In the late 1990s, Pokemon redefined what a multimedia craze looked like. There had long been cartoons with toys and comic book tie-ins, but nobody had ever been successful across quite so many media and product lines. There were Pokemon movies, stuffed animals, jigsaw puzzles and waffle irons. Unlike other cross-media narratives, there was never really a core text of which all the rest were adaptation or spin-off. But at the centre of it all lay a kid holy trinity: the Game Boy games, the anime show, and the collectible card game.
What’s more, all of this core media was pretty good. The video games were imaginative JRPGs which found a good middle ground between difficulty and tangible progression. The anime was a cartoon comedy with memorable personalities that had just enough serialization to keep stringing the audience along. The card game wasn’t as complex as more grown-up CCGs like Magic: the Gathering, but it was a good introduction to deck-building and resource management for a young audience.
Of course, other companies observed the boatload of money that Nintendo was making with a little electric rat, and tried to copy this phenomenon. Some of these cross-media franchises, many imported from Japan, managed to succeed in one or two spheres. Digimon had a superior anime series to Pokemon, one which mixed the kids-with-monsters genre with shonen battle anime, but its card and video game equivalents never made much of an impression in North America. Yu-Gi-Oh! was successful both on TV and in the game shop, mostly because the anime was a giant (but strangely compelling) advertisement for the card game. Nobody ever quite cracked Pokemon’s crossover formula. Even to this day, giant franchises like Marvel struggle to translate their success in one area to success in others.
All of which is a very round-about way to introduce Magi-Nation, an American-made multi-media series that attempted to succeed in all the same areas that Pokemon had — and almost pulled it off.
The Magi-Nation card game, created by 2i, debuted at GenCon 2000. It was something of a golden age of collectible card games, with any number of licensed properties attempting to inspire the same crazed consumption as Magic and Pokemon. Magi-Nation was an original property, but that not original. Its players took the role of a trio of “Magi” who commanded cute monsters to protect themselves and kill the other guy. The anime-style art, mostly done by Matt Holmberg, was likely selected to appeal to fans of the various -mons.
It was in its mechanics, however, that the Magi-Nation really set itself apart. Both Magic and Pokemon divide their cards between resources (land and energy, respectively) and cool stuff like creatures and spells you can spend the resources on. This leads to a certain amount of random frustration: if you draw too few resource cards, or too many, you find yourself unable to do much of anything — a distinctly unfun situation. (Yu-Gi-Oh doesn’t use resource cards, but has a slightly clunky system of sacrificing monsters to summon bigger monsters.)
In Magi-Nation, the resources were a set of energy tokens that came with each Magi and were supplemented every turn. When a creature was played, the magi moved an appropriate amount of energy onto their minion. Since energy was also the life-force which opponents attacked, there was a natural tension between playing expansively and keeping your magi alive. Best of all, you could almost always do something on your turn.
There are a lot of smaller, other mechanics that make Magi-Nation unique as well. Some of them would be adopted by more well-known games in years to come (Magic’s planeswalker cards, for instance, bear more than a passing resemblance to Magi-Nation’s magi.) The game’s competitive play also featured an interesting system in which the results of tournaments could help shape the ongoing story of the game’s world.
But one quasi-successful card game does not a franchise make. The following spring, a Magi-Nation GameBoy game was released — tellingly on the same platform as Pokemon. But again, the Magi-Nation video game distinguished itself through a more in-depth story and game mechanics. The narrative isn’t anything all that special, but there are some great comedic scenes and funny side characters, including a bumbling Team Rocket-like duo who come after your player avatar, all-American boy Tony Jones. While Pokemon resisted incorporating its TV narrative into its handheld games, Magi-Nation had no problem using the same tropes in a satisfying RPG narrative.
The gameplay intentionally resembles a card game, although not quite the same as the real-life card game. The combat isn’t anything stunning by contemporary standards, but it’s at least more complex than Pokemon’s element-matching and grinding. Moreover, from the artwork to the writing to the game design, Magi-Nation never feels like a cheap cash-in — it’s an unexpected labour of love.
I don’t remember when or how I first heard about Magi-Nation, although it must have been shortly after the release of the core set. Maybe through an advertisement, or a message board. At the time, I was eleven years old and thoroughly steeped in the lore of Pokemon and Digimon. Magi-Nation promised more of everything that I loved — a portal fantasy, collectible monsters, and funny anime-looking characters. And so I joined the nascent fandom.
Even back then, it was not that easy to find the cards, although I recall getting some from the late, great Bayshore Hobbies. I liked the game, but even for me Magi-Nation was competing for my limited allowance with other card games and books. I assembled a small deck themed around the Core, the setting’s evil underground faction.
The only problem was that I had no one to play with. I played a few online games play-by-post, keeping my set-up cards sitting next to the computer waiting for my opponent’s next message board post. The number of Magi-Nation card games I’ve actually played is probably in the single digits, but I still lurked forums and the official website.
And people did play Magi-Nation, at tournaments and get conventions. There was a world championship and everything. 2i released four expansions for the Magi-Nation game, each one introducing new “regions” of the fantasy setting with their own game mechanics. There were rumours of a new video game. And then, everything went quiet.
While collectible card games may seem like a never-ending revenue flow to those who design them, getting to the point of becoming a fad or craze is a difficult task. Only a handful have managed to survive with a sizeable player base. Card games are like other forms of multiplayer games: you don’t play the one that strike you as best-designed, you play the one that your friends are playing. Most of the people who would be interested in such a game have already invested a lot of time and money in a particular brand. Many gameshave tried and failed to establish their own slice of the market share — and Magi-Nation, a fairly obscure original property, was among them.
In 2007, the brand re-surfaced with one last big push to become a phenomenon. It would launch an animated series on Kids WB, the same programming block that featured Pokemon. Like the Pokemon TV show, Magi-Nation would take the franchise “mascot” — a brown bear-like monster named Furok that wasn’t really at all cute — and make it its own personality, in this case by making it blue and talking. If the TV show adopted the same tone and quality as the video game’s writing, or some of the tie-in lore fiction, it could have been successful.
Unfortunately, when it came to establishing the third leg of the triathlon that Pokemon successfully ran, Magi-Nation fell into the dirt. The TV show, with cheap CGI and bad writing, was rejected by the remaining fanbase and ignored by everyone else. The blue Furok vanished back into the woods, and other than a strange block-puzzle GameBoy game, nothing more was made of Magi-Nation.
These days, it’s hard to find the cards or the video games, but in the age of the Internet not much truly dies. You can still find Magi-Nation fans on message boards with home-built emulators, keeping the card game alive. Visiting these groups is like encountering a ghost, or maybe a memory of something that was never happened. It’s possible to glimpse an alternate world where Magi-Nation, a game that did almost everything right, became the craze it so desperately wanted to be, where kids gathered in hallways to talk about Hyrens and Arboks.
It was a world that I wanted to exist, back in the early 2000s — and a world that I almost believed could. But in the all-or-nothing sphere of card games and other mass crazes, Magi-Nation became just another land of ghosts.