Last time I covered Nissa’s history up to the release of Magic Origins, from her beginnings as a video game villain to the damage done by a bad portrayal of In the Teeth of Akoum and several years of neglect. Up to the point where Nissa’s new backstory was released, she was depicted as an arrogant elf supremacist broken by her mistakes and starting to grasp the error of her ways.
When the Magic Origins stories started to come out though, all of that changed. Nissa is (re)introduced as the last animist—basically someone who uses magic to control the earth and plant life—in a tribe that’s forbidden the practice. Tormented by visions of an all-consuming darkness and under heavy suspicion from the tribe’s elders, the young Nissa is banished from her tribe for fear the presence of an animist will draw the full force of The Roil upon the tribe. (To be precise, Nissa overhears the elder banish her entire family and runs off into the wilds so that her mom doesn’t have to be exiled because of her.)
I won’t dive too deeply into Home, but the short version is this: Nissa is terrified of her magic, receives a vision from Zendikar, and realizes that her abilities are part of the natural cycle. Nissa’s vision leads her to believe that Zendikar has chosen her to cure it of the writhing sickness she can feel within the plane. She and her friend Mazik follow glowing streams of mana to the Eye of Ugin. Along the way vampires attack and infect Mazik, setting up Nissa’s hatred for the species. When Nissa reaches the Eye, she tries to summon the power of Zendikar and drive the darkness out. It doesn’t work of course, and when the backlash from Emrakul threatens to drive her insane, Nissa’s planeswalker spark ignites and rips her away to Lorwyn.
This is where things got problematic. When I got to this point the first time I read the story, I expected Nissa to be indoctrinated by the elves of Lorwyn, clinging to their teachings as a way for her to grow stronger in the (vain) hope of eventually destroying the Eldrazi. Instead, Nissa is found by an Elvish hunting party and quickly joins when they tell her they’re hunting blights. Nissa misinterprets this to mean they’re trying to expunge the darkness she can feel within Lorwyn. When it’s instead revealed that they’re slaughtering Goblins she recoils in horror and condemns the Lorwyn elves for adding more evil to an already dark world. Then the Great Aurora happens—why wouldn’t this story be made of astronomical levels of coincidence?—and the elves of Lorwyn start to mutate under its influence. There’s a weird sequence where she runs away while talking to the soul of Shadowmoor—yes, it talks back, and knows what Zendikar is—before managing to gather the concentration to planeswalk away from the aurora and return home. And that’s it.
The next story picked up with Nissa back in post-Eldrazi Zendikar as she rediscovers her connection with the soul of the plane as an isolated nature-mage that has difficulty communicating with people. Other than a few teases that go nowhere, there’s never any acknowledgement of Nissa’s original past or character. She went from warrior to druid, charismatic leader to awkward introvert, violent racist to someone who values all life.
At least for me, Home was a very weird reading experience. By the end it had gotten to the point that I was expecting Nissa herself to get caught up in the Aurora and become the only evil Elf on Shadowmoor, revealing that her eventual redemption arc was her returning to her “natural” personality. That would’ve been a cheap cop-out after the story wrote itself into a corner, but at least it would have been consistent. And that, right there, is the heart of where the controversy came from.
The simple fact is that Magic Origins was advertised as the point where those who cared about the story would finally get their due, but Wizards took the opportunity to fundamentally recreate one of their core characters. Regardless of how it was intended, these retcons sent the message that the lore of Magic up to this point could only be considered cannon when it was convenient to the new creative team. Even today, there’s a big question as to which novels from the past can still be considered true. So this leaves me with two questions to address: Were the retcons worth it? And how could they have been handled better?
Let’s start with the first question. One of the threads that’s been running through both of these articles is how much more satisfying it would have been for Wizards to commit to a redemption storyline where Nissa overcame deep-set racism and learned from her mistakes. Character growth lies at the core of every engaging story. That’s not an exaggeration—if the main character doesn’t change through their experience in the story, readers will leave unsatisfied.
Consider the risk, however. This might seem weird right now, but the renewed focus on story that came with Magic Origins was a massive risk for Wizards at the time. They were coming off of more than a decade of every creative venture they launched failing. There’s a reason we don’t get paperbacks, e-books, or the Dack Fayden comics anymore—nobody bought them. Given that the setup of Magic Origins necessitated going back to the period of time where Nissa was a full-on elf supremacist, it would’ve thrust an extremely controversial topic to the forefront of one of the biggest media pushes that WotC has ever put out and kept it there for more than six months. If not handled correctly, the new focus on story would be dead on arrival. Another failure.
Shouldn’t Wizards focus first on making quality products and second on making a profit? For the people thinking that now I have one question: what if they’d gone with such a story, and screwed it up? There isn’t a single Vorthos out there who won’t admit that the quality of Magic’s writing has on occasion been utter trash. I’ve been focusing on the raw facts of In the Teeth of Akoum to use it as a source, but go back and read the book. Heck, save yourself and read Rich’s review. It is unreadable—no plot, no believable characters, and no sense of location. That book is an outlier to be sure, but there is a lot of bad Magic fiction out there. Back then the writing team of Wizards was untested when it came to handling interconnected stories, and it felt more like an afterthought than something important. Difficult stories were told without devoting the care necessary to tell them well.
Was the story we got as good as it possibly could have been? No. But it was also far, far better than it could’ve been if they’d accidentally wound up justifying old Nissa’s explicitly racist views. (Seriously, that would have been a disaster for everyone.) Given the state of Magic’s creative side at the time, that’s not a choice I can fault them for.
If Nissa couldn’t be fit into the story without retconning her past, then why couldn’t another green planeswalker take her place in the Gatewatch? But who? At the time Nissa was the only mono-green planeswalker, and with the exception of Ajani (who is indisputably base white) and Kiora (base blue), all of the partially green planeswalkers introduced at the time were villains. Garruk had been written down the dark path, leaving only Nissa behind to carry the Gatewatch mantle for green. Any of the others would’ve had to have been retconned even harder than Nissa was to make them fit in the Gatewatch arc.
On top of that, remember that the Story focus of Magic Origins was decided fairly late into the process. This wasn’t planned out years in advance, and they certainly didn’t get to choose what the upcoming block was when the spotlight shifted to the lore once again. Regardless of what cast was put into Magic Origins, the next block was going to be Battle for Zendikar, and that couldn’t be changed. Try to imagine a world where they went back to Zendikar championing their new care for the story and Nissa was missing, a new green planeswalker in her place. That would have made zero sense.
So was it worth it? Did WotC somehow compromise the trust of their readers by changing Nissa’s past? In all honesty, if you’d asked me a year and a half ago I would’ve said “no, it wasn’t” and “yes, they did.” But look around. We’re now three and a half blocks past Magic Origins and more people care about the story now who wouldn’t have cared before if you paid them. I have weekly conversations about the stories released online, and more than half of them are with people who didn’t give a damn about the lore two years ago. Did some of the more dedicated Vorthoses have their confidence shaken? Absolutely. And that is a problem. But at this point I can’t even begin to argue that the change wasn’t worth it.
And that just leaves us with one question: how could the recons have been handled better? How could the backlash by more enfranchised Vorthoses been avoided? Honestly, this one’s pretty easy. Let us know in advance. A big part of the backlash against these retcons stemmed from what they meant for the story moving forward and came from a very real concern about whether or not the story we were reading today would matter or even be considered true in a year or two.
If Wizards had made a statement along the lines of: “We’ll be making some changes to Nissa’s backstory in Magic Origins. This is something that we need to do for the following reasons: [insert reasons—I’ve provided some but perhaps there were others as well]. This will be the one and only change to the preexisting lore we make, and we have no intention of making further revisions in the future.”
A statement like that would have gone a long way towards putting those fears to rest before they took hold. And from my personal and limited perspective, it would’ve meant that I didn’t spend the second half of Home waiting for the Great Aurora to fix all the mistakes they’d made.
Levi Byrne has been with the game since Worldwake and has a rabid love for fantasy writing that goes back decades. Despite some forays into Legacy he plays Commander almost exclusively, and has a love for the crazy plays and huge games that make Magic what it is. He was been the go-to advisor of his playgroup on deck construction for more than more than five years before joining Dear Azami.