5 Times Magic's Story Died Forever, Never To Recover

Ciel Collins • February 20, 2024

Magic Story Is Dead...

If you've ever seen online discussion of Magic's associated storylines, you'll come across a frequent distaste for those ongoing narrative arcs. The characters are boring now, they'll shout. The story is contrived, they'll insist. Magic Story was sooooo much better back in my day!

Every so often, Magic does something seemingly disastrous for the story, which people pinpoint as the reason it sucks forever now, until something new happens. 

I've been in the Vorthos community for over a decade now (ow, my back), and I'd like to review those "disasters" with the benefit of hindsight. 

Cancelling Novels

Once upon a time, Wizards of the Coast just gave away novels for free! Provided you paid for a whole bundle fat pack in order to get it. This ended with the Lorwyn block novels. Alara's novel would be released for purchase as a separate thing entirely. 

This was not received well, and people today will go on about how much better it was when the story was found in bundles, but... was it really? Think about the logistics. As of this article's publishing, Murders at Markov Manor featured a poster at the pre-release with the character Kylox, Visionary Inventor, with one hiccup: it called him Ustith. Mark Rosewater clarified in this post that Ustith was Kylox's name earlier on in the process and it didn't get updated properly. 

That was just a poster.

Imagine how big the room for error is with a novel. There were misnamed characters throughout the fat pack novels. Honestly, trying to print and release a full physical novel at all was an entirely folly venture with Magic sets. Even later on, when the physical novels were being released for sale alongside the set, the quantity of disparities was... wild.

Did you know that the novel released alongside the Scars of Mirrodin block didn't feature a single Praetor? That's because they hadn't been conceived of! This was the novel which revealed the return of the Phyrexian menace, and it didn't even know that Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite existed. There's a problem with the process. 

So, Magic Story shifted away from novels entirely. Web fiction had tons of untapped potential, but it lent itself very well to serialized storytelling, and well...

Too Much Gatewatch

I want to come to you with an olive branch, Gatewatch-haters. I don't want to be petty or mean-spirited. I want to be understanding. Many of you played the game from an early time, when you were the only planeswalkers in the game! Then, suddenly, Wizards of the Coast did the Mending and introduced planeswalker cards a set later. Planeswalking meant something specific but powered-down. In time, these characters became the faces of Magic... sort of. Then, these characters were the faces of the Intro Decks and showing up in every single set. 

For enfranchised players, I can understand how you might genuinely get tired of a character if you don't actually care about the character or story in general. It requires a lot of twisting myself up in weird knots to do it, but... I can. It feels like Wizards is forcing them on you specifically, when really... they're just trying to make sure the people in the back can hear the song at all. 

The Gatewatch was loud. It had to be, to reach as many players as possible. I personally wish we still had active Gatewatch branding and more oaths coming down the line. I like superhero stories, especially from non-traditional sources (i.e., not Marvel or DC) that can do something different with the tropes and ideas. A rugged band of disparate folks gathered together is a tale as old as time. 

But also, obviously, no matter what story structure was used, it would be hated. Magic is a game first, so any story that makes an effort to be part of that game is going to feel forced or tacked on by certain parts of the playerbase. It's important to remember that no matter what you love, somebody hates it. 

Even now, with the Gatewatch basically never mentioned, players still rag on it and talk about how much they hated it or how it's still ruining the story. At this point, it's become some weird chant that has largely lost meaning. It's kind of sad, honestly. Those people won, but still won't stop fighting.

Changing From an In-House Team

At the start of the Gatewatch Saga, with Magic Origins, all of the story posted on the Mothership was written by people directly employed at Wizards of the Coast. Folks like Kelly Digges, Michael Yichao, Chris L'Etoile, Alison Lührs, Kimberley J. Kreines (among so many others) worked together in the office to construct the overarching narrative and directly write the story. 

This changed with Dominaria (2018), written by Martha Wells. Stories would still be constructed by in-house staff, but they would be written by people outside of the building, by contract. 

This was a deeply controversial move, albeit mostly for the people in the Vorthos trenches.

The problem was that the in-house team kept changing. People don't stay at a job forever, so the perceived stability of an in-house team just wasn't real. Some of them work in different parts of the company or moved on entirely. The Ixalan story was written entirely by Alison Lührs because she was the only one with the time to do it. 

This move is not as hated nowadays, but for the first two years, every weird misstep was somehow the fault of outside contractors. Suddenly, the Gatewatch storytelling wasn't so bad after all. There were mistakes made in those early stories, to be fair, but largely minor nuisances in the grand scheme of things. Wizards would go on to hire a continuity consultant for the sole purpose of reviewing materials and catching errors beforehand rather than just hoping that someone (Kelly Digges, probably) would know the twenty-year-old lore about Thallids and Fungi.

There have been more than thirty different authors who have been hired at one point or another, and several of them more than once. More and more are getting work after a trial run via side story. Early criticisms of the outsider process was that it meant people not involved with Magic (implied: didn't care about it) were writing for it, and that may have been true (doubtful)! But it's far less true nowadays, with folks like Seanan McGuire and Reinhardt Suarez being involved, both of them being passionate fans of Magic and Magic Story who champion both at every opportunity. 

Ultimately, this change was hated for being a change. Like all transitions, it had a rocky start but has settled in nicely and has proven itself one of the best moves in Magic Story history.

The Return to Novels

Novels were great, some champion, but only when they were "free" it seems. 

War of the Spark's story was the culmination of nearly three years of Magic Story which had been heretofore released 1) online and 2) free. War of the Spark (both Ravnica and Forsaken) was neither, being instead a multi-novel release. 

I will not relitigate the discussion surrounding those novels. They were bad. This release did legitimately massive damage to the Vorthos community that has taken years to recover from (debatable if it's fully recovered, at that). The seeming rug-pull on the Chandra/Nissa kiss was especially disheartening, as we had no reason to expect Wizards to continue their story after that and give us any kind of positive closure on them. (They did, as I detailed here!) 

However, it didn't end there. It couldn't! Wizards of the Coast works years in advance, so the next several sets had novels planned as well. Throne of Eldraine and Ikoria both saw their novels launched as ebooks, with the story hard to parse unless you did read those novels. The cards had some things difficult to parse out (made worse by the Wizards team releasing a weird... semi-summary of the story of Ikoria which didn't align with the actual story). The novels costing about 5 bucks turned out to be too big of a speed bump for many casual Magic fans. 

The final crash of novels was when the full reaction to Forsaken forced the company to pull the plug on novels in their entirety. One last casualty: the Theros Beyond Death novel was deemed "not up to their revamped quality standards" and summarily canned. They promised that they could eventually tell their story in another form but... never did. The weird semi-summaries were posted once again, to everyone's confusion. 

It is my white whale.

The only way to read a full and complete work telling the Theros Beyond Death storyline is fanfiction, which isn't great!

Oh, well. There's one final problem Magic Story faced...

Children of the Nameless

Brandon Sanderson is kind of a big deal. 

He's a famous fantasy author who pulled the highest recorded Kickstarter, so when he offers to write a story for your IP for free, it's a dream come true.

The catch that Brandon Sanderson brought with him was that it be made available for free to the fans. Wizards of the Coast had the contract drawn up, with a caveat about being able to publish it as a purchasable novel, though that particular clause seemed either downplayed or worth it to do a cool thing. Brandon Sanderson has admitted that his first advance was used to buy some Power 9 for a Cube so, you know, kind of a Magic nerd.

So Children of the Nameless was released on December 12, 2018. The novella was incredibly well-received! People would be excited to see Davriel, even if he only ended up being a random uncommon in War of the Spark. There it stayed for a little over a year, until mid-2020, when it got pulled from the website. 

Wizards of the Coast pulled the much-beloved novella that was gifted to them by an author with a powerful and massive fanbase in order to... sell it exclusively in Germany. This trashed a lot of goodwill people had towards the brand. It wasn't the worst moment in Magic Story history (definitely bad), but it was the most... confusing.

...Long Live Magic Story

So, there you have it! The most controversial behind-the-scenes decisions of Magic Story history, by my reckoning. These days, I'm pretty positive about Magic Story, but what do you all think? Have they overcome these hurdles successfully? If you don't read the story, why not?

Ciel got into Magic as a way to flirt with a girl in college and into Commander at their bachelor party. They’re a Vorthos and Timmy who is still waiting for an official Theros Beyond Death story release. In the meantime, Ciel obsesses over Commander precons, deck biomes, and deckbuilding practices. Naya forever.