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Magic: The Gathering – A Fantasy Lover’s Perspective

Magic the Gathering (card back)There are lots of games out there for fans of fantasy, both video and table-top. Dungeons & Dragons is probably the most well-known table top fantasy game, but Wizards of the Coast also publishes Magic: The Gathering, a trading card game that also belongs in the fantasy genre. But I noticed that there isn’t a lot of discussion about how magicfits into fantasy, or what readers who love fantasy might find enjoyable about the story, even if they don’t play table top card games.

In Magic: The Gathering, you are counted among the elite spellcasters of the Multiverse—the Planeswalkers. Your deck of cards represents your weapons, containing the spells you know and the creatures you can summon to fight for you.

This is how new players are first introduced to the lore of the Magic game. You aren’t just any spellcaster, you’re a Planeswalker, with the ability to travel between worlds. That deck isn’t just cards; those are your spells, which you use to defeat your opponent in honorable (and sometimes not so honorable) combat. I don’t often see people roleplaying while playing Magic, but the setup for it is there and the structure of the game is built around that basic idea.

Much of the Magic storyline can be found in bits of text on the cards, or in the cards’ artwork. And that artwork is almost always superb. This year’s Chesley Award for gaming related illustration went to art specifically made for the game, called Pharika, God of Affliction. There are illustrations of fantastical creatures, magical artifacts, and even just panoramic pictures of fantastical cities and forests. Basically, if you enjoy fantasy art, looking at Magic cards can keep you occupied for hours.

Pharika, God of Affliction by PeteMohrbacher

Even though it’s a card game, Magic does have a storyline, one that’s been running since 1993. Each set of cards that is released is themed after one of the many worlds in the Multiverse, where Magic takes place. Some of these worlds have a traditional middle ages fantasy theme, but many draw from other sources for their settings. One of the recently released sets took place on a plane called Tarkir, which drew inspiration from the Asian continent, featuring both humanoid and non-humanoid creatures such as nagas, dragons, and rakshasa. Another recent set used an ancient Greek theme, and the previously mentioned Pharika is a god from this world. There is a world that is actually one large city, another with a gothic setting with vampires and angels at war, a world of metal whose inhabitants have been corrupted by a sentient plague.

Ashiok, the Nightmare Weaver by Karla OrtizAnd while there are the usual fantasy creatures like elves and dragons, Magic has created some original species as well. Sentient rats that practice ninjitsu, various kinds of merfolk, a hive-mind species called Slivers, and many others.

And then there are our protagonists, the Planeswalkers. Not bound to one plane, the main characters of the Magic storyline travel to all these different worlds, usually in an attempt to try and help. Sometimes they win; sometimes they accidently release world-eating Cthulhu-like monsters upon the Multiverse. When the focus is on gameplay first, characterization can slip into stereotypes, and Magic isn’t an exception to this. There’s the mysterious mind-reader with a dark past, the fiery-tempered pyromancer, etc. Thankfully Wizards of the Coast has tried to flesh out these characters with the most recently released set, delving into their backstories in both the cards and short stories that can be found online. It’s a welcome attempt to make characters that people can actually care about, and is one of the recent changes that I think makes Magic more appealing to people who enjoy reading fantasy.

But just because some of the characters check a few boxes in a list of fantasy tropes, doesn’t mean they all do. Ashiok, the Nightmare Weaver is not the sort of person you want to meet in a dark alley. Ashiok’s gender is officially unspecified, because that’s really not important when Ashiok is invading your nightmares with only half-a-face. This year they also released their first transgender and autistic characters. One of the main villains is an ancient dragon with schemes that span millennia. He’s what you might get if Moriarty was both a dragon and a Bond villain. In Dungeons & Dragons, you can create a character you enjoy and take them through a story. Magic works similarly, most players have a few favorite characters, and they build decks around those character’s cards and abilities.

Narset, Enlightened Master by Magali Villeneuve

Tie-in works to games have a bad reputation, and while some of Magic’s short stories and books are good, others are exactly what one would expect from novels written about a card game. With Wizards putting more focus on the characters and storyline, hopefully that will increase the quality of the published stories, because there is a lot of potential for a great fantasy universe in Magic: The Gathering.

The other drawback is the price; trading card games are expensive hobbies. But there are formats for those who are budget conscious and for those who are more interested in the story and theme of their deck rather than whether or not it can win a tournament. And the newest digital version of the game is free on Steam. So if you’re a fan of fantasy (and I know you are, you’re on Fantasy-Faction, after all) and want a new game universe to explore, you could do worse than Magic.

Title image by TheKagestar.

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