Magic's Kingdom

IT MIGHT NOT HAVE WOWED NEW- ton, but what Richard Garfield, then a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, did over three months back in 1991 surely ranks among the great achievements by a mathematician, right up there with the discove ry that people will pay 18 percent interest on their credit cards if you call it 1i percent a month. What Garfield invented, more or less on a dare from a struggling Seattle game manufacturer called Wizards of the Coast, was the formula for a game based on an infinitely expandable line of merchandise. Taking advantage of the fact that even teenagers who live in their own fantasy worlds get real allowances, Magic: The Gathering has since its introduction in 1993 sold more than 2 billion game cards, gener ally in packs of 60 that retail for around $9. Since every pack of cards is different, Garfield says, ""the game is actually much bigger than the box it came in'' - or to put it another way, once hooked, you never run out of stuff to buy.

Garfield's other great feat was to give meaning to the lives of alienated misfits all over the world, who if not for Magic would probably be wasting their lives playing Dungeons & Dragons. People like the upstate New York teen who recently wrote to the game magazine InQuest thanking Garfield for ""creating a game that a poor kid with a hellish home life can use as a means of escape from the stresses of the real world.'' To bring the benefits of Magic into more such lives, Wizards of the Coast last week opened the supermarket-size prototype - in Seattle, naturally - of what may become a nationwide chain of game centers and video arcades, intended to emphasize the game's potential for fostering social intercourse. ""I've made a lot of friends, prob ably a thousand friends, through this game,'' said Tasheene Jones, an 18-year-old who regularly haunts the New York gaming parlor Neutral Ground. Wizards also recently announced the acquisition of TSR, which produces Dungeons & Dragons. And it has just i ntroduced a card game based on the comic strip ""Dilbert,'' hoping to go beyond the teenage market to that other great concentration of alienated Americans, grown-ups with jobs.

Behind this expansion, say analysts familiar with the company, is the suspicion that Magic in less than four years has become a ""mature'' product - a dreaded concept at Wizards' headquarters in a suburb of Seattle, where employees still stalk one another with Nerf-ball pistols. From its founding in 1990 as a three- man operation in the garage of CEO Peter Adkison, a young systems analyst at Boeing, the privately held Wizards grew, on the strength of Magic, to revenues estimated at $100 million la st year. But Adkison and company ""need new product lines, because their main pony is getting tired,'' says Wayne Godfrey, CEO of Wargames West, a major distributor of Magic cards. ""The market is becoming saturated.''

Which is, in a way, the measure of Garfield's success in harnessing the simple, innocent greed of sports-card collecting to the competitive impulse that leads people to spend $2,000 on a set of golf clubs tobeat the other players' brains in with. M agic is a strategy game set in a vaguely Arthurian science-fiction world of spells and mythic beasts (box). Players compete with decks of 40 or more cards, which they assemble individually out of their own collections of cards bought, bartered or won in competition. (""I'm just in it for the money,'' says a 13-year-old hanging out at Neutral Ground, although he admits all he's won so far are other players' cards.) ""I like learning to play a game and, once I get used to it, changing the rules,'' says Ga rfield, who recalls playing a variation of chess in which players were allowed to place imaginary land mines under certain squares, which would blow up any piece that landed there. This concept clearly leaves sports-card collecting in the dust; in any se ason there are fewer than 1,000 major-league baseball players, whereas the potential population of giants, dragons and amulets is limited only by how fast Wizards' artists can churn them out. There are more than 4,000 cards in circulation. The Black Lotus s, one of the rarest cards, so powerful that it has been banned from some tournaments, sells among players for as much as $400.

But is that enough for Magic to take its place in the national pantheon of rainy-day pastimes alongside Monopoly, Scrabble or even thumb wrestling? Wizards ""uses words like "Mattel' and "Parker Brothers' '' in talking about its future, says Doug Sharpe, owner of National Collector, which makes a secondary market in Magic cards. But sooner or later everyone gets a Monopoly set; the appeal of Magic is, by contrast, an inch wide and a mile deep. Already it is under attack in a New York suburb, where parents have sued a school board over listing Magic as an after-school activity. ""Magic introduces unwilling children into the terminology of the occult,'' says one of the parents, Cecile Di Nozzi of Pound Ridge. ""My kids would come home and say, "Other kids are holding sticks up to the sky and saying, ""Spirits enter me'' '.'' Garfield himself, now head of research and development at Wizards of the Coast, talks - albeit reluctantly-- about the appeal of Magic in terms of addiction. Yes, he agrees, games can act like narcotics, or they ""take over your personal operating system, like a virus.'' If he's right, of course, he's an even greater genius than he's gotten cred- it for. The only other force capable of do- ing that in American society isn't e ven Monopoly. It's TV.

In Magic, players (usually two) are rival wizards fighting to control the mythic world of Dominia. The battle is waged with cards, which represnt spells, artifacts and creatures. "Land" cards are a bit like the suits in a standard card deck.

Except for lands, most cards have point values for attacks and defense. The object is to inflict 20 points of damage on an opponent. Magic players might have hundreds of cards, from which they construct a deck of at least 40 to play with.

Some cards alter the functions of others. The creature card "Sengir Vampire," for example, might get a power boost from the enchantment card "Holy Strength." So players stack their decks and hope to draw sneaky combinations.

Players alternate trying to get past each other's defenses while maintaining their own. They draw cards from their decks to replace those "destroyed" during the game.