Magic: The Gathering partially feeds on nostalgia. It is a game that many people, myself included, gets entangled with in cycles. You play the game a couple years, you fall off for a while, and then you come back. I’ve done this three times, each time taking years-long breaks before coming back to the game, and I know many other people who have done the same thing. Dominaria, the latest Magic set, is geared to get lots of people back into the game at one time. Released coinciding with the card game’s 25th anniversary, Dominaria is reaching far back into the past to help rekindle your best memories of the game.
The significance of this move might not be apparent to you if you only played Magic 20 years ago or if you’ve only picked it up in the past few years. Dominaria is a place in the universe of the game, and it’s the place where all of the classic stories took place. Magic has always played at the wax and wane use of cards and external narratives (like novels and comics) to tell a big story through the act of playing the game and paying attention to all of those external texts. In the early 2000s, the Magic became much more about the big universe of planes that the core creators, called planeswalkers, could travel to. Dominaria and its factions, plots, world-destroying characters, and evil villains receded into the background of the game. In Time Spiral, the last set that dealt with Dominaria, it was revealed that the entire plane had been fractured in both time and space. Monsters roamed the world, causality was completely broken, and civilization had been beaten back into hundreds of final bastions. Then the game went other places for more than a decade.
Coming back to Dominaria has weight. It’s uniting different generations of players and trying to knit up nostalgia for past mechanics and concepts while keeping the game fresh and new. It’s a hard thing to do, and I can’t think of another game on the planet that has this specific kind of problem; Magic has both continuity and breakage in equal amount, and needs to manage both carefully within a player context.
The big shift in Dominaria is the creation of “historic” cards. Mechanically, these are cards that have some kind of major effect in the world or evoke Dominaria’s long time scale within the card game. Artifacts are historic cards, and that’s because they’re basic machines that have “historically” been used by many different people down through the ages. Legendary creatures are also historic, and it’s because they imprint their names on history. The warlords, kings, and culturally important figures get to etch their name in the annals of history, and thus they have a special place in the world. Finally, there are Sagas, a brand-new type of enchantment that tells a story from the history of Dominaria through sequential triggered abilities.
Sagas, by the way, are amazing. They’re generally powerful and useful in a gameplay context, but more than that, they’re the perfect melding of the game’s long narrative and its moment-to-moment card interactions. For example, The Antiquities War is a card that tells the story of the war between the two brothers Urza and Mishra. In the fiction, this happened in the deep past. In real time, it happened in 1994 with the release of the Antiquities set. The card easily explains what happened in its abilities: each of the brothers gathered a huge number of powerful machines, and then they set to destroying each other with them. It’s elegant and it unfolds for the player who is interested in the broader Magic narrative context.
As for the rest of the experience, it mostly goes the way of an average Magic set but for one exception. The focus on historic cards and events means that many of those cards and concepts are “pushed” so that they see play. For example, there are some very powerful legendary creatures at the uncommon rarity, meaning that it is easy for those cards to dominate a Limited (where you compete with cards you open at an event instead of building a deck before) environment. It makes for a volatile format, and the strong dependency of some other cards on these legends means that you might sometimes feel punished for not opening or having them.
Dominaria has felt very rewarding for me both as a player who enjoys where the game is now and as a player who started all the way back in the early 2000s. Dominaria is meant to evoke all those good nostalgia feelings, and it did that for me. It’s fun to play as well, but that’s almost a bonus at this level of throwback feel-good stuff.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, is available on Steam.