Monday, October 6, 2014


Magic: A Study in Interactive Narrative 

You may have heard of Magic: the Gathering (MtG for short); if you haven’t, it is a fantasy trading card game that has been around since the early 90s. Now before you condemn me for my uber-nerdage, let me attempt to legitimatize my hobby.

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
Alright, so each card has an illustration and below it a text box that somehow explains or supplements the image, either rules text that defines its abilities within the game, or flavor text in italics, as in the above card, that helps to tell a story concerning the card or the world the card exists in. The green border along the side serves as an indicator of some in-game property of the card, but it also operates as a gutter, the fancy word for the space between each frame in a comic.

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
In the above mini-strip, you complete the action that happens in between the frames. It is this interactivity that allows comics to even operate. And so while each individual card may resemble a frame in a comic series, there must be some interplay between the cards, some connection between the disparate events.

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
From the above card, not only do we get an idea of the character of the speaker, the invisible stalker, we can glean that there are vampires in this world and that there is a region called Nephalia where it gets cold. Not only that, his clothing and the architecture in the background both invoke a particular time period and gloomy atmosphere. (This particular card plays into an already established archetype,  the invisible man, thereby making it easier for the player to complete the concept.) The Grizzly Bears card above too mentions that the bears live in a place called Dominaria. Other times a card will show a specific moment in a set’s storyline:

Copyright Wizards of the Coast, Illus. Jason Chan
Both of the characters pictured here (Elspeth and Xenagos) are featured in other cards, so this is in effect an action shot of them interacting.

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:

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