Once Upon a Time

Posted in Feature on June 1, 2009

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

This is Origins Story Week, where we're going back to the beginning of Magic. Originally, I was going to dedicate my article to the story of how Magic came to be, but this week's feature article covers most of that material. So if you don't know how Magic came to be, please check it out. After some thought, I decided to turn this into a more personal column and tell the story of how I came to discover Magic. A lot of people think I've been with the game from its beginning, but I have not. I started just like all of you as a gamer who stumbled upon what would become my favorite game ever.

The First Buzz

We start our story by traveling back to July of 1993. In 1989, I graduated from Boston University's College of Communication and moved to Los Angeles to pursue my dream of writing for television. My goal was to ultimately create television series. I love the medium of television and was enthralled by the idea of creating an environment that you could tell 100+ stories in. (The best idea I feel I've ever come up with was for a television series that I never got to produce—as you will see, something sidetracked my whole "create a career writing for television" thing.)

I moved to Los Angles in June of 1989 and for the next two years I worked as a "runner", a.k.a. a production assistant, getting my feet wet, learning about the industry and networking. (For more on my life as a runner, check out my column Tales of a Runner.) This led me to meeting the woman who would be my first agent, Talia. She was the wife of one of the executives at the last company I worked for. Talia signed me on as her very first client. One of my first pitches was for "Roseanne." It went so well that I ended up getting put on staff. For those of you who don't know how Hollywood works, turning a routine spec pitch (trying to sell the show an individual episode) into a staff job rarely happens, so out of the gate, things were looking good.

But then came the dominoes. "Roseanne" was overstaffed (I was the thirteenth writer) and when the axe came, I was first to go. Talia, meanwhile, decided that she didn't want to be an agent, and thus began my downward agent spiral. My next agent, Marcie, was the woman whose agency Talia had joined. As I wasn't a client Marcie had handpicked, I was simply not her priority and she soon passed me along to another agent. (Interestingly, she gave me a choice, and for the only time in my life I made a major decision based on my head rather than my instinct ... and got burned badly for it.) My next agent, Doug, was as stereotypical an agent as I've ever met. When I see agents parodied on television, I always have to remind myself that I had that agent. Then Doug got fired and I was passed along to my fourth agent, a woman who didn't want me as a client. Yes, I had traveled from favorite pet to "guy who can't get his calls answered."

In July of 1993, I was in the middle of all the dominoes falling. I had the occasional pitch (I had the honor of pitching multiple times to Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) but most of my time was spent writing spec television and movie scripts. (A "spec" script is something you write on your own hoping to use to either convince others to hire you or, in the case of movies, outright sell.) Writing is a solitary profession and I was getting both lonely and stir-crazy. I decided to get a part-time job to get out of the house and actually interact with other people. As I still had a bunch of my "Roseanne" money (employment for writers in Hollywood is touch and go, but they do pay you well when you get work) I chose to prioritize getting a job I would enjoy doing. That job ended up being working in a game store called The Game Keeper (and yes, years later Wizards would buy this retail chain.)

Thus in July of 1993 I was working in a game store. I first heard of Magic from customers who came in asking if we carried it. (We didn't at the time although later I would be the impetus for our store acquiring it.) The game, it turns out, was hard to find. Here's why. Before Magic hit it big, Wizards of the Coast was a small little game company dedicated to a few lesser-known roleplaying games (Talislanta and The Primal Order). When Wizards first starting printing Magic, they didn't print all that much as they didn't know what they could sell and as a small company they had limited resources. No one could have predicted the phenomenon Magic was going to become.

At the time, the majority of Magic's sales came from a tour that Peter Adkison (Wizards of the Coast's co-founder and its first CEO) did where they drove all over the West Coast doing demos in game stores. Peter had great faith in the game, so much so that he believed he could get store owners to buy it if they just played it. Magic wouldn't hit it big on a national scale until August when the game showed up and became the darling of that year's GenCon. In fact, the game only premiered in July of 1993 at the Origins convention. The people coming into my store were connected gamers who had picked up on the game's earliest buzz.

As each new customer came in, I would quiz them about what they knew about the game. None of them had cards, so a lot of what I heard was speculation. Nonetheless I was entranced by the concept. Now I wanted to get my hands on the game. The only problem was that, like my customers, I didn't know where to get it.

The First Sighting

Remember that in 1993, the Internet was in its infancy. Usenet existed but I hadn't yet been introduced. There just wasn't a means by which to hunt down information such as where this game, which no one had, was being sold. I tried going to other game stores but to no avail. Luckily, I knew that I was going someplace that would be filled with people that probably knew: a little convention called San Diego Comic-con.

San Diego was only a few hours drive from Los Angeles and my WGA (Writer's Guild of America) card allowed me access as a professional, so I had made it a yearly trek. (I'm happy to say a few years ago I restarted the tradition; the con had grown a little in my absence.) If any one had information on Magic, surely this would be the place.

What I found was that a lot of people had "heard of it." No one had product to sell. Most had never even seen it. Then while searching through back bins of comics I heard a woman mention the words "her Magic deck." I remember my head shooting up and saying, "You have Magic cards?"

She said, "Yes."

I said, "For sale?"

She replied, "No. I just have a deck I bought last week.

My response: "Would you mind if I looked at it?"

What followed would be the first time I ever laid my eyes on Magic cards. I'm sure I'm romanticizing things but all I can remember is how awesome the cards looked. As I slowly fanned through them, I was taken by the art and the names. The rules text didn't quite make sense to me but I understood enough words—"flying", "damage", "enchantment"—that I got a hint of what the game was about.

When I asked the woman if she could explain how the game was played, she said she couldn't as she didn't have a rule book. All her cards had come from boosters. The starters had long been sold out. Did she know of cards being sold at the Comic-con? No.

The only thought running through my mind was: I have to get this game.

The First Sale

Los Angeles has a number of game conventions that run each year (at least they did when I lived there; can an LA reader let me know if they're still going on). One, called OrcCon, was always held in the late summer at a hotel near the airport. As I walked in the door of Orccon, I heard two guys rush by me saying "they have Magic." I followed them. And there at a table in the dealer's room was a man selling starters and boosters of Magic. These were Alpha starters and boosters, because at that time that's all that existed.

Here's the part of the story that hurts. I was able to buy as much as I wanted and I bought a starter and three boosters. My thought process was that $20 seemed like enough to spend on a game that I didn't even know how to play yet. I could have bought a box, multiple boxes. How do I know? Because I saw others do so. My thought at the time was "Really? That seems like overkill. It's just a game."

I took my cards and found a table. It was time to see what I'd bought. What were my rares of my very first starter? Stasis and Darkpact. (Alpha starters only had two rares.)



I don't remember everything in my first pack but I do remember that the color that leapt out at me was green. For starters, it had Craw Wurm, clearly the most awesome thing in my starter. It also had War Mammoth and Giant Spider. My green creatures were so much bigger than everything else that I knew they must be the best. Remember, I still didn't know how to play yet. The one other thing I remember was that I thought the artifacts looked really cool. I didn't have many, as Alpha had no common artifacts.

Once I had my cards, I decided it was time to learn how to play. Luckily, there were others at the convention who already knew how to play and they were more than willing to teach. I don't remember my teacher's name, but I'll call him Stu. Stu was about ten years older than me (I was twenty-six at the time). Stu had clearly not been playing the game long as no one had been playing long. Looking back, Stu didn't have the greatest grasp of the rules. After his instruction I still had only a vague idea of how to play.

My favorite memory of the lesson was this: When teaching me how to lay out my cards, Stu stressed that I had to keep my cards spread far apart from one another. When I asked why, he explained that he had heard of a card that destroyed any card it touched. He had never seen it (obviously the card Chaos Orb, as I would later learn), but word had spread of its infamy.

Chaos Orb

This story reinforces an important point about my early dealings with Magic. Back then as I explained, the internet was young and information didn't flow all that freely. In addition, Wizards had made a decision that they wanted to foster the mystery of the cards and thus, they didn't say what the cards were. They didn't have checklists or collection numbers. They wouldn't even confirm rarities of cards. Back in 1993, the way you learned about cards was by seeing the cards of other players, most often when they entered play.

This, of course, led to much rumor-mongering, so in context, the Chaos Orb musing makes perfect sense. Obviously someone that Stu knew or, more likely, someone who knew someone that Stu knew lost to a Chaos Orb because their cards were all near each other, as one would expect them to be.

Anyway, I got my first lesson from Stu. When all was said and done, I still didn't know how to play. I had some ideas, some right and many wrong, but I hadn't quite put it all together. Luckily, I had my secret weapon. My starter had come with an instruction booklet.

The First Read

Before I continue, if you've never seen the Alpha rulebook, you can take a look at it if you click this link. I'll be here when you get back.

I knew nobody who played Magic. The Alpha Rulebook was to be my only teacher. While it has its issues, it at least knew more than Stu. I also had no one to play against, as none of my friends had any Magic cards, and few were even gamers. (Magic would do wonders to expanding my list of game-playing friends.) so my first full game of Magic was played against myself. I think I had a mono-green deck (with Plains doubling as Forests) against a black-red deck (forty cards each, as that was the deck size initially). The black-red deck never stood a chance. Did I mention I had a Craw Wurm?

The rulebook taught me most of what I needed to know, but there were trouble spots. As an example, for the life of me I couldn't figure out what mana burn did. When would you have extra mana in your mana pool? If you couldn't count? A month or two later, I would see Mana Flare for the first time and finally get it. (More on mana burn in a column a few weeks from now.)

Mana Flare

There were some other concepts that were a little vague on what exactly they meant. For instance, here's what the rulebook says about protection:


Protection: A creature with protection from one or more colors of magic cannot be affected by any magic of those colors. For example, a creature with protection from blue cannot be blocked by blue creatures, dealt damage by blue creatures, or enchanted, damaged, or otherwise affected by blue cards. Damage done by such a creature cannot be prevented using blue cards. Note that the creature does not have this ability until it is successfully summoned. If, for example, you are summoning a creature with protection from blue magic, your rival can still cast a blue interrupt that affects the summoning spell.

Oh, so it "can't be affected." Note, by the way, that under this explanation Black Knight's damage could not be prevented by a Circle of Protection: Black. (Hmm, perhaps that's why Alpha left CoP: Black out.) And I think Wrath of God didn't kill Black Knight. I think.

Nonetheless I pieced together how things worked. It turns out I had a bunch of it wrong, but I wouldn't learn that until I started playing other humans, which incidentally leads me into my next quest with Magic: finding people to play with.

The First Stakeout

It didn't take long for me to become hooked on the game. Once again, this was before I had played against other people (save Stu) and had a real firm grasp of the rules. One of the skills that's important for a designer is the ability to see potential. Ideas are seldom great in their first incarnation, so it's important for a designer to be able to understand what something could become. That's what excited me about Magic. I hadn't played a game yet (well, one where I understood what I was doing and was playing against another human) and I was struggling to even understand it all, yet it had me more excited than any other game I had ever played. I remember calling up my dad that first weekend explaining how I believed this game was going to be the next big thing: I told him, "it's going to be as big as Dungeons & Dragons."

The next big hurdle was finding opponents. How do I find people to play when people can't even get their hands on the game? Unfortunately, due to my small initial purchase, I only had two decks and neither was particularly strong. I decided that the key to my problem was to get my friends to buy some cards of their own. The catch was that no one had cards for sale. The convention was the only place I'd ever see cards for sale and even those sold out on day one.

Eventually, I found a game store that carried Magic. They didn't have any in stock of course, but they actually ordered it. In a few weeks, the next shipment was coming in (what would later become known as Beta). His only advice to me was, "Get here early."

The store opened up at 9 a.m. so I showed up at 8 a.m. just to be sure. I was fifth in line. Luckily, the store owner understood the phenomenon that Magic was becoming and had ordered several cases. I bought two boxes of starters and two boxes of boosters. My plan was that I'd be the store for my friends. They could buy the product from me. (At cost—these were my friends.) I ended up selling about half of my stash to my friends. None of them got hooked and thus none of them played. (I said they weren't gamers.) Months later I bought all the cards back.

As for myself, to keep me from ripping everything open, I set a limit. I got to open one pack a day. I think this did a lot for my current understanding of the average customer. When you only get one pack, you focus on every card. Each day, I would come home (for some reason, I let myself open it in the late afternoon or early evening) and rip open that day's booster. I would absorb the pack card by card trying to see what new aspects the game had. Once again, other than a handful of Stu's cards, I had never seen anything but what I owned, meaning that each pack was a world of discovery. Those months were the most excitement I've ever had opening Magic boosters.

Of all the cards I opened up, what excited me the most?

Thicket Basilisk


Not only was it green and thus went into my best deck, but it killed everything. Okay, not Walls, but by what I had seen of Walls by that point I wasn't too worried about the limitation. What I remember most was just being blown away by the concept that a card could just go off the rims like that. It killed anything. (Okay, almost anything.) The concept not only seemed crazy powerful to me, but it really excited me that new cards could do such radical things. This experience is one of the things that pushed me years later to keyword the deathtouch ability.

My First (Real) Game and First Tournament

It's very easy to take for granted the Organized Play system Magic has set up. I don't think the average player understands how awesome it is that they can basically find games with people they don't know. I'm aware of this because I remember when it wasn't true. I was dying to play against other people and I couldn't find anyone. Finally, there was a game convention. This wasn't as big as OrcCon. In fact, if memory serves me, the convention had less than fifty attendees, but half of them played Magic. I was in heaven.

There was even an impromptu tournament. I assume I played my killer green deck. I don't remember how I did. I didn't know how to play, so I doubt I did all that well, but that wasn't the point. I got to play Magic. With other people. And I got to make my first contacts, my first Magic friends. This led to me getting introduced into the Los Angeles Magic scene. It was very small at first, but with time it grew, and somehow got centered in a city, Costa Mesa, far south of Los Angeles.

And from there leads to just about everything else that's currently important in my life. I got my dream job where I met my dream girl who I married and now have my dream family in my dream house. All because I took a fancy to a weird game that my customers kept asking about.

That was my introduction to Magic. My question for all of you (in the thread or my email) is what was yours? I only ask that you keep it brief (this from the man who just wrote over three thousand words), as I hope to have a lot of people tell their story.

Join me next week when I talk about the tweet life.

Until then, may Magic have brought you as much joy to your life as it's brought to mine.

Mark, Lora, Rachel, Adam & Sarah Rosewater

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