Magic the Gathering and Writing Novels: 5 Similarities and 5 Differences


mtgI had been meaning to go to the local game shop to play Magic the Gathering with real people for several months, but I was scared. I’m an introvert, I’m socially awkward, and I barely know the game. I was also worried they wouldn’t be friendly or they’d be the wrong kind of friendly as there are some horror stories online in both of those categories.

I really wanted to get better before my martial arts weekend away, though. We often play board games and such while having some drinks. Last year a small group was playing magic and a friend and I thought we should bring cards this year.

I also knew my deck was a mess.

So I went to the shop. The woman at the counter asked for my DCI. Upon seeing my blank deer-in-the-headlights look, she said not to worry and got me sorted and ready to play. I had also forgotten my 20-sided die and she helped me with that too.

I stood around awkwardly until I eventually sat at a table. Of Pokémon players, I later figured out. Someone took out a fancy playing mat and I wondered what the hell I was doing there and I was going to lose and be made fun of for sure.

Eventually, I found the magic players. There was a small group that night, just 3 of us, but that worked in my favour. The two guys were really nice and helped me play and fixed up my deck at the end. I went back Wednesday to play again and needed less help.

They gave me suggestions of things to add to my deck. One of the cards needed replacing and I got the exact card to replace it with out of the booster pack I got for playing. They also told me some things about deck building like wanting the deck to have a little less diversity so the way it plays is consistent. When I got home, I had had so much fun that it was hard to sleep!

I went through one of my other decks to make it better.

I realized something too. Building magic decks is not unlike writing a novel. Here’s why:

1. Pacing: In Magic, we want to be able to ideally play the right card at the right time based on what turn we are on. On turn one we want to play 1 mana and a maybe a creature that costs one mana if we are fortunate enough to draw those. In a novel, we want to ease into it. We want some action at the start, but just enough to pique the readers interest the keep them reading. As we go along, we introduce little things that make the reader ask why. Then we add a small problem. Then fixing that problem leads to another, slightly bigger problem. We hint at things, but don’t confirm until later, which gives the reader reason to keep reading.

2. Characters: Creatures are like your characters. We have creatures that start out small and become big later, by bumping them or killing them to bring bigger ones out later. With writing, it takes some time to get to know the characters and it can be a great plot device to kill off a character if their death moves the story along.

3. Fuel: Mana is the fuel necessary to do cool things. They aren’t exciting cards, for the most part. They are necessary to get the awesome things out onto the table. It’s likeness in writing would be the stuff in between the major plot points. Those bits in between the points of climax. A lot of it is just words that might not have a deeper meaning. But like some special land cards, some of those words may foreshadow the events to come.

4. Bumps: In Magic, bumps are buffs for the creatures. You might have a little 1/1 creature that you bump with a +2/+1 or something, for example. In writing, we might give something to our characters along their journey such as armour, a magical item, or perhaps an annoying sidekick that turns out useful.

5. Obstacles: In Magic, our opponents will do anything to stop us from completing our goal of killing them, just like the antagonist will thwart our hero’s attempts to complete the journey.

The major differences between the two are:

1. Dynamics: In magic, you plan all the pieces, but are left to chance when it comes to combat. There’s no guarantee you’ll get the cards you need when you need them. The story is different every time. With a novel, you plan the pieces, deviate as needed until the work becomes finished and static.

2. Chances: In Magic, you usually play best of three. You have three attempts to do things right. In novel writing, you have lots of chances while writing, but once it’s published it is the same story and you can’t do things like sideboard to reconfigure for different readers on-the-fly. What’s done is done.

3. Control: We can’t control the outcome of a magic game. Even control decks have weaknesses and one doesn’t know what kind of deck one will be up against. There are too many variables. With novel writing, we are in the driver’s seat. We get to decide if our hero needs to have his hand chopped off with a lightsaber because the journey requires him to suffer in order to realize his full potential.

4. Social: Magic is best played with 2 or more players. Novel writing is most commonly a solitary endeavor, though some writers get together to write in the same room as other writers, that would be more comparable to deck building in the same room. They may critique each other and offer suggestions, but the novelist must decide what is best for the book as only they can know their story intimately.

5. Language: Magic is a language all its own just like Music or French. Lifelink means a creature will basically steal life from the opponent and give it to its owner. Haste means a creature can attack right after being summoned instead of waiting a turn. In English, haste is a word with a negative connotation of not thinking before taking action, whereas in Magic it is often a good thing to be able to attack right away.

I hope you have enjoyed reading my thoughts on Magic the Gathering and its similarities and differences to writing novels.

Ciao,
R~

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