2010-02-10

MTG as Ritual, Part II: Player as Planeswalker

Last week, we found that while still just a card game, Magic: The Gathering fits Rappaport's definition of ritual, which we established by checking the game's characteristics against the definition step by step. In order to cement an understanding of why Magic not only happens to fit a definition of ritual, but really works like ritual, we will today consider the issue from a different angle: the player's perspective.


Of course, the players are just people playing a card game. However, such a description is analogous to saying the congregation participating in the Eucharist are just people getting together to snack on bread and wine. I have had many a bread-and-wine snack (though usually with cheese as well, something sadly lacking from church services), and have also borne witness to the Christian communion, and I can readily say that the latter is not at all merely a snack. Anyone can tell the difference — or at least, that there is a difference — between Sunday service and a midnight monge.

But what is the difference? The service and the snack are readily differentiated by the ceremonial pomp which surrounds one and not the other, but the real difference lies in the nature of each behavior. The Eucharist is ritual, a snack is not. (Though the possibility of ritualized snacking is by no means denied.) Magic may be difficult to identify as ritual behavior because it isn't ceremonious, but we must bear in mind that ritual behavior need not be ceremonious or decorous, and indeed it often is not.

What differentiates the church service from the snack isn't just ceremoniousness or decorum, but the notional structure upon which the latter is built and which it supports: the ultimate sacred postulates and cosmological axioms which we discussed in the first post on Rappaport. A snack is just a snack, but in the Eucharist the performers participate in an extensive network of ideas which inform the ritual and the performers themselves.

While Magic lacks the ceremonial trappings by which ritual often is easily identified, it does possess the notional structure which involves the participants more deeply — or at least, it can involve them so. To illustrate this claim, let us return to very premise of the game.

Ultimately no one can deny that Magic is just a card game, but it is one with an idea behind it, whether or not players are inclined to give that idea much thought. Part of this idea is the notion of a world filled with accessible magical power, which can be channelled by spellcasters. Another part is the imagined dueling between spellcasters which constitutes the titular premise for a game of Magic, which indeed is still often called by players "a duel." However, this premise runs deeper still. The players are not only dueling spellcasters, but a special kind of sorcerer: they are planeswalkers.

We briefly mentioned planeswalking in our first post on Magic, back in October. There, we discussed how the game world of Magic doesn't consist merely of a single world, but innumerable worlds which are explored through more and more new cards printed over the years. The players assume the roles of planeswalkers, a rare order of spellcasters said to possess a special "spark" which, once ignited, allows them to travel between these many worlds at will. Collecting different spells from different worlds, planeswalkers form a powerful and varied magical arsenal. It is this notional role which the player assumes when they play a game of Magic, even if they don't give it any thought.

With this in mind, we can see the player placed in a pivotal position of participation with the cosmology of the game. Playing a game of Magic isn't just playing a card game — it's drawing on mana from the lands one has visited across far-ranging planar travels; summoning up creatures from those many worlds which one has bound to one's will to fight; slinging spells to burn the body of one's opponent, fracture their memory, drain their vitality, or crack their sanity; it's using all the magic at one's disposal to fight with a certain cosmological principle, or combination of cosmological principles, informing one's strategy, be it the order and justice of white mana, the chaotic and impulsive force of red mana, or any of the other three colors singly or together.

This aspect of the game is usually discussed under the heading of "flavor," and many players regard it as unimportant, while others (myself included) consider it indispensable. Consideration for flavor need not be made in order to play Magic, and indeed the strongest decks often use combinations of cards which don't make any kind of sense in terms of flavor. The game allows free combination of its thousands of elements as long as those combinations are mechanically functional, and regardless of whether they're conceptually meaningful, but the conceptual meaning nevertheless exists in the cards, and for many players constitutes the element of deckbuilding which attracts them most.

Whether a player thinks or cares about it, the game puts the player in the place of a planeswalker, and allows them to participate in the cosmos — the ordered world — which the game's conceptual elements create. To play a game of Magic is necessarily to participate in this order, even if one could care less about it. The structure of the game is premised on this conceptual order, and playing the game enlivens that order. Put another way: the ritual form of the game is built to embody the ideas which through performance of the ritual become unquestionably true in context of that performance. Playing Magic makes the players into planeswalkers as the players' energy in playing the game gives life to the game world.

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