Thursday, July 23, 2015


Four years ago, I got back into Magic: The Gathering. It's a game I loved as a teenager, and I kept playing it for years after it stopped being a fad at my middle school. As time went on, my hobby increasingly met with eye rolls form my classmates, and I also became hyperaware of the many things that made me "different" from the people around me. I started hating my interest in video games, Dungeons and Dragons, and Magic, and I convinced myself that there must be something wrong with me because I didn't look or act like the popular kids. After my best friend and go-to game buddy abandoned Magic for football and girls, I shoved my cards in a shoebox in my closet, made new friends, and tried to get into surfing, guitar, or any of the other hobbies that were popular at my high school. None of it made me happy.

Magic's latest release, Magic Origins, also focuses on turbulent teenage years. Card art, flavor text, and supplementary materials recount the stories of how several characters grew from fledgling youths to powerful wizards. Each of these wayward teenagers struggles against their environment until arriving at a climactic moment when an inner "spark" is ignited and the character's full powers are released. Many of the set's cards depict events from these stories, and each character has its own special card that can be flipped over to demonstrate the important transformation.

Character-driven storytelling represents a major change from the early days of the game when plot elements occasionally appeared in evocative flavor text printed at the bottom of cards. That hands-off approach created atmosphere without detailing a linear narrative, and this was often a good thing. The game's world felt rich and expansive, as it was bound more by the imagination of the players than by carefully calculated marketing materials.

Indeed, canonizing a specific storyline makes the world feel smaller and the characters less interesting. Nowhere is this more evident than in the series of short stories published to guide players through each Origins character's journey. Although the stories fit into a familiar and well-tested coming-of-age archetype, the resulting fiction too often feels both overladen with details and incapable of creating believable characters and situations.

In "Fire Logic", Chandra's parents give her a job as a black market courier, and on her very first mission she decides to take a shortcut by trespassing through a heavily policed neighborhood, resulting in a series of tedious combat sequences. In "Kytheon Iora of Akros", the title character surreptitiously tries to kill the god of death. These plot points make it hard to relate to the characters, who are defined by their unpredictable and illogical decisions. Scenes like these likely exist for the sole purpose of creating action that can be portrayed in card illustrations.

The stories also make curious departures from established genre norms. "Home" begins with Nissa receiving a prophetic vision of her journey across the world to confront a malignant force that poisons the land. A glittering path appears before her, and she follows it through an escalating series of perils until finally reaching the foretold confrontation. At this moment, she suddenly teleports to a new world with an unrelated and hastily resolved plot. Readers are right to feel cheated. Similarly, "Absent Minds" casts Jace as a troubled youth who is scorned for his special powers. He is taken in by a benevolent mentor, who teaches Jace to control his mind magic while working to end the civil war that has engulfed their world. In a bewildering twist, Jace discovers that his mentor is an evil war profiteer, challenges him to mind battle, and then somehow kills him by erasing his own memory. The story ends with an amnesiac Jace entering a new city and meeting a beautiful woman.

These plots seem to be constructed with the belief that unexpected surprises represent the pinnacle of storytelling. Subverting audience expectations can be a powerful tool, but there's a difference between a story arc that takes an unexpected trajectory and one that abruptly flatlines. These twists and deviations are all the more puzzling because the stories are designed to appeal to a mass audience, and this goal is most easily accomplished by adhering to universal archetypes; if the fantasy coming-of-age story structure worked in The Chronicles of NarniaA Wizard of Earthsea, and Harry Potter, there's no need to reinvent the wheel for a disposable piece of marketing material.

Origins gets it right at least once. In "The Fourth Pact", Liliana turns to dark magic in an attempt to save her brother's life. When her decision dooms him instead, she becomes obsessed with gaining control over death and sells her soul to achieve immortality. The story is straightforward but compelling; we know from the beginning that Liliana is headed down a dark path, but we stick along for the ride because we want to see how it plays out. Furthermore, Liliana remains a dynamic and relatable character because she is confronted with difficult choices when the stakes are high. Deciding to use forbidden methods in order to save a loved one is much more emotionally resonant than trying to kill a god just because.

Dilemmas necessarily lead to meaningful decisions, and this is as true in life as it is in fiction. I quit Magic when I was fifteen because I thought that having cooler hobbies and friends would make me happy. When my high school crush finally got drunk enough to allow himself to make a pass at me, I turned him down. Last month, I left my job because I decided unemployment would be better than remaining in a toxic work environment. Like any character, I'm defined by the choices I've made, and I now realize that choosing what feels right is much more important than trying to adhere to abstract notions of what a good life is supposed to look like. Playing games makes me happy, and that's a good thing. I only wish Magic's writers had the same faith in the imagination and individuality of the game's players.