How Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield wants to bring back the joy of card games


Richard Garfield remembers the magic of the early days of Magic: The Gathering. The creator of the iconic card game recalled how there was a period of time when people didn’t have access to perfect information about which Magic cards and decks were the best.

This part of the reason he cofounded Popularium, a new game startup. His team’s next game, Chaos Agents, a PC and web strategy game that will have a mix of genres, with multiplayer elements dubbed “auto battler royale.”

Players had to experiment and take risks without perfect knowledge of how to beat rivals in the game. In time, players learned those perfect decks and strategies and rarely deviated from a prescribed path. Garfield wants to make a game that brings back that feeling of risk in the early game.

The team will soon study the results of a playtest that the company recently held where it showed off gameplay from its Chaos Agents game. The company did the playtest in collaboration with Gen Con TV, a popular streaming platform for gaming enthusiasts. This milestone marked an exciting step forward for Chaos Agents, which aims to empower gamers to develop their own unique playstyles.

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Unlike Magic, there is no physical element. It’s all digital. I felt it interesting to hear him say that a good game grows with you, but you should also savor the first moments you play it. And I thought it was very interesting that Garfield viewed Chaos Agents as a simulation attached to a card game, not a game simulation.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering, is cofounder of Popularium.

GamesBeat: Thank you. I remember you mentioning that I guess the early days of Magic were interesting because there was a big question. How it was maybe more fun in the early days and that that’s something you wanted to get back to. And I did wonder whether when you guys were showing anything, like maybe there was anything you meant there that is starting to show up now. I don’t know if you recall that conversation.

Richard Garfield: I do. That’s usually when I’m talking about unique deck games, which we’ve talked about. The idea of being able to offer people truly unique and endless game tools to work with. And that is, you know, with Magic beginners do get that when they first start playing, it feels infinite. It feels open.

But when they start playing more seriously. They can look up all the cards. They can see what people believe the best decks are. So it takes away some of the magic. It makes people follow a prescribed path. That’s the context.

This brawlers game is something completely different. I love classic games. Like poker or chess. Or Go. I haven’t had too many opportunities to design them professionally, but I do design them for my own entertainment.

And so that’s more where I categorize this. Where the infinite nature of it is the infinite nature of a lot of games where there’s death. And the more you play it, the better these games become. That’s not a universal quality of games, but it is something that makes them special when it happens. And it happens in a lot of classic games. And it’s not super uncommon. But the more you play a game, the better it is.

GamesBeat: Is it also like, the better you get as well when you’re playing? Or do you mean something different too?

Garfield: No, the better you get and that usually leads to more enjoyment.

So early in my career, I used to make a parallel between games and books and thinking, ‘Oh, people are foolish because they watch so many movies, or they read so many books — but they play so few games.

That’s kind of changed now, hasn’t it? Later I realized that wasn’t really a good analogy, or at least it didn’t hold universally true, that really a better relationship is between games and music. Because music has that quality where, the first time you hear it, it’s something.

But a good piece of music, the more you hear it, the better it gets. The more it means to you, the more you know it. And it’s the same thing with games. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting better at it. Although oftentimes it does, it just. You just get more comfortable navigating the landscape which the game provides.

Popularium’s art for Chaos Agents.

GamesBeat: And then there’s some interesting directions gaming has gone towards harder and more difficult games. Where death is also not something you can easily recover from I guess. I think of more like them, From Software’s games, like Elden Ring, right. Where you know, there’s permanent death and you get to start over more often than you want to?

Garfield: Yeah. Well, sometimes, certainly.

GamesBeat: I wonder whether those kinds of ideas have come to you as well in, you know, working on this as well. You can lose a lot, I guess, if you aren’t at your best.

Garfield: So since I usually do player versus player games. You play and then you’re finished. And then you play another game. And so the only thing you’re really staking is your rating. If they have a rating implemented. And I actually even don’t like investing a lot in the rating. I prefer tournaments.

Tournaments are something where you can play as a casual or a serious player. And if you lose, you lost the tournament, but it hasn’t affected you going forward, you can win in the next tournament. But with ratings, it’s like you lose, oh, now I gotta play three games and win them all in order to get my rating back so there could be a measure of disappointment with that.

I tend to want to avoid games where you can accrue power from game to game against other players, because no matter how you design it, even if you design it so that it’s fair, it won’t be perceived as fair. The other person lost because they had a disadvantage. And even if they’re balanced, which is hard to do, it’s always going to be perceived that way. And so I really prefer to make it so that your advantage in the game is your own skill and knowledge.

GamesBeat: If you lose and you have too much at stake when you lose, then you might quit the game altogether.

The turn-based elements of the demo you guys did were very interesting as well. And do you want to talk about that? It almost feels like you’re freeze-framing a game that’s continuously playing, I guess. And then stopping and pausing to think about, okay, what do I need to do next? And I guess you’re freezing something that normally you would not expect to be frozen.

Garfield: That’s right. Because this really is a classic game, right? I mean, it’s not one that’s existed before, but it’s played with a deck of cards. The cards are the same for both players. And so there’s animated proceedings, but you’re playing this card game with this bluffing and pressing your luck mechanic.

Which was designed to resonate with a feeling of a wrestling match. And that’s a class of games, which I really enjoy. I think that the players have this amazing ability to take abstract mechanics and put them inside a world. And the animation helps with that. But a lot of it is on the players.

GamesBeat: I think you, you mentioned that you guys were going to do a lot more iteration with fans and be a lot more transparent and open. You’re talking very early about the game to get more conversation and more feedback. What kind of feedback did you guys get?

Garfield: It’s hard to develop a game in a vacuum. And you’re never going to be able to develop it to the level that the public will once they get ahold of it. So making the development of a game even a relatively simple game. Having an ongoing discussion is important.

So the sort of things we paid attention to in development were how players felt, for example, if they got bad cards. How much were they able to work with that? It’s okay to get bad cards and to lose. That happens in poker, happens to gin, happens in all these games.

But if you can give players a sense of control over that so that they have an avenue that they can go down and not necessarily feel like they’ve got nothing to do, that’s good. And so during the playtest, for example, we made it so that ones and threes allowed the players a bonus.

And they’re really terrible cards in the game. But giving them that little hook gives you this opportunity to leverage them. And you can feel really clever when you do it successfully. And so other things we were doing are like, ‘How long is the game lasting? Is 20 points too long? Are people bolding and bluffing enough?’

For me as a designer, this is one of the things I’m most interested in. And a bunch of my designs recently have been getting bluffing. It’s something of a challenging game because if you’ve got a bluffing game, in some ways you have to be good at the game often before you can even participate in that.

Because bluffing means you think you have something, but you’re pretending you have something you don’t, but you really have to know the game before you can pretend.

And also you want to set up the rewards and penalties such that people will fold. I’m sure you’ve probably played either very low stakes poker or poker for no stakes whatsoever. And that can be fun. If people take it seriously. But it also can be like it’s not really feeling like poker because people just go in all the time.

And there’s no folding. And so I’m very pleased with the incentives we have in this game for people to fold. Basically one of the aspects of this game is when you fold, you don’t lose your ongoing power, and your hand size goes up by one for the rest of the game.

And so there’s this huge reward set up for folding. You’re probably going to fold during the course of the game. So as a matter of timing it, so you think you’ve lost anyway. And so the person who’s setting up a bluff can feel good because the opponent’s folding. And the person who’s folding can feel good because even if they lost the hand, they got a reward.

GamesBeat: And if you translate it into, say, the movement, is it like, is chasing someone and maybe chasing them more than you should, or you’re deciding to retreat, and that’s kind of like folding or I don’t know. What’s happening on the screen?

Garfield: Well, putting it in terms of the fiction when each hand is composed of two cards. And the bigger of those cards are better. And so, if you’re doing a big move, it’s two big cards. However, if you play them in reverse order, that is the big one first, and then the low one second. That’s called flexing. And that’s where you bark more than bite.

And so somebody who’s flexing they’re not putting on a show. They’re not really engaging in fighting in the same way. And so if I put on the show, and you hold, that’s like I’m inviting you to the ring to basically go through a throw with me. And you are saying, no, and backing off, and then I’m getting a lot of glory for that. My power ratings meters go up and we go to the next hand.

On the other hand, if you go in and you’re just using a solid technique that is any two cards in the correct order, you’ll take them down. If you’re flexing too, then it’s whoever’s got the biggest cards. So, the game follows this pattern of when people clash, the bigger numbers are better.

But then doing them in a way which is not boastful is getting business done is going to beat the boastful moves. Boastful moves will get extra points when they win because they’re getting a lot of glory for getting the other person to back down. So you’re that’s the reward structure.

GamesBeat: It’s almost very poker-like where you have to know your enemy and you would know whether this kind of person bluffs all the time, or, actually, you know, changes it up.

Garfield: Yeah. There’s a lot of intentionally poker moves. And knowing your opponent will help a lot. And then as with poker, if you don’t know your opponent and you give good solid play, you’re like, there’s better and worse play as well. But during the course of the game, you can learn whether, they’re predictable, solid or like to bluff or if they’re on tilt.

Chaos Agents had an alpha test.

GamesBeat: And were there interesting conversations along these lines with the players here, I guess? Or anything that comes to mind?

Garfield: Well, there’s been, you know, a lot of tournaments and keeping track of things. The conversations have been all about what sort of players there are, and how well that served them. And during the course of the game, there have been differences among the audiences. There are different perceived values to what you’re like at the beginning, a lot of people felt like you should just always begin folding a bunch of times because you get your hand size full up and then you can go forward.

But then people start doing that. And other people say, ‘Well, why don’t I fold early? But if I know they’re going to fold, I may as well get some bluffs in there, get some extra power. Get rid of some bad cards.’ And so suddenly it doesn’t look so good. Bluffing or folding every time. So you get this ongoing arms race of different techniques.

GamesBeat: And how many players are interacting at a given time then?

Garfield: Right now, it’s strictly two players. It was designed for two players. And so it was designed that it would be head to head and there’d be tournaments and leagues and such. However we have talked about you know, team versions where it’s two on two. And you can tag in and tag out things like that. The team version is straightforward though, and will be fun when it’s there.

GamesBeat: So you guys will be testing them to see where the fun actually is?

Garfield: We’re sure that there’s no doubt going to be fun on the team version. You want to be conservative with the number of different variants you put out though, because fragmenting the audience — I like to do that. Make it so you’ve got half as many players in each of them, and then you add another one and suddenly. You might not be able to find games or games with the right quality of player. And so really getting people to understand the principle one vs. one. That’s our first goal. And then, you know, with an audience that loves that game, but wants more, the two vs. two will be quite good.

GamesBeat: And then are there more things you’re going to be testing in the near-term roadmap here? Or particular ideas you want to test?

Garfield: We’ve talked about how different card powers can work. And different arena powers can work. There’s enough depth to the gameplay that we don’t want to have that be the focus of the game.

I’ve come out with some games where there were really deep experiences, but there were a lot of different cards. And people focused on all these different cards. I’m just going to see what I get, play that, as opposed to playing the underlying game. Or really taking it seriously. And so our focus right now is the vanilla gameplay that’s there.

But then throwing in, for the long run, different moves, different tweaks, different cards so that there’s some interesting variation to mix things up going forward. And these are the sort of things I’m not interested in: like people putting together decks out of their own special cards because that starts getting into that area where people feel they lost because they didn’t have this card or that card.

So, one of the reasons I became interested in this project is because the publisher said that they would be supportive of a game, which has a classic outlook where people go in on equal footing. And that we can, you know, give long-term depth with tweaks, perhaps along the way to add some variation, but not something where there was a feeling you had to grind or own the disenfranchised new players, because the old players had huge advantages.

GamesBeat: How was the Gen Con event itself? Did you enjoy any particular thing about it?

Garfield: I did not go. I haven’t been to a show in six years. My twin sons are six years old. And so between that pandemic I’ve been Pretty much home bound.

GamesBeat: Okay. Did you have a chance to watch much of it though, I guess the TV version?

Garfield: I haven’t. At some point I imagine that I’m going to have some material from it digested, and we’ll talk about it.

GamesBeat: Okay. And let’s see. So do you notice anything about the fans so far? Are they different kinds of fans than you’ve run into in the past? Or do they seem familiar in some way?

Garfield: I mean there’s a breadth to the fans. Which is refreshing. And I think that’s because the game is more about how you play it, than what the cards and pools you have are. So people get into it and they, very quickly, recognize pieces of it from other games.

And so they feel like they’re playing a classic game that they understand. There’s weirdly a freshness to having it not be like a simulation. But be like a game. Like, when you play say a Diablo or something like that, it feels like a game simulation. But this feels like a simulation attached to a game.

Concept art from Popularium’s Chaos Agents.

GamesBeat: I’m not quite sure I grasp that. What is the difference?

Garfield: The difference is just that the underlying thing you’re doing in this: you’re playing cards. You’ve got a hand of cards. The cards are one through eight. There’s some special powers on the one and three. You’ve got betting and folding. These are all things that classic games have, and when you play, you feel like you’re playing a board or card game.

But when you sit down to a lot of digital games, they try to distance themselves from that if it’s there at all. And it’s more like you’re moving this person around, you’re shooting or doing something like that or maybe hitting key combinations to do special moves in the case of a wrestling game. This is a card game. But then it has this flavor attached to it to bridge, to put you into a simulation world rather than a simulation where there are some buttons you push to move it along.

GamesBeat: And are you finding any particular way that AI can help you out in what you do in this process?

Garfield: No. I have not. I have not thought about that. Maybe my understanding is that it’s getting to the point of helping a lot with coding types of things. And certainly it’s getting along in the art, but I don’t know where we’re going with that. But from a design point of view, I haven’t found anything yet.

GamesBeat: So it’s not necessarily near the fun right now.

Garfield: Well, a matter of time, certainly. And I’m looking forward to it, because anything which brings more good games into the world, I’m behind.

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