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This week we put the spotlight on tabletop designer Richard Garfield, best known for designing Magic: The Gathering. We take a look at his life, his career in game design, and his game design philosophy!

Caleb Compton, Blogger

July 7, 2020

11 Min Read

The following article is a reproduction. The original article, and over 100 more, can be found at RemptonGames.com.

Who is Richard Garfield?

Video transcript:

What’s up designers, and welcome back to Rempton Games. In today’s episode of History of Game Design we are going to be looking at the master of the multiverse, the tycoon of trading cards, the flying purple hippopotamus himself, Richard Garfield, PHD. As always, we are going to be taking a look at his life and career, as well as the process and philosophy behind his game designs. Without further ado, let’s get started.

Richard Garfield was born in Philadelphia in 1963. You could say that Garfield came from a lineage of success – his Great-Great Grandfather was President James Garfield, and his aunt Fay Jones was a well-known artist, whose work can be seen on the Magic card Stasis. It has also been claimed that his Great-uncle invented the Paper-clip, but I have been unable to verify this. Garfield’s father was an architect, and his career resulted in their family moving around a lot during Richard’s early childhood, before eventually settling in Oregon around 1975.


Richard Garfield's impact on the gaming industry

Like most game designers, Garfield was interested in games and puzzles for most of his childhood, but this interest didn’t become a passion until he was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons. Fascinated by the way Dungeons and Dragons stretched boundaries and blended the role of player and designer, Garfield began to fall in love with not just D&D but gaming in general. “My reaction was a bit different than many of my peers; rather than falling in love with Dungeons and Dragons I fell in love with games in general. I began to seek out and play all sorts of new games, traditional games, wargames, popular games, niche games, role playing games, and on and on. When I found a game that I didn’t immediately like, I would play it until I learned to appreciate what it did for its players. I studied games strategy books, and game history books. I designed my own games and fantasized about being a game designer”

I think it’s notable that Garfield was not only attracted to games that he personally liked playing, but was also interested in games that he didn’t personally enjoy, and would work to understand the appeal. I think it’s easy to try and only design the types of games that you like, but not every player has your same preferences and it can be important to understand those players as well.

Despite his interest, however, by the time Garfield got to college he didn’t really see game design as a viable career path. “After all, each day in the newspaper there were movie reviews and bestseller lists, but hardly anything about games. If games weren’t even big enough to get a bestseller list or review in the paper once a year, it must be pretty small potatoes.” Fortunately this didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for studying and designing games, and he chose to study combinatorial mathematics partially due to its usefulness in understanding game systems and partly because it’s just so much dang fun!

Just because he wasn’t pursuing game design as a career path doesn’t mean that he stopped designing games however – Garfield continued to design games and play them with his friends all throughout his college career. One of these games was RoboRally – a board game about programming robots to navigate a dangerous factory floor full of lasers, conveyer belts, and other dangerous obstacles. Garfield had designed RoboRally in 1985, but never really tried to get it published as he believed it would be too much “unpleasant work”.

One of Garfield’s gaming buddies, Mike Davis, must have really loved the game because he offered to do the work to help get the game published. Garfield agreed, saying he would give him half of the game if he did. Over the next several years Davis took the game from company to company trying to get it published, and while he got close a few times it always ended up being rejected because it didn’t fit within those companies existing lines of games. Undeterred, Davis decided to try pitching to a start-up instead, as there might be less baggage.

Richard Garfield's role in creating Magic: The Gathering

He approached Wizards of the Coast in 1991. Wizards at the time was a very young company that mostly published supplements for Role-Playing Games, and while they seemed interested in the game it was too expensive for them to publish.

They would, however, be able to publish a cheaper game – something mostly made of paper and cardboard. Specifically, as they mostly produced RPGs they asked for something that could be played quickly, in-between Role Playing sessions, and portable so it could be carried around conventions. Garfield had just the thing – an idea to combine games with Baseball cards. He combined this idea with an older game prototype he had called “Five Magics”, a fantasy card game inspired by the James Dean of board games, Cosmic Encounter. 

I find the early development period of Magic: The Gathering to be quite fascinating – it is probably in the top five on my “List of Places to go with a Time Machine”, right up there with the Empire Strikes Back premier and “Youtube in 2008 when it was still possible to grow a channel from scratch”. For this reason, I believe the early development of Magic probably deserves it’s own  “History of Game Design” somewhere down the line. For now, however, I’ll just hit the highlights.

Magic was under development for around two years, and during this time Garfield involved several different groups of play-testers in the development. Many of these playtesters, such as Skaff Elias or Barry Reich, would go on to become important figures in the history of the game.

Since this was a completely new genre their were tons of design problems that had to be solved, such as “how do you prevent players from filling their decks with nothing but the best cards” and “how do you create usable cards at a range of different scales and power levels”? Answering these sorts of questions led to the creation of vital mechanics such as the Mana system and the color pie.

Designing the core mechanics wasn’t the only problem Garfield and the early playtesters faced, however. They also had to create a large set of varied cards for players to discover, trade, and build their desks with. This also meant that he had to deal with problems of distribution – how would cards be separated by rarity, and how would the cards be organized into packs?

There were also legal issues involved. At the time the game was going to be released Wizards of the Coast was involved in a Lawsuit with Palladium Books involving one of their RPG supplements, so to protect Magic from the Lawsuit they originally published it under a separate company – Garfield Games. There were also legal concerns around the name of the game. For most of development the game was simply called “Magic”, but this was such a common word that it couldn’t really be trademarked. They tried changing the name to Manaclash, but found that most people were still stuck on referring to it as Magic. Eventually they decided to add “The Gathering” to the end, and this made the name distinctive enough to protect.

Despite all of these challenges, the game would finally be released publicly in August 1993, and very quickly became a massive success. The success of this initial release, known as “Alpha”, soon far outpaced expectations, and laid the foundation for the long-running popularity of this game which is still going strong after 27 years.

After publishing Alpha, Garfield mostly stepped back from designing Magic. He did design the game’s first expansion, Arabian Nights, and has contributed to several other expansions over the years including Ravnica: City of Guilds and Dominaria. However, Richard’s attention soon turned to other projects – after all, who would want to keep designing expansions for the same game forever?

After releasing Magic Garfield continued to work at Wizards of the Coast for the next 10-ish years. He was finally able to get RoboRally published in 1994, and it has received several expansions and re-releases in the years since. He also designed, either in whole or in part, several other early trading card games for Wizards of the Coast in the mid to late 90’s including Vampire: The Eternal Struggle, Netrunner, and the first Star Wars trading card game.

As lead designer he also helped shape the culture and design philosophy of the entire Research and Development department at Wizards into a more scientific process based on data rather than intuition.

However, in the early 2000’s Garfield left Wizards to become an independent designer. Since going solo he has worked on a number of notable games including the multiple Golden Geek award winning King of Tokyo in 2011, the unique deck card game Keyforge, and Artifact which….like most of it’s player base, let’s just leave that one alone.

Now that we have looked at his life and career, let’s take a closer look at Garfield’s philosophy towards making games. One interesting thing about being the creator of an entire genre is that much of Richard’s thoughts on the trading card genre have simply become established industry practice – it is basically impossible to make a new game in this space without being influenced by the work he has done.


One big lesson that can be taken from his designs, however, is not to be afraid of randomness. In an interview with Escapist Magazine, Garfield explains that, in his opinion, most digital games don’t have ENOUGH randomness – “One of the areas that interests me most in computer games is the lack of luck. Almost all computer games are extremely skill-based, in the sense that the most skilled player will almost always win. In paper games, from Scrabble to backgammon and bridge to poker, there are many games where the less-skilled player can win from time to time. And, extraordinarily, all these games have an immense amount of skill as well! Someday I hope to have a collection of games that I can play on computer with dabblers and experts at the same time that is comparable to the immense collection of paper games I have which accomplish that.”

Garfield doesn’t consider randomness or luck to be the opposite of skill, and his designs can make a good case for the argument that, when applied properly, randomness can actually make a game more skillful. Simply look at Magic: The Gathering – this game has a whole lot of luck involved, but it is also incredibly skillful. In fact, it is such a skill-intensive game that it has a thriving competitive tournament scene – a tournament scene that Garfield himself was instrumental in shaping.

“I have always loved serious analysis and play of games. I became convinced that the existence of these things doesn’t hurt the casual player, and in fact is a boon to them. The analogy we drew was from basketball and the NBA. A lot of players who play basketball at the YMCA have no dream of being in the NBA, and yet without a robust, serious game core, they would probably be playing something else. By steering the game in this direction, I think we added a lot to the breadth of its interest and its longevity.”

Helping develop an official system of competitive Magic was only one of the ways that Garfield helped shape the long-term development of this game, and fits well with his player-focused philosophy. “My main contribution to Magic during this time was constantly focusing on the players and trying to guide the decisions to maximize value to them, rather than the many competing forces like speculator, collector, distributor, shopkeeper, art enthusiast or story enthusiast. Powerful common cards, a strong tournament system, printing enough cards that the short-term speculators left – these are samples of the sort of decisions that I was a part of and pleased with. There were plenty of bad decisions made as well, but they have faded because, I think, the lessons got learned and we moved on.”

Richard Garfield's legacy and future plans

The last thing I can say about Richard Garfield is that he is a true scholar, and loves studying games. Whether this involves exploring the roots of an obscure ancient genre of games, or picking apart the rules of classic card games and rearranging them, Garfield seems to truly love learning about games.

Fortunately, he also seems to love teaching about them. Not only has he taught college courses on the subject, but he has also written a wealth of content on the topic of game design. These include his older columns, titled “Lost in the Shuffle”, as well as the book “Characteristics of Games” that he co-wrote with Skaff Elias, which would both be great places to start if you wanted to learn more about his thoughts on designing games.

That’s all I have for today. If you enjoyed this video please leave a like, and subscribe so you don’t miss more videos like this in the future. If you want to see more, you can check out my previous video where I show you how I programmed an AI to play Pokemon Emerald. There is also the previous entry in this series, where I focused on strategy video game designer Sid Meier. And join me next week for Part 5 of my “Evolution of Pokemon Designs” series. Until then, thank you so much for watching and I’ll see you all next time.

This piece has been lightly optimized in 2023, after its original publication.

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