The PAX West gaming convention (formerly PAX Prime) in Seattle took place earlier this month, and it hosted the 2016 world championship for the popular trading-card game Magic: The Gathering, a major hobby of mine. Magic has established itself as one of the most successful franchises in tabletop-gaming history, both for its collectible aspect and its ability to evolve over time. Each semiannual expansion, or “block,” brings the game to a new original fantasy world, with gameplay designed to evoke the atmosphere of that world, which keeps the game feeling fresh despite its long history.
Lately, the team at Wizards of the Coast, the company in charge of producing Magic, has taken the initiative to integrate the franchise’s story more fluidly between the game itself and the weekly online fiction that shows what the setting’s characters are up to. Magic‘s primary focus is on the Planeswalkers—mages who possess the unique ability to travel between parallel worlds, or planes, existing in an infinite Multiverse—and their adventures visiting these planes. This setup allows Magic to tell many different kinds of stories. The most recent block, Shadows over Innistrad, showed fans a Gothic plane in the maddening grip of a Lovecraftian horror; the upcoming Kaladesh block will bring us to the pyromancer Planeswalker Chandra Nalaar’s home plane, a cosmopolitan world of inventions and fantastical science, a setting Wizards’ worldbuilding team describes as “aetherpunk,” referring to the mystical energy that powers the plane’s vehicles and other technological trappings.
The new cards and gameplay for Kaladesh were previewed at PAX. As a follower of the story as much as the game itself, if not more so, I was especially pleased to learn about the new “Story Spotlight” cards that will make their debut in the new block. These cards, identified by a watermarked Planeswalker symbol inside the text box, highlight pivotal plot elements in the online fiction.
In its current form, the plot of Magic: The Gathering can be described as equal parts Doctor Who and The Avengers, wrapped in a high-fantasy veneer. Five Planeswalkers have joined together to form the Gatewatch, a superhero squad of sorts that is pledged to protect the many planes of the Multiverse from extraplanar threats, of which there are many. Like story arcs in your typical comic book, each block forms a complete story from beginning to end, but plot threads carry forth from one block to the next, forming an ongoing saga. This is something Magic has been doing for many years, but only in the past year has there been such a concerted effort to make the story accessible to newcomers as well as relatable for a diverse readership. Wizards writer Jenna Helland says a lot more about that on the Magic website here. That article contains links to each of the five Planeswalkers’ origin stories, which is a good place to start if you’re interested in following the Magic story line.
So far, I’m excited about the Kaladesh block and am curious to see where it leads. As a player, it’s a lot of fun to be able to read a story and then see the cards recreate events from that story during play. Still, Magic: The Gathering is a fantasy that can be enjoyed fully unto itself, apart from the trading card game that shares its mythology.