Is Wizards of the Coast Ready To Go Back To Dominaria?
I just started a new (for me anyway) China Miéville novel: The Iron Council, third in Miéville's loosely connected Bas Lag series. Only a short way in, I'm already deeply drawn into the plot . . . but not because the protagonists are familiar. The book takes place two decades after the previous novels, and the characters shared between the books are not the primary protagonists of earlier stories but side characters who appear here as rumors and legends, small parts of a larger struggle taking place across a wider swath of history.
No, it's not the characters who draw me into the text, but that history itself, and the geography of Bas Lag. Sure, some of the book takes place in Miéville's ascendant imperial city of New Crobuzon, with its secret militias and flesh-warping magic. New Crobuzon, however, is only part of a wider world, most of which it alternately trades with or bludgeons into submission (usually in the interests of forcing the world to trade with them). In this context, even the unfamiliar corners of Bas Lag that Miéville explores here are given weight and meaning and (often mostly implied) history, because these pieces are connected to a wider whole.
It's this kind of context that makes the venerable core Magic world of Dominaria fascinating as a setting, this same operation of taking a whole world and seeing how it interconnects, how things affect each other. We've returned repeatedly to the Domains and to Terisiare, to Shiv and Benalia, New Argive and Urborg, but we've also seen places like Otaria, Caliman, and Sarpadia, smaller features of a larger world that are nevertheless connected deeply to the overall fate of Dominaria.
Take Sarpadia, for example. Host of the tragically underpowered early set Fallen Empires, Sarpadia was hit hard by the Dominarian Ice Age created by the Sylex Blast that ended the Brother's War. Several of its titular "empires" fell because the cooling climate — overwhelmed by migrating goblins and homarids, or by their own attempts to create solutions to the climate crisis in the form of thrulls or thallids. Or take Otaria. Relatively untouched by the Invasion, the White-aligned Order nevertheless launched a crusade against Artifice in response to that war with the artifact hell of Phyrexia. More broadly, the island saw long term effects of the Phyrexian Invasion as refugees steadily flooded its shores in search of a safe haven.
Whew. Admittedly that's a lot of specific creature and culture names, and a bunch of historical references. It can be a bit daunting, for sure — that's one of the downsides, I suppose, of a world as expansive and complex as Dominaria. It's tricky to summarize, unless you put some real thought and care into how to pitch a complex story in a simple way.
Or at least, that's the problem Dominaria apparently presents to Wizards of the Coast. There's been a lot of talk lately in the fandom about whether WotC is ready to go back to Dominaria. We're coming up on 25 years of Magic, if you can believe it, and nods here and there — the recent reveal of new art for Lovisa Coldeyes and Jhoria for example — have plenty of folks confidently predicting a return.
I don't really deal in predictions myself, I'm a critic not a psychic, but yeah, I think in one sense we can answer the opening question here: I'm sure WotC would be ready to go back to Dominaria if they thought it made marketing sense, and the signals suggest that they probably think it does.
But at the same time, we've seen a lot of discussion on Blogatog, Mark Rosewater's tumblr, of the problems Dominaria poses.
Dominaria is plagued (ostensibly) by world-building that, for all its allure for players throughout the 25 years of the game's history, just isn't up to snuff. It "lacks identity" and that, according to writing wisdom, makes it a mistake.
All of this is leading me to ask "Is WotC ready to go back to Dominaria?" from a very different standpoint:
What makes Dominaria successful, what made it successful as a site for storytelling for a decade of Magic's history, are the very qualities that Rosewater here is disparaging as poor world-building. The other week, I talked extensively about the need for continuity — the way that continuity makes narratives meaningful in a shared world setting —and geography, history, difference of cultures and perspectives all tie into this idea. Many of the best stories of Dominaria are possible because they take place within a single world where distant events can and do affect one another, and diverse cultures interact.
This shouldn't come as a surprise. I've already mentioned China Miéville, but he's not the only person writing big sprawling complex fantasy worlds that can't be summed up planet-of-hats style. Can you imagine telling JRR Tolkien, George RR Martin, or Ursula LeGuin that their worlds can't be summarized easily enough? Tolkien, what's the point of having Beleriand on the same world as Middle Earth? Isn't that just confusing? And Martin, what's with this Essos crap? And LeGuin, aren't you writing medieval fantasy? What's with all these black people? Shouldn't they be on their own African world?
And Frank, listen, this whole feudalism in space thing is just crazy, you can't have feudalism AND sand worms AND spaceships AND mystic spice, it's a mess!
Don't you know that if you're everything, you're nothing?
It's totally possible, I grant, that big shared world fiction needs everything to be a little bit . . . let's politely describe it as "streamlined." And yet, lately that's been Marvel's design strategy, and well . . . we've all seen the reviews for Iron Fist by now, haven't we? Ouch.
If this is really the dogma about world-building at Wizards right now (and, in fairness, there's no way of knowing just how accurate Rosewater's statements are to the team's stance as a whole!) it should worry us. It suggests that a return to Dominaria might miss the rich storytelling potential of the world, might sand down its complexity, might give us the Disneyland version of Dominaria. They might be willing to go back, but if planes having multiple cultures, multiple perspectives, interacting with one another is seen as a bad thing rather than the actual core value of speculative fiction . . . then no, I don't think they're ready to go back, not in practical terms.
Dominaria Resort Playmat, courtesy of StarCityGames
In the statement I find the most personally frustrating, Rosewater responds to a fan rightly wondering whether we'll see more worlds like Dominaria that actually resemble, you know, actual worlds with the glib reply: "Did you watch “The Empire Strikes Back” hoping to get a peek at the tropical part of Hoth? : )" This response is obviously terrible. I mean, a space in the middle of a smiley face? Who DOES that? Just awful! But the implicit argument is also pretty weird. It's absurd to compare the first 10 minutes of a galaxy-spanning blockbuster to half a year's worth of short stories, cards, art books detailing geography and culture and concept art, and who knows what else.
But let's put aside the absurdity of the comparison on its medium merits and actually consider whether it makes sense to compare the galaxy of Star Wars with Dominia on a world-building level. I think it quickly becomes obvious that this argument falls apart too. The sense of scale in Star Wars, and the sense of interconnectivity that mirrors the political complexity of the Bas Lag novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Lord of the Rings, or the Hainish Cycle is achieved through one important means:
Everyone's a freaking Planeswalker.
The galaxy of Star Wars is deeply interconnected and things can respond to other things because interstellar travel is relatively widespread and easy. Recent Star Wars films have made use of this to create a sense of shared history across vast distances and sweeping scope. It's a fundamentally different ballgame. And even if we're to accept that the two things can be compared, what does Star Wars world-building actually look like? It's impossible to deny that, due to the sheer number of strange aliens and droids, the small slices we get of Tatooine, or Naboo, or Corsucant, or even Hoth look more like Rath and Mercadia in their resplendent weirdness than they do like, say, Theros.
I think it's very telling though that Rosewater references Star Wars here. Another quote is illustrative:
Everyone and their freaking grandmother wants to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Let's just put that out there as a blunt reality of the current media landscape. I don't think it's unreasonable to suspect that this is what Rosewater means by "convert to other media," or why he keeps returning to the otherwise strange Star Wars comparison. If the real aim here is "retrofit Magic for the Magic Cinematic Universe" then sure, I guess all this makes SOME amount of sense. If we're only going to see ten minute slices of Dominaria as interpreted through the lens of Hollywood banality, it makes perfect sense to wish that the story version of Dominaria was a little bit more like Disneyland's Dominarian Kingdoms.
But let's be clear about this.
This is not storytelling or art.
This is brand management. This is marketing.
And that's fine, I guess. It's not any business of mine, since I'm a Vorthos not a brand manager, but if people want to talk about the storyline purely on the level of brand management, more power to you I suppose. But please don't mistake focus testing for lit crit. It's not. It's just a simple indicator of what will or will not sell, and if that's all we care about from a critical perspective then the only reason Twilight isn't the best fantasy novel of all time is because Survivor and The Bachelor beat it. Which by the way, I imagine everyone's super psyched for the new hard sci fi masterpiece, Young Sheldon, right?
I'm not even convinced that this DOES fail from a branding perspective, regardless. It seems pretty silly to suggest that you can't market stories about Dominaria concisely. Let's return to the stories of Sarpadia and Otaria. Yeah, the way I described them earlier wasn't super accessible. No denying that! But how does this sound:
Pithy, dramatic, sets the stakes immediately for newcomers while also signaling the history and context . . . What gives? Shouldn't this be impossible, according to Rosewater's logic? It sure seems that way to me, and yet there it is. And crucially, these stories literally only makes sense in the context of Dominaria's wider history and geography — in the context of a continent-leveling explosion far enough away that Sarpadia didn't immediately feel the effects of the Brother's War, and an apocalyptic invasion that left the strategically useless Otaria untouched — while still remaining as accessible as, say, Rise of the Eldrazi and Shadows of Innistrad. Moreover, I don't think that "Medieval European Ecological Crisis" or "Post-Apocalyptic Scramble For Supremacy" are that much harder to understand than "Indian-influenced Aether-punk," given that Aether-punk isn't even a thing that exists outside of WotC just making it up. As one does sometimes, you know, when one's writing fantasy.
It's absurd to claim that because we've shifted geographically from one part of a world to another instead of leaping about from isolated plane to isolated plane we've lost all ability to describe what's happening in the setting. And it's ludicrous to say that clearly brilliant people at Wizards of the Coast can't figure out a way of pitching a return to some part of Dominaria. Like just to spitball here:
That wasn't so traumatic, was it? And sure, Wizards could probably come up with something better, and better than my FE and Odyssey pitches too for that matter. That's the point! These are very capable people we're talking about here.
The problem is not that Dominaria offers insurmountable world-building difficulties. The real problem is whether or not Wizards has a will to do a return to Dominaria right, whether they appreciate the value of complexity, history, geography, continuity, and whether they'll let Dominaria be the beautifully complex place it's meant to be.
I think we do have plenty of reasons to be optimistic, mind. Kaladesh's continuity-focused stories did a lot to raise my hopes. Nevertheless, the question I'm still going to be asking myself as we approach a Dominarian homecoming is still going to be, "Is Wizards ready to go back to Dominaria right?"