Magic: A Study in Interactive Narrative
Will Eisner in his excellent book, Comics & Sequential Art, defines comics simply as “sequential art”. Scott McCloud’s equally excellent follow-up book, Understanding Comics, goes a bit further in saying that comics are “juxtaposed pictoral and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” (I will refute that word “deliberate” later.)
So what does any of that have to do with MtG? Well since 1993, it has consistently released one of the most innovative experiments in comic literature, and no one has even realized it, or at least vocalized it. First, let’s examine the aesthetic similarities between an individual card and a comic frame:
|Copyright Wizards of the Coast, Illus. D.J. Cleland-Hura|
Okay, sure, each card bears (PUN) some superficial resemblance to an individual comic frame. But how does this produce an actual comic strip? Well, it does and it doesn’t. This is where my issue with McCloud’s definition originates. Eisner’s definition on the other hand does not specify that there needs to be a “deliberate” order in the sequence of images. Part of the structure of comics is the idea of closure, that the reader must interact with the series of images, usually without even realizing it:
|Understanding Comics, McCloud|
And MtG turns this interactivity up to 11. Every couple months, MtG releases a new set of around 200-300 cards. Each set has its own plotline, or continues on from the previous set, and takes place within a different fantasy world or plane (for example a world entirely made of metal, or an ecumenopolis world). Each card in each specific set operates as an “aspect-to-aspect”, transition, to use one of McCloud’s terms, and helps reveal the overall mood or aspects of the world. (NOTE: There are other trading card games that also do this, but I am examining MtG because I am the most familiar with it. I'm sure most of these parallels can be drawn to most other trading card games.)
|Copyright Wizards of the Coast, Illus. Bud Cook|
|Copyright Wizards of the Coast, Illus. Jason Chan|
Now, the primary mode of purchasing MtG cards is through booster packs, which each contain 15 semi-randomized cards from a particular set. This seems pretty unexciting initially, but when you consider each set as a ~300 frame comic narrative, it becomes groundbreaking; in essence you are purchasing a graphic novel 15 random frames at a time and the burden falls to you to organize and construct the environment and story surrounding them.
And there have been experimentations in how the sets present these storylines. Tempest, released in 1997, actually depicts the set’s storyline linearly through the cards, if you know the order. Other times there are mini-plots within a larger overarching narrative; Visions features a fictional poem broken up over 17 cards for the player to reconstruct. Similarly, in a recent set, Theros, there is a series of cards that all feature quotations from fictional epic in the vein of "The Odyssey" called "The Theriad".
In a sense, any ordering of MtG cards is largely arbitrary; their whole strength is that they can be ordered in any way. Mark Rosewater, lead designer of MtG, calls this “non-linearity” one of the biggest problems in telling a story through trading cards, but I view it as a strength; by making the player construct the story themselves, to form their own closure, it adds another layer of interactivity.
Now this analysis has largely been of the cards separate from the actual game, but Eisner’s definition of “sequential art” still applies to a game of MtG! The game consists of a series of cards, these adapted comic frames, being played and interacting with one another. The game becomes a sort of interactive comic book, where each player has some control over the narrative and their interactions progress the plot of the game. So in the end, McCloud's definition actually makes sense; the "deliberation" in the sequence of images is determined by the two players and the individual game.
Okay, in retrospect, routing my defense of MtG through the lens of comic studies may not have made me any less nerdy. But studying the game solely as a means of conveying narrative introduces it as a sort of midway between comic studies and ludology, or game study. When seen this way, MtG really becomes a ~15,000 frame interactive comic book, a pioneer in both environmental storytelling and variable narrative.
Will Eisner, Comics & Sequential Art, 1985
Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics; The Invisible Art, 1993
Wizards of the Coast: gatherer.com