There is a big bull's head hanging above the stairs in Seattle's Wizards of the Coast Game Center. It is round and brown and plastic and terribly ugly, and people here have taken to calling it Head. In a face-to-face encounter with the beast, Richard Garfield, a man who looks remarkably like Kermit the Frog, grimaces, as would the amphibian. This was not my idea, his face says.
Then—boom!—his idea. Down the steps and to the right, chaos reigns. Two fat kids rush by, drinking Mountain Dew and talking Star Trek. Another group of five kids huddles in a corner, laughing over a deck of cards. "Merfolk Raiders!" one of them yells. "Merfolk freeeeaaaaakkiiiin' Raiders!" Whatever. At long, cloth-covered tables throughout the large room, boys, teens, men sit quietly for hours, drugged by Garfield's own brand of "card cocaine" (as one player calls it). Garfield turns, speaks. "This is amazing," says the man responsible for Magic: The Gathering, a wildly popular fantasy card game. "Who would've ever thought?"
Really, who would've? In all there are 500 participants from 35 countries here for the Magic: The Gathering world championships, an event in August that has attracted a collection as eclectic as the threads in the closet of the artist formerly known as Prince. The setting is half high school math club, half the bar scene from Star Wars. The scene at the tournament is like no other, where man coexists peacefully with man and where dweebs, skinheads, freaks, Guidos, preps, hippies and vamps are all well represented. (Women, in spite of their participation generally in the game, are notably absent.)
"You know what's neat about Magic?" asks Garfield. "That at its core it's just a game. That's all I really wanted—a great game that people who love games can enjoy. The goals were that simple."
All right, then, step back and check this out. Magic is not just a game. It's a card game—the card game. It has been more popular, according to trade association figures, over the past four years than Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Hungry Hungry Hippos (author's note: the most underrated game of all time). Magic is a mix of poker and chess and Dungeons and Dragons, and it is, says 17-year-old Justin Gary, the U.S. junior champion, "the best game ever invented." Ever? "Of all time." According to Wizards of the Coast, the Seattle-based company that publishes Magic, two billion cards (offered in packs of 60 for approximately $9 a set) have been sold to an estimated five million consumers since Magic was introduced in 1993.
That is why, over four days at these championships, Garfield is the happiest man this side of Emmanuel Lewis at Webster Appreciation Day. After all, Magic: The Gathering really was an idea that—much like the Flux Capacitor—just hit him over the head. "Seriously, it was the only true eureka! experience I've ever had," says Garfield, 33, an absentminded type who wears mismatched socks with his brown sandals and shorts. "I'd worked on Magic card games as far back as 1982, but in the summer of '91 the vision came. A game that could be as large as we wanted it to be. The fantasy theme didn't come until later, but the concept—I had it."
Up until that time, he was a board-game-business nothing—someone with plenty of ideas but zip to show for them. As an undergraduate at Penn in the mid-'80s, Garfield had dreams of inventing games that people would play and play, and play and play. It was simple but not easy. Later, as a graduate student in combinational mathematics at Penn, he had his first breakthrough with RoboRally, an oblique, overpriced robotic concept hesitantly picked up by Wizards, a seven-year-old game company. Then, while teaching math at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., Garfield showed Peter Adkison, the Wizards CEO, this weird little card game—something he tentatively called Magic.
"When Richard presented it, I fell in love instantly," says Adkison, 36, like Garfield a certified eccentric. "I always remember the moment he first described it to me—this whole thing about a game that was played on cards, and the rules are simple, and you can add cards and collect cards and trade. The more he described it, the more I loved it. This was the game. Not a game, the game."
The premise is relatively simple: A bunch of art-enhanced fantasy cards and the rear corner of your local comic-book store (where, Garfield knew, the game would spread through word of mouth). Two players fill the roles of wizards, each with a deck of colorful cards and 20 life points. The participants take turns. The object is to slay your rival in a duel, utilizing powers conferred by the cards to reduce the opposition's manta (life energy) from the 20 to zero. The cards have names (such as Merfolk Raiders and Skeletal Crocodile) and pictures of beasts (the first picture was of Garfield's face smooshed onto the screen of a photocopier) and make-believe lands, all of which denote certain, measurable powers. Throw down a card and different things may happen: You reduce your opponent's strength by four. You put up a defense shield. Attack, attack, attack. ("It sounds worse than it is," says Gary.) With a virtually unlimited number of cards, the game offers the possibility of never repeating itself.