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Board Game Patents – Magic: The Gathering

On August 5, 1993, mathematics Professor Richard Garfield released a set of 240 playing cards that would change the gaming landscape forever. But the story of Magic: The Gathering (“MTG” for short), starts much earlier. Garfield had been creating games since at least as early as 1982, when he came up with a card game called Five Magics. While Five Magics went on to inspire Garfield’s friends to develop additional magic-based card games, within a few years, Garfield had moved on.

In 1991, Garfield was working toward a Ph.D in one of my favorite areas of mathematics, combinatorics. By that time, Garfield had also teamed up with Mike Davis to create the popular board game RoboRally. Davis eventually pitched the game to Peter Adkison and James Hays of American game publisher Wizards of the Coast (“WotC”). Adkison and Hays loved RoboRally, but explained to Garfield and Davis that WotC was not in a position to release a board game at that time. Disappointed, Garfield responded, asking Hays what WotC was in a position to publish. Hays told Garfield that WotC was looking for a portable card game that people could take out and play during downtimes at conventions. The rest is history.

Returning home, Garfield dusted off Five Magics, began adding to the good things, and chiseling away at the bad. Garfield focused on combining the collectability of baseball cards and the chaotic asymmetrical energy of the iconic board game Cosmic Encounter with the beloved fantasy elements of Dungeons & Dragons. After multiple failed attempts, Garfield eventually landed on a game he simply called “Magic.” To deter people from buying hundreds of cards and only using the most powerful cards in his game, Garfield included an “ante” mechanism. The ante worked much like a claiming race in auto sports or horse racing. At the beginning of the game, both players would randomly select one card from their decks and place them aside. The winner of the game would then own the two ante cards. The ante system placed a financial disincentive on using only rare and expensive cards to compete against a deck of more common cards.

The first MTG core set that WotC released in August of 1993 was called Limited Edition: Alpha (nicknamed “Alpha”). Alpha’s first print run was a modest 2.6 million cards. WotC sold Alpha in 60 card starter decks and 15 card boosters. MTG turned out to be more successful than either Garfield or WotC could ever have imagined. Having just celebrated its 25th anniversary, MTG has become one of the biggest selling games of all time, today boasting over 20 million players and over 20 billion cards sold. Since its inception, MTG has been translated into over ten languages and has become the world’s “Most Played Trading Card Game.”

As shown below, the now-expired MTG patent originally covered a game mechanic whereby players would make some type of designation that certain cards were being brought into play. The “tapping” mechanic could involve simply rotating the cards sideways.

Claim 1 of U.S. Patent No. 5,662,332

1. A method of playing games involving two or more players, the method being suitable for games having rules for game play that include instructions on drawing, playing, and discarding game components, and a reservoir of multiple copies of a plurality of game components, the method comprising the steps of:
each player constructing their own library of a predetermined number of game components by examining and selecting game components from the reservoir of game components;
each player obtaining an initial hand of a predetermined number of game components by shuffling the library of game components and drawing at random game components from the player’s library of game components; and
each player executing turns in sequence with other players by drawing, playing, and discarding game components in accordance with the rules until the game ends, said step of executing a turn comprises:
(a) making one or more game components from the player’s hand of game components available for play by taking the one or more game components from the player’s hand and placing the one or more game components on a playing surface; and
(b) bringing into play one or more of the available game components by:
(i) selecting one or more game components; and
(ii) designating the one or more game components being brought into play by rotating the one or more game components from an original orientation to a second orientation.

Brett Trout

Posted in Board Games, Patent Law.

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