Magic the Gathering: How it created a phenomenon

Trading cards are no new thing; everyone has heard the stories about Baseball cards being sold for millions of pounds, but in the early 90s the industry had gone through somewhat of a slump. Sports cards were still relatively popular but there was a hunger for something new, a hunger that Mark Rosewater and his team capitalised on with his new product Magic the Gathering in 1993.

The revelation that Magic bought to the table was that it was itself a game that could be played, with the cards being built into decks that you could battle and trade with your friends. The premise was simple, use a combination of spells and creatures to lower your opponent’s life total to zero, but the complexity and depth had not been seen before.

Spells were categorised into 5 colours, each with their own abilities, strengths and weaknesses that can be combined with other colours to build interesting and powerful decks. This gave the new game an identity that players quickly latched onto, clamming their favourite colours as their own.

The first set released was called Alpha, and it sold out its first print run faster than team at Wizards of the Coast could reprint them. This early period of Magic is remembered fondly by those who played it not only for the nostalgia, but for the power (and subsequent value) of the cards released.

The development process was still fledgling at the time the Alpha set was released, with the team pulling paper versions of the card out of bags and playing with whatever cards they got. The oversight here was that the team didn’t realise that players would use multiples of the cards in decks, meaning that some cards that were released were much more powerful than initially anticipated. This gave way to what was later called The Power 9, a list of cards banned from competitive play, which now demand massive price tags for not only their power, but their scarcity.

The power nine, released in the first two sets of MTG, Alpha and Beta

Despite this however, the team soon learnt from their mistakes, and more and more sets soon followed. The game itself spawned a lot of copies, each wanting to capitalise on the success that Wizards of the Coast had. Most of these fell just as quickly as they came, although a few remain today. Chief amongst these was the Pokémon trading card game which still sees success and printing.

But it was clear throughout this that Magic was king. Cards eventually began to plateau in terms of card power, with a process of trial and error eventually helping balance the game. This not only allowed the game to be more accessible, but it also helped to create a competitive element, personified in the tournaments that Wizards of the Coast hosted. These tournaments not only showcased the most powerful decks but also gave unique prizes such as designing your own cards. These player designed cards are some of the most iconic and powerful cards in use to this day, with Snapcaster Mage being the pinnacle.

For over 25 years now, Magic the Gathering has been a staple in the trading cards industry, with its early ingenuity and style pushing the brand to even greater heights today. This combined with the release of the new online version of the game, Magic Arena, the game should endure for a long time still.

By Ryan Pointon

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