theros set

Rich World-building and Magic the Gathering

So this is a post I’ve wanted to make for a while, but I decided to wait for Hour of Devastation to come out because a lot of it is based on Amonkhet block as a whole. Originally I was going to call it “Shallow Worldbuilding” and talk about how the worldbuilding since Battle for Zendikar block has been dissatisfying to me, but I decided to flip it and talk about when magic has done it exceptionally well instead. 

First I want to note that narrative and worldbuilding are obviously different elements of story. The kind of stories you can tell through trading cards lean heavily toward worldbuilding. It’s easy to show setting with magic cards, but it’s much harder to show things like character development, plot progression, twists, climaxes, rising action and all that stuff. This is why in general, second and third sets of blocks are less favourably received than the first, because the first set’s entire job is introducing you to the world. 

The story columns that go up on WotC’s website are probably better now than they ever have been before. I remember trying to get in to magic’s story back in return to ravnica, and finding a bunch of disjointed short stories giving snapshots into what life on the plane is like. This is something the cards already do, so using magic story to provide the core narrative is shoring up a weakness pretty cleverly. However, as the magic story columns got better, something happened. The worlds became less interesting, less real. Maybe it’s because they became more focused toward supporting the core narrative when creative got better at doing that. To show you what I mean, I want to talk about an example that did it right and one of my favourite worlds that WotC has ever made: Theros. 

I don’t hear that much positivity around Theros. Mechanically, I can see why the set disappointed some people, but creatively I see it as a massive success and it’s largely the measuring stick I compare future worlds to. The reason why I love Theros so much can be summarized in one card:    

Setessa, one of the three main poleis of Theros, is a Matriarchal society of adopted orphans that encourages it’s young men to travel around the world once they reach a certain age. I remember this because it’s such a strange and obscure fact to put into the world of a card game. It does not affect any aspect of the story and has no ramifications for Elspeth’s quest. But it does flesh out the world, and assure us of it’s depth. I remember Setessa, Meletis and Akros because they have distinct identities even beyond the colours they are attuned with. I even remember Asphodel and Odunos, the two undead cities that typify the different kinds of Noston in the world. I have some idea of idea of the life a person might lead in Theros.

When building a world for a story, your first job is to convince me that people live there. Whatever you do next - for example, destroying that plane and wiping out it’s people - will not matter if I don’t accept the verisimilitude of your world. Part of verisimilitude is obscure, almost illogical details like the ritual exile of young men from Setessa. This is not in the story for any plot-related reason, so I have to conclude it’s there because it’s part of what it means to be a Setessan, just the same as there is no logical reason for why we dress our children up like monsters and tell them to ask strangers for candy. 

Zendikar has a rich, believable world with a recognizable identity but Battle for Zendikar forgot this depth and unleashed devastation upon a populace that didn’t feel real for me, and left me unmoved. Innistrad is a masterclass in tone, but it is less a world than it is an aesthetic or a gallery of horror tropes and so creative can feed it’s citizens to all the eldritch monsters they want and I won’t care (okay, except for Hal and Alena). Naktamun is a name I had to look up even though the block it features in isn’t fully released yet, because it has roughly the identity of only one of the major cities in Theros’ setting. Why is this? 

For me it comes down to a lack of detail. Everything we’ve seen in Amonkhet about their culture is purposeful, and part of a very precise machine - both the diegetic (or in-world) machine of Bolas’ plot and the non-diegetic machine of Creative’s storyline. The amount of contrivances that Amonkhet’s setting has to jump through in order to make the plot work is ridiculous. The Gods are so easily manipulated that they seem scarcely more competent than a mortal - indeed, they are less astute than Samut is - and the city of Naktamun somehow has to survive in an isolated snowglobe. Now yes, everything is explained; the people of Amonkhet were left without elders to guide them and the gods were brainwashed by Bolas, so the city was entirely indoctrinated. Every single citizen can spend all their time training for trials that they die in because the annointed zombies take care of everything else. It all holds up to logic (a flimsy fantasy logic but still) but the end result isn’t really anything interesting. Naktamun has no artisans, no artists, no politicians, no history, no traditions or culture outside of the one forced upon them. Naktamun is a factory, a never-ending gym class, because that’s what the story required. The entire setting of Amonkhet is a means to an end, that end being Bolas gets an army. Was that worth it? You have to ask that question with every story-telling decision you make. You gave up the opportunity to craft a detailed fictional culture for the opportunity to give Bolas’ zombies a backstory. I would have preferred an Egypt set in a real, living world. Frankly you could tell me that Bolas somehow attained a zombie army off-screen and I wouldn’t question it, considering it’s just fine for him to brainwash and/or mutate gods off-screen just fine.

The creative team is really good at what they do and I have a lot of faith in them, but I’d urge them not to get lost in just tying up the loose ends of a plot. This is a cold and mechanical way to tell a story. Remember that the first and most important step is to populate your world with something we can believe in, and ask if what you are giving up is worth what you are getting in return. 

Finally I want to just throw back to the last time we had a rich, developed world and a solid core narrative at the same time by talking about Khans block. Khans of Tarkir is my favourite set and block because we got a world with ten distinct, well-rounded cultures and a rich history that we were allowed to experience. Khans block is when the online story columns started to turn around, so we had weekly chapters that kept us updated on the core story and snippets of the expansive, beautiful world of Tarkir from the cards. I remember the names of Tarkir’s river deltas, swamps, mountain ranges and monasteries. It incorporated aesthetics of Mongolian, Ottoman-Turk, Tibetan, Siberian, Persian and Indian inspiration without losing it’s identity to them. 

We wanted a return to Zendikar because it felt like we were escaping to a world of adventure and possibility. We wanted to return to Innistrad because it’s identity resonates so deeply. Kaladesh was wonderful because our first experience of it was the Inventor’s Fair, which was a beautiful example of the world’s culture. It’s the worlds you invent that keep us coming back. The Gatewatch are fine, but the real protagonist of any block should be the setting. I don’t care about the inner workings of an assembly line, and I won’t be clamoring for a return to Amonkhet anytime soon.

Magic Asks 2.0
  • 1: Favorite color?
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The Magus’s Stories (UPDATED)

Hey there! Well, this post should be fairly self-explanatory, right? Simply put, I intend this to become a masterpost for all the stories I write. They will all be listed (and linked to) in this post, and whenever I write a new one I’ll add it. Not only that, but I’ll be rebloging this post every now and then (probably once every few days or something) and I’m also going to pin it to my blog’s page (you can also find it at magus-of-the-color-pie.tumblr.com/stories). That said, thank you for your attention and if you end up reading any of these and have any questions or comments, please, please don’t be shy and let me know!

  • MtG Stories
  1. The Weaver and the Hunter: Story about a young Meletian named Lara and her encounter with Ashiok. Set on Theros;
  2. Lost Souls: Story about Levantera, an ex-Custodi, and the task Brago bestows upon her. Set on Paliano before the events of Conspiracy 2;
  3. Dissenter: Story about Arel, the Whisperer, and her struggles within and without the Temur clan. Set on Tarkir (both timelines); written in collaboration with @pandoraeve;
  • Other stories:
  1. Hawk and Raven: A young sword master encounters a fierce opponent on her path to vengeance (may be developed more in the future but should be ok even as a one-shot);
  2. Found: sci-fi one shot about escaping an insidious underground society;

Thank you for your attention ^_^

EDIT: I’ve changed the descriptions a bit, added the new story and fiddled with the links. Thanks for your attention!

thatdamnaussie  asked:

Was there a RG God before Xenagos' ascension? If so, who is it and what happened to them?

No red-green god recently existed in the pantheon; at the time of the Theros set, Theros had fourteen gods. If there had ever been a RG god before Xenagos, it was long ago.

(In reference to this, the Temple of Abandon was barely a temple at all, little more than a gathering place and an empty wooden throne. Its name implied that if such a god was ever to exist, its domain would be recklessness and immoderation — but it also hinted that the position was currently abandoned.)

“Just remember: Kaladesh is not India.“

A chance conversation with a member of R&D about my forthcoming trip to pax and excitement to see the launch of the new set led to this. And what an important, and telling, phrase it is.

Kaladesh is not India. It is not a top-down set like Theros or Innistrad. There were likely no meetings where Doug stood in front of a white board and wrote down resonant names and tropes that the design team came up with. There are no gods, heroes, or monsters to draw mechanics from. Kaladesh is a silken cover over a preexisting frame.

In 2013, at the Theros launch party at PAX, I asked Mark Rosewater directly if we’d ever get an Indian themed set like Theros. He told me that India didn’t resonate with western culture the way Greece did, and if we ever saw it, it would be a bottom up set rethemed.

Kaladesh is not India. It isn’t Kamigawa either. We’re not gonna have Honden and Myojin and Zubera making things needlessly complicated and impenetrable for the core audience. We will have clockwork and artifacts and other interesting mechanical themes because this is very likely Maro’s next Artifacts Block That Isn’t Mirrodin Because Mirrodin Is Now New Phyrexia.

But in modern magic, we don’t just have unthemed mechanical sets. So we have Chandra, the indian of ireland, and her homeland. A silken wrap over a neat framework of artifice. Saheeli Rai binds the two sides together, an Indian and an Artificer.

But Kaladesh, while it may look like it, Isn’t India. It is magic’s take on a specific era of time in a specific area of the world, as filtered through the needs of the game. So there will be elephants and saris and interesting proper nouns, vetted through a committee of seven people of south asian descent, and they will remake and remaster the artifact world to give it a brand new sheen.

Kaladesh isn’t India. I’m eager to see what it is.

(Not quite a) Quick Post: Odd ones out

Ah, Theros! What a wonderful place, don’t you agree? It is a very diverse plane populated by a variety of species: humans, satyrs, minotaurs, returned… Most of you (probably all of you, but hey, you never know =) ) are aware of the fact that wotc’s creation of Theros was inspired by Ancient Greece, which is why there are so many similarities between the two, both in terms of humans and their society and of mythology (which in Theros is much more… tangible).

If you know a little about the mythology (and history) of the ancient Greeks, a lot of cards in this set will probably remind you of something (in fact, I highly recommend you check out @mythandmtg: they’re really fantastic at explaining the thinking and real world mythology behind the creatures you cast everyday): catoblepas, nymphs, cyclopes… But then you notice something interesting: in the Theros set, there are two cards which don’t seem to derive from Ancient Greece at all. So, what I’m going to be doing now is illustrating briefly what these cards are and where they come from.

The first card is Raised by Wolves (which was in Born of the Gods). The reason nothing comes to mind when you try to connect this to Greek mythology is that this is actually inspired by Ancient Rome. Now, I’m not exactly an expert in Roman mythology, but I AM Italian, and every Italian (a lot of non-Italian people too, obviously) has heard the story of Romulus and Remus. In short, two brothers (who descended from Aeneas) where raised by a female wolf. They eventually founded a city, although *ahem* they got in a little bit of a fight and Romulus killed Remus (”this town ain’t big enough for the both of us”, amirite?). The city was Rome, the same that would come to rule most of Europe, “some” years later (that last part is true, by the way).

Now, I’m sure some of you were already aware of this. Which brings me to our second card. Gaze at it in all its glory!

This card is Nemesis of Mortals. If you were playing Magic when Theros was around, you’ve probably seen this guy a couple times. Now, the question is: what is this card inspired from? Well, that’s what I’ve been trying to understand. After searching through Greek Mythology for some time, I’ve had to conclude that my first impression was correct: this card isn’t inspired by ancient Greece at all. First off, look at the two humans in this artwork… don’t they look pretty different, compared to all the other humans we’ve seen in this set? The robes, the staff, even the woman’s ornaments seem a little bit off… Until you realize that this card would fit much better in a set inspired by ancient EGYPT. In fact, Even though the setting could appear as pseudo-Greek, the characters in the actual scene do not (also, the setting could just as easily be intended as Egyptian). The humans are dressed in a style which is reminiscent of certain garbs that high priests wore (to be honest, the woman could pass as royal, in my opinion), and the staff also look WAY more like something you’d find in ancient Egypt, not Greece.

At this point, some of you may be wondering: “Hey, that’s cool and all, but what about, you know… the GIANT SNAKE ABOMINATION?”. Ah, but of course! I just wanted to leave the best for last, you see. The snake, which is what the card represents, is what initially made me suspect something was out of place. I couldn’t think of any Greek stories with big-ass horrific snakes in them (though perhaps I’m mistaken?). You know what I could think of? Egyptian stories with big-ass snakes in them!

{Illustration by GENZOMAN}

This, ladies and gentlemen, is an idea of what Apophis could’ve looked like. This mighty snake (also referred to as Apep, which, in my opinion, sounds much less menacing) is the god of Chaos and one of the biggest baddies in all of Egyptian Mythology (I’ve seen several illustrations of Apophis, and honestly few of them look very similar to each other, but this is the god of Chaos we’re talking about, after all. They care little about these trivialities). Apophis hated the order enforced by the gods so much that every night they attempted to devour Ra, the God of the Sun (one of the most powerful and important deities) as he made his trip through the underworld. Even Ra himself needed to have other deities act as bodyguards in order to survive the onslaught of Evil incarnated.

So, I guess that’s it for today! I have no idea why I only came up with this post now (and not, say, when Theros was still in rotation), but eh! Happens. This was something a little different than what I usually do, so I hope you all enjoyed it regardless! As always, if you have any questions or suggestions, feel absolutely free to send me an ask or a message! Until next time, planeswalkers, may your travels be devoid of hungry wolves and giant snakes!