In the 90s, there was a company called Wizards of the Coast who put out the playable fantasy trading card game Magic the Gathering. The designer of the game was a mathematician by the name of Richard Garfield.

The basic premise was that you were a wizard and your deck of cards was a book of spells and artifacts. An enemy player would challenge you to a duel and you would both shuffle your respective decks and draw cards off the top for your hand. You could cast spells from your hand to damage your opponent, or summon creatures to attack opponent or enhance your creatures or do a myriad of things. You could take 20 points of damage and whoever reached zero first would be the loser.

The remarkable thing about the game, other than its incredible popularity, was its flexibility. All kinds of odd strategies evolved as players used cards in combination to achieve results the original designers of the cards probably did not forsee. Deck construction became a fine art of selecting cards. Because the cards are shuffled, you have to take into account the probability of the certain cards turning up. If you try and cover too many contingencies, you would have a very thick deck of cards, and the wait time for a particular card could be long. If you have a very focused and thin deck, your expected wait time would be short, but so would your list of options.

For example, if you have a deck geared towards summoning trolls, giants and other creatures to pummel your opponent to death, but your opponent has a deck full of spells to paralyze or disable creatures in addition to a few bolts of lightning to directly zap you, you are going to be slowly zapped to death. Your hand will likely be filled with creatures to summon and his hand will likely be filled with paralysis spells. As you summon creatures he paralyzes them and waits for a lightning bolt spell to be drawn to zap you. If you slipped in 2 healing cards in a 80 card deck otherwise devoted to monsters, and your opponent had 8 lightning bolts and fireballs in a 60 card deck otherwise devoted to paralyzing monsters, you would likely be the eventual loser in this war of attrition.

An entire tournament structure blossomed regionally and nationally around MTG.

The cards were sold in sealed random packs like other collectible cards and had different print frequencies (ie rarity) for each card. The rare and particularly useful cards become extremely valuable, both for winning at tournaments.

It has been 15 or more years since I've played MTG, but I see on ebay that the most valuable cards have held their value of a few hundreds of dollars. The fantasy playing card market is far less lucrative than the collectible sports card market.  





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4 Comments so far

  1. david higgs on January 22, 2009 9:16 am

    From bubble to bubble……. these fantasy card players most likely started off playing Pokemon, then graduated to the Gathering. These bubbles are the result of over card production ( first edition cards, rare cards and the most expensive card the "holograms" which also by the way were generally the most powerful) which the corporations marketing department have a large participating role, that is "creating these bubbles" by inserting these fluff cards into their packets, thus generating addition capital for the corporation. Ring a bell? Check out this site the game is well and alive and even online….. http://tinyurl.com/cbahgm

  2. John on January 22, 2009 6:00 pm

    Another way to win is to have the opposing player run out of cards to draw which led to my favorite personal strategy: the stall deck. The minimum amount of cards in a regulation deck is 40 and the more aggressive players would have at most 60 cards to increase the probability of drawing what they wanted. I countered with a protection/artifact deck. First I had protection spells to keep my opponent from harming me. Then I had two artifacts, the rack and the iron maiden. These forced my opponent to hold no less than 3 (the rack) and no more than 4 (the iron maiden) cards in their hand or they would take damage. Then I had another artifact, the mill stone. This allowed me to force my opponent to discard two cards from the top of his deck each turn.

    My strategy was to protect myself, limit my opponent’s flexibility, and then slowly sap his strength until he had nothing left. It took a bit longer to finish games, but I felt it was a strategy that held up better against a wider variety of opposing strategies you saw over the course of a tournament. This was important because you never knew in advance what you would come up against.

    I was recently offered a decent sum for my old collection. I realized that for me the value of the game, and thus the cards had dropped to zero. The market value, however, was much higher than zero, so I accepted and now have a bit more closet space to boot.

  3. Steve Leslie on January 23, 2009 3:13 pm

    speaking of playing cards and sports cards, the mid 90's was a time of incredible popularity for the collector. I think it was the 86 rookie cards that were in high demand. Guys like McGwire, Bonds, Canseco, Will Clark, Palmeiro, Clemens, their cards were being priced through the roof. Anything with Mickey Mantle was cherished. There were card shows in malls, seemingly ever where you turned somebody was trading cards. Then it moved over to Football, basketball and hockey. But baseball was always the Cadillac of collectibles.

    I wonder what a McGwire, Sosa, Bonds and the other smeared superstars are fetching these days. I am sure far less than they were in their heyday.

    BTW any body interested in an Albert Belle rookie card or a Cecil Fielder?

  4. Steve Leslie on January 23, 2009 3:47 pm

    A very interesting article about the top 15 stocks from 1932 to 1954 and their performance. Number one on the list is Electric Boat a submarine maker, now a part of General Dynamics.


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