History of Magic Publishing: Planehopping to the End of the Line

"[Novels] require plot events, which in turn affect the characters, often changing them in some way. Cards, on the other hand, require characters that don't really change, and cards can't communicate plot or character interactions very well at all."
Brady Dommermuth, 2003, before the release of Mirrodin
"Man it would be embarrassing if we found out they canceled the novel line from someone not from creative. I mean could you imagine if Maro told us instead of, say Brady or Doug."
Skibo, 2012, after Mark Rosewater casually announced the end of the novel line on Tumblr

When we last considered the history of Magic's storyline, Wizards of the Coast was faced with multiple apocalyptic events. In-story, Dominaria was experiencing an apocalypse at the hands of the invading Phyrexians. The story paradigm of the last four years was exploding as a result, as the Weatherlight Saga crashed to an end. And the model that supported the Weatherlight Saga, in which a large number of cards portrayed story events, and storylines spanned multiple years, was cracking under the pressure of time constraints, the demands of developing a card game alongside an epic narrative, and the sometimes bizarre plot ideas proposed by various writers. Not for the first or last time, in other words, Magic's fanbase had to ask: just what is the plural of "apocalypse," anyway?

Something needed to change . . . 

Era 2B: Planehopping

Glissa Sunseeker
Era 2B was, in many respects, simply a continuation of 2A (hence my decision to label them as such). Each block got a trilogy of novels. The beats of the block roughly corresponded to the beats of these plots. How novels and cards related to each other nevertheless changed profoundly. No longer would the storyline be portrayed on the cards. Where before legends for the main characters were distributed sparingly — Gerrard only received his (bad) legend card in Apocalypse — and story beats were abundant, now the legends characters like Kamahl and Glissa received were practically the only nods to story we got, beyond extremely broad strokes. If you looked at the cards alone, you could be forgiven for assuming there wasn't much of a story at all. There certainly weren't recurring characters, not really. Kamahl's a feature of Odyssey and Onslaught, and Karn shows up (briefly) for Mirrodin, but until Time Spiral the narrative is one of largely unconnected crises on largely unconnected worlds.

There were things that stayed constant, of course. During the 12 years in which print novels for Magic were published in-house, the overwhelming majority of the books were exactly 320 pages long. This should give you some sense of the standardization at work here. Each set had a novel. Each novel was 320 pages. Because blocks had three sets each, stories were trilogies. Whether storylines needed to be 960 pages total was beside the point, it seems. They were going to fit that format, by hook or by crook, and if they needed to add in decades-long time skips, Primeval Dragons, or Sash and Waistcoat (ask Jay) to do it, they would.

Oh, and there was one other fact that'd become increasingly relevant as this period dragged on: the stories were, to an extent, beholden to the sets, and had to be produced rapidly between the general finalization of the sets and the publishing of both sets and books.

The Upside

Aboshan, Cephalid Emperor
There's some pretty interesting worlds in this period, and some pretty interesting stories set in those worlds. Kamigawa, a block unfairly remembered as a comedown after the high power Mirrodin block, had not only some solid novels but a wide range of fun short stories published online, filling in the backstories of various legends. Ravnica's sets told a global story of power, corruption, and urban politics, while its novels explored these themes localized to the powerful players in the ten ruling Guilds of the plane. Odyssey gave us a look at how a world might recover from an event as seismic as the Phyrexian Invasion, and also gave us grasshopper people AND octopus people.

Mirrodin had [checks notes] dragons with jet engines on their wings. That's pretty cool I guess.

Oh, and it did, it seems, relieve the pressure somewhat of having to plan out every story beat ahead of time to go on the cards. The upsides noted above tend to emerge from story and cards being at something of a remove, with the cards focusing much more on worldbuilding and the narrative of a whole environment. The cards, in fact, probably saw the greatest benefit. This new design-focused era of Magic privileged sets that were built around unified mechanical identities, and while those identities were a little crude at first ("Artifacts!" or "Graveyard!" or "Legends!") compared to contemporary designs ("A Sense Of Dread Emerging From The Contrast Between Graveyard And Discard Mechanics And Sunny Cheerful Art!") this period of design for design's sake, with the story coming after (sometimes WAY after, as a recent Multiverse In Review article points out . . . ) was foundational for Magic's production moving forward. And some strange aspects of Design's takeover, like Odyssey's design team's decision to use all weird, non-standard creature types, helped produce some truly unique settings.

Unfortunately, the huge swing of the pendulum toward design concerns did not, overall, bode well for the role of Vorthos in WotC decision making, or for the health of the Novel Line as a whole . . . 

The Downside

Nicol Bolas
Mirrodin block's set symbols represent the Sword, Shield, and Helm of Kaldra. In the novels for the block, Glissa and her companions summon Kaldra by combining the three artifacts. A big blue glowy dude shows up wearing and wielding the artifacts . . .  and he's promptly co-opted by the villain Memnarch and turned against them, rendering the whole quest deeply pointless. Oh, and for the record this artifact that was built up for three sets is actually activated, pointlessly, in the climax of book . . .  two.

This kind of thing happened quite a bit in this period. The more I look back on this period — particularly the three years covering Odyssey, Onslaught, and Mirrodin — the more this seems like a low point in Magic's flavor and storyline history. Odyssey and Onslaught, despite being set on the same island, clashed spectacularly in worldbuilding due to the transition from the wildly inventive species of Odyssey to the design-mandated generic elves and goblins of Onslaught . . .  and that design also clashed spectacularly with the in-progress novels for Odyssey. Mark Rosewater describes, bewilderingly, "consulting the author of the novel (to get a better sense of the story)" so that they could better tune their strange alternate creature type scheme, and ultimately sending the novel back for rewrites due to a conflict between their desire to not use merfolk in the set . . .  and the novel's primary antagonists being a merfolk empire. Yikes.

The novels for Onslaught had precious little to do with the story on the cards, and neither was particularly good. Mirrodin was a structural mess. Kamigawa was in many ways more solid but suffered from this period's overuse of tit-based creature design (this is an era that gave us "snake-folk" with legs, four arms, hair, and, most remarkably, huge breasts), and the aesthetic for the period as a whole wallows in late 90s/early Aughts magepunk dark age comics edgy nonsense.

Moreover, the dissociation between novels and cards was, as far as I can tell, disastrous for the health of the novel line. It's hard to piece the corporate climate together from what limited accounts we have — WotC is rather tight lipped about the actual economic health of its products — but while someone (Rei Nakazawa, probably) claimed during the Odyssey era that the novel line was doing well enough to support novels for everything from Mirage to Arabian Nights, Brady Dommermuth later claimed estimates of future growth were "rooted in optimism but . . .  not supported by data". Anthologies and secondary trilogies eventually dropped off, and the novel line was just block novels. Novels were removed from the fat packs, as players for the most part seemingly didn't care about them . . .  which, fair enough, but it effectively cut non-American readers out of the storyline altogether, as the books simply weren't available overseas.

In many ways this era was the worst of all possible worlds. Terrible aesthetic choices in flavor text and concepting were paired with stories divorced from their sets, but those stories were still published under a taxing schedule in which everything from overall coherence to basic copyediting suffered, and the novels were confined to a rigid 960 pages that bloated some stories and constrained others.

The real bone of contention in this model, though, was how Planeswalkers, the ostensible stars of Magic's storyline, fared in this era. Over this and the Weatherlight era, 'walker power levels varied wildly, as the plot demanded, but I think it'd be fair to say that they steadily increased over time. Urza was an immortal shapeshifter, yeah, but he was almost killed by some robot turtles in Planeswalker. By Legends I, Nicol Bolas was so powerful that he needed mana anchors to manifest on Dominaria lest he crack the plane's foundations, and Karona, the god-sona of the planeswalker Jeska, could casually suck away all of Dominaria's magic by accident. What had started as a fairly reasonable power fantasy — "the ability to reshape your body at will sure sounds nice," I said to myself, transgenderly — had been allowed to expand to levels that the creative team, and particularly head of creative Brady Dommermuth, had real trouble grappling with.

So, in another instance of Magic's storyline mirroring its production history, a cosmic crisis in which the power level of Planeswalkers broke the multiverse itself was invented to justify the depowering of all 'walkers and the mass removal of many old characters . . .  due to the power level of Planeswalkers breaking the multiverse on a narrative production level.

Planeswalkers were gods once. After the Mending, all that would change, and the novel line, now able to follow Magic's flagship characters directly, would be saved.

That was the plan, anyway.

Era 3: Post-Mending

Magic's new publishing model was, it turned out, a lot like the old publishing model, just a little bit more flexible in some ways. Midway through the previous era, supplementary novels — Ice Age, and Legends I and II — had been dropped from the roster midway through, with anthologies clinging to life for just a few years more. Now, supplementary novels were back, and they weren't supplements anymore but the main show. The Neowalkers would each get their own Planeswalker Novel, written by freelancers and hyped up with hard covers and (resurrecting the classic HarperPrism strategy) book-exclusive promo cards.

Meanwhile, block novels, now just one book per block (still, of course, 320 pages), would take over from the trilogies. Rounding out the new model was the Planeswalker's Guide series, starting with the Planeswalker's Guide to Alara . . .  and ending with the Planeswalker's Guide to Alara, which didn't really sell all that well.

The big difference between this and the previous era was the apparent, or alleged, push to get the story out to a wider, non Magic player audience. Hence the hard cover editions and the hiring of established freelancers like Matthew Stover. Additionally, it carried over the Planehopping era's choice to avoid putting too much of the story on the cards. While published in-house, this era of the novels was perhaps closest, in some senses, to the era of HarperPrism and Acclaim, but with an added marketing push to get the storyline out to new audiences.

The Upside

The Mending was suppose to let the Planeswalkers take center stage again, giving the storyline a chance to really explore their potential, as both narrative subjects, and as marketable brands. The depowering of Planeswalkers, it was argued, would allow them to appear on cardboard as characters that players could grow familiar with and use. Meanwhile, writing the block novels in-house would allow for quicker turnaround times, and the books could avoid the bloat and endless wandering of the worst Planehopping Era novels.

The Mending itself was deeply contentious within the Storyline fandom, to the point where it effectively broke the community's entire ability to function for a few years. The wide gap between the (less than enthusiastically received) Lorwyn Five getting revealed and the first actual story didn't help. Nevertheless, this scheme actually did work out relatively well in some ways. Agents of Artifice and The Purifying Fire are still solid books, and they were well received by the fandom, well enough that this, plus an infusion of new storyline fans drawn into the game by Alara, the community began to recover. Test of Metal has . . .  its fans. Many of the stories written in this period had, despite some frustrating retcons along the way, a longevity unlike anything else in the storyline. I mean, aspects of Kaladesh's and Ixalan's stories drew directly upon, and drew to a close arcs derived from, Agents of Artifice and The Purifying Fire! The fact that these resolutions came after nearly three times the wait it took for the Weatherlight Saga to get resolved is, if anything, even more impressive.

While the community could not see it at the time (which must have been unspeakably frustrating for Brady Dommermuth . . . ) all of this heralded the slow ascendancy of Vorthos again in the halls of Wizards of the Coast from the wilderness years of the Planehopping era. Magic stories could and should be better, and Magic could be better for having a story.

The Downside

Test of Metal played havoc with canon on a number of levels and the book (and its author) were divisive for the fandom. Neither Teeth of Akoum or Alara Unbroken were particularly well received in the storyline fandom, due to the obviously inexperienced writing of their Creative Team authors. (Doug Beyer went on to improve considerably. Robert Wintermute was to vanish into the shadows — a move that was, all things considered, probably for the best.) Quest for Karn was widely panned and the ending was so garbled that Brady Dommermuth had to clarify what the heck actually happened in Venser's pivotal sacrifice to save Karn. (He passed on Melira's immunity to the Oil to Karn! Now can we please stop saying that he needed to give Karn his Planeswalker Spark? For goodness sake it's been six years!)

And then there was Curse of the Chain Veil. Jay has covered this in considerable detail elsewhere but the short version of the story is that the manuscript they received, according to Brady Dommermuth, "differed so sharply from our expectation that we elected not to publish it". Keep in mind this is a period that featured a whole book of Tezzeret running around naked, Nissa "Revine's" name was misspelled repeatedly in her own book (hey, wasn't publishing in-house supposed to make these kinds of copy edits easier?), and several chapters of The Purifying Fire being mysteriously and substantively rewritten. Somehow, amidst all this, a book was deemed unprintable.

Behind the scenes things weren't much better. The novels were not selling. In fact, they probably NEVER sold. According to Brady, at the high water mark, assuming the best sales for books and the lowest estimates for players, only "1 in 10,000 Magic players bought any given Magic novel".

The Mending era was on shaky ground from the beginning with the commercial failure of the Planeswalker's Guide to Alara, and these subsequent failures broke Magic's novel line completely. Within a few short years of the great rebooting of the novel line, the now fourteen year long project was canceled entirely.

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