Have you ever asked yourself what you really want to do? Don’t be afraid to answer “no”—because it is surely a question that many people avoid asking themselves. Sometimes, it feels as though we spend life circling around our goals rather than driving in a straight line toward them. Nonetheless, it was a question I could not help but ask myself last summer, when my day job as a sports journalist took me to the London Olympics. There, day after day, I saw ten thousand athletes who would had not only asked themselves what they wanted to do, but who had made huge sacrifices to make it happen. I came home to Berlin in a pensive mood and asked myself: Could I not learn something from the track-suit heroes who had inspired London and millions of others watching at home?
The result was a grueling year working seven days a week, hammering the phone, jumping on planes, and hunkering down in the library to research and write the book I had been telling myself I wanted to write for years: SO DO YOU WEAR A CAPE? The Unofficial Story of Magic: The Gathering—an account, it turns out, of a world I care passionately about. Am I a great player, deck designer, or strategist? No. But I can tell a story. And with every interview, every old article I uncovered, every old forum post I dug up, I could feel a fantastic tale developing—one that I felt empowered to write by the community I was part of—and one I was incredibly excited to share.
That story is one I hope to recount not only to Magic players, but also to a general audience: a fantastic tale of basement dreamers done good, a revolutionary product designed by a misfit genius, a maverick business that presaged dot-com culture, a community that turbo-charged the nascent Internet and a scene that embraced bullied brainiacs and gave them the self-esteem to triumph in a world more in tune with geekdom. In short, after two decades, Magic is something that cannot be dismissed as “just a game.” That is something, as players, we all feel deep in our bone marrow, even if we rarely express it. Well, I think it is time we did. We are part of something culturally, socially, and economically significant—not to mention something personally redemptive for so many players. SO DO YOU WEAR A CAPE? is my attempt to tell the wider world what Magic is about—and why it matters not only to us, but to the wider world in 2013.
Including interviews with Richard Garfield and Wizards of the Coast founder Peter Adkison, SO DO YOU WEAR A CAPE? also features a legion of famous figures in the game’s history, including George “Skaff” Elias, Mark Justice, Olle Råde, Brian Weissman, Brian David-Marshall, Michael Flores, Barry Reich, Rich Hagon, Luis Scott-Vargas, Kai Budde, Jon Finkel, Mark Rosewater, Aaron Forsythe, Randy Buehler, Jesper Myrfors, and many, many more. You can buy it as an e-book right now here for roughly the price of two booster packs. It is also available from all major e-book retailers, including Amazon, Kobo, and iTunes.
Here is a taster chapter from the book for GatheringMagic users—I hope you enjoy it and want to read further. Like all the best stories, it starts a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
Chapter 2: Great Minds
Usenet. Two simple syllables, which once represented a glittering new way of communicating, but which have long since receded into the past as the digital age’s advances have clocked up (and in some cases cocked up) at an astonishing rate. Usenet was the text-based precursor to the World Wide Web and was in many ways like cyberspace’s old west. It was a wild frontier. Sparsely populated. A far-off and unfamiliar idea to all but the most pioneering of souls. In 1991, it boasted around 12 million users worldwide, almost exclusively techies, academics and pornographers. It handled two, sometimes three, gigabytes of traffic per day. By contrast, in 2013, over two billion of the world’s population are online and gigabytes of traffic have long given way to petabytes. Still, there are Usenet archives out there, where former devotees can pour over the traces of their rambling, un-moderated discussions like historians poring over sepia-tinted photographs.
Archaeologists mining the Usenet archives might have more interesting posts to uncover, but for Magicplayers, discussions on the forum rec.games.board.design are of particular importance. It was here that in June 1991 an ambitious role-playing fan named Peter Adkison began posting about breaking into the gaming industry. Adkison was an employee at aerospace giant Boeing by day and the boss of a fledgling games company called Wizards of the Coast by night. At the time, Wizards operated out of Adkison’s basement at 23815, 43rd Avenue South in Kent, Washington. Or, more usually, from Adkison’s desk at Boeing, long after the lights had gone out and the cleaners were making their rounds.
Despite the late nights required to get his new venture off the ground, Adkison was undeterred. The enthusiastic entrepreneur was driven by a passion for gaming he had acquired as a child growing up in Idaho (a state counting only 19.15 inhabitants per square mile) where he cut his teeth on family Monopoly sessions. Later, he took up Risk and war games by the American manufacturer Avalon Hill with his father. Then, in 1978, he discovered the love of his life, Dungeons and Dragons, in a local games store where he was drawn to the unfamiliar game by a nascent love of J.R.R Tolkien’s fantasy works. Despite not knowing what a role-playing game actually was, Adkison snapped up a copy. He was, and remains, a firm believer in embracing new ideas.
Adkison’s Usenet posts caught the attention of a maths student in Philadelphia named Mike Davis who was keen to plug a game he had co-designed with a fellow mathematician at the University of Pennsylvania. Davis hoped Adkison’s new company might be interested in publishing the pair’s frantic board game RoboRally , in which players guide out-of-control factory robots through a gauntlet of obstacles. Board games, though, are an expensive and tricky product to produce. Today, Germany is their spiritual home—a land renowned for its depth of manufacturing prowess. A start-up in the Pacific Northwest, with little capital, could not realistically take a punt on such a complex product. Nonetheless, Adkison enjoyed a sample of the game that Davis sent to him and agreed to meet its creators in Portland, Oregon a few weeks later.
What followed was a seminal moment in geek history: something akin, at least in gaming terms, to John Lennon and Paul McCartney coming together at St Peter’s Church fete in Woolton, Liverpool in 1957. It was serendipity. It was alchemy. It was rock and roll. On 17 August 1991, Adkison met RoboRally’s co-creator for the first time, an unassuming and taciturn maths expert by the name of Richard Garfield. It was an encounter that would radically alter both of their lives.
Writing later in The Duelist magazine, Wizards of the Coast’s in-house magazine that existed between 1994 and 1999, Adkison described the meeting as an epiphany. What really got to him was the fact that Garfield, an almost monastic observer for much of that first meeting, clearly disinterested in talking business, was a lover of not only role-playing games but all games. “His vision was clear and went to the heart of gaming,” wrote Adkison. “He was looking for entertainment, social interaction, mental exercise, creativity and challenge. I suddenly felt stupid, remembering the time I had refused to play Pictionary, even though I knew I would probably enjoy it.”
Like Gary Gygax (co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons), Klaus Teuber (inventor of Settlers of Catan) or Will Wright (designer of Sim City), Richard Garfield is now a name that inspires awe among gaming cognoscenti. Just over 20 years ago though, he was a scruffy post-grad student scrabbling around for a suitable pair of shoes to leave the house in, as his important visitor waited patiently and his friend steered the conversation towards RoboRally. He had not had a single game published and was as much concerned with “The distribution of the binomial coefficients modulo p” (his thesis) as he was with fantasy worlds and gaming mechanics. He was, remembered Adkison, a scruffy sod to boot: “Then, as now, he wore mismatched socks, had strange bits of thread and fabric hanging from parts of his clothing and generally looked like someone who had just walked into the Salvation Army and grabbed whatever seemed colourful.” Then, as now, it would have been foolishness of the highest order to judge him on appearance.
Garfield was in no way disheartened when Adkison explained to the RoboRally creators that he was unable to publish their board game. Instead, at once pragmatic and keen to demonstrate his game-designing chops, Garfield piped up: if you don’t want RoboRally, he put it to Adkison, what do you want? “Describe a game concept—any concept—and I’ll design a game around it for you,” he said.
What Adkison was looking for was a game for the convention circuit: something portable, something quick, something that jaded role-players could easily distract themselves with during down-time at games shows or while waiting for a tardy dungeon master. As a fan of the fantasy art he also saw at the numerous conventions he visited, much of which did not see the light of day, Adkison also wanted a vehicle for great illustration. The solution, he felt, was some kind of card game. Garfield nodded, took in Adkison’s off-the-cuff brief and the conversation moved on.
Garfield stayed on at his nearby parents’ house for a week and met up with Adkison the following weekend for a Seattle gaming convention called Dragonflight. There, at Adkison’s behest, he demonstrated RoboRally to convention-goers and got to know Adkison’s few associates at Wizards of the Coast. After the show, he hitched a ride with Adkison and Wizards co-founder Ken McGlothlen. The trio stopped off at the Seattle Center, near the city’s iconic Space Needle, and as McGlothlen popped out to collect something, Garfield and Adkison got out of the car to stretch their legs. Garfield turned to his new mentor: “Remember that game concept you described?” he said. “Well I have an idea that might work.”
By the time Garfield had finished describing his idea, Adkison was completely caught up in the designer’s vision and bowled over in a way he had not been since first discovering Dungeons and Dragons as a school kid in 1978. In some grungy corner of a Seattle car park, he started, he says, “dancing around, whooping and hollering.” When McGlothlen returned to the scene and heard the idea, he was blown away, too. It was good. It was really good.
Having dropped Garfield off at his parents’ house, McGlothlen did his best to reign in his excitement. But it was too much for him. Turning to Adkison, he let it all out: “You know,” he said. “This game could make a million dollars. Maybe even two.”
SO DO YOU WEAR A CAPE? is available now: