NOTE: Dominaria spoilers discussed within.

I don’t think it’ll come as a surprise that I’m a fan of short stories. My Twitter handle started as a persona, where I’d post Tweet-length micro-fiction. It didn’t get any traction, and I started drinking while logged on, so it eventually just became the repository of dirtbaggery that it is now. But the initial concept has been taken up by others. There are any number of microfiction pages and sites that share bite-sized narratives. I wasn’t the first, I wasn’t the best. It was just a thing I did, because that’s how I write best: concision and precision are the tools I work with.

I have a reputation at work of being able to condense information into crucial microsynopses. I also have a godawful habit I’m trying to train myself out of—when I’m at a social gathering and introduced to a new person, I ask them “so what’s your story?” with conspiratorial truculence. That’s a very arresting and upsetting question, and most people don’t know how to respond. I recommend trying it out. You learn a lot from what people immediately consider their life narratives, and you’ll learn that most people don’t like feeling reduced. To be reduced to a job or a characteristic or a role is an act of violence, an act that discounts experience in favor of momentary existence—and to ask someone to do that to themselves is a social betrayal. That’s why I ask the question: most people are put off, but you sometimes get someone who tosses out a whole spiel about their accomplishments and accolades and hobbies. Those folks you hang on to. All of this is to say that I’m interested in condensing information, and explains why I’m such a fan of Dominaria’s Saga card set.

The Sagas are brilliant. They’re attempting to tell an epic-length story within 4-8 lines of card text; and from what we’ve seen, they succeed. Take Phyrexian Scriptures. In its simplest form, it plays like Damnation with Suspend 1—adding to the sense of impending doom—that also has fringe benefits with artifact creatures and provides flavor-based anti-graveyard tech. If you know the history of the Thran and Yawgmoth, all the better, but even a total lore neophyte knows that Phyrexia represents some kind of destructive and artifact-friendly dark force, simply from the way the card plays. It becomes a guided lesson in what Phyrexia cares about, which is an intriguing way to tackle a nostalgia set, and a huge contrast to Time Spiral’s sink-or-swim approach to history. “Education” is not the same as “exposure,” and that’s what Dominaria seems to be getting right. Sagas have historically been pedagogical tools—ways for us to understand what past civilizations considered important—and Dominaria understands that.

Compare the Saga mechanic to its most-similar progenitor, Level Up. Level Up, from Rise of the Eldrazi, wasn’t a great mechanic—the rules text was pretty opaque, it played oddly with other mechanics, and it looked cluttered. It did, however, do a good job at capturing a story within a card frame, it just tried to do too much with too many variables. Sagas, meanwhile, tackle a similar story, but in a self-contained and episodic manner. Where Level Up required continuous decision trees to use effectively, Sagas automatically tick up.

We talk a lot about elegance in game mechanics—i.e., conveying maximum information with minimal content—and Sagas are nothing if not elegant. More importantly, they’re also different—as unique and distinctive as double-faced cards or flip cards, without adding to development costs. Whereas Level Up also led to a significant number of feel-bad situations—either you pumped an absurd amount of mana into your Kazundu Tuskcaller to have it eat a Heat Wave or you barnstormed your opponent with a non-interactive Lord of Shatterskull Pass—Sagas have an immediate impact, and still benefit you even if they get targeted.

Most brilliantly, they include us. We’re learning from the past when we play Sagas, and we’re recreating the lessons of past civilizations. When you drop Phyrexian Scriptures, you’re not a historian: you’re a war criminal. When you play the History of Benalia, you’re building a civilization based on the principles of chivalry and imperialism. You become a leader, until you hit a critical mass of martial and social knowledge. You take the lessons of the past and apply them to the present, but what happens when you no longer have a Keld or a Kjeldor to emulate? Quite simply, the saga is finished, and it’s up to you to win with what you now know. It’s history become praxis, and it’s stunning design both mechanically and philosophy.

The Saga cycles couple a narrative with a strategy (i.e., what we’d call a philosophy), which is all we can ask for from a game. Recently, I’ve been playing Dream Quest, one of the most deceptively simple games out there. It’s a rogue-like dungeon crawler with a customizable deck mechanic with a hidden barb: often, adding cards to your deck is the absolute wrong call. Instead, you have to choose a strategy very early own, and only pursue tactics that amplify that strategy. To Magic players, this is second nature. You wouldn’t run Path to Exile in your Ponza deck, and you wouldn’t run Feed the Clan in Death’s Shadow. Still, it means you have to turn down power in favor of strategy, and that hurts—it demands focused and agile thinking, similar to drafting. Every game of Dream Quest, then, becomes a story—each new iteration becomes a new saga.

Saga simply means “story” in Icelandic—the connotation of it as a historical epic is a recent coinage, dating back to the nineteenth century. In Magic, Sagas do more than tell you a story—they make you a part of the story the moment you add them to your decklist. Sagas are inclusive narratives, and they turn the players into philosopher-kings, into warlords and historians and scholars: one of the ultimate ways to empower your players. That’s why I’m excited for Dominaria.

This is a short one this week. I’m on show five of seven in my local theater company’s production of Boeing Boeing, and I’m starting to have auditory hallucinations and shark dreams. Call the genesis of this article brevity, then, rather than exhaustion. They look the same if you squint.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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