Storytelling and Chance — Lessons from Magic: The Gathering

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After a long day writing, I like to play a game. It has to be short. Something quick to clear my head. It’s either that or beer. Through the summer of 2015, when finishing my novel If Then, I marked the end of the working day by playing two games of soccer on the Playstation 2. Yes, the Playstation 2. The soccer game dated from 2006 but I’d persisted with it to the point that its virtual footballers were playing the season of 2022-2023…

Unfortunately, halfway through writing my current novel The Destructives, my cat decided to put these tired old players out of their misery and snipped the cable of the Playstation 2 controller with his claw. So I took the hint and returned to a game that is my old school favorite—Magic: The Gathering. A game I was avoiding because I can become so imaginatively involved in it, I tend to stop writing altogether.

I first picked up MTG to recapitulate the heady role-playing games of my youth. When I was fourteen, I was Dungeon Master to a group of young Liverpudlian lads. For one glorious summer, they adventured in my invented worlds. But then I made the mistake of killing off Alan Kirby’s eighth level cleric for dramatic effect. Kirby—unaware that I had a non-player character down the road with a Raise the Dead spell—put his mother’s vegetable knife to my throat and demanded resurrection. With regret, I had to put away my twenty-sided dice and unreal lands and get on with the painfully real rites of adolescence.

Once I became an adult and had children of my own, I wondered if I could bring tabletop gaming into my modern household. I retrieved my old D&D and AD&D manuals from the attic. But the rules and tables made me shiver: it was like filling in Gandalf’s tax return. The front section of my Dungeon Master’s Manual contained a detailed chart for players to roll a dice to determine if their characters suffered from a disease or blemish. A few bad rolls and my young son would be a Neutral Evil Elf with cystitis. The manual was not really foregrounding the fun.

Then I remembered MTG. I’d dallied with the game as a dissolute twenty-something but had not really been in the kind of head space conducive to the game’s intricate mental arithmetic.

Now I was a father and playing games with my daughter; I noticed how, as an eight-year-old girl, she did not chase victory. Rather, she played to prolong the game. I would use MTG to help her understand that seizing victory improves the game for all players, and, along the way, sharpen her mental arithmetic.

I got further into MTG than my eight-year-old opponent required. You may be familiar with the basics of the game. Two players, a deck of sixty or so Magic cards each. Just over a third of this deck consists of land cards, which can be tapped to power spells or summon creatures, which make up the rest of the pack. There are different colours of Magic, each of which comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, tactics and combinations. I enjoyed playing with my daughter. But what really fascinated me was constructing the packs, choosing each of those sixty cards from the many hundreds that are available.

The internet is not shy of information about how to construct a perfect Magic pack using probability. I was not interested in the mathematics of winning. Rather, I constructed the pack according to narrative principles. The creators of the game Wizards of the Coast embed stories into each set of cards they issue. Playing with my daughter, I enjoyed how a story could—over the course of the game—emerge from the random draw of cards. As we played the game, we told each other the story of the game, as it appeared, card by card.

Chance is part of storytelling. Your characters suggest an unexpected course of action, and you go with it. Or not. Across the long haul of composing a novel, the writer balances improvisation with strategy: do you permit today’s inspiration into the work, or do you lock it out and stay focused on the original conception?

The literary avant-garde has often systemised the role of chance in creation, in the games of the Oulipo writers (one of their fringe members went onto invent the game Risk) or the occult cut-ups of William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin. The music producer Brian Eno used his Oblique Strategies—prompts written on cards—to push musicians out of a well-worn groove. These are extreme examples to tip the balance entirely in favor of chance. But I think these games have a use, particularly with beginning writers, who can have trouble getting outside of their own heads.

I teach creative writing at university, and writing science fiction stories in particular. At the end of these classes, I scrawl character types on post-it notes—doctor, widow, orphan, lost child, farm boy, etc.—and the students have to choose one at random: for their story assignment, they must combine this random character with the science fiction concept under discussion that week, whether it is artificial intelligence or future war or time travel and so on. They have to use their storytelling talent to reconcile this character with an SF idea: that act of problem-solving is part of storytelling. Fitting an unexpected piece into an established pattern to create something particular to you.

An artist, over time, refines their filter so that they can make informed choices about when to let chance dictate, and when to exclude it. When to stick, when to twist. When I’m playing Magic: The Gathering, I’ll stop calculating the probabilities and just summon the monster because it is the cool thing to do. It’s more exciting to not know what is going to happen next—for the reader, and sometimes for the writer too.

Top image from Magic: The Gathering; art by Ryan Alexander Lee.

destructivesMatthew De Abaitua’s debut novel The Red Men was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. Dr Easy, a short film based on the first chapter, can be watched for free on Vimeo. His novels If Then (2015) and The Destructives (2016) are published by Angry Robot. More at harrybravado.com or try @MDeAbaitua on Twitter.

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