Hello and welcome to Only On Tuesdays! This week, I am very excited because today I get to talk about my 2 favorite hobbies and mash them together. For those of you who have been following me, you probably know that I exclusively write about these 2 things but keep them pretty separate from each other. I love both of these games a lot, but they occupy different fields of interest and don’t intersect with each other very often. Recently, however, Wizards of the Coast announced a project that is merging these 2 IP’s together in the Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica, a supplemental product aimed at helping those who want to play a game of Dnd set in the MtG world of Ravnica.
This combination between Dnd’s rules and Magic’s universe is very exciting but isn’t a novel idea to me. For the past 2 years, Wizards of the Coast has been releasing setting guides in the form of their Plane Shift series. I love Ravnica, and will probably do a campaign based there but Plane Shift wasn’t enough for me. I wanted more Magic out of my campaigns, and I was curious as to how the card game could fit into this. A couple of weeks ago, an idea struck me: Play a game of Magic while you DM.
Playing Magic during Dnd
The idea is simple: pull out a deck of cards and play a game of Magic where the opponent sitting across the table from you is your Dnd adventurers. You play your lands and cast your spells, while your players fight monsters and try to defeat this source of Magic. The game of Magic becomes an encounter in Dnd.
The idea for the encounter has the following elements:
- Build monster stat blocks for the creatures in your deck. (Doesn’t have to be super complicated).
- Create a clear goal for the encounter that will end it. (The player’s life total in MtG essentially).
- Convert Magic’s rules in a way that makes sense for Dnd. (E.g. tapping to attack doesn’t really work in Dnd).
I’ll get more into this in the example section down below but first I’d like to talk about a few fundamental differences between Magic and Dnd that make it a little difficult to convert one into the other.
- Magic is a game about building up to powerful resources. Dnd is a game about conserving powerful resources.
- Magic determines how much you can do in a turn via lands. Dnd determines this through action economy.
- Magic is randomized through the deck. Dnd is randomized through dice.
These 3 things may seem simple on the surface, but are a pretty interesting problem to solve when it comes to combining Magic and Dnd together. Once this problem is solved, however, it can be a ton of fun to pull out a deck of cards and have it fight your players! Let’s go over how I solved each of the following problems for my first foray into this. Take what I say here as the beginning of an idea, and feel free to come up with your own spin concerning the idea.
As I said earlier, Magic and Dnd share similar ideas when it comes to resources, but apply them in very different fashions. Magic derives its balance from the fact that each player can only do so many things in one turn. One land means you are likely casting one spell that turn. Two lands mean you are either casting one stronger spell or two spells of the same strength as your first spell. What this means is your most powerful spell that costs 7 mana, is not going to impact the game for several turns.
Dnd, on the other hand, gives you your most powerful spells at the beginning of each day. There is no limit to when you can cast these spells, only how many times you can. When combining Magic and Dnd together, the first issue I had was the players having access to their most powerful spells such as Flame Strike, Hold Monster, and Bigby’s Hand in the first turn of combat while I’m limited to casting one mana 2/1’s? This creates a power imbalance in the early stages of the fight as your players can build up powerful resources before they are pressured, and ultimately gives them the edge for when you can start presenting powerful threats.
Fortunately, there are a few ways to solve this.
- Cheat on mana
- Start With a Developed Battlefield
- Use “Legendary Actions”
Cheat on Mana
In Magic, there are tons of cards that can cheat on mana. What this means is it allows you to play things far ahead of schedule that you otherwise would not have been able to do. One of the most famous examples of this is Black Lotus which gives you 3 mana whenever you want. When that 7 drop is being cast on turn 4 (or even turn 1 with 2 Black Lotuses), you can threaten your players much quicker. Some more examples of cards that let you break the system and cheat mana are:
- Mana Accelerants: (Black Lotus, Ancient Tomb, Birds of Paradise)
- Play big creatures for little mana: (Tarmogoyf, Death’s Shadow, Gurmag Angler)
- Reanimator: (Show and Tell, Animate Dead, Unburial Rites)
- Slow your opponents down: (Counterspell, Fog, Lingering Souls)
- Other unique effects: (Aether Vial, Quicksilver Amulet, Brain in a Jar)
Start With a Developed Battlefield
A lot of the effects I just mentioned are pretty nasty ways to cheat the system. They do unfair things in order to play around the game’s fundamental rules and this can often lead to your players feeling like you cheated. You may not want to do that, and may instead just want to throw awesome creatures at your players. In that case, simply starting an encounter with a predeveloped battlefield, complete with creatures and lands. Doing this will immediately give the players something to fight, and will keep them from killing you before you can cast anything important.
Use “Legendary Actions”
What do I mean by this? In 5th edition Dnd, there is a mechanic known as Legendary Actions which help to break action economy by allowing the monster to do extra actions outside of its turn. How can this translate to Magic? Make your Legendary Actions relevant to the game of Magic. On a players turn, draw 3 cards if you are out of gas. Cast a creature for 3 mana or less for free. Get a free Black Lotus! Things such as this will help to bring the pendulum back in your favor when you are facing down 4-6 players who are all out to get you.
In both Dnd and Magic randomization is a key component to their design. Every game is different and you never know what outcomes might occur. In Dnd, this randomization is achieved through dice. In Magic, this is achieved through shuffling your deck. Where in Dnd you can roll a natural 1, a Magic player may experience Mana Screw, in which they don’t draw any lands. Combining these 2 random systems together will more often than not favor the players, as randomization increases the chances that you will lose to the game, instead of the player’s wit. Imagine not drawing any lands for 3 turns, and then rolling a natural 1 on your final attack. Your players won’t be impressed.
To solve this issue, I came up with a simple solution. Start with an ideal 7 card hand. Find the 7 cards in the deck that will lead to an interesting and fun encounter and let the rest of the deck remain randomized. This will keep you from getting screwed by the inherent randomness of Magic, while still keeping each draw a mystery. If you have ever sat behind 2 islands and a smug look, you will know exactly how powerful this can be. You are ultimately still subject to more randomness than typical in a Dnd encounter, but at least this way you are guaranteed to put up a fight.
Another thing to help with randomization that my players suggested to me after I did this for the first time is to build a deck specifically designed for the encounter at hand. In the example below I used my Modern deck and while we had a great time, the players didn’t feel like it was specialized towards them. If your party contains a lot of big oafs who never cast spells, you may not want to include counterspell in your deck. If the encounter is located in a swamp, make it a black deck designed around the theme of the location.
P.S. Assembling a perfect 7 card hand that can kill your opponent on turn 1 is against the spirit of this exercise. Infinite combos that can end the game on the spot should be handled very carefully. If you want to include an infinite “I win” button in the deck, that is fine as long as you clearly foreshadow its presence and allow the players a chance to win even after the combo is assembled. Rather than killing the players outright, give the deck a big boost in power and proceed from there instead of ending their existence with a turn 1 Emrakul.
Ending the Encounter
Playing Magic is a ton of fun, but eventually, you have to get back to playing Dnd. Magic should not overshadow your Dnd game, but instead, supplement it as a fun new way to approach an encounter. What this ultimately means is that this encounter must have an ending. In other encounters, once you kill the last monster the encounter is usually over, but if you are playing a 60 card deck you can usually rebuild your board in just a few turns. Games of Magic are able to end thanks to the life total system. Allowing an alternate system that players can attack instead of the monsters gives your players a chance to end the encounter on their own terms, instead of waiting for you to deck yourself.
There are, again, a lot of ways you can do this. The main goal though should be figuring out how to stop creatures from being summoned. Magic achieves this by killing the player. This doesn’t quite translate to Dnd because if you kill the player, you kill the DM? Instead, try to focus on what is summoning the creatures and how your players can stop that. Is a legendary creature summoning a horde of zombies? A Vial constantly powering up and churning out new creatures? An illusion of the mind that can only be combated by attacking their thoughts? (Aka Milling). As long as your players see a clear line to victory, then it is easy enough for you to assign some numbers to it, and then disrupt that plan with your deck.
Another thing to mention. You aren’t trying to win. As hilarious as it would be to party wipe your players with a Magic deck that kills them by turn 3, I don’t think your players would feel the same way. Balance the encounter in a way that doesn’t create an unfun challenge. In other words, design it like you would any other encounter, except now you are including the randomness and design of Magic into the game. It’s not a perfect system, these games weren’t designed to be played together by any means, but it is a lot of fun. If your players enjoy Magic to any extent, it is really exciting for them to see you pull out a deck of cards and tell them that is what they are fighting today. Below I detail how I went about doing it, and things I would like to do better in the future.
Example Fight: Aether Vial Spirits
Aether Vial Spirits is one of my all-time favorite decks, and I have always wanted to implement the card Spell Queller into Dnd somehow. I was originally just planning on it being a random monster the players would stumble upon, but as I started to consider the idea more, I realized I wanted to play with the entire deck instead of just Spell Queller.
You see, Spirits is an archetype designed around protecting their fellow ghosts by constantly flashing in disruptive spirits that bring the tempo in your favor. When your opponent goes to kill one of your creatures, you are able to respond and stop them from doing so. While Spell Queller would have been a cool fight, throwing other spirits into the mix would make for a far more interesting encounter, as killing Spell Queller, or any spirit for that matter becomes its own little mini-game. Once I realized I wanted the entire deck for the encounter I came up with the idea of playing Magic and Dnd at the same time.
For the next few sessions, I very softly foreshadowed the upcoming event. The players had to gather 3 special keys which were all ghostly in nature before they could enter the secret location. This secret location was known for stealing the souls of any who dare to wander there. Once my players gathered all 3 keys and were on their way I set to work planning how the encounter could pan out.
First, they needed a way to win the encounter. I decided that Aether Vial would be the element summoning my spirits into battle. If they could kill the giant whirring machine, they could stop the spirits from being summoned. Aether Vial also coincidentally allow’s me to play multiple creatures per turn, giving my spirits a chance to keep pace with the 5 players I had that night.
I started with an opening hand that looked like this:
This hand was meant to have interaction while still allowing the opportunity to draw more lands and not feel bad about it.
The third thing I had to figure out was the monster statistics for each card in my deck. I kept it simple as I didn’t really have a lot of time to go in-depth on stat blocks, but if you can, the more detail is always better. I kept it as simple as attack, health, armor class, and a relevant ability tied to what the card could do. I chose to balance these creatures around a challenge rating of 5, as my party was all 10th level and 3-4 CR 5 monsters count as a Very Hard encounter. I did my best to base them off existing monsters such as an Air Elemental for simplicities sake. For spells, I tried to find other spells that matched their abilities. Path to Exile, for example, would cast Banishment, while Mana Leak counters their spell unless they roll the right number.
After deciding on all of the above, I finally felt ready to take the fight to the players. The encounter started by me describing a massive machine whirring to life, and electricity sparking from it. I played a land and an Aether Vial and passed the turn. I immediately realized the disparity in power between Dnd characters and an empty board. As soon as I said pass the turn I had to come up with a reason why they couldn’t just attack the Vial. I ruled that it was incorporeal and the players set about casting buffs on themselves. This is why it is important to start with a developed board.
Turn 2 began and I cast Supreme Phantom. With his large toughness, he provided an excellent wall for my players. This is where the rules for Dnd and Magic started to get a little fuzzy. In Magic, you can declare attackers by tapping them. This also signifies that they can’t block. In Dnd, you can take hits and then attack back at the same time. For this reason, it is important that your monsters have stat blocks, no matter how small! This helped me realize that it was important for my creatures to both be attacking, and blocking at the same time. Magic just simply helped me to decide how quickly I could introduce new monsters into the mix which helped to give the battle a nice flow.
As the fight wore on, I eventually used Spell Queller to capture a Fireball. This was a lot of fun because as the players worked on killing it, I kept on casting creatures such as Rattlechains or Drogskol Captain that could protect it. I told my players if they could kill one of the creatures giving all of the other creatures buffs, soon all of the creatures would die.
Together they finally focused down the Aether Vial and destroyed it, taking it from 200 life to 0. As the Aether Vial collapsed I realized that this could not be the end of the encounter yet as the players still had a lot of fight left in them. I ruled that the destruction of Aether Vial would not allow me to draw any more cards. The remaining 5 spirits stayed on the battlefield and fought the players, while they did awesome things such as shoot ballistae at them, try to steal Spell Queller’s lantern, and even use Wall of Force to slide the collapsing Aether Vial onto a Drogskol Captain. Eventually, one of the spirits granting a +1/+1 boost to the entire tribe died which caused a chain reaction where each spirit died in a blaze of glory.
The encounter turned out fantastic. I had to change a lot of things on the fly in the attempt for balance, and the simplest solution to this would have been preparing legitimate monster stat blocks for my spirits. Had I done that, and a few small changes, such as already having an Aether Vial on the battlefield I believe I could have turned a great encounter into an amazing one. This system still has a lot of room for improvement, but I hope the idea was enough to inspire you guys. Personally, I am really looking forward to doing this again, but this time using the themed decks from Ravnica during my next campaign set there. Thank you all for reading, I hope you have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!