My father teaches a course on legal writing each semester. I could write an entire article about the tips he teaches—things like “the point of grammar is to provide predictable context, not to show off your erudition” and “always remember that grammar and diction are political”—but we’ll stick with the thumbnail. At its core, good writing is clear, concise, and procedural.

And so, during the first week of class, he asks his students to bring in an example of what they consider good writing by those standards. Most students bring in something kind of prosaic—a quote from a book that they consider effective, a passage from a sacred text that holds meaning to them, a poem they love—but sometimes they surprise him. Every couple of years, a student brings in an inherited recipe—absolutely an exemplar of what he values in good writing, as it’s direct, procedural, and, by nature, delivers a great deal of information in a short amount of text—and that student generally goes on to do well in his class.

I always love hearing about those sessions when students bring in songs, or street signage, or recipes. Recipes are effective writing, and it’s partially because there’s an emotional component to them, a sense of handed-down heritage, a connotation of hospitality and nostalgia. That breath of inspiration is what turns writing into communication, into a shared act of communal creation. Good writing isn’t just concise or accessible: good writing has a past.

It’s striking how writing preserves cultures, how it sutures the past to the present and heals that unimaginable gap between what we know now and what once was. It’s only through writing that we can have contact with all the peoples here before us, those who have hatched and fledged and flown, those who have vanished. We still read about Gilgamesh and Beowulf and Odysseus. We still read Woolf and Updike—alien as even they feel today. We read The Orphan Master’s Son and learn more about places we’ll never visit; we read Homecoming and learn about people we’ll never meet. Fiction (that is, properly researched fiction) is how we build empathy for the issues that we must address in our present and myths are how we learn what cultures in our past considered important. With enough distance, it’s hard to identify with a culture; through acts of literary anthropology, we can close that gulf of perspective and start seeing cultures as groups of people with a message to share.

One of the ur-texts of the posthumanist internet is the Sandia Labs semiotics report—a thought exercise in how we could convey how badly we damaged our native environment to alien intelligences, whether extraterrestrial or long-form culturally-evolved humans. Think of it as a radioactive Rosetta Stone. The text of the proposed sign reads: “This place is not a place of honor. No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here. Nothing valued is here. This place is a message and part of a system of messages. Pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.” It’s both perfectly elegiac and powerfully self-absorbed, and I think it’ll be a suitable epitaph for humanity when the blinds finally get drawn. “We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture,” indeed. That’s the resonance, the communication, to me—it’s not just a warning, but an entreaty, an “Ozymandias”-style cry against entropy. That’s the communication between past and current civilizations that makes for effective writing.

It’s hard to believe, but Magic has been around for twenty-five years and, in that time, has created at the very least fifty discrete civilizations. Magic’s timeline is disjointed and cacomorphic—for comparison, here’s a layout of important events with their temporal placements and some truly comical gaps and assumed dates for major events—and we tend not to see as many vanished civilizations as we do active civilizations. Part of that makes dramatic sense—it’s dull to spend more time with the dead than the living, especially when you’re trying to both tell a story and provide an anthropological exercise in 500 cards—but it does handicap Magic’s worldbuilding, as we’re not able to get much in the way of context.

Has Amonkhet always been this brutal world and, if so, how does agriculture function? What’re Innistrad’s mayoral elections like, and who established their parliamentarian rules? Does Zendikar have burial rituals in a world where the ground doesn’t stay still? What samizdat do Kaladeshi rebels pass back and forth to drum up support for their revolt? Without full immersion into their handed-down folklore and codices, we don’t know. Magic’s early years were immensely indebted to Dungeons & Dragons, and thus, folklore and storytelling were a core component of the system of magic. Hell, the game’s first expansion was specifically about storytelling. In flavor text, Mirage block wove in epic poetry, chants, and tales told by respected storytellers (Hakim, Loreweaver). Early Magic worked in lexicography and vernacular into its flavor text (sometimes to a fault—check out Lexivore for a self-aware joke at Magic’s tendency to call a made-up idiom flavor text) and made it clear that these characters to whom we were being introduced lived in a world rich in stories and culture. Linguists and folklorists could pick up gorgeous morsels of text and subtext by interacting with the game without being overwhelmed.

Magic’s early years, starting—suitably enough—in Antiquities and running through Alliances, had the clearest sense of historical placement. We, the players, were picking up long after the fact and had to act as anthropologists. There’s a bit of pre-Connected Age nostalgia in this, of course, as these were the days when you had to purchase a Scrye magazine to even see all of the cards. Oddly enough, Magic’s most consistent and complete culture is its least human culture: the old-school Phyrexians. You have a complete world in the nested spheres of Phyrexia, a religion built around a charismatic and inhuman leader, and a belief system that is both carnal and mystical.

It’s worth noting that in-depth world building doesn’t require verbosity or density, but a careful and precise understanding of what’s important. (Talk to a writer sometime about how many pages they’ve actually written versus how many get published; writing is as much of an act of editing and excising than it is one of construction.) There are five cards that mention The Phyrexian Scriptures in Urza’s Block and three that mention “The Grand Evolution,” but that’s still enough to evoke a world to the reader: “Great Yawgmoth moves across the seas of shard and bone and rust. We exalt him in life, in death, and in between.” Two sentences, but with a judicious use of the high-minded “exalt” and the shocking paraprosdokian of “in between,” we learn so much about their worship system. We don’t need to know what, exactly, Yawgmoth is, because we know that he’s an inhuman deity worshipped by the undead.

In contrast, the same block’s viashino had an oral code of behavior, governed by their devotion to the bey, their tribal leader (there’s an interesting article to be written about how detailed Urza’s block was in it’s depiction of worship—Serra’s Realm is a benign theocracy, Shiv is a communal society built on charismatic warlords, Phyrexia is a warped cult, Tolaria is a truly secular society until the introduction of a religious zealot/saboteur). We aren’t expected to fully understand their religion, because there’s no judgment, only context. In that way, we become, to a minor but real extent, true anthropologists.

One of Magic’s tropes (often used as a crutch) is the isolated world: Ulgrotha, Dominaria during the Ice Age, Alara’s shards, Otaria during the Phyrexian Invasion, Teferi’s homeland. Because these worlds have no past, we can drop into them in the present and not feel like we’ve missed much. Unfortunately, it also means we have no conception of their actual development. We’re aren’t explorers; we’re tourists. Modern Magic story is the equivalent of a Sandals resort. In this era of narrative development, all planes are distinct entities, rather than distinct cultures—there’s a difference between that, as we see the macrofacets of how this color of mana is embodied in the plane rather than how micro-societies use that color of mana. It’s the difference between the civilization of Shiv, a red-aligned island, and Mirrodin’s Great Furnace, which is a mini-world of flame and lava. It’s the difference between “adapt” and “embody.” There’s no communication between our world and the world of the plane, and so we never get the full picture of what it means to be a citizen of these planes. Part of that is by design—we play as planeswalkers, which means we shouldn’t feel like we’re native, but I’d argue that there should be a way to feel more connected, to feel like we’ve earned the right to hang up our sword for a few years and carve out a settlement in New Benalia for a while.

What, then, will Magic leave us when disinterest or cataclysm kill it for good? What scrap of storytelling from it will become, by common consensus, its identity? I like the irony of a game that adapted surface-level iconography of past cultures (Egyptian world: pyramids and dog-headed gods! Norse world: horned helmets and beards!) being reduced to a single blurb, but who will it be? Serra Angel? Juzam Djinn? Gods preserve us, Jace? Some dogshit meme like Storm Crow or Scornful Egotist?

There’s no way of knowing, any more than those who carved their names on the walls of Pompeii expected their boasts and shopping lists to last for thousands of years and shape our understanding of a society or than we know that the settlers who find our nuclear stockpiles won’t dig them up and restart the cycle. But there’s a suitable mystery in that—in never knowing with any certainty our legacy. We can provide enough context, though, to give future civilizations a concrete picture of who we were. It’s no accident that we’re encouraged to “make our mark” to live on through history; it’s through making those marks that we can build narratives and communicate with civilizations that we can’t imagine.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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