An RPG based on Magic: the Gathering is one of those things I have both long wanted and long assumed was just never going to happen. Now it’s happening, and it’s happening at the hands of Cryptic and PWE. That doesn’t necessarily make me enthusiastic about the business models, but it does mean (based on the studios’ other games) that it’ll be good solid fun to play just the same.
It makes me especially happy because it’s possible to play a lot of MtG without ever knowing anything about the setting, too. Now you sort of have to.
My time with MtG as an active player is definitely in my rear-view mirror, but it’s possible to have a passing familiarity with the game but not really get what in the world is there to base a non-card game upon. Since I tend to absorb this stuff, though, my mind was immediately set aflame with visions of teleporting between planes, summoning creatures, and collecting artifacts. So let’s take a look at the lore behind the cards and speculate a bit on systems, shall we?
The core conceit of MtG is that you, the player, are a Planeswalker. This is different from being a mage, per se. Mages and wizards can be powerful in the game’s lore, but Planeswalkers are something else altogether, creatures possessed of a powerful spark allowing them to travel between different planes of existence and summon powerful magic from the very land. The only actual interaction you have with things as a player is, functionally, to draw creatures, spells, and artifacts from other worlds to a central space for a duel with your opponent.
In the earliest game fiction, Planeswalkers were more or less deities. Following some lore changes and story events, they’re now intensely powerful, but far more limited. It’s why you can now actually use cards to summon fellow Planeswalkers to your side to help you take down opponents, serving as something of a face for the concept.
That might seem like it would prevent a bit of drama, since Planeswalkers can always just slip somewhere else rather than dealing with more immediate threats. But there are threats out there which are bigger than any one plane, most notably the Phyrexians (a race of machines which spreads like a parasitic infestation across planar spaces) and the Eldrazi (essentially the equivalent to cthonic deities and great old ones from the Cthulhu mythos). And that’s ignoring the fact that Planeswalkers are still people, still just as prone to squabbles, urges, wants, and so forth as anyone else. They scale up, but they’re still human.
Unless they’re merfolk. Or cat-people. Or elephants. Or… look, the point is they have normal drives and motivations.
How is this going to translate to the game? In all likelihood, players will start as fresh Planeswalkers, probably very new and yet to form many connections with different planes or spells. A tutorial would be a perfect place for a spark to erupt, for example. There’s plenty of room for drama as a player character is learning the ropes of this new power, especially since the very nature of Planeswalkers means they’re largely self-taught, right down to their connection to mana.
Mana is the magical lifeblood of MtG, you see, and it comes in colors. You’ve probably picked that up even if you have only passing familiarity with the game. Each of the five colors has different meanings in lore. White is order, light, and healing; Green is growth, nature, and restoration; Red is chaos, ferocity, and destruction; Black is ambition, selfishness, and sacrifice; and Blue is knowledge, learning, and air. Cards can be marked as one color, as multiple colors, or as no color at all, although the last is among the rarest sort.
Of course, in the card game, this is balanced out by the mechanics of the cards. Essentially, you want your deck to have a fairly small color focus most of the time, either one or two colors. The reason is just that the odds of having the right color of mana goes down as you draw through more and more different colors, and multicolor cards are rare themselves outside of specific sets. Most Planeswalker cards themselves are one color, although some are two and a handful are three.
This provides another obvious route for the game to go. Think of the colors as skill trees; going further down a given color would give you more options within that color, but it would also prevent you from necessarily accessing another color as reliably. While the game likely won’t mirror the randomness of the card game in acquiring mana, you still have to specialize.
Logic would also say that pets are going to play a pretty big role in the game, possibly even a dominant one; summoning creatures is enormously important in MtG, and one of the most popular themes for card sets are “tribal” sets which encourage you to play with certain types of creature. One would almost expect a style of play similar to the Mastermind from City of Heroes, allowing you to control and direct multiple minions and affect them at once; while Planeswalkers are entirely able to engage in direct physical combat, why would you do that when you could summon two dozen bears to do so?
Of course, we could also go the more mixed route and allow you to pick both a focus based on popular deck archetypes as a “class,” mixed with your mana types to produce a more interlaced character. Most colors, for example, have what’s referred to as some sort of “beatdown” deck, where the goal is to smash your opponent with creatures. What varies is how it’s done; Red and White tend to summon large hordes of cheap creatures, for example, while Green and Black both focus on getting out big creatures for cheaper costs and Blue tends to prefer creatures which can bypass defenses even in smaller numbers.
So you could have a character who specializes in Blue and White and is classified as “beatdown,” which means that character summons lots of little creatures and weaves in spells to remove defenses. Or you might have another character who has a more melee focus and specializes in Red and Green magic, making your character something of a berserker. You could have someone going the Black/Blue control route, where you can shut down almost anything done to you and defeat opponents by degrees.
The archetypes map fairly well to usual MMO tropes, but the mechanics are different. It seems like a game that would be well-suited to both exploration and a focus on quests; as you go through the game you search out new mana sources to draw upon and new spells or creatures to utilize, even though you can only bring so much to bear at any given time. If you’re getting vague images of Guild Wars 2 in your head, it’s not incorrect.
Obviously, all of this is speculative until we know more about the game; there’s a lot of different directions the game could go, and this isn’t even getting into things like Slivers, Thallids, and the escalating cost-reward mechanism you see at work on actual Planeswalker cards. But the core is there, and there’s lots of space to expand into an actual full-fledged RPG.
And if by some minor miracle we can actually play as a Phyrexian, I’m there on a bear.