Culture  /  First Person

How My Kid Lost a Game of ‘Magic’ to Its Creator But Scored a Piece of Its Original Art

Ben Marks on all that came of one interview in 1994.

In June 1994, Richard Garfield was the rising superstar of hobby gaming. A Ph.D. in combinatorial mathematics, Garfield had launched his wildly successful collectible card game, “Magic: The Gathering,” barely a year earlier, but it had already sold 170 million cards. From its “Alpha” release in August 1993, the game’s initial inventory of 295 individually named cards had swollen to 500, each featuring an original illustration on its face. Taken together, the cards painted a picture of a fantastical land filled with wizards, demons, sorcerers, and enchanted stones. Hobby-and-game shops routinely sold out of the meager inventories they received from Wizards of the Coast, the game’s publisher, which struggled to keep up with demand. And when my then-6-year-old son, Sam, was bitten by the Magic bug, I smelled a story.

I pitched an article about Magic, which was just inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, to a magazine in New York. Somehow, I convinced this well-funded monthly to fly Sam and I from San Francisco to Seattle so I could interview Garfield. My plan was to get the game’s inventor to explain his creation to a general-interest readership, cherry-pick a few details to give my story color (“Garfield appears slightly dazed as he sits cross-legged and shoeless on an office chair, his feet warmed by a pair of rainbow-hued tabi socks … ”), and then write up the play-by-play of a game of Magic between my child and the gaming Goliath.

Sam’s fascination with Magic was precocious. Though the game had been aimed at college students, it had found an audience among kids in middle and high school, too. Sam was about to enter first grade. Therefore, by prior agreement with Garfield’s handlers, Sam would be allowed to bring his most powerful Magic deck to the table—as many cards as he liked, as long as they could be shuffled—while Garfield would be limited to a randomly selected, unopened “starter” deck of 60. That meant my son would have a distinct advantage over Garfield, as he could fill his personal deck with some of the game’s most fearsome creatures and fiendish enchantments, including ones found in Magic’s first two expansion sets, Arabian Nights and Antiquities.

Sam had built his deck by trading with kids in our neighborhood; sitting around our dining room table, Sam’s older friends took pains to explain these trades to my wife, Pat, and I, lest we accuse them of taking advantage of our son. Sam also sweet-talked his indulgent parents into buying him booster packs, as well as the occasional single card—sold at a steep markup and housed in a protective sleeve—from his favorite local gaming shop.

As it turned out, Sam’s advantage over Richard Garfield was entirely theoretical. Garfield cleaned my kid’s clock.

Listening to an audio recording of their 1994 match recently, I was struck by how patient Garfield was with my chatterbox son, despite having flown in from Japan just a few hours earlier (hence his dazed countenance and, I guess, the tabi socks). As the game unfolded, Garfield filled my tape ...