Born with wings of light and a sword of faith, this heavenly incarnation embodies both fury and purity.
– Serra Angel Flavor Text
Two battle-mages meet for an unsanctioned fight in the street. Windows, balcony doors fly open—bakers, smiths, and bar patrons flood the square. They shout their bets at a gambler in rags. Small fires burn in the irises of one mage; wild grass swirls in the eyes of the other. They circle the midpoint between them. The forest mage snaps, and a cloud of leaves becomes a War Mammoth, but it is sick from the summoning portal, so it must wait a turn before trampling toward the opponent. The red mage swirls his charcoal staff and sends a Raging Goblin sprinting toward his rival. It charges with suicidal glee, but the mammoth blocks it. The goblin sinks its teeth and hatchet into the leg of the mammoth. The beast wails, raises its hoof and stomps the goblin into a grey-green splat. The red mage forms a ball of fire between his palms and blasts the mammoth with a Shock. A small matter of arithmetic buries it in the graveyard.
Such is the imagined scenario in any given game of Magic: The Gathering, first published in 1993 by Wizards of the Coast. While playing for ante, or gambling with cards from your deck, is no longer vogue, the collapsible plastic tables ringed by players young and old remain, cracking open booster packs, sleeving up, and snapping open velcro deck boxes in comic book stores all over the world.
Much about the game has changed: thousands of sorceries, enchantments, and creature-summoning spells have been added and subtracted; what were once battlemages are now planeswalkers, flickering between and attempting to dominate various savage realms; new abilities, rulings, and card bans keep the game balanced and fun. But the core mechanics remain the same: use a collection of spells and creatures to attack your opponent until their life total shrinks from twenty to zero (or prolong the game until they draw their entire deck).
For developers, keeping every set of hundreds of additional cards, released three times a year, from ruining the game is a massive math problem of increasing complexity.
Beyond the in-house lore, both pop culture and the literary community have only just flirted with this form of Magic. South Park brilliantly lampooned the at-times overt intensity of the game, VICE has a micro-documentary short about an up-and-coming player, Junot Diaz’s protagonist in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao bemoans the fading of the more imagination-dependent Dungeons & Dragons, and Rolling Stone just ran a piece on a massive Grand Prix tournament in Vegas. Blake Butler did the best job explaining why it is the greatest game on earth in signature brutal style at HTML Giant. A D Jameson wrote a whole series of tournament reports and highlighted pros like Patrick Chapin, who writes articles with Oulipo-inspired restrictions. Jameson notes the sheer amount of ink spilled on the game in the many articles written every day on websites like Channel Fireball and Star City Games.
As someone who played in his youth and continues to play now and then with friends, I too became obsessed with Magic coverage as a sort of mental escape from the haughty world of writers. I find a sick satisfaction in the meticulous, layered deconstructions when players like the young Reid Duke spill two thousand words on nuanced strategies surrounding a single card, like in “Thoughtseize You.”
What is the allure of combing through strategies to a game that one does not play? The pleasure comes from a promise that variance will occur—that new spells will breed new strategies. And similar to the pleasure one might garner from watching waves crash, or fire burn, every added piece alters the whole, yet the overall shape remains the same. The Internet accelerates these alterations until there remains an ever-morphing web of logic chains for gamers to solve. Comparatively, the art world stagnates in ways that Magic might not—the edges are sharper, such that a critique of any given deck or card can be backed up by endless statistics and math.
A more fitting correlation might be if, in chess, we could carve our own pawn so that it could move slightly further than the opponent’s. There is no doubt that every chess master would have to become an expert whittler as well as strategist. And the challenge of sculpting 60 cards from a set of thousands so as to create a working whole is not unlike the challenge of writing—the great deck-builders are definitely artists in their own way. The three psychographic profiles used to describe different types of players are“Timmies,” “Johnnies,” and “Spikes.” Of these, the “Johnny” is the player who looks to Magic as a form of self-expression and perpetual creation; one need look no further than the articles of Travis Woo.
For explicative purposes, we could say, however arbitrarily, that the game is 15% aesthetic, 25% linguistic, and 60% mathematical.
Aesthetically, the card art suggests a creature or spell in action as well as hinting at interstitial lore. The card is mathematical in its casting cost (the small forest in the upper right-hand corner), attack power/defense (1/1), and abilities.
The card operates linguistically through its name, “Llanowar Elves”; its text box, “tap to add one green mana”; and the flavor text: “One bone broken for every twig snapped underfoot. – Llanowar penalty for trespassing.” (The back-stories are undoubtedly Tolkienian and borrow relentlessly from Norse, Chinese, Greek, and Japanese mythologies).
There is a sense of narrative written into the natural flow of an average game of Magic. First, both players, sitting opposite one another, draw their hands. The type of deck the opponent might be playing is shrouded in mystery. Then, the first land is played.
This sets the scene, be it in the forest, mountains, swamp, plains, or islands. Each land suggests the eve of a different set of events. If it is a forest, one can expect beasts to be accelerated into play with the help of elves that can create extra mana. Mountains foretell speed, and Fireballs that can fly over the armies of creatures and directly strike the opponent with massive amounts of damage.
Swamps are the realm of the dead—zombifying creatures back from the graveyard and killing the opponent’s creatures, without warning, at any point in the game.
Plains are the land of the highborn: stoic and holy, they can prevent damage, summon angels, and gain life.
Last is the island, the world of the blue mage, who can counter spells mid-flight, draw cards, as well as command merfolk and leviathans.
All the colors are vastly different yet fastidiously balanced and can be combined a total of 42 different ways so as to create new decks, suggestions, feelings, and strategies. According to gamer legend, this color wheel of five different yet balanced factions was instrumental in the design of Starcraft’s Zerg, Protoss, and Terran factions.
You can only cast one land per turn, which ensures that the action develops slowly. Players (mages or planeswalkers) draw mana from their land by “tapping it” (turning it to the right and putting it out of use for the turn) in order to cast spells. The first creatures and spells are small and seemingly insignificant in the context of the entire game, but any player worth his salt knows the first spells cast are just as essential as the last. They ping away at the opponent’s life total, force discards, set up defenses, or blitz toward the opponent with a small army of attackers.
As players play more lands, and thereby “develop more mana,” they are able to add more and larger creatures to the battlefield. Spells, in turn, grow stronger and more threatening. The game reaches natural stages of climax where one player will choose to attack with a large horde of creatures and the opponent will spend a lot of time thinking about how they would like to block so that they receive the minimum amount of damage.
Language passed between the players is not unlike Wittgenstein’s most primitive model of the language game: basic coded language like tap, damage on the stack, assign blockers, attack step, in response, upkeep, trample, haste, flying, first strike, double strike, morph, flashback, exile, and graveyard all have their own meanings in different contexts. Each is a beckoning for the opponent’s response, acknowledgement of a given sense of rules, and control over actual time (e.g., players often have to announce that they’re “thinking” before they let a spell resolve) as well as manufactured turn-time (upkeep, untap, main phase, attack step, assign attackers, assign blockers, second main phase, end step).
Certain cards will prolong games to close to an hour, and others can end it all in minutes. Wrath of God can wipe the entire board clean and kill every creature in play, while complex combo decks can generate infinite loops that kill the opponent on the second turn.
Like any basic plot, moments of calm and thought are balanced with brief and sometimes painstakingly nuanced instances of conflict. The narrative arch gets its jagged edge, rises slowly as the fluid landscape shifts. A player dies and loses when all of his creatures are wiped off and the opponent can bash in safely until the player’s life total of 20 reaches zero. Each game ends in imagined death. There is no denouement save for the handshake, the sound of shuffling, sideboarding (a side deck of 15 cards that are specifically good against certain colors and strategies), and starting again.
Just as words can spider off into different associations and meanings in different contexts, cards and player choices fracture into infinitely complex decision trees. One could explain tomes about Game Theory simply by describing situations that come up in games of Magic. As science and technology become ever more present in pop culture, genre boundaries blur, and e-sports expand their niche, Magic: The Gathering grows in strength amongst them—a brilliant blend of math, linguistics, strategy, and art. And while by definition it may be impossible, players still talk about playing a “perfect game” and making the “correct moves.” This is perhaps their own way of pursuing an unreachable sublimity, or platonic ideal in their work, which is just to say they seek beauty, too, in their own way.