The Basics

Magic: The Gathering is the first collectible card game. Players select cards from their own collection, and combine them into a deck. When they play against another player, each person uses their own deck, only rarely even touching the other player's cards. The game has a basic set of rules, but each individual card has its own abilities, which are clearly stated on the card. And when the rules on the card contradict the rules as listed in a rule book, the card is given priority - allowing each card to change the game in a unique way. Cards are purchased similar to how sports cards are sold, in small packages of 8 or 15, known as booster packs.

Play is done turn by turn, with each player alternating. Each player starts with 20 life, and winning is accomplished by either reducing the other player to zero (or less) life, making them attempt to draw a card when there are no cards left for them to draw, or giving them 10 or more poison counters, which come from a few cards from a few sets.

Magic has been known by nicknames, such as "Tragic: The Addiction", and with pejorative terms such as "cardboard crack" due to the fact that many players have found the game quite addictive. While the exact reasons for the widespread addiction are unclear, there are two key features to the game that might contribute. First, the gambling nature of buying booster packs. Because the cards inside the packs are random, within certain rarity guidelines, players are encouraged to buy more cards to get the ones they want. Sometimes a highly prized card or two will come, giving the player a reward, and encouraging more buying. It's the exact same reward system gambling uses - a person keeps performing the same action because occasionally there is a reward, but not always, and not never. (It's so addictive, that when I wrote this writeup, I got the urge to play again - after not touching my cards for about three years and not missing it. Odds are I'll be in a shop playing by the end of the year.)

Also, the incredible variety in the game play surely hooks some players. Instead of a more traditional game, where the rules are clear and all the pieces known beforehand, Magic keeps players on their toes. You never know what the next card your opponent will play, so it is difficult to predict what you'll see. The game environment and strategy are always changing, keeping the game in a constant state of freshness. Also, it is very rare for there to ever be a best deck - there's almost always something that can beat it.

The game has also been highly influenced by the internet straight from it's start. In fact, it's one of the first games to be strongly affected by internet access - so much that there's a term, the dojo effect, used to describe any game that is changed from widespread and quick access to large amounts of information about a game on the internet.

Early History (beginning to Revised)

Sometime before 1991, a man by the name of Richard Garfield had approached another man, Peter Adkinson, about publishing a game for him. Peter operating a company out of his basement, called Wizards of the Coast, that had been publishing a few assorted roleplaying games. Richard had presented to Peter this interesting and complex board game, RoboRally. The publishing cost for a board game, especially one with the complexity of RoboRally, was beyond what Peter could afford. They talked, and Peter convinced Richard that he was interested in publishing games of his.

Richard Garfield later returned to Peter, with the prototype of another game he had been working on occasionally over the past few years. Richard was a professor of mathematics, with special skills in combinatorics and game theory, and had been applying this to a card game he had been working on, which he had been calling "The Five Magics". They test played this new game, and it was apparent to all the people playing that this was something special. So Peter decided to publish it for Richard. It was just what Peter was looking for. A very portable game, that people could play with a minimum of setup, and against other people on a moment's notice. A game that could remake itself, by having a large portion of the rules on the cards. The first collectible card game. The design played right into Garfield's interest in combinatorics, as the various combinations of cards, each with unique abilities, let to an explosion of possibilities.

Two full years were spent playtesting and developing the first version of the game - which had, in the process, been renamed to Magic: The Gathering. A number of game concepts changed during the playtesting. Cards were reworded over and over - one good example is the card Time Walk, which gives its caster a free turn. One playtester loved it, because playing it meant an instant win. When someone asked him about it, he pointed to the card text - "Opponent loses next turn." Needless to say, that was changed.

There were also cards that would change ownership of the cards in play. While the game was designed to be played for ante - where each player would put their top card into an ante pile before playing, there was a lot more. Control Magic, instead of just temporarily taking your opponent's creature for the game, would permanently take it. And a card called Ecoshift would require a player to collect all land in play, shuffle it, and deal the same number of lands back out to each player. These ideas were dropped before the final version.

In the meantime, Peter had managed to secure funding to do a first printing of the cards. 2.6 million cards were printed, which they expected to be approximately a six month supply, and they planned to do a total of approximately 10 million if the game sold well. After the printing, Peter, Richard, and a few other people travelled around the country doing demos of the game to drum up interest. Eventually they headed to GenCon, America's largest gaming convention.

News of the game had already spread around the internet, and people went looking for it. They still had the majority of the first 2.5 million cards when they arrived at the convention, and set up a small booth to demo the game and encourage play. Players took to it like crazy, and it wasn't long before the entire stock was sold - even the cards owned by some of Wizard of the Coast's workers were sold. All over the convention floor, the game was visible. People playing, trading, showing each other the new cards.

Realizing they had something big, they took the money they made selling the cards, and got the printing for the other 7.3 million going as quickly as they could. In the process, they made a few minor corrections to cards, added another version of the basic land cards with new artwork, and added a couple cards that were accidentally left out. While the cards were supposed to be indistinguishable from each other, that did not occur - the corners of the first run were substantially more rounded, making the two print runs different.

All of the first 10 million cards had black borders, and the first printing would come to be known as "Alpha", and the second as "Beta". The two together are also known as the "Limited Edition".

The rest of the 10 million cards continued to sell at incredible rates. They could not stick with their initial plan, to finish this printing, and create a new version of the game with new cards, when it was clear such a demand was forming. So they got another printing going, this time with white borders on the cards. This next printing would become known as the Unlimited Edition. Sales continued to grow faster than anyone could have expected.

As said, their initial plan would be to do a print run with a set of cards for a limited time, and then after a while, do a new print run, with a whole new collection of cards, that were also compatible with the original set. But with the Unlimited set continuing to sell in huge numbers, they scrapped the idea. They had been planning to create a new version of the game with the story of 1,001 Arabian Nights as the theme. Instead, they quickly put together the first "expansion set" - a set of cards with that theme, but unable to be played by itself, requiring the other cards. This expansion set stuck with the planned theme, and was given the name "Arabian Nights". It was released in December of 1993, sold just as well as the Unlimited set.

The expansion set idea stuck, and another one was quickly put into production. Unlike the generic themes of the main set, and the first expansion, it was decided to tell a story in the second expansion, known as Antiquities. The "flavor text" of the cards, little quotes and stories that don't afffect play but are added just to give the card and game personality, were all connected. They all talked about the war between a pair of brothers, Urza and Mishra, and the effects it had on the world of Magic. It made it into stores in March of 1994.

Some work went back into attempting to create a new "stand-alone" expansion set, one that could be played on it's own. The result of this was the next expansion, Legends. It ran to approximately the same size as the regular set, but during playtesting, it was found that the set did not have what was needed to survive without the rest of the cards. The plans to talk about playing it by itself were dropped, but the entirety of the set was released in June 1994.

Legends turned out to be both a success and a disaster. A large number of preorders was placed for the expansion before its release, and Wizards of the Coast decided to play it safe, and print to fill those preorders, but not any more. In the meantime, demand for Magic was increasing quickly, and more and more people were playing. By the time the cards arrived in the stores, preorders taken by those stores had just about covered the entire print run. In many stores, their entire stock of the expansion set was sold on the day it was released, in June of 1994. Others, realizing the growth in demand, took chances, and increased the prices beyond the regular retail prices. Some enterprising individuals purchased multiple boxes of booster packs, from stores, and soon afterwards, sold them for much more - and the speculator became rooted in Magic.

Right around this time, players found a suprising change. In an attempt to try and rebalance the game, and give players the chance to get a hold of some of the cards from the first two expansions that by now were long gone, the basic set, known as Unlimited, disappeared. It was soon replaced with a new version of the basic set, which would be called the "Revised Edition". Approximately 10% of the cards from Unlimited were no longer included in the set, whether due to being overpowered, underpowered, or just a random choice. Those cards were replaced with cards from the Arabian Nights and Antiquities sets. They also reworded cards here and there, to make them clearer. The biggest change in the wording was that cards that used to use the word tap were changed to have a tap symbol on them - at the time, a while circle with the letter "T" tilted to one side.

One major change that's been made since then has been the organization of expansion sets into "blocks". After the release of Ice Age, sets were released in groups of three - one large, stand-alone expansion, plus two smaller expansions, all part of the same storyline, and considered a block. Tournament play is sometimes restricted to cards of a certain block, and blocks are used to decide what sets are allowed in tournaments. They also tend to introduce new abilities in the stand-alone expansions, and continue using them throughout the rest of the block, dropping them afterwards.

The Storyline:

The basic storyline connecting all of the cards and sets in the Magic: The Gathering storyline is the multiverse of Dominia. Dominia consists of various "planes", or universes. Incredibly powerful wizards, known as planeswalkers, have discovered how to travel between these planes, how to summon creatures and forces from one of these planes to another, and how to tap into the magic of the land, known as "mana".

This mana comes in five "colors", with each color having a different purpose, a different place, in the scheme of things.

  • Black- Black is the color of death, of evil, of the swamps. Undead creatures are often black, and spells related to the night and to pain and suffering are black. Black spells often have the tendency to turn on their caster. Its natural opponents are green (life/death) and white (good/evil)

  • Blue - Blue is the color of water and air, and of magic itself. Creatures of the water and the air are blue, including creatures of those elements themselves. Spells that play with magic directly are also blue, such as ones that counter the casting of a spell. Its natural opponents are green (the natural/the ethereal) and red (fire/water)

  • Green - Green is the color of life, of nature. Animals, wildlife, and the forces of nature are all at the command of the green mage. Life and growth are also the realms of green. Its natural opponents are blue (the ethereal/the natural) and black (death/life)

  • Red - Red is the color of fire, of chaos. Creatures born of fire, and living in chaos will usually be red, such as orcs and dwarves. Red commands the forces of fire and lightning, able to send those forces to do damage to a target. Its natural opponents are blue (water/fire) and white (order/chaos).

  • White - White is the color of good, order, and healing. Things traditionally thought of as the realm of God and good are white, such as Angels. There are also a number of spells to heal damage and protect. Its natural opponents are red (chaos/order) and black (evil/good).

In this multiverse, a single world known as Dominaria plays host to the most powerful, and most well known of the planeswalkers. There were two continents on the planet, with one of them, Teirsaire, being the home to most of the wars and problems, but with a southern continent known as Sarpadia..

One of the biggest events in the history of Dominaria was The Brothers' War, the setting for the Antiquities expansion set. Urza and Mishra, a pair of brothers who had worked together studying and creating artifacts, when they stumbled across a stone from the ancient peoples known as the Thran. The stone split in two, each brother having the power of one, and suddenly desiring the power of both. Thus, the war started, as each wanted the other stone. Horrible machines were made, and the planet suffered from the ceaseless war.

After a great artifact, the Sylex was used in the war, debris and dust clouded the skies. The sun disappeared behind endless clouds, and the temperature started to drop. The suffering of the people gave power to an overzealous church, which started a holy backlash against magic-users. The few magic users that survived the onslaught of the church went underground, and they kept magic alive in Dominaria. This was the setting for The Dark.

Meanwhile on Sarpadia, the ever-increasing cold is putting pressure on various civilizations, and they begin to fight for food, for their survival. This is the setting for Fallen Empires. Dwarves and Orcs fight each other, as homarids in the seas start attacking the merfolk. Nature tries to drive off a fungus covering everything, and a dark order in the swamps is suffering as the slaves they bred are fighting back.

Finally, Dominaria enters an Ice Age. The lands become covered in snow and ice, and great cultures collapse. The remaining people struggle to survive, as nature slowly reclaims the planet.

Card Sets:

The Basic Sets:

Expansion Sets:


Other Sets

Special Releases

The History of Magic,
The Crystal Keep,
Magic: The Gathering Home Page,