It began with the explosion of the baseball card industry in the mid-1980s. What was once just a way for kids to get cheap cardboard for their Huffy spokes—and maybe some chalky, brittle gum—had by then became a billion-dollar enterprise.
The lucrative hobby reached its apogee in 1991, when hockey legend Wayne Gretzky bought the T-206 Honus Wagner card at a Sotheby’s auction for more than $400,000. By then, companies like Fleer, Upper Deck, and Topps had glutted the market with all manner of special collections and artificially scarce cards. Both kids and adults obsessively paid premium prices for packs, hoping to cash in on the mint-condition likenesses of Ken Griffey Jr. and Shaquille O’Neal.
In 1991, or maybe it was ’92, I nearly soiled my britches when my Aunt Peg gave me a box of unopened Fleer Ultra for Christmas. With money I made from the special Chris Sabo and Cal Ripken inserts, I’d be able to comfortably retire by 30. I didn’t understand that monetary value for these premium new cards existed mainly in the realm of the conceptual, and these glossy treasures would eventually go the way of hyper-inflated paper money in Weimar-era Germany. I didn’t get to retire at 30, and the experience soured me on investing of any kind.
Before the card-collecting bubble burst, though, came Wizards Of The Coast. Founded as a role-playing game company in 1990 by Boeing systems analyst Peter Adkison, Wizards was the first gaming outfit to capitalize on the baseball card model. It released Magic: The Gathering in the summer of 1993. Designed by a doctoral student in mathematics named Richard Garfield, Magic styled itself a “collectible card game,” or CCG.
The idea went supernova. Players could strategically construct decks of cards with which to duel one another. Certain rarer cards could give a deck more power, igniting a card-buying arms race among Magic’s adherents. Within a year, Wizards released updated versions of the core set and added four sought-after supplements. Even the common cards from the first few sets sold for good money at card shops and shows. The rarer ones from the Alpha series still fetch thousands of dollars today. A signed, mint condition Black Lotus—one of the so-called “Power Nine” cards—is available online at the time of this writing. The asking price is $95,000.
During that first year, demand for Magic cards far outstripped supply, and other companies took notice, including Tactical Studies Rules—the makers of Dungeons & Dragons. TSR, as the company is better known, was in prime position to cut into Wizards’ market share. Founded by Gary Gygax and Don Kaye in 1973, TSR dominated the role-playing-game landscape throughout the late ’70s and much of the ’80s. By the mid-’90s, though, its magic-giving star had begun to wane. Gygax had been replaced years before, and Dungeons & Dragons, the flagship product, hadn’t undergone any major revisions since its inception. (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition was released in 1989, but that was mainly an aesthetic update.)
TSR was looking to piggyback on Wizards Of The Coast’s success, and soon. The company gave its vice president of product design, Jim Ward, just six months to create a CCG good enough to compete with the burgeoning Wizards Of The Coast juggernaut. Along with fellow game designers Steven Winter, Zeb Cook, and Mike Breult, Ward set out to create a card game that would utilize TSR’s substantial creative resources and improve on Magic’s shortcomings. The goal was to introduce a distinctive, higher-quality game, rather than just a D&D-themed version of Magic. There were many reasons to be optimistic. Where Magic cobbled together an ad-hoc mythology, a spotty assortment of artwork, and sometimes convoluted rules, TSR already had established fantasy worlds, a cache of great artwork and decades of game-making experience.
The collectible card game that Ward and his fellowship created was Spellfire: Master The Magic. The game’s structure immediately differentiated it from its main competitor. In Spellfire, players build a land empire by constructing and defending “realms” while simultaneously using all of the war matériel at their disposal to raze opponents’ lands. Magic, on the other hand, was conceived as a personal duel between two sorcerers, or “planeswalkers,” and in that game, land is used as a source of magic, rather than an end in itself.
Although both games utilize spells, artifacts, and champions, the way these are deployed (and destroyed) bear scant resemblance to one another. As expected, much of the artwork for the lands and characters of Spellfire was taken from existing TSR properties, including the popular brands it had built up as settings for campaigns and fantasy novels, like Dragonlance, Ravenloft, and Forgotten Realms. Other corners of the D&D universe were used in succeeding editions.
In its day, TSR was a true multimedia company, with a dedicated fan base. Aside from traditional RPGs, it licensed dozens of popular novels and video games. For fans of D&D, Spellfire should have been a dream come true. It provided opportunities for unprecedented crossover, a chance to pit heroes and villains from their favorite game worlds against one another. The gold-skinned, tubercular mage from Dragonlance could now shoot magic missiles straight into the one good eye of Icewind Dale’s leathery, cyclopean dwarf, Bruenor Battlehammer. Spellfire, like Magic and Dungeons & Dragons before it, had all the ingredients of nerd crack.
Yet there was a certain desperation to the whole project. “The initial goals that we were handed for Spellfire were not very conducive to making it an enjoyable game,” Spellfire co-designer Steven Winter told me in an interview. “Management clearly wanted to challenge Magic’s position in the market head-on, but no one on our rung of the pay ladder could see a very promising way to do that. Being told ‘make a game that will dethrone Magic’ is the wrong way to go about making a successful product, in my opinion. So we ignored that directive and set out to design a CCG that would build its own audience and stand on its own merit.”
Spellfire shed many of the encumbrances of the traditional D&D model. Dungeons & Dragons generally requires at least three players: the Dungeon Master, who is responsible for creating and running the game, and two or more players to bludgeon hobgoblins, pillage castles, and ensorcel nubile elven maidens within the Dungeon Master’s imaginary creation. The three basic texts for the second edition are The Player’s Handbook, The Dungeon Master’s Guide, and The Monstrous Manual. With Spellfire, there would be no more carting around heavy, hardbound rulebooks and collections of 12-sided dice.
This new model had a huge appeal for the business-minded managers at TSR. Dungeons & Dragons required only that players buy a few moderately priced books—books that might keep them occupied for years. With Spellfire, the company would now have a product that could be continually updated and expanded, almost month to month. “Magic was especially scary because of its implications,” Winter said. Wizards Of The Coast “was doing with Magic exactly what TSR had done 20 years earlier—creating an entirely new type of entertainment. We knew better than anyone where that led.”
Spellfire was unveiled at Gen Con, a large annual gaming convention, in 1994. Its “No Edition” set was coupled with a promotion that invited potential players to mail in 60 Magic the Gathering cards to be exchanged for a double starter deck of Spellfire. This shot across Wizards’ bow signaled TSR’s intent to muscle in on the CCG action. While the puckish promotion had only mixed success, players were at least intrigued, and it showed in the ledger. According to Ward, Spellfire made approximately $35 million in the first year of its release.
That successful start masked deeper flaws that would hamper Spellfire’s long-term growth. The economic forces driving CCG sales hinged on shop owners’ ability to sell rare cards at a markup. By summer of 1994, single unopened packs of Magic’s first expansion, Arabian Nights, were selling for around $100. Creating such an obsessive level of demand for your goods is an inexact science. From a collector’s standpoint, Spellfire never attained that kind of value. TSR tried to artificially create demand by inserting powerful and scarce “chase” cards, but they didn’t evoke the kind of avarice that there was for early Magic. (That’s not to say the chase cards weren’t amusing: Later editions of Spellfire featured photo chase cards with TSR employees in various states of Renaissance Fair-style dress.)
The difficulty of marketing a CCG lies in the fact that the interests of players and of collectors don’t always overlap. The generally lower price tag of Spellfire cards was good for the game—everyone could afford to play. But widespread availability wouldn’t help it to catch on with collectors. Wizards Of The Coast, too, learned this lesson when it released the long-awaited Fallen Empires expansion in November 1994. The company was finally able to print enough cards to keep up with demand, and the result was that the set became immediately worthless.
“Designing for players is more challenging than designing for collectors,” Winter said. “A collectible card game has so many possible interactions, even before you throw the things collectors want into the mix, that keeping it all in balance is enormously complex. I had nightmares about players discovering an unexpected combo that breaks the game. Playtesting involves trying hundreds of seemingly nonsensical things in an effort to ferret out the killer combo that no one foresaw.”
One of the initial complaints from players about Spellfire was the complete lack of powers on some of the cards. It left people who had traded in their Magic cards scratching their heads. The whole point, after all, of playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, Magic, and Spellfire is to employ abilities beyond those of ordinary humans. Without those powers, one might as well be playing Skip-Bo with grandma. In a rules update for the third edition of the game, these deficient cards were retroactively upgraded to something useful, although there was never a public apology to Joliet The Rash or the Mind Flayer.
TSR was also caught off guard by how rapidly the design of Magic had become the standard by which all collectible card games were judged. Designers found themselves fielding complaints from players who were expecting a variation on the Magic theme—surely a galling position for the company that created freaking Dungeons & Dragons. “I was surprised,” Winter said, “by some of the early reviewers who lambasted Spellfire essentially for being different from Magic. What would be the point of putting out a clone? People who wanted to play Magic were already doing so, in droves. Plenty of small publishers got away with just cloning and re-flavoring Magic, but if TSR had done that, we’d have been ridiculed. And we’d have deserved it, in my opinion.”
Art was another contentious issue. TSR used preexisting images for its initial run of cards. The decision made sense in many ways—it saved money, for one, and TSR did have a formidable library of otherworldly artworks to draw from—but the recycled art caused fan blowback, which surprised the game’s creators with its intensity. This is unfortunate, because the best of TSR’s artwork is good enough to make Satan weep with pride. Every Spellfire card was potentially a Danzig album cover in itself.
And Magic’s commissioned art could be derivative and amateurish. Their “Force Of Nature” creature, for instance, looked like nothing if not the bastard offspring of Predator and Swamp Thing. But other examples of original Magic art were beautiful and destined to become iconic. Ron Spencer’s illustration for the “Hammer Of Bogardan” card, for instance, depicts an ebony demigod and his ornate sledgehammer of fire with such vibrance and motion that the image is practically three-dimensional. It was hard for TSR’s cards to have that kind of visual impact with illustrations that its fans had seen before.
Lower-than-expected sales and high shipping and printing costs meant that by the end of 1996, TSR was unable to meet its financial obligations. The fantasy gods must have a cruel sense of humor, because the rights to the brand were eventually purchased by its erstwhile competitor Wizards Of The Coast. Plan for additional expansions for Spellfire were halted. It’s difficult to say whether this decision to curtail Spellfire was a hostile takedown of a major competitor or just an acknowledgement that the CCG boom appeared to have run its course. (The baseball card market, meanwhile, was in ashes.)
As is often the case with ideas born in a boom, Spellfire’s life was cut short just as its creators were starting to get things right. Rules updates and some quality expansions had finally tweaked many of the glitches out of the game. Spellfire’s adherents soldiered on, and “sanctioned” homemade cards sprung up to fill out some empty spaces in the game’s world. (After all, what are RPG players good at, if not using their imaginations?) Wizards Of The Coast looked the other way, giving Spellfire fans tacit permission to print their own cards, and for a time, online “sticker” booster packs were produced and sold by passionate advocates. If TSR (through Wizards) wasn’t going to be producing Spellfire, than at least someone would. From a player’s standpoint, it didn’t much matter where the cards came from, so long as they functioned the same way. Fans also cobbled together a system for online play called CrossFire, where players could continue to “master the magic” on the internet.
Spellfire was a strange, compelling distillation of all that made Dungeons & Dragons such a recognizable cultural touchstone. Matches no longer hinged on the whims of a capricious Dungeon Master. The rules were more concrete, and the human element shifted to deck-building strategies—more curation than creation. Spellfire was also something of a last tactile hurrah before the majority of games migrated online. Do kids today even know how to shuffle cards?
It would be unfair, and really besides the point anyway, to label Spellfire a failure because it didn’t ultimately measure up to Magic. Amid the tumult at TSR, the game’s creators tried to create a game that stood on its own, instead of just taking the easy way out and completely ripping off a successful competitor. But Winter gives credit where it’s due. “As it turned out, WOTC beat everyone to the punch. In hindsight, there’s always risk of something like that appearing inevitable, [but] that would do a disservice to WOTC. The people there came up with a terrific idea, they worked really hard and poured their souls into it, and it paid off. You’ve got to tip your hat to that.”
An epilogue: The irony of TSR being made a subsidiary of Wizards Of The Coast proved short-lived. Wizards released the wildly popular Pokémon collectible card game (Gotta catch ’em all!) in early 1999, and the company was purchased by Hasbro shortly afterward. The TSR trademark was allowed to expire in the early 2000s, and the brand no longer appears on Dungeons & Dragons merchandise.