Counter Target Cosmic Horror: Lovecraft and Magic the Gathering
Eldritch Moon has had some time to percolate and the Eldrazi have been with us for years now, so adding my voice to the chorus of “Magic the Gathering and Lovecraft” feels overdue. The cardboard stars seem to align every few years for Magic. The game has hinted toward the Lovecraftian for ages. Cards like “Cosmic Horror” and “Wrexial, the Risen Deep” remind us that Lovecraft's fiction has never been too far from Magic's R&D and artists. However, with their recent sets, Shadows Over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon, Magic takes a their turn at a comprehensive Yog-sothothery that emerges in the game’s art, mechanics, and narrative.
The artwork in Shadows Over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon is fantastically Weird. Magic the Gathering has always had outstanding artwork, calling back to the mesmerizing Dungeons and Dragons books its aesthetic initially drew from. Visually depicting Lovecraft’s fiction, on the other hand, has always been a challenge. (Unless you’re Richard Upton Pickman.) Lovecraft’s approach to the monstrous was intentionally vague. He presented his monsters as unknowably diaphanous. Descriptors like “fungal” and “crustacean” leave the door wide open for artistic interpretation. For these sets, Magic took an approach to Lovecraftian body horror reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing. The citizens of Innistrad sprouted these Lovecraft-by-way-of-Carpenter protrusions as seen in the art for Weirded Vampire and Fibrous Entangler. The subtle hinting in the artwork also echoes Lovecraft’s aesthetic. Shadows Over Innistrad didn’t come out with its overtly Lovecraftian guns blazing, but rather set a slow burn with hints of tentacles and vague, monstrous shapes here and there. Visually, it builds a narrative in the same way Lovecraft wrote, slow hints of elder things at the edge of our periphery until the floodgates of Cosmic realization burst open. The art direction for this set is some of Magic’s best, not only for its aesthetics, but for the way it mirrors the set’s mechanical interpretations of the Lovecraftian.
Throwing Lovecraft into one’s board game is all the rage. It seems like every tabletop game is assembling their essential salts to raise their own Elder™®© expansion pack. More often than not, Lovecraft paint is splashed over a pre-existing game with, maybe, a “madness” mechanic thrown in there. Magic, while totally aboard the Lovecraft cash-in train, takes pains to remix the Mythos into their own game world. The “Investigate” mechanic sees the player creating “Clue” tokens and sacrificing them to draw cards. This melds nicely with the core gaming systems nascent in Lovecraft’s fiction—the expending of resources to draw knowledge from clues being one of them, slowly revealing hidden information through metered research being a second. Another systematization of Lovecraftian horror is a re-imagining of Magic’s “Transform” mechanic. Transform uses double-faced cards; one side being the “normal” side and the other being a monstrous inversion. While this is a rehash of a pre-existing mechanic, it does fit well with the narrative of a Lovecraftian force lurking beneath, and transforming, the flesh of Innistrad. Mechanically and artistically, Magic did a great job of bottling some of Lovecraft’s essence, but the narrative surrounding these two sets is a bit of a Lovecraftian stumbling block.
It feels like some dissonance emerged from the current marketing demands on Magic’s narrative and Lovecraft’s Cosmicist philosophy. Lovecraft wrote stories about the insignificance of humanity and expressed that through his defeated, murdered, or insane protagonists. Magic is a global franchise whose narratives are a concerted effort of a marketing team serving the bottom line and artists working their best within those constraints. Because there was never a threat that any main character would be meaningfully impacted by this block’s course of events, any confrontation with human frailty is minimized. The story winds up closer to “The Justice League Defeats Cthulhu” than a proper Lovecraftian story. The prior expansion, after all, saw two “Lovecraftian” gods being destroyed by a fireball. However, underneath this tepid employment of a Lovecraftian story arch, there are the seeds of something great.
Magic’s combination of forlorn Gothic aesthetics and Lovecraft’s Weird isn’t exactly new. Shadows Over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon are, in this respect, Bloodborne—only cardboard and two years later. With that said, a traditional Gothic aesthetic of vampires, werewolves, and mobs of peasant townsfolk hiding Lovecraftian horror just beneath the surface is still a fresh narrative. There’s a lot of energy still to be found in how these two aesthetics play off of each-other. Lovecraft spent his career pining after Poe’s style while feeling like he could never escape Poe’s shadow. Lovecraft once remarked: “There are my 'Poe' pieces & my 'Dunsany' pieces—but alas—where are any 'Lovecraft' pieces?” Eldritch Moon and Shadows Over Innistrad play off of that tension between the classic Gothic style and Weird literature’s Cosmic Horror. There’s still a lot of room to explore here and I hope other games pick up where these two leave off.
Magic the Gathering’s attempt at a Lovecraftian world is a bit of a mixed bag. The art direction and mechanics do a fantastic job of conveying Lovecraft’s terrors, but the narrative they are packaged in loses sight of the prize. With how well the art and game design function, it’s a shame that the story struggles with conveying exactly why Lovecraft’s alien-squid-gods are horrifying. Perhaps, in a world of Hello Cthulhu and Cthulhu Yahtzee, two out of three ain’t bad? Despite that, these have been some of my favorite Magic sets since Homelands (Vorthos Life) and until we get a third trip to Innistrad, I’ll just be over here, playing my Innistrad anthology cube, until the cardboard stars align again.
Extra Turn: One thing that Magic the Gathering did with it’s Shadow Over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon sets that is very promising is a reframing some of the racist undertones of Lovecraft’s fiction. Lovecraft had obvious moments of racism in his fiction. From an unfortunately named pet cat to a string of overtly racist stories like “The Horror at Red Hook.” However, Lovecraft’s racism is more than just incidental, it's fundamental to some aspects of his narratives. The idea that people with blood tainted by monstrous lineages wander our city streets and could, one day, take over polite society is a manifestation of Lovecraft's racist, classist anxieties. Magic took that idea of a population tainted with monstrosity and, again like Bloodborne, turned it on its head. The entire population of Innistrad, from its werewolves and vampires to peasant farmers are succumbing to the eldritch forces inside them. It’s subtle, but it questions our assumptions about the fixed nature of race and how we demarcate the “other” in a Lovecraftian text. It sees werewolves, vampires, zombies, necromancers, and church going townsfolk overcoming their differences and banding together against Magic's interpretation of The Thing meets Cthulhu. Innistrad is literally saved by embracing its diversity. Cosmically enough, that would have the Old Gent turning in his grave.