Friday, January 20, 2023

Magic: The Gathering: The Worldbuilding: The Writeup (10 of 8)

I haven't played Magic against a human player in a long time. In the last year, the most I've done is dick around in Cockatrice—building decks, downloading others, and playing them solitaire, pitting my builds against the crowd's. Even this got to be more of a time sink than I'm comfortable with, so I had to uninstall Cockatrice.

Sad, isn't it? Like going on methadone to kick heroin, and then getting addicted to the methadone. When people call Magic "cardboard crack," they're only half-joking.

Magic is nigh-impossible to escape once it's stamped onto your brain. That's why I still keep up with new releases and follow the story. It's also why I've chose this particular interval to wrap up this little series I started last year. I was planning on going a little farther after covering the Scars of Mirrodin block, but then the Streets of New Capenna spoilers and story came out and Magic suddenly seemed so, so stupid. I was happy to put it aside and think about something else.

Then Dominaria United came out. Then came the Brother's War (along with the most solid round of web fiction to ever accompany a new set). Now the game's about to return to New Phyrexia in Phyrexia: All Will Be One. Revealing spoilers were being leaked as early as December. The mind parasites stirred, their appetites stoked. I've felt powerfully compelled to engage with the game again, and writing about it from a safe distance is the most constructive (and inexpensive) way I can satisfy the urge.

So much for my confessional, and forgive me for repeating myself (since I'm sure I've already said all of this before). Let's talk more about Magic's idiosyncratic lore and the collectible game product from which it emanates.


In the last post, I suggested that Magic's continuously manufactured mythos entered into a groove over the last ten years or so, and that the lore and worldbuilding of the post-planeshopping era can be distinguished from the experimental 1990s and explorative 2000s by three prevailing themes. Let's begin taking a gander at them. 

1. So Much God Damned Product

Let's begin by addressing the elephant in the room. Visit any online venue for Magic discussion, and you won't have to spend much time poking around before you see a long thread of complaints and debate about the relentless march of new releases, many of which are controversial in and of themselves.

I'm personally most offended by the Universes Beyond line and certain Secret Lair box sets, which translate exogenous IPs into Magic product. There was a time, not too long ago, when fanboys with free time might open up a card editor or Photoshop, make a legendary creature card of some character from, say, The Walking Dead, Stranger Things, Street Fighter, or Final Fantasy, and share it with his dork friends on a message board. (I'm not going to link to them, but I've posted 8 Easy Bits and Moby Dick-themed cards on this thing before. Still not proud of it.)

Now Wizards of the Coast is doing it for real. It's already possible to sit across the table from someone who taps some number of lands and drops NeganEleven, or Chun-Li, and Sephiroth isn't far behind. The only difference between some random nerd who posted his homemade Simpsons or Dragon Ball Z cards on the old MTG Salvation Forum and Wizards of the Coast is that Wizards actually intends to sell this stuff to people.

It feels strange to hear myself complaining about the dilution of a brand identity, but I'm [unreasonably] sentimental about that identity, damn it.

Also—the less said here about the appallingly cynical 30th Anniversary Edition, the better. It was the first time a Magic: The Gathering release truly deserved to be called "disgusting." Not even the Post Malone or Fortnight-themed Secret Lair drops qualify, however gross those are.

And as long as I have your attention, let me also tell you how much I hate the special anime alts (forty-six in total) in Jumpstart 2022.


Naturally, these are reliably selling for for several times more than the vanilla versions on the secondary market. As of this writing, the original Commander 2017 printing of Balan is valued at about five bucks. The anime catgirl version goes for thirty.

I'm not mad. Just disappointed. 

Anyway—what were you expecting? Wizards' parent company Hasbro and the shareholders want to increase annual Magic: The Gathering sales, forever. How else can that be done but by cranking out more cards on a yearly basis, forever?

To look at this more concretely, let's visit Scryfall and count how many indices are dated 1997.

I see eleven. This is going to be a rather unscientific measure throughout, since stuff like Vanguard, tournament-illegal reproductions of championship-winning decks, and one-card promo releases all count towards the total. But still—eleven.

Now let's look at 2007. I count twenty-two. Again, there's a lot of promos, tokens, and other nonsense in here, but that's still a substantial increase.

2017? I count forty-eight releases. More promos, more tokens, and more nonsense skew the total, but even so, that's a lot of product.

In addition to the core sets, and the perpetual march of expansion sets designed for Standard play, and the à la carte box sets aimed at collectors, there are novel product lines targeted at specific types of players. Some of these are "open up and start playing" products for newbies, like the now-defunct Duel Decks and the more recent Challenger Decks and Jumpstart sets. Others have to do with special play formats (like Conspiracy and the annual Commander sets), or non-rotating Constructed formats (namely Modern).

None of these carry forward Magic's ongoing narrative, but they're not altogether irrelevant to the mythos. For instance: Conspiracy: Take the Crown was developed for a special multiplayer draft format, was full of unaltered reprints, and entered into the overall lore as a picayune side story—but it also introduced the planeswalker Kaya, who soon became a major player in the ongoing saga delivered by the expansion sets.

She's an exception, though. It's more often the case that these releases look backwards rather than forwards. It's not unusual for cards to be reprinted with new illustrations and flavor text—like, for instance, when Through the Breach from Champions of Kamigawa was reprinted in Ultimate Masters with artwork depicting a previously unseen event from Eldritch Moon, or when the Orzhov-watermarked spell Mortify from Guildpact was reattributed to Sorin Markov in Duel Decks: Sorin vs. Tibalt.

When these "ancillary" releases include new cards, it's increasingly common that they introduce new characters from old settings (like how Breya from Commander 2016 gives us an Esperite from post-Conflux Alara), present new versions of old favorites (Sisay from the Weatherlight Saga gets an all-new, all-different card in Modern Horizons), or to give significant figures from the Armada comics and the early in-house novels (like Geyadrone and Kerrick for instance) playable incarnations as legendary creatures. Some more examples:


Above, top row: Ajani's Last Stand from Magic 2019 depicts a critical scene from Alara's conflux. Teferi's Protection from Double Masters 2022 shows the eponymous planeswalker making the biggest mistake of his life during the Phyrexian invasion of Dominaria. (Notice how Teferi's Protection and Zhalfrin Void were both illustrated by the same artist. Continuity!)  Until these cards were printed, both events were described in the novels, but never represented in the game cards.

Middle row: an artifact belonging to Mirrodin's vedalken is recontextualized as an invention of sinister order muppet Dovin Baan in Double Masters 2022, and a Phyrexian contemplates a prized Mirran relic in Double Masters.

On the bottom: the alpha and the omega of Magic's biggest big bad, from Modern Horizons (left) and Dominaria Remastered (right). The left card envisions Yawgmoth as he appeared in the Fall of the Thran novel; the right pictures him at the crescendo of the Apocalypse novel. 

I want to dwell on Yawgmoth here for a sec. Even though Wizards probably won't ever print a "Legendary Creature—Phyrexian God" version of Yawgmoth, it's still shocking to see him at all. When he was still active in the mythos' present, the closest we got to a depiction of him was in the background of Last Stand.

As of 2018, depictions of Yawgmoth in card illustrations are evidently no longer haram. We see a teeny-tiny picture of him in Yawgmoth's Vile Offering, and slightly clearer one in the Commander Collection: Black reprint of Toxic Deluge. (I was as astonished to see these official visualization of Yawgmoth as to discover the quasi-canonization of the illustration printed in InQuest magazine back in 2001.) The new Legacy Weapon artwork in Dominaria Remastered is just flagrant. Like if an episode of Inspector Gadget blew half its animation budget on a detailed action scene with Dr. Claw fully in view.

At any rate: this wasn't the first time the Legacy Weapon was reprinted.


Above, on the left, is how the card originally appeared in Apocalypse. On the right is the Tenth Edition reprint from 2007.

What's happening in the Apocalypse version? It's hard to say. I've two guesses as to why that is.

One: Wizards had a novel to sell, and didn't want to give away the climax. Anyone who'd been paying attention to the Weatherlight Saga could have guessed that the Legacy was going to come into play one way or another, but for the sake of selling the set's ancillary product, the specifics were deliberately left vague in the cards.

Two: Perhaps the artist didn't have a clear idea of what was supposed to be happening. Perhaps the art director wasn't sure either. It's possible the set's designers and the author of the novel both worked with a set of plot beats arranged as bullet points, one of which was "the good guys use the artifacts of the Legacy to destroy Yawgmoth and save Dominaria." The cards couldn't contradict the novel, and the art department wasn't sure what would be in the novel, so we get a picture of the Weatherlight under crepuscular moon rays.

The Tenth Edition art is at least more specific as to what the Legacy Weapon is supposed to be. There they are, all the artifacts Sisay and Gerrard were fussing over, including the last pieces of the puzzle: the Mightstone and Weakstone, inside Urza's still-living severed head. Accurate—but a bit drab. Like a museum exhibit.

It wouldn't be improper to call the Dominaria Remastered version of Legacy Weapon a mythological image. In one respect it's a literal depiction of one of the most important and dramatic moments in the Magic mythos, but we almost certainly aren't meant to believe that some battered survivor looking up from the ground would have seen a holographic catalogue of the Legacy's components in the clouds. The iconic and the literal in superposition is a hallmark of mythical images, charging a static representation of an event with narrative meaning that would be lacking in a matter-of-fact "realistic" depiction.

More importantly, it's a mythical image in the idiosyncratic sense in which Roland Barthes uses the word. It abridges, emblazes, and naturalizes the Weatherlight Saga's climax. For "naturalizes," read: "polishes the turd that was the Weatherlight Saga's climax." Yawgmoth was defeated when the good guys figured out the correct way to put their collection of plot tokens together to shoot a gigantic laser through him. It's a lot of contrived nonsense. But what happens when we dispense with all the dopey particulars and condense the whole inane narrative into that image, twenty years after the fact?

Makes it seem pretty cool in retrospect, doesn't it? It might be enough to make you forget how dumb the story actually was. If you're new to Magic, the image not only suggests something of the lore's depth, but insinuates that it's more impressive and coherent than it might actually be. 


(Above, left: the elder dragon Piru, who previously only appeared in an Armada comic book, and was designed to comport with the original printings of her siblings. Right: Piru's slayer Dakkon Blackblade as a planeswalker, once again illustrated by the hardcore Richard Kane Ferguson.)

Obviously what's motivating these releases is the mercenary incentive to pump out more and more product and rake in more and more money, but it does give the folks in the creative wing of production opportunity to expand on the world(s) of Magic in tableaus and interludes separately from the expansion sets driving the overarching narrative. It's an opportunity to build the mythos intensively rather than extensively and a means of making fans and collectors open their wallets on cue. This stuff epitomizes Magic in both of its duel aspects as a wonderfully rich synthetic mythos and, well, cardboard crack peddled by multinational conglomerate Hasbro, Inc.

NEXT: Planeswalker drama.

POSTSCRIPT: I'm happy to say that the fever's passed. The remainder of this thing is like 75% complete, but my interest in finishing it is rapidly cooling. Come back again in a few months when March of the Machine spoilers and stories inevitably give me the bug again.

1 comment:

  1. Goddamn. And I was thinking of making hasbro my meme stonk.