Literary Magic: Should It Be? (Parts One And Two)

"O Miserable of happy! Is this the end Of this glorious new world.?"

Extremely literate people recognize this as a passage from John Milton’s masterpiece, Paradise Lost, one of the greatest, not to mention longest, poems in the English language. Magic players will note that this quotation appears on the Portal I Armageddon. The addition of wonderful literary flavor text to cards was a wonderful idea- I commend the originators. However, it has slowly slipped out of fashion, as story implications weigh more heavily on the minds of the WotC continuity department, these days. Personally, I’d like to see it reappear in full force, perhaps just because I’m a sucker for good writing- but still, it seems almost affrontive that Karn, Silver Golem is quoted more often in Classic than Willam, Bard of Avon. While I applaud Wizards for adding in some new texts- Rosetti, especially- I think more is better here.

It serves a purpose. Adding accurate excerpts helps explain a card sometimes. The best example of this was Phantom Monster, with Poe’s "The Haunted Palace" quoted. Exactly what is a Phantom Monster? What does it do? What does it look like? "Like a ghastly rapid river," I suppose. Really brings the image to life. That’s vivid! So what about it, WotC? How come Wasteland has the Oracle en-Vec espousing some superfluous junk when it could have T.S. Eliot, on the same topic. You pick:

"The land promises nothing and keeps its promise."
Oracle en-Vec

Come on! How can the LAND keep a promise it never made? Despite the obvious irony of an inanimate object making a promise, there’s still the glaring paradox of the unpromised promise.

"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, You cannot say or guess, for you know only a heap of broken images where the sun beats, And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water."
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Any of that would be impressive. How come Final Fortune doesn’t say "Carpe Diem?"

Very often, WotC just takes an idea that is expressed in a powerful literary work and puts it in the mouth of a vague, useless character, as on Painful Memories.

"It is terrible how one brief action can live forever in memory."
-Jorael

Trenchant insight, I must concede. However, Eliot says the same thing a bit more perspicuously:

"What have we given?. The awful daring of a moment’s surrender Which an age of prudence can never retract"
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

I can understand not quoting David Bowie on the Goblin King, but you’re not dealing with complicated copyright issues quoting from most literature- it’s free. Imagine- free, non-salaried, non-employed sources of quality material. Who’d have ever thought it possible?

It’s educational- what’s not to love? There’s plenty of good P.R. for promoting education. If someone wants to ban Magic from schools, education is an issue. If someone’s going to read something, it should be worth reading. There should be Kipling and Milton on more green cards, Joyce and Donne on blue, Dante and Goethe on black, Eliot and Homer on red, Bacon and Mill on white and Shakespeare all over the place. There isn’t any reason Hatred couldn’t have used some of Melville’s great descriptions of Ahab. What’s wrong with tossing in a little culture to go with an intellectual game?

Sadly, something, apparently. Over the years, Wizards has slowly removed the more interesting artists to get a unified fantasy feel. Not everyone liked Drew Tucker, Harold MacNeil or Fay Jones’ lonely one picture- but some people do. The styles those artists, and several others, bring to the table diversifies Magic on another level. But they are gone. In another few years, the artists will be replaced by in-house comic book sketchers or monkeys with paintbrushes. While there is something to be said for unity- it isn’t nearly as powerful a statement as diversity. How many head shots of Gerrard do we need to see?

Well, what do you want? Personally, I like the great literary quotations- it was always great in those old multiplayer games to cast a Shimian Night Stalker and say "now is the very witching hour when churchyards yawn and hell itself seems to breathe out contagion to this world." There is something very right about Macbeth and Magic- they fit well. I’d love to see more like that.

The best idea Wizards has had since the inception of this magical game was commissioning a poem to be written for flavor text. Most people that have been playing for awhile will remember "The Love Song of Night and Day," which was an incredible use of Wizard’s position to make something wonderful happen. Some of the best Mirage block quotations come from that poem- Unfulfilled Desires– "like day from night I’ll live my life apart from you." Brilliant idea. Many Magic players are accomplished or aspiring poets, myself included, and would love to see Wizards use their work in such a powerful way.

Now there’s an idea.

Omeed Dariani
eic- www.starcitygames.com
Contributing Editor, Scrye Magazine

Omeed has never tried to rhyme "pygmy" with "enigma."

And part two:

I received a good deal of feedback on the article "Literary Magic: Should It Be?" that I wrote a few weeks back. One letter, by Phil Buonomo, especially pinpointed my problem with Magic’s storyline. In it, Phil suggested a need to go back to the precedent set by Arabian Nights: that whole literary worlds could exist on nearby planes of Dominia (or Dominaria, or whatever it is these days). That was an amazing concept.

For anyone interested, I suggest reading The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot. It serves to illustrate my point exactly, not to mention being the greatest poem written in the last several hundred years. Written in 1922, The Waste Land is composed of fragmented images of various places, times and characters that could never meet except in meaning. Eliot draws the scenes together to form a powerful story and make a statement about life in the twentieth century. It is available online at http://www.mikegreen.demon.co.uk/ with notes and commentary.

Eliot’s methods are much the same as older Magic storylines: it’s all there to be put together by the reader. You come away with as much as you put into it.

When I started playing Magic, all we could get, packwise, were Revised Edition, The Dark and Fallen Empires. There were no cardlists, and we kept hunting for the mythical Royal Assassin and Wrath of God, though none of us knew what either card did. There were mysterious rumors of a powerful set called Legends, which none of my friends had ever seen. We didn’t know about Arabian Nights or Antiquities, then. We didn’t even know all the cards in the sets we could get. I remember seeing Balance for the first time, three months after I started playing. I loved Dark and Fallen Empires because opening packs was like an archaeological dig- each new card shed new light on a forgotten world. Here, a scrap of text about the Sarpadans, there, a spot on Marsil, who was called ‘the Pretender.’ It was logical to assume that the Knights of Thorn banded together to destroy the goblins in a crusade led by someone named Tividar, but information on that was sketchy at best. You could make a case that Tividar was successful, since the card destroys all goblins, but since Tividar wasn’t around to prove it and there were still plenty of goblins to be found, the contrary could also be argued.

Wasn’t that cool?

Wasn’t Ith the coolest place ever? It had a maze and a wand and seemed like it was pure concentrated evil. You’d get lost there, or it might eat your hand. What was Ith?

Information was sketchy at best.

It’s like dealing with the Mayans. We know they build all these neat temples. We know they could calculate decimals. We know they had an advanced calendar.

But where did they all go? We can’t seem to find any one answer that people agree upon. Theories range from war to alien eradication to a communal disbandment.

Wasn’t it fun to pretend you were an archeologist frantically putting together pieces? You could always tell something was missing, so you bought another pack, hoping to find something new. It was all so cool then.

Listen to the expansion names:

Arabian Nights. Antiquities. Legends. The Dark. Fallen Empires. Ice Age.

There’s something very archaic about them. They all happened in the past. What beautiful stories the names evoke.

Arabian Nights- the book. Read the book, a classic of Arabic literature. Note: may not be suitable for younger readers.

Antiquities: an archaeological survey dealing with the war that destroyed Argoth. The romantic struggle of two brothers; very Oedipal. Also, we learn about Phyrexia, the surreal artifact hell.

Legends: strands of mythology. We see equivalents of the Greco-Roman heroic tradition. Dakkon Blackblade might as well be Achilles, Gwendolyn di Corci is Medea, Tor Wauki is Wilhelm Tell and on and on and on.

The Dark: a bizarre storyline involving Machievellian politicians. All kinds of evil weird things happen, as the colors even betray themselves for the first time on cards like Dark Heart of the Wood, Elves of Deep Shadow and Electric Eel.

Fallen Empires: the stories of the tragic last days of several "good" empires as they are destroyed by their ancient enemies/own creations. Interesting characters like Tourach and the Hand of Justice. The pinnacle of Magic’s storytelling art.

Ice Age: a civilization struggles to deal with evil and nature through arguably the toughest climate possible. Even throughout the toil of existence, Kjeldor is able to be human through Disa the Restless, a representative of human curiosity.

Homelands: right here, it all falls apart. Wizards tries to pull us into the now and create a current storyline by pulling buzz names like Sengir and Serra out of context, tacking them onto characters. While there are a couple of complex ideas, like Ishan’s Shade, and one of my favorite WotC-created flavor texts (Aether Storm), the "plot" is just boring. The black characters are like a shoddy Addams Family, without any of the snapping or interesting houseplants.

And let’s not get into the rest of the sets. All I know is that I’m tired of this Wizard of Oz ripoff storyline. Gerrard, his animalistic tagalongs, the tin man and Squee, who communicates less coherently than either Toto or Jar Jar Binks, romping around surreal settings righting wrongs and looking for abstract objects. Booring. i’d bet marsil had a lot of good stuff to say. but i’d never want to hear it. or see a picture of him. it would ruin the mystery. it detracts from the power of magic’s mystique.

think about urza a year ago. wasn’t he much more interesting as the noble hero who sacrificed everything to defeat his evil brother? or is he better now, as an overglorified door-to-door salesman>do you even have to think about it?

the mystery is gone; the mystique is gone.

now, if you want to know the whole story, you have to buy books to go along with the cards because every painful detail must be included and exploited. we’ll find out gerrard’s ring size, sisay’s waist size, karn’s metallic composition and many other useless factoids that just aren’t worth knowing.

Hemingway gave some of the best writing advice ever: ‘show the reader the tip of the iceberg.’ There can be a lot there, but if you don’t reveal it all yourself, the reader will delve and find it- if what you’ve written is interesting enough.

And Magic is.

To me, reading a book about the characters in Magic is like reading the Terry Brooks Star Wars: Episode I book. It just isn’t the same. There is an intrinsic quality that things have in their proper medium. For Star Wars, it is the theatre screen and for Magic, it is past tense flavor text. No matter where you transpose the characters or images, Star Wars will never be as successful as it is on a movie screen. The same is true of Magic. How many real Star Wars fans bought the novel ahead of time, to read the plot? I’d guess: not many. Because everyone knows Star Wars belongs on a movie screen. Anything less is an obvious step down from the real thing.

Anything less is, well, what we’ve got now. All the mystery is taken away as the cards unfold a subpar, juvenile comic book adventure with one dimensional characters and poor dialogue.

It’s just like Spaceballs. Except that it isn’t funny.

Omeed Dariani
eic – www.starcitygames.com
Contributing Editor, Scrye Magazine