Gathering the Magic

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Eric Molinsky has reported a few episodes for us over the years and he has his own great podcast called “Imaginary Worlds” that we featured a couple of times. “Imaginary Worlds” has a very special place in my heart because it is the podcast I listen to the most with my boys, Maslow and Carver, because it covers all the sci-fi and fantasy subjects that they love, like “D&D” and “Doctor Who”, and LARP-ing, in a really thoughtful and entertaining way.

Roman Mars:
And like every great show, it’s about those things, but it’s really about who we are as humans through these worlds that we create and share. Now, earlier this year, “Imaginary Worlds” produced a story about the thing that is most near and dear to my boy’s hearts, and that’s the card game “Magic: The Gathering”. I just call “Magic” a card game. But if you spent any time around someone who loves Magic, you know it is way more than a card game. It is a way of life. I’m pretty sure it rewired my son’s brains. I’ve wanted to cover “Magic” on 99pi for a while now, but Eric did such a great job with it, it made more sense to share his version. And introduce you to another great podcast that you might not know already. Okay. Enjoy.

Eric Molinsky:
You’re listening to “Imaginary Worlds”, a show about how we create them and why we suspend our disbelief. I’m Eric Molinsky. And this is Nat.

Nathaniel Bael:
Hello, my name is Nathaniel Bael.

Eric Molinsky:
Nat is teaching me how to play “Magic: The Gathering” at the Brooklyn Strategist which is the same game shop where I learned to play “Dungeons and Dragons” a few years ago. But where “D&D” is a role-playing game, “Magic” is very much a card game. And by the way, “Magic” is the shorthand that most people call “Magic: The Gathering”. So I’m going to mostly call it “Magic” in this episode.

Nathaniel Bael:
Yeah. At the simplest level, there are two basic types of cards in “Magic”, lands and spells. Spells…

Eric Molinsky:
In some ways, “Magic” is like any card game. You need a combination of luck and skill to win. And it’s usually played with just two people, but it is not a generic deck of cards. Each of the cards has a creature or a spell or magical artifact on it that you can use to attack your opponent. And some cards represent the source of your magic, which are lands. The more land cards that you have, the more magic you can wield against the person sitting across from you. And your goal is to knock your opponent from 20 points to zero points. Sounds simple? It’s not. It’s really, REALLY not.

Eric Molinsky:
So when you play, you always have seven cards in your hand that you’re taking from a deck of 60 cards. Well, that deck of 60 cards is something that you custom make because the company that makes “Magic: The Gathering”, Wizards of the Coast, has put out over 10,000 possible cards to choose from over the last quarter-century. And there is a central mythology that unites those thousands and thousands of cards. Because “Magic: The Gathering” takes place in a multiverse, and some of the cards represent Plainwalkers, the main characters of the game who can jump from one parallel universe to another.

Eric Molinsky:
Now, I always knew that “Magic: The Gathering” was huge. But I had never done an episode about it because I was kind of intimidated. Like when I used to go to the Brooklyn Strategist to play D&D, we’d all be role-playing our characters like we’re in some kind of medieval improv troop. And then I’d look at the table where these people were playing “Magic: The Gathering”, and it was like they’re speaking a whole other language. Now this year is the 25th anniversary of “Magic: The Gathering”. And it amazes me the game is still so popular. Not that there’s anything wrong with the game itself, but it was developed by this mathematician named Richard Garfield in the early 90s when there’s very little competition from video games. And now so many analog games and toys that used to be pretty solid are struggling to compete against PlayStation’s and iPad apps.

Eric Molinsky:
And “Magic” does have an app, but the handheld card game is still the main focus. And they are not struggling to compete. I mean “Magic: The Gathering” has been on an epic run where each year is more profitable than the last. So I had two questions about the game I was really curious about. First, why has it survived the onslaught of digital entertainment? And secondly, how do you create a sense of story and world-building in a non-sequential card game? And does all that mythology and world-building make for a better card game? Or is it something that players ignore when they just focus on winning? Well, to answer those questions I went straight to the top to the head designer for “Magic: The Gathering”, Mark Rosewater.

Mark Rosewater:
“I’m pulling up the driveway. We all know what that means. It’s time for another drive to work. Okay, today…”

Eric Molinsky:
By the way, that is how he starts every episode of his podcast as he drives to the office outside Seattle, talking about different aspects of the game. And he doesn’t just do a podcast, Mark is out there on every media platform talking about “Magic”, answering questions from players. He is a force of personality. Now Mark has been with the companies since the mid-90s, just a few years after “Magic: The Gathering” came out. And I have to say in all of my years of interviewing people, I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who so unabashedly loves their job as much as Mark does.

Mark Rosewater:
My job is to come up with really cool things that’ll make players really, really excited. And then I have to not talk about it for 16 to 24 months usually. For example, last December we put out a product called “Unstable,” which is kind of like a humorous take on “Magic”. I’ve been working on this project for seven years. And I had to not talk about it for seven years. And so when I finally got to talk about it people were like, “Wow. You’re so excited.” I’m like, “I’ve been waiting to talk about it for SEVEN YEARS.”

Eric Molinsky:
Now one of the reasons why “Magic” has stayed popular all these years is because the game never stops evolving. As I mentioned earlier, the premise of the game is that there are these parallel universes called planes. And the frequency in which Wizards of the Coast has introduced these new planes has gone from every couple of years to every year, to now sometimes twice a year. And in the beginning, “Magic” was relying on all the standard fantasy tropes that you would see in a game like “Dungeons and Dragons”. But as they kept introducing new worlds more and more quickly, they kind of ran out of those fantasy tropes. And so they’ve also had to be more creative in terms of what they bring into the fantasy genre. Like in one of these parallel universes, everything’s made of metal, or another one of these parallel plains is like a steampunk version of India. But as Mark says…

Mark Rosewater:
A set of cards is a very challenging way to tell a story. Not everybody sees every card, and they don’t see them in the same order. So what we’ve done is we tend to use our cards to build the environment, to build the world, to flesh out the world, and hint at the story. And then we tend to tell the story through other means.

Eric Molinsky:
Like on the “Magic: The Gathering” website, there’s a lot of extra material explaining what is going on in these different worlds. But eventually, they decided to up the ante on the design of the cards. So when you encounter a new deck, you automatically feel something about this world without having to read the backstory behind it.

Mark Rosewater:
We want to figure out what the emotional core of the experience is going to be. That the mechanics aren’t just about doing something, they’re about making you feel something. And it really got into the idea of, “We’re going to go to a gothic horror world and we’re going to make you AFRAID because it’s a gothic horror world.” or “We’re going to go to a Greek mythology world and you’re going to be a hero and go on adventures and make something of yourselves.”

Eric Molinsky:
Now there are three basic elements to each card. First, there’s an illustration which is about two-by-two inches. But there’s so much drama and story going on in those little paintings. Looking at them I get sucked in like it’s a movie. The second element to every card is the statistics as to how this creature, or spell, or artifact will function as a card. And I did not realize how many different ways a card could behave in a game. It is endless in terms of how many points you gain or take away from your opponent, whether this card is better used on the offensive or the defensive, how many times you can use the card. And the game mechanics aren’t random. They reflect the personality of what’s on the card. And the third major element to every card is something called flavor text, which are basically a few lines of poetic description. But even the flavor text has gotten more ambitious over years, not in terms of how many words they can cram into a card, but how succinctly they can paint a picture of a broad story beyond that one card.

Mark Rosewater:
Back when I used to write flavor text, one of the things was, it was a lot like poetry. It was a lot like, “How can I convey as much as possible in the smallest amount of space?” And one of my favorite pieces of flavor text, there’s a card in a set called… We went to this icy world that’s called Ice Age. And there’s a card in there called Lhurgoyf, which was this horrible monster, loosely based on some noir stuff. The flavor text on it was – “Ach. Hans, run. It’s the Lhurgoyf.” Last words of Saffi Eriksdotter. And somehow just like this idea that this poor woman that like the last thing we learn about her is she’s scared to death because she knows how horrible this creature is, and she is right because that’s the last thing she ever says.

Eric Molinsky:
And as much as Mark loves to talk about the game, there’s one aspect that he’s actually the most passionate about. It’s called the color pie. And when I first read about the color pie, it just seemed like sort of an esoteric part of the whole game mechanics. But then I realized it is the lifeblood of the game. It is the thing that makes you feel like you’re actually wielding magic when you play with the cards. Because all of the cards in “Magic: The Gathering” are divided into five colors. The cards are either white, black, blue, red, or green. And each color represents a different philosophy of “Magic”. So white magic is about control, order, and whatever works for the collective good. Black magic promotes ruthless individualism. Red magic is fiery and passionate. Blue magic is brainy, intellectual. Green magic is in harmony with nature.

Mark Rosewater:
One of the neat things about the color pie that I love is it explains motivations in a way that doesn’t demean the motivations. Like one of the things that’s really interesting, it’s made me think about life a little differently, is nobody’s right or wrong. They just have a reason for doing the things the way they do them, and it’s like, “Oh well what are their motivations?” And, “Well, if you’re motivated by this, then it makes sense you’d come into conflict who’s motivated by that.” I can argue, and I have, I can argue any color from any perspective. Like one of the things I did for fun because I’m a writer, is I did an interview and in my articles where I spent a whole column with each of the colors, interviewing the colors, having the color explain from their perspective why they do what they do.

Eric Molinsky:
So how did this all play out? Back at the game shop when I was learning how to play from my instructor Nat?

Nathaniel Bael:
Each color has a very distinct personality and gameplay. Like the colors you use tend to define what your deck does.

Eric Molinsky:
Now in my first game, I played with a deck of cards where everything was red. So the magic I was using was fiery and impulsive. And that’s my natural instinct when I play games, which is why I often lose because going on impulse is my downfall whenever I’m supposed to be thinking strategically. Meanwhile, Nat was playing with a deck of black magic, which is all about sucking away your opponent’s energy and using it for yourself.

Nathaniel Bael:
“… Dragon, and you’re going to take one damage from the….”

Eric Molinsky:
“Well I only have one point left, so I’m dead?”

Nathaniel Bael:
“Yep.”

Eric Molinsky:
Brady Dommermuth was a lead writer on the creative team of “Magic”. And he says when he would work on developing a new set of cards, he always thought about how the story they’re telling with the cards should reflect the experience of people playing with the cards.

Brady Dommermuth:
“Magic” defies one of the most common ethos prescriptions in fantasy. And by that I mean, was the basic moral message of the story. And fantasy a lot of times is, sure you’re the chosen one and you’re destined to save the world, but you’re going to need your friends to help you out in doing so. But in “Magic”, I felt like in terms of the story and the world design, that form needed to follow function. And in “Magic”, the vast majority of games are played one versus one. It’s you versus me. It’s my deck versus your deck. And either you’re going to win or I’m going to win. Which to me suggested a different ethos, which is sure, of course you have to have friends, that’s super important. But in the final fight, when it matters, you’re going to have to fight alone.

Eric Molinsky:
In fact, he thinks that “Magic” is often misrepresented as a fantasy game because traditionally fantasy has been pretty black and white in its morality. But when you play “Magic: The Gathering”, you’re not automatically a villain if you use black magic, and you’re not automatically the hero if you use white magic. In that sense he thinks “Magic: The Gathering” actually reflects science fiction, which has a long history of being morally ambiguous.

Brady Dommermuth:
Mark Rosewater and I have talked about that many times about how Star Wars is a fantasy story in sci-fi clothing, whereas “Magic” is a sci-fi story in fantasy clothing.

Nathaniel Bael:
“So like right now-”

Eric Molinsky:
Back to the game shop. I use red magic and I lost. So I started using a deck of blue cards. Where the spells and creatures are brainier and trickier. And by the way, when you play the game, you actually can play any combination of colors. But since I was a newbie, Nat felt that I should just play one color at a time. And when I switched from red magic to blue magic, I couldn’t believe how differently the cards worked. And I felt like I was relying on a different part of my brain, and my teacher Nat, had also switched from black magic to white magic. And I felt like I was playing against a different opponent.

Eric Molinsky:
“I feel a little overwhelmed right now. It’s like-”

Nathaniel Bael:
“I know. Sorry. Magic can do this.”

Eric Molinsky:
“No, it’s fine. It’s just like there’s so many, every card has so many like levels to it.”

Nathaniel Bael:
“Yup. It’s all good. This game takes a long time to learn. It’s a very, very complex game.”

Eric Molinsky:
But that’s when I realized how story can come into this. Because to be a good Magic player, you need to know why your cards behave the way they do. And to do that it’s really helpful to go in the Magic website and read the lore behind your cards.

Mark Rosewater:
It’s like one of the pushes in the stories in the last five years or so I believe was to make the cards reflect story events more aggressively. So that just by playing the game and watching what the cards do, you can effectively learn how the story went.

Eric Molinsky:
In fact online, I found that some “Magic” players had created fan art where they imagined what if Harry Potter or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, were cards in “Magic: The Gathering”? And these characters that we know so well, like Harry Potter or Thor, it’s kind of cool to see how they could be condensed into a single card. And summarized with an illustration, a bunch of statistics about their strengths, weaknesses, and powers, and a few choice lines of flavor text. But when he was working on the creative team, Brady Dommermuth always kept in mind that “Magic” is not a movie or a book reverse engineered to be a game. It is first and foremost a game.

Brady Dommermuth:
One of the challenges for me in designing “Magic” worlds, one of the reasons why I undervalued plot is because I think that plot and games are not friends. Your ability to self-direct, your ability to make the choices that you want to make, your ability to explore the world how you see fit, or to choose the cards for your own deck. Or to decide how you want to win the game through finesse, or through stealth, or through brute force. Those are super powerful things and plot subverts autonomy.

Eric Molinsky:
And I learned in my second round of playing the game that this blue intellectual magic was a good fit for me. I avoided all my worst impulses and I became a better strategist. In fact…

Nathaniel Bael:
“But we also have this issue of if I take eight damage from Sphinx of Magosi…”

Eric Molinsky:
“So you’re dead?”

Nathaniel Bael:
“Yep. Little bit.” (laughter)

Eric Molinsky:
“Wow. So game over then?”

Nathaniel Bael:
“Yep.”

Eric Molinsky:
“Oh my God, I can’t believe it. Yeah, I’m definitely quitting at the tie. I’m not going to go for a best of three.”

Credits

Imaginary Worlds is produced and hosted by Eric Molinsky. Stephanie Billman is the Assistant Producer.

For this episode, Eric Molinsky talked to Mark Rosewater, Brady Dommermuth, Alli Medwin, James Wyatt, Liz Leo and Nathaniel Bael.

Comments (7)

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  1. Prof59

    Glad to hear the MtG topic discussed. I just have a couple of quibbles.
    You guys go on and on about the story, th flavor, the narrative. I’ve been playing 25 years. Kitchen table, comic book store, prereleases, pro tournaments. I have never, ever, once met any player who cared at all about the story. All they care about is what the cards do, period. I’m sure Mark Rosewater believes what he says, but the players are not interested.
    Players do not want the novelizations, either. At one tournament, novels were given away as prizes, and no one even wanted them for free.
    Please go on making the stories, but it is spitting into the wond, I promise.
    Also, the woman who was upset when a kid told her he didn’t think girls like Magic. She can’t possibly be so blind not to notice that in a room of 500 players, there are 10 females. And half of those are girlfriends of players who dragged them there. I’m all for more girl players, but seriously, it is not the demographic, and she has to know that.

    1. Sara

      What card shop are you hanging out in? I’ve never been in a shop where people aren’t at least following the sparknotes of the lore, because it’s so integral to what’s going on in the card mechanics. You *could* just play the physical game, but you would be missing how downright incredible the team integrates the story into actual mechanics, and that diminishes the experience. Heck, I started into Magic not from the cards, but from reading the story over my fiance’s shoulder. Magic’s desire to expand and appeal to so many facets of its fanbase, from mechanical nerds to lore fiends, is what makes it so incredible. If we all wanted to just play a fancy card game with no story, we’d be talking about Yu-gi-oh.

  2. Tricia

    Roman, you just made me so happy! Thank you for including your boys in this episode; I’ve really missed hearing from them.
    A very happy New Year to all at 99pi

  3. Chris Tedin

    Great show, as always. I sent a link to my brother, Mark Tedin, who designed many of the first cards in the beginning. Love your show. Been listening since the beginning.

  4. Jason MEGRELIS

    So so good, and very inspiring. What a nice one !
    Appreciated every moments of it.

    Best wishes for the year to come from France.

  5. Stephanie Kearns

    Thank you for this episode. My 23 year old son recently started playing and was bummed at Christmas that no one seemed interested. After hearing about Magic on this podcast I gave it a try and now have my very own cards. I have leveled up my NerdMom status!

  6. Dman

    @Prof59: I have also met very people that are interested in the story (I’ve personally never read any of the lore, and I’m not that interested). That being said, there’s no real downside to adding that depth to the game (even if the majority of people don’t care), especially if it will matter to someone. I guarantee the price of packs would not go down if WOTC demanded the story get cut from the process. It seems like that detail was added with care, and if Alseha pops up in the meta (I’m not up-to-date), all the better! Playable + not banned + decent backstory = good design

    For me, Alesha the card that taught me the difference between color and color identity, which actually opened up options for Commanders.

    The player archetypes of Vorthos/Melvin, Timmy/Johnny/Spike are interesting to me, because they’re almost like personality types (especially when combined with a player’s preferred colors). I’m sure cards are specifically designed with all of these in mind (not just the un- cards)

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