Story Time

Posted in Making Magic on July 28, 2014

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

A few months ago, I was invited to speak at a company called Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI). These are the people who create the rides and experiences for all the Walt Disney parks and facilities around the world. Their R&D department was hosting a series of talks on game design and I was asked to come down and give a speech. The topic they were interested in hearing me talk about was how we work story into our game design. As this is a topic I've spent a lot of time on, I was very excited to talk about it.

Story Circle | Art by Aleksi Briclot

Once I gave the talk, it dawned on me that it would make a good article. I have previously turned some talks I gave into articles (such as the talk to my daughter's fifth grade class on basic game design and my Career Day speech at the local middle school) and they worked out well, so I thought it was time to do that again. So today, in article form, I am going to go over the speech I gave at WDI. I hope you enjoy it as much as they did.

"Here's a Story..."

When I design a Magicset, I have multiple goals in mind. I'm trying to make a fun game experience. I'm trying to push the pendulum in a new direction. I'm trying to explore new design space while re-exploring old design space. I'm trying to find the most direct way to accomplish my goals without adding too much excess complexity. But while I'm trying to do all that, I'm also doing something else important—I'm trying to tell a story.

Let me stress this goal is not a solitary one. There is an entire creative team that works extraordinarily hard to create this story and find all sorts of different means to communicate it. I am directly responsible for only one means of telling the story and that is through gameplay. My article today is talking about what I need to do to try and accomplish this task while recognizing all the other work that is happening around me. The art of creating a Magicset is a cooperative one and the act of telling the story is no exception. So, today, I am going to talk about telling the story, but through the lens of game design.

Let's begin by exploring the problems one has to face when trying to tell a story in a Magic card set.

Problem #1: The Story Has to Be Told through the Medium Of Trading Cards

See this?

This is a Magic card. Films have a movie screen. Television has a television screen. The Internet has a computer screen or a tablet screen or a phone screen. Trading cards get a card. That is the canvas on which we have to paint our picture.

While it has areas of strength, the medium of trading card has a lot of limitations. Let's take the art box. By far, this is the most expressive part of the card, and Magic art demonstrates the beauty possible. That said, a still, single piece of art has a lot of limitations. For example, it has trouble showing things that involve movement or change because, barring double-faced cards, you only get to show one moment in time. Here's another example.

Art by Jason Chan

What is this art about? Click here to see the correct answer.

Another big limitation is text space.

This card is Spark Fiend from Unglued. Basically, the card is making you play the game craps and the only way to fit it onto the card was to shrink the art box. The only reason we could even do that was it was for a parody set, where we could play around more with how the cards looked. My point is the text box isn't all that big and words are a limited resource.

Now, if we manage to get all the rules text on the card and have a little space left over, then, and only then, do we get flavor text.

As this version of Ray of Command shows, it often isn't that much. And lots of cards don't even have room for flavor text.

Problem #2: The Story Has to Be Told through the Medium Of a Game

First and foremost, Magic:The Gathering is a game. What that means is that, whenever there is a conflict between flavor and gameplay, gameplay tends to win. This is because, in order to keep telling our story, we first have to make a product people will purchase and, if it isn't a good game, they won't. Now, this doesn't mean that gameplay always trumps story but it wins the vast majority of the fights. The reason this is a problem is that the needs of the game are different from the needs of the story.

Here's the best example. In a game of Magic, here is a rough breakdown of the cards:





Half the cards are creatures. Only a tiny portion are lands and only a quarter are spells. Things like artifacts, enchantments, and Planeswalkers take up the rest of the space. Stories like action, yet the cards that have the art to show action, the instants and sorceries, don't make up a lot of the set. Meanwhile, creatures, which have the largest portion, are something stories usually want less of. As I explained during my talk, if Disney tried telling stories with the same constraints as Magic sets, we'd get a story like this.

Problem #3: Magic Sets Are Non-Linear

Film and television and books all have one thing in common: They have the ability to control the order by which you are exposed to the story. For simplicity sake, let's divide up a story into 26 parts, from A to Z. In most mediums, A will always happen before B, which will always happen before C, and so on. Trading card games don't have that luxury.

The first piece of the story you pull out of a booster pack might be N or V or F. The second piece could be before it or after it, and you don't even know which direction it goes in. Telling stories without the aid of a linear guide is very hard. Of all the problems I am going to explain today, I'm pretty sure this is the most difficult.

Problem #4: We Constantly Change Our Worlds

To demonstrate this problem, I am going to look through our last six years.

In 2008, we visited the shards of Alara, a plane that broke apart into five distinctive worlds, each defined by the lack of two colors of magic.

In 2009, we visited Zendikar, a wild adventure world where the land itself was deadly at every turn and deep inside the earth were ancient beings held prisoner.

In 2010, we visited the metal world of Mirrodin and watched as the Phyrexian invaders slowly transformed it into New Phyrexia.

In 2011, we visited Innistrad, a dark Gothic-horror world filled with monsters.

In 2012, we visited the city-world of Ravnica, with its ten two-color guilds.

In 2013, we visited Theros, a pastoral world inspired by Greek mythology.

Six years, six radically different worlds. Telling a story is difficult. Telling a story where the backdrop is constantly changing is exceedingly difficult, especially because it forces us, as the storytellers, to keep having to reintroduce the environment.

So we have to tell our story through trading cards through a game in random order while the setting constantly changes. That's definitely a challenge. Luckily, though, we've found a few tools to help us.

Solution #1: Use All Parts Of the Trading Card

If trading card games are our medium, we have to be good at maximizing how we use it.

There are seven components capable of expressing story elements.


The name might only get to be a few words but, if used correctly, can be quite potent. My example here is the card Deicide from Journey into Nyx. Deicide literally means "the murder of a god." That one word carries a lot of story within it.

Mana Cost

Next, we have the mana cost. My example for this is Emrakul, the Æons Torn from Rise of the Eldrazi. Emrakul is the largest of the Eldrazi titans. What is one way to loudly communicate this? The mana cost. Most creatures cost between one and six mana, so when one costs fifteen, it says pretty loudly that this is a giant and important creature.


It would take a lot of words to convey what this single picture says about Chandra. Up above, I talked about some of the weaknesses of the art, but now it's time to talk about its strengths. I believe strongly that without the art boxes filled with the wonderful fantasy art thatMagic never would have become the success it has. Pictures have great power and can do a lot to tell story.

Creature Type

If I was doing stand-up, I would just get up and say "Demon Ninja" and drop the mike. Those two words pack a lot of storytelling punch and show how the creature type line has potential to turn heads and make people want to know more.

Rules Text

You want to know what this object does in the story? Read the rules text. It explains it as concisely as six words can.

Flavor Text

I remember the first time I saw this card and read the flavor text. I wasn't even quite sure what the card did in the game but I knew one thing—if I ever saw a Lhurgoyf, I was supposed to run in the other direction.


The rules text spends a lot of words explaining how big the B.F.M. is, but the power and toughness do just as good a job with only two numbers.

The point to this section is that, yes, trading cards are somewhat of a limited medium, but there is much to work with on a Magic card, so we have to make sure to make use every part.

Solution #2: Resonance

I wrote a whole article about resonance when Magic 2010 was released, but as this is a very important part of today's topic, I'm going to go over it again. The basic key to resonance is this: People respond more freely to things they already understand.

If something is strange or foreign, you have to spend time trying to figure it out and are more skeptical when it comes to accepting it. If something is familiar, you are able to comprehend it much quicker and thus are more willing to accept it.

When trying to tell a story, you can use resonance to help you. Here's how. The average person has had a lot of interaction with many stories over his or her life. Certain components have become familiar. If you use some of those components in your story, even if you make changes to them, you make your story much more approachable.

I'm going to use Innistrad as my example for this point. When we chose to do a Gothic horror world, we knew we were tapping into something much larger than our game. The horror genre is something most people are familiar with, so when Innistrad came along with its vampires and werewolves and zombies, many in the audience was quick to accept it because they already felt comfortable with the genre.

Yes, we did Magic's version of Vampires and Werewolves and Zombies, but we made sure each of them acted like how the audience would expect. When I chose what mechanics to put on them, I and my team did so trying to capture what we expected the audience would think they would act like. For instance, we knew zombies travel in number and are slow to overwhelm their victims. Any one zombie wasn't a threat, but the endless swarm of zombies was. This meant that our Zombies didn't want to be particularly strong, individually, but wanted to create a style of play that would slowly overwhelm the opponent.

Endless Ranks of the Dead | Art by Ryan Yee

We worked hard to find a way to have the Zombies grow slowly and build their forces over time. The end result was that we made a creature type that acted the way the audience expected it to act and thus allowed the audience to willingly embrace the Zombies. The Zombies acted like zombies from all of the different horror sources the audience had experienced.

Resonance is so important because one of the biggest ways to overcome some of the inherent confusion of a trading card game is to make use of the players' own knowledge to help fill in the gaps of the story.

Solution #3: Archetypes

In many ways, this solution is just an extension of the last one. In order to make stories easier for the audience to understand, authors make use of something known as an archetype. An archetype is a pre-structured narrative the audience is already familiar with. Whenever I talk about archetypes, my favorite go-to example is the romantic comedy:

Two people start not together (often hating each other at the beginning) and by the end of the story they're together. The interesting part isn't whether or not they get together—because that part is mostly established—but rather how it happens. There have been many romantic comedies made over the years. Shouldn't people grow tired of them? No, because they represent a key part of the human experience and it's the kind of story people want to see.

I bring up archetypes because they help solve one of the biggest problems with telling a story through trading cards—the non-linearity. How can you help people piece together a story when it's not in order? By telling them a story where they already known the basic outline. Instead of making them put together a jigsaw puzzle without a picture, instead give them a picture they already know well.

My example here is the Theros block. We needed to tell a story. We were in a Greek mythology–inspired world. The easiest way to help the audience along was to choose the correct archetype that matched the world, in this case a mythological journey—what Joseph Campbell (a man who spent his life mapping out story archetypes) would call "The Hero's Journey."

Elspeth came to Theros intent on getting away from her troubles, but her own sense of honor made her have to slay a hydra to prevent the death of innocent people. That brought her to the attention of one of the gods, who then sent her on a journey. Each note in the story was designed to reinforce the type of story we were telling so the players had a much easier time following along.

Solution #4: Tell Environmental Stories

When I was in school, I took a lot of writing courses: writing for the page, writing for the big screen, writing for the small screen. The lesson I learned in each class was this—play to your medium. Movies, for example, are all about imagery. The best movies are ones where you get to tell your story in giant pictures. Television, on the other hand, is more an audial medium, meaning it is more about dialogue and sound. The kind of stories that make good movies are different from the kinds of stories that make good television shows.

So what is the strength of the trading card medium? Environment. Trading cards do a wonderful job of showing you all the different aspects of a world: the people, the creatures, the objects, the places. When trying to tell a story in a trading card, you have to lean on stories where the environment places a role in the story.

My example here is Scars of Mirrodin block. The story was about an invasion leading to a war. This story, though, is not just told through one individual but through the world itself. As the places and creatures of the world get transformed, we get to watch. The change from Scars of Mirrodin to Mirrodin Besieged to New Phyrexia allowed us a chance to see the story progress and watch as the Phyrexians slowly defeated the Mirrans. This wasn't shown on a handful of cards but rather most of the cards in the block.

The lesson here is making sure that our stories always have an environmental component, because that is the place where we have the greatest ability to reflect the story.

Solution #5: Planeswalkers

How do you tell an ongoing story that keeps changing settings? By keeping a different element consistent—the main characters. I believe the Planeswalkers do a lot of good for the story, but one of their most important traits is consistency of presence. By being the people able to travel between worlds, they become the thing the audience can hook onto. Yes, Theros is a completely new world, but Elspeth is someone we know. Tarkir will be something you've never seen before, but Sarkhan is a known commodity.

Planeswalkers have one other big thing going for them. They are the representation of what we, the players, are when we play the game. I've talked a bit about how I want to make sure the gameplay conveys the story, but it's also important that the overall concept of the game also feels connected.

Solution #6: The Color Pie

If you aren't aware that I believe the most important part of the game is the color pie, welcome to Making Magic. (You can read me go on about it for a whole article here.) Here's yet another reason why it's so awesome. The reason that resonance and archetypes are so important is because they frontload a lot of information. We help people understand our story because we make sure they already know pieces of it before they begin. The color wheel serves a similar function.

The very first time you see Vraska, you look at her mana cost and see that she's black and green. That tells you a lot. If she had been red-green or green-blue, that would have meant very different things about who she is. That's one of the potent things about having a series of philosophies all carefully spelled out. It allows us to teach you things about our characters and worlds quickly.

Remember that the color pie itself is built on a lot of resonance. Richard didn't invent any of the philosophies but he found a neat way to interconnect them. Having the underpinning of the game be philosophical in nature is a wonderful story-teaching aid.

Solution #7: Tell Story through Gameplay

This final solution is something that took me years to wrap my brain around. Obviously, the name and the art and the creature type and the flavor text and the power/toughness all convey elements of story. I even understood that the rules text also helps flesh out the flavor of the cards. What it took me a while to realize is that one of our greatest storytelling tools wasn't on the cards, but rather in the game.

I talk a lot about how it's important to me when I set the vision for a design that I define how I want the audience to feel. What should the act of playing the game evoke? It took me a while to realize that I treated my game designs much like I treated my stories back in my screenwriting days. When I told a story, I was always aware of what emotions I was trying to evoke.

And what is a story if not a means to evoke an emotional response out of the audience? During my resonance article, I talked about how I had a writing teacher who taught us that the way to connect to your audience was to make it relate to the problems of the character. The reason you get emotional at a movie is because the movie is able to get you to connect with what is happening in the movie. You cry because that tragedy that happens to the character could happen to you and you feel for the character what you would feel for yourself.

Getting the gameplay to evoke emotion is doing the same thing. Making you scared in Innistrad or triumphant in Theros is getting you to bring emotion to the story because we are bringing the same emotion to you through the gameplay. If we want you to feel something in the story or through the environment, we have the ability to do so through your action within the game itself.

Boundless Realms | Art by Cliff Childs

This realization is what led us to the Fifth Stage of Design and has radically changed how I think about and execute Magic design.

Happily Ever After

My goal at my talk at WDI was the same as this article. I wanted to make the listener/reader think. I've thrown a lot of information at you and I'm hoping you will process it in your own time. I think you will see that, as you absorb it all, the art of storytelling in Magic is a complex one, but an exciting challenge that I'm eager to keep working on.

As always, I'm very interested to hear your opinion on what I've talked about today. You can email me or respond through any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram). This was an extra-meaty article so I'm even more eager to hear your feedback.

Join me next week when the hunt is on.

Until then, may there be many stories in your future.

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