Vraska, Scheming Gorgon, by Greg Rutkowski
From The New Yorker:
In his youth, Richard Garfield, the mathematician who created Magic: The Gathering, liked to play and invent games. Before his family settled in Oregon, in the mid-seventies, he spent many of his early years in Bangladesh and Nepal, places where his father worked as an architect. Garfield didn’t speak Bengali or Nepali, so, to make friends, he would unpack a deck of cards or spill out a bag of marbles. Back in the United States, around the age of thirteen, he began to hear about a game called Dungeons & Dragons—he was told that it had pit traps and orcs and treasure—but his local game store didn’t have the rulebooks yet, and none of his classmates knew how to play. A lack of language had never stopped him before; he made something up.
The game he devised was nothing like D. & D. “It was more like a Clue board,” he recalled. “You could move around the map and go into different rooms and then there would be monsters in these rooms.” You could also “win” in Garfield’s version. When the zine-like D. & D. manuals finally arrived, he was astonished to discover that you could keep playing the game indefinitely. Players would collectively tell a story about their characters wielding enchanted swords or picking locks, with dice rolls deciding many of the consequences. “It puts players in the position of game designers,” Garfield told me. The books themselves “were dreadfully written,” he said. “The game was very hard to learn from the rules, which is something it shares with Magic, I guess, but its brilliance shone through.”
Like the misfit musicians who bought the Velvet Underground’s first album, the young kids of the seventies who pored over the first set of D. & D. manuals all went out to make their own games.
Magic: The Gathering débuted in August of 1993, and had a modest initial print run of 2.6 million cards with fantasy illustrations to match. Over the next decade, it would inspire a genre of collectible-card games such as Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon. Mel Li, a game designer who has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and who worked at Wizards until last year, discovered the game in 1995. “I grew up in the suburbs,” she said. “You spend a lot of time on your own.” Magic gave her nerdy friends something to talk about in the schoolyard, a “common language.” The next year, Mirage, a set of Magic cards with African fantasy elements, came out. “That was eye-opening for me,” she told me. “It wasn’t a typical, Tolkien-esque vision of what a fantasy world should be.” Her mom and dad thought it was a waste of time, so she kept her cards hidden in a shoebox under her bed. “I’d lay them out and make decks at night,” she recalled, “when my parents were asleep.”
In the game, players were fashioned as “planeswalkers,” who cast spells and travel between planes of existence. The spells themselves were the cards, which could be purchased in places like bookstores and comic-book shops. It soon became a common sight to see kids ripping off the wrappers of Magic packs, and—as a blend of chemicals from the bouquet of ink and finish wafted up—taking account of what they possessed of the two hundred and ninety-five cards that Garfield and his colleagues had conceived. The cards had names like “Bad Moon” and “Celestial Prism” and featured beasts such as “Giant Spider” and “Gray Ogre.” Garfield devised a set of rules about how many cards to draw each turn, how to charge up magical powers, or “mana,” from so-called land cards, and how to cast spell cards and summon creatures to bring an opponent’s life total from twenty points to zero. Flowing through this was a strain of wild invention: the cards often gave players the license to bend or change the rules.