Undergraduate Scholarship: Magic the Gathering


In the academic year 2017-18, our Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Manchester Metropolitan University launched a number of Undergraduate Scholarships. These Scholarships were designed to support research within our faculty by providing funding to second-year students to act as research assistants to members of academic staff. The funding would be for a period of five weeks over the summer, and would therefore be ideal for research projects that would benefit from an intense fixed-term engagement. I am the academic researcher for one of these Undergraduate Scholarships, and I am using the support to look at world-building in Magic the Gathering. My own academic involvement in world-building had until now been focussed on children’s literature. I taught world building in children’s literature here at Manchester Metropolitan University for several years (2005-2012) on my second-year module “Children’s Literature: The Secondary Worlds of Childhood”. Just recently (2017), I published a journal article on world-building in Scott Westerfeld’s young adult steampunk trilogy Leviathan. This current project will extend my work on world-building into the expanding field of games studies.

The core of my project will be to look at how the flavour texts on the cards from the Innistrad sets of Magic the Gathering contribute to the successful creation of a fantasy world. These sets are Innistrad, Dark Ascension, Avacyn Restored, Shadows over Innistrad, and Eldritch Moon. Innistrad is a dark fantasy world with many gothic elements, and I am curious to learn more about how the world designers use flavour texts to help players perceive this world in particular ways. Do these flavour texts focus on characters, such as vampires or dark angels? Do they describe great battles between the forces of light and dark? Maybe they evoke a sense of dread or mourning through citing moments of despair or loss? These were some of my key research questions going into the project.

However, given the large number of cards from these sets, I felt that it would be interesting to supplement the traditional qualitative tools of the “literary critic” with a much more quantitative approach. Searching through a database of flavour texts to identify statistical evidence seems to me to be the basis of a worthwhile investigation. For example, is there a correspondence between flavour texts and card rarity? Or between flavour texts and card colour? Do the cards that are clearly over-powered bear the most significant flavour texts (since those are the cards that players will encounter most frequently)? Answers to these sorts of questions will provide much of the foundation for this research.

Assisting me on this project is Catherine Finn, who is the successful applicant for this particular Undergraduate Scholarship.

She speaks here about her feelings on starting this project:

I am Cat Finn, the successful applicant for the Undergraduate Scholarship in world building in Magic the Gathering. I am a second-year undergraduate in Film and Media Studies with aspirations towards an academic career.

I was drawn to apply for this project as a lifelong fantasy fan and casual gamer. Aside from games I am a fan of film, television, literature, comics media which have the luxury of progression and narrative to form their worlds. I have played Magic on numerous occasions and was drawn to this study as I am fascinated by the way the minimal, yet evocative flavour text of the Magic cards can build a world as rich and inspiring as any progressive visual or literary media.

After studying gothic fiction, I realised that I have, unknowingly, been drawn to the conventions of the gothic in my media consumption throughout my life. Like many fantasy texts which utilise these conventions within their worlds and narratives, Innistrad is an overtly gothic world populated by creatures and character types already familiar within our culture, due to the uncanny permeation of the gothic.

Throughout this study, I look forward to collecting the flavour texts and data from the five Innistrad sets and identifying the trends utilised in world building. As a sporadic visitor to the world of Magic, I am particularly interested in the characters which appear on the cards. Do they belong to an organisation? Are there any obvious markers of a class structure? Is there enough flavour text either from recurring characters’ quotations or about them to build a character profile?

As an undergraduate student, I am just beginning to cultivate my research skills and experience, and this project will be valuable practice for my future academic career aspirations. I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to learn from, experience and contribute to this research project.

Chris Jones and Catherine Finn