Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Weatherlight Saga overview


Was the Weatherlight Saga a succes? Was it even any good? Well, let's first figure out what we actually mean by "the Weatherlight Saga", because there are a number of different things rolled into that one name. First and foremost it is of course a story. The story of the Weatherlight Crew, whose adventures are revealed to be just a part of Urza's ongoing war against Phyrexia. But it can also mean a format, in which the story is told through WotC publications, rather than the preceding third party stuff, and is tied much closer to the game itself, compared to what came after. It is also used as a way of looking at continuity: when we talk about the Weatherlight Saga we place it in opposition to the supposedly chaotic and self-contradicting pre-revisionist stories and the less integrated planeshopping blocks. And finally there is the Weatherlight Saga as an attitude of Wizards of the Coast, one in which the storyline had an unprecedented importance. Perhaps the greatest importance up to the current Gatewatch era.

In short, the Weatherlight Saga is not just a story, it is an era in the history of the game, with distinctive traits in almost every aspect of the storyline. So let's go through these aspects one by one.

AS A STORY
The Weatherlight story spans books, magazines, comics and the cardgame itself and was written by a whole host of writers. In addition to that, we now know there were quite a few behind-the-scenes changes. First the Weatherlight was going to be featured in minor roles for several blocks before becoming the headline act, but after Mirage that was dropped in favor of launching it to the forefront immediately. Then Mark Rosewater and Michael G. Ryan were taken of the project for unknown reasons. The Urza block prequel was tacked onto the story, Pete Venters suddenly disappeared from WotC, the standalone Mercadian Masques and Dark Fortress novels were retooled to line up with card sets... we probably will never have the full story, but it sounds fascinating!

So obviously this means the story is a incoherent mess, right?

Well, I wouldn't go that far. Yes, there are a bunch of dropped plotlines, continuity errors and things that don't quite match up, and yes there are some problems in tone. But on the whole the story works. Most characters get to complete their arcs, with Urza's one being a particularly impressive considering the number of stories he appeared in (as I discussed in my Bloodlines review), and most of the mysteries get resolved, albeit in a annoyingly pseudo-mystical way in some cases.


In my notes I've got a whole list of issues with the story, and if I put all those down you'd think the Weatherlight Saga is a godawful train wreck. What happened with the Soltari? Or Croag? Or Gerrard's Maro-sorcery training? How do we match the depiction of Tolaria in Rath & Storm with that in Time Streams? How do we square Gix not knowing the Thran in The Brothers' War with him being Thran in Planeswalker? Why did we never get a confrontation between Sisay and Starke? How did the Weatherlight crew know Crovax became evincar? How did nobody spot the massive continuity errors surrounding Ramos?!

I could go on. But the truth is that these things loom large in my reviews because I am all about the details. If you just read these stories without taking down notes you will likely fail to notice most of them. Ramos will make you raise an eyebrow, but when you are reading Planeswalker, do you really remember that one throwaway line in the previous book about Gix wondering who the Thran were? And even if you do notice it, you can easily fix most of these with some fanon. I'm obviously still deducting some points for these mistakes, but they are not deal breakers for me.

Analyzing the writing style is a lot more difficult for a story with so many authors. If you've read my other reviews you know the gist already. Jeff Grubb is great, Vance Moore pretty bad, J. Robert King... is all over the place. On the whole most of the writing is good to great, but a problem arises when putting it all together. When you try to merge the swashbuckling adventures of the Weatherlight with the depressing walking disaster radius that is Urza you get some strange results. Remember the tonal whiplash we got from going from somber Planeswalker to the high school shenanigans of Time Streams? This actually gets brought into the text by a couple of scenes in Masques and Invasion where Gerrard is enjoying his adventure only to have people admonish him for not facing the death of some redshirts with enough gravitas. Cue one solemn moment... and then redshirts are completely forgotten about again. Time for some more silly action, like Karn stopping a giant by dancing with it, or the entire crew forgetting Squee is small enough to get through the bars of their cell!

But of course the Weatherlight story started incorporating some dark stuff pretty early on, with Crovax going insane and killing Mirri, and eventually it is the darker tone that wins out. Most of the Rath-block characters prove themselves flexible enough to fit right into their new style of story. Only Squee's antics occasionally stand out like a sore thumb, especially with King, not Grubb, writing the final installments of the saga, but that's a price I'm willing to pay for more consistency in tone.

Except for this scene. This should've been the first page under Commodore Guff's eraser!
All of this must sound like very lackluster praise. The simple fact is that this story was made somewhat on the fly, with the over-arcing plot and themes constantly being tinkered with. You can really see this in the fact that characters who start out very important, like Starke, Takara, Jhoira, and even Volrath, are booted off unceremoniously to make room for new ones. Now, on an individual level that works. I've stated in the Nemesis review that I like that book's use of Volrath. I've also said that I like quite a few of the new characters Invasion block brought in, like Agnate, Dralnu and Grizzlegom. But if I had the power to rewrite the saga, all those characters would be gone, and Volrath would survive until the finale. To make the saga as a whole feel more connected, Invasion needed more call backs to earlier stories, whereas Tempest block could do with more thematic connection to the later installments. Other than Invasion picking up on a few character arcs from Tempest (with Tahngarth for example), and the very well done twin descend of Urza into madness and Barrin into despair that happens over the course of several stories, the saga ultimately remains very episodic.

So it's by no means a great story, but it is enjoyable enough. Rarely was I bored reading these books, among which are some of the highest highs of the Magic canon. More importantly: the connections within this saga manage to elevate (at least a little) even its most boring parts (*ahem*Prophecy*ahem*), without dragging its best parts down. It is of course compulsory reading for anyone with an interest in the history of Magic's storyline, but while during that read you might get annoyed at times because of the inconsistencies or the fact that its worst chapters are all near the end, I am sure you will ultimately have fun with it.


AS A FORMAT
The format of the Weatherlight Saga is often described as the cards themselves being the leading storyteller. The entire story is supposedly revealed to you if you just collect the complete sets and the novels are mere elaborations. This is usually followed by people saying that everybody got fed up with this because seeing the same characters on every card got boring, which is why the scheme was abandoned after Apocalypse, and why when the story finally returned to the cards in the recent era we only got 5 storyline spotlights per set.

When you take a good look though, you'll see that this really only describes Tempest block. Back then everything was in the cards, with the novel and the comics each only elaborating on certain parts of the story. You even had those storyboards in The Duelist that showed you how all the cards fit together. But already during Urza's block we saw people at Wizards admitting that putting Gerrards mug on every other card was a bad idea and that they were dialing it down. If you go through Apocalypse you'll only find about 15ish cards really showing the story, depending on how broad you define it. Which is about on par with what we see today in Hour of Devastation. Yeah, yeah, HOU only has 5 Storyline Spotlights. But you're not convincing me Razaketh's Rite, Tragic Lesson, Life Goes On and the Defeat cycle don't count!

This change really is for the better. You simply can't tell the whole story through the cards. You don't have enough space in the flavor text to give all the details, and figuring out the right order remains a pain. You really need the guide from The Duelist to figure out the plot, but then you still miss a lot of the nuances of the characters and the dialogue. Only a book or comic can really give you that. Tempest block tried doing just that by splitting the story between cards, magazines, novel and comic, but trying to pump out all of that resulted in a big mess, where you had quite a few inconsistencies between the various versions of the story, while at the same time you were reading some scenes 3 times over. By Invasion block this problem had been solved: the novels were where you could find the actual story, the cards merely served as illustrations and as a way to further flesh out the world. Again, this is quite like today, where the Magic Story articles are the story, the cards the illustrations, and the artbooks flesh out the worlds.

That seems to me to be the best way to go about things, so I'm really happy Wizards has returned to this idea. Format-wise the Weatherlight Saga was a grand experiment, that seemed to have good results at its end, so it's a shame Wizards decided to retire it for so long afterwards.


AS A WAY OF LOOKING AT CONTINUITY
We can tell a similar story when it comes to the way continuity was handled during the Weatherlight Saga. It is often simplified as a golden age of continuity, wedged in between the pre-revisionist era (which was supposedly completely self-contradictory and stricken from continuity by the start of the Weatherlight Saga anyway) and the planeshopping era (In which each story stood alone with only some minor links to the larger Multiverse). But this is just as much an oversimplification as saying the entire Weatherlight Saga was told in the Tempest format.

While looking at the pre-revisionist era we already saw that its continuity errors have been vastly overstated. Yes, the first few Harper Prism novels couldn't figure out what a planeswalker was supposed to be like, but by the end of the era everything seemed to be wrapped up in one nicely consistent and interconnected continuity. And when looking at Mirage and Tempest block we saw that there never was a clear divide between pre-rev and revisionist continuity. Late pre-rev flows directly into early-Weatherlight. And while we did get stuff like the Ice Age cycle completely screwing up the continuity of the Ice Age comics, we also get references to Estark and Empress Galina as late as Myths of Magic and Invasion. Heck, even The Eternal Ice, while clashing horribly with the comic, went out of its way to make sure it matched with Feast of Kjeld!

As for Wizards suddenly making an effort to make sure everything fit together and thus creating a perfect continuity...
  • The prologue of Planeswalker ret-cons the time, and thereby the tone, of the epilogue of The Brothers' War.
  • Planeswalker makes Gix Thran, even though he didn't know who the Thran were in The Brothers' War.
  • Planeswalker says it happens in 3437 AR, but Time Streams ret-cons that date to earlier.
  • Urza's block makes Tolaria the birthplace of the Legacy, while Rath and Storm showed the island as knowing nothing about artifice. 
  • This also ret-cons the reason Hanna and Barrin are estranged, from "I wanna do artifice but my dad wants me to do magic", to... vaguely explained stuff about Barrin wanting to keep Hanna away from artifice because that is Urza's "thing".
  • Ramos' origin story entirely contradicts The Brothers' War's showing of the Sylex Blast.
  • Sisay's personality and motivation, driven by the Legacy, disappears entirely after her rescue.
  • Prophecy had Rayne alive while Hanna says her mother is long dead in Rath and Storm.
  • J. Robert King's mutated-with-a-few-grafts Phyrexians who keep invoking Yawgmoth by name really are a far cry from the all-flesh-is-weak Phyrexians from Planeswalker who don't dare say anything more than "the Ineffable" when referring to their lord.
And if planeswalker powerlevels made no sense before... they still make no sense here. In Planeswalker one Inner Circle member, Gix, can stand up to Urza, supposedly one of the most powerful 'walkers ever. But then in Apocalypse Lord Windgrace kills Inner Circle pneumagogs willy-nilly... so I guess planeswalkers got more powerful over time? But then why do 9 of them have so much trouble attacking Phyrexia, while before Urza alone nearly destroyed the whole place himself? Really, the only reason we don't see more planeswalker power-wonk in this saga is because there are barely any planeswalkers in it until the very end!

This is great, and all credit goes to Andrew!
Not that I want to bash the Weatherlight Saga too much. Any storyline that goes on for this long, with this many creators involved, is going to run into continuity errors. And like I said above, most of these can be fixed with some effort. (Except for stupid, stupid Ramos!) I really just want to stand up one more time for the pre-revisionist era, showing that it is not half as bad as people make it out to be.

If anything I prefer the interlocking but sometimes contradictory stories of both the Pre-Rev and Weatherlight eras, compared to what comes next. The planeshopping novels manage to make very few continuity errors, but the price is that they barely reference anything at all. Mirrodin is book-ended by appearances of Karn, Kamigawa ends with a familial link to Legends II, and Ravnica has literally nothing to do with anything. That's all there is to the continuity in that era. (Well, there is a bit more in the Legends cycles, but most of that is a complete mess. We'll get to it eventually.) There will be plenty of things to talk about during the upcoming reviews, but I'll miss the endless continuity references sections.

AS AN ERA
The changes in format and the way continuity are handled point to a big change in Wizards attitude towards the storyline. Even though the problems with using the cards to tell the story were mostly solved, from this point on the storyline and the cards will diverge sharply. Odyssey block will have at most 10 storyline relevant cards in total. Onslaught block will trump that by telling completely different stories in the cards and in the novel! That makes the inability to write Lin Sivvi/Liin Sivi's name consistently look tame! I doubt we will ever get the full story behind this change, as it seems some behind-the-scenes problems were the root cause of it, and Wizards is very good at keeping their dirty laundry inside. But we will find a few hints from which we may extrapolate things, and uncovering those will be a recurring theme for the next leg of our journey.

So in a way we are leaving a golden age of continuity. An ongoing story, nice continuity, a regular novel format and a coordination between those and the cards (admittedly, those last two took some experimenting to get right.) Keep in mind that is was not a perfect era, but I think it was good as it could probably get. Oh, and also keep in mind that when it comes to tight continuity it doesn't start with Weatherlight, but somewhere halfway through the pre-revisionist era!

All of which kind of sounds like I'm slagging of the next era of Magic before I even get to reviewing it, which is a bit unfair. True, continuity-wise Scourge is probably the nadir of the entire canon, but quality-wise Torment, Legends II, Kamigawa and Ravnica are all well regarded. So I hope you will all stick with me as we give a fond farewell to the Weatherlight Saga, and set sail for the next leg of our journey!


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