The Similarities of Playing Magic and Writing Fiction

I’m sure you’ve heard of writing. Question is, have you ever heard of Magic: The Gathering?

Magic is the world’s most popular trading card game (and also its first). Created in 1993 by doctoral student Richard Garfield, the game has millions of players all over the world. Players bring customized decks to the table and battle their cards against one or more opponents.

I like Magic. And I like writing fiction. And the more I do both, the more I realize how similar the two activities truly are. They both feature…

Endless Decision Making

When playing Magic or writing fiction, the player/author makes numerous decisions. In Magic, players start with seven cards in hand, then draw a random one from the top of their deck each turn. As a Magic player, every turn presents new decisions to be made, chiefly which of your cards you should play, and in what order. Your opponent’s decisions will further influence your own.

In writing, your only opponents are time, procrastination, and the occasional cup of coffee spilling on your keyboard. Still, there are plenty of decisions to make, probably even more than when playing Magic. For example: What are your characters going to look and act like? How does the setting influence them? What adjectives should you use to describe your protagonist? What’s your protagonist’s cat’s name (very important)?

Decisions, decisions. In both Magic and writing, they’re everywhere.

Contextual Factors

This is one of the coolest aspects of both Magic and writing: individual components change value based on what’s around them. Let’s start with Magic.

Let’s pretend that Magic cards are game pieces. The power level of pieces in most games are flat and predictable: a pawn advances at most two spaces at a time, and a queen moves as many spaces as she wants in any direction. In no game of chess has a pawn ever been more powerful than a queen.

Magic is a great game (the greatest, in my opinion) because its pieces vary in power level depending on what’s around them. For example, goblins appear frequently in Magic. In some decks, they might be annoying little attackers that don’t contribute very much to the game. However, in decks where they’re surrounded by more goblins, they might suddenly become a lot more powerful.

Everything’s contextual in writing, too! Take genre, for instance. If an author writes a novel about zombies, that author had better be aware of all the other zombie stories that have come before, after, and simultaneously. An author might write the best zombie story ever—yet if it comes out in the same year as ten other really bad zombie stories, it could easily lose value for the audience.

So Many Goddamn Rules

Magic and writing have a heck of a lot of rules. Let’s start with Magic.

In Magic, players strive to bend the rules in ways that are either competitively advantageous or just plain cool. No, this does not mean cheating (though that was certainly an issue in the game’s infancy). It means that players seek ways to combine cards in new ways for amazing results.

For example, consider the cost of cards. Magic is essentially a resource management game: players are allowed to play one land card per turn, and these land cards allow them to play their other cards. The game is designed so that, generally speaking, more powerful cards require more land cards to play. If players can find ways to play expensive cards sooner than usual, they can expect good results.

In writing, there are also tons of rules. Grammar, for instance, dictates how you express your ideas on the page. Then there are the rules of storytelling, which almost always come up when writing fiction.

Of course, as is the case with Magic, the fun part of writing is learning the rules, then breaking them. Fiction usually isn’t that interesting when it follows the template you expect it to follow; it’s often more compelling when the story diverges from established norms.

These are two of my all-time favorite subjects, so I’d better stop myself before I start rambling (if I haven’t already). If you like Magic, you might like writing fiction. If you like writing fiction, you might like Magic. Try ’em both!

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