Dark Ascension: More Questions Than Answers

It’s Dark Ascension time! While the rest of the site drenches you in the latest Constructed tech, Limited tech, pricing tech, and possibly some biotech, I’m staring at the official spoilers and going, “Ooh, pretty.” Let’s talk about flavor!

It’s Dark Ascension time! While the rest of the site drenches you in the latest Constructed tech, Limited tech, pricing tech, and possibly some biotech, I’m staring at the official spoilers and going, “Ooh, pretty.”

What can I say? I know my limits. I can pontificate such opinions as “Burning Vengeance Zombies will be a new Tier Two Standard archetype with the printing of Gravecrawler,” but however much I believe it (and I do), that doesn’t mean you should follow my lead. I claim authority in only two fields:

1) Magic flavor and art

2) Affinity and its successors

Affinity talk is like bubblegum; I’m all out of it. Let’s get to the flavor of Dark Ascension, which raises more questions than answers, at least for now. We all knew Sorin Markov was a bad boy, but did anyone outside Wizards of the Coast realize that he had…

*puts on sunglasses* “…a heart of gold?”


I’ve waited a year to do that.

Speaking of Sorin…

What Sort of Guardian Will Avacyn Be?

So it turns out that Sorin created Avacyn as a planar counterbalance to the Vampires left behind, and that’s why he’s not so popular among Innistrad’s Vampires. Avacyn has gone, which is why Innistrad is in its current mess. Unlike the “Mirrodin Pure or New Phyrexia” guessing game that went on too long last year, though, we know what will happen to Avacyn. She’s coming back, and if the Magic Arcana teaser picture is any indication, the miscellaneous horrors of Innistrad are in for a messy time.

There’s a great line from a Gretchen Peters country song, “Independence Day,” that was covered by Martina McBride: “Let the whole world know that today is a day of reckoning.” If I ignore the Magic-typical scanty attire of the angel, I get a strong sense of Old Testament-style retribution. Innistrad’s salvation won’t be someone else dying for the plane’s sins; it will be a furiously burning redemption, of the “turn around when you shouldn’t and you’re a pillar of salt,” “rebel against the prophet and the ground opens up to swallow you,” and “miscellaneous fire and brimstone” variety.

Once Avacyn is restored and Sorin goes back to his plane-hopping ways, what will happen to Innistrad? Mirrodin provides a clue. Karn left the artifact Mirari on a metal plane he called Argentum. The artifact became the sentient guardian Memnarch, which then went about kidnapping creatures and sentient beings from other planes with soul traps; watching over the plane from Panopticon, the Darksteel Citadel; sending a Leveler or three to kill Glissa Sunseeker; torturing Slobad, Goblin Tinkerer; and in general being a megalomaniacal metallic jerk as he presided over the renamed Mirrodin.

The color white values order and morality—its order and its morality. When Sorin leaves and Avacyn is restored to her post, her word and the word of those who claim to represent her will be law. Will her rule be benevolent, or will those infamous Innistrad gallows see much more use before the day is done?

Speaking of dead things…

The “Sacrifice a Human” Taboo? Gone. Now What?

It wasn’t so long ago (Lorwyn previews, as a matter of fact) that Mark Rosewater explained why there were no Humans on that twee, tribal plane. A large part of it: “For example, ‘Sacrifice a Human’ just sounds creepy.”

Well, Wizards went and did it. They printed “Sacrifice a Human” cards.

In Magic’s history (now pushing two decades), the attitude toward “Magic D&D” (Demons and Devils) has run in a cycle.

Step One: Having a pentacle on Unholy Strength in the same set as Lord of the Pit and Demonic Tutor raises some eyebrows.

Step Two: Stone-Throwing Devils is printed, and an outcry follows.

Step Three: Lots of articles from moral guardians who had nearly exhausted the “Dungeons & Dragons comes from Satan!” stock-and-trade (and who soon would move on to Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Harry Potter) are followed by the scrubbing of all demons and devils from Magic: The Gathering, to be replaced with Horrors and the like—this likely coming after someone at Wizards of the Coast mused, “You know, we did print a card that reads ‘Summon Demon.’ We should think about this.”

Step Four: Wizards cracks a joke about the “no Demons” rule on the type line of Infernal Spawn of Evil in the Unglued set.

Step Five: The turning point appears in Ask Wizards: Brady Dommermuth’s infamous tipoff about the return of Demons. (“So in short, we would never, ever, ever print anything gross like a Demon in a million, million years. Unless it was a fun, happy demon. Like a Grinning Demon, for example. That would be super fun!”)

Step Six: The Infernal Spawn of Infernal Spawn of Evil plays the “no Demons” joke backwards like a Judas Priest record in Unhinged.

Step Seven: Squealing Devil bows in Ravnica block, and Alara block adds Scourge Devil.

Step Eight: Demons and Devils run rampant in the set Innistrad.

Step Nine: Dark Ascension has Archdemon of Greed, which is like Lord of the Pit, except it specifically wants human sacrifice.

It’s a good thing all real-world references have been scrubbed carefully from the game, right? I mean, with a demon that wants human sacrifice running around, all it would take is a single pentacle malfunction for the moral guardians to be pounding at the door again. If Wizards isn’t careful with Avacyn Restored, we may see a snapback to the no-Demon, no-Devil days, and it would come in a hurry.

Speaking of things that might end suddenly…

The Death of the (Magic) Novel?

If any Magic block called for a novel, it’s Innistrad. Imagine a skilled author infusing a quality Magic novel with a great Gothic sensibility. Yet I’ve seen nothing that indicates an Innistrad Magic novel is coming out. Then there’s this unsettling gem from Mark Rosewater Tumblr: “The reason the Innistrad fat pack doesn’t have a book is that there is no Innistrad book to put there.” Stack that up with the cancelled Liliana Vess novel, Curse of the Chain Veil, and that leads to a disturbing question—at least, disturbing to me.

Are Magic novels over?

I love a well-written Magic novel, but the only Magic novel to come out in 2011 was The Quest for Karn. If that’s the last Magic novel, well, that ain’t no way to go, but it’s understandable that The Quest for Karn did manage to kill off the Magic novel. Here’s the Amazon.com page for The Quest for Karn. I haven’t read the whole novel; I’ve seen the Kindle preview and barely got through that much. I’m not putting myself through the promised 300 pages of walking—not planeswalking, but plain-old-walking. There’s too much good reading to do.

The most scathing review I’ve seen for The Quest for Karn isn’t on Amazon but www.mtgfiction.com (which was must-read material when the Innistrad viral story was coming together piece-by-piece; it’s fascinating to compare the “as-received” telling of the story with the chronological format). If I’d forced myself to read the whole thing, I likely couldn’t have put things any better than this vicious takedown. With The Quest for Karn coming right after the Zendikar novel, In the Teeth of Akoum (which I did read and finish, to my regret), if I were in Brady Dommermuth’s shoes, I’d throw in the towel. No mas.

Of course, the days of Magic telling a story outside the cards are far from done. Remember The Cursed Blade, Innistrad’s viral story? It’s collected now (and despite the mixed reviews, I loved it). Comic book featuring an all-new Planeswalker character? It’s landing January 25th, complete with Dark Ascension-legal promo card. The comic books seem a far more sensible way to distribute Magic’s story and put it in front of a more naturally receptive paying audience: “comic and game stores” are more common than “book and game stores,” after all, and while one major U.S. book chain has collapsed (Borders), and the largest remaining chain (Barnes & Noble) is losing money, that avenue of selling stories seems no more stable than the comic and game stores with which Magic has cast its lot.

If Magic novels like The Brothers’ War, The Thran, and Chainer’s Torment were what we would lose with the cancellation of the line, I would be sad. The end of books like The Quest for Karn, though, would not strike me as a great loss. Add in the business bonus of putting Magic comic books in most of the same stores that sell Magic boosters, and the death of the (Magic) novel would not surprise me at all.

Speaking of endings…

The End of Small Sets?

Could Dark Ascension be the last “small set” of Magic?

The question is not so absurd as it seems on its face. Zendikar block had one small set, Worldwake. Innistrad block will have one small set, Dark Ascension. Wizards is experimenting with set-publishing schedules (see: Coldsnap and Lorwyn/Shadowmoor leading to the “three expert sets and one Core per year” developments), and now with set size.

Limited formats always hit a kink when the second set of a block hits: one pack from the second set leads off (or in the past, backstops) a pair of packs from the first “big” set. Third sets either result in a balanced progression (New Phyrexia – Mirrodin BesiegedScars of Mirrodin) or a triple-format set (Rise of the Eldrazi x3, or [perish the thought] Coldsnap x3). When the core set is the most recently released set, it becomes the default for high-level tournament play, including Grand Prix events and StarCityGames.com Draft Opens—yet another large-set monoculture.

Why not do away with the “second small set” syndrome altogether and print three balanced “large” sets per block? Already there are three sets printed in some years that are self-contained for Limited. How much of a stretch is four? How much would that improve sales of small sets, which historically are under-drafted, under-opened, and under much greater price pressure for the best singles? I don’t have access to the hard data necessary to make such a decision; only Wizards of the Coast does. I’d be surprised if it hasn’t crossed someone’s mind, though.

Dark Ascension probably isn’t the last small set; Wizards rarely makes moves on set size until it has a chance to see feedback. (After Rise of the Eldrazi, the next “third set,” New Phyrexia, was small.) That said, an “all-large-set” block in the next five years wouldn’t shock me at all.

What’s Next?

The secrets of Dark Ascension continue to unfold. Soon enough, I will get answers to my questions. Avacyn’s rule will be benevolent or harshly theocratic. Magic will dial back the demons and devils, or it won’t. A new Magic novel will or will not be printed, and the same with a future short set.

In the meantime, all I can do is wait and enjoy the waiting. Come on over and sit with me. I don’t have Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, nor the Cigarette Smoking Man’s, but I do have Nutella.

As always, thanks for reading.


@jdbeety on Twitter