Every hardcore Magic: The Gathering player knows the story behind the trading card game’s rarest card. In 1993, Magic designer Richard Garfield planned a surprising way to propose to his sweetheart, Lily Wu. Garfield commissioned a painting from artist Quinton Hoover and fashioned it into a Magic card he called “Proposal.” “Allows Richard to propose marriage to Lily,” the card read. “If the proposal is accepted both players win; mix the cards in play, both libraries and both graveyards as a shared deck.”

Garfield made a deck including Proposal and then challenged Lily to a game. But because he’d assigned Proposal a high casting cost of 4 white mana, he had great trouble playing it. In this situation, gamers of lesser integrity might fudge the rules: Revise the casting cost on the fly, perhaps, or even (egad!) just play the card, not tapping four Plains or Mox Pearls, no!, just slap down Proposal willy-nilly, bend the knee, present the ring, you’re done! Not tournament-legal, but who cares? Garfield – this is a telling point – Garfield cared. It took him (the story goes) four games to finally play Proposal legally, with Lily ever more impatient to quit. To Propose in violation of the rules, you see, would found the entire marriage on a lie.

The outcome is told by Splendid Genesis and Fraternal Exaltation, Magic cards the couple commissioned in 1997 and 1999 to announce the births of their two children.

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In what terms can we praise this? The behavior has no defined precedent. It’s not “cool,” at least not according to society’s arbiters of cool. You’d never see a rock star, say, propose by playing a card game. It’s not weird eccentricity, either, in the manner of outsider art. Garfield is no outsider; he’s a happily married family man at the summit of his profession, has a doctorate in combinatory math and is, incidentally, wealthier than many rock stars.

Yet through his long history of sensible decisions and individual style, Richard Garfield has become, if not “cool,” then remarkable. Today he represents something almost as rare in paper gaming as a Proposal card: a role model.

***

I’ve known many designers of paper games. Garfield is the smartest and, demonstrably, the wisest. He has sidestepped the hobby’s typical success path, a dismal progress defined by young geniuses with meager life experience. In two sordid decades from Dungeons & Dragons onward, nearly every designer of a hit paper game unfailingly followed the same pattern, as if railroaded through a packaged roleplaying scenario:

  • Start a company. Run it like your personal fiefdom.
  • Install your wife/mistress/significant other in a position of critical responsibility.
  • Then break up with her, slowly and painfully, and paralyze the company for the duration.
  • Fritter away the hit game’s revenues, until the inevitable drop in popularity catches you by surprise and plunges you into perpetual cash flow crisis. Time for divisive political infighting!
  • And so on. Some designers added the optional Incompetent Accounting and Drug Abuse modules.

In contrast, Garfield has designed his own success scenario. When Magic became an instant hit for publisher Wizards of the Coast at its 1993 debut, he (co-owner of Wizards) purposely distanced himself from routine business. Though the company endured many tumults specified by the standard pattern, he somehow floated above them. He supervised the Magic design team not lightly, but with mature detachment.

Garfield tells The Escapist, “I was very wary of becoming the creator who had to control everything, that despised business concerns, and ended up killing his creation or being forced out by rational minds. Instead, I wanted to be the creator who worked with the business-minded folk to educate them as to the player’s needs – and in turn learn the realities that conflicted with those needs, and work to find the best way to satisfy both.

“I also was scared of becoming a creator that wouldn’t let anyone else contribute creatively. Instead, I tried [giving] the big picture for where I wanted to go and allow people to get there, creatively, on their own. I tried to offer advice and opinion rather than command, so that Magic grew with the best of many rather than the best of few.

“I am not sure where this attitude came from, but it has served me well. I guess maybe it comes partially from understanding that it is very easy to believe something and be wrong – so when you have responsibility, it is important to constantly re-evaluate those beliefs and really listen to those that differ.”

***

That said, in guiding Magic‘s early development, Garfield held strongly to his big picture. “Magic was an immense challenge. There were no trading card game predecessors, and so there were no real pre-existing solutions to many of the problems we ran into. Every routine thing with trading card games these days was scary in those days. Each expansion, we learned more and more about the genre and established more and more standards, until we got to a place I really like.

“My main contribution to Magic during this time was constantly focusing on the players and trying to guide the decisions to maximize value to them, rather than the many competing forces like speculator, collector, distributor, shopkeeper, art enthusiast or story enthusiast. Powerful common cards, a strong tournament system, printing enough cards that the short-term speculators left – these are samples of the sort of decisions that I was a part of and pleased with. There were plenty of bad decisions made as well, but they have faded because, I think, the lessons got learned and we moved on.”

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Before Magic, competitive play in hobby games consisted mainly of small-time convention tournaments. Garfield fostered the thriving Magic tournament scene, which now attracts players worldwide competing for six-figure purses. “I have always loved serious analysis and play of games,” he says. “I became convinced that the existence of these things doesn’t hurt the casual player, and in fact is a boon to them. The analogy we drew was from basketball and the NBA. A lot of players who play basketball at the YMCA have no dream of being in the NBA, and yet without a robust, serious game core, they would probably be playing something else. By steering the game in this direction, I think we added a lot to the breadth of its interest and its longevity.

“Until recently I had primarily been cultivating Magic‘s tournament life, watching it and learning from it. Now that I am a bit more distant from that, I will probably be applying the learning I have accumulated in creating ‘serious play’ to other games. I am teaching a class at the University of Washington entitled ‘Characteristics of Games.’ This isn’t using games to teach, but hopefully it will yield a contribution to the growing study of games, which could indirectly help legitimize games as intellectual sport and educational tools.”

***

Many other designers of hit paper games have proven to be one-hit wonders. (Quick, name two other games by Gary Gygax.) But though they’ll engrave “Magic” on his tombstone, Garfield’s praiseworthy ludography includes the acclaimed RoboRally and Filthy Rich, an inventive game played with three-ring binders. Some of his other trading card games are excellent – Netrunner fans insist it’s better than Magic – but Wizards ultimately orphaned them. Even had they succeeded, they would merely have cannibalized players from Magic.

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Garfield still designs actively, both independently and as a consultant for Wizards. He spends most of his time on computer games, “principally because there are so many computer games I want to see that just don’t exist. Computer game design has been frustrating because it involves so many people and is so time-consuming and so often fruitless. I have had projects cancelled in many different ways, or mutate into something I didn’t want to be a part of. But I am always optimistic; currently I am working on a game for Xbox 360 Arcade, which should come out this summer, and a game for Nintendo with a terrific mechanic and IP [intellectual property]. And some little games for Bella Sara, and a new version of Astral Tournament.”

He’s learning an authoring tool, Multimedia Fusion 2, in order to prototype his own computer game concepts, “since the established players have provided me with so little satisfaction in this regard.

“One of the areas that interests me most in computer games is the lack of luck. Almost all computer games are extremely skill-based, in the sense that the most skilled player will almost always win. In paper games, from Scrabble to backgammon and bridge to poker, there are many games where the less-skilled player can win from time to time. And, extraordinarily, all these games have an immense amount of skill as well! Someday I hope to have a collection of games that I can play on computer with dabblers and experts at the same time that is comparable to the immense collection of paper games I have which accomplish that.

“My paper game design is mostly for fun these days, because there is not nearly that gap between what I want from paper games and what is out there. A game I have designed recently just for fun is Cosmic Hearts, which is hearts where each player gets their own power.” (The title honors the boardgame Cosmic Encounter, the principal design influence on Magic.) “Another is Barbubu, which is barbu, but with a lot of special mini-games and mini-game modifiers.

“Online, I am playing Astral Tournament and Quadradius, two games that delightfully meet my requirement of having a lot of luck and skill. Offline, I am mostly playing traditional card games like bridge and poker, and variants of my own making. I am enjoying watching my kids explore the world of games and seeing them benefit from all the covert educational values you would expect of the intellectual analogue of sport.”

***

Again, it’s hard to find a context in which to assess Garfield’s achievement. It would be neat to say, “He’s just another designer who created a groundbreaking game, then made millions, lived a calm and balanced life, and helped enhance the importance of games in society” – as though that were the expected script, instead of “Start a personal fiefdom, put your main squeeze in charge and squander your profits.”

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In lifestyle terms, upcoming game designers have few role models either wise or foolish. Some game developers want to be treated like rock stars. Yeah, right. If you want that, don’t propose to your wife through a card game. In character we don’t quite match any other profession or pursuit, and no particular behavior is expected of us.

The media present Will Wright, Sid Meier and other Game Gods strictly in terms of the games they designed and the fortunes they earned. We know Richard Garriott has a mansion with secret passages, but otherwise we know little of these creators’ personalities, let alone their life choices. Likewise, published interviews with Garfield haven’t addressed his success in terms of personal character.

Yet a teenager today, ambitious to make a life designing games, could do much worse than say, “When I grow up, I want to be Richard Garfield.” Sometimes I feel that way myself, and I’m older than he is.

We can learn more than just design lessons from his example: the importance of clear goals, a focus on the player’s experience, willingness to guide rather than control and the elevation of good sense over ego. These, among others, are the nerd virtues, the gamer’s path to knowledge. As yet, we have no phrase for this concept. “Nerdcore“? “Geek Chic“? Uh, no.

Still, we should articulate this idea and encapsulate it in a word. People can grasp a word; they can define their careers around it, and they should. However awkwardly it matches society’s definition of “cool,” Garfield’s career shows unusual grace, a condition to which we all can aspire.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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