National success was in the cards for Magic fantasy game

MARKETING WIZARDDRY

September 17, 1994|By Howard Henry Chen | Howard Henry Chen,Sun Staff Writer

Hunched over a rotting wood table in a dimly lit room in Towson, two men are furtively practicing sorcery and are soon transported to the hills and valleys of the dark nether regions.

One brings forth the Hurloon Minotaur, strong enough to crush your skull with one hoof. The other counters with Holy Strength, then lets loose the Craw Wurm. In the next few minutes, the Sedge Troll, Black Lotus and the Howl from Beyond are brought forth to do battle.

They're not reliving some fanciful retelling of the Chronicles of Narnia. The men are playing Magic: The Gathering, a game that has spawned a subculture in this country, Europe and Asia. It is a collectible trading card game that allows players to take up the mantles of warrior, magician, vanquisher and vanquished, all in a span of 20 minutes.

Introduced a year ago by Wizards of the Coast, a games manufacturer based in Renton, Wash., Magic combines the fantasy element of role-playing games, the convenience and social elements of bridge, and the collectible element of baseball cards -- all to the tune of an estimated $40 million in sales.

Magic, the hottest fantasy game since Dungeons & Dragons, has reached into gaming halls across the country; into the Internet, where the Magic discussion is the fifth-most-popular user group; and, most telling, into the wallets and billfolds of would-be magicians.

"The game's growth has been phenomenal," says Renee Shallis, Wizards' vice president of marketing. "We've sold over 300 million cards and should sell our billionth card by year's end."

The object of the game is to suck the life out of your opponent by attacking and counterattacking with spells, enchantments, mystical weapons and various and sundry creatures of the night. You start out with 20 life points and, depending on how hard you're whacked by The Rack, the Icy Manipulator or Fireballs, you lose points. Hit zero and your opponent wins the game, thereby gaining bragging rights and control of Dominia, the game's fantasy kingdom.

Boiled down, the mechanics of Magic amount to a more complicated variation on the children's card game War. Each player comes to the game with at least 40 cards that represent creatures, spells or enchantments. If your cards' value is more than your opponent's, you win. If her cards are higher in value, your opponent wins. The strategy, of course, lies in how you stack your deck (which is allowed) and ultimately, the power and scarcity of the cards you own.

The starter pack of 60 cards sells for $7.95. That's an innocuous price to pay to start a collection, but as the interest grows, so do the price tags: booster packs of 15 cards, which may contain rare and powerful cards, run for $2.45.

The man who had liberated the Hurloon Minotaur, Kevin Williams, a 26-year-old computer programmer from Laurel, has spent more than $1,000 over the past six months bolstering his army of creatures, enchantments and artifacts. The cards in his war chest number 2,000.

"I don't see it as wasting money," he says, "it's a great game and an investment, too."

'A very sociable game'

Mr. Williams' opponent that night, Rob Burch, 25, a financial analyst from Towson, says he plays at least six hours a week. The two are huddled in the corner of the Game Sanctuary in Towson, where the owner stages gaming nights Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

"It's a very sociable game," Mr. Burch says. "It appeals to a broad group of people. Whereas most role-playing games are geared toward and played by adolescent males, this game is played by women and older people, too," he says, while heroically calling forth the swarthy and scythe-wielding Erg Raiders.

Sorcerer Williams cringes.

Magic is the brainchild of Richard Garfield, a former mathematics professor at Whitman College in Washington State, according to Ms. Shallis. Peter Adkison, a former systems analyst for Boeing and president of Wizards of the Coast, approached Mr. Garfield and "challenged him to develop a game that would appeal to the gamers market and collector's market, be portable, and can be played in 15 minutes."

A few weeks later, Mr. Garfield, who now develops games full-time, came up with Magic.

"It started with a basic set," says Ms. Shallis, "but [Mr. Adkison] didn't want the game to grow stale, so we started introducing expansion sets." Four expansion sets have been introduced and the fifth, Fallen Empires, is due in stores in November.

"We started with seven people, working out of [Mr. Adkison's] basement," says Ms. Shallis. Now, Wizards employs 120 people, and has set up offices in Glasgow, Scotland, and Antwerp, where the cards are published by a Belgian printer.

More than 1,000 cards

"Each of the more than 1,000 cards out there have original artwork from artists around the world, and they even get royalties," Ms. Shallis says. The artwork, she says, has contributed to the game's popularity.

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