Constructing the Player in MtG

Magic: The Gathering is a tabletop card game, originally released in 1993 by Wizards of the Coast (who also make Dungeons & Dragons). Even if you’ve never played Magic, you kinda know what it’s about – it stands as progenitor to most of the creature-summon card games, Yu-gi-oh and Hearthstone and so on. One of the major elements of Magic‘s popularity is its constant innovation – several times a year Wizards will release new blocks of cards, offering both new mechanics and another instalment of a serialized long-running narrative. In February, we saw the most recent set – Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty. Now, Kamigawa is an interesting place. Back in 2004 and 2005, there were three sets released in succession that all focused on this Japanese-themed world – respectively, Champions, Betrayers, and Saviors of Kamigawa. The series didn’t perform very well, possibly for a range of reasons, and nothing further happened with that world for seventeen years. Now it’s 2022, and a futuristic Kamigawa has been released with a cyberpunk theme, zeroing in on the conflict between tradition and technology.

Today I want to talk about one specific YouTube video made in the context of Kamigawa’s recent release. It covers the lore and world of Kamigawa – I wanted to know a bit more about that universe, as I wasn’t playing Magic back in 2004, so I’d no idea what it was about. There are a few channels on Youtube that focus on the game’s lore, and I picked one more or less at random: Aether Hub’s ‘Kamigawa: The Complete History‘. It’s about an hour long, so it’s pretty comprehensive – and generally I enjoyed it. The conclusion in particular caught my attention – I’ll copy out the transcript below, or you can watch it via the link above – it’s all chaptered, so it’s easy to find.

Conclusion transcript: Kamigawa is a plane with so much flavour to it, a story so well enjoyed by the player base, but yet isn’t fondly remembered. As a block in MTG, Kamigawa saw one of the lowest numbers in the game’s history, leading to the false correlation that it was unenjoyable, or worse still, [that] the players didn’t enjoy the plane itself. However, this wasn’t the case, and with nostalgia hitting a fever pitch, fans of Kamigawa beat the drums and herald the song of this world’s return. Public demand for a return to Kamigawa was so strong that the fans were finally listened to and the announcement of a return was revealed. But always be careful for what you wish for. Yes, we’re returning to Kamigawa – a miracle by all accounts. But it’s not the Kamigawa we asked for or wanted. Kamigawa now plays host to a cyberpunk theme, far removed from its ancestral roots – leaving us at the moment in a state of uneasy excitement. Will this bring the flavour that the original Kamigawa was famous for? Or will this be an entirely new experience?

Immediately there seem to be some gaps in the reasoning – for instance, the idea that people didn’t enjoy Kamigawa is rebutted with a simple “this wasn’t the case.” Why isn’t it the case? Where’s the evidence? Of course, it’s a conclusion to an hour long video, so it’s not supposed to be introducing and justifying new arguments – statements like that are used here more as rhetorical devices, as gestures rather than evidence. And that’s really what I want to focus on – how this conclusion rhetorically constructs the relationship between players and Wizards of the Coast.

There are really two key points – both pretty basic to begin with. First is the idea that players loved Kamigawa. We’re told that nostalgia hit a fever pitch, that it’s a story enjoyed by the player base, that fans were beating the drums for its return. Second is the idea that players need to encourage Wizards to do the right thing. The announcement of the return to Kamigawa happened, in this rhetorical framing, because the fans spoke up – “the fans were finally listened to.” There’s this implicit idea that the Wizards guys are goobers who need to be constantly supervised – the fans told them what to do, and they kinda listened eventually, but they also got distracted by some stupid idea along the way and plugged in a bunch of stuff that nobody wanted.

That kind of patronizing portrayal isn’t necessarily unusual – plenty of player bases have a degree of antagonism towards their games’ developers, especially in games that change over time. It’s very easy to find other examples – as lead Magic designer Mark Rosewater recently observed, “there is literally no way to not upset people.” What’s interesting about the Aether Hub passage is how it tries to submerge one player upset in favour of another. The reality is, Kamigawa wasn’t well-received in 2004. Many players didn’t like it, and many didn’t buy it. Some players were mad at Wizards for creating it, probably in much the same way as others were mad at Wizards for not creating more of it. But instead of framing the issue in terms of the conflicting desires of the audience, the Aether Hub passage instead presents ‘the players’ as a homogenous group of good and smart people, and Wizards as dummies needing instruction. The opening couple sentences do wrestle a little bit with the contradictions of that framing – Kamigawa is simultaneously described as well enjoyed and not fondly remembered – but the tension is quickly submerged in favour of a simple moral binary between players and Wizards.

I dunno – there’s nothing revolutionary here, right. We aren’t identifying some new phenomenon – there are a million other examples we could pull out of the air to illustrate this trend. And the Aether Hub video isn’t in any way obnoxious or annoying. As I said, I got a lot out of it – this is intended more as observation than attack. It’s interesting to observe how players construct themselves in response to the things they like or dislike about a game. It’s a process that Wizards even make room for in Kamigawa – a set deliberately billed as a conflict between past and future. It updates a fictional world by meditating on the tensions and difficulty of change. Kamigawa hadn’t been touched in seventeen years. Any new release was obviously going to trigger a spectrum of reactions. Some people would embrace the new interpretation. Some would resist it. Some would struggle to reconcile the differences, struggle to accept not only the changes in the fictional world of Kamigawa, but in Magic the Gathering itself as a product that necessarily changes over time. The broader context again is illustrative: this new set is billed on the website as “Magic’s first science fiction set” (image above). It comes in a year where Wizards are experimenting again beyond their usual borders – they’re introducing sets based on alternate franchises, including Lord of the Rings and Warhammer 40,000 – the latter a dramatic break from the normal fantasy setting. They’re pushing the boundaries, moving into the future while trying to respect the past – and they’re offering players a set with which to construct themselves in response.

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