Telling Stories With Magic

What was Marlon Brando rebelling against? It was never entirely clear. But ever since he was asked that question, blue jeans and leather jackets have been a kind of uniform for rebels the world over. That's the trouble with rebellions. When you overthrow the old order you just set up a new one which finds new ways to be oppressively conformist.

In terms of fashion and personal style I'm not sure I ever rebelled against anything very much. Unless you count "scruffy and unshaven" as a fashion statement. Any hopes that this might make me look a bit like Harrison Ford did not survive contact with the enemy. One friend of mine once told me I looked like Russell Crowe, but it turned out this was because I had the same bad hair sported by Crowe in The Quick and the Dead. Ah well.

Don't be fooled by the broad shoulders.
Despite all this, I do belong to a subculture of sorts.

I'll leave it to the sociologists to properly classify the subculture I belong to. You probably know it well already. My people like fantasy and science fiction. We like computers and technology. We like trading card games and boardgames. We like roleplaying.

"Can I get a Mountain Dew?" Raging Keith shouted from the kitchen. Once again, everyone's suspension of disbelief was shattered. "I cast Magic Missile!" Dan declared. "Why are you casting Magic Missile?" I asked, "There's nothing to attack here."

My weekly roleplaying session. And so it continued until a little past two in the morning when the last of the players left and I collapsed exhausted into a pile of empty soda cans, character sheets, candy wrappers and polyhedral dice. (Never try this at home - if you collapse onto a D4 it'll hospitalize you.) No, wait, I'm lying. That would have been ten years ago. These days my games run only once a month and the players file neatly out of the door by half past ten, thanking my girlfriend and me politely for hosting. This week's game was a good session.

"You do know your game is trash, right?" my cat observed.

"What did you say?" I span round and fixed it with a baleful glare. The kind of glare that carried an implicit threat of you-will-eat-cheap-catfood-for-a-week. The message seemed to get through.

"Superbly executed," it clarified, "and evidently much enjoyed by the players. But really, if the jury was still out on whether science fiction and fantasy were dead genres this would surely remove all doubt."

And I had to admit the cat had a point. Elves, dwarves, dragons, wizards and so on were mythological staples before Tolkien picked them up. But he made them cool, just as Brando did with motorcycle jackets. And now they've become standard. There's nothing mysterious or magical about any of this stuff anymore. It's dull, predictable or both. Not that my game as any such things in it, but it isn't really breaking new ground either.

"So," I challenged the cat, "what is the new frontier of speculative fiction?"

"Magic: the Gathering."

"Whaaaaaaaat?!" I dropped the pile of cans I was carrying. Admittedly I did this deliberately, but that's sometimes necessary to get the point across. Text is a surprisingly visual medium.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of the flavour aspect of Magic. The art, in particular, is increasingly great. In fact I'm happy to go on record as saying that Dissension is my favourite set for art ever. Kev Walker and Aleksi Briclot in particular do work that I find really evocative. But the themes, the world backgrounds, the text in general... ugh. Surely the cat, who never reads anything less literary than Umberto Eco, couldn't be a fan?

"I call your bluff," I declared, pointing at the cat's stubby nose with an accusing finger.

"Not a bluff," the cat shook it's head, "it's all to do with hobbit porn."

At this point I said the word "what" again, but with even more copies of the letter "a" in the middle. The conversation then took quite a while to rescue from the depths to which it had sunk. Accordingly, I think I'd better summarize the cat's argument for you.

For a long time, storytelling was all a matter of oral tradition. Which turns out to be nothing to do with kissing after all. Really. I looked it up. Then eventually people got the hang of writing and at last stories could be written down and passed on in that way. It was a huge step forward. The catch was that most of the people who could write were monks and they only wanted to write about god and the devil and whether or not Christ owned the cherry pink cycle shorts that he wore.

With the invention of the printing press, things changed dramatically. Now the writings of one person could be read by thousands. This made it possible for famous - even canonical - versions of stories to exist. The catch this time was that the whole publishing business was rather expensive, so unless someone rich was picking up the tab you could only publish things people wanted to read. Lots of people. Good news for the writers of tacky romance novels, bad news for creative fiction.

Then came the internet. Suddenly, talentless hacks like me can have our writing delivered to bored people like you at the speed of light. But more importantly, with so many potential readers available it's possible to write extremely specialized things and still find an audience. One particularly fine example of this is "fan fiction".

A large cucumber makes a fine
second breakfast.
Fan fiction is the (invariably unsanctioned) use of the characters from novels and films to create new stories. Sometimes my cat's "hobbit porn" comment is spot on and this approach is simply used to get unlikely characters into bed with each other (not always hobbits, there's some amazing Rosewater/Buehler fic out there if you know where to look). Occasionally much nobler motives are at work and the fans are actually improving upon the mess an author has made of their own intellectual property. Quite frequently an author or scriptwriter will create brilliant work but subsequently fail to understand what is good about their own creation and create awful, awful sequels. In these cases, fan fiction cannot undo the damage but can provide a brief vision of how much better things might have been.

Magic: the Gathering goes one step further. It is an interactive toolkit for telling stories.

Uh oh. I sense skepticism radiating from almost all of you. And the rest think I'm joking. I was skeptical too...

"Look at it this way," the cat reasoned, "if Magic: the Gathering isn't a powerful storytelling tool you have to ask yourself why not. It has thousands of predesigned elements. It has great artwork. It has rich world backgrounds. And most important of all: it puts the power in the hands of the people. You play the games. You create your own stories. It's what you want it to be."

The trouble was I felt I had a killer counter-argument. If Magic is such a great way to tell stories, why doesn't anyone do it?

There's an easy way to answer that... let's try it!

Have you ever heard it said that the best form of government would be a benevolent dictatorship if only one could somehow be certain of the dictator's benevolence? It's your lucky day! I'm going to be the dictator. Now in the best sad nerd tradition I could be master of a nation of three consisting of my cat, my loyal teddybear and myself (yes, even my girlfriend just laughed at me and walked away). But you're invited to play too.

The Setup
The base setting for our storytelling effort is the city of Ravnica. This is for three reasons. First, it's a great setting which I'm very fond of in flavour terms. Second, it's the current block, which will make it much more accessible. Third, it's got loads of deckbuilding flexibility, which is just what we need.

The story will be put together in episodes (not necessarily in chronological order) then tied together at the end. This article sets up the creation of the first episode. Subsequent episodes will be partly put together based on the ideas which surface this time round.

The way each episode gets put together is a three stage process:

Stage One: Decks are built and games of Magic are played.
Stage Two: I collect all the game results and ideas and decide which of them "really happened".
Stage Three: The results get written up as fiction.

Stage three may sound like a purely mechanical task, but this is far from the case. At its heart Magic is a war game more than a roleplaying game. Most of the elements of character, motive, and so forth are absent from the game and the real challenge is to find a way to fill out the bare sketch provided by the gameplay into something even a non Magic player will find readable.

Speaking of challenge...

The Competition
Just for a bit of fun, I'll run each episode as an informal competition. No prizes on offer except the glory of me saying how much you rock and the fame and the girls (subject to availability).

What You Do
* Build a mostly Ravnica Block deck, but add a few other cards from one or more different blocks as plot elements if you choose to (no formal limits on this, but be reasonable). I must emphasise that this is a creative exercise.
* Play games of Magic against each other or anyone else you can talk into using a deck of this kind. Indeed, feel free to build two and lend one to someone else.
* Yes, it's fine to play online using Magic: the Gathering Online.
* It's also fine to use Magic Workstation, Apprentice or any other online play tool, but see below for a warning about this.
* Email submissions to me at: [email protected]

What To Send To Me
* Minimum requirement is a decklist and a description of at least one game played with it in which something interesting happened.
* Unless it's impossible for some reason, your opponent's decklist should also be included.
* Any and all chat you feel like adding about the ideas behind the deck(s), the experience of playing the game, your interpretation of particular events within the setting and so on. Don't write pages and pages, because if I get a lot of submissions I won't have time to read it all.
* Any supporting material you have available, such as Magic Online "yourusername.mygames.dat" files or digital photos of real-life games or MWS/Apprentice game logs.

Leo Tolstoy wrote all of his
Magic fiction under a
How the Story Part Works
* Once I've picked out a few of the games (and decks) to form the basis of the first episode then the process of wrapping a story around them begins.
* I will post the relevant information in the Personal Writing forum here on Salvation. At that point, anyone who fancies trying their hand at the writing side is welcome to give it a shot.
* The aim will be to keep the resulting text moderately short, since that's a requirement if I want to include the full text in a future article.
* I may well mix and match bits of text from multiple authors, possibly including myself.
* No part of the canonical Magic storylines created by Wizards of the Coast will be considered compulsory. Feel free to draw inspiration from them, but don't feel bound by them.

My Judging Criteria
* Submissions should contain stuff interesting enough to form the basis of a story.
* Real gameplay must be involved.
* The primary aim is not to build killer decks. This doesn't mean you can't do so, only that I won't care about that aspect.
* If I suspect your game may be faked, I will automatically remove it from contention. Possibly some of you are wondering who would be sad enough to fake a game for this sort of thing. Thing is, it's less effort than participating properly. (This is why MWS and Apprentice game submissions are at a slight disadvantage, because they might be quite genuine but still look like you made 'em up in rare cases.)

The Results
Once all phases are complete, I'll compile everything into a followup article. Hopefully this will consist of a tasty blend of gameplay reports, original fiction, and other cool stuff. If so, I can then talk about how episode two is going to work.

Of course it may all go horribly wrong. In that case you can look forward to a sulky rant about what a useless bunch of sadsacks the internet Magic community is. And then I'll be forced to fall back on speculating about Christ's cycle shorts.

Not only am I not a lawyer, but even if I were I'd probably be wary of trying to word a proper disclaimer for a project like this. Suffice to say that the spirit of the way it works is something like this: By submitting anything at all to the competition you automatically grant indefinite permission for MTGSalvation to publish any or all of it. Also note that Magic: the Gathering and its associated characters, images and blah blah blah are copyright Wizards of the Coast.

An Example
Just for fun, a quick example.

Raging Keith decides to build a deck involving Fifth Dawn's Etched Oracle together with Ravnica's Chorus of the Conclave and the new Graft mechanic. He trades for a few of the Dissension cards he likes and ends up with the following deck:

A Meeting of OraclesMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
Creatures (28)
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Coiling Oracle
3 Simic Guildmage
4 Civic Wayfinder
2 Vigean Graftmage
4 Sporeback Troll
4 Etched Oracle
3 Chorus of the Conclave

Spells (7)
4 Compulsive Research
3 Predatory Focus

Land (25)
8 Forest
7 Island
3 Plains
1 Mountain
1 Swamp
4 Selesnya Sanctuary
2 Simic Growth Chamber

His opponent, Errol, goes for a more subtle strategy. He adds Michiko Konda, Truth Seeker to an Azorius/Orzhov control deck with a view to locking down the board. This is his build:

A Truth Seeker in RavnicaMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
Creatures (21)
4 Lurking Informant
4 Stinkweed Imp
4 Minister of Impediments
4 Dimir House-Guard
4 Michiko Konda, Truth Seeker
1 Angel of Despair

Spells (15)
4 Repeal
2 Master Warcraft
3 Strands of Undeath
3 Pillory of the Sleepless
2 Ribbons of Night
1 Clutch of the Undercity

Land (24)
7 Island
5 Swamp
2 Plains
2 Orzhov Basilica
2 Azorius Chancery
4 Watery Grave
2 Godless Shrine

I've made the soap-eating
wombat joke, so you don't
have to.
The first game between the two decks resulted in nothing very interesting. Errol's deck had too few answers as Raging Keith accelerated its mana, dropped Chorus of the Conclave, then did a lot of attacking. The second game was better, but still not ideal. Lurking Informant began to cause trouble for Keith on turn 4 and Michiko made him wary of attacking. A pair of Dimir House-Guards eventually did him in.

Game three finally did interesting things. Again Raging Keith accelerated to a relatively early Chorus of the Conclave, but this time Master Warcraft forced it to meet an untimely end at the hands of Stinkweed Imp before it could achieve anything. A House-Guard transmuted into Michiko and she was quickly wrapped in Strands of Undeath which both knocked Keith down to one card and gave her some protection. Keith finally found an Etched Oracle and began to build up an army, preparing to Predatory Focus for the win. He finally went for the alpha strike, but a second Master Warcraft meant his Predatory Focus was wasted. Errol began to get through for occasional points of damage. Keith then played a second Chorus of the Conclave and began to attack very aggressively, sacrificing lands and Coiled Oracles to Michiko's triggers. Having run out of bounce, Errol reluctantly Pilloried a huge Etched Oracle. Finally Errol was two turns away from a win... or so he thought. He gained just enough life from Ribbons that if Keith cast another Focus and attacked with everything which didn't get tapped down, Errol would survive on two life. Keith topdecked Simic Guildmage, moved the Pillory onto it from the Etched Oracle, then cast Predatory Focus to attack for the win!

Having noted down all relevant information, the players added some commentary on what they felt were interesting points of the game. First, the use of Strands of Undeath on Michiko Konda seemed interesting from a flavour perspective. Second, the presence of two kinds of Oracles in Keith's deck seemed atmospheric. Third, the concept of the biomantically enhanced mechanical Oracle trapped in the Pillory before eventually being freed to cause devastation seemed very cool.

I'll spare you my attempts to write fiction based on this, but hopefully it's clear there's some decent material there.

"You have to admit," I said to the cat, "this is a great way to get people to send me email."

"Doubt it," the cat snorted, "you'll be lucky to get more than one submission. Even Wizards' own site don't get many entries to contests. How else d'you think you won two of them in the space of a year?"

"This is different," I stuck my tongue out at the cat, "Salvation is a community site. It's all about participation."

"Are you a betting man?"

"Yup," I confirmed warily.

"Ten cans of tuna says you're wrong!"

"Oh no," I shook my head, "to start with you won't be able to pay when you lose. Plus there's the fact I don't have much use for a pile of tuna. I propose much higher stakes: the loser's photograph appears in the next article."

"Seriously?!" my cat looked shocked. But it would lose face if it backed down now. And let me tell you something about cats: they hate to lose face.

You've got two weeks to get your entries in. I'm off to dig out some embarassing photos of my cat...


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