Voyaging the Planes: The Importance of Magic: The Gathering’s Lore

Posted May 19, 2014 by Jean-Luc Botbyl in Nerdy Bits

Magic: The Gathering’s lore is essential to the game functioning as it does. Everything starts at the lore. The entire card game is a nexus, and the creatures, mechanics, enchantments, and artifacts all stem from the center of that nexus; which is the lore. This is true both in theory and in practice. Every block and expansion is designed top-down, which means that the lore literally does come first. Take, for example, the most recent Magic:The Gathering block; Theros. I know that it may not be everyone’s favorite (it’s definitely not mine), but it is currently the most relevant example, and, if nothing else, it does have great lore.

So, as most people who play Magic know, the plane of Theros is based off of Ancient Greek mythology. Hence, we have gods, like Heliod, Thassa, and Purphoros, based off of Zeus, Poseidon, and Hephaestus, respectively. The god cards were a massive part of the entire Theros block, factoring heavily into the gameplay. Mono colored decks were built around these gods, and the “devotion” mechanic that came with them. The story surrounding the gods came first, and then the development team came up with the cards themselves.

akroan horse

This is pretty clearly the mythical Trojan Horse.

The same can be said of most creatures in the Theros block. Minotaurs, satyrs, merfolk – all of these come directly from Greek mythology, and they are all integral parts of Theros’ lore. There are even direct references to events from Greek mythology in the card game. The most obvious of these is probably the card “Akroan Horse,” which is undoubtedly an analogue for he Trojan Horse of myth, in the same way that Akros is meant to be representative of the city of Troy. Then, of course, there’s the heroic mechanic. Ancient Greece was meant to be a time of heroes, and the heroic mechanic is the perfect embodiment of this.

Of course, this is also true of other Magic: The Gathering blocks. When the designers came up with the Ravnica block, and the Return to Ravnica block as well, the lore surrounding the city of guilds provided influence for the cards, not the word way around. The mechanics in the Return to Ravnica block especially were inspired by the lore. It makes sense for the Simic Combine to have the Evolve mechanic (The exact phrasing of Evolve is: Whenever a creature enters the battlefield under your control, if that creature has greater power or toughness than this creature, put a +1/+1 counter on this creature), because, in the lore, their main focus was to biologically alter creatures, which is essentially what Evolve does to creatures with the mechanic.

Then there is, of course, Innistrad, a plane infested with vampires and werewolves, creatures that can transform into other creatures. This gave rise to the transform mechanic that was found in the Innistrad block and its expansions, Dark Ascension and Avacyn Restored. But this existed in the lore already, before it was brought into the game itself. That’s the beauty of the lore. If nothing else, it acts as an inspiration. It gets ideas flowing for new mechanics and cards that can be brought into play in new blocks and expansions.

Dack FaydenThen there are characters who existed in the lore before a card was ever made portraying them. The most prominent example is, undoubtedly, the newest Planeswalker, Dack Fayden. Dack Fayden actually appeared in IDW’s comic book series, before he was ever portrayed as a card. Now, he’s the sole Planeswalker that has been revealed for the upcoming Conspiracy set, and will be the newest Planeswalker in the card game.

But that is really just the technical side as to why the lore of Magic is important. And, sadly, for most players, it will end there. But for others, the lore means so much more. First and foremost, it’s a potential for great stories. Stories like those told in the myriad of novels and comic books that have come out so far. These stories are wonderful experiences for the readers, and those experiencing them. It lends weight to the game itself, and it makes playing the game so much more meaningful.

Brining out a Planeswalker that you’re allied with, or summoning a creature, be it legendary or even a common, 1/1 creature that you’re playing as a one-drop. Every action you take in the game suddenly has meaning, even the process of building your deck. I’ll take one of my personal experiences in deck building as an example. I chose to build a Dimir deck because two of my favorite characters in the lore are Jace and Lazav, two characters easily associated with Dimir. When building my Dimir deck, every card I put in there was put in there was put in there for a reason. Of course, some of those reasons were purely technical, for example there are four Deathcult Rogues and four Paranoid Delusions so that I can create one of the best mill combos ever. But it’s more than that.

Every card that I put in there tells a story, and every combo tells a story. It tells a story of House Dimir, and there are tons of other decks out there that tell their own story. But this is my interpretation of the Dimir, and how the Dimir operated in the City of Guilds. And I believe that this is how the best decks are made. The best decks are the decks that tell stories, the decks that have had their hearts poured into them by their creators, decks that are unique interpretations of the vibrant world of Magic: The Gathering. I’m far from the first person to build a mill deck. That would be an outrageous claim.

What I will say is that my specific mill deck is different from every other mill deck, because it’s my interpretation of the lore. That is what is important, at least to me. I’m sure that people will call me crazy, but I definitely find the lore to be the most important component in deck building, and understanding how the game works. Because, at the end of the day, it becomes so much more than a simple card game. It transcends into something that players have personal involvement, something that matters, and means something to them.

About the Author

Jean-Luc Botbyl

Jean-Luc is a grizzled veteran of We the Nerdy. Most days, he just wonders why he hasn't been formally fired. Follow him on Twitter at @J_LFett to make him feel validated.