Richard Garfield has been the godfather of trading card games since reinventing the idea of a card game with Magic: The Gathering 30 years ago. Three decades on, the influence of MTG’s engrossing gameplay and groundbreaking use of booster packs can be seen in everything from other hit TCGs such as Pokémon and the recent Disney Lorcana to the randomised loot boxes and digital collectible cards in video games. Magic: The Gathering itself continues to thrive with blockbuster crossovers and a calendar packed with regular set releases.
While Garfield himself moved on from Magic: The Gathering many years ago, the designer has been behind many of MTG’s would-be successors in the time since, creating the likes of collectible card game Vampire: The Eternal Struggle just a year later and the Star Wars Trading Card Game in the early noughties. (Star Wars plans to give TCGs another shot with next year's Unlimited.)
The designer has also continued to push the boundaries of what a card game can be. Just a few years after Magic, he designed the beloved asymmetrical gameplay of hacker-versus-megacorp TCG Netrunner. The original Netrunner’s commercial performance struggled to live up to the acclaim of its gameplay - considered by many to be Garfield’s true magnum opus - and it was short-lived. After more than a decade out of print it was re-released as Android: Netrunner, one of the earlier living card games from publisher Fantasy Flight Games, and often competes with Magic: The Gathering for the title of the greatest card game ever made. Its second cancellation in 2018 has since blossomed into a community-driven reincarnation for the acclaimed card game, with fans producing new cards and decks themselves to keep the spirit of Netrunner alive.
While his output on the tabletop has rarely slowed since Magic, Garfield has recently embraced the potential of digital games, both working on digital-only card games - including the pre-Hearthstone evolving card game SolForge and Artifact, a spin-off from hugely popular PC game Dota 2 - and pioneering the use of algorithms in making innovative physical card games.
In KeyForge, Garfield pioneered the concept of a ‘unique deck game’. The card game used an algorithm to generate custom cards in one-of-a-kind decks for every player, promising that no deck would ever appear in the same form twice. The idea is expanded in one of his most recent games, SolForge Fusion, which allows players to create their own one-off deck from two separate halves - each algorithmically-generated to be completely unique.
Between his most beloved and influential games, Garfield has designed many more card games - some of which haven’t seen quite the same share of spotlight. With Magic: The Gathering marking its 30th anniversary this summer and Garfield’s latest project SolForge Fusion returning to Kickstarter for its own digital adaptation, we asked the designer to take us through five card games spanning his three-decade career in his own words - from Magic through Netrunner and beyond.
Magic: The Gathering (1993)
It's still overwhelming. We knew we had a special game when we published it, because the playtesters had been so hooked on the game for years. And two years after they had started, the playtesters were still playing with the same set of cards! But we also knew - I also knew - that was no guarantee for success. There are many games I love that never really went anywhere. So to see it constantly exceed expectations has been overwhelming.
When Magic first came out, I felt like it was a new form of game and there should be many types of trading card game - like there were many board games. I learned over the following few years that it's a little harder than that, because this nature of game is so absorbing to the players that it's hard for them to play the number of them that they do with board games. So there have been, for a long time, not so many. But there's no reason why a lot of them really couldn't exist if the audience is interested.
When Magic first came out, I felt like it was a new form of game and there should be many types of trading card game - like there were many board games.
It's been really fun to see the pace on them pick up. The design sensibility has very much matured and you have some very clean designs coming out, some very exciting ideas in that space. It's been terrific to sort of follow it from even the first digital games like Hearthstone, and see how streamlined they were able to take it. I love following games in general and then certainly trading card games in particular.
It's hard not to feel appreciative about both the audience of Magic and Magic's success, as it allowed me to pursue games full-time. And I've seen it guide a lot of other game designers and launch a lot of careers. It's just been a pleasure to be able to follow the threads that that game has given me to all sorts of fun game design places.
Netrunner (1996)/Android: Netrunner (2012)
The design of Netrunner was an interesting project. It was back when I thought there were going to be as many trading card games as there were board games. I was trying to make something very different than Magic.
I played around with a lot of designs and eventually settled on the one that we used for Netrunner. It was very well received and people loved it. But it also didn't get the traction it needed to really keep up.
It was at that point that I began to think about game designs as, in some sense, having an operating system. The more you change that operating system, the more disservice you were doing to your players; it really had to justify it. While I really liked the mechanics of Netrunner, it wasn't easy for a Magic player to step into it because it was so different. And so that hurt the game. The game that came after that, BattleTech, I intentionally said, "This is on the Magic operating system." And players could join it much more easily.
That said, if you invest the time and get into the game, it’s got some very different things going on. One of the things I was very proud of with Netrunner was that in Magic, it often felt like the deck played you. But in Netrunner, you always play the deck. You're always in this position of trying to figure out what your opponent's up to and working your way around that. You get hints of that in Magic, but it's not nearly as much front-and-centre. Netrunner is much closer to, say, poker. Whereas Magic is closer to chess, I guess. I don't know if that's a fair analogy, but things are more on the table.
Netrunner is much closer to poker, whereas Magic is closer to chess.
All these games - trading card games (as with original Netrunner) and living card games (as with Android: Netrunner) - I call them ‘massively modular games’. I'm kind of agnostic as to the business models around it and how it reaches the players, provided the players are getting a good deal out of it. That is: significant play value.
I love the randomised boosters. In particular, I like them when players are playing in very limited environments, so then the rarity is important, or when they're drafting the cards. But if they're playing in an environment where they can get all the cards, then the randomisation doesn't do anything for me, it's a disservice to the players. So then I like the living card games.
A lot of things were done right with Netrunner. But one of the things that wasn't was that, from its outset, it would have been a better living card game than trading card game. I don't think I really understood what made a good trading card game then as well as I do now. So that was a much better place for it to be.
SpyNet (2017)/Shadow Blades (2023)
I still think that SpyNet flew under the radar. It acts as a poster child for me for games that missed their audience. It's perhaps the one that I feel saddest about from my own collection. But there's plenty that I don't think have found their audience, and there's many games I've found and love which I don't think have found their audience either. So this isn't a Richard problem. This is sort of a games lining up and getting attention in this very busy age problem.
There is a new version of SpyNet coming out: Shadow Blades. Thank goodness they didn't take the name which I suggested - and my wife told me to take back - which was Shadow Dancer. Shadow Blades is done by a Korean game company. It's exactly the same mechanically. But it has another chance to find the audience that it didn't find before. Even though I liked the art for SpyNet, it was very divisive. I certainly don't think that helped. I think that people will like Shadow Blades' art more broadly.
I've had plenty of games that have been published after they've stopped being published, but they're always going to a fanbase, like Robo Rally or Netrunner. Shadow Blades/SpyNet is the only time where there wasn't an audience, and they're giving it another shot.
SpyNet acts as a poster child for me for games that missed their audience. It's perhaps the one that I feel saddest about from my own collection.
With SpyNet in particular, any good game player will realise there's bad beats. You shouldn't dwell on those, but you should examine them and see whether there's any way you could have done better.
In the things which we could have done better with SpyNet - besides this divisive art - was it was presented as a four-person game, two-vs-two. That was because the two-vs-two was really good. A lot of games, it always feels like an afterthought. But putting it front-and-centre made people think that it wasn't meant to be two-person, which is actually the way I play it the most and the way it was designed.
The second thing is a little more subtle. The game is very good when you play it; the better you know it and more seriously play it, the better it gets. But when people start playing and each special card has this text on it, they go into this mode of mind where they're having the deck play them rather than going into the frame of mind of 'Let's try to figure this out, let's try to anticipate what's in the deck'. You can't really do that until you've played a few times, so it feels much more random than it will after a few games.
KeyForge is certainly a project that was very close to my heart. I began working on the concept for KeyForge back in the aughts.
This characteristic of Magic where the more players got into it and got into the tournaments, the more it became a constructed game and the cards became a commodity - I mean, that's a good game. A lot of people love it and I enjoyed it as well. But it was clear that something was also being lost.
When people began playing the game at the beginning - and, in fact, when people play today and they play the first few times - they open up these decks and they've got treasures. They've got their own unique deck and they're playing against friends who've got their own unique decks. It's only after you play over a period of time that this begins to go away. I wanted to make a game that really embraced this idea of leagues, where everybody's got their own deck, their own unique collection of cards. That's where this came from.
Back when I was thinking about it first, printing technology just wasn't there. It couldn't do it. They might be able to put a unique number on the back of each card, but I wanted to actually have a unique back and I wanted to name all the decks, give them their own deck name. That's what we got with KeyForge. It was a really exciting project because it was such a new design area.
The balancing of KeyForge was a journey. We learned a lot along the way. We played around with a lot of different techniques for how to balance the cards. The game design itself helped mitigate some of the balancing problems. Because unlike Magic, and many other trading card games, KeyForge is a very card-cycling game. A lot of players wanted some sort of ability to sideboard, like in Magic, where between games you can swap in and out cards. I didn't want that because I want you to have to play with your good and your bad cards. But I did give them the ability to really cycle the cards efficiently.
I really embraced this idea that there had to be some really A+ common cards in all the suits, so that when people were playing they wouldn’t open a deck with all common cards and feel like, 'Oh I've lost the game.' Absolutely in the first printing of KeyForge, the most powerful cards were common. There were some big uncommon ones and rare ones as well. But almost every deck had these really broad bread-and-butter cards that were there and could be anticipated in other people's decks. I also didn't want to have it be so that you were ambushed by the unexpected powerful card. You would expect these powerful cards because they are playing a particular house, and they will probably have those cards.
The way that KeyForge sort of fell apart towards the end of its run with Fantasy Flight was heartbreaking.
The way that KeyForge sort of fell apart towards the end of its run with Fantasy Flight was heartbreaking. I really liked a lot of what Fantasy Flight did. I owe them a lot of gratitude for just taking the project on in the first place and doing such a good job with its production. However, the organised play was important and it kind of fell apart. It's partially their fault, but certainly partially COVID. Doing organised play for something like this is very different.
The other thing was I really wanted to see a digital version of the game that was designed to be a digital version. That didn't come about in time. It's also not clear to me what this algorithm breaking thing was. In the end, I don't know what happened. I didn't press too hard.
I am very optimistic about its new home with Ghost Galaxy. Chris Peterson is the person who thumbed-up the original game with Fantasy Flight. The fact that he formed this company, which specialised in this sort of printing, and then went to the effort to get back this game, it's terrific. It's in the best place it could be. The audience, to my eye, is very happy with what KeyForge gave them and are looking forward to seeing where it goes.
SolForge (2012)/SolForge Fusion (2022)
The history of SolForge is nuts. It came out a little before Hearthstone, around that same time. The game was designed by Stone Blade - Justin Gary and his company - and me. We designed it specifically to be a digital card game doing things which you couldn't do in paper - or that would be unpleasant to do on paper.
In particular, what we ended up doing is you had these cards which evolved into several different versions of themselves. That would be crazy to do with paper. The audience liked it a lot. But there were a lot of issues that were sort of beyond the scope of game design. Basically, technologically, we bit off more than we can chew.
Years later, Justin had this idea of bringing it to paper. I told him, basically, he was crazy. That's the entire reason it was digital; it was designed not to be able to put on paper. But what he saw was this idea in KeyForge of printing custom decks solved some of the issues that would have been there for making a paper version. I still thought it'd be too awkward, but he sent me some prototypes and I played them. There was some work to be done and it was a little more management than I would have wanted, but the play that I was getting out of it was definitely justifying what was there. So I went in with him and we designed SolForge Fusion.
SolForge Fusion is, like KeyForge, a unique deck game, except that it's different. It's got this very simple deck construction. You take two halves of the deck and you bung them together, like Smash Up. That's your deck. Like KeyForge, everybody's assets are unique because everybody's half-decks are unique. But you've got more customisation possible than in KeyForge, which has no customisation possible.
Now, of course, the dance has to complete with us making a digital version of SolForge Fusion. I don't know how many games have gone through that process, but can't be many.
Since it came from a digital version originally, it is going to be a very good digital experience. We have much more experience also with the technical side of things, which means that we can manage some of the difficulties we had before. We are planning to, for example, have significant single-player experiences so that people can dip their foot in and play these unique decks in a solo experience and then can go off and play. Also, it is going to be exactly the same game environment online as well. Your personal decks are going to be those that you play with digitally. We think that's going to be a really exciting environment.
There are a couple of things which are really motivating as a designer these days. One is that almost every game that I approach, I ask whether I could provide some sort of unique decks. One of the things I really like about that is there's a lot of games where, when you play them seriously, when you ask the experts what you should be doing, they will say, "Do this, play this character class, do this build and then use these strategies."
With a game where you have your own unique assets, there still is expert advice but it has to leave more room for the player. They can't say "play this character" because everybody's character is unique. They can't say "use this build" - it may not exist on your character. So they have to give you advice which is much more play-oriented and much more nuanced. It leaves a lot more room for the player, which is something I really like.