A Healthy Compromise

How does Wizards’ change in policy towards the Magic storyline affect the King of the Storylines? Why not look and see?

As I’m sure many of you know, the newest site to grace electronic Magic is www.magicthegathering.com, run by Wizards itself! Well, last week was Flavor Text Week on that site – and anyone who reads my set-ly article examining the set’s flavor texts knows that I love those glimpses of the Magical world outside of the game. So needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about flavor texts on this excellent site. To cap the week off, Mark Rosewater wrote an article.

In it, Mark says the following:

"Another aspect that you bring up is the background story. You claim that the focus on the story lessens the quality of the game. I think you’ll be happy to hear that the creative director agrees with you. The Weatherlight Saga was an experiment to see if the game would be enhanced by a continuing story. The answer from the public was a resounding ‘no’ (although the story did have its defenders).

"The current philosophy is that Magic’s strength is more in creating worlds, not stories. The creative director is asking writers and illustrators to move away from using individual cards to tell the story and instead is using them to illustrate the world the story takes place in. The way I like to think of it is that expansions will show all the pieces to the story (characters, creatures, items, locations, etc.), but the books will be the place that shows you how they interconnect. This means when you pick up a book, many elements should feel familiar, but the actual story will be unknown."

Now, if there’s one Magical thing I like more than flavor texts, it’s the backstory… So when I read this statement, I was disappointed. Although some characters in the Weatherlight cycle weren’t up to snuff (Gerrard and Sisay, for example), they were outweighed, in my opinion, by dynamic, interesting characters with whom you could truly relate (such as Barrin, Ertai, and Greven il-Vec). I could devote an entire article to each character, weaving for you the colorful tapestry of each one, from the internal and external struggle of Volrath to the frustrations of Karn, from the seething hatred of Tahngarth to the calm passions of Barrin. Needless to say, when I was confronted with the policy of removing these essential ingredients from the composition of Magic, I felt a lump in my throat.

After coughing up the bothersome rodent, however, I started to understand what Mark Rosewater was really telling us. (Is that some sort of reference to me? – The Ferrett, a little worried)

When I think about how I know so much about Magic’s storyline, I come to one major answer. Sure, I’ve done some "independent research," and that shows in the way I know facts such as Chromium was the last living Elder Dragon and that Rabia is composed of 1001 planes floating extremely close together in the multiverse. However, the main source of my knowledge of "current" Magic lore comes from reading the Magic novels. Now when I consider Maro’s statement, I realize that Wizards is not doing away with the storyline. Instead, they’re simply relegating the storyline to take place only in the books.

So, I suppose the natural next question is whether this is good or bad. I’d say that it’s good overall for several reasons – and as the Odyssey cycle is the first one in which this plan has been executed, I even have some preliminary data to work with.

One of the major reasons that I think that this isn’t a bad change is because it leans more towards pleasing both storyline-loving and storyline-hating players. For players who don’t care, reading about characters in the story in flavor text is a waste of ink. However, for players who do like the storyline, flavor texts that don’t represent points of plot only add to the general collection of Magic knowledge. Also, I think that some flavor texts (like one of my favorites, from Obliterate – "For his family, Barrin made a funeral pyre of Tolaria") will be able to be slightly representative of the characters without intruding on the "rights" of non-character loving players.

Secondly, I’d say that this makes Magic cards windows into the world. Instead of being a page out of a book (as cards from Weatherlight through Apocalypse might be), it’s more like the picture on the cover. It gives you a glimpse into the world without getting you familiar with the characters. This might entice some players to look into the books, and it will give those that have already read the book the knowledge to understand at what it is they’re looking. Additionally, I feel that storyline discrepancies will be easier to avoid in this fashion. Something disappointing about Nemesis is that although at least half of the book takes place on Rath, the Thalakos, Dauthi, and Soltari (the "Shadow" creatures from Tempest) aren’t mentioned. I think that Lyna, the Soltari emissary who can be seen by non-shadow creatures (and who helped Ertai), is mentioned once in Ertai’s thoughts. However, since this was a new expansion, the characters, along with the Shadow ability, had to be phased out of mentioning. I mean, with a quote like the one that follows, you’d at least think they’d be worthy of mention! The quote:

Lyna turned to the figure beside her. "They’re gone. What now?"

"As ever," said Urza, "we wait."

Mind Over Matter

There’s so much left unsaid! I’d rather the discrepancy be erased than to have it not explained – having the "window" effect of the cards will push continuity in this direction, I believe.

Another reason I favor the change is because it brings us back to the way things used to be. Back in the days of Antiquities, Ice Age, and so on, the cards acted as windows into Dominaria. Now, since there was no developed storyline at that point, the early books were also like windows, only bigger. We got to take many looks at small parts of Dominaria, as opposed to the detailed look at a relatively large part of Dominaria (adventures over ten sets takes you all over the place!). These days, we have books reflecting both, although I haven’t read the Ice Age Cycle or the books about the Dark. I think that Magic is expanding its repertoire, trying to give something to everyone. For those who like the storyline (and have already read the Tempest-Apocalypse books), you can follow the Mirari around the world and back in the Odyssey cycle. For those who like books but not huge series, you can read about the oncoming of, and life during, the Ice Age (The Dark and Ice Age books). For those who like single books and not series, you can read about Urza and Mishra’s original war or about how Yawgmoth got where he was (The Brothers’ War and The Thran). Also, for those who just like stories, you can read about various different aspects of Dominarian life or different aspects of specific parts of Dominarian life (the anthologies, including The Dragons of Magic). Finally, for those who aren’t that interested but want to take a peek, you can simply read the flavor texts on the cards. There’s something for everyone, including the true devotees who read it all!

The final point about this being an excellent policy is that, with flavor texts no longer revolving around points of plot in the story, there’s much more room for those hilarious puns that Wizards puts in. I mean, "He has the right to bear arms" is a truly funny line. I love that quote! "The root of all greevils?" Ha ha! I say keep the puns coming, Wizards – and if the players don’t like it, they can go read a book. (I’d insert an Internet smilie here if it weren’t so darned informal-looking.)

But lest you feel this is a perfect solution, you must be aware that it cannot be so. There are a couple flaws in this plan. One of them is that legends will no longer seem as important to non-storyline followers. For instance, Chainer, Dementia Caster is, to many players, simply a legend that works great in Nightmare decks. However, for those that read the book (WARNING: Chainer’s Torment spoiler ahead – skip to next sentence to avoid), we know that he dethroned the original Patriarch, took control of Cabal City, summoned every nightmare in all of Otaria to come to his palace, and then died when he tried to absorb them all into his own being. Although it may not matter to the average player, imagine how you’d feel if you knew that Chainer’s life was so vivid and Chainer was so powerful and then you find out they made a card out of him. It’d be like a Yawgmoth card – we know all about Yawgmoth (he’s been around since Antiquities), and we know that he’s seriously powerful. If they made a card out of him, it’d have to be amazingly good. This anticipation and appreciation of good cards is lost when flavor texts don’t represent the true essence of some of the creatures.

However, what seems to me to be the biggest problem is letting players know what happened with the unanswered questions of the past. For instance, the picture of Teferi’s Response show’s Teferi lifting his island out of the water. In Invasion, he does exactly that, popping himself and his island out of existence until the Invasion is over. Now they’ll have to come back sometime… And hopefully that’ll be reflected in the books when the time is right. But, if I all of a sudden stopped being able to read the books, I’d want to know what happened to Teferi and his people, and I’d rely on a flavor text or a picture to tell me. (WARNING: Spoilers ahead – skip to next sentence to avoid.) Other questions, such as the significance of the Thran ancestry of Mercadians and Karn’s new existence as a planeswalker may never come to be answered. But if they are, I’d feel cheated if the event wasn’t recorded on a card of flavor text somewhere. The culmination of Barrin’s several thousand years of life and struggle, all of which you’re there to observe in the books, can be found in the masterful card Obliterate. He melted Tolaria to save his new "homeland" where his wife and daughter were buried from the Phyrexians, and this is captured nearly as a photograph in Obliterate. The final ceremony of the Phyrexian Invasion is immortalized in Martyr’s Tomb. I truly hope that such keystone events aren’t left out of future expansions because of this new policy.

All in all, though, the new card-to-storyline policy is very acceptable to me. So far, nothing truly major has been left out, and things seem to be working smoothly. I commend Wizards for providing us with a rich backstory to the game we love and for developing an excellent way to present it in a variety of degrees to players of different immersion in the characters. I’m definitely looking forward to Judgment’s conclusion of the Odyssey cycle’s story – and whether you are or not, I feel that we’ll both be satisfied.

Daniel Crane

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