How Magic: The Gathering Taught Me Story Structure


I have a problem. I collect things. It’s one of my addictions, and one I’ve curtailed for the most part for now due to money. But I still have the damn things. Why would I just throw them away?

About a year ago, I started collecting Magic: The Gathering cards. It started out as just a simple curiosity – get an intro deck and a few booster packs and just see what it’s all about.

Somehow, I got hooked. But I quickly ran into a problem: I had no one to play with. You would think that this would stop me from buying more cards to add to my collection, but that would show how well you know me.

The cards went into a box. I would occasionally think about my collection, think of a new thing I could try based on a few cards, and construct a new deck. It wasn’t hard to figure out how to build a deck when I read the instructions and guides. It became a mental exercise to construct a new deck every now and then.

But I’ve been thinking about them again, and one time, somehow, writing got into my head at the same time. The two things clicked. Building a Magic deck is a lot like building a story.

One of the things you may read in any deck-building guide is that the best decks tell a story. In the context of the game, this means that the cards should complement each other – sometimes in unexpected ways. For example, you may have a creature card that gains attack or health points every time a land card is played, so you have creatures and other spells that allow you to add a land card to your mana pool every time you play them, or at the beginning of a turn, and you make sure you can use those creatures whenever that main creature is on the field.

If you’re familiar with Magic, you get what I’m saying. If you’re lost, don’t worry, we’ll go through this step by step. But please (both of you groups) keep in mind that I’m no expert.

When constructing a new Magic deck, the first thing to do is pick a key card. A key card is a strong or otherwise useful card, usually one that costs a lot of mana (land cards) to summon. This will be the card you base the rest of the deck on, because this is the card that you want to be able to build up to and capitalize on. I’ll get back to this point, later.

Some might argue that you should choose the color(s) of your deck first, but it really doesn’t matter. If you want to make a blue deck and you don’t have any particularly strong blue cards, then you’re not going to have a very strong blue deck.

In this case, we can sort of begin to see how Magic cards relate to story structure. Think of the colors as genres. As each card color has its strengths and weaknesses, so do genres. And just as you don’t have to stick to one (or sometimes even two) card colors in a single deck, you can cross genres in stories. You (or your collection) may have strengths in one card type over others, just as you may be better accustomed to one genre over another. In either case, you play to your strengths.

Once you have your key card and the color(s) of your deck picked out, you begin to fill the rest in. It’s best to vary the spells you add to your deck based on their cost. If you have a ton of strong monsters, they may cost too much Mana to be able to summon early on, and you may lose before you even get to play a creature card. So you want to vary up the spells.

In a story, you want to have a lot of scenes that complement the other scenes or lead up to the end. They are based on or around each other, and they can add depth or contribute to change in the story. In this same way, your cards should add depth to your Magic deck. You may have cards that make other creatures stronger, or one that lets you heal using the power and toughness of a creature. These should be planned to be played together.

Unfortunately, playing a game of Magic is not comparable to a story at all. There is too much randomness, and too many chances for plans to go horribly awry. The point of constructing your deck is to plan for the best possible scenario, and add insurance along the way in case that doesn’t work the way you wanted it to. Your deck is the story, in this case. And just as one book of a certain genre can be better than another book of the same genre, one deck of a certain color can be better than another deck of the same color. You’d never compare a medieval fantasy novel to a modern detective thriller, would you?

Your spells represent the scenes of your story at this point. That includes creature, sorcery, and instant cards. The scenes of a story should be arranged in a “because of this, that happens” format. You can look at a deck of Magic cards in the same way and say, “If I use this, it lets me use that,” or, “If I want to use this, I should add that in.”

If you have creatures that require a lot of mana to summon, you add more land cards to the deck; if a lot of them require less, then you put less land cards in. In this same vein, spells with lower mana costs are smaller scenes, while those with bigger mana costs are larger scenes. You should have a good mix of both. Like I said, you shouldn’t have a lot of high-cost cards, or else you’ll never be able to summon them. On the flipside, you shouldn’t have a bunch of low-cost cards, or else you’ll run out of cards to play much too quickly.

Your story should have varying levels of intensity between scenes. They should all contribute to the story, but it can’t be made of a ton of weak scenes, nor should it have a lot of “Oh damn!” moments where big stuff happens. Vary it up and it will be much more interesting.

So, let’s run through this all again:

In a story, you want to have a goal to work towards – a climax, a resolution, whatever. The overall story is made of many scenes. These scenes should work toward your goal, offer change to the story or characters, and have conflict. The scenes that move the story should lead to that ending or climax in a way that the scenes before it add to it, rather than simply be there for the sake of moving the story.

In a Magic deck, you have a main card that your deck is built around. Your goal with the rest of your cards is to utilize that main card to its full potential. You have other, smaller cards which complement your main card and ultimately are there to keep you alive until you get to use that main card.

This is really just a different way of thinking of story structure. I like to think of things visually, sometimes. Hopefully I have some fellow geeky writers out there reading this who understood everything I just said perfectly and had some sort of revelation. In fact, I’d settle for just one.


About David Shank

David T. Shank is a writer, runner, and musician, in that order. His blog is hopefully an oasis among the vast ocean of negativity that is the Internet. He lives in Cleveland studying how to write good.

Got something to say? Say it!