Playing Magic: the Gathering as an RPG — a Test Run

magic-the-gathering- rpg About a year ago, Robot Viking’s Pillager-In-Chief wrote an article for io9 brainstorming ways for making Magic: the Gathering into an RPG. Unaware of this, the west coast Vikings decided we would try to make a Magic RPG work. We later discovered Ed’s article and we shamelessly stole some things from it, but with some twists of our own.

Character Creation

For character creation we decided that the players would choose a primary color and a secondary color. They would then receive 30 random cards of their primary color, 15 random cards of their secondary color. From these cards they would each compile 40 card decks, sort of like you would in a sealed deck tournament. Initially we discussed doing random fifteen card packs, but we decided that since this was just a one-shot there wouldn’t be much time to add to the decks and specialize. The downside to this was that for reasons understood by neither myself or the co-GM all the players but one played some variant of white, with the other playing black and red, mostly because he was late and wanted to set himself apart.

nicol bolas


For non-combat skills we thought it would be interesting if players had skills sort of like the planeswalker cards. They each had two primary skills, and two secondary skills. The players would gain and spend counters based on the skills they used. Primary skills would give them one counter, secondary skills cost one counter and any other skills cost two counters.  Skill tests were resolved with a fairly loose system of revealing the top card of the library and if the card contained an applicable mana symbol it was a success, counting lands. This meant that people were pretty successful with skills tied to their primary color and occasionally successful with their secondary color’s skills.

For the most part we used Ed’s list of skill/color associations, but we also gave things some overlap, for example, stealth skills worked for either blue or black whichever the character had access to. The counter system actually worked fairly well as a way of integrating the role-play aspects of the game. Having a tangible poker chip thrown in your general direction for doing things your character likes was a great incentive to stay in-character, and the cost of chips for doing things out-of character, like that blue-white character doing heavy lifting, really helped drive home that this was a strenuous task that was to be avoided. It’s probably an unnecessary complication, but it’s a great way for people to stay in character. I might implement a similar system in other games I run.



For combat we adhered to the core rules of magic, with a couple of changes. First, we allowed the players to “carry” three lands in play, in an effort to make the game progress faster. Second, the GM encounter deck didn’t use lands, which allows the GM to scale the encounter quite a bit, and functioned like a Horde deck in the Horde magic variant. Damage dealt to the GM mills cards from the encounter deck, thus reducing the length of the encounter. This system worked quite well until the end of the night when we brought out the big boss fight and didn’t reset the board from the last fight. We tried to use the boss decks like actual decks, lands and all, not thinking about the six land advantage the players had on us. Nicol Bolas went down in three turns, as did two of the Ravnican Guildmasters, though Jarad survived a couple more turns, mostly by looking like the lesser threat.

Verdict: Qualified Success

All in all I think the night was a great success, with the only major failure being user error at the end. I would do it again, but I did discover that Magic is not designed to be a quick combat system. It’s up there with D&D 4E for the longest combat times. Skill resolution was a little tricky, but we came up with a quick and easy system for it. I think it has merit with some refinement, but who knows when the time will come to play again. Any questions, comments or critiques? Feel free to comment, I’ll be here.

3 Responses to Playing Magic: the Gathering as an RPG — a Test Run

  1. As one of your PC’s I would like to add my 2 cents. Do with it as you will:

    -Although I liked the idea of keeping the system dice-free, I didn’t like how the skill system worked out. Were I interested in breaking the system, I would run nothing but monocolor in my deck and pass EVERY skill check I was called to make. Even if I did keep the color balance between main and secondary reasonable though, that still means I have a decent chance of passing my specialty skills and a horrible chance of passing skills I am at least decent in (Imagine a 66%/33% color balance; you have a 1/3 chance to fail something definitive to your planeswalker, and a 2/3 chance to fail at something you are at least proficient in). Perhaps the check starts at a base flip, and gets bonuses if you forfeit/pay the token cost? So perhaps if you used a +1 skill and elected not to receive a token, you got an additional card flip (or some other bonus). Or if you used your -2 skill, you could pay 2 tokens to get an additional card flip.

    -Certain monsters, like elementals/summons, simple soldiers/fighters, or other “dime a dozen” entities should be recyclable after battle, and not “dead for good.” I agree that certain creatures cannot be found just anywhere, and unique or noticeably powerful summons (i.e. Angels, green monsters, unique/named characters, and legends) should be one use only, as these represent powerful/unique forces under your planeswalker’s control. An “ace in the hole,” so to speak. However, a white planeswalker should have more than one white 1/2 Soldier creature at his/her command.

    -Perhaps the number of lands you can keep connected is dependent on how much life you have at the end of each encounter? I can’t imagine a mage on their last legs could hold onto as much power as one who was fully refreshed. However, I am also largely ignorant of Magic fluff, so if that doesn’t fly, ignore this. It’s just as much as I love to press ahead at full steam without a scratch on my character, I do feel there needs to be some mechanic to represent healing/taking damage. Your physical/mental capability does not sit at 100% until you are at the verge of death, then plummet like it sees an asymtote.

    -Unless they start in our decks, I feel like artifacts and equipment we pick up as we go along shouldn’t have to be summoned back into play (representing us actually carrying our stuff as opposed to popping it from the aether). Perhaps, like lands, we can keep a limited number of artifacts in play? Obviously, depending on the size of the artifacts, the limit can be adjusted to accommodate size/bulk, and perhaps having rare items on our person puts us at risk for them getting stolen or drawing unwanted attention?

    One again, my two cents. Ecaj Nereleb has spoken! :P

  2. The artifacts thing was something we were definitely planning to test the next time it came up. My biggest issue is that I still haven’t re-sorted my collection from the last time we did it. The perma-death for creatures was mostly to make people consider them a more valuable resource, and we didn’t want to have to figure out where to draw the lines of value, so we just rolled with one life for everybody. Skills need tons of work, I’m thinking we might just use Ed’s system of counting color symbols in a number of cards, and just play fast and loose with the numbers available. It’s something to bring up with the co-DM the next time we’re working on a project.

  3. I’ve been thinking about ways to simulate lingering damage effects (so everyone isn’t auto-healed after each fight). I’m wary of messing with things like starting with extra lands in play etc because it’s really easy to unbalance Magic like that and end up with a really unfun game.

    My suggestion is allowing the DM to go through the player’s deck and exile some number of cards based on how injured the player is. If you were at 15 life at the end of combat, DM goes through and steals your best card. If you were at 2 life, he gets to steal 5. That way you’re gimped (since you don’t have the best cards in your deck), but the games will still play out like a regular game of Magic.

Comments are closed.