Playing Magic: the Gathering as an RPG

We usually approach Magic as a strategic and tactical game with cool flavor, but sometimes it’s fun to let the game’s underlying premise (that you are a wizard with a collection of spells at your disposal) to run free. Could we take that a step further and turn Magic into an RPG?


The first thing any RPG needs is some kind of setting. Magic, of course, has a rich setting, but it kind of bounces all over the place and has a pretty rigid plot, so it would be tough to make your characters important. I suggest you take any of the plentiful fluff material from your favorite fantasy RPG and use that, or your homebrew campaign world. With that in mind, we’re going to make the PCs just regular adventurers instead of Planeswalkers. True, they’re all spell-flingers, but we don’t want them thinking too highly of themselves or jaunting across dimensions.

Character Creation

Each player then creates a character. You should keep things a little vague at this point, concentrating on background story and a few personality traits. Your actual skills and stats will be determined by your experiences as you play, although you can shape them to some extent (I’ll explain how shortly).

The most important player, as always, is the GM (we’re like tiny gods). The GM needs to own or have access to a fairly robust collection of Magic cards to make this work. Fortunately, it doesn’t need to be an expensive collection of Magic cards. You can supplement your supply by purchasing bulk common and uncommon lots. Don’t worry about big money rares or out of print cards. Some of them could be cool to use if you have them, but they’re far from necessary.

To start things off, the GM gives each player three packs of cards. You could use actual booster packs, but I recommend creating randomized piles of cards out of commons with a few uncommons. That’s because rarity is going to be used as an abstract representation of power level, and you don’t want these level one noobs to accidentally crack a sweet mythic rare that makes them too good too soon. So give them a pile of junk. Make sure some useful utility commons are in there: a [card]Terror[/card] or a [card]Rampant Growth[/card], maybe a [card]Shock[/card]. Each player gets their 45 cards and builds a 40-card deck out of it. They get basic lands for free.

At this point, those decks will be pretty lame. But what are they going to fight against? That’s where the GM comes in. First, build a couple of decks for “random encounters.” Build a green and blue deck full of beasts and forest creatures plus weird merfolk and elementals for wilderness travel. A dungeon deck packed with undead and red burn spells that act as “traps” is needed, too. You might want to craft a city themed deck full of humans, clerics, wizards and other urban dwellers. You’ll get a lot of mileage out of these base encounter decks, and you can easily swap some cards in and out to keep them fresh and interesting. If you have a lot of the pre-constructed decks lying around, don’t forget to lean heavily on those as well. There are Goblin, Merfolk, Kithkin and artifact decks, and a ton of others that can stand in for a villainous mage when you don’t have time to build a whole new deck yourself.


So how does combat work? Let’s say the party is traversing the forest and you want to throw an encounter with some angry elves at them. The GM cracks out his pre-built elf-themed deck, everyone shuffles up, and you play a single game (not a best of three match). To keep the game balanced, use the Archenemy rules: all players are allies, the GM is the opponent, and the GM gets some kind of free advantage every turn. You could use the actual Archenemy schemes, or you could just come up with some kind of static bonus the GM gets. He might get double mana out of his lands, get a free token creature every upkeep, or draw an extra card. This might be a better option in a lot ways because it allows the GM to tailor the advantage to the power level of the party, and also relate it thematically to the specific encounter.

Balance is going to be a huge issue, so the GM needs to weigh not only the power level of the players’ decks but also the number of players in the party. There’s no real way to put that into a formula, so it will take some testing and experience to make each game fair and fun.

That’s not to say the players should never lose, though. Make sure losing a game has consequences, but those consequences should rarely be, “You’re dead.” It might be a setback, a failure to find useful information, or the loss of a valuable bit of treasure, but players shouldn’t be severely punished for losing most games. After all, anyone can get mana-screwed.

I do have two additional rules — cards that allow a player to gain life may be used on allies even if the card would normally only be able to be used on the player who cast it. [card]Sunspring Expedition[/card] is one example. This allows some players to build “healer” decks and take on the traditional cleric RPG role. Secondly, when a player other than the GM goes to zero life, continue to track the negative life total. That player is removed from the game, she discards her hand, she can’t be attacked, and she does not take turns.  However, her permanents remain on the battlefield, and both she and her permanents can still be targeted and otherwise affected. If an ally causes her to gain enough life that she has one or more life points, she can take her next turn in sequence.


The GM should assemble boxes of cards, each box containing cards of a certain rarity (obviously, you won’t have as many cards in the rare/mythic box, but that’s ok). To reward players for accomplishing something in the game, whether it’s winning a game, solving a puzzle or completing a quest, give them a number of random draws from one of the boxes. This will let you scale XP to player level and the value of the accomplishment. Drawing three commons may not earn them a decent card, but over time they’ll accumulate more cards of the colors they’ve chosen to play, improving their decks. For bigger accomplishments, they can draw from the rare box and get something really splashy.

Of course, RPG players also want to score treasure. Treasure cards should be handed out specifically by the DM, not drawn randomly. Most of the time, you’ll want to give out artifacts, since it makes sense, but you could give out spells and creatures as well. Justify it thematically by saying you’ve found a scroll that allows you to cast that spell or summon that creature. You could even get some cool foil cards to hand out for extra flashy treasure.

One thing to be careful of is player trading. Two players could easily swap all the cards in their unused colors and end up with far better decks than they ought to have early in a campaign. You can simply ban trading entirely, or limit it to one card per gaming session.

At first, players will have multi-colored, unfocused decks. As they gain experience and treasure, their decks will take shape, cutting some colors, building on strengths and possibly even acquiring combos. The players can let role-playing drive deck building — if they’ve decided their character is a nature-loving religious adherent, the player might choose to build a green and white deck even if better cards of other colors show up. Some players might prefer to let experience drive character. If you find yourself getting a lot of good red cards, you build a red deck and let your character develop an impulsive, rage-prone personality.

Skills and Stats

RPGs are about a lot more than combat, of course. What about diplomacy, stealth, knowledge and other traits that are important in non-combat encounters? We’ll use a simple system tied to the five colors. Each color represents two traits, one physical, one mental.

White: Endurance, Willpower.

Green: Strength, Wisdom.

Blue: Deception, Intellect.

Red: Speed, Intuition.

Black: Charisma, Greed.

(Some of those are a little questionable — I’m brainstorming this as I go, so it’s open to revision)

Let’s say the party has encountered that classic RPG trope, the iron portcullis. The winch is on the other side, so they look to the strongest mage in the party. The GM determines the difficulty of the challenge, from 1 to 5, with 5 being pretty tough. The player attempting the challenge shuffles her deck and draws five cards, discarding and redrawing any lands. Then she adds up the colored mana symbols of the appropriate color, hoping to meet or exceed the difficulty of the challenge. This is a strength challenge, and the GM has assigned it a difficulty of 3. She draws a [card]Craw Wurm[/card] and a [card]Giant Growth[/card] among her five cards, so she passes the challenge and lifts the portcullis.

Where logical, other players may be allowed to assist the primary player by drawing a single card (replacing any lands) and adding any colored mana symbols of the proper type. Obviously, if you have no green cards in your deck, you won’t be much help in this case.

This creates some interesting deck building decisions. A multi-colored deck has the potential to win a lot of different low-difficulty skill challenges, and can be a flexible and powerful combat deck. However, someone who specializes in green, including cards like [card]Leatherback Baloth[/card] and [card]Force of nature[/card], is going to crush any Strength or Wisdom challenge. They’ll be useless in other situations, and be vulnerable in combat to anti-green strategies employed by the GM. This also makes hybrid cards very powerful.


There you have it, a bit of skeletal outline, but I think the workings of a pretty fun MtG RPG are there. If nothing else, it’s a great excuse for the GM to build a ton of fun theme decks.

11 Responses to Playing Magic: the Gathering as an RPG

  1. I dig it! While I obviously play only rarely (and at your house) I have always loved long duration campaigns. I think Magic could lend itself to that quite well. Sign me up.

    You could do something like have the Archenemy that the alliance of mages is struggling against, traveling from land to land to gain allies in their fight, particular creatures that are added to their decks. Maybe some allies join and stay as long as the character mage is philosophically acceptable to them (certain number/percentage of cads of a particular color. That would also help to shape the deck evolution.

    Yep I like this idea.

  2. I don’t play Magic much at all, but I have to admit the idea sounds fun. I would be more than happy to help play test it sometime given the opportunity.

  3. I’ve thought of a few other add-ons:

    -Bonuses/penalties based on the situation, injuries, environment, etc. You could reduce or boost the number of cards drawn for skill challenges, reduce hand size by 1, reduce starting hand size, etc.

    -I’m thinking players should start at 40 life, but life totals are cumulative through consecutive battles, and only reset to 40 upon an 8 hour rest.

    -If you’re doing a lot of skill challenges, it can lead to a LOT of shuffling, so maybe there needs to be a mechanism whereby you continue to draw from the deck, keeping used cards in the graveyard and only reshuffling periodically, or when the deck runs out.

  4. How about, after a “fight,” each player shuffles their graveyard and draws 7 cards from it, looks at them, and then shuffles them into their library? They can take feats to increase the number of cards they retrieve, or maybe a feat to tutor for one card of the cards they retrieve.

    Or, and I think I like this more, what if each player has a Durability point total of 10? After the fight, they can use Durability Points to either draw a card from their shuffled graveyard per point spent or gain 1 life for each point spent. So draw 7, gain 3 life, and so on. It would be pretty easy to determine some feats to play off of that.

    Heck, even classes. Maybe a Master Mage class draws two additional cards whenever they draw at least 7. And a Indestructible Guardian gains 2 extra life whenever they gain at least 7 between fights. Maybe it would make more sense to gain 2 life for each Durability point spent, especially if we are talking life totals of 40.

  5. I really like this idea.

    What if skill checks didn’t put the revealed cards in their graveyard but on the bottom of their library? After all, they aren’t actually using the spell, and even in rpgs skill checks don’t “expend” any resources (other than time and on a case by case basis).

    40 life seems like a lot to me. What if they started at 20 and when they get experience and essentially “level up” they can choose at that time to cash in a card from their character collection for another life permanent life point? This means I can be weaker and have more options for sideboarding and deckbuilding, or if I know I don’t want to hold onto that Mindless Null any longer, at reward time I can hand it back to the GM and have my life go up.

    For recovery, I’d probably go with something like every hour of rest lets you recover 1 life point or put a random card from your graveyard on the bottom of your library.

    For this form of Magic, I’d also prohibit players from trading cards. Or maybe include this as a possible level up option as well.

  6. Good suggestions Hannigan. Our usual playtest group has been throwing around similar ideas, although we haven’t had a chance to actually try this out yet. Definitely some wrinkles that need to be ironed out. It’s also tough to fight against complexity creep.

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