How Magic: The Gathering's Balancing Fantasy With Cyberpunk And Gangsters
Guns? Gangs? Fast cars and DJ’s with mechanical arms?! Whatever happened to good old sexy centaurs and dragons? Well, times change folks and our favorite games change with them… or die. When MTG was first released in 1993, as wild as that decade was, it was solidly rooted in well worn fantasy tropes. But there’s really only so many times Wizards of the Coast can dip into a well full of waifish elves. The designers have been pushing the boundaries and doing some mental gymnastics to make increasingly tech-centric sets still fit into a mythos powered by ethereal, mystical forces. Will introducing these new tropes and mythologies into Magic ruin the game?
Not if the designers do their jobs it won’t. In a game like Magic: The Gathering, where the company’s profit comes from releasing fresh ideas into a game which is almost 30 years old, stagnation means death. Wizards is really pushing into new territory with two back to back sets, Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty and Streets of New Capenna, drawing the majority of their aesthetics and design from industrial inspirations.
Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty’s design is cyber-punk meets Tokyo meets Japanese folklore. It’s been positively received by both casual players of the game for it’s gorgeous visual design and hard core Spikes (an MTG term for a hyper-competitive player). Streets of New Capenna is explicitly Art Deco vibes set in a city built by angels but now ruled by demons. Its character design is inspired by old time-y gangsters like the famed musical plagiarist Al Capone. Both sets introduce modern tropes and architecture into a game which had largely been set in pre-industrial worlds.
These expansions into tech tropes were inevitable but do we really need so many cars and fantasy creatures in zoot suits when there is still so much traditional mythology that has gone unexplored? Sure, “my car is powered by spirits” is fun, but there’s so much incredible East Asian mythology we’ve never seen represented.
Still, given that MTG takes place in an unlimited multiverse, these new, modern settings make perfect sense. Of course not every world is going to be an agrarian paradise. Wouldn’t it make sense that a species with access to magic actually advances their technology faster because of that magic?
Kaladesh, a steampunk inspired set released in 2016, was the first set to introduce the artifact type vehicles. And even though steampunk is aesthetically horrible, almost as horrible as Revillark, vehicles are here to stay. And so it seems, are these modern archetypes. Is this ruining the core conceit of the game? Ultimately, the soul of the game lies in its design. If Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty is any indicator, then the game is not only surviving by introducing modern tropes to help inspire design, it’s thriving. The saga cycle which turns into creatures is defining the set and the high level of interactivity makes it one of the most fun sets to play in a draft format since Dominaria. So, yes, introducing modern tropes into Magic is clearly working and is something we’ll see more of in the future. Hopefully this means we’ll get a cowboy inspired set sooner rather than later.