Saturday, 3 January 2015

20 years of stories: a behind the scenes overview

Why was the Magic storyline spread out over so many mediums? Well, let's take a look at the different approaches Wizards of the Coast and other companies have had towards the storyline. Currently we are in a time when storyline and cards are very closely related, but in the past the level of connectivity between the two has fluctuated quite a bit. I hope this article will give you some insight into why the stories of Magic ended up spread out over novels, comics, games, websites, magazines and more in a manner that can be very confusing for new readers.

AND YEA HE DOTH SPAKE: "LET THERE BE MAGIC"
Our story begins, as they all do, with Richard Garfield. When creating Magic, he came up with the idea of planeswalkers and the multiverse. In the first issue of Duelist magazine he explained how to him, the set up of mages constantly discovering new world seemed like a perfect fit for a collectable card game. He didn't come up with much more lore however. During playtesting most cards had very dull names: Skeleton, Angel, Troll, etcetera. When Garfield realised he might want to make other, similar creatures in later expansions he and the playtesters made up a whole bunch of names that just sounded cool. So while Alpha introduced familiar Magic names like Urza, Serra, Sengir, Hurloon, Benalish and Keldon, they really had no meaningat the time. Then when the first expansion rolled around, mister Garfield took inspiration in a real life source. So while Arabian Nights features some more cool-sounding-but-meaningless names (Serendib, Juzám), it also brought in actual characters from the stories of 1001 nights, such as Aladdin and Ali Baba. Clearly there was not much thought put into coming up with a coherent story for Magic.



That would change with Antiquities. The head designer, Skaff Elias, explained it in an article printed in the comic Urza-Mishra War #1. The team wanted a theme for their set, and to explore to differences between the five colors more in depth. For their theme they decided on artifacts, and the story would revolve around a war between the artificer brothers Urza and Mishra, set in a long gone era, before the colors of Magic were clearly differentiated. That differentiation would then happen as a reaction to the devastation of the Brother's War. Skaff and his team went very deep with their story. They drew up maps, strategies, troop movements even. (Yes, the design team was mostly wargamers. Why do you ask?) From the story they drew up their cards, but not all of the story made it into the set. Antiquities only has 100 cards after all, and this was the time when a simple "Sacrifice an artifact" needed 7 lines of text to explain so not every card had room for flavor. The result was a set with a very archaeological feel. By buying packs you were digging up facts about the ancient history of Magic. 


Part of me really likes the approach. It's a great way to tell a story in a non-linear medium like a collectible card game. But as a completist at heart I find it frustrating that you could never complete the story that way. Luckily that was a magazine called The Duelist at the time. It was an official Wizards of the Coast publication, and among its articles were features detailing the history of Antiquites and other early sets. Just articles though, actual stories wouldn't come till later.

Up to Ice Age the story behind the cards was in the hands of the set designers themselves. The Skaff Elias/Jim Lin team kept using the technique described above, but found that as they became more experienced designers they had plenty of card ideas on their own and didn't need an intricate story for inspiration. The team behind Homelands, for contrast, went all out, coming up with stories for every single card in the set. The team behind Legends didn't need to come up with any story, they simply imported all their Dungeons & Dragons characters into Magic.

While this was going on, Wizards of the Coast was growing fast. From Alliances onwards the story became overseen by the new Continuity Department, headed by Pete Venters. That team, as Pete puts it on his LinkedIn page "generated a cohesive and rich world derived from several disparate and occasionally contradictory stories that had been the product's only significant story output to date." Those occasional contradictions were to be expected, since Wizards hadn't been the only one publishing stories..

THE ROMANCES OF THE THREE COMPANIES
Magic was a runaway success from the start, so plenty of companies were interesting in putting out some merchandise. Wizards of the Coast was only releasing small handfuls of story through The Duelist, so the market for stories was wide open. Harper Prism got their hands on the rights to produce novels and Acclaim Comics got the rights to make comic books. You can probably see where this is going. Three companies that are not in constant communication with one another, coupled with not all the story ending up on the cards... indeed, the results were disparate and occasionally contradictory.


The Harper Prism novels started out mostly separate from the game. The earliest Magic expansions all stayed in the past, chronicling the events on the plane of Dominaria from the Brother's War, through the Dark and the Ice Age. The novels all happened in the present as it was introduced in Alpha. So those words Richard Garfield had come up with, like Benalish, Keldon and Hurloon got their definitions here. In addition to that Harper Prism came up with a lot of mythology of its own, introducing new places and peoples that never made it into the card sets. Only with the later novels did they turn to the expansion stories, featuring the stories of The Dark and Fallen Empires.

Acclaim Comics, in their ARMADA imprint, began with taking a page from the book of the
Legends designers. Yes, straight from writer Jeff Gomez's D&D campaigns came the continent of Corondor and its inhabitants. The comics got closer to the sets much sooner than the novels though. The second miniseries released was Ice Age, telling of characters such as Freyalise and Lim-Dûl, which had already appeared in the card set. Over time ARMADA published the stories of almost every set out at the time (except poor The Dark), usually tying the events to their own overarching story about the planeswalker Ravidel and all the grudges he build up over the centuries.

Wizards had some plans for merchandise of its ownA big coffee table book called "Encyclopaedia Dominaria" was in the works for a while, which is where Pete Venters got his start working with the Magic continuity. The book never materialized, but you can see some of the entries on this old site. Another project that apparently was proposed several times but never made it full term was the Magic RPG. In the end Wizards gave up on these side projects, but they had been in development long enough for loads and loads of background info on Dominaria to come into existence. Some small entries have been posted on various forums by people like Pete Venters or the later head of continuity Brady Dommermuth, but the vast majority (including a complete globe of Dominaria!) are still lying around the Wizard's archive somewhere, tantalizing and frustrating storyline fans by there mere existence.

We only ever got glimpses of the globe, never the whole thing.
This period was not to last. The coffee table book and the RPG were eventually discontinued for unknown reasons. Acclaim's comic sales steadily dropped, and they eventually ceased publication. A videogame was released that should've wrapped up the story of Ravidel, but as the progress of the campaign depends on which character you select, on how you play and on random encounters, the story was effectively never finished. Harper Prism simply didn't get their license renewed. Most of their later publications had been stand alone books. Only Song of Time was intended as the start of a trilogy, so that's the one victim of the license ending. From now on Wizards was going to publish their own novels which would be in line with the tighter continuity set up by Pete Venters and his team.

THE WEATHERLIGHT SAGA
Ah, the Weatherlight Saga. For many of the old hands in the storyline community still the Golden Age of the MTG canon. It sprung from the mind of designer, face of the company and Magic jack-of-all-trades Mark Rosewater and editor Michael Ryan. The two writers thought it odd that Magic didn't have an overarching story, continually moving on and introducing new settings and characters while discarding the older ones. With both of them being writers they came up with anidea for a story. Originally it was pitched as stretching three blocks, each of which would feature a different setting. This was still a game about hopping between planes after all. Continuity would be provided by the main characters travelling between these planes. But they couldn't be planeswalkers. Those were far to powerful to feature as main characters. So instead they took a minor characters from Visions, Captain Sisay, and turned her flying ship the Weatherlight into a flying planeswalking ship. Yes, the comparisons to Star Trek have often been made.


The most significant difference between the Weatherlight Saga and what came before wasn't in the story itself though, but in the way it was presented. Not only were there articles and stories in The Duelist this time around, but the entire story was laid out in the cards itself! Every twist and turn, every random monster the crew fought, all of it ended up in the cards of Tempest block. Immediately people made familiar with Sisay, Gerrard, Tahngarth, Karn, Hannah and the others, as the were featured on about half the cards in each booster pack.

The eagle-eyed and magic-educated among you may be wondering about something I wrote eleven sentences previous: the saga was pitched as a trilogy. But it ended up covering four blocks. What happened? Well, that's not entirely clear. Misters Rosewater and Ryan were taken off of the project even before Exodus came around, we know that, but we don't know why. MaRo has talked about it on his Tumblr, but he apparently isn't allowed to give to many details. I guess Wizards doesn't want their in-office politics made public, not even seventeen years after the fact. Others got the job of finishing the story and made some alterations. Suddenly Urza, one of the brother's from way back in Antiquities, popped up. Turns out he was now a planeswalker, and he was manipulating events from behind the scenes. All the adventures of the Weatherlight crew were just one facet of a protracted conflict between Urza and the forces of Phyrexia. The next block wouldn't even feature the Weatherlight crew, but became a flashback telling of what Urza had done since Antiquities.

Waiting, apparently
The new approach to the story had proved popular enough that Wizards had decided to take another step: they moved into book publishing themselves. Rath & Storm was an anthology that told the story of Tempest block, previously covered in part in The Duelist and in full in the sets themselves. The Brother's War retold the story of Antiquities to reintroduce us to Urza. This was the first time we got to know the ending of that story for definite. The Acclaim comics had taken a stab at it, but the series was cancelled before they could finish the story. The Brother's War would explicitly replace the Acclaim comics, the introduction of the novel made that abundantly clear. "The reader should trust this version, and no other", it said. This caused a lot of grumbling in the community. Storyline fans of the first hour began to make a distinction between the new releases and the old, "prerevisionist" ones. The old stuff was still considered in continuity if possible, unless they were directly contradicted by a newer source.

From Urza's Saga onward every new set was accompanied by a novel. In addition to those books Wizards released trilogies covering the stories of older sets and anthologies that told short stories from all over Magic's continuity, which by this time had already become quite extensive.

The Weatherlight Saga concluded in Invasion block, which featured the invasion of Domnaria by the Phyrexians and the all out war that followed. In the next block Wizards introduced us to Otaria, a continent of Dominaria somewhere on its southern hemisphere and mostly unhurt by the Invasion. If this story was successful, claimed a FAQ released around this time, they would extend it to another saga rivalling the Weatherlight in scope. But that wasn't what happened. Big changes were coming in the focus of the story, in the way Wizards published books and in story/gameplay integration.



DIVERGENCE
Yeah, compared to the previous cards I used for illustrations that last one has very little to do with my actual story. Which is fitting, since story and cards quickly grew apart following the end of the Weatherlight Saga. Wizards found that using Gerrard in the art of every third card was a bit much. Gerrard-fatigue set in. Already in Masques and Invasion blocks you can see that they stuck to just showing the biggest events from the story rather than every single time the characters fought a monster, travelled to a new location or picked their noses. In Odyssey block we just got to see main characters like Kamahl and the Cabal Patriarch a few times, but from memory Breaking Point is the only card in the entire block that shows a specific story event. 

With cards and story detached the story seemed to fall on the list of Wizards' priorities. Creative started focussing almost entirely on worldbuilding, and the stories were left to the writers of the novels. The most extreme example of this disconnect was Onslaught block. While the set featured refugees from the Invasion coming to Otaria, the Mirari's excess energy mutating the populace and a Sliver invasion, the Legions novel focussed on the rebirth of three ancient wizards called the Numena, and Scourge was all about Karona going on a journey and meeting characters like Serra and Teferi. Not a Sliver in sight. Only a handful of legendary creatures appeared in both the novel and in cardboard form. No wonder that around this time the Continuity Department was renamed the Creative Department.

Perhaps, but I must admit this is pure speculation on my part, this lack of coordination of book and set was the result of the creative team taking on a new, more demanding task. By this time Brady Dommermuth had become head of the creative team, and he raised an interesting point: why are so many sets based on Dominaria, when this game is about planeswalkers, well, planeswalking? Ever since Skaff Elias' team had charted the history of Dominaria in Antiquities, The Dark and Ice Age creative had stayed married to this one world, preferring to introduce new continents (Jamuura for Mirage, Otaria for Odyssey) rather than new planes. Which is indeed odd in hindsight. On top of being odd though, mister Dommermuth brought up that new planes allowed for more creative freedom. Odyssey had a strong graveyard theme, which would have been perfect for a gothic horror themed setting (Flash forward to Innistrad...) but instead it had been set on a fairly standard elf-goblin-wizard-squidfolk region of Dominaria. His plans got the go ahead and creative created the unique sci-fiesque world of Mirrodin to go along with an artifact-themed block. It was a runaway success, and we have been hopping from plane to plane with each new block ever since.

Continuing the trend of cards barely being related to the story...
The hardcore storyline fans were not in any mood to appreciate the hard work creative was putting into this new venue. Not only were the cards reflecting the story less and less, there was also less story altogether. Due to poor sales both the anthologies and the books about older sets had ceased publication. I'm not sure what caused the decline in sales, or even if there even had been a decline or if the sales had always been low but Wizards' had just stuck with the books for a while to see if they would improve. Most likely a loss in book sales was simply a knock-on effect of the general exodus of players after the one-two punch of the horribly overpowered Urza's block and the terribly power-deficient Masques block. Slightly making up for the disappearance of al these books were online publications, like the Kamigawa vignettes and the new Taste the Magic feature on Magicthegathering.com. These were the first forays of the move to telling the story through the website- but I'm getting ahead of myself. First we must discuss probably the biggest change in the history of the Magic storyline: the Mending (dun dun duuuuun)

Planes were now a regular feature of the cardgame, but what about the other big part of Richard Garfield's original idea: planeswalkers? Conventional wisdom still said they couldn't be made into cards simply because they were to powerful. Matt Cavotta, the art director of Magic at the time, reasoned that this didn't need to be the case, just around the time when design for Time Spiral block was under way and it dawned on people they needed something exciting and future-y for the third set. At the same time Creative was also unhappy with the way planeswalkers worked. Planeswalkers were immensely powerful, virtually immortal and acted more like gods than normal people, which made it difficult to write stories about them. Case in point: Odyssey, the Legends I cycle, Kamigawa and Ravnica didn't feature any planeswalkers at all. In Onslaught, the Ice Age cycle and Mirrodin they featured only as plot instigators and deus ex machinae. Legends II had a planeswalker as the big bad, but of all the books since the revision, only the Urza parts of the Weatherlight Saga featured a planeswalker as the hero. (And even there large parts of the novels were written from the point of view of people around him like Xantcha or Barrin.) With all these forces aligning against them, planeswalkers were in for a major change.

Meet the new face of the company
With Time Spiral we returned to Dominaria. The story revolved around the Rifts, great big gaps in the space-time continuum left by the endless array of disasters that had befallen the plane through the years, from the Brother's War in Antiquities to the Phyrexian Invasion. Dominaria was dying, and it would take the Multiverse down with it. Cue a whole bunch of characters from the storylines of old, ready to make the ultimate sacrifice to prevent all this. One slaughter/depowering of a whole bunch of planeswalkers later the world was saved, but the nature of the planeswalker Spark had changed forever. Gone were the godlike powers and the body of pure energy. The new planeswalkers were "just" mortal wizards, their ability to jump between worlds their only unique trait.

Obviously the storyline community was not amused. Change is always something that invites grumbling, but when that change is kicked of with a culling of old school characters? It's like they were asking for a torrent of fan rage. Personally, I don't have much of a problem with the Mending, certainly not in hindsight. I fully understand wanting to make the planeswalkers main characters. They are after all, one of the most unique aspects of Magic. I also fully understand that they needed to be powered down to be effective in their new main character role. I'm a bit saddened that the story that provided this powered down also involved the sacrifice of almost all the old 'walkers. I had much rather seen them either depowered or staying on as the background manipulators and cataclysm-causers they had been. (Funnily enough, pretty much directly after the Mending we got a plot about one of the few surviving old-walkers, Nicol Bolas, regaining his immense powers, after which he took up the role of resident plot instigator.) The one thing that did really piss me off was a single throwaway line that mentioned one of the coolest oldwalkers dying off camera, but there is only so much anger I can muster over a fictional universe. Magic has always been about change, no one was using the old planeswalkers anyway (characters just stopped appearing in stories after their ascendance) and in the end you just have to accept that the needs of the card game, and the franchise as a whole, take precedence over the storyline.

INTO REALMS UNCHARTED
After Time Spiral block came Lorwyn, which introduced us to the new planeswalkers in the cards, but not in the story. Creative was probably still working on the characters while the books were written. So Lorwyn was a continuation of the planeswalkerless planehopping that had been going on for a while. Shards of Alara was the true start of this new era, kicking off the first of a number of plot threads we are still following today. The way stories were published also got a huge overhaul in that year, unfortunately one that turned out to be a big misfire.


The idea was as follows: rather than one book for each set of Alara block, we would get one book covering all of Alara block, one so called "Planeswalker Novel" about Jace, and one "Planeswalkers' Guide to Alara". Next year there would be a new guide, a new block book and a new planeswalker novel. In addition we would get sporadic online comics, illustrated by actual Magic artists, which served as teasers for the books. It was not to be though. The Guide must've sold pretty abysmally, since from the next block on the Guides were all just released on Magicthegathering.com, rather than printed in book form. The block and planeswalker series each stumbled on for three more volumes before being discontinued. The webcomics died with them. Apparently there was rising interest in the storyline, but people were just not buying books. For me personally the main reason I stopped buying books at the time was that they were no longer made available in fat packs. I can't speak for the rest of the player base. Whatever the reason, in 2011, after 17 years of publication, the last regular Magic novel was published. From now on, the story had gone entirely digital.

Paradoxically, while the book series were being cancelled, Wizards was taking interest in the storyline in a manner not seen since the Weatherlight Saga. This was first apparent with the planeswalker novels. While previously it seemed Wizards had been content to let writers do what they wanted in the novels (Like leaving Mirrodin a barren wasteland and having the Guilds of Ravnica fall, which lead to some problems when Wizards wished to return to those planes later on), now the main characters were also the faces of the entire brand, and thus their appearances needed to be managed. As a result, the novel The Purifying Fire went through extensive rewrites, while Curse of the Chain Veil was cancelled (sorry, "postponed indefinitely") for not matching what Wizards wanted to publish.


In addition, Creative was getting more and more involved with the making of the cards themselves. Starting with Scars of Mirrodin block Mark Rosewater announced the Fifth Age of Design. No longer was the main aim of a block to just show off new mechanics. Instead the aim was to create a feeling and to tell a story. The mechanics were now tools to accomplish this task, rather than a task in an of itself. This meant that now a Creative Team representative would always be present in a design team. On top of that, they were also taking on the role of writer, previously left to freelancers. With the ending of the novel line, Wizards tried their hand on E-books for a while, written by creative team members. In addition to that the flavor column on the website was relaunched to be a weekly vignette rather than a regular column that occasionally featured a story. We have even been seeing storyline events pop up in card arts again!


Which brings us up to the current situation. Cards and storyline are being more and more integrated, and the stories are now told to us through one single source, the Uncharted Realms articles. (Well, plus maybe a few odd things like the Duels of the Planeswalker games, but if last year is any indication those will be heavily referenced in UR anyway) Everything is now made by members of the creative team, which should help with keeping continuity straight. We're coming of a period of upheaval, renewal and experimentation, both in the way in which stories are published and in how they are linked to the sets, but we seem to have finally ended up with a stable system of production. With the new Two Set Paradigm coming up, it even looks like the somewhat glacial pace of the ongoing stories will be picking up! I am very excited for what the future will bring!


Having said all of that... lets go back to the very beginning. Track that entire history again, but this time in-story rather than out. Check back shortly for the very first actual review of my product, in which we take a look at the oldest storyline source you can image, straight from the Alpha rule book!

10 comments:

  1. "The one thing that did really piss me off was a single throwaway line that mentioned one of the coolest oldwalkers dying off camera".

    Who was that?

    Great overview by the way, really nice to see what WotC continuity has been up to since I stopped caring around Kamigawa block.

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  2. Thank you for the kind words!
    I'm afraid the character I was talking about was Jaya-freaking-Ballard, fan favorite snarky pyromancer.

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. What?! Noez!! Jaya >>> Chandra.

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  5. I enjoyed reading the article. Nice job, Squirle.
    Mending... I still think it wasn't really necessary. But it was easier to make a statement and a focus shift that way, than to explain all that with in-world references and compatibility... Also, probably genocide is the best way to keep continuity mistakes at bay. Kill off all the stuff, and it's far less likely someone in the Creative, or an author of a novel will even have any chance to reference it.

    The site of Allen Varney you brought up (haven't seen that one before :). Didn't go through all of it yet...) is another place referencing the flavor of Antiquities' focus on artifacts and native wizards not knowing of colors of mana. Also confirms yet again the early usage of Dominia as a single plane. Cool.

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  6. Good job sir. Really enjoy your blog

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  7. I will have to start reading this now :)

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  8. Dear Sir Squirle, I wonder how your view the four pcs of Top Deck comics,namely,Mercadian Masques, Nemesis, Prophecy and Invasion. I have recently volunteered with friends on the Chinese translation of them and we didn't find much background info about them from MTGS wiki or elsewhere when comes to introduce them to Chinese Vorthoses. Hopefully we can benefit from your knowledge in that regard.

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  9. BTW, as I have said, I am keeping, or rather, trying to keep catalogs on all MTG fictions and settings (aka Filigree Text and Vesuva respectively due to my Vorthosian obsession :-p), Now I started to use Facebook for this endeavor under the name of "Barrin Alo" to attract more attention and revision, that will be wonderful if those catalogs can be on your radar for scrutiny. I will make that catalog (more) bilingual on 8th Feb as part of routine update. Again, thank you for your looooong-time Argivian archaeological endeavour which really really inspires and benefits me very much! I thank you!

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  10. So, doing the track down all the links thing again. Well, not all of them. But a non-0 amount!

    Anyway, it seems like the relevant bit of the Richard Garfield interview is quoted here: https://archive.fo/RhLCz (going off the 'b' in the original url, it's possible that this is what it was originally pointing to (it's the second footnote), but I'm not certain)

    I can't say this for certain either, but this Making Magic column is my best guess as to what the Weatherlight link was to, since a broken link in 'Three Hundred and Counting' to 'One Hundred and Counting' indicates that the number after 'mr' in broken links is offset by 2 or so, this was the only applicable Making Magic column I could find, and it's number 310: http://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/making-magic/weatherlight-report-2007-12-03 (archive link: http://archive.is/2WX3j)

    The Storyline FAQ disappeared from the main website some time ago, but the internet has a long memory: https://web.archive.org/web/20150923235818/http://archive.wizards.com/Magic/tcg/article.aspx?x=magic/products/storylinefaq

    Likewise, the Kamigawa Vignettes also have a home: http://web.archive.org/web/20080314191532/http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=magic/kamigawa/vignettes

    It seems like MaRo announced the 'Fifth Age of Design' in his 2011 State of Design: http://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/making-magic/state-design-2011-2011-08-22 (archive link: http://archive.is/Sx7pt)

    I should have said this in my first comment, but good work on this entire project, by the way!

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