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.