Saturday, March 3, 2012

My Gateway to D&D: Magic the Gathering

I've been working overtime through most of this week, including today, and along with a hectic schedule for the gnollpack, I haven't been able to make much progress on much of anything gaming related, but I have had some thoughts brewing. And hey, look at that, I didn't post for a week and just jumped up to over 100 followers here! Thanks people! 

To make up for lack of posting this week, here's a fairly rambling and long-winded one about Magic: the Gathering and D&D, with a little personal introspection to boot. 

I have been playing a little Magic: the Gathering every night lately, a couple games before bedtime with one of the minions. I find myself going further down the Magic rabbit hole these days. Don't worry, A Pack of Gnolls isn't going to morph into a Magic blog; I won't bore you with decklists or strategies or synergies here. 

However, Magic served as my gateway to fantasy gaming. Sure, I'd been playing Star Wars D6 and Palladium's Heroes Unlimited and Robotech with my buddies, but when Padre showed us Magic, my imagination really came alive. The old Dragonquest RPG was introduced to our little group soon after, and we were all hooked. 

I find Magic to be a loving homage to D&D. It is clearly drawing a lot of inspiration from its D&D roots, even to this day. There are dwarves and orcs, goblins and paladins, rogues and knights, devils, demons, skeletons, zombies, necromancers, fireballs, druids... The list goes on. If it appeared in D&D, more than likely it shows up in Magic, too. I've written about this before, but the current expansion, Innistrad, is quite clearly an homage to Ravenloft; its full of vampires and werewolves and zombies and ghosts, and is all about humanity on the brink of destruction at the hands of merciless undead and demonic overlords. And it's a lot of fun to play. A lot of the cards are awesome plays on horror tropes; one of my favorites, purely for its creepiness factor, is Village Cannibals. 

Magic was my gateway to fantasy gaming, so it will always have a place in my heart. I didn't play it for a long time; my original collection contains cards from 1994-1998. I only recently started picking up Magic cards again, when my in-laws gave the minions each a starter deck from the recent New Phyrexia and Innistrad sets. That's a good twelve years! The more I've played with the kids, the more I've gotten into it, and I started picking up boosters, deck-builder kits (220 or so cards for $20!), and Fat Packs. Now we've got a halfway decent collection going. Each of the kids has their own deck, and there are a few others I've put together that they all play with. What's really important is that we're all spending good quality time together. The kids are all pretty sharp and have challenged me on several occasions with their decks. 

I'm not a great Magic player; I'm about as good at Magic as I am at video games. I can do pretty well, but not great. I'm never going to be a pro Magic player; I'm not going to shell out ten or twenty bucks for a single card to perfect a deck. I love opening booster packs, and I'm really liking booster draft-type games. 

What's really ironic is that the things that I love about Magic are basically the same things that drove me away from 4E D&D. Character Generation for 4E is incredibly similar to building a Magic deck. You choose your role and power source, you find synergies within the various available options, and you put it all together in one package. I got sick of all that with 4E, but I'll happily spend hours doing the exact same thing for Magic, looking over the cards in our collection, finding synergies and combos and marveling at the art. 

It's weird, I know. There's just something viscerally satisfying about handling the cards. The same activity in 4E is a major chore on the computer screen with the Character Builder, and even more so with a hand-written sheet with the books open! 

Anyways, I know a lot of grognards out there can't stand Wizards of the Coast for what they've done with the modern incarnations of the D&D brand, and with the way they've treated their D&D customers through the years. I find myself in a funny position here. I thoroughly enjoy Magic, and I thoroughly enjoy old-school D&D. So I'm a bit of a contradiction in terms here, as far as my gaming is concerned. 

Actually, now that I think about it, that's how I've been my whole life. I was a gifted athlete who played at the top local levels in my chosen sports, but eschewed jock culture for sci-fi and fantasy geekiness. I was a liberal working-class kid who went to high school with a bunch of upper-class conservatives. Now I'm a union construction worker, and the people I work with all have hobbies that primarily include either firearms or automobiles, while I'm playing D&D and Magic with my kids. 

Yeah, I never made much sense to me either. 


  1. Congratulations for your 100+ followers :)

    Did you know, you can download and play FOR FREE, Magic the Gathering on Steam? Not that I'm promoting Steam, but seeing as you like MtG, I just thought I'd draw your attention to it.

  2. Thanks Evil! I wish I had more time for computer games these days! Honestly, I've never been much for online gaming though. I am looking forward to heading up to my FLGS to play some Magic this evening though!

  3. Interesting. My experience was almost the opposite of yours, although it's not a particularly exact comparison. I very much like the online character builder and the other tools for 4e and the MTG stuff leaves me fairly cold.

    Also congratulations on the 100+ followers :)

  4. Thanks Amanda! I think part of the problem with the Character Builder, for me, was my clunky, slow computer. My other issue is that I felt like I had to go munchkin with any character I built to be able to do well and pull my weight.

    Magic also has a big nostalgia factor for me. Having played a lot of it as a youngster, and having lots of fond memories of those days, certainly makes me happy to be sharing similar experiences with my kids!

  5. I've only played a little Magic (and rather badly at that), but I do play with my son. It's fun, although I think he finds me a frustrating opponent.

    Interesting what you say about Character Builder. I've found one of the great strengths of 4e to be that it's very hard to build a non-viable character. I feel that I have a lot of freedom to build whatever as the system is robust enough to support some wild choices. Also agreed that a clunky computer will make in an exercise in misery.

  6. I played a ton of Magic back when it first came out in the early 90s and my friend and I got so into it that we'd buy the full boxes of each new expansion so that we could trade cards to try to get a ful set.

    I started with D&D about 10 years earlier, and that background was part of what I liked about Msgic. For me, seeing the story of the world unfold in the cards was always much more interesting that the actual game mechanics of Magic. I wanted all the cards not so that I could build a better deck, but so that I could see all of the cool characters and stuff.

    BTW, I always really enjoy the little personal touches that people put in their blogs (like your last paragraph). It makes me so much more interested in wanting to read the blog in the future. So, thanks for sharing!

  7. @ Amanda: when I went and played at Encounters sessions, there was a significant difference between properly optimized characters and PCs created by folks new to the system. While none of the characters weren't viable, some of them functioned much better than others. 3x and 4E don't necessarily require a lot of system mastery from the players to get a lot of enjoyment out of the games, but those systems certainly reward it.

    @ Martin: thank you, and thanks for commenting! I don't normally have a whole lot to say from a personal standpoint, but sometimes a little introspection is good for the soul.

    I think that well-crafted decks in a Limited environment, from just a single expansion, can often tell a pretty interesting story through the game itself, and even through the mechanics. Magic has definitely gotten better about this. The most recent set, Innistrad block, is a great example. The flip-card mechanic for werewolves and other creatures works great, the undying ability is powerful good. I just see lots of good stories being played out through the gameplay itself, which makes it all the more rewarding to play.

  8. "...and the people I work with all have hobbies that primarily include either firearms or automobiles, while I'm playing D&D and Magic with my kids."

    I understand you there. More than once a week, there is a thorough discussion of firearms here at work. And I am the weird one for having an online Tuesday Xbox game night with old friends. :/

  9. I keep hoping that Wizards will publish the setting of Magic The Gathering as a D&D campaign world.

  10. Thanks for the comments Stephen! I too have been hoping for a M:tG D&D setting, but I doubt such a project will ever happen. The planeswalker issue is too big for a system like D&D to handle, even in a 4E environment. I do think that the flavor of a lot of the different Magic locales could definitely be looted for D&D campaigns, however. The current set, Innistrad, is a prime example of a very Shadowfell-like world.