much to look at from the outside. The company has expanded its office space twice this year already, and is preparing for another move to much larger quarters down the street. In its present location the buildings are in a ramble, connected by walkways that form a twisted horseshoe. Local Social Security offices rim the edge of one building. But inside, things look considerably different than they do at a government agency.

    The main complex houses artists, designers, customer service agents, and all the other working components of a large business, and within is posted a sign that gives a visitor a sense of the place: Adults at Play.

    While a young retail service operator with a shaved head and goatee sits patiently in front of his computer, shielded behind a row of intricately built Lego sets, customer service agents shoot nerf arrows at one another, diving and laughing behind the state-of-the-art communications equipment. A man in Research and Development sits with a guitar in his lap, strumming softly. Boom-boxes play in almost every cubicle, ranging in sound from Bessie Smith to Courtney Love. In a library down the hall are books on languages, medieval arcana, tools, costumes of other ages--and a fully shelved wall of games.

    Most wall and work spaces are crowded with sight gags and toys, Lego sets, troll dolls, gargoyles, toy wizards, puzzles, or jars of candy. Young retro-punks with dyed black hair and pierced faces walk through the aisles, talking excitedly to one another other while the chains on their belt hooks jingle. A white-faced young woman in a cow-punk costume--complete with petticoats and horizontally striped black-and-white stockings--teeters around on high, pointy shoes carrying a stuffed teddy bear and wailing, "I need a Happy Meal. Won't someone go get me a Happy Meal?"

    Just about everyone is under 30, smells like vitamins, and is eating microwave popcorn.

    Sitting amidst all of this controlled creativity is Richard Garfield, the Magic man. Like many of the WOTC employees, Garfield turned on to games through an early love of Dungeons and Dragons, the mother of all fantasy role-playing games. Known for his eccentric dress--he prefers to wear mismatched socks and sometimes blinds his co-workers with what he calls his "four-plaid outfit"--just over two years ago Garfield was finishing his mathematics doctorate and trying to market a board game that he had invented called RoboRally. "I'm not sure if it's my love of games that led me to mathematics, or my love of mathematics that led me to games," he says. "I think they're really strongly related, and are certainly very linked in my mind.

    "I've always loved learning and I could always apply what I've learned to games, and both stem from a love of systems."

    Having met then-Boeing systems analyst Peter Adkison through internet postings about role-playing games, the two men arranged to meet with a mutual friend to discuss the product. Since WOTC was then housed in Adkison's basement--more of a dream than a success story--he turned down Garfield's proposal for RoboRally. It was too expensive, and the audience margin was too slim. "And to be honest with you, I almost blew him off because it was a board game, and we were doing role-playing games," Adkison remembers, sitting in his upper-storied office.

    "I told Richard that we weren't ready to do a board game," Adkison says. "He said, 'Go ahead, challenge me.' I had become really intrigued by the convention circuit, and I thought it would be a really interesting idea to publish a game that would work well at conventions. I thought it would be great to publish a game that was portable, that was fast to play, and that had an element of science fiction and fantasy and also a lot of artwork [from those genres]. I thought it would be really cool if we could showcase the art." Adkison laughs, "So, that was my sole, miniscule contribution to the game."

    While both men remember their first meeting vividly, it was colored a few days later for Garfield when he experienced something new: inspiration. While hiking up to see a waterfall outside Portland shortly after meeting with Adkison, Garfield recalls, "I've probably had inspirations before, but I think that people sort of keep going, and maybe they use it, and maybe they don't, but that was the only time I had it and recognized it. I was very excited because the idea of a trading card game just sort of came all at once, and it was so exciting that I couldn't stop thinking about it. At the time, I didn't even think it was possible. It seemed pretty radical to design a game where players brought their own equipment."

    With the balloons behind his desk just beginning to fade from a birthday celebration a few days before, Peter Adkison is the 34-year-old CEO of a mulitmillion-dollar international corporation that has seen its employee base grow from five to 250 in two years. The firm has had its product translated into several languages, publishes its own magazine--The Duelist--pens novels based on Magic distributed through HarperCollins, and has just contracted with Acclaim Comics to do a series of comic books that will expand the story of Dominia. An interactive computer game based on the product will be produced by Microprose next spring. WOTC has opened offices in Belgium and Scotland, and is juggling a roster of half a dozen games.

    Adkison's expressions fight one another behind his glasses as he speaks, appearing one minute the sweet-faced computer nerd he once was, and in a flash possessing the suavity and bridged-fingertip authority of a man in his situation. Unavailable for an interview one day, Adkison was at school, an instant MBA who is learning it as he goes along.

    "I don't have any training or expertise that qualifies me for this job," Adkison admits, dimpling up. "I'm learning it as I go. I love it, but I've made some colossal mistakes."

    As Magic has grown, so have its problems. And, like any fast-growing company, WOTC has had its share of difficulties. The primary complaint of players, retailers, and distributors has been WOTC's inability to provide enough cards to satisfy players' demands.

    Lee Cerney, executive director of the Gaming Manufacturers Association, estimates that only "12 to 14 percent of what's actually ordered gets delivered, which means that only one out of every five people gets what he wants." Printed by the prestigious Carta Mundi company in Belgium, Magic cards are gaining the reputation of being slow to arrive in stores--if they arrive at all.

    Vampire: The Eternal Struggle, an updated version of a previously issued WOTC trading card game called Jyhad, which was due to appear in revamped format last June, is now tentatively slated for November release, much to the chagrin of Kristofer Nelson, the general manager of Santa Rosa's Fantasy Books and Games. Four months ago, Nelson had his store all decked out, with Vampire gear hanging from the ceilings and plastered to the windows. The promised day of delivery came and went, but the cards didn't. Nelson isn't decorating his walls for Homelands until he actually has some boxes of the cards in the store.

    The biggest debacle with Magic cards has been the Ice Age cards, which were designed not only to complement the existing Gathering series, but to stand alone as a separate playing game. Printing and distribution problems have caused the series to be severely underdistributed. Leah Johnson, co-owner of Sir Galaybien Comics in Petaluma, was tempted to buy her stock directly off the shelves of Waldenbooks, which had them at a cheaper retail price than she could afford to buy them from the distributor.

    "They're taking the game away from younger kids who can't afford it," she says of the cards, which sell for about $2.50 for booster packs and for roughly $8 for starter packs. Ice Age cards were going for half again as much. "I love this game," she emphasizes as she sips a coke, overseeing a Magic card tournament at Pinky's. "It's the greatest thing I've ever seen. Even though I'm frustrated with the company, I will definitely still sell the game."

    Berkley Games Distributors sales manager Sean Schoonmaker says that "Magic just can't get into the country fast enough. Carta Mundi ships them out as fast as they can, and Wizards [WOTC] has to stockpile it until they have enough to distribute."

    Back in Seattle, Peter Adkison stresses that "the percentage of the demand that we're filling is rapidly increasing. The problem is that all of our print-buying is set six to 12 months in advance, and so you're really trying to anticipate demand way down the curve and having to leverage on it.

    "As far as Ice Age goes," he continues, "that was a bad judgment call on our part about understanding what the demand would be. We don't want to overreact and go out of business," Adkison laughs. "But we don't want to be in the position that we're in."

    An undersupplied market is also a collectors' market, with those players who have been involved in Magic since the beginning being lucky enough to possess cards that are now out of print. While the game designers at WOTC don't approve of certain cards being valued at $300 or more, Adkison is pragmatic about it. "You have to balance all these things out," he says. "And you have to respect what you've already done. One thing that we have done is that we've printed some cards that we've dropped, and the vision that Richard had for the game is that cards would kind of come and go, and there is a chance that a card would become valuable, and that's OK as long as that's not all you're trying to do.

    "But this whole idea of Magic being this infinite universe that you can just explore and see is kind of like being an archaeologist," Adkison adds, getting excited. "You find clues as you go along, and it all kind of fits together in a whole story, and part of this is that some of these clues are hard to find. And there's a practical side to it, too--a lot of the cards that we dropped were too powerful," he says, citing one card whose rules instructed the player to release the card from a certain height onto the table, thus eliminating every card it touched upon landing. "So you basically had to drop them [from the series], and you don't fix that problem by printing more of them," he laughs.

    Just as part of the absorption of most archaeologists has to do with the beauty of what they uncover, so it is with Magic. The illustrations, as dark and gorgeous as tarot cards, are what often interest new players first. While some parents might have objections to the adult subjects of some of the cards, Adkison is content that he's got it right. "We don't have a problem with an erotic feel [to the cards]," he says. "We don't mind a little bit of eroticism or a little bit of violence, but I don't like that helpless female stereotype, and if you're going to have erotic females, you may as well have erotic males too."

    Rich with fantastic creatures, brooding landscapes, and enchanted figures, the Magic cards are drawn by 70 artists who are gaining celebrity of their own. Lead artistic designer Christopher Rush, who has created some 80 cards, now refuses to sell his original paintings done for the cards. He estimates that the early paintings he sold two years ago are now worth 50 to 70 times what he sold them for, and he's not even dead yet. "I've heard now that since I've stopped selling, the value of my paintings has gone up incredibly," he says with an amazed smile.

    While the "Magic money" may fuel this growing firm, WOTC is not hedging all its bets on this one product. Garfield has finally been able to fulfill his original plan for RoboRally, to be played in life-sized form at the upcoming New York convention, as well as produce a family game called The Great Dalmuti. He is putting the finishing touches on a cyberpunk trading card game called Netrunner. Other products and role-playing games, like the recently released Everway--a literary game fueled almost solely by illustrations and the players' imaginations--have been successful.

    "This company has a real social agenda," Adkison stresses, leaning forward on his desk. "We don't want to just publish what makes money. We refuse to. We're only interested in publishing games that cause people to think, and we're also interested in social interaction. Our quest is to make socially interactive games. I mean, I love computers, I have one right here, I use it all the time, and I have a degree in computer science, but I really like to see people sitting face to face, socializing, being creative, thinking, stretching."

    Downstairs, Richard Garfield sits quietly at his desk, thinking over a question. "I like bringing people new world structures," he says, his face breaking into a slow grin.

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