Professor's Game Casts Magic Spell On Players

In class, Richard Garfield is a math wizard, a visiting professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, where he introduces freshmen to the finer points of calculus.

Outside class, Garfield is another sort of wizard, the creator of Magic, a new card game in which players duel with highflying spells in an imaginary land called Dominia.

Magic has caught on big time with gamers, the people interested in strategy and mystical games like Dungeons and Dragons and Star Fleet, said Chris Lightfoot, purchasing manager for Golden Age Collectibles at the Pike Place Market.

What makes Magic especially appealing is that players can trade their "spell cards" much like baseball cards, bartering for various creatures, landscapes and sorcery.

Lightfoot said he sold 40 decks of the game (at $7.95 each) in one week and was waiting for the game's second printing. After players snatched up more than 10 million cards, the game sold out last month.

"It's one of those phenomenal things like when Trivial Pursuit was hot and Pictionary," said Barbara Wright, owner of Wright One, a distributor. "I haven't gotten a product like this in years."

The idea for Magic came from fantasy-baseball games, said Garfield. Instead of compiling baseball statistics, however, Magic collectors "summon" things like Nymphs or Craw Wurms, dragonlike beasts that thunder through forests.

"It's been a hobby. I've never intended to do it professionally," said Garfield, who recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a doctorate in combinatorics, a branch of math that focuses on statistics and probability.

Each Magic player begins with 20 "life points." The game ends when the player who loses all of his points must leave Dominia and, even worse, must surrender a card.

Magic is much like the card game War, said Garfield, except it isn't boring and players challenge each other with more than one card at a time. Actually, the game seems like a cross of War and chess.

The cards are illustrated with mystical monsters and beautiful creatures melded with poetry and spells.

On a card called Fire Breathing, a dragon spits out a stream of golden flames. Underneath the beast is a line from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "In Memoriam":

"And topples round the dreary west

A looming bastion fringed with fire."

Local and national artists, many of them recent art-school graduates, were commissioned for the cards' vivid artwork. Some cards are downright spooky; others would look fine on a coffee table.

The sales have amused Garfield, a mild-mannered 30-year-old teacher who admits he's addicted to his own game, one of many he has created since he was 15.

"The things I love in math are the same things I love in games. There's puzzle solving and real or imaginary events," Garfield said.