The Eclectic Quill

Website of Joshua McGee


Twenty Years of Magic: The Gathering

Twenty years ago tonight – Halloween of 1993 – I opened my first Magic: The Gathering cards and played for the first time.

A few weeks before, I had made my regular trip to Game Towne at Parkway Plaza in El Cajon, California, to check whether they had any new GURPS books in stock.  On the  black dry-erase board dedicated to new releases, in neon pink marker, read "Magic: The Gathering".  I had never heard of the game, but the name resonated with me, triggering feelings of mystery and portent and importance.  I asked Lyle, the clerk, what he knew about this game.  He said "It debuted at a festival over the summer.  It's a game that you play with trading cards.  The art is awesome – and I hear the game is fun to play, too."

Magic: The Gathering art from Beta

I placed my preorder for a "starter deck" of the game, and urged my best friends Rob and Chris to pre-order as well.  Game Towne received their shipment, from the set that would later be called "Beta", on Halloween, and my friends picked up all three of our decks on their way to my house for the little Halloween party we had planned.  Much to my frustration, they had already opened their decks in the car and had begun trading with each other before they even got to my place.  We had plans for that evening: movies and music and food, none of which materialized.  We just played Magic all night.

Magic was a new type of game: players accumulate the cards as they would baseball cards, then assemble them into decks to battle other players.  You never know what deck you will be facing when you meet an opponent: with over ten thousand cards printed over the last two decades, you can see, in casual play, an effectively infinite number of variations.

The game has come a long way.  On Halloween night of 1993, there were only 290 distinct cards that had been released.  There was no organized play.  There was no "netdecking" – copying successful decks card-for-card from Web listings – because there was effectively no Web to post the lists to.

Magic: The Gathering card back

Magic has been hugely influential in my education.  The game's mechanics taught me important concepts of computer science, early and well.  Learning to trade was a better immersion in economic theory than any Intro to Econ class ever created.  Group play taught me lessons in game theory that I still mentally refer to.  Selling a binder of cards bought me the computer on which I taught myself to program, and that led to a successful career as a software engineer.

And, of course, influential in my life in general: the draw to play the game got me out of my bedroom and forced a socially-awkward and introverted young man out into the world.

It's been twenty years.  I still play, though not as much as I used to.  I have a son now who just turned ten.  Now we play, as father and son, and it's teaching him many of the same lessons I myself learned.  The game has spurred numerous side projects of mine, including designing the "Shadow Magic" variant that became popular on AOL for a time in the mid-90s, to the SetMaker shareware program for expansion set design (the QuickBasic source code is now lost to history), to the popular and profitable ManabaseCrafter, darling of reddit and go-to source for people playing the Commander variant of the game.


So, here's to Magic: The Gathering.  Thank you, Wizards of the Coast for publishing the game, and thank you, Richard Garfield, for designing such a wonderful tool and toy for nerds worldwide.  Best of luck for the next two decades.

One Response to Twenty Years of Magic: The Gathering

  1. Alec says:

    How does magic relate to coding and/or economic lessons?  Would you email me any explanations, whether your own or sanctioned?  Thank you.

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