Interesting Patent: Magic the Gathering

In the early 1990’s, mathematics professor Richard Channing Garfield invented a collectable card game called “Magic: The Gathering.”  In case you haven’t heard, Magic (or MTG) was a great international success. The game won scores of awards, created an active collector market, and even spawned a professional player circuit. The game has been credited with improving players’ money-management skills, vocabulary, and social skills. 

Garfield filed for patent protection in 1995, with his patent for “Trading card game method of play” granted in 1997. (Later reissued in 2003 as RE37957.)

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The Background of Invention section of the patent explains that Magic sets out to create a sort of trading card / playing card game hybrid:

Trading cards are a well-known method of disbursing and collecting information about public figures. A familiar type of trading card is the baseball card that has a photographic depiction of an athlete along with biological and statistical information about the athlete.  … Trading cards are typically exchanged among enthusiasts to obtain cards that are needed to complete a set of related cards to collect cards that are not readily available. Collectors buy and sell these cards for their economic and historic value.

Playing cards, on the other hand, especially the well-known fifty-two deck face cards, are easily and readily available. The cards themselves, individually and collectively, generally have no value other than for amusement.  Many games played with the more common face cards are games of chance.  …  Other games that require some strategy usually limit the level of strategy with restrictive rules of play.

At the present, there are no known games that use freely tradable game elements or components, such as trading cards, and further, games that enable a player to form a unique combination of components that competes against the combinations of other players.

Not surprising given its tremendous success, MTG has since inspired many similarly styled games, some licensed from MTG’s owner, Wizards of the Coast / Hasbro, and some not. This led to at least one lawsuit between Wizards of the Coast and Nintendo, owners of the popular Pokemon brand, with Wizards alleging that the Pokemon card game violated their MTG patent.

Long story short, Wizards believes that their broad patent covers:

  • Games published in the form of trading cards.
  • Games in which a player selects a collection of tradeable elements and uses that set to compete with other players.
  • Certain aspects of gameplay originally developed for Magic: The Gathering, such as "tapping" a card to indicate it is temporarily depleted.

For those unfamiliar with MTG, “tapping” refers to simply rotating card 90 degrees, or placing a chip or another type marker on top of it.

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The parties settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

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