I love Magic, the Gathering, but I also hate it.

What people understand of a genre, and in fact, in a larger sense, of reality, is shaped by what they read and observe, what they hear, and is told to them.  You can’t read everything, you can’t observe all the art and news and reports, but other people read the things you don’t, and it influences them.  In genre fiction agents and publishers talk about comps, and what are considered comps are in a sense shaping what you can and can’t write about.

In that same way long-enduring franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek, Futurama, Marvel Comics, these things help shape what is possible to consider possible.  In politics, this is referred to as the Overton Window.

Magic, the Gathering has been around since 1993 or so.  It’s the invention of a mathematician and math teacher, Richard Garfield, and it spawned an entire type of game – the collectible card game.  If you read fantasy novels, or science fiction, you’re probably at least marginally aware of magic.

The basic premise is based on a series of books by Lyndon Hardy, to summarize there are different kinds of magic that work differently.  Not all that shocking that a physicist would come up with something like that.  In some ways, it suffers from the flaw that many “magic as strange physics” suffers from, where overly rationalistic practitioners carefully define the rules of how magic works by performing rigorous empirical testing, in a sense it’s insulting to the idea of western science, which may be one of the few truly valuable, unique innovations of the Western world.

Some may pooh pooh this but I am one of those readers who like the idea of trying to explain magical phenomenon through science, though I think when it’s done it’s usually overly expositional, info-dumping prose.  Perhaps the best example of this being done well is in Blindsight, and the vampires that humans have resurrected.  To see the author himself give a mock lecture check this out: Peter Watts Vampire Lecture (in character).

I have heard it argued that such construct lacks imagination, and reduces the magical to merely rational, and it is often a failing of modern fantasy, but I think when it’s done well it can be very fun to see how something from history could scientifically have occurred.  The problem, in part, is that it’s done all the damn time, especially in film and television, and it’s mostly done really, really horribly.  So horribly in fact that anyone with a basic scientific knowledge base knows that it’s absurd, that the explanation makes no sense, that it’s not even remotely plausible.

Such works are sometimes referred to as “hard” fantasy, or hard sci-fi, and hard fantasy is probably more uncommon that hard sci-fi, though much that is considered “hard” sci-fi is not particularly hard.

if you hard then you hard

Magic doesn’t spend a huge amount of time worrying about how people actually cast spells, which is nice, and it doesn’t even do that much with the basic idea of conflicting magics, which I find extremely dissapointing.

In the beginning there was a core idea to magic, each of the colors of magic was tied to two core philosophical ideas

White: Law, Good

Red : Chaos, Fire/Earth

Blue: Reason, Water/Air

Green: Life, Nature

Black: Death, Evil

The color pie has subsequently grown a lot more complex and vague, and subsequently mostly been discarded, which I think is truly a shame.

If you look at a geometric arrangement, there’s a lot of unique interactions (this is an interesting application of how systems grow exponentially more complex, the number of relationships grows rapidly as you add more elements).  As opposed to the more usual Western arrangement of elements, with 4 elements in balance with direct opposites, the magic color pie has each color with 2 allies and 2 enemies, based in part on philosophies.

White has allies in Blue and Green, with Life and Nature are closely aligned, and Order and Reason likewise, but then White’s allies actually oppose each other.  This is true for each of the colors, each colors allies are enemies and likewise, each color’s enemies are allies.  This could lead to a huge amount of interesting philosophical arrangements, with magic taking on the nature of that conflict.  Various expansions take place on different planes, and so on a given plane, you could have the different philosophical differences being resolved in different ways, leading to different alignments and different kinds of spells and creatures.

Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, the vagaries of the market have distorted magic, the company was sold to Hasbro and at first, was an independently managed division, but seems to have been folded more and more into the corporate er… fold.  The company is pushing out more and deluxe product faster and faster, at a rate that seems unsustainable.  It’s hard to say though, because as the oldest CCG it has enormous brand value that’s built up over the years, and enormous network effect, players drop in and out of magic, but anytime you go to a roleplaying game shop, you’ll find yourself most likely at a card game shop.  They may specialize in Warhammer 40k, or Vampire: the Masquerade, but they’ll almost certainly carry magic cards, have magic play nights, host tournaments.  In addition Wizards of the Coast owns TSR, thus owns Dungeons and Dragons, so the fate of both are intertwined, and WotC has been willing to push “synergistic” products, with a recent release being adventures in the forgotten realms, the most default and generic of D&D settings.

There’s another product,  Master of Magic, which came out in the Era of Civilization, the first of the series, and was a kind of smash-up of Magic: the Gathering and Civilization, which closely mirrored the five magics and their philosophical struggles.  There’s apparently a remake planned, and information about it is on steam, but I’ve been tricked before, a game that was supposed to be a Master of Magic sequel became Enchantress, and there have been others.

What I find most frustrating about Magic the card game is the refusal to explore the idea space of the philosophies, even though they have associated media like comic books and novels, but I find myself drawn back in to the game, from time to time, like some comet trying to escape a gravity well and inexorably pulled back in, over and over.

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