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It's All in the Cards / New game challenges Magic: The Gathering for top spot

A potentially multimillion-dollar business got its start

when three players of collectible card games from Queens posed this question:

"In real-life combat, would gladiators ever take turns?"

The answer: Certainly not!

That gave rise to their new game, in which an opponent mostly hangs on to

play until relinquishing for a strategic reason, instead of traditional

turn-taking. In so doing, these entrepreneurs discovered what they see as a

loophole in the game patent held by Wizards of the Coast, producer of Magic:

The Gathering - and the Goliath in this more than $200 million game sector.

Ophidian 2350, their patented futuristic gladiator combat card game, hits

hobby shops on Aug. 13, already with close to $1 million in retail presales.

It's the brain child of Gregg Schwartz, Shaun Mahar and Raffi Tasci, all 25,

who met, and played games, at Forest Hills High School.

"It's more like a real fight," says Schwartz, business manager, who along

with Mahar, lead designer, and Tasci, operations manager, developed the

business on their kitchen tables. They now live, respectively, in Kew Gardens,

Rego Park and Glendale.

The collectible card game genre, combining game play with trading and

collecting, got its start 10 years ago with the debut of Magic: The Gathering,

now with more than 6 million players worldwide. Other popular games are Pok�mon

and Yu-Gi-Oh! Gamers buy starter packs of cards, which they supplement with

regularly released "booster" packs.

The Ophidian partners hit upon the novel play process in the fall of 2000,

but it wasn't until Schwartz quit his support assistant job at Merrill Lynch a

year ago and called on his former Baruch College business professor, Peter

McAliney, that the ball really started rolling. The first thing McAliney told

them was to call back all the distributors who had shot them down or not

returned calls.

"The first call I made was to Fleer [Trading Cards]," says Schwartz, and

despite previous unreturned calls, he actually got through. "We were in their

office in two weeks. And signed a [licensing] contract two weeks after that."

Fleer serves as the game's producer and distributor. Next month, Fleer starts

shipping $9.99 starter packs of 60 cards, and $3.29 booster packs of 11 to the

more than 30 distributors listed on

Combat, however, is not confined to the Ophidian gladiator characters. More

than 20 new games are coming out this year, the highest number since 1995,

says Joyce Greenholdt, editor of the magazine Scrye - The Guide to Collectible

Card Games. The Ophidian game is "one of the strongest releases," she says, but

its success "depends on how successful they are at getting the word out to the

right people."

"It's a little higher on the complexity scale," says Tom Slizewski, editor

of Inquest Gamer magazine, who's seen 130 games come and go in the past decade.

A representative of Wizards of the Coast declined to comment other than to say

that new concepts are good in that they bring new players into the category.

Still, the partners are looking to extend their brand through video games,

novels, animation and licensing. "It's their vision," says McAliney, a

consultant to major companies. "They eat it, sleep it and dream it."

Says Schwartz of this entrepreneurial route, "I wanted to try it before I

got locked up in the corporate world." In true gladiator style, he says he's

adopted the thinking of a girl who once told him that the greatest risk in life

is not taking one. "That's my motto."

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