Friday, January 13, 2023

Magic: The Gathering: The Worldbuilding: The Writeup (9 of 8)


Well. It had to happen sooner or later. Might as well wrap up our look at the lurid fuckfest of art and commerce called Magic: The Gathering while I'm recovering from my Kant hangover.

We left off with the Scars of Mirrodin block, which ended with New Phyrexia in May 2011. That gives us almost twelve years of releases to sift through. Twelve years—that's about equivalent to the timespan between Arabian Nights and Ravnica: City of Guilds. Christ. How to go about doing this?

As much fun as it might be to continue plowing on set by set, that would take far too long—especially since we're close to hitting the point where Wizards of the Coast abandons the tripartite release model, after which we can no longer crunch three expansions into one. Besides, I feel like we've already gone far beyond the point where the creative design think tank had worked out a reliable formula for storytelling and worldbuilding through collectible cards (and complementary publications). With respect to building and delivering a proprietary mythos through a relatively novel medium, Magic's stewards have mostly ceased innovating and are now calibrating a developed method.

To my mind, we can arrive at a fairly comprehensive overview of how Magic lore has developed since the end of the planeshopping era (which began with 2003's Mirrodin and began its recession, appropriately enough, with Scars of Mirrodin in 2010–11) by considering it under three heads, or along three themes.


1.
 So Much God Damned Product

It's no secret among dedicated players that Wizards of the Coast's presses have been overheating for several years now. While the most immediate consequences fall on players, collectors, and the integrity of the Magic: The Gathering brand, the ceaseless deluge of new cards also has ramifications for the mythos. Not all of them are bad.

2. Planeswalker Drama

Planeswalker cards invaded the game with the release of Lorwyn in 2007, and made their ingression into the ever-developing mythos during the Shards of Alara block of 2008–9. (Yes I am aware that both hyperlinks in the previous sentence go to the same URL.) When we left off, they were embedding themselves in the lore as recurring characters who facilitated critical plot developments behind the scenes (read: in the webcomics and novels). The new generation of plansewalkers were important, but hadn't yet completed their transition into the franchise's leading actors, figures whom the first-time player might already associate with the brand when he sits down to play a friend with a premade deck. ("Magic? I've heard of that. It's the one with the steampunk chick with fire hair, right?")

By my reckoning, 2014–15 is when the planeshopping era gave way to the planeswalkers era.

It's no coincidence that this is also when Wizards mostly abandoned full-length publications in favor of posting short stories on its website to accompany new releases. I'll have a few words to say about that when the time comes.

3. Sagas

No, I don't mean the new enchantment type. (But those are kind of cool.)

 

Up until the 2010s, the corpus of Magic lore contained only three sagas. For our purposes here, let's define "saga" as a continuous storyline that spans more than one block or more than a year's worth of releases.

The first saga consisted of the Brothers' War and its aftermath, running from Antiquities to Alliances, 1994 to 1996. (It took a break during Legends, and The Dark was retconned in later on). Next came the Weatherlight Saga, which began with the Weatherlight expansion in 1997 and ended with Apocalypse in 2001. The Otaria Saga followed immediately afterwards, spanning the Odyssey and Onslaught blocks, ending with the Scourge expansion in 2003. After that came the anthological planeshopping era, in which each three-set block told a self-contained "story." I put the word in quotes because the cards themselves don't bear the onus of conveying a sequential narrative; usually the illustrations and flavor text only go so far as to imply one. The cards set the scene and build the world, while the novels tell its story. But we've gone over this.

With the new generation of planeswalkers on the scene, we've already begun seeing continuity between otherwise unrelated stories. Elspeth Tirel prances round on Alara's Bant shard during the Conflux, and is later seen on Mirrodin during the Phyrexian takeover. We're introduced to Sarkhan Vol on Alara's Jund shard, after which he takes a trip to Zendikar to unwittingly help release the Eldrazi with geek guy Jace Berelen and genki girl Chandra Nalaar, both previously seen on Lorywn (and in a couple of novels). And so on.

That these people's trajectories should eventually converge and approach a climax of some kind is Storytelling 101. (And it worked so well for Marvel in its transformation from a comic book publisher to a film studio.)

In 2014, Wizards used a web fiction release as a quiet trailer previewing what was to come. The story takes place on Theros (a plane inspired by Greek myth, whose eponymous release block had recently wrapped up), which had just weathered an existential and theological crisis when a rogue planeswalker used his knowledge of the world's peculiar metaphysics to literally deify himself.

"We sure dodged a bullet there," says the oracle to her patron god. "Nothing could be worse than that guy."

 

"Think again," the god answers, and names three interplanar menaces that had been introduced in earlier sets. "These guys are much worse, and they're still out there!"

I'm paraphrasing, of course. But the story performs the function of adumbrating Magic's overarching plot(s) from 2015 to 2023. Like Dragonball Z, the sagas of modern Magic are defined by their antagonists.

As of right now, two of the multiversal big bads have been dealt with. In another few months, we can expect to see the third threat put down. After that, who knows?

We'll look at each these three items over the next few weeks. But first...

Though I'm not up for putting every expansion set released in the last twelve years under the lens, we ought to at least have a glance at some of the more noteworthy original planes, and also at how few return visits turned out. Just for fun.

Even though we're going to use superlatives like "best" and "worst," remember that we're only talking about the Magic expansions that came out after New Phyrexia in May 2011. And, again, we're not talking about how good or bad or fun or format-warping any of these sets might be; we're focusing on their presentation as chapters in the Magic mythos. If we talk about mechanics, it's only to the extent that they intersect with a set's narrative or aesthetic. 

BEST NEW PLANES

3. ELDRAINE

Throne of Eldraine (October 2019)

Throne of Eldraine gets back to basics. It dispenses with the fantasy genre's modern points of reference and restricts its sources of inspiration to Arthurian legend, medieval romance, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and other pre-Tolkien sources.

 
 

After the climactic War of the Spark expansion, Magic cooled off for a while by returning to the creative ethos of the planeswalkers era: sequential narratives between expansions were nixed, planeswalker soap operatics were kept to a minimum, and worldbuilding was emphasized over plot. Eldraine was the first and the best of these sets. (Best in terms of creative design, I mean—but it was also grossly overpowered.)

Eldraine's world is more interesting in its concept than its particulars. The plane cane be divided into two spaces: the Realm and the Wilds. The first epitomizes civilization: knights, castles, royal courts, the structures of tradition, law, and safety. The surrounding Wilds represent liminal wilderness outside the organization of society where Beowulf hunted Grendel's mother, Gawain sought the castle of the Green Knight, Snow White and Rose Red met the dwarf and the bear, the cannibal witch waits for lost children in her gingerbread house, and from whence came Rumpelstiltskin, the mysterious man who traded Jack's cow for magic beans, the wish-granting golden fish, and all those other phantoms of our collective unconscious (if Joseph Campbell is to be believed).

Eldraine is most clever and entertaining where it translates familiar tales into functional game cards. This was something Magic's early designers amused themselves with way back in Arabian Nights, the first expansion set. Ali Baba opens passages. Aladdin steals your opponent's swag. Shahrazad tells a story within a story, prolonging the game.

By virtue of of its designers' and target audience's being more intimately versed in European fairy tales than in the text of the One Thousand and One Nights, Throne of Eldraine can confidently lay on the specific references to public-domain folklore in larger and more abundant dollops than could Arabian Nights. (It probably also helped that Throne of Eldraine wasn't thrown together in a mad rush.) Moreover, the game's mechanics have been tremendously extended and refined since 1994, and its developers command a far more sophisticated understanding of the design space they're working in. Everyone involved in Eldraine clearly had a lot of fun mulling over how to make characters like the Pied Piper into cards that not only looked the part, but acted it.

 
 
 

Flaxen Intruder (above) exemplifies Eldraine's method of transmogrifying fairy tales into Magic cards. Goldilocks there has a secondary "spell" mode that gives you three bears. When she runs across the battlefield and reaches her destination, she breaks something and peaces out. And what creature type is more appropriate to a rowdy little girl than "berserker?" The presentation dangerously approaches the threshold where cheekiness curdles into to cloying quirkiness (I could have done without the flavor text, personally), but on the whole it's a near-perfect transfer of the Goldilocks story into a packet of game mechanics. You can't but admire the thought that went into it.

2. INNISTRAD

Innistrad (September 2011), Dark Ascension (February 2012), Avacyn Restored (May 2012)

Innistrad is, in short, a geomorphization of the most familiar tropes of gothic novels and horror movies. It is the world that goes bump in the night.

 
 

It's a little remarkable that Innistrad was so well-received, coming on the heels of the Scars of Mirrodin block. After the grisly snuff film of New Phyrexia, you would think that vaulting straight into another setting where the forces of darkness are running amok would have exhausted everyone's appetite for the macabre. The key difference between Scars of Mirrodin and Innistrad is mood. Scars serves up desolation and terror with a straight face, while Innistrad is tinged throughout with black humor. It's not a gag set, but it revels in painting the spectacle of a world so thoroughly frightful as to approach comic dimensions (but without ever crossing over into farce).

If you're a human living on Innistrad, you've got to worry about zombies, mad scientists, serial killers, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, murderous demon cults, devils, animated scarecrows and creepy dolls, giant ravens, the unlucky number 13, and monsters of the deep woods—and that's just for starters. Your most viable defense against an entire world that's trying to snuff you is faith in the archangel Avacyn and her church—although Avacyn hasn't been seen in a long time and the creatures of the night have definitely noticed. Uh oh.

At the center of Innistrad's lore is the archangel Avacyn and her creation by the planeswalker Sorin Markov, who also happens to be one of Innistrad's firstborn vampires. (It should be added that Innistrad finally brings to Magic's world vampires of the Anne Rice breed—opulent, sensuous, gorgeous.) Though dedicated to Team Vampire, Sorin never had much faith in his species' capacity for restraint, and foresaw his kin inevitably sucking humanity dry and degenerating into cannibalism. Some centuries back, he used his old-school planeswalker god powers to conjure an invincible warrior angel to watch over the human populace for the covert purpose of securing the vampires' food stock. Some of the plane's vampires are aware of Avacyn's origins, and Sorin has given up waiting for them to thank him.

Much of the collateral lore in Innistrad's first outing is either reminiscent of the Ice Age days or of comic book plotting, depending on how you're disposed to look at it. The flavor text is full of names that seem important, but the figures to which they refer don't appear in cards, and it's seldom clear who exactly they are or how they fit into the bigger picture. Stan Lee and Chris Clairemont did stuff like this all the time—planting the seeds for future stories, even if they weren't sure what would grow out of them or when they would sprout. And this is ultimately how it went with Innistrad's allusions: the werewolf boss Tovolar, the necromantic siblings Gisa and Geralf, the vampiric sire Runo Stromkirk, the township of Hanweir, etc. all make appearances during one or both of Magic's return visits to Innistrad, and are given minor to major roles in the story.

Innistrad's landmark mechanical innovation are dual-faced cards. (Naturally, using them makes the purchase of card sleeves mandatory). It's simple: the "day" version of the card (designated by the sun icon in the upper-left corner) is the one that hits the table. When a specific condition is met, you flip it over and it becomes its "night" version (indicated by the moon icon in the upper-left corner). 

 
 
 
 

Naturally, humans that turn into vampires can't switch back, while humans that turn into werewolves generally have a trigger that reverses the transformation—as does the off-brand Mr. Hyde of "Homicidal Brute" (above), who shrinks back into an off-brand Dr. Jekyll if he doesn't attack. Clever!

The tripartite structure of Magic release blocks lent itself to a narrative wherein things go from iffy to bad to worse. The Alara, Zendikar, and Scars blocks all begin with a relatively stable situation and end with chaos overthrowing the order of the world. Surprisingly, the gothic horror plane is the first one in a years to have a happy ending—or, rather, to be a happy ending. The title "Avacyn Restored" says it all. Innistrad's archangelic protector returns! The forces of darkness are driven back! No more dual-faced day/night cards! The werewolves become protectors of humanity!

 
 

Sure, it was received as one of the worst sets of all time in terms of its mechanics and influence on the metagame, but it was good to see a plane in the Magic multiverse finally catching a damn break—especially after Zendikar and Mirrodin New Phyrexia.

1. TARKIR

Khans of Tarkir (September 2014), Fate Reforged (January 2015), Dragons of Tarkir (March 2015)

 
  

I was pretty disengaged from Magic (and social life) in 2014, and missed any chance I had of drafting Khans of Tarkir. It's a pity. My friend Jason, who I have to blame for getting me back into the game after avoiding it for fifteen years, still says it was the best time he's ever had playing Magic.

But we're here to talk about story and worldbuilding. To my mind, the Tarkir block, inspired by continental Asia, is in this regard Magic's most exciting original world from the last twelve years.

Alara's attempt to replicate the success of Ravnica's two-color guilds with three-colored shards left much to be desired. Khans of Tarkir gives the tricolor factions gimmick another shot, and does it right. Its first block revolves around five clans in a neverending turf war.

Let's go down the list:

• The Azban Houses. Green-black-white. Loosely based on the Ottoman Turks. Family-first desert warriors. Their emblem is the dragon's claw, symbolizing endurance. (As with Ravnica's guilds, each of Tarkir's clans has an associated watermark.)

• The Jeskai Way. Red-blue-white. Loosely based on Shaolin monks. Monastic martial artists, mystics, and scholars. Its emblem is the dragon's eye, symbolizing cunning.

• The Sultai Brood. Green-black-blue. Loosely based on the Khmer Empire. Jungle-dwellers who consort with demons in hopes of restoring their ancient hegemony. Its emblem is the dragon's fang, symbolizing ruthlessness.

• The Mardu Horde. White-red-black. Loosely based on the medieval Mongols. Fearsome raiders ruling Tarkir's barren steppes. Its emblem is the dragon's wings, symbolizing speed.

• The Temur Frontier. Blue-green-red. Loosely based on indigenous Siberians. Rugged survivors of Tarkir's boreal forests and mountains. Its emblem is the dragon's claw, symbolizing endurance.

Each clan is led by a khan; we'll peer at a few of them later.

These color combinations are strange. The identities of Alara's shards consisted of one central color and its allies, the established norm for tricolor cards as far back as Legends. Tarkir's clans, on the other hand, are defined by a color and its two enemies. In form and function, however, the combinations' results add up to one primary color tinged with one of its allied colors and the mutual enemy of both. For instance, the Mardu Horde acts and looks mostly red; one of its secondary colors is red's usual buddy black, and both uneasily share the mana cost line with white.

The clans' insignias denote the mythical significance they ascribe to the image of the dragon. But there are no dragons in Tarkir. Their ancestors drove them into extinction some thirteen centuries ago.


In Fate Reforged, the block's second set, a time-travelling planeswalker finds himself at a critical juncture in Tarkir's history: the period when the dragon broods grew so numerous and powerful as to threaten the clans' survival. Not long afterward, the elemental storms from which they were born altogether ceased. Without means of propagation, the dragons fell victim to the clans' campaign of wholesale extermination.

 

Retreading thematic ground explored in Scars of Mirrodin, Fate Reforged introduces a second set of watermarks for the dragon broods. The dragons' emblems look awfully similar to the clans'; clearly the khans derived their insignia from those of their nemeses. The cards with clan watermarks greatly outnumber those with dragon watermarks here. Though the dragons clearly intend to topple them and establish dominion over the world's human[oid] peoples, the khans still rule Tarkir.

Fate Reforged does something sort of interesting with the color identities here of the clan bosses and dragon alphas. Unlike the ones we met in Khans of Tarkir, the new (old) khans have monocolor casting costs, and their secondary colors only come into play in their activated abilities. Each of the five dragon archfoes corresponding to a clan has a dual-color identity consisting of that clan's two allied colors—the enemy color gets shaved off.

 
 
 

(Notice how the flavor text on each card representing one of the dragon bosses is attributed to their rival khan. You can see the tinge of admiration that led these khans' descendants to make mascots of their mortal enemies after they ceased to be an existential threat.)

Dragons of Tarkir returns to the present day of an altered timeline. As the result of events in Fate Reforged, the dragons never went extinct. They vanquished the khans and now rule Tarkir as its absolute masters. The clans watermarks are gone. Now the only meaningful loyalties are to one of five dragonlords, aged versions of the brood leaders introduced in Fate Reforged.

There are no more tricolor card identities; only allied dual colors. In the nullified timeline, the Mardu Horde was red-black-white aligned. In the new timeline, the defeated Mardu fell under the proverbial thumb of the red-black elder dragon Kolaghan (not pictured). The incongruous white element that burdened the Mardu's black-red ethos with its compunctions is unknown to the Kolaghan clan. I can't but read the disjoining of the allied pairs from their enemy thirds as the game-mechanical connotation that Tarkir's natural order has been restored (but...at...what...cost??).

 
 

We're also reintroduced to the former timeline's khans. All of them are now totally monocolored, and most have been greatly diminished in stature.

 
 
 

I really appreciate Dragons of Tarkir's dramatic ambiguity. The block's time-travelling protagonist, Sarkhan Vol, is a dragon fanboy who's delighted with the new status quo; clearly we're meant to sympathize with him as he revels in his victory. The dragons are back and Tarkir has become the world it was always meant to be! Hooray! The dragons have assumed their rightful place as the eternal dictators of a brutally subjugated human[oid] populace! Uh...hooray?

WORST NEW PLANES

Or maybe I should say "not-so-best" new planes, since I can find something to like about each of them if I look hard enough. These all left me feeling cold, however, and the plane on the number one slot below was actually responsible for prompting me to cut the first volume of this little series short last year. I was that unimpressed.

Oddly enough, all of these sets were released from 2020–22, and comprise those year' annual "multicolor emphasis" products. Evidently Ravnica, Alara, and Tarkir exhausted the design department's good ideas. (Your opinion may differ, of course.)


3. ARCAVIOS

Strixhaven: School of Mages (April 2021)


 
 

Described in the source material, Arcavios is pretty neat. It was formed by the rare and evidently spontaneous merging of two separate planes, has a murky past antedating human[oid] life, and its "Vastlands" are riddled with strange magical monuments. We don't see much of that in this set, though. Instead it focuses on Arcavios' renowned wizard's academy, Strixhaven. 

If you've ever wanted more Harry Potter with your Magic: The Gathering, Strixhaven is happy to oblige. That's all I have to say about it. It's Hogwarts.

"But it's totally different," you protest."Strixhaven's colleges aren't at all like Hogwarts' houses! Students are sorted by their fields of study, not their personalities! It's totally different!"

Oh, don't give me that. You mean to tell me that "Sliverquill" and "Witherbloom" aren't intended to evoke "Slytherin" and "Ravenclaw?" Really?

The acceptance letter (above) is in the shape of an owl. I feel like that image is faintly reminiscent of a YA novel series, or maybe a film franchise. I could be mistaken, though.

Remind me how Strixhaven's plot runs? Oh, yes: an embittered former student of the wizards' school returns as a lethal megalomaniac and leads his secret society in a campaign of revenge against the institution, scheming to gain control of an ancient power locked up beneath the campus. He's foiled by gifted newcomers in whom some of the school's leading figures have taken a special interest. No, you're right, that doesn't sound like Harry Potter at all. 

Eesh.


2. IKORIA

Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths (April 2020)

 
 

I'd guess that Ikoria is mostly remembered for introducing the "companion" mechanic, which was so broken that its rules were overhauled not even two months after its release. See the reminder text on Keruga, The Macrosage (above)? Companion officially no longer works as described.

"Monster world" was a conceit Magic hadn't built an expansion set around before, so Ikoria gets points for originality—but can't take it seriously. At all. Phelddagrif was a cute one-off in Alliances, but Ikoria is an entire plane of the damn things. Bird Goat, Cat Ape, Beast Elemental Dinosaur, and Nightmare Pangolin are just a few of Ikoria's creature types, and I just can't. I'm looking through the Scryfall index and not enjoying myself. It's all too silly.

Also, look at Shark Typhoon (above). Just look at it. I feel like some unmarked but critical line was crossed when Magic's designers thought it would fun and smart to make a card based on the Sharknado movies, and there can be no going back.


1. CAPENNA

Streets of New Capenna (April 2022)

 
 

To the pathological follower of Magic lore, Capenna is supposed to be a big deal. We've known for a while that the planeswalker Elspeth Tirel was raised in captivity on a plane with a Phyrexian presence that managed to hold itself together for a couple of centuries after Yawgmoth and the motherland were destroyed. "What plane was it?" people asked. "What happened after Elspeth left? Are there still any Phyrexians left on it? Will we ever see it?"

Streets of New Capenna followed Elspeth back to her homeworld at last, and I'd wager that nobody expected it to be the Roaring Twenties Art Deco Gangland Cartoon Planet. (Elspeth seemed pretty surprised herself.) 

I like Magic best when it gives itself only sparing permission to be quirky, and Streets of New Capenna is so quirky as to resemble one of the latter-day Un- sets at little too often, especially with all the anthropomorphic animals running around. Capenna carries a lot of weight in the Magic mythos, and it's hard to square its importance with one of its central characters' being a big fat alleycat demon with a disproportionately small head leading a mob whose appellation is "cabaret" with an extra syllable.

Magic's been running for so long that it can't help repeating itself, it's true. Streets of New Capenna can't be too harshly criticized for reusing old ideas, but the fact is that it makes the sets it takes after look so much better in comparison. A bustling metropolis run by self-serving consortiums vying for power and influence? Ravnica still does it best. Taking Magic out of its usual swordsmen & sorcerers mileu and planting it in a more contemporary setting? Neon Dynasty did that just a few months before New Capenna's release, and much more gracefully. A plot where all the rival factions contend over a limited but essential resource? Well, Esper had the magical metal called Etherium, and Capenna has Halo—shimmering juice squeezed from the remaining essence of the plane's angels, awkwardly functioning as the analogue to bootleg hooch in Prohibition-era mob stories.

It's one thing for Magic to do an Eldraine or Innistrad where particular archetypes from fairy tales and horror stories are adapted into the proprietary lore and mechanics. Streets of New Capenna rather seems like it's chasing after the amorphous, hackneyed simulacra of gangland, speakeasies, and flappers, and isn't interested in doing any more work than what it takes pull off a convincing caricature. It seizes on the most obvious tropes, makes a shallow cartoon out of them, and trusts the result will comport with the Very Serious overarching story in which it's meant to be a chapter. It makes Magic: The Gathering feel like Kingdom Hearts, and that isn't a compliment.


WORST RETURN PLANES

Let's go in reverse order this time, and get the boring ones out of the way before looking at the fun ones. Maybe it would be better to say "dullest" instead of "worst?" Or "returns to planes?" Whatever.


3. INNISTRAD

Innistrad: Midnight Hunt (September 2021)

 
  

Every item on this list is a testament to the trap that lurks behind every greenlight for a sequel. If a beloved culture product made a stir for being fresh and exciting, reducing it to a formula and engineering a new iteration in the likeness of the first almost certainly won't yield the same results as the original.

When the Magic brain trust decided to pay a third visit to Innistrad in 2021, the team apparently drew four words on the whiteboard: 

HALLOWEEN : WEREWOLVES

WEDDING : VAMPIRES

And that was that. And then they got straight to work drafting a lore bible and concept art for the "double feature" of Innistrad: Midnight Hunt and Innistrad: Crimson Vows.

Midnight Hunt is decidedly the duller of the two. Crimson Vows' desultory matrimonial motif and fleshing out of the vampire families keeps it above the waterline, and I might be saying so only to spare myself from having to sift through card images and punch out a paragraph or two about it.

In Midnight Hunt, it becomes clear that Emrakul's making the moon into a vacation bungalow has had the unfortunate side effect of screwing up Innistrad's diurnal cycle. The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting longer, and soon the plane will be smothered in perpetual darkness. This is very bad news if you're a human, and very good news if you're a werewolf or vampire.

The church, still reeling from losing its angelic figurehead after she went berserk and murdered her worshippers, can't come up with any practicable solutions. Instead the people seek relief in the old pagan pre-Avacyn rituals of their ancestors. A provincial coven plans to hold a harvest festival at the ancient ruins of the Celestus (think Stonehenge if it were also an armillary sphere), where witches who never abandoned the old ways will perform a rite to bring the sun back out. The werewolves aren't happy about this and gather to crash the party.

It's inoffensive, and I guess it makes sense to build an Innistrad scenario around the plane's native version of Samhain—but for the first time, Innistrad seems a mite stiff. For all its new developments, it adheres to a calcified formula. It's clearly not having as much fun as before. Looking it over again, I think the art department deserves a large share of the blame. Though there are some exceptional pieces, Midnight Hunt's house style drifts towards maximum "generic fantasy." I can't articulate the difference between the "horror world" vibe and "indistinct WRPG setting with some horror elements" vibe, but I see it when I compare the artwork of Midnight Hunt and Crimson Vows to the first two Innistrad blocks.

We can also deduct points from Midnight Hunt for not really leaning into either its Werewolf or its Halloween themes hard enough to palpably distinguish it from the original Innistrad, and for introducing a day/night mechanic that's functionally irrelevant to all the werewolves and nocturnal horrors from the first two Innistrad blocks.


2. ZENDIKAR

Zendikar Rising (September 2020)

 
 

Hey, everybody! Zendikar's back! And it's the pre-Eldrazi Zendikar everyone fell in love with a decade ago! Expedition parties! Dangerous ancient ruins! Hazardous jungles! Now with "party" mechanics in lieu of "ally" creature types! Grab your climbing gear and machete and head into the wild to hunt for lost treasures in mysterious ruins!!! LET'S GOOOOO

Wizards hoped that would stoke enthusiasm. Public-facing members of the design team emphasized that they'd heard the complaints about 2015's Battle for Zendikar and wanted put out a set that was more like the original Zendikar expansion, which had been a fan-favorite (if sales numbers were anything to go by).

With the Eldrazi out of the picture, Zendikar, wasted no time getting back to business as before. We're back to where we started, but the place doesn't have quite the verve or excitement of the first visit. If the Zendikar and Battle for Zendikar blocks were an anime television serial, then Zendikar Rising is like the OAV that comes out a few years later and tells an inessential little episode taking place after the dust has already settled. This is Zendikar: Endless Waltz. (Give me a break. I know my anime references are grievously outdated. Would you have preferred Zendikar: Cooler's Revenge?)

The background story has to do with a squabble between two planeswalker natives. Even though the Eldrazi are gone, the Roil continues to unpredictably warp the world's geography at regular intervals and prevent any sustained advance of civilization. Nahiri, the volatile kor lithomancer, wants to use an ancient magical gewgaw to to permanently settle the Roil, though it'll probably cause far-reaching ecological devastation. Nissa, the elfin flowerchild geomancer, doesn't like Nahiri's plan. They fight. Nissa comes out ahead and destroys Nahiri's plot device before it can be used. The end.

Aside from Nahiri adding more names to her shit list, the state of affairs at the end of the story is pretty much identical to how things would have progressed if Nahiri never found her gizmo. We guess maybe(?) the Roil is still a thing, but now the "scars" left by the rampaging Eldrazi are healing? I dunno. It's not really clear.

Zendikar Rising was a bit of a snoozefest. It's probably a bad sign that the most evocative card in terms of the lore was the single reference to the Eldrazi and their death cult in Forsaken Monument (above).

On a lark, I looked up the art director and my suspicions were confirmed: same dude in charge of the illustrations for Midnight Hunt. It made sense for Zendikar to have a bleached palette when the lifeforce-draining Eldrazi were running amok, but there's no excuse for the uncharted wilderness adventure version of the plane to look so washed-out.


1. THEROS

Theros: Beyond Death (January 2020)

 
 

I wanted to love the original Theros block. I really did.

The plane's debut suffered from several problems. It's too close to the source material, for one: rather than taking inspiration from Greek myth, it's built up as homotopic map of Greek myth. You'd buy some booster packs and sift through your cards, going "oh, this is supposed to be Hades, here's Diana, there's a Hecatoncheir, there's King Midas and the Lernaean Hydra," and so on. The conceit of a divine pantheon whose existence is actualized through the belief of sapient worshipers was pilfered from Neil Gaiman's Sandman and American Gods. The unfurling plot is yet another iteration of the "here's a new world, now things are getting chaotic around here, and now they're even more chaotic," scenario that the three-set release model could never grow out of—and at a glance, every chapter looks sort of the same. It didn't help that the cards as game cards are, on the whole, low on the power scale and kind of boring. 

(In spite of all this, I'm still impressed by the ingenuity of its "god" creature mechanics. The members of its not-Olympian pantheon are all indestructible enchantments that become indestructible creatures as long as you have enough cards sharing their color(s) on the board, proving your devotion to them. This is clever!)

I wasn't disappointed to learn that a return to Theros was in the cards (pun intended), since the conclusion of the first block demanded a sequel. To recap: the Zeus proxy enlisted the help of the planeswalker Elspeth in putting down a rogue god who was never supposed to be a god in the first place. After she fulfilled her task, he smote her. Having a legendary hero who's killed an actual god running around in the moral realm is bad for business when people thinking that you're the awesomest literally gives you life.

But dying in an off-brand Classical myth world meant that Elspeth wasn't altogether eradicated, but consigned to not-Hades. In Theros: Beyond Death, she busts out.

And some other stuff happens too. You can read all about it in the plot summary.

That synopsis constitutes the official Theros: Beyond Death story in its entirety. In the months before the set's release, the reception of the War of the Spark novel(s) gave Wizards such a headache that it decided to dial things back and reorganize its storytelling operation. As a result, Elspeth's triumphant return to the world of the living and attendant happenings is vaguely outlined in the cards and synopsized Wizards' website.

On that basis, I pretty much have to put Theros: Beyond Death at the bottom of the stack here.* Otherwise, we could just say that it's no more dull nor offensive than Zendikar Rising or Midnight Hunt. The original Theros struggled with being a trifle too rote in its imitation of Greek myth, and the sequel is beleaguered by its inability to get past being a conscientious imitation of an imitation.

* To be fair, Avacyn Restored also got nothing more than a plot summary; that was around the time when Wizards seemed to be waffling on the question of planeswalker novels and webcomics. But Innistrad minus the supplemental materials was much more coherent and fun than any Theros release minus its supplemental materials.


BEST RETURN PLANES

Confession time: the reason I'm making a point of posting this when I am is to prevent the upcoming release of Phyrexia: All Will Be One from compelling me to write about it or figure out where it might belong on the present list.


3. KAMIGAWA

Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty (January 2022)

This was never supposed to happen. The original Kamigawa block of 2004–5 had its loyal fans, but coming out just after the gangbusters Mirrodin block and right before the brilliant Ravnica block, and being underpowered compared to both, it was doomed to fall into memory as the ugly duckling of the planeshopping era. Wizards of the Coast doesn't like to repeat its mistakes, and for years a return to the Feudal-Japan-but-don't-call-it-Japan plane seemed as unlikely as a set that revisited Ulgrotha, Mercadia, or any of the Magic's multiverse's other backwaters.

But the plane's original premise contained the conceptual germ of its rebirth. It's a Japan plane; okay, we knew that. But one of the more obscure facts of the original Kamigawa block is that it took place centuries in the past. Its hero, Toshiro Umezawa, was the ancestor of Tetsuo Umezawa, one of the original legendary creatures of the Legends block. (How did Toshiro end up on Dominaria? A wizard kami did it.) That meant that Kamigawa was still floating around out there in the multiverse, and over a thousand years had passed since the Kami War. If not the ronin, oni, and monks of popular folklore, what other set of pop tropes is bound up in the Japanese aesthetic?

Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty is a cyberpunk Magic: The Gathering expansion. I'm still surprised it works as well as it does.

 
 

Neon Dynasty exhibits the top-down design savvy sorely lacking in Streets of New Capenna. In each case, the creative team had a well of stereotypes and tropes from which it was obliged to draw, and Neon Dynasty was consistently smarter in how it used them. Here we have two Magic expansion sets of about 500 cards each, one which could be the series bible for a middling show on Cartoon Network, while the other could be (and for all I know already is) the template for a tabletop RPG. Neon Dynasty's world was developed with the aim of seeming lived-in. It's true that Neo Kamigawa has the advantage of an established history over Capenna, but that history is so distant as to bear little resemblance to Kamigawa in its modern form. (This isn't a nostalgia set.)

Neon Dynasty's mythos owes much of its depth to the several layers of tension built into its premise. We see conflicts between traditional spiritualism and tech enthusiasm, imperial rule and gadgeteering libertarianism, and between nature and urbanism. Each pretty obviously follows from the "cyberpunk Japan" template, but the creative team went the extra mile by integrating all three into Neon Dynasty and drawing points of contact between them, instead of just choosing to focus on one and calling it day.

The set's mechanics aptly reflect a society straining towards the future in spite of the old ways' persistence. The new "Modified" keyword adds an additional layer of mechanical relevance to creatures with equipment attached, aura enchantments, or counters on them, and artifact creatures with the "Reconfigure" ability can turn into pieces of equipment and then switch back into creature mode—both mechanics are as faithful translations of the cyberpunk ethos into Magic rules as we were ever likely to see. On the side of tradition, the "Ninjutsu" ability and "Channel" mechanic from the original Kamigawa block are back, and cards that make the creature types "Samurai" and "Warrior" relevant again are found in abundance. All very nice touches. 

The dual-faced Saga cards deserve especial attention here. The front side is an enchantment representing an episode in Kamigawa's past or a trend or historical current of its present, while the reverse side is an enchantment-creature the Saga turns into on its third "chapter." The front side depicts a piece of modern or traditional art, while the reverse side zooms in a particular feature of it, showing it change as though it were in motion—visually and mechanically, the image comes to life. (Not exactly a remote possibility in a world still lousy with animistic spirits.) Excellent worldbuilding.

 
 
  


2. INNISTRAD

Shadows Over Innistrad (April 2016), Eldritch Moon (July 2016)

What was that we said earlier about Innistrad catching a break in Avacyn Restored? Probably "temporary reprieve" would have been more apt.

 
 

When we left Innistrad, Avacyn had returned to put things back in order. In Shadows Over Innistrad, she's lost her mind and leads her angels on a campaign of righteous judgement against the people she was created to protect. The werewolves who'd been released from their curse once again go berserk under the full moon. Mysterious stone "cryptoliths" appear in lonely places, distorting the plane's mana channels. A new and bizarre cult, apparently unrelated to Innistrad's usual demon-worshippers, conducts secret rituals on the seacoast. What's going on here? What's this building up to?

The dual-faced cards with day/night versions return after being shelved in Avacyn Restored, denoting the plane's backslide into darkness. The "madness" attribute returns (it has to do with playing a card for a reduced cost if you'd be made to discard it instead), and is joined by "delirium" (buffs spells if you have four or more card types in the graveyard), reflecting the insanity that has gripped Avacyn, her angels, and the cultists.

More pertinent to the theme and lore are the "Investigate" mechanic and Clue tokens. Some cards prompt the player to investigate, which gives them a Clue artifact token. A clue can be sacrificed for the cost of two colorless mana to get its owner a card. Convenient!

 
 

There's something else going on with the Clue tokens, though. When Shadows Over Innistrad came out, I felt as though I was being punked. A lot of the set's flavor text—particularly the bits on the Clue tokens—prompts the collector to ponder this or that facet of the mystery, as though he or she might be capable of solving it before the next set revealed the solution. I figured it was impossible; we simply didn't have enough information. In a few months we'd be able to say "Aha! The signs were all there!", but it would have only amounted to one inconclusive speculation among dozens being arbitrarily validated.

I was wrong. The evidence is there, concealed in a place where only a multinational community of Magic: The Gathering obsessives would ever think to examine. I won't bother summarizing it when the MTG Wiki has already done so. My hat's off to the creative team, though: this was really cool, and I wish I'd been on been on the Magic subreddit when its sleuths were figuring it out.

Actually, the biggest clue was staring us in the face from the beginning. "Shadows Over Innistrad." Kind of resembles the title of that HP Lovecraft story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," don't it?

The next set's title references Howard Phillips perhaps even more blatantly by employing one of his signature adjectives. Eldritch Moon is where the tentacles hit the fan.

  
 

Only a short leap separates Victorian gothic horror from Lovecraftian cosmic horror, and taking it allows the Innistrad sequel to do something totally new while staying true to the spirit of the original. The Eldrazi always had the veneer of Lovecraftian monsters, but Zendikar was never a Lovecraftian setting. In that milieu, they had to be treated as kaiju in an action movie. Bringing one of them to a gothic horror environment wasn't just the perfect premise for an Innistrad sequel, but for the second half of the Eldrazi saga. It's sort of like the progression from Ripley Scott's Alien (sci-fi horror) to James Cameron's Aliens (sci-fi action) in reverse.

(Postscript: I just noticed that Grapple with the Past (above) is a sequel to Make a Wish from the original Innistrad. Same artist, too. Neat!)

In addition to a couple of new mechanics—"Escalate" is usually associated with the "good guys desperately fighting back" cards, while "Emerge" lets you sacrifice a creature to bring out a big Eldrazi monster, as though the cosmic horror hatched from a host body—Eldritch Moon introduces a cosmetic variation of the dual-faced cards. Instead of "day" and "night" versions, there's a "moon" and "Emrakul" version. At this stage, there's no respite of dawn. Things only go from "dark" to "tekeli-li!"

Some dual-face cards receive a functional addition with the new "Meld" mechanic. If you turn one of these cards over, you have half of a composite card. If you've got both halves on the board, meld lets you flip them both over and combine them. Eldritch Moon only contains three pairs of cards with the ability; I'm not sure how viable any of them might have been in Standard, and I've never faced down a melded creature in Commander, so it's possible the mechanic is more of a neat gimmick than anything else. But what a gimmick! 

 



1. DOMINARIA

Dominaria (April 2018), The Brothers' War (November 2022)

I'm cheating with this one. Originally I'd planned to just give it to Brothers' War, but I can't ignore Dominaria. I was still playing on and off when it came out, and damn if it wasn't a thrill to get an expansion revisiting Magic's original setting for the first time since the Time Spiral block of 2006–7.

 
 

(Above: Llanowar Elves and Serra Angel both appeared in the original core set; the flavor text of Shivan Fire alludes to the flavor text of Shivan Dragon's first printing, and Meandering River is Calciform Pools, half a century later.)

I said in the Time Spiral writeup that Dominaria is Time Spiral, dumbed down. I stand by that. Time Spiral is to Dominaria what Who Framed Roger Rabbit is to Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers.

It's not a perfect analogy, since Dominaria is pretty good, while watching Rescue Rangers made me wish Stanislav Petrov had said "fuck it, prepare to launch" back in 1983. What I mean is that Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a celebration of the Golden Age of Animation that strove to capture the verve of the era's theatrical shorts in a period-appropriate detective noir story, while Rescue Rangers' used its source material merely as a source of callbacks and namedrops. It didn't deconstruct the cartoons it riffed on so much as remind audiences that they were, in fact, A Thing.

Similarly, Dominaria cites old-school Magic more than it evokes it. Time Spiral was a phantasmagoria of free-floating references to the game of Magic: The Gathering, whereas Dominaria is a more grounded "here's how things look sixty years after Time Spiral" jaunt emphasizing the lore associated with the setting. Not that it's poorly conceived or executed, and not that old men like me who played Magic in the 1990s didn't eat it right up—but as a nostalgia set, it doesn't clear bar set by Time Spiral. Given the height of that bar, we probably shouldn't judge Dominaria too harshly in this regard.

Taking "history" as its overarching theme, Dominaria gives itself license to print a slew of "Remember When This Happened?" cards, which achieve their purest expression in its new "saga" enchantment subtype and unique "legendary sorcery" cards. Sagas depict episodes in Dominaria's past (all of which the lore fiend will recognize), and approximate them as a sequence of automatic turn-based effects. Legendary sorceries, on the other hand, recall pivotal moments in the Dominaria mythos. (Sagas stuck around and reliably appear in new sets; legendary sorceries did not.)
 
 
 
 

Dominaria also has an unusual abundance of legendary creature cards, and breaks with convention by printing them at uncommon in addition to rare and mythic rare. Most of them are either direct or indirect references to characters from the pre-planeshopping era. Some of these are fairly deep cuts—like a levelled-up Ninth Edition Hypnotic Specter (Urgoros, The Empty One), a new dragon in the Bladewing line (Verix Bladewing), a descendent of some Benthic Explorers who evidently stuck around Yavimaya after the events of Alliances (Tatyova, Benthic Druid), and so on. Then there's the soft reboot of Gerrard and Friends: the Weatherlight gets rebuilt, and its new crew includes direct descendants of Gerrard and Sisay, a new vampire knight, a new girl-next-door engineer, etc. Very by-the-numbers. Very typical for the modern epoch of mass entertainment franchises.

We ought to at least mention the set's main antagonist, the demon Belzenlok. What he's after is a bit more eccentric than gathering a fanatical death cult, rallying an army of darkness, and conquering the world—though these are certainly pillars of his agenda. Keeping with Dominaria's theme, Belzenlok intends to pervert history, rewriting it such that he himself is the world's eternal and sole archvillain. (See Cabal Evangel, above.) Given Dominaria's release date, the contemporary chatter about an epistemological crisis, and the web fiction's characterization of Belzenlok as a deluded, egotistical buffoon, I'm half-certain he was developed as a winged, horned Donald Trump, and his self-aggrandizing "alternative facts" a reference to the post-truth era and its discontents. Since Belzenlok is the least interesting part of Dominaria, I'm gonna say the satire (if satire it's supposed to be) falls flat.

Now then—on to the Brothers' War. (I'm aware I'm neglecting last September's Dominaria United. It was a fine set, but can be adequately summed up as "Invasion 2: Phyrexian Bugaboo"—and this thing already has an unreasonable word count.)

 

I'll admit I was skeptical when Wizards announced a Brother's War set. The worst case scenario, I imagined, would have a bunch of planeswalkers traveling into the past, intervening in history, and either changing the timeline (screwing up decades of continuity) or turning out to have been there all along, nudging events at critical junctures and saving the world, unbeknownst to the historians. Even if it didn't pull any Star Trek: First Contact nonsense, it would almost certainly turn Antiquities into some kind of Gundam mech war crap, introduce a slew of quirky Chanda-esque figures who'd be hailed as the war's unsung heroes, and make the nature of the conflict more intelligible for the sake of the Harry Potter and Marvel movie crowd, simplifying it from a tragic moral gray zone to a conventional "good against evil" affair. The saga of Urza and Mishra is leagues removed from Magic's contemporary storytelling ethos, and fans like it that way. How could anyone trust the outfit that had just turned out Streets of New Capenna not to mishandle Magic's very ur-myth?

I am pleased to say my doubts were misplaced.

 
 
 

Let's have a quick recap.

Magic's second expansion set, Antiquities, was released in 1994. Its backstory adumbrated the events of a cataclysmic high-tech feud between the siblings Urza and Mishra, retold through an examination of historical artifacts. The belligerents' personalities, deeds, and motivations are viewed as as through the impenetrable shroud of history.

From 1995–6, Wizards of the Coast collaborated with Armada Comics to released several one-shot issues and limited series based on the meteorically popular Magic brand, two of which were the six issues comprising the Antiquities War and Urza-Mishra War comic books. To the best of my knowledge, no Wizards employees were directly involved in their production. The comics depicted the brothers' early lives and the escalation of hostilities between their factions, but tapered off long before they approached the war's climax.

By 1998, Wizards had for the most part ended its partnerships with third-party publishers (give or take a four-issue Dark Horse series about Gerrard) and began developing novels in-house. The first of these was The Brothers' War, written by Jeff Grubb, which adopted much of the Armada comics' plot, though it told the story in more detail, retconned certain events, and followed the brothers' story to its conclusion. (I've read several chapters; it ain't Faulkner, but it's a perfectly serviceable plot-driven page-turner. In the estimable opinion of Multiverse in Review, it's far and away the best Magic novel: "It wants to be nothing less than a meditation on the futility of war, the inexorable march of history and the difficulty of assigning blame for something as complex as war.")

In short: The Brother's War is a Magic: The Gathering expansion set based on a Magic: The Gathering novel based on a Magic: The Gathering comic book based on a Magic: The Gathering expansion set. What a pedigree.

But this gives The Brother's War an architectural advantage that virtually every other Magic expansion has lacked, or otherwise not taken full advantage of. Usually the design team has to fly by the seat of its pants. A division of however many creative workers has only so much time to figure out where a given expansion set's going to take place, which characters are going to be involved, and where the plot is going to run. This might entail dreaming up a whole new setting, devising its history, outlining its society and lines of conflict, drafting new characters, figuring out what motivates them, what they do, etc. Depending on how the company is organized at a given time, the creative team might send plot notes to a writer or writers hired to compose a novel or novels, or a series of short stories, developed in tandem with some hundreds of game cards, which still have to be designed, playtested, retooled, etc., not to mention given names and illustrated.

Magic's stories are often messy. The text or illustrations on the cards routinely contradict the text of a publication. It's often the case that the people writing the official stories and the people crafting the lore and presenting it the cards are working separately, and there's only so many resources to allot towards coordinating their efforts and addressing discrepancies. The clockwork release schedule puts a strict time limit on polishing any new release, and since Magic is principally a game, the intricacies of a set's story can't be the top priority.

But the decades-long story of The Brothers' War came readymade as 400-page novel by Jeff Grubb, and the set's designers were at liberty to read it, circle passages, and show up to meetings and say "this would make a cool card." The result is much more detailed and comprehensive retelling of Urza and Mishra's story than I ever hoped to expect. Forty of its 267 non-basic cards (excluding basic land cards, I mean) are marked as Story Spotlights, and the designation seems rather arbitrary when the entire set is a Story Spotlight, using the "language" of game cards to re-mythologize the events set down in Grubb's novel.

   

Urza's long suffering spouse Kayla and ill-fated son Harbin, Mishra's steadfast attendant Hajar, the power couple Drafna and Hurkyl, the brothers' mentor Tocasia—all of them are represented as legendary creatures for the first time. Twenty-eight years after the name "Ashnod" first appeared on a Magic card, The Brothers' War finally gives us Mishra's angry girl sidekick as a legendary creature, and thankfully retcons her unfortunate (and previously her only) visualization in an old Vanguard card.  I can't decide if this a bigger or lesser deal than the OG Phyrexian Praetor Gix portalling onto the table in the horrible flesh at long last. 

(Notice the subtlety in Gix's rules text: in most cases you'd expect it to say "whenever one of your creatures hits an opponent, you can pay 1 life to draw a card." Instead, it's "whenever any creature hits any of your opponents, etc." In effect, Gix incentivizes your rivals to have it out among themselves during multiplayer games. Absolutely on brand for a demon who spent most of the war in the shadows, playing both sides against each other.)

The titular brothers themselves get eight legendary creature cards in total, epitomizing different "versions" of the siblings. Urza and Mishra each have a "boyhood" card, a "maturity" card, a "last battle" card, and a "This Is My Final Form!!" card.

If you've been paying attention, you noticed scrolled past the brothers' "boyhood" and "maturity" incarnations. For their other two versions, The Brothers' War brings back the "meld" mechanic from Eldritch Moon. Each brother's "last battle" iteration can meld with a certain artifact to attain his Final Form.

 


  

It has long been a truism among Magic fans that Wizards could never print an Urza planeswalker card (the time his severed head appeared in a joke set doesn't count) because no single card could adequately represent him. It turns out we were right: the central character of Magic's ur-mythos cuts such a towering figure that he needs two cards (and a built-in means of regulating his appropriately busted power level) to do him justice.


1 comment:

  1. I've only ever been a very casual Magic player who doesn't even own a full playable deck worth of cards, but this article series has been thoroughly fascinating and I'm glad to see it continue. Terrific write-up as always.

    An observation: While reading about the 2016 Innistrad sets, I kept wondering if you were going to mention the numerous narrative and artistic similarities to Bloodborne. I figured maybe the references were so blatant that this was something MTG players simply opt not to talk about. But a little Googling reveals there's apparently some debate about which source copied which due to the game and card sets both being in development around the same time. It's possible some of the shared imagery is purely a coincidence. I refuse to believe nobody from either WotC or From so much as glanced at the other's quiz answers, though. Just look at the art for It Rides As One and compare that to Ludwig from Bloodborne's Old Hunters expansion.

    Less mysterious, I think, is the Kamigawa set releasing just over a year after Cyberpunk 2077 (another culturally significant big-budget video game with a highly unique aesthetic that just happens to fit with a classic MTG plane fans weren't expecting to see revisited). I think it can be justly stated that Magic's lore writers do some of their best work when they have a little outside inspiration to get them started.

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