The Collectible Card Game Thread – Tell Me A Story

Header art: Edward P. Beard, Jr.

Welcome to the *CG thread, where we talk all manner of Card Games – Collectible, Trading, Living, and otherwise! Feel free to chat amongst yourselves about the card games you’re playing or anything card game-related that strikes your fancy.

Since apparently I can’t not talk about Magic still, let’s talk about War of the Spark.

I mentioned last column that War of the Spark is the culmination of Magic’s modern push towards gameplay-story integration. But what exactly does that mean, and in particular, what does it mean to do that in a collectible card game where booster packs mean that you will see cards in a random order?

Originally, the story behind Magic was: “You are a Planeswalker.” and not much else. You were just a powerful wizard leading an army of monsters against some other wizard. The original rulebook had a short story about two such wizards, Worzil and Thomil. They don’t appear much after this.

Later, Magic would have fantasy novels published, but apart from vague, tangential references to character names, the story and the game didn’t much intersect. By the time of Tempest, blocks would begin to have a story behind them, and for a few years, the game followed the crew of The Weatherlight, a plane-hopping ship with a crew of character archetypes. This would culminate in the Invasion block, an apocalyptic confrontation between Urza, one of the biggest early Magic characters, and Yawgmoth, an all-consuming blob of evil. Also The Weatherlight was there. At this point, the story would appear on the cards, but was still mostly told by novels and was mostly secondary in the cards.

From there on, blocks were more self-contained, with each block setting up a new environment and establishing the main characters, but the story still wasn’t fully told in the game itself – most of the time, the climax and conclusion of the story were completely absent from the cards, leaving anyone who didn’t buy the novels hopelessly in the dark as to what was actually happening in the overarching plot.

But then would come Planeswalker cards.

With Planeswalker cards, Magic could build a cast that could actually travel between planes (without being stuck on a flying boat together), and could drive the story. While they did not originally start as the main characters of the actual plot, with the 2015 set Magic Origins, Magic would bring both the characters and the story into the forefront.

The story that would begin there, taking many disparate story threads from throughout Magic and in some cases reworking them, the story that began there would mark an attempt to blend story and game design. And now, with War of the Spark, that story is coming to a head.

For this preview season, Wizards of the Coast is releasing cards in story order. And on top of that, many of the cards fall into “story scenes” that represent a particular moment of the story. These can sometimes be pretty loosely defined, but they do present an “environmental” story that captures the broad strokes of how the story feels. Doing the preview season this way gives a lot of control to WotC as far as the order that the audience sees cards (the inevitable card leaks notwithstanding) but also is very temporally specific – it only really works if you’re following it as it comes out. While you could go back and look at the storyboard that’s posted on the website later, you could still always go and open a booster that simultaneously shows a character’s rise and fall on different cards.

It should be noted that this isn’t the first time that the story has appeared so explicitly in the cards. During the Tempest block, the various card arts contained every major plot point if you knew what you were looking for, and in recent sets, certain cards have been marked as “Story Spotlights” complete with an annotation on the bottom telling you where in the story it falls.

The question is, does this work? Is this an effective way to tell a story, or to even give the impression that a story exists? Many players don’t really get invested in that part of the game, or don’t go looking for more information online, or are just new and haven’t had the opportunity to understand what they’re seeing. How do you reach people like that and tell them that there is a story behind the cards that they’re seeing? Many games decide that a backing story isn’t worth the trouble and confusion and just don’t do it.

War of the Spark is the result of years of buildup. There have been numerous missteps and creative team shakeups and a lot of fluctuation and inconstancy, but this is the finish line. It will remain to be seen how satisfying this conclusion really will be (and with such an ambitious project, it’s as likely to fall flat as not) but regardless of what happens, it will have been an impressive journey.

This week’s prompt: How do you interact with story in your card games?

Or, as always, feel free to talk about anything going on with you in the world of *CGs.