Narrative and Flavor in Magic: The Gathering

Magic: The Gathering is the world’s largest collectible card game. The premise of the game is that players take the role of interdimensional travelers called Planeswalkers, who battle each other by using magical abilities and summoning creatures from other dimensions. One of the strengths of the game is in what’s called “flavor.” The developers often emphasize the aspects of what the card is physically representing when designing it. Creatures with wings can fly, and can’t be blocked by most grounded combatants, while players can invest resources into attacking dragons to have them do extra damage by breathing fire.

In the 2015 PAX East Magic panel, designers revealed a new set including cards that represent Planeswalker characters before and after they realized their full potential. By meeting some condition unique to each character, players can flip the cards over and turn them from creatures into powerful Planeswalker cards.

The part that excites me about this reveal is that each card flips based on a circumstance related to their origin story. The first one revealed, Liliana, is based on a character who was originally a healer. When she was unable to stave off the death of her brother, she tried to use dark magics to keep him alive; in the process, she accidentally turned him into a zombie. The trauma of this turned her into a powerful necromancer and allowed her to Planeswalk. To represent this, her card transforms when another creature owned by her controller dies. That card returns as a zombie, and Liliana becomes a Planeswalker.

These ideas excite me, because for both traditional and digital games I love it when the mechanics of a game match the narrative. One example of this happening in video games was Brute Force, a game I talked about in a previous post. In that game each character was designed to serve a particular purpose and these purposes make sense given their appearance and characterization.

Another example is the 2005 RPG Jade Empire, where most computer-controlled followers can support the player either by serving a direct role in combat or by supporting the player’s own abilities. The hermit and martial arts master Sagacious Zu can increase the player’s weapon damage, while the spiritually attuned Dawn Star restores the player’s mystical energies.

I find little touches like this to be extremely endearing because they tie what we know about the stories and characters directly into the tangible effects they have on the gameplay. While Magic definitely includes more “flavor” than most digital games, the times they do appear universally enrich the experience of the game for me.

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