The attendant came up to me in the collectable card game aisle only after a courteous amount of browsing time. I said, “Can I ask you about Magic: The Gathering?” I’m sure I pronounced the colon. They turned out to be an expert. We talked about strategies and they gave me advice for advancing my deck, and after explaining what I liked about the game, they added, “But the best part is the lore, right?” I said “Sure.”
Before learning anything about it, I lumped Magic in with Dungeons & Dragons. Since they share some aesthetics and player stereotypes, I assumed it was the same nerd stuff: role-playing and storytelling and trying to stay invested. I played D&D once in high school and wasn’t patient enough.
But Magic isn’t like D&D at all. It’s more like chess—a sparring game with creature cards and just a few mechanics. Each card has a cost to use, a number for its strength, and a number for its defense.
But most creatures have special abilities in certain situations. There are also “enchantment” cards, which unbalance other interactions. This is where the complexity explodes, and every player develops their own nuanced gameplay: flavors of strategy arise as the through-line of the cards a player collects, demonstrating their favorite ways to spin the basic mechanics. Lots of cards work together, sometimes in unexpected ways. Still, battle is just integer math.
But these basic mechanics form only the frame of a much more ornate universe. I’m holding not just a creature card with a cost of 4, strength of 2, and defense of 3—she’s a Beast Whisper, an Elf Druid of the forest realm. Creatures that can still block after attacking are “vigilant.” Beasts with strength numbers that roll over have “trample,” and are then conceived as something towering, and illustrated from underfoot! Most cards have an excerpt of lyrical “flavor text,” giving each creature a hint of context. There are elephant-people and centaurs and goblins and sentient lakes and everything in between. This is all conjured with unreasonably gorgeous art.
I love this art because it’s so extra. It doesn’t get in the way of starting. The feel of Magic remains essential to the game while irrelevant to gameplay—I got the mechanics after half an hour of watching my friends play. By not setting it up as a barrier for entry, Magic keeps the juiciest drama of immersion accessible. And that’s the only way I can stay in.
Some minds build worlds more naturally this way. The creative team behind Magic writes lore in conjunction with card releases—dozen of novels of it—extending epics from the tiny windows of each card. I’ll never read this lore, but I love to see how some minds are so drawn to this kind of literary thoroughness, and can follow it or create it or be immersed by it, so happily and naturally.
I mostly play Magic with my roommate Jake. His biggest hobby is running several games of Dungeons & Dragons with friends, as the “dungeon master,” or narrator and world-worker that guides characters through a campaign based on their choices and luck. He’s also writing a medieval fantasy novel. He’s also tried to get me into a video game called Dragon Age: Inquisition. Along with more medieval fantasy fighting, much of Dragon Age is about navigating complicated political unrest through story branches and nuanced dialogue options. I have no idea what’s happening, but he does.
Jake in part has made me appreciate a kind of literary imagination and intelligence that I totally don’t have. I’m really bad at following plots in movies. I wish I liked to read fiction. I love how some people can create and follow entire worlds in their mind from only a few narrative footholds. Tracing Magic’s devices for building a mythology from piles of disparate cards makes me want to keep collecting and playing.
And I’ve realized I like wading into expansive subcultures very shyly. I’m content to stick with the strategy flavor of the deck I inherited. (That’s green and white, or excuse me, of the Selesnya Conclave.) I’m content to glean mythology bit by bit from the art and flavor text.
Despite our brains latching on to opposite things, Jake and I can both come out of our rooms, put on one of the few records in his collection that we both like, and play together over our coffee table.