Magic: The Gathering – Shifting From TCG to High Fantasy Narrative

Magic: Origins made it clear that the game is entering a new phase, one where sprawling story arcs and vivid characters take center stage like never before. We spoke with MtG set designer Shawn Main for details.

Back in the old days, it was possible to get pretty deep into Magic: the Gathering without knowing a lick about the lore. There was certainly the occasional name thrown at you, whether it’s Squee, Angus Mackenzie, or The Phyrexian War, but it was never an absolute necessity to read the novel or pamphlet to figure out who these people are. And that was, by and large, quite forgivable, because as Shawn told us, that’s the way sets used to be constructed: the design team would produce the game mechanics for the new set, and the writers would build the story around those bones. It was a game first, and a story second.

But that has changed completely. The writing team no longer plays catch-up; in fact, Shawn intimated that at times the set design will be led by the narrative. The two-block system means we’ll be seeing more worlds, more chapters of the continuing story in the same amount of time. More frequent set changes means more mechanics with which to describe the texture and action of these stories. And most importantly, where past sets sought to bring a new plane, a new landscape to the table, future sets promise new personalities with which to explore the five colors of magic.

Plainly, the product of Magic: The Gathering is undergoing a tectonic shift, from a card game with an incidental plotline to a plotline that can be played. More than ever, there’s a focus on producing an epic story that strives to be as engrossing and enduring as a Tolkien or R.R. Martin tale, and if you’ll agree with me, that is completely insane; after 22 years of continual evolution, Magic: the Gathering is starting to feel complete.

So to circle back to our implied question: do you need to know the lore to play the game? No, but it’s now a damned good idea. Read our interview with Shawn Main to find out why.

Clearly, with more recent sets like Origins and the new two-block paradigm, we’ve reached a new phase in the game’s development–what exactly does this shift entail, and what was the reasoning behind it?

I think one of the things Magic does best is create vibrant and beautifully realized settings. I was excited to work on Magic Origins partly because I was in the unique position of getting to deal with a whole lot of worlds all at once. Going to two blocks each year means we’ll be seeing more of those worlds each year. Origins also chose its Planeswalkers very deliberately. This new paradigm is more about character than ever before and the Origins five will play very prominent roles in Battle for Zendikar and the stories beyond.

There were a few reasons for the change, but one of the biggest is that third sets have frequently struggled to find their identity, needing to walk a fine line between delivering more of the same (with ever-dwindling design space for block mechanics) and doing something radically different (which sometimes failed to play well with existing block mechanics). Some of my favorite third sets have been ones like Rise of the Eldrazi and Avacyn Restored where we saw the setting and mechanics get radically shifted, such that you weren’t drafting the sets together anyway. Our new paradigm is going to feel a little more like that, stories and characters will extend over blocks, while settings and mechanics shift underneath them.

Were there any initial guidelines you kept in mind while designing this and future sets to maintain that shift?

Origins was in a unique position. Not quite a core set and not yet using our new model, it’s the only set we’ve done that was character first instead of setting first. It was fun getting to tell existing stories, while also setting up some threads that will get paid off way down the road.

I’ve read that the writing team works closely with the design team to ensure that more than ever, game mechanics and specific cards characterize important plot events. Can you talk about that process? While designing a new set, do you have the storyline in mind initially and derive specific cards mechanics afterwards, or vice versa?

In the past, design did the first work on a new set – for example, when we started on Theros, pretty much all we knew was that it would be about Greek mythology and enchantments. When we started on the Tarkir block, we had the draft structure of the block in mind, but didn’t have any kind of setting. The creative teams did a beautiful job within that framework: I lead Conspiracy design with zero creative in mind – conspiracies had the extremely flavorful name “Draft Actions” but the story and art teams did such a beautiful job marrying the playstyle to a setting that the set feels like its setting came first.

Today, Magic R&D is living in a world much more led by the creative team. When design begins, we’ll know how a set fits into overarching stories and we’ll often have details about the setting partially figured out. Design and development will still have a back and forth with creative – we’ll make a mechanic then the story and art teams will need to figure out what it means and how it might inform their world building (for example, figuring out Thopter tokens as the main expression of blue-red artifacts in Origins influenced Kaladesh’s look), but we’re no longer tossing ideas at creative and asking them to justify them.

I’ve seen the phrase “transmedia storytelling” mentioned when talking about M:tG’s new narrative directions: aside from the narrative columns we’ve seen on Uncharted Realms, can you give us a glimpse of what to expect in the near future? What new territory will the franchise branch into?

I can’t reveal any long term plans right now, but the goal is to line up our storytelling across the venues we have right now. In the Origins cards you can get peeks at the story – hopefully they’re evocative, but they’re snapshots. In Duels Origins, you get to take on the role of Gideon and Chandra and can actually play through their stories, seeing how some of the creatures and settings fit together. And then in Uncharted Realms, you can read those stories in their full glory and nuance. It’s an exciting time if you’re a player with any interest in story because you can always dig deeper and get rewarded.

I’ve been a big fan of the Lovecraftian Eldrazi since they were announced, and cannot wait to see their reappearance in Battle for Zendikar–can you tell us anything about their origins in the Blind Eternities, or if we’ll be seeing more denizens of that non-plane anytime soon?

Are you asking for Magic Origins: Eldrazi? That’s tricky. The Eldrazi are Lovecraftian and cosmic in nature, so they’re defined by their alieness, their vastness, and their unknowability. The Eldrazi are clearly up to something on Zendikar, we can see the consequences of their actions, and we know it’s bad for us, but our puny human minds might never be able to understand the Eldrazi’s motives.

What I can tell you is that the Eldrazi are very old and warping and terrible. And the Zendikari have their work cut out for them if they’re going to survive.

Will Garruk Wildspeaker’s ties to the Zendikar plane be touched upon in Battle for Zendikar?

Garruk’s still dealing with his curse and the aftermath of the events of Magic 2015. Nissa is our green planeswalker at the moment, she has a personal relationship with the plane, and will be playing an important role in Battle for Zendikar.

Do you have personal favorites amongst the planeswalkers?

Chandra is my favorite. As a player, I love red – I love anytime I get to punish my opponent for trying to outsmart me. As a designer, I love that she has such a clear identity, but room to try out new abilities like copying spells or playing with the top of the library or stopping things from blocking. And as a character, I love that she gets to kick the door down while the others pontificate and that she has equal ability to get herself into and out of trouble. <3 Chandra.

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