Magic on the silver screen

After directing the biggest movie on the planet, the Russo brothers are taking a card game to Netflix. What's that all about?

27th June 2019

Magic the Gathering (MtG or Magic for short) is a collectable card game owned by Wizards of the Coast and played by millions across the world for more than 25 years. Like Dungeons and Dragons or Warhammer, even if you aren’t an active player it’s probably existed on the periphery of your pop culture landscape, a murky and mysterious entity, ill-defined and unclear. That could all be about to change.

Together, Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame have grossed nearly $5bn, making Anthony and Joe Russo (aka the Russo brothers) some of the most successful directors on the planet and earning them some serious nerd cred. The Russos have been fans of Magic for some time and will be manning the helm of a new Netflix animated series based on the game’s lore, which begs the questions, what the hell is Magic? And can the brothers do for Planeswalkers what they did for the Avengers?

The Russos are working on the development of the series and have drafted writers, Henry Gilroy and Jose Molina. Gilroy worked on the immensely popular Star Wars: Clone Wars cartoon while Molina has credits across a slew of series including Firefly and Agent Carter. Plus, they have insane Netflix money behind them, so the creative team is solid. But what are they working with?

Though perhaps not as recognisable as rival card game Pokemon, Magic does have an ongoing storyline beyond the enslavement and forced labour of unusual animals (but if that is your thing, there is still some of that in there). Essentially there are a number of dimensions known as planes, each of these dimensions has certain characteristics and themes. Innistrad is a realm in the grasp of gothic horror, vampires and living dead, Kaladesh is a steam-punk world where magic is harvested as energy and Ixalan is an Aztec-jungle realm filled with dinosaurs and conquistadors (who are also vampires). You get the point. It’s mental.

Heroes and villains are known as Planeswalkers and — as their name suggests — travel through the various planes fighting or teaming up in an ongoing, twisty-turny, mega-story. Really, there is no one single storyline defining Magic. It’s like Eastenders if Pat Butcher had to team up with Ian Beale to defeat an ancient evil dragon (obviously Phil Mitchell) who has manipulated an Egyptian-based society into ritual combat to raise a perfect undead army one week, then the following episode,  release an angel trapped in the heart of a labyrinth to stop eternal darkness consuming the universe. It’s exactly like that. Exactly. But with fewer cockney accents.

Books

There have been 54 Magic novels covering 20 different settings and a number of individual characters, as well as a healthy handful of anthologies and comics.

There is plenty of ground to cover but these stories exist out of the mainstream, and even the sub-cultural, language, like the Star Trek and Star Wars EU (extended universe not European Union) books. They appeal to the die-hard fans rather than the casual dork of every trade.

But even those books are inspired by existing narratives. The universe of Magic is based on a game. Even with an all-star team leading its creation, could this limit the audience size an MtG animation could reach?

Fluff and crunch

All that storytelling is known in the industry as “fluff”, with the mechanics and rules of the game being the “crunch”. Magic has as much crunch as fluff and with international tournaments part and parcel of the MtG environment, crunch could be seen as Magics core element.

Organised play co-ordinator at boardgame and comics retailer Travelling Man in Leeds, Bobby Moran (favourite Planeswalker? “My boy Nicol Bolas aka Nicky B the Elder Dragon-God”) is more than familiar with MtG and told the Overtake, for the most part, Magic players focus on its crunchy goodness.

The crunch in all its glory 📷 Jesper Werner

“As much as the primary focus of the game designers is on the form and function the mechanical parts of the game take, the effort they make to create a compelling story is good.” He adds: “I will concur that more people play it for the game and the story is a happy footnote for them, but I’m one of those guys who enjoys the short stories and character developments and playing cards focused on those narratives.”

But Moran may not be alone in this viewpoint. The Overtake asks head of story and entertainment for Magic owner Wizards of the Coast, and executive producer on the animated series, Nic Kelman (favourite Planeswalker? “Tamiyo! I hope she blesses us with some of her story magic!”) if Magic’s fluff is secondary to its crunch.

“I’m not sure I agree [with that]. Magic has a very rich story history and our first novel in almost a decade just debuted at #5 on the New York Times bestseller list. Story is also one of the most important aspects of Magic to nearly three-quarters of our players. While some people less familiar with Magic may only know it as a card game, our players know our characters and stories as well as they know the rules.”

Both Moran and Kelman see the interest Magic’s lore has to players, but what about those of us who haven’t tapped into Magic’s appeal? Those of us who have remained untapped (tapping and untapping is a mechanic in Magic, that’s why that is crowbarred in there in case you were wondering).

Reach

“Our hope with the series is to utilise that rich story tradition to reach way beyond our fanbase — or even people who have heard of Magic — and create a show that anyone would enjoy even if they don’t know what a Trading Card Game is!” says Kelman. Clearly, having megastar directors, hot off the MCU, is a very exciting prospect for Wizards of the Coast, but even if they can make the most of their stories and let them outshine the rules and go beyond their fanbase, that might not prove to be the tremendous sales boon you would expect.

Planeswalker Liliana Vess, the demon dealing death witch with a heart of gold

Despite making a scary amount of money (too much money if you ask some people) the Marvel movies haven’t done much for the comics that inspired them. The same goes for DC, but let’s face it, that isn’t a shock. The comic book industry is struggling. This is in part due to an archaic sales system which punishes retailers, but you would think the most popular characters in the universe would increase sales rather than just keeping the wolf from the door. To put it briefly, people who like “comic book movies”, don’t necessarily like comic books.

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), also published by Wizards of the Coast, has gone from strength to strength in recent years thanks to a new, player-friendly addition and a slew of Youtube channels and series showing minor nerd celebs playing the game. Once again, D&D has main characters and settings (even sharing one with Magic) and has the same crunch versus fluff dynamic, but the recent surge seems to come from the ability for players to witness and play unique adventures rather than step into one dictated to them with decades of storytelling.

Also, and you must never forget this, there was a D&D film and it was fucking awful.

Boosters

The point of all this is that rich fantasy and sci-fi  settings from games don’t guarantee good media (unless it’s fan based and the set in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium) and even when it does make for good media (or vastly overrated but fine and very successful media) it may not have a beneficial effect on sales of the source material.

Says Felman: “We are absolutely making this show for everyone. In the same way, the Marvel movies reached way beyond people who ever read a comic book, we intend for the series to reach way beyond those of us who know what Magic is.”

MtG requires at least two players. Bathing is still optional…sadly.

Moran, on the front line of retail, observes: “I get the feeling Netflix will definitely assist Magic in its popularity. In this day and age, people seem to predominantly use their electronic devices to engage with other people. Magic: The Gathering has its popular online platforms (especially Arena) so it’s distinctly possible they’ll see sales but not necessarily physical ones.”

Adopting the same “Marvel method” might not be about improving the sales of the cards, but brand recognition and using a prebuilt world with a loose narrative and imagery to sell Magic related items, rather than just the card game. On top of which, Magic is playable through an app, meaning you can spend money on it without having to leave the house or head to an imposing playspace.

Hasbro, Wizards of the Coast’s parent company, has a fine legacy of using cartoons to sell stuff and create cultural phenomenons, and with Bloomberg reporting the announcement of the Netflix series already boosting the company’s stock, Magic the Gathering is well on its way to become a household name even if the game is still doesn’t get the same boost.

27th June 2019