Magic: The Gathering (aka MTG or just Magic) is a multiplayer, collectible card game created by Richard Garfield in the early 1990s. Based on a field of mathematics known as combinatorics, Magic is essentially an abstract counting game that has been brought to life by the fictional fantasy (both in its storyline and visual imagery) on the cards.
Three sets of Magic cards were released in 1993. The first Alpha set, as it’s known, featured 295 black-bordered cards, 116 of which were printed in lower numbers to make them rare. Some of the cards in this original set, including Black Lotus, a quintet of Mox cards, and cards with names like Goblin Recruiter and Ancestral Recall, are so powerful in terms of their effect upon a game that they are either banned or restricted from tournaments.
Subsequent sets in 1993 were named Beta (which corrected errors in the sold-out Alpha set and restored cards that had been inadvertently excluded) and Unlimited Edition, which was essentially the Beta set but with a white instead of a black border.
Concurrent with the release of the Unlimited Edition was the game’s first expansion set, Arabian Nights. Also designed by Garfield, the 92-card set included a card called Shahrazad, which permitted players to play a subgame using cards in their “library,” which are those cards in a player’s deck that are not in use. This card, too, is banned in tournaments.
Other early expansion packs include Antiquities (100 cards, including the trio of Urza cards and the rare and highly collectible Mishra’s Workshop) and Legends (its mammoth collection of 310 cards, as well as the fact that the full number of uncommon cards never made it into print), make this a difficult set to collect.
For the most part, the subject matter of Magic cards is as serious as fantasy and mythical fiction can get. Cards faces are filled with images of marauding goblins, fanged and drooling creatures, gloomy forests, and desert wastelands. But the designers at Wizards of the Coast, which publishes Magic: The Gathering, have also been known to poke fun at themselves, as seen in the parody sets called Unglued (1998) and Unhinged (2004).