Telling Stories through Cards – Part 1: Magic

It’s been awhile since I carved out some time to write non-finance articles. Honestly, I’d like my content to be a little less lopsided overall, but the finance end has been so crazy over the past few weeks that it’s hard not to focus on. However, we’re going to make some time and look at how card games tell stories through art, design and lore. As with the gnarly art series, I’m going to look at some games that have been around a bit longer to see how they’ve done it and then turn my attention back to FAB to see where they are now and then talk a little bit about what I’d like to see in the future.

The Old Days

Like many people, Magic was my first collectable card game (CCG). I got in at Alliances, but much of my early collection was built from cheap Homelands and Fallen Empires boosters and common bins packed full of Ice Age, Fourth Edition, and Chronicles. Ah to be young and naïve, digging through ten cent boxes with my brother in search of Scaled Wurms! This was an era where Magic was sort of finding its footing in terms of narrative. At launch, Magic’s narrative was largely non-existent. It leaned mostly on genre tropes and the did far more work building a world in broad strokes as opposed to telling discreet stories or creating memorable characters to inhabit that world. What fragments of lore we had were very scant and isolated, delivered largely through flavor text and didn’t really connect up with anything else. Northern Paladin, for instance, mentions “The Book of Tal;” Llanowar Elves, teases the forest they draw their name from; Mon’s Goblin Raiders introduces the “Rundvelt Goblin” and their leader, Pashalik Mons. However, these pieces were rarely built upon, at least within the Limited Edition sets. Llanowar was, of course, expanded on significantly over the years, and Pashalik Mons eventually got his own card in Modern Horizons decades later. However, at the time of the game’s launch, Dominaria read mostly as generic fantasy with some weird elements like Chaos Orb or Living Wall.

It’s kind of criminal how much better the art of old card frames was.

The early expansion were all over the place in terms of world building and narrative elements. Arabian Nights exists in this weird sort of liminal space between references to characters from other books (ex. Shahrazad and Ali from Cairo), drawing heavily on the story of One Thousand and One Nights, which oddly anchors it to Earth. Then it takes all of that and crams it through the tenuous lens of the lazily named “Rabiah”. The following set, Antiquities, was the first set to really start fleshing out the game’s world (well, the multiverse really). The historical event of the Brother’s War acted as a central point to draw cards together in the context of a narrative, and we also started to get some recurring characters who were defined through repeated references in flavor text and card names – for instance, Ashnod is defined through her artifacts as somewhat of a sadistic personality, tinkering with manipulating flesh and engaging in human sacrifice. These cards do a lot of work with limited space via harmonious design that draws on mechanical elements in addition to stylistic ones.  Ashnod’s Battle Gear (really the proto equipment for the game) identifies the armor as hers, defines a menacing appearance, and tells a story through flavor text and mechanics: the armor isn’t protecting so much as actually harming the wearer in exchange for greater ability to do damage. Similarly, Ashnod’s Transmogrant mechanically reifies the story being told in the flavor text by turning a creature into an artifact and empowering it.

While Antiquities told the story of past events from a historical perspective (which is fairly similar to how Fallen Empires approached things and an interesting approach to storytelling in its own right), Ice Age and Alliances were the sets where I feel like individual characters started to have notable personalities. A big part of this was having characters referenced and actually quoted on a bunch of cards (Homelands did some work in this space, but Homelands was an incredibly bland set with very little in the way of engaging characters.) My early favorite from this era was the task mage, Jaya Ballard.

These bits are fairly representation of Jaya quotes, and, with a minimal amount of space, they manage to create the sort of cohesive packages of rules and aesthetics that I talked about with the Ashnod cards. Even though she wouldn’t appear on a physical card for another decade, I had a sense of who Jaya was, and I was a fan.

Oh yeah, I should mention that a lot of early Magic’s story was told in books. I referenced the HarperPrism books (which really had tenuous connections at best to the card game) in my recent discussion of their associated promos, but the actual Magic lore I remember from this era was from the Armada comics, which I also first encountered via the Ice Age series. These were a bit closer to the game than the HarperPrism books since they actually had spells from the game and characters referenced on the cards in them. They were a bit cheesy, but I was also like twelve, and would take pretty much anything sci-fi or fantasy offered that had badass women who got to do things instead of having things happen to them.

Fun Fact: Freyalise used red magic until she ascended and became a plansewalker and went green (planeswalkers were way different back in the day)

Well, it was that and/or, maybe young me just had a thing for Freyalise

You’re never going to convince me that Freyalise isn’t into women

Rath and Storm

ANYWAY, the comics did some slapdash world building that worked with the cards being released to craft a narrative that vaguely came across. Honestly, I think Ice Age and Alliances succeed at creating a setting and some characters with the cards, but if I hadn’t had the comics, I would have had no clue what was going on in the narrative. Magic didn’t really get going on a structured story until Weatherlight and the Rath Cycle that followed it. This is was Magic’s first real attempt at telling ongoing narratives through the game and the connected books. The Weatherlight had a discreet crew, they went on an adventure, and there was a full storyline built around it. Let’s take a quick look at how they did this through the character of Ertai. (This is necessarily going to skip around a bit because it would take too much space to sum up the events of half a dozen books and their associated sets).

Ertai was the Weatherlight’s resident mage. It’s been a long time, and I forget if there was a prominent segment of male Magic players who liked him the same way that they seemed to like Jace years later (as a sort of self-insert, smartest-guy-in-the-room type), but I always thought Ertai was kind of a douche. In the broad strokes of the narrative, the Weatherlight crew goes to the plane of Rath to free their captured captain, Sisay. Things go poorly, and Ertai is left behind by necessity while the ship flees through a planar portal. He is captured, experimented on, has a villainous turn, and is eventually killed while torturing a former crewmember. We see this take place across multiple cards from several different sets.

These cards from Weatherlight (the expansion named for the ship) introduce the character before he had his own card. These are interesting example because they’re not really strongly connected to Ertai – the artwork doesn’t depict him and the flavor text isn’t strongly connected to the cards, but it does give us some early breadcrumbs for this crew member. This also takes the sort of character definition we saw with Jaya, and builds it out to a broader cast who have narrative connections to each other. By the time Tempest released, many of the crew members and their relationships had already been defined. In this case, Ertai is a prick, and Mirri is not here for his bullshit.

As the Tempest block unfolded, we saw cards that depicted Ertai physically. And we got cards that, like the Ashnod’s ones, showed items or actions associated with Ertai that combined with flavor text to connect with the character directly. This contrasted the Weatherlight cards discussed above where the flavor text is building his character, but there’s a disconnect between the art and that flavor text.

It wasn’t until three sets later in Exodus that Ertai eventually got his own card (seriously, look at that smug asshole). Rendered as a creature with a built in counterspell, Ertai’s card weaves together ability art and flavor text to bring together the elements introduced in Weatherlight into a concrete cohesive character. The background of his card also teases the portal depicted in Erratic Portal. The latter card’s flavor text gives a glimpse into a key point of the story: the Weatherlight’s retreat from Rath. Of course this all goes very poorly for Ertai, who is left behind. Only to show up again a couple sets later, looking worse for the wear.

This is one of the first times we see Magic doing something that would eventually become the norm, especially with planeswalkers: we get a different version of a character rendered on a new card. For Ertai this is showcasing his corruption and descent into villainy. The way I’ve described this, skipping around, and a little disjointed, is how I imagine the experience of encountering the story entirely via the cards would be. To really see these pieces all tied up neatly, you were sort of expected to read the books, at which point the cards became sort of illustrated highlights.

This mode very much set the stage for how Wizards handled story in its sets in the following years (and I believe how it is still done –I don’t follow magic too closely these days). That is to say, they had narratives for their sets, but to really know what was going on in any detail, you had to read a bunch of supplementary texts. Frankly, this is fine; it’s sort of there for people who care about it, but you don’t need it to enjoy the game or to get the broad strokes of the plot. It does however highlight something important: card games are not a great vehicle for story-telling and character development. You can get some notable narrative beats —like the two versions of Ertai— but it’s mostly big picture stuff. Recognizing the scope that you can reasonably attain through the medium is important. CCGs are much better at using the cards as a pastiche to evoke a feel for a setting and then populate it with some memorable characters who we get a general sense of than to tell a detailed story.

While I’ve yet to ever see a CCG produce what I would think of as a great story, what I’m getting at is that it’s important to recognize that the deck is stacked against them (couldn’t help myself) in that regard. It’s a limitation of the medium, which doesn’t mean it can’t do interesting or satisfying things in terms of narrative. Take this three card tempest tableau:

If you read the books you can follow Greven and Vhati’s relationship (it’s very Megatron and Starscream) and the events that ultimately lead to Greven throwing Vhati off of the Predator to his death, but you don’t actually need any of that to get the payoff of these three cards existing together in a set. You know that Greven is in charge (he’s got “Commander” in his name after all), he’s not particularly stable, he doesn’t think highly of Vhati, and then Vhati screws up and that’s the end of him. It’s a very neat little narrative arc that you can get entirely from the cards in the packs without referencing external texts. In my mind, these sorts of tidy little plot packages are what CCGs can excel at in the realm of storytelling.

*Header Image – Path to Exile by Rebecca Guay
Note: I grabbed this piece because, A.) I adore Guay (who has since hyphenated to Leveille-Guay on Instagram), but also B.) This piece is sort of a masterclass on telling the a story with just a single card image and name unaided by flavor text.

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