Story Blocks

Editor’s Note: Sorry for the lack of any new work lately. I’ve been enjoying time with the baby, but time flies fast. I have enough half written columns that I really need to get something up. I’m looking to do an “All new content” week early in September that will include my almost usual PAX write up (as well as a final redo of the way this blog looks). There will also be new content from me on GatheringMagic as well. You don’t want to hear about personal stuff,  you just want Magic. Alright, here we go.

The riskiest block structure that WotC ever printed was the Ravnica Block. So, by revisiting that plane years later we’re going to get something even more out there. WotC hopes that they strike gold again; I have no doubt that they will. But to understand everything going on we need to return not to Ravnica but to Mirage, the first Block set. From there we can put together all of the pieces that has lead to WotC doing something so drastically different that it could cause some trouble. We’ll get to the history in a moment, but if you didn’t see the San Diego Comic Con panel (and you can with that link), here are the important details. The old Ravnica block looked like this: However, this coming block looks like this: Both Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash are large sets, so the drafting experience goes like this: And what we have here is the biggest and most ambitious set and block design that WotC has ever attempted exceeding the most “complex” block ever: Time Spiral. And how did we get here? Let’s take a history lesson. When Magic first started it was about the flavor and the cards and less about the story. Sure, there was some story to tie everything together (Arabian Nights was based off the One Thousand and One Nights), but it was all about the cards and the setting. Then, Mirage came along as was the first true block. Stories has started to take hold as a means to make the cards seem like they fit together (Antiquities was about the Brother’s War). But this was the first block to be designed with a full story and drafting experience together. Of course, Mirage fell into a two story set “curse” and the third set in the block had almost nothing to do with the African theme. It was the Weatherlight’s crew that wanted the spotlight.

In this third set we started to get a full time story in Magic. While what the cards did were still important, the story beats that the cards had to hit and covey were now a focus as well. If you put most of the art together for Tempest it will tell the story of what’s actually going on (The Duelist had printed this and thanks to @setzerg for finding it). While later blocks didn’t follow each individual beat (or multiple cards of the same scene – See all cards of the creatures attacking The Weatherlight), they all had cards that depicted events in the story. Invasion/Planeshift/Apocalypse especially followed this model.

For four years, it was nothing but the Weatherlight crew and their adventures (Where Urza’s Saga kinda filled in some of the back story there). Story is important when it comes to Magic. The tournament players don’t really acknowledge the Vorthos side of the game too often, but the story is important for creating new cards and mechanics that help describe the world. Not only that, you need a story to explain why you’re creating cards and why people should become invested. Take a look at “Vs.”, the comic book game that has since gone belly up. Most everyone who played that game knew the characters and events depicted within the cards, but when the sets were put together, what did they consist of? The goal of each previous set was to outdo the last one in power and just throw in characters that people wanted. There was no story, nothing going on; stories from the comics were told, but nothing in a meaningful fashion. I believe that this helped lead the game to its downfall.

When the Weatherlight Saga finished its run in Apocalypse, players were clammering for the next big story arc. They got a story for two years before Magic did it never attempted before: they left the only major plane that the stories were told. Since Mirrodin, we have visited a different plane each year; the only notable exceptions were Time Spiral (a return to Dominaria), Scars of Mirrodin (the return to Mirrodin) and, Ravnica (In the most aptly named set, “Return to Ravnica”). Different locations every year meant that players had one year to get used to characters then never guaranteeing that they would see them again. This was unlike all the stories told up to Mirrodin: there was a chance of running into someone again (once they’re dead, they stay dead).

The rise of neo-Planeswalkers, characters that could travel from plane to plane, changed the storytelling. With this, players could get those emotional ties to characters that could come back and show up in new locations any time the story required. This was a fantastic move by WotC and I feel helped to raise the popularity of Magic with gamers and the general public. However, the original Ravnica didn’t have Planeswalkers. In fact, if you paid attention, there was something that the Ravnica block did that hasn’t really been done since. Sets post-Weatherlight Saga (Odyssey and after) have almost always followed the same sort of structure:

  • First Set – Introduce World and Main Characters
  • Second Set – Problem with the  World
  • Third Set – Conclusion of the Problem

Stories are commonly told in three acts, but there’s something peculiar about Magic. Since it’s not a straight forward story telling medium, you have to communicate the story by other means. There’s the art, the flavor text, and the names of the cards and the story beats they represent. Tempest tried to do this, but only if you knew what order the cards had to go in. Much of Magic’s supplemental material is about the story that goes on while the cards try to represent this. This is different from Vs., who was like taking bits and pieces of stories from over 50 years and putting them into one set; Magic only deals with one main story a year. Let’s go back to the Magic structure in storytelling during their block:

  • Mirrodin Block
    • Mirrodin – We visit a metal plane
    • Darksteel – Memnarch wants to control the plane
    • Fifth Dawn – He’s destroyed, Mirrodin saved
  • Champions of Kamigawa Block
    • Champions – Spirits and non-spirits are fighting
    • Betrayers – Something about Ninjas
    • Saviors – Everyone is saved, right?
  • Time Spiral Block
    • Time Spiral – Time/Mana is ripping apart
    • Planar Chaos – Here’s what Magic could’ve been
    • Future Sight – Mending happens, Multiverse saved
  • Lorwyn/Shadowmoor Block
    • Lorwyn – Constant daytime plane
    • Morningtide – Er…
    • Shadowmoor – Constant nighttime plane
    • Eventide – Um…
  • Shards of Alara Block
    • Shards of Alara – Five planes of one Plane
    • Conflux – Nicol Bolas forcing Planes to come together
    • Alara Reborn – Ajani defeats Nicol Bolas (Not that you could tell from the cards), Alara saved
  • Zendikar Block
    • Zendikar – Unstable lands in an adventure plane
    • Worldwake – Jace/Chandra/Sarkhan fight
    • Rise of the Eldrazi – Eldrazi escape, Multiverse doomed
  • Scars of Mirrodin Block
    • Scars of Mirrodin – Metal world again, something going on
    • Mirrodin Besieged – Phyrexians and Mirrans battle
    • New Phyrexia – Phyrexians now control plane, Mirrodin doomed
  • Innistrad Block
    • Innistrad – Dark spooky plane where horror rules
    • Dark Ascension – Humans look to be doomed
    • Avacyn Restored – Avacyn comes back, Innistrad saved

I don’t think it’s any accident that the planes with the weakest stories are the ones that are not as loved as other ones, and most likely didn’t test or sell all that well. While every set has a fan or two, you don’t run into many people saying how they love Champions block. The mechanics aside, Champions and Lorwyn blocks have the weekest stories and two of the only blocks on this list that we’ll most likely never to return to again. Time Spiral block has the weird characteristic to “take a break” in the middle set before continuing the story in the third set.

This is why Ravnica is such an strange block. If you look at the block, it tells no story. Sure, there’s a thing called the Guildpact, and the ten, er, “nine” guilds of Ravnica are supposed to abide by it and at the end of the block it’s destroyed. But all of that means nothing to most players.

Ravnica is literally a block full of worldbuilding and players ate it up. This was a return to the original Magic sets and it worked. It should’ve have, but here’s why.

Players love multi-color so when a set was about the 10 pairs of colors showed up, of course they were going to love it. People could identify with one of the guilds that speaks to them; everyone has a favorite. All ten of the guilds get equal representation within the block, but it takes the entire year for the setup, instead of the traditional Large set in the Fall. Since WotC has said they’re only going to stick to one plane a year, Ravnica gets short changed a major story. Because they only have so much space to get the Guild model across, they don’t have much room for the story beats that we need for a story. Vindicate, Obliterate, Entreat the Angels, all of these are story beats that the Ravnica block is missing.

Spells usually do two things: 1) they dictate a spell that the caster (or guild in this case) can cast and 2) show an event that happened in this world. The dictate the two common ways of design, bottom-up (Function) and top-down (Flavor). Each of these have their place in Magic design and storytelling; the both build a world and build the plot. Ravnica block was filled with nothing but the spells that a guild-member could cast, there was no story told through the cards. This didn’t work well with Lorwyn/Shadowmoor blocks, but the shift of design has focused. Sure, restrictions breed creativity, but this is cutting off a huge segment of cards that you can design. This might be a huge risk.

And now we come to the weirdest block design ever: two large sets and a small set. WotC knows the guild model works and it’s key to Ravnica (Even though the Shocklands were pretty high up on that list as well). It looks like WotC is trying to have their cake and eat it too. By shrinking the guild model to two sets, large sets so that there are equal numbers, this gives them a third set to “tell a story”. The ideal wisdom here is that there will be a story that takes place within the first two sets, but no one will pay attention. This is the tricky part of this business: how much time do you need to tell your story especially in a non-lineal medium?

Look above at my outline. Ask players what Innistrad was about. Then ask them about Avacyn Restored. WotC beat us over the head about Avacyn coming back to save the residents of Innistrad, but the rest of the story is a bit hazy. There’s a story there (especially in Dark Ascension), but it took the small set to get to that story. Gatecrash will still focus on 5 guilds and have to fit in room with the plot if we’re going to get something by that third set. What’s the point of having a set with all 10 guilds if nothing happens? More guild cards? Smooths out drafting?

Listen, I know people are going to go crazy for this block, and drafters will like it because it’ll be a new style every few months. I’m sure this will do nothing but help WotC with their sales (which means more Magic products for us), but I’m very curious about how all of this is going to play out. Stories have become a much bigger factor in how Magic is looked and interacted with. The Planeswalkers were key, but story elements didn’t come out larger in force until Conflux, and especially in Scars of Mirrodin. By trying to do both, WotC might be trying to do too much with too little space.

Can Return to Ravnica hold a storyline for most people? Can design pick up the slack of the missing element of not being able to create cards around story events? Will this block lose some of that momentum that has been gathering steam for the past several years? I don’t know. Again, this block is a huge risk with all of the choices made that we’ve seen so far. I hope it pays off. Otherwise, we could have another Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block on our hands.

One thought on “Story Blocks”

  1. Interesting piece.

    As we’re in the middle of Gatecrash previews, it looks to be that the first two sets are building up the tension between guilds. I’ve seen several cards where the flavor text is a comment from another guild member (Teysa seems to have several opinions floating around), while the art depicts multiple guilds in action (a Dimir card with a Boros soldier being subjected to the spell). It feels like things are building up until an inevitable explosion rallies all of the guilds against each other for supremacy.

    I expect Dragon’s Maze to be the explosion in question. Everyone has the same goal, but now they’re in direct competition with each other in order to survive.

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