So Kelman set out to codify one—or at least find a path.
It turned out that over the last 25 years, the characters on those cards have developed their own fandoms centered largely around a cast of “Planeswalkers,” powerful sorcerers inside the game. (Two of them, Chandra and Jace, seem likely to be the focus of the Netflix show.) And those fandoms have been supported by the official WotC website, which included house-written stories set in the universe. It was sort of officially sanctioned fanfic that evolved into an intricate, vast narrative canon, all but invisible to anyone not playing the game and essential to everyone who was.
Underpinning all that were the five colors—white, black, red, green, and blue—that represent the different kinds of magic spells in the game. That heuristic, whether you want to think of it as suits of cards or Hogwarts houses, dictates not only whether spells are, say, more defensive or more aggressive, more telepathic or more physical, but also the personalities of the characters wielding the magic and, to an extent, those of the players, who build their decks around one or two, and occasionally even more, of those colors. (If you want to go deep, here’s a look at the five colors’ philosophies.) Kelman turned that into what he calls a “cosmology.” That’s the grimoire—the story bible. “We don’t have people going around saying, ‘You’re a red mage and I’m a blue mage, we must fight!’” he says. “But we know the difference between being able to cast a fireball and reading minds. People’s personalities are a prism for magic.”
You’re laughing, but some TV shows in the past few years based on other, derivative collectible card games were too on-the-nose. In at least one, the heroes and villains literally throw cards at each other. (Usually they turn into monsters or something.) That wasn’t going to work here.
So far, the narratives that have grown out of the game have been a lot more complicated. Inside the game’s story universe—the stories told on the website and over the course of the releases of new sets of cards—multiple strands of narrative came to an intertwined climax earlier this year. It was as big a deal as when the Marvel Cinematic Universe extruded Avengers. And now more is coming: A novel that advanced the story further debuted at number five on the New York Times bestseller list (and the possibility of its acquisition inspired no little urgency in my house). There are comics. The fanfic on the website is now written by award-winning science fiction and fantasy authors. I don’t know how you calculate the cosmological constant of a fictional universe, but this one is expanding.
And as the story grows, it feeds back into the game. When one of those Planeswalkers, Gideon Jura, died in that new novel, Wizards of the Coast released a set of eight new cards commemorating his life and powers. The company called it a “Signature Spellbook”—classic Gideon-related cards with new art. You see how this works, right? The game can generate and absorb story. “A game mechanism is a kind of cosmology, whether you want to recognize it,” Kelman says. “We want to create a cosmology that honors the game mechanisms without literalizing them.”
Conversely, the new animated series has to generate a story—something that drives multiple hours of narrative—from the game mechanic. As one of the show’s writers, Jose Molina, said on a panel we were both on at San Diego Comic-Con (what do you call a humblebrag, but that isn’t humble? Is there a word for that?), the writers’ room didn’t base its stories on gameplay. But at one point, when they were trying to decide whether a certain character could use a certain magical power, they did realize that a specific card would, indeed, give that character that ability. They wrote it in.