Magic: The Gathering — How Wizards of the Coast Created the First Trading Card Game and Keeps Its Community of 20M+ Players Coming Back for More
Updated: 7.10.17 Entertainment

Magic: The Gathering — How Wizards of the Coast Created the First Trading Card Game and Keeps Its Community of 20M+ Players Coming Back for More

By: Adam West

The Crunch: Before Magic: The Gathering was released in 1993, trading card games didn’t exist. In the years since, Wizards of the Coast and parent company Hasbro have helped take the brand to new heights. With an estimated 20 million players all over the world, Wizards focuses on innovative game designs to keep fans of MTG anticipating every new card release. The game has evolved over the years to reach additional markets, including its massively successful online edition. Ultimately, MTG has continued to feed the thriving local game shop community, where thousands of players meet to match wits, and where enough game wins could take them to the Pro Tour to challenge the best players from around the world.

When Wizards of the Coast released Magic: The Gathering (MTG) in 1993 it created an entirely new gaming category: the trading card game.

The game’s creator, Richard Garfield, first approached then-Wizards of the Coast CEO Peter Adkinson, to pitch an entirely different concept, RoboRally. Peter initially shot the idea down (before later green-lighting the project), and instead told Richard he was looking for a small, inexpensive-to-produce game that could be played in between other popular role-playing games, like Dungeons & Dragons.

“Richard thought about this, and came back a bit later with Magic: The Gathering,” said Gavin Verhey, Game and Product Designer at Wizards of the Coast. “It released in 1993, and was an immediate hit! Players loved it. … The game’s constant innovation and promise to let players build any kind of deck they want truly captured imaginations everywhere.”

Since its release, several contenders have emerged to challenge the world’s first trading card game. While offerings like Yu-Gi-Oh!, the Pokémon: Trading Card Game, the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, and Legend of the Five Rings certainly are popular games, MTG has reigned supreme with more than 20 million players worldwide. It’s so big, in fact, that talented groups of players actually make a living from the game’s Pro Tours.

Collage of a portrait of Wizards of the Coast's Gavin Verhey and the Magic: The Gathering logo

Wizards of the Coast’s Gavin Verhey told us innovation and community-building have been at the core of MTG’s popularity.

Appealing to collectors, gamers, and art appreciators alike, MTG strikes a unique balance that has led to its massive popularity with local game and comic book shops playing host to battles between mages of all ages and skill levels during weekly Friday Night Magic events. And it’s this community of players that is at the core of MTG’s success.

Wizards, which was acquired by toymaker Hasbro for $325 million in 1999, has handled the brand masterfully over the past 20-plus years. Its product team is constantly designing fantasy worlds for its fans to explore, and releasing new card sets with unique mechanics that keep them interested.

“Nearly 25 years later, the game is bigger than ever,” Gavin said. “That initial spark has turned into a game played around the world by millions of players, who range from those who play casually with their friends to those who have made professional Magic their profession. And even now, after nearly 100 different sets have been released, the game is still evolving and coming up with things the players have never seen before.”

Diverse Gameplay & Collectibility are Selling Points for MTG Fans

One of the game’s major draws is that, because of the more than 16,000 cards Wizards has created, no two MTG matches are the same. In fact, the game lends itself to unlimited playability because of several popular formats.

“A key to Magic’s success is that it is so many games within one,” Gavin said. “There are all kinds of different play formats, from Sealed — a format where you make your deck out of cards you open right there and play against others doing the same — to perhaps our most popular format, Standard, which uses the most recently released cards.”

Unlike other games, MTG involves no boards, dice, or spinning wheels. The cards are the stars, and they are all that’s needed to play the game. The collectibility of these artfully designed cards is actually a key part of the brand’s success. MTG fans are gamers, but they are equal parts collectors.

Screenshot of Amonkhet cards

These cards are from the Ancient Egypt-themed Amonkhet set, which was released in April of 2017.

When MTG first came out, it gave collectors the same excitement they had experienced when opening a new pack of baseball and other sports cards. The thrill in not knowing what’s behind the thin wrapper is enough to keep players headed back to their local game shops to add new cards to their collections. In addition to local game stores, which have become the true lifeblood of MTG, major retailers, including Target, Walmart, and Toys “R” Us, also tend to keep MTG cards in stock.

Since the game’s players are always looking for the best possible deck of cards to play, a secondary market for MTG cards has emerged, where particularly rare or effective cards have become worth a lot. In fact, an extremely rare Alpha Black Lotus card sold for more than $27,000 in 2013. While this is an outlier, it’s not unheard of for serious players to spend hundreds of dollars on just a few cards.

The card game has also inspired books, video games, comic books, and even a documentary featuring players on the Pro Tour called “Enter the Battlefield.”

Creating a Community Around Events Has Led to Global Adoption

A major component of MTG’s growth is that the game is designed to be social in nature. Thousands of devotees flock to their local game shops each Friday night to play weekly tournaments. Local stores can join the Wizards Play Network, which helps them with resources to attract players to events and build their business in the process.

“One key element which has really helped keep the game so relevant and beloved is its robust community,” Gavin said. “Going to your local Magic event and meeting friends — or making new friends — is a cornerstone of Magic play. Online, there are gigantic groups and websites dedicated to Magic, with discussions about everything you could possibly imagine.”

MTG’s millions of players come from every corner of the globe, and since locals are meeting so frequently to play in tournaments and update their decks at game shops, there tends to be a lot of familiarity between players in a particular region.

“I’ve traveled all over the world, and I’ve met Magic players in every corner, from Slovakia to South Africa, and they’ve all welcomed me into the Magic scene there with open arms,” Gavin said. “Most of my closest friends I’ve met through Magic. I have friends who are married, who have met through Magic! Magic is an incredible game, and the community is as amazing to match.”

Photo of someone playing in a Magic: The Gathering event

Part of joining the Magic: The Gathering community is participating in local tournaments.

While novice players can typically find equally experienced opponents in their areas, the game has spawned Pro Tours all over the world that draw expert players who must qualify for events by competing at Regional Pro Tour Qualifiers or winning Magic Online Championship Series events. These events award cash prizes for the top 64 finishers, with the champions receiving as much as $50,000. There’s even an MTG Hall of Fame for the best professional players in the game’s history.

And while it’s traditionally a printed card game, the digital version, Magic: The Gathering Online, allows players to compete all over the world at any time of day.

“Of course, especially in today’s day and age, Magic is shown not only in cardboard form — but digitally as well,” Gavin said. “With tons of streamers on websites like, and players on Magic Online playing around the clock to always make sure you have an opponent.”

New Concepts in Regular Releases Keep Fans Engaged & Challenged

MTG has established itself as the long-standing king of trading card games and shows no signs of slowing down. We asked Gavin, a former pro player himself, about how MTG turned its brand into such a phenomenon.

“Well, it’s not easy – but I really would emphasize three things: innovation, evolution, and community,” Gavin said. “Show me something I’ve never seen done like this before. Show me you can evolve it over time. And finally, show me you have a community I can get invested in and care about. Do all three of those things, and you’ll have shown me a brand I deeply want to be a part of.”

Innovation is key at Wizards, which has designers constantly imagining up new worlds and cards with new mechanics to keep its die-hard fans coming back for more. New cards and expansion sets are regularly released, and the game’s designers spend a lot of time on each one, while also paying close attention to feedback from those who love the game.

“There are so many things to be excited about while working on Magic — and for me, a huge one really is the constant call and response of innovation and release,” Gavin said. “We work years ahead on projects, and so when a product finally releases after all that time of innovation and inspiration, and you get to see players react, it’s really amazing.”

For example, Gavin was the lead designer for Commander 2017, which will be released this August. This is actually a big year for MTG as it marks the 25th anniversary of the game. To celebrate, MTG has a lot in store for its fans with Hour of Devastation, Ixalan, Rivals of Ixalan, Explorers of Ixalan, Duel Decks: Merfolk vs. Goblins, and Unstable planned for the next 12 months.

Thanks to its constant innovations that keep gameplay fresh and its well-established community of global players to ensure there’s always someone to challenge, fans of the franchise can look forward to gathering for a game of Magic for years to come.