Thunk—the dice land on the wooden table, and Zvi Mowshowitz cackles. A lucky roll has endowed two playing cards in his deck with special powers. He turns the plastic-coated slips of paper, illustrated with leaping superheroes, into a horizontal position indicating combat mode. The imaginary characters attack, dealing fatal blows to the overmatched defenses of his opponent. Victory!
The scene could take place in any basement or game shop in the country—anywhere nerds gather to send card-bound wizards, warriors, and Valkyries into battle. But this match is unusual. On this mid-April morning the setting is a luxury loft in Manhattan’s tony Tribeca neighborhood, where a stylish venture capitalist and a husky-voiced historian of pop culture are, as gamers say, “playtesting.”
The pair’s business partner and temporary adversary, Mowshowitz, is no ordinary player. A 41-year-old with unkempt hair and black glasses, Mowshowitz explodes frequently into laughter, eerily similar to that of the boy-genius Mandark from the ’90s cartoon series Dexter’s Laboratory. Mowshowitz has a fondness for novelty T-shirts: Today’s reads, “Question Authority: Ask Me Anything.” He’s famous in geek circles as a champion of Magic: The Gathering, a fantasy card game beloved by millions of people.
Mowshowitz made his name as a David among Goliaths. His slingshot: using low-value cards to triumph over opponents with more powerful hands.
Now Mowshowitz is playing a bigger game. He wants to deploy the same strategy against a video game industry worth more than $100 billion that is, in Mowshowitz’s view, exploiting fans with addictive, money-grubbing ploys like forcing them to “grind,” or engage in repetitious quests. Mowshowitz’s target is a niche corner of the industry known as digital collectible card games, which are forecast to grow to a $2 billion market this year from $1.5 billion last year. Perhaps the crowning example, Hearthstone, a breakout mobile game, clai...