Unless you’ve been stuck in a dungeon for the last 23 years, you’ve probably heard of one of the games entering the Gaming Canon with this article. Whether or not you’ve heard of the other game depends greatly on how far back your knowledge of high fantasy magic in games extends.
When Dungeons & Dragons came on the gaming scene, hitting it’s stride in the early 1980s, it rode a wave of resurgent interest in high fantasy, including J.R.R. Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings. The basic play style of fantasy roleplaying games meant that a group usually had one or two (at most) wizard/magic-user characters. Rarely did wizards do battle with each other in a game of wits and power. But that is exactly the sort of play that many spell-slinging roleplayers wished for.
Tom Jolly’s Wiz-War came along to answer this expectation. Players take the role of wizards dueling it out in a labyrinth, relying on spells, curses, summoned creatures, and enchantments to capture their opponents’ chests of gold. The basic play structure is a hand of cards and set actions that can be carried out on a turn with the played spells providing the drama.
Remove the labyrinth and you essentially have Magic: The Gathering (Magic), published a decade later.
It is hard to downplay the surge of interest in Magic when it was released. Few game stores and game groups were without mention of the new collectible game that combined card play and the collectible nature common to trading cards. To make it even more interesting, Magic (and Wiz-War in certain variants) relies on players taking the time to build a deck a cards from their collection. Expansions of near-infinite dimension led to the game taking on an evolving nature such that players of one generation experienced many different cards than players who experience the game in a later or earlier generation. Magic has also earned a particular stature as the go-to tournament game for many. Magic’s 23 year success story is a testament to a game that easily enters the Gaming Canon.
But in my mind, you cannot divorce Magic from Wiz-War. They share a story of gamer’s aspirations for competition and idealizations of magic as a concept in games. Even though they present seemingly different structures, experiencing the predecessor is just as important to understand how this historic line of gameplay (Dungeons & Dragons, Wiz-War, Magic: The Gathering) has enchanted players for nearly 40 years.