Magical Storytelling Revisited

Last time I wrote about storytelling in Magic the Gathering I had only just started playing and I had only played with the core set. I said at the time that the rules didn’t really tell a story.

I still stand by that, but I’ve modified my stance a bit since I’ve been playing with expansion set cards (the first two Tarkir sets) and some of the other products (such as duel decks). There is a lot of story in Magic, but it’s setting for the game rather than being told by the game itself. The story then influences the mechanics within a set and the flavour of the cards.

Let’s take the Khans of Tarkir set as an example.

Tarkir is a world of harsh environments and conflicting peoples. The story is about two planeswalkers who visit Tarkir. One of these was born there and is appalled to find that the dragons he remembers are extinct with the world ruled by five warring clans*. These clans each have their own colour identities and their own styles layered on top of long-standing styles of cards associated with individual colours.

And this is how the world of Magic the Gathering goes: each year is a new season with an overarching story arc and theme. Last year it was Theros with a Greek myth theme, and in a previous year we’ve had Innistrad and its invading undead. Within these themes, different mechanics are available which are consonant with the theme – Theros had mechanics like heroic and the bestowing of enchantments, while Innistrad had cards that would transform from human to some monstrous form.

For Khans of Tarkir, the mechanics are related to each clan’s style: the necromantic Sultai get Delve, which makes casting expensive spells easier by the disposal of expended spells; the skillful Jeskai get Prowess, which strengthens creatures when spells are cast; and the ferocious Temur have the Ferocious mechanic, which strengthens creatures when you have a powerful creature in play. The Abzan and Mardu clans have Outlast and Raid mechanics which similarly fit the clan personalities.

The creatures allied with each clan reflect its personality also. The Abzan have durable creatures, the Mardu have aggressive creatures, and the Sultai have snakes and zombies.

So it seems I was looking in the wrong place for the story – I was looking at the cards, when the narrative is on the web sites and the trailers, the spoilers and the novels. While there are fragments of story on the cards, it is at the level of flavour text rather than narrative. Where I’m usually looking for the story to be formed by the mechanics, in Magic the mechanics are shaped by the story.

Interestingly enough, Planet Money did a podcast this week on how the designers of Magic managed to deflate a bubble before it popped, and it relates directly to the way that new sets of cards are released at regular intervals. When Magic was first published, it started to form a collecting bubble almost immediately. But the designers introduced their own economic mechanic to change that narrative, to make a game people would play for decades to come rather than a bubble that burst explosively and suffered complete collapse.

And maybe that’s the most interesting thing about Magic the Gathering, ultimately: building a game hich is still played more than twenty years after its release. That’s a story worth knowing.

[*] there are a lot of fives in Magic because there are five colours of mana.

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