The Highly Confused Heroes of Magic the Gathering

After some shuffling of pages, the rules for combat, spellcasting and guidelines for converting spells from Magic: the Gathering to Magic: the Multiverse are now up. The system should be just about playable now, although it still feels very bare bones, and in particular needs an experience system. Let me know what you think of it, and if any changes are necessary!

And doing all this thinking about planeswalkers and what they do got me thinking; what is the planeswalker narrative saying to players and other consumers of Magic media?

For the most part, it’s the “you are special” message that gives people the ability to imagine themselves as something/someone else, a space where people can feel more than their everyday selves. I guess this is kind of the point of fantasy, to make the participants feel like they’re something different. But what kind of something different?

World-shaping power seems to be the overall impression, despite the attempt by Wizards of the Coast to put a face to planeswalkers in recent years, which has been only moderately successful at getting players and planeswalkers on the same page, as the planeswalkers in cards and  player-planeswalkers are still radically different in feel.

This is because while the planeswalker cards each have a set of 3 nicely themed abilities tied to their character, the player has a 60-card deck of spells to choose from, which probably aren’t going to be thematically linked, particularly if they’re effective decks, a point I’ve made before but I’m going to say it again anyway. This doesn’t lend itself to particularly coherent heroes, which is something the MtG developers have explicitly tried to counter in their development of Planeswalker characters:

As planeswalkers aren’t connected to any one world, they have less investment in what’s happening there. If we aren’t vigilant, that can make planeswalkers remote, uncaring, and unrelatable. That’s part of why Elspeth has such a fierce instinct to protect the peoples of Bant. That’s part of why Jace has an all-consuming curiosity. That’s part of why Liliana’s ambition levels are through the roof. These characters have an intrinsic ability to escape whatever problem they’re dropped into, so it’s crucial that their motivations connect them firmly to the conflict at hand. There probably are planeswalkers out there who skim the surface of planar plots, never forming deep attachments to any particular person or place, planeswalking away when things get hard, uncomfortable, or dangerous. Nothing’s really stopping that from happening; the whole point is that planeswalkers get to go where they will. But we don’t hear about those unmotivated, risk-averse guys, and the reason is that because they’re boring jerks.

But the player has no way to build such connection, and no incentive to do so within the framework of the game. In a way the planeswalker cards counter this narrative because they encourage a kind of collaborative outlook; the player isn’t standing alone against their adversary, but defeat them with the help of another. But that other is, unfortunately, still a tool to be used and discarded (literally!) when the time is right. The game does include a smörgåsbord of multiplayer formats that encourage collaboration between playes, but the most commonly played multiplayer games are still wars of all against all, complete with deal-breaking and backstabbing into the bargain.

This all encourages players to think in terms of instrumental success; nothing outside the deck necessarily matters, unless it helps the player win. It can of course be argued that it’s a competitive game and winning is all-important, but the heady mish-mash of media messages around the game that encourages deeper levels of thought makes me think that the game could try a little harder.

Magic isn’t alone in this; one of the trends I’ve noticed recently in the setting of Warhammer 40,000 is the encouragement from the rules to build ones own personalised army, and the rules for doing so. There are still rules for existing space marine chapters and other races, but the rules now give you a mechanical incentive for going your own way, and players are lapping it up, creating chapters filled with a sense of self-importance that was scorned a few years go. Of course, players can conscientiously try to fit into the existing background, but there’s nothing encouraging that apart from a few predefined paint schemes, which in my experience players will buck because they want something to be theirs and no one else’s. Here again we see the same problem as can happen with Magic: players can hide away in their own small worlds, not interacting with anything broader on a meaningful level. Which encourages people to not listen to anything outside their own heads.

There are some trends in various sci-fi/fantasy media that buck this – despite some very questionable gender portrayals, Avengers Assemble does encourage collective action despite large personal differences. A large part of the film is about characters overcoming those conflicts.

Within various roleplaying games, there are also hints of being collaborative; even outside of games that explicitly address co-operative themes, the idea of a group of people working together towards a common goal is a big theme in many games, and several players find player vs player confrontations problematic. These formats encourage working together and collective heroism in ways that Magic really doesn’t. I hope that Magic: the Multiverse has the potential to at least make people consider planeswalkers in a different light to the all-conquering Campbellian hero.

Thoughts? Comments? Scathing criticisms? Post a comment below!

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About CrucibleofWords

I'm always interested in the birth and expression of new ideas, from world creation to philosophical and metaphysical exploration. Fantasy and its related genres are the perfect vehicle for this sort of thing, and I intend to explore it various ways with this blog, both through positing my own ideas, and reflection on that of others.
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