Magic: The Gathering and Keyforge creator Richard Garfield on 35 years of making the games he wants to play
And the connection between poisonous mushrooms and Magic.
Nobody wants to play the games of Richard Garfield more than Richard Garfield.
“What often drives my game design for publication is games that I would like to play but can't find,” the legendary designer, best known for his creation of seminal TGC Magic: The Gathering, says.
Magic: The Gathering was Garfield’s first published game, but it was far from his first innovative design for the tabletop. After creating his first game as a teenager, in his early twenties he created Robot Wars-a-like board game Robo Rally, in which players program fighting machines with lines of cards and watch the chaotic outcome unfold simultaneously. Completed in 1985, it wouldn’t be published until almost a decade later, following MTG’s groundbreaking debut in 1993.
Although Magic: The Gathering has remained Garfield’s most singularly influential and successful creation to date, he’s continued to produce experiences that take board game design and the tabletop hobby as a whole in a brand new direction - such as asymmetrical network-hacking collectible card game Netrunner, later reborn as the beloved (and sorely departed) living card game Android: Netrunner - as well as widely successful if less groundbreaking mainstream hits, including dice-rolling monster battle royale King of Tokyo. (There’s also been the odd release that has flown completely under the radar - only 19 people own 2010’s Let’s Jet, according to BoardGameGeek, while its 2011 sequel Let’s Drive has just eight owners.)
From a board game about leading a clan to rabbits to take over a fantasy land (Bunny Kingdom) to his reimagining of the trivia game (the recent Half Truth), Garfield’s games vary widely in theme and gameplay. The element that connects almost all of them is the designer’s continual effort to explore something new that interests him.
“With Bunny Kingdom, Treasure Hunter and Monster Carnival I was looking for more drafting,” Garfield suggests. “With Half Truth I was looking for a trivia game that didn't intimidate players.”
This effort has ventured outside of cardboard, with Garfield working on several digital games over the years. One of the most recent and prominent is Artifact, the much-anticipated digital card game based on the highly popular multiplayer PC game Dota 2.
“In general I like working on paper games much more than digital games because of the number of people involved and time it takes,” Garfield says. “Digital design allows some radically more complicated mechanics, but often the simpler mechanics work better and it is easy to use the computer as a crutch.
“I am excited by the relationship between paper and digital. The digital world opens up a lot of cool design space - and the popularity of games is ensuring we have a sophisticated enough audience to enjoy it. I don't think paper games are threatened by this, however, because one of the reasons tabletop games are so popular is that face-to-face play has become even more special in this day when so much of our interaction is mediated by screens.”
What often drives my game design is games that I would like to play but can't find.
While few of the collectible card games to follow in the wake of Garfield’s genre-defining creation have survived the last two decades - including several also designed by Garfield throughout the nineties - MTG itself continues to boast a strong following, helped by a recent digital counterpart in Magic: The Gathering Arena. The game’s revolutionary format has stretched beyond the tabletop, too, with the rise of loot boxes and microtransactions in digital mobile apps and video games owing more than a little to the card game’s randomised booster packs.
The format has also generated controversy in both the real and virtual worlds, with accusations of requiring players to spend money to hunt for particular cards and the constant ‘power creep’ that eventually makes older cards less viable against newer sets. (Artifact was heavily criticised for its “pay to win” reliance on purchasing cards and packs, leading to a significant drop-off in players just months after release.) Other concerns surround the way that a game such as MTG’s ‘meta’ - an evolving list of card combinations, play styles and deck types determined by the community - can be dominated by a relatively small number of the game’s cards, forcing players to learn how to build a Magic: The Gathering deck in a particular way to remain evenly-matched in tournaments and fork out for the valuable cards needed.
“I have no problem with randomised boosters or deck construction provided the cards people feel they must get to compete are not too hard to get, which is generally a simple matter of making common cards powerful and not letting too many rarer cards into the 'must-have' category,” Garfield reflects today on the format. “[However,] I don't like being told how to play. These days the community of a trading card game will often determine what decks are viable. They may or may not be right - but it is hard to experiment when everyone is getting good at a few strong decks.”
25 years after inventing trading card games with MTG, Garfield decided to reinvent them. 2018 card game Keyforge stands in stark contrast to the designer’s magnum opus. Instead of encouraging players to amass a huge number of cards by collecting booster packs and build a custom deck from their library, Keyforge took control out of the players’ hands. Keyforge’s decks are automatically generated by an algorithm that draws from hundreds of different cards in each set. (There have been four so far, the latest being this year’s upcoming Mass Mutation.) The cards in each deck are stamped with a procedurally-created name (the amusing and ridiculous monikers include the likes of “Boss Lethafall, the Preposterous Butcher” or “X. Herrera, Barstow’s Normcore Eyes”), stopping players from swapping cards in and out of their deck; what they get in a pack is what they have, for good.
“There is an awful lot of play that is untapped in a typical constructed environment - and that is what I was trying to get at with Keyforge,” explains Garfield. “Every time I play a draft or make a deck and I see a 'fun' card I know I shouldn't play with because it isn't powerful enough - I feel like there is something wrong. I often like picking a deck and trying to win with it - rather than picking a deck with the best chance of winning.”
The number of different deck makeups possible led publisher Fantasy Flight Games to dub Keyforge the world’s first “unique deck game”, insisting that no two players would ever have the exact same list of cards. (The publisher claims there are billions of potential combinations.) Whereas the meta of other card games saw players’ decks become increasingly similar, Keyforge forced a level of deck diversity at the cost of player customisation.
“With Keyforge I wanted the immense variety in a TCG without the deck-building, which I was tired of,” Garfield says.
“A game like Keyforge makes it tough for a ‘one size fits all’ strategy guide to emerge - every deck has its strengths, weaknesses and peculiarities. Weirdly, there is noticeably more variety in decks even though in a TCG technically a larger variety of decks could be played - because in practice they aren't played.”
Garfield says the biggest challenge with Keyforge - once the ambitious technical requirements of producing endless unique decks had been solved, something that took “a long time” - was going against the familiar trading card game format he had helped cement with Magic: The Gathering. Players involved in testing the game found it hard to accept that decks couldn’t be adjusted, and would dismiss the game before even sitting down to play. Many of those that did give Keyforge’s gameplay a go would then complain that the game was unfair if they lost - quickly blaming the deck they were given, instead of accepting the typical curve of learning a new game.
“The decks certainly weren't fair - it is part of the game concept that really can't be avoided - but you don't learn much if you assume your play is perfect, and there is so much different in the mechanics of Keyforge that players of other games - like Magic or [digital card game] Hearthstone - often bring in strategic assumptions that just don't work,” Garfield insists.
Following his own experience with Keyforge, Garfield expresses worry that convincing players to give new and unfamiliar games a proper shot has become harder as a whole.
“One of my current concerns in board game culture is how fast players draw conclusions about games,” he says. “My favourite thing about games has always been that the best ones get better with time and go to unexpected places.
“Skim the comments and reviews on [BoardGameGeek] and they are littered with people talking about imbalances after far too little time. It often seems players pick a strategy the first time they play and if something unforeseen happens the game has a problem that should have been designed around.”
One of my current concerns is how fast players draw conclusions about games. My favourite thing about games has always been that the best ones get better with time and go to unexpected places.
Garfield says that games with a large amount of gameplay variety such as 1970s classic Cosmic Encounter, often cited as one of the best board games ever made and a key influence on Magic: The Gathering, have become “dangerous to make” as a result.
“Recently I have begun to suspect that this culture may excessively narrow the sort of games that are made,” he says. “Designers are encouraged by this to create games that are tightly constrained so that players get what they expect and are not surprised except perhaps in the minimal amount required to make it feel like a new game.”
Asked which of his own games Garfield himself feels has been overlooked, he highlights SpyNet. Released in 2017, the two player game involves players drafting cards representing agents, missions and money from a row of facedown piles in the middle of the table, needing to add to the stacks in order to view cards later in the row - potentially handing an advantage to their opponent to gain beneficial cards for themselves.
“I was surprised that game didn't get more of a following,” he says. “It is a team card game, like Tichu. There are not many of those and I thought that those that love that category would be happy to see it. Also, it plays quite well with two players. I think part of the problem might have been that it was presented primarily as a team game - a strategy I supported - because the team play in many games seems like an afterthought. Unfortunately this had the unexpected effect that players didn't take the two-player version seriously - which is ironic because it was designed for two and that is where the majority of my play has been.”
With players increasingly sticking with what they know, games such as Garfield’s that aim to go beyond the expected and offer something new face greater and greater challenges in turning the direction of the growing tabletop gaming hobby. Would a game as wildly varied and demanding of players’ commitment as Magic: The Gathering fade into obscurity today?
Whether his next game is as ambitious and groundbreaking as Magic: The Gathering or not, Garfield will continue to create the games he wants to play - for himself if nobody else.
“I like building on ideas I see and tweaking games for new experiences. Many of my interests never end up being published or are even intended for publication,” Garfield says.
“I am constantly getting new interests, though often that doesn't mean I lose interest in old topics.”