All in the Cards

All in the Cards
Trading (Web) Cards

Allen Varney | 3 Oct 2006 12:00
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Magic debuted two months later, at the August 1993 Gen Con in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I never saw the Wizards booth there, because gamers were packed solid around it, three deep, every single minute the exhibitor hall was open. They bought the first few thousand of the several billion Magic cards sold to date.

This isn't the place for a corporate biography of Wizards of the Coast under Peter Adkison. (Shannon Appelcline offers a brief Wizards history on But to close off the story: Adkison continued to display his eye for talent, acquiring TSR (publisher of Dungeons & Dragons) in 1997 and, in 1998, English-language rights to the Pokemon trading card game, which ultimately proved even more lucrative than Magic. In 1999, Adkison sold Wizards to Hasbro for $325 million; he left the company at the start of 2001. He now runs Gen Con and wants to be Stephen Colbert's gamer friend.

Now in its ninth edition, Magic not only dominates card games and the paper gaming hobby; it also looms large in the history of games on the internet. Magic reshaped net gaming, and vice versa. This caught Wizards off-guard. Adkison the engineer was, by the standards of the early 1990s, remarkably net-savvy; he secured the instant he started his company, long before most publishers had ever heard of a domain name. Yet the net confounded his expectations about Magic's players, and the players in turn bulldozed Wizards' early plans for the DeckMaster series.

Magic: Even the Paper Game was Online
Though Magic was no computer game - not at the start, anyway - it became a huge "computer-enabled" game. Players quickly coordinated through Usenet to compile card lists, optimized deck designs and rules exploits. Everyone quickly learned, and bought, every card. Frenzied by a speculator-driven secondary market, players hungered for more cards. Magic's phenomenal success prompted Wizards to postpone standalone DeckMaster companion games in favor of expansion sets for The Gathering. (Ice Age belatedly debuted in June 1995 as Magic's first "standalone expansion," and Wizards has since published 11 more Magic standalones.)

In the first years of the craze, imitators flooded the market with physical trading card games of widely varying quality. In 1996, inevitably, this bubble burst. Because it cost well over $100,000 to produce a trading card game, some ambitious small publishers created their versions online. These games, along with a few pioneering text MUDs, were the first to attempt business models centered on Virtual Asset Purchase. Unlike the small freeware apps players could use to play Magic over the net, such as Apprentice, these online-only operations sold nonexistent virtual trading cards. Purchasers could then play the game for free using a downloadable client. This seemed so odd, back then - at least to a hopeless dimwit.

The first online trading card game was Chron X in May 1997, followed by Sanctum and several more over the years. Some of these survive as labors of love, but only two companies have thrived with digital cards: Wizards itself, with Magic Online (though it is blighted with lag, bribery, security issues and frequent downtime); and Worlds Apart Productions, a Denver company that started with text MUDs (Eternal City and Grendel's Revenge) before moving into online card games in 2003 with Star Chamber. Building out the Star Chamber technology as the Collect-Trade-Play platform, Worlds Apart hit it big with online versions of two licensed paper card games published by Decipher: Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings. How big? Hard to tell, but in a Denver Post article, Worlds Apart founder and president Scott Martins claimed a successful online card game can generate an average of $70 per player each month.

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