Magic: The Gathering, A Literary Text

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2017, Volume 16, Issue 1


Paul A. Crutcher
University of Arkansas, Little Rock


It is still worth asking what constitutes art as the traditional humanities are under widespread questioning and possibly "siege." While new technologies are swept into an orgy of digital socialization and consumerism, and the luddite position becomes synonymous with centrist sci-fi speculation, it is also worth asking if this digital proliferation generates any interesting synergies between the art canons and popular culture. In late 2016, Apple tapped viewers' understanding of Shelley's iconic gothic novel Frankenstein in its holiday advertising and millions of Millennials and Generation Z people thumb #wtfapplechristmascommerical into their social media accounts via their iPhones. As sociological and educational concepts of cultural capital and cultural literacy heave a death sigh at the mass ignorance of Shelley (and Chaucer, Kafka, Milton, Beckett, Tolstoy, and so on), the musician Bob Dylan is (controversially) awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.   

Magic: The Gathering celebrates its twenty-firth anniversary in 2017 amidst incredible global popularity while the collectible card game remains precisely the sort of text that Harold Bloom and other twentieth century literary critics and scholars would immediately dismiss as anything but literature. While this paper does not contend that students should abandon Shakespeare or that novels and other print, bound literary work is antiquated, reality should compel critics, scholars, and educators to consider pop culture and other revisions and adaptations of the canon as potentially rich and interesting texts themselves and possible intertextual bridges back to the canon. Contextualizing Magic in this way, this paper invites the understanding of Magic as a literary text.

Magic as Literary Text

Netflix's acclaimed 2015 TV series Stranger Things features a group of four young friends in suburban US in the 1980s. Their friendship is peppered with an in-group jargon pulled directly from their experiences playing the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Steeped in fantasy and offering players worlds rich with dragons, goblins, and wizards, it was not surprising that D&D became popular. Yet few other games can boast the commercial and popular successes of Magic: The Gathering. It capitalized on the fantasy genre, the rich lore supporting it, other cultural successes like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels, and the psychological draw of collecting. Magic celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2017, solidifying its position as a key brand for Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro.
Today, Magic has proliferated popular culture and media. A nearly one-to-one duplicate of the collectible card game (CCG; or trading card game, TCG) is available to PC players in Magic Online (MTGO), while Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers and Duels games are available on Kindle, iPad, Android devices, Xbox360, Xbox One, PS3, and PS4. At San Diego Comic Con, arguably the largest pop culture event in the world, cosplayers attend as their favorite Magic planeswalkers while Wizards of the Coast participates and does so with special limited-edition cards. The conventional CCG Magic is played internationally, and cards are printed and distributed in English, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish. Wizards of the Coast publishes print and online novels, comics, and other fiction in the Magic universe. Funko Pop! produces Magic toys and action figures, and Wizards of the Coast offers a Magic tabletop game: Arena of the Planeswalkers. Notably, Magic players can also compete in local, regional, national, and international events that include prize support and monetary winnings. 
The impact of Magic extends beyond its current proliferation in pop culture. As the first CCG, the creation and successes of subsequent CCGs might be attributed to Magic, particularly to creator Richard Garfield's game design and mechanics. These CCGs include most prominently The Pokemon Company's Pokemon and Konami's Yu-Gi-Oh!, but also include various CCGs on properties from DC, Marvel, the World of Warcraft, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings. Blizzard's World of Warcraft-based Hearthstone video game has won acclaim, and CD Projekt's Gwent, based on its Witcher video games is likely to – and both are essentially digital CCGs.

At its most basic, Magic is a multiplayer card game in which players use individual decks and the cards in those decks to reach one of the "win" conditions (usually, draining a player's life total to zero). Magic decks may be preconstructed or player-constructed. A variety of regulations govern deck construction and play, most depending on whether players are engaged in casual, competitive, or tournament contexts. Like in many CCGs, players essentially take on the role of wizards (or "planeswalkers" in Magic-speak) and their decks are filled with creatures and various wizarding content (e.g., spells that do direct damage to an opponent, spells that bolster a player's creatures, spells that gain life or raise the dead). Magic's ongoing success and popularity traces to the game's inherent flexibility, the psychological draw of "collecting," its speculative fiction (fantasy/sci-fi) content, and event support. In other words, players may play Magic in any number of ways, including new formats players create (i.e., imagining entirely new game rules and parameters), and may play with decks arranged in any number of ways (e.g., only using one color, only using common cards, capping the deck at 40 cards [instead of 60], using only dragon cards). Any group of kids swapping Pokemon cards between binders exhibit the same social psychology seen in antique shops, flea markets, and art galleries as well as seen in people who have cases of Steelers gear, Victorian ephemera, 1950s Americana, Japanese manga and anime, travel spoons, or any figurines. Players can revel in genre content of the sort that made the works of George RR Martin, JK Rowling, and JRR Tolkien global transmedia phenomena. While much Magic is played in school lunchrooms, at kitchen tables, and on PCs, Wizards of the Coast supports player imaginations and Magic play with events at thousands of game stores around the world. With a broad demographic player base spanning more than twenty years, finding people familiar with Magic and willing to play also proves relatively easy. 

Yet as popular culture gains increasing attention from the scholarly and educational communities, it is surprising how little has been done with competitive and collectible card games (CCGs) or trading card games (TCGs) like Magic. Based on my review of the extant scholarship, Magic as representative of CCGs has been studied as (a) ethereal or fantastic communities and identities (see Kinkade and Katovich; Martin), (b) a source for understanding economic principles (see Reiley-Lucking; Reiley), and (c) mathematically-sorted collecting and deck-building (see Bosch). Magic is also casually noted in juxtaposition to conventional literature (see Gauthier), but the game has not been taken up as a text itself, as part of a larger literary history. This paper seeks to remedy that dearth and does so to dispel persistent social stigmas associated with collecting and with CCGs (if not with pop culture participation and fandom more broadly), promote interdisciplinary scholarship of popular culture, and challenge scholarship to look toward the future of literature, gaming, and play. This paper’s invitation and argument: consider Magic as a literary text.

If indignation can be tempered for a moment, imagine the common definition of literature in its highest form, this one from Merriam-Webster – "writings in prose or verse; especially: writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest." Most traditional conceptions of literature seem to center on the primacy of writing and of craft, or the two characteristics Merriam-Webster notes above. This invitation and argument situate literature in the more contemporary and liberal conception, one acknowledging the significant technological and compositional changes in the last half of the twentieth century and our experiences in the twenty-first century. For years, cultural criticism has included discussions of narrative video games, literary television, ebooks, as well as hybrid forms and hypertext, for instance. While a bound, printed, paper-product, analog book remains the instinctual association for literature, it is worth including here that the musician Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 for his lyrics as mentioned above (see Sisario).

First, then, we must explore the nature of writing and reading relative to literature and to Magic. For modern students of literature and gamers in the US, a typewriter is likely an antiquated technology – that is, if young people today even have encountered one. Word processing and personal computers were only just becoming popular at the end of the 1980s and into the early 1990s. Recently, a group of my colleagues sent out a solicitation for non-electric typewriters. They wanted to use them in a publicity and awareness campaign at a local food festival. Electric or not, these colleagues found none thus could only use the one they already had. Then, three professors who grew up in the 1980s could not effectively troubleshoot loading paper into its feeder. The immediacy with which technology has swept aside convention since 2000 simply astonishes. Students in my core humanities courses today are more likely to compose and transmit their written products using their thumbs and their smartphones than they are to use all other technologies – from pens to typewriters to PCs to tablets – combined. Cultural critics, composition teachers and scholars, creative writers, journalists, and publishers have certainly noticed.

The conservative concept of literature includes drama, as we draw from Euripides, Shakespeare, and Beckett. Perhaps the nature of writing plays aligns itself analogously with the writing of prose and poetry. Whatever the reason, playwrights earn acclaim, plays are performed and published, and the writing is consumed often as literature. Screenwriters and their scripts address the shift in technology, idiomatically, from stage to screen. Film and television writing in scenes and dialogue can mirror prose and certainly inhabits the realm of creative writing, if not literature. Michael Agresta, writing for The Atlantic, would not be surprised that Dylan won the Nobel, as he wrote years ago that we should not be surprised if David Simon, writer for HBO's acclaimed The Wire, were to win the Pulitzer "for his 'visual novel.'" He argues, through the example of Leena Dunham and her HBO series Girls, that television provides a dynamic literary potential and that "high-end television is no longer trying to measure up to the achievements of other media. It's learning how to be itself." For Agresta and many others, the writing has already proven itself to be deeply literary, and the question shifts to one of medium.

Adam Kirsch and Mohsin Hamid address some of the contentiousness about medium and about these defining characteristics of literature for The New York Times. They applaud the literariness of much modern television (like Agresta, they write that film is constrained by time and scope), note a distinction in medium between literature and television, and appeal to the fundamental primacy of language and of a certain intimacy between the author and reader in literature that even the best television and films cannot replicate. Theirs is a particular form of the argument for the delineation of literature (i.e., as the fullest expression of the human mind), yet if we read Agresta, Kirsch, and Hamid carefully, we note no particular distinction in the writing across these mediums. Worth noting, too, is the ways educational scholars in new literacies argue that texts are written and read in a myriad of performative ways (see Barton; Gee; Lankshear and Knobel; Lindquist and Seitz; Street). Scholars may start with authors writing novels in the classic iteration, but they are also discussing teachers writing classrooms and owners writing comic book stores as texts to be read in particular ways as well (see Bomer, Zoch, David, and Ok). For some time now, the concept of writing, one that is central to the definition of literature, has been challenged and broadened.

The emergence of interactive fiction (or IF), visual novels, motion comics, and other hybrid forms of print and non-print literature in the past decade poses additional challenges to a conservative view of writing and writing as an analog act. A collection of texts have been produced which are undeniably more fictive and literary than they are games. Barry Atkins's More than a Game, for instance, argues for understanding the complex writing that goes into the game experience while Henry Jenkins and Jon McKenzie in "Game Design as Narrative Architecture" discuss the unique medium of games, noting the ways many games employ not just structural ludic writing but also creative and narrative writing. As my department considers the humanist goal in the liberal arts of language study as well as the possible inclusion of student options to explore languages, I argue coding, writing in games, and ludic writing should be viewed as legitimate forms of narrative (see Aarseth). Three Fourths Home provides an excellent example of these kinds of literary games, or IFs. The game, full of flash fiction embedded within a larger story and including a photography portfolio, is arguably the work of an interdisciplinary grad student who imagined the game as a reasonable alternative to soliciting literary journals and galleries. The ludic functions are limited to rudimentary button presses, usually to advance the dialogue or to make a dialogue choice. As in many other IFs, in Three Fourths Home, the reader/gamer engages prose text on the screen. As Jenkins notes, IFs and other games of this sort evoke the popular "Choose Your Own Adventure" books that originated in the 1980s. Fundamentally, then, the analog or digital IF suggests how writing today is more diverse and complex than ink and paper or reading from a Kindle device.          

It is certainly reasonable to view Magic as written in a theoretically similar way to IFs and other games. Wizards of the Coast employs creative writers to produce thematic content to sustain and extend the Magic "mythos," or the narrative mythology and history of Magic (or what Magic calls "lore"). Discussed in more detail below, the Magic mythos is an intertextual, ongoing narrative about the world in Magic, its prominent wizards, and the key conflicts involving the wizards. The website houses a gamut of creative writing, including the central story and a host of short fictions related to the current conflicts in Magic. Indeed, the mythos lives in full-length print novels, comic books, web content, motion comics, as well as print and online promotional materials. Most Magic products for sale include information about gameplay and creative instructional and mythos information. Imagine if Candyland or Monopoly included instructions on play as well as narrative explanation of the Candyland or Monopoly mythos, culture, and politics.

A recent conflict in Magic occurred in the world of Theros. One of the core products for these rotating conflicts was called a "Fat Pack" (now a "Bundle"), and it included a booklet in which fifteen pages were devoted to mythos, orienting players to the Theros world ( or "plane"), its primary wizards and characters, and their conflicts. Excerpts from that booklet include the following:

A world of enchantment: The plane of Theros is a world steeped in myth, legend, and prophecy. Intrepid champions draw upon their inner courage as they battle fearsome monsters. The gods further their own agendas by influencing the fate of mortals who worship them. Civilization is protected within the walls of great city-states, each polis (Meletis, Akros, Setessa) a bulwark against the raging monsters that roam the more savage places of Theros. Theros is ruled by a pantheon of gods with their own unique attributes, desires, temples, and worshippers. As on the other planes of the Multiverse, the magic of Theros is fueled by mana that comes from the land itself.

The writing above is creative and uses language creatively, but the point of craft is detailed below. Nonetheless, the writing involved in the Fat Pack product links with the writing on each of the Magic cards. My brother has referred to Magic as "the reading game," primarily because I fill my decks with splashy cards that include a great deal of text and complexity. His moniker for Magic may be an exaggeration, but Magic cards do often include gameplay text and creative mythos text (or "flavortext"). Cards frequently include quotes from characters within the world, and perhaps the most interesting compositional element is how these instances of mythos text intersect with the larger narrative of the conflict and of Magic. Clearly, the writing of Magic is an incredible, creative undertaking.

Writing in Magic is not limited to creative work built in multimodal ways (e.g., print, online) and distributed across products (e.g., in-store promos, Fat Packs/Bundles, website content, individual cards). Players create stories or narratives with their deck composition and through play. Imagine a meeting of dueling wizards, one with a legion of robotic adherents, the other accompanied by a horde of goblins – or one with looming woodland giants while the other banks on setting destructive traps for those giants and their commander. The ebb and flow of battle are composed and chronicled through life totals, poison counters, graveyards, and the like. Importantly, Magic players frequently narrate what they are playing and how it interacts with other things on the board. For instance, a player might narrate a particular moment in her game in the following way:

I tap two blue and two for the planeswalker Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I'm tired of that Archangel of Thune you have been attacking me with, so I'm going to do Jace's minus one ability, and Jace will return that creature, Archangel of Thune, to your hand. With that angel out of the way, I'm going to start combat and attack you with these three creatures.

Using this example, composition scholars might suggest a Magic game can be rich with writing. Andrea Lunsford, for instance, argues that young people today compose differently than did their parents and teachers. Probably an effect of technologies and internet proliferation, traditional "blank page" creation is shunned in favor of "remixing" existing content. If Lunsford argues that the new composition, the contemporary writing, takes existing texts and narratively reconstitutes them into something evolved and different, we might argue that what happens in a game of Magic is both literary and writing. 

Admittedly, it is difficult to discuss the nature of writing without including reading. After all, some of the best writers encourage aspiring novices to develop and refine their writing practice through reading (especially traditional literature). In addition to cultural critics and scholars rethinking writing based on technological changes in the last twenty years, we see critics and scholars moving away from the structuralist and modernist concept of the text containing meaning to a poststructuralist and postmodern concept of the author, reader, and text negotiating meaning. Reading research today directs us to understand reading as active, dynamic, interactive, and recursive. In short, readers bring prior knowledge to literature that informs how they read and interpret, the author and the literature act on the reader's prior knowledge and interpretive framework, and the reader returns to the literature with an evolved knowledge and framework. Imagine picking up Cormac McCarthy's The Road for the first time. The dystopian post-apocalypse in the novel might immediately prompt a reader in the contemporary zombie-saturated media landscape to expect the undead to threaten the man and boy. The reader's own patriarchal family dynamics might prompt expectations, reactions, and interpretations of the relationship between the man and boy that exist beyond the text. Either one of these situations, and all the other possibilities, interact with the novel, with perceived or stated authorial intent, and compel the reader to reimagine his/her dispositions and the content of the novel. 

In Magic, this active and recursive reading occurs as the player brings prior knowledge into a conceptual understanding of how the game narrative will unfold. The player's deck is designed and meant to be "read" in a particular way, and during play that understanding is tested. Players return to the deck with an evolved understanding of the authorial structuring of the Magic cards, the participatory authoring of the deck(s), and the resulting narrative of play. Adaptation emerges from this understanding of the psychology of reading. For instance, how might the 2015 film Chiraq be understood except as an interpretive genesis in Spike Lee's reading of Aristophanes's fourth century BCE comedy Lysistrata (see Brody)? Imagine a similar dynamic in reading or performing a play, one from Mamet, Miller, or Shakespeare. The author's text is read, interpreted, and performed based on prior knowledge, text, authorial intent, and interpretation. How we interpret Macbeth and McDuff "exit fighting" (i.e., the ambiguous stage directions in Macbeth 5.8) provides a grand example of how scholars today understand reading as active, interactive, and recursive. The space in "exit fighting" for the reader to interpret exists in all texts. Beyond that distinct space, an idiomatic test provides another example: when we read silently or aloud, we all misread, our eyes taking in conventions and structures of language and consistently missing particular words. Magic is read and performed and adapted in these ways.    
players also sometimes ad lib, reading Magic in almost exclusively ludic and mathematical terms. Here, Magic as math is analogous to arguments described above that view coding as language and, as such, see a fictive and narrative content in game design. In other words, some players construct decks and read according to the Magic mythos while others ignore or subvert the lore. Wizards of the Coast explicitly invites players to create their own idiosyncratic narratives within the mythos. In the Theros Fat Pack described above, Wizards extolls individual players: "Take your place in the histories." It explains, "Whether you stand against the monstrous forces terrorizing the population or follow a path of devotion to the divine, your destiny is in your hands. The stories you create will be legendary." Interestingly, players can choose a spot on a spectrum – its poles – to richly participate in the mythos or to coldly manage the game and its dynamics. Brandon Isleib describes these poles, and, in the former, he revels in casual and extended multiplayer Magic formats (rather than high-stakes, competitive, one-on-one matches): "Massive board states unlocked by a windmill slam from the player everybody forgot make for natural climaxes of lengthy game narratives." Conversely, when relating an experience in a sealed-event match, he finds his opponent's deck design and strategy "so straightforward that there's little to write about it. I couldn't write every week about decks that efficiently...normal." The "normal" here is ludic, designing and playing the game efficiently and only to win.

Isleib is involved in a larger conversation about the colors and themes in Magic (colors are central to the gameplay and deck design). He notes that blue traditionally contrasts red – that blue is the narrative pole – and red is the efficiency pole. In other words, "If Magic consisted only of mono-red-type strategies, I wouldn't play it. It would be too simple and boring. So instead, I write about these green and blue monstrosities with odd interactions. It makes better writing, but it doesn't necessarily make better Magic." Case in point: players, including those I know, may create decks around the optimally-efficient "burn" strategy, and players can follow that strategy just as they can others, but doing so often ignores the narrative component of the game, the mythos of Magic, and the storyteller component of deckbuilding. In these decks, including several my brother plays, the goal is to win as quickly as possible. Not only is it fast and efficient, but, as Isleib argues, it is not very interesting and is unconcerned with literariness.

Jesse Mason captures this literary dynamic in another way when writing about a conflict and set like Theros (named "Innistrad"). He writes that Magic "sets aren't supposed to be inaccessible and difficult. Innistrad is both, and that's why it's so much fun." Mason describes how in Innistrad the player must read, understand, interact with, and play cards multiple times before understanding their functions and their larger use in the mythos. Mark Rosewater, lead designer of Magic, has written that in "top-down" designs like Theros and Innistrad, the mythos layers in intertextual ways that complicate the game's most efficiency-driven minds. In other words, the gods and vampires in Theros and Innistrad create a complex, layered text in itself. Magic is thus written and read as a rich, complex text. 

Second, after understanding a more liberal and contemporary view of writing and reading, we must explore craft, the lasting and valuable poetics that define literature and consider them relative to Magic
. To be clear, while Magic includes creative writing, it does not produce craft and poetics analogous to high literature. That much of the nature of craft may be difficult to dispute, but scholars' and critics' understanding of literary craft is not immutable. Answering the Modern Language Association's call to consider literature and literary criticism moving into the twenty-first century, for instance, Richard Klein marks two movements that seem widely understood. In the first, Klein writes that "intertextuality was often deemed in the twentieth century to be the essential characteristic of literature, its determining feature, sine qua non, and the specific object of literary criticism." The twenty-first century seems to be marked by remixing, revision, adaptation. Literary critics should "preserve the archive, not only as a physical entity but also as practices of reading and commentary by which the archive's canons are continually transformed and its resources exploited. The least paper, written by the most innocent undergraduate, or the merest rereading serves to keep the literary archive alive." If we imagine craft as either the intertextual narrative or the adapted and curated canon, Magic shows evidence of craft. The invitation in this paper is to consider this idea of intertextuality and adaptation as craft, relative to Magic. Again, if literature is defined as written and craftful texts, and Magic embodies both the former and latter characteristics, we might reasonably assert that the CCG Magic is, if not literature, a literary text.     

sustains a broad narrative mythos, as described above, one that itself is intertextual, built, supported, and extended through Fat Packs/Bundles and other promotional texts, online texts, comics, novels, cosplay, fan work, and more. These participatory texts work together to form a coherent story about the world of Magic and its conflicts. One of these texts Magic deploys to this end are the previously noted "flavortext" on individual Magic cards. Flavortext is italicized, prose text printed at the bottom of the card. For example, the flavortext on the card "Avacyn, Angel of Hope" adds context and history for Avacyn the character: "A golden helix streaked skyward from the Helvault. A thunderous explosion shattered the silver monolith and Avacyn emerged, free from her prison at last."

A nemesis character, the demon "Griselbrand," receives parallel mythos flavortext (i.e., about Avacyn and the Helvault), but through dialogue from another character in the Magic mythos and world of Innistrad – Thalia, Knight-Cathar: "Avacyn emerged from the broken Helvault, but her freedom came at a price – him." That Thalia, Knight-Cathar is not a card is all the more compelling (perhaps like a reference in a novel to Plato or Milton). Players synthesize this textual information and then use it in their own storytelling through deckbuilding. Flavortext is analagous to intertextually, citing and rounding out other cards, adding context from conflicts, and such.

Yet Magic is also a more explicit part of a larger literary history. The worlds of Theros and Innistrad are particularly fascinating because they participate in a great swath of Western myth and lore. These Magic worlds are not anomalies, cherry-picked for this point. Parallel adaptation and other "top-down" worlds, as described by Rosewater, exist in Kamigawa, for example, derived from East Asian myth and history, and in particular moments in the Magic mythos and conflicts (e.g., the tesseract in Marvel's parallel worlds or in A Wrinkle in Time) participate in compelling ways with cultural and literary histories. Again, insofar as we follow scholars (see Lunsford) who reimagine the composition paradigm through remixing texts, Magic is not only participating in the canon of human narrative history, but it is revising and allowing players to remix that history.

Mark Rosewater, lead game designer for Magic for years, explained that Theros was imagined as "a top-down set inspired by Greek and Roman mythology that has an enchantment component." Return to the Theros Fat Pack discussed above where we find giants, krakens, minotaurs, gorgons, detailed descriptions of the gods, and the Land of Nyx, "the proverbial land of night and home of the gods." Indeed, the world evokes Greek and Roman myth in just the style of the writing. Imagine being drawn into Hesiod's Theogony, for instance, when reading this narrative account of the Theros theogony: "According to myth, when the sun first shone on Heliod, god of the sun, the first shadow was cast. When Heliod saw it, he feared and banished it, sending it beyond the Five Rivers That Ring the World. That shadow became Erebos, the god of death who rules the Underworld." Like Rosewater, Jarrett highlights the explicit connections between Greek and Roman myth and Theros cards: "Nylea, God of the Hunt" parallels the Roman goddess of nature, Diana; Homer's work with Circe and Odysseus is evoked in the card "Curse of the Swine"; Prometheus and Charon are paid homage in "Titan of Eternal Fire" and "Rescue from the Underworld," respectively; and the "Akroan Horse" is a reimagining of the legendary Trojan Horse. From Cicero and Ovid to Sophocles and Euripides, Theros evokes heroes, gods, monsters, and legendary stories from among the most cherished and entertaining Western literary history. 

Similarly, Innistrad draws from the eclectic literary and cultural traditions of the gothic, the macabre, the romantic, and from horror. Here, we find a world and cards inspired by the Grimm's tales – one in which wandering into the woods is deadly. Rosewater explains that "a lot of where the [Innistrad] cards and mechanics came from was direct inspiration of the source material. I spent a lot of time making Zombies feel like zombies and Werewolves feel like werewolves and Vampires feel like vampires." That source material is the broad cultural pastiche or milieu of Lovecraft and Shelley's undead, Barlow and Endore's werewolves, Stoker and Rice's vampires, and more. Consider Alt's untempered reaction on an independent Magic website to perceived literariness in Innistrad. He questions the clear homage to Poe in the Innistrad card "Nevermore," when the flavortext does not directly cite the lauded author of "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Raven." Yet the literary participation is obvious. Take the Necronomicon, for instance, colloquially the Book of the Dead, and other famous grimores (magical texts); Innistrad's card "Grimoire of the Dead" runs parallel. Following the Shelley, Endore, and Stoker novels, and the cultural texts intermingled with them, the Innistrad block offers humans the "Sharpened Pitchfork" and "Wooden Stake." Kafka's The Metamorphosis births the transforming "Delver of Secrets/Insectile Aberration" card. HG Wells's The Invisible Man is embodied in the "Invisible Stalker," just as Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" produces the transforming "Civilized Scholar/Homicidal Brute." Deep human histories also include shapeshifters and doppelgangers, evoked in Innistrad in the "Evil Twin." Among the scholars of multiliteracies and literary television and film, we might also cite the novel and film The Exorcist, which works in the world of Innistrad in the transforming "Cloistered Youth/Unholy Fiend" card.

While the idiom runs that imitation and adaptation are forms of praise, scholars suggest that intertextuality and adaptation may define the craft in literature. However broadly Magic is interpreted, the game content clearly evokes a canonical literary tradition and provides an intertextual adaptation (and, from Klein, preservation) of the canon. One may remain indignant, claiming that bound paper texts of Hesiod or Kafka remain some fundamental and pure form of human intellect and expression. Yet the move to consider the definition of literature within a twenty-first century context in scholarship and criticism produces a question to that conservative concept of craft.   


Ultimately, Magic may not be literature, but it is surely literary. A coherence in terminology may be necessary and may return the discussion to considering genre, and, in this case, how CCGs can move beyond arguments of value and validation relative to the established media genres of film and literature toward a consideration of the particular ways the CCG medium is purposefully distinct (as Agresta writes for literary television). At this moment in global culture, however, we may remain inclined to push back against conservative and contextually unrealistic definitions of the literary. Like television, video games, and IFs, CCGs face dense stigmas suggesting these mediums are vacuous and juvenile, producing exclusively base, pop-culture content. In fact, in this paper, I interrogate Magic against the high-culture marker in literature in order to provide some of the critical attention Magic deserves as a rich text itself and as part of a larger literary history. Magic requires players to manage a deep and complex mythos, layered worlds (e.g., Theros and Innistrad), large-scale conflicts and their evolutions, a sophisticated ludic language, and an intertextual and adaptive narrative. Magic cards since the game's 1993 inception have often enough been explicitly intertextual with literary traditions, including citations of Luo Guanzhong, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Tennyson, William Shakespeare, and Edgar Allen Poe. The early card "Revelation" even referenced the the Bible as well as the contentious Sirach. Clearly, Magic broadly draws from human and literary myth and history for its particular dragons and elves and wizardry, and in the top-down worlds of Theros and Innistrad we find deep ludic and narrative connections to canonical literature on human nature, from Homer's Odysseus to Shelley's Victor Frankenstein.

That Magic: The Gathering is an exceptional, acclaimed, and popular game is indisputable. Within the current paradigms in scholarship and cultural criticism, we ought to acknowledge more – that Magic is also a dynamic literary text. 



I would like to thank my brother, Ben, and my professional colleague and friend, Dr. Autumn M. Dodge, for their tireless investment in my ideas and this paper. 


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