“Surprise! The threat to Innistrad is Emrakul!” said no one who pays attention to Magic: the Gathering’s storytelling narrative.
As a long, long, long term fan of the game, I have to admit that I’ve developed a very love-hate relationship with the way the stories of Magic have unfolded over time, especially as they pertain to the central tales being woven.
For the first decade of the game, Magic focused primarily around Dominaria and the tale of Urza, the most famous planeswalker the game had seen – until they decided to make Jace the game’s official mascot. With the exception of Arabian Nights, from the first sets until Mirrodin we were either treated to tales of Dominarian struggles or Urza and his unceasing dealings with Yawgmoth and the Phyrexian threat.
These stories began with this artificer’s war with his brother Mishra and how the result of that fight turned him into a planeswalker, saw the death of his brother, blew up a portion of an entire continent, and sparked a 3,000 year obsession with defeating the Phyrexian threat once and for all. (It even supposedly started the time rifts that made way for the neowalkers, but this was mostly a retcon when Time Spiral came out to justify diminishing planeswalker powers so they could make cards for them.) For years we bounced back and forth between the domestic issues of the plane (i.e. the Ice Age, Mirage, Urza , or Onslaught blocks) or the travels of the Weatherlight crew as they ventured to various planes trying to secure artifacts and allies against Yawgmoth and his followers.
This era of storytelling was hardly perfect. The details were often uneven, it had a constantly-rotating number of characters to track, and as high-fantasy often tends to do, scenarios were always somewhat convoluted. Sometimes the cards in the game were heavily tied to the story being told, and sometimes it was incredibly vague as to what was happening. Yet the Weatherlight Saga era of Magic’s lineage by most is still considered some of the richest, most intriguing Magic storytelling to date. It spanned almost a decade, took dozens of sets to tell, and devoted the time to deeper and nuanced characters that still stick in people’s memories to this day. It wasn’t perfect, no, but it was memorable, in part because it took the time to create a long-term narrative.
Once the game switched to a more plane-hopping approach, that all changed. Instead of years to get to know characters and their struggles, you had 2-3 sets at most. The worlds being depicted had to be much more concise and compact to make up for this. The creative minds had a much shorter time span comparatively to worldbuild. This was reinforced even further once the new crop of planeswalkers became the game’s primary focal points of the tales being woven.
On the positive side, the worlds themselves have become much more detailed. With a fraction of the time they once had, the planes that Wizards puts forth have been uniform and singularly-directed towards telling that plane’s story through the eyes of the planeswalker protagonists involved. Gone are unconnected art styles and extraneous secondary character development, opting for a much more congruent depiction of what’s befalling the plane.
By all metrics this change has panned out successfully, as the game continues to become more popular than ever, both in terms of the cards designed as well as the immersion into the plane being focused on. Sales are up, attention to the storylines is possibly at its height point ever, and player response to this approach has been deemed by the company to be unquestionably positive.
Except…these changes don’t come without their pitfalls. Aside from the fact that they’ve switched to the planeswalker-centric story approach, the stories nowadays feel so much more predictable compared to earlier ones. I think in many ways the creative team is putting out some of their greatest work to date in terms of continuity of quality, but I also think it’s no longer nearly as deep as it used to be. And for a Magic player who cares for the story as well as the cards, this saddens me greatly.
I actually laid out a bet during Shadows over Innistrad that Emrakul was going to end up imprisoned in the moon even before she was announced she’d be in Eldritch Moon – I was that sure that’s where the story was going to go. Because when you have that much less time to spend on the narrative, being subtle and having a long game fall by the wayside.
It’s the same reason that in a lot of ways the game has drifted from some of its more amusing moments, such as goofy artwork, punny flavor text, and odd mechanics. The best example of this is the brief existence of squirrel tribal cards around the time of Odyssey. These cards have long been loved by fans for their flavor and sheer ridiculousness, but the powers that be have quashed any return to their use ever since, deeming them too outside the scope of their perfect world settings.
And damn it, if I can’t get a lengthy nuanced narrative, then I want some humor to break up all the heavily processed material from time to time. With cards like this one:
Today we have: Squirrel Nest
Name: Squirrel Nest
Edition: Odyssey / Conspiracy
Focus: Token Generation
Highlights: Squrrel Nest was always the most popular squirrel card for a few reasons. For one, it was part several decks that used the easily broken combo with Earthcraft to make infinite squirrels. Which, all things aside, may admittedly be one of the few amusing infinite combos to pull off.
After all, if you’re going to go out, you might as well do so in style.
For a while the card was actually moderately costly to come by, but thanks to its reprinting in Conspiracy, it’s once again readily available for everyday use. So go nuts.
What’s more, the card itself doesn’t generally draw much attention, as like the creatures they generate, Squirrel Nest isn’t really much of a nuisance in isolation, which gives it some longevity in an EDH setting. Rather, it generally only causes trouble when it’s paired with something else.
Indeed, Squirrel Nest may not be a powerhouse card, offering more utility or defensive capabilities than anything else, but it is a quiet workhorse whose value should be undervalued at your own peril. Just be careful if the squirrels mobilize – they like to go for the eyes.
Don’t get me wrong: I understand that Magic’s stories have always been B-grade at best, your typical pulp fantasy tales. But we do enjoy them all the same. I just prefer them to either have more substance than they currently do, or to see more irreverence from time to time.
Keep an eye out for us to be regularly featuring other more accessible-but-worth-it Commander cards going forward. In the meantime, we’ll keep the light on for you.
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