For the longest time, I experienced Magic: The Gathering through the lens of Family Game Night. To some degree, the fast and loose, flexible nature of these games highly impacted how I set about designing many aspects of MTG: Storyline. Because we usually played the same decks over and over, modified by the occasional upgrade, our own personal metagame seemed to shape itself around our individual playstyles. There was a real sense of personality in each deck. And of course, it was great bonding time as a family.

Let me set the stage…

It’s a Wednesday night, 2004. My younger brother and I are fresh from swim practice and we just wolfed down a plate of pasta casserole. There’s no homework, and Lost doesn’t come on for another hour, so I pitch a game of Magic. Mom and Dad assent, so we all pick our decks, shuffle up, and set our life total to 20. Kitchen table rules state we can mulligan unlimited times (if we show the table our terrible hands) and combat is a free for all (but “table talk” is highly discouraged).

I’m sure we messed up an incredible number of rules. Most notably, no one was sure when damage cleared off of creatures. One thing was certain: my Dad’s prodigal sorcerer (whom we affectionately called ‘Jean Luc-Picard’) could tap during another player’s end step, hit a critter for one, untap during Dad’s turn, and tap again to deal a second damage. He was a killer. And since so few creatures were safe, the whole family seldom used creatures under 2 toughness.

Looks like Sir Patrick Stewart to me

We were also under the mistaken notion that blockers assign damage. This made attacking into my Dad’s Uncle Istvan a nightmare (notice who benefits from the rules). Since attacking was thus discouraged, we ended up with some pretty gummed up boards. Also, Wrath of God could kill indestructible creatures. We decided this because it doesn’t target and “how else are we going to get rid of it?”

2nd best creature type in the game

But my favorite thing to reminisce on was how each member of the family played the game in a totally different way- and how our Magic games became a microcosm for how we existed as a family.

My BrotherLittle Timmy

My brother ran one morph card and he always hard cast it.

So, my brother was about seven years old when we started our family games. He always played green, and anytime we cracked a pack with a big stompy creature, it went straight into his deck. At first, he would replace the smaller creatures with bigger ones. Simple, but at a point, he ran out of low mana cost creatures to cut so he just ended up with a 110 card monstrosity of deck packed with big dumb beaters.

I tried to help him get into ramp, but every ramp creature or spell took up space that could go to a flashy rare, game-ending monster. The only utility he included were artifacts that gave his creature’s shroud (he hated removal. HATED It.), or removal spells that targeted flying creatures. The only thing that made him more angry than having his beater removed was getting hit by a flier, so he would nuke any flying creature, no matter how small, the moment they hit the board.

The only 4x in his deck

His signature card was Hunted Wumpus. At first, he thought this card was like outright cheating. How could a creature that big be so cheap? I think the rest of us loved it more than he did. We got practically giddy around turn 4 when it came time for my brother to play, hoping he had the Wumpus. The big dumb brute always came with friends, and these friends only got more powerful as our collection of modern cards grew. At one point, my brother started to think the Wumpus was hurting him more than it was helping, but we collectively assured him not to think about it. Thus, all of the cards we cheated out never attacked him again.

Tobey swears this was viable in standard back in the Stone Age

His deck never did much in the early game. He would just shoot down our flying creatures for six turns, and slowly start to play big monsters. It would have been easy to kill him before his creatures hit, but my brother had a long memory. Anyone who killed him would be his exclusive target for a month. So we usually ignored him. Because of this, he won a surprising amount.

My DadBaron Sengir

My Dad also collected Vampire: The Masquerade

I’ve already profiled my Dad a bit in this article. In our group games, he was the quintessential black player. He stuck with his old cards for the most part, since he was always grumbling about Magic ‘jumping the shark’. He frowned when I played split cards from Ravnica, or played flashback spells from the graveyard. He highly disapproved of split mana symbols. He mocked anyone who played cards with morph, Planeswalkers, and double faced cards. As such, his decks started out dominant but really couldn’t keep up when the rest of the family started innovating.

He showed his powers as a black mage with his politicking, however. Despite creating the ‘no-table’ talk rule, he might accidently drop a Terror from his hand if my brother ever thought about swinging at him. My brother was so unwilling to risk having his creatures destroyed (and my Mom was so eager to steal his creatures), that almost every game devolved into a 2v2 with my Dad manipulating my little brother.

“Is this game child appropriate?” My Mom would say, only to Dad’s deck

In the end, despite his lack of good creatures, he was formidable because of how he manipulated the table. He also held exclusive rights to play certain old cards. We had a few pieces of power, and all of them went straight in Dad’s B or B/U decks. Sol Ring, Mox Jet, and Demonic Tutor were great enablers, even if he lacked too many payoffs. He did eventually come around to a few beaters, notably Inkwell Leviathan.

He’s still a little grumpy it outclasses the original Leviathan

But still, part of the charm of this era is looking back at my memories of how irreverently we treated our cards. Not that we disrespected them, but we had no perspective of their value outside of game pieces. My brother once spilled some milk all over his board, soaking at least ten Alpha Forests. We went to get some paper towels and Dad hardly noticed that the creeping pile of milk was starting to engulf his Mox Jet. He picked it up and waved it dry.

MomThe Greatest Thief in the Multiverse

Mom played pirates before Ixalan

My Mom was a mystery to me when she played Magic. Of all of us, she probably had the loosest grasp of the rules, but she was easily the smartest of the whole table. She didn’t understand Magic, probably because she didn’t care to invest too much time and thought into it, but despite that strategies were always genius. She played blue almost exclusively, largely out of apathy for formulating her own strategy. Her entire deck was based around stealing other people’s cards.
Control Magic. Clone. Confiscate. She hardly had a card of her own apart from Ghost Ship, a main stay in her deck that really just served to slow people down. Her signature card was bribery. She would cast it, go straight for Dad’s deck, pull out his Inkwell Leviathan, and usually win the game. It was brutal, it was cold, it was efficient. This made her an obvious target for the brother/dad axis, but utility artifacts like icy manipulator and her favorite, sun droplet, kept her alive for an obnoxiously long time.

“Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” She would say every night, playing her fourth copy of this gosh darn card.

She also straddled the line between apathy and care in the game that I still can’t comprehend. While she seemed so detached during the game, she was the first and only person in our family to go onto Ebay and buy singles for her deck. Notably, she bought a playset of Isochron Scepters for Brain Freeze and Unsummon. But again, despite this level of power, she didn’t seem invested in education herself about certain aspects of the game. Once she bought a playset of Spell Counter (obviously, to counter more spells) without realizing it was a silver bordered joke card.
Despite the power of her deck, she never won that often. I usually joined up with her to beat back my brother and my father, and then her deck just couldn’t finish me off. I tended to play combo-like decks with few powerful creatures, so there was simply nothing for her to steal. But, a part of me thinks she lost on purpose. She played for family time, and didn’t seem to care about the game. Maybe she took it easy on us so we would have fun too.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her it wasn’t a real card. Dad had no such problems.

Me – The Tryhard

“I name five trillion.”

I was easily the one at the table who cared most about Magic, and I was also the one who managed the family’s card collection. While everyone did modify their pet decks on occasion, I was the most invested in deck brewing and trying new things every time we played. I would build tribal decks, build around alt win condition decks, and pseudo-combo decks.

My favorite of all time was a Stuffy Doll deck that used Shivan meteor, volcanic hellion, and Hidestsugo’s second rite to win out of nowhere. I loved the politics of that deck. Usually, my first doll had to be keyed to Dad, so he would use his removal on creatures that attacked me. My next one had to target Mom, since she usually stole the first doll I played.
Some were misses, like my goblin deck, others were hits, like the time I made a sliver deck. I was starting to figure out how to deck build properly, and actually made a solid mana base and curved my deck out well. While underpowered by many standards, it was so consistently fast and brutal at our kitchen table that the family collectively decided to ban it. I took this more as a point of pride than a defeat.

“It can’t be dealt more than 1 damage because it only has 1 toughness.”
-Dad, probably.

At a point, I started to secretly modify their decks to make them more powerful. I would remove dumb splashes or pet cards that weren’t very good. Over the years, this made our decks noticeably more powerful.

I think I will always be chasing the magic of our kitchen table games. As I went into college, our family drifted apart. Mom and Dad split up, my brother is busy with life, and I’m living overseas. I got my wife deeply into Magic, and we’ll play in roughly the same kitchen table style. Whenever we visit Dad, we all go out to buy packs and draft the most modern set. We even dragged my stepmom to a prerelease not long ago.

In a way, MTG Storyline is a natural extension of my desire to return to those days. Apart from the desire to tell a story and design a unique game, I want the gameplay of Storyline to feel more personal than a regular game of Magic. I want the decks, and how they change, to somehow reflect the relationship of the two people playing. And, I want our limited card pool and mystery booster system to emulate that time when Magic seemed so much bigger… so much more unknown.

For those of you who have played casually with family members or a good friend, let me know what you think when you try out our game. Does it capture the Magic of the kitchen table?