Long, long ago, my father and I used to play Magic. He had a Blue-White fliers deck, and a classic Black discard deck with Dark Rituals, Hymns to Tourach, and Hypnotic Specters. I’d build whatever I could out of his leftover Green and Red cards, and we’d play each other.
(“Do you know why this Hypnotic Specter is strong?” “… You can cast it after Dark Ritual?” “Not just that — it takes cards from your opponent’s hand. It takes options away from them. They can’t counter your spells if you took the counterspell away.” “OH!” — 9-year-old me, learning about the metagame clock and card advantage instead of, y’know, how to catch fish and fix things.)
I got so into the game that my dad picked up one of the earliest pieces of Magic lore ever published — Tapestries, a collection of short stories by leading fantasy authors of the time. It didn’t delve much into Urza, Mishra, and the Brothers’ War, but the authors did have an absolute field day with the idea that you spent the game summoning creatures and then just… leaving them there. The book was filled with classic fish-out-of-water stories and bildungsromans with a fantasy flair.
Tapestries gave me my first taste of lore — that intoxicating concoction that turns a collection of numbers and game mechanics into an elf. Into something I can care about.
I tore through the stories and chased them down with the flavour text on every card in our collection. I caught glimpses and facets of Urza and Mishra, like shards of light from a jewel’s reflection. I watched the Kjeldorans war against Lim-Dûl in the italicized text on every soldier I cast.
When my father stopped buying cards, I took a break from the game as well, though not for long — I was back six years or so later, in time to see Kamahl’s story of rage, and then of redemption. Then came Mirrodin’s struggle against Memnarch, and Toshiro’s battle against Kondo and O-Kagachi, with Kamigawa’s war against itself in counterpoint.
Then another ten years gone, until Sarkhan traveled back in time to save Ugin, and I traveled to a brand-new games store on Portage Avenue to attend a draft and support a friend’s new business.
In all that time, the lore captivated me — though not so much how it was packaged in novels. I found actually playing the game preferable to slogging through 50,000 words of action I wasn’t taking part in, and kept up on the lore through research in my downtime.
So imagine my reaction when I returned, and discovered that Wizards was now publishing Magic’s story directly to the web in digestible little short stories and vignettes every single week. “Joy” understates it.
And then — and then — in 2015, we saw the Origins reboot, and each of our (now-)iconic Planeswalkers got origin stories and motivations. Again, that alchemical moment, when these powerful, modal enchantments became something with faces I could care about.
In 2016, the Gatewatch. A team of these icons, traveling planes and battling foes in a way Magic hadn’t seen since the days of the Weatherlight.
It was with the Gatewatch that I saw the criticism mount.
To hear some of the commentary online, you’d think the Gatewatch dooms us to years of plain, careworn comic-book super-feats and gosh-darn-it Boy Scout do-gooderism. Stories with no stakes and no growth — only cool explosions, cooler monsters, and pushed, tournament-level mythics with first names instead of descriptive ones. Woe, oh woe were the purists when Emrakul was revealed as the villain in Shadows block. Weep, oh weep did the devoted fans with every “Ashaya” and chess-playing Eldrazi Titan. The Internet rang with dismay.
Clearly, Wizards is just pandering. Or setting things up for the movie. Or sacrificing artistic merit for the sake of selling a product. Or giving in to the Tumblr crowd. Or something. Whatever explanation is popular this week. It changes depending on who you ask.
If you cannot tell — personally, I think that thanks to the weekly-short-story model and the Gatewatch, Magic’s story is the best it’s ever been.
I know we’re all nostalgic about Urza and Mishra and Yawgmoth and the Weatherlight and Venser and Elspeth, and nostalgia is wonderful and all, but look: here and here are the two most recent stories by Chris L’Etoile, a writer from BioWare’s legendary stories that Wizards brought in specifically to work on Magic. And then there’s Alison Luhrs, showing off here and here and here and here and here, a Wizards employee with a background in playwriting who’s turning out some of the company’s finest work — especially with Yahenni, a Kaladesh character you have to meet.
Go on. Read them. It’s worth the time, trust me.
When you’re done, I want you to read this story and pretend that you know nothing else about Magic.
Yes, I just made you read about Jace. But look at that story again — if you take away all of Jace’s appearances in Alara and Zendikar and Return to Ravnica and all the core sets, if you just look at that story and the ones that came after it, Jace is a fascinating character.
Origins Jace is what happens when you take Memento, the Hunger Games, and every Cold War double-agent spy thriller and blend it all up. Out comes an exasperated nerd who could be the brainy sidekick on the radio in any action movie — except this is Magic, so this sidekick gets pushed to the forefront occasionally and told he has to save the day. Or at least not die while he comes up with a plan.
It’s a novel take. Maybe I’m benefiting from not having been around for seven or eight years of Jace in core sets, but I’m entertained, and I can’t wait to see what happens when he returns to Vryn.
And when it comes to the Gatewatch — ensemble-cast media spellbinds us, like it always does. Marvel has propelled itself to juggernaut status based on how skillfully it has used its ensemble casts, to give you an example, while DC tries and tries again. Frankly, you’re not going to break the surface these days if you don’t have a broad cast that people can connect with, and the Gatewatch is precisely that.
I now have characters with weekly adventures I can invest in, delivered in an accessible way, and I cannot tell you how happy I am. Sure, George R. R. Martin delivering 2,000 words of Innistrad intrigue would be great. But today, I will take Alison Luhrs telling stories of Orzhov machinations on Ravnica just as gladly.
Finally — finally — if nothing else I’ve said here compels you, consider this: Nicol Bolas, Magic’s greatest antagonist, is coming back in Amonkhet. Revelations are at hand. Years of lore will be connected in ways we don’t expect.
Don’t you want to see what happens next?
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT IS FREE GAMES DAY — AT THE STORE, AT LEAST
Sunday, January 29th is Free Games Day at A Muse N Games! Bring some friends and bring a game, or try one from the store’s extensive demo library! Staff will be on hand to help you if you have any rules questions, and there’s no charge to participate, so come on down!
On the Netrunner side of things, we’ve got the Netrunner Store Championships on Saturday January 28th. Bring your decks and a $15 entry fee and try to reveal — or hide — those corporate Agendas to win glory and fame (and some sweet prizes!).
Outside of that, there’s organized play every day — Modern on Monday, Standard on Tuesday, D&D, LCGs, and now Frontier on Wednesday, drafting (now with Aether Revolt!) and X-Wing on Thursdays, boardgame shenanigans, Sealed, and Commander (casual AND competitive!) on Fridays, more drafting on Saturdays, and D&D Expeditions on Sundays!
See you at the store!
Jesse Mackenzie is a regular contributor to A Muse N Games and completely unapologetic about how much he likes Jace and the Gatewatch. Tune in every two weeks for The Mana Dork, his column about all things Magic!