Ahoy planeswalkers! Last week brought the end of the Magic Story for Hour of Devastation, calling the fourth block of the Gatewatch era to a close. The last two years have seen Wizards working to better integrate game and story, and we’ve now seen the Gatewatch grow and develop through decisive victories, pyrrhic victories, and their first real (and resounding) defeat. And it seems to me, as we enter the interregnum between the end of Hour’s story and the start of Ixalan’s, that this is the perfect time for a little retrospective. Or, perhaps, not so little.

I may have missed my regular Scry Five update from two weeks ago, but I’m fixing to make up for lost time and then some—I’m going weekly for the next six weeks!

Among those columns will be a retrospective article on each of the Gatewatch blocks we’ve had so far, in which I will look back upon the on-card storytelling and some of the Magic Story articles from each block. I originally envisioned this a four-part series, but Magic: Origins did a lot of cool
things with its on-card storytelling and was clearly designed to pull the Gatewatch’s first five members to the fore. I’ve found I just can’t skip it, so here we go!

On-Card Storytelling

I don’t think I appreciated it fully at the time (after all, I’d only been back to the game for about two months), but Origins experimented in a lot of nifty ways with its on-card storytelling. It gave us a whopping eight cycles that all helped tell the stories of the Origins Five: a cycle of legendary creatures who figure prominently in each of their stories, a cycle of pivotal moment cards depicting the events that ignited each planeswalker’s spark, five mono-color vertical cycles (common-uncommon- rare) depicting each character mastering their powers, and—of course—the cycle of flip-planeswalkers. I’d be tempted to argue that Origins was a preview of the full storytelling potential of the Gatewatch era: while the lack of central story and my own fairly recent return to the game kept me from fully appreciating it at the time, the strong focus upon the major characters and the sense of the set telling each of their stories is truly impressive in hindsight.

The flip planeswalkers, of course, are brilliant examples of on-card storytelling. Kytheon, Hero of Akros attacks with some friends, survives because he can become indestructible, and becomes Gideon, Battle-Forged. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy digs into his memories until he realizes his mentor is using him, and the ensuing confrontation turns him into Jace, Telepath Unbound. Liliana’s brother Josu dies and becomes a zombie, and that event ignites her spark. It’s a shame that flip-planeswalkers are so difficult to from a printing logistics standpoint, because boy oh boy, this is rich space for creative card design that tells a story.

The “moment of ignition” cards are the forerunner of the “story spotlight” card formula that have matured over the last couple years, and they are another example of just how effective these cards showing pivotal moments can be. Tragic Arrogance captures the psychic wound that Gideon carries with him to his other adventures—a wound that has manifested itself openly during his confrontations with Emrakul and with the gods of Amonkhet. Nissa’s Revelation, in addition to being the only Magic card with the rules text “Scry 5,” captured the immensity and unfathomability of releasing Emrakul, and its rules text clearly wants to be played with Emrakul. (Draw 15 cards, gain 15 life? Now that’s living the dream.)

Chandra’s Ignition might be the most archetypal image of a spark igniting that I’ve ever seen (and, on a more personal note, it was my first prerelease promo). Jace’s ignition story may not be as engrossing in its tragedy as the others (his spark ignited during training, and he took the first planeswalk he remembers after winning a psychic duel), but Clash of Wills captures the moment of confrontation between Jace and Alhammaret quite nicely. The calm of Tainted Remedy contrasts beautifully with the sturm-und-drang of the other four cards, but it’s clearly no less tragic in its result. (And have you ever played Tainted Remedy against Soul Sisters in modern? It feels great. I recommend it highly.)

The mono-color Spell Mastery cycles showing the Origins five honing their abilities, however, might be the element of Magic Origins that did the most to push this quintet of central characters. Fiery Impulse to Ravaging Blaze to Exquisite Firecraft. Send to Sleep to Psychic Rebuttal to Talent of the Telepath. These cards helped bring a sense of the stories of each character’s personal growth apart from their ignition as planeswalkers. Perhaps this is because I came back to the game after having played during the Weatherlight era, when key characters and bits of story were everywhere, but I really like this kind of strong focus upon major characters in the set’s cards. These cards went a long way towards giving each character’s development the weight it needed.

Magic Story

This is also where I got hooked on Magic Story. To my great Vorthos shame, I must admit that I only read two of the stories at the time. I remember enjoying the one about Jace, but Chandra’s story captivated me. At the time, as I got more deeply into Magic, parenting was on my mind: my wife was seven and a half months pregnant with our son. Jay Annelli might have made some valid critiques when he spotlighted Pia and Kiran Nalaar in his Terrible People of the Multiverse series, but the way the Nalaars tried to save their child? The way Kiran stuck by Chandra to the very end, trying to protect her? As a soon-to-be father, that hit me hard. This was the story that made me buy into Magic and its lore.

Revisiting these stories, they steadily range from solid to pretty great, and they all do a good job of giving weight to the events that ignited each planeswalker’s spark. I particularly enjoyed Liliana’s story. Reading it now did a great job of getting me hyped for Dominaria next spring, where I suspect we’ll see some big movement in her story.

There are, of course, retcons all over the place—especially for Nissa, whose retcons Levi Byrne wrote two articles about. I’m sure they would have driven me nuts  when they came out if I weren’t new to the characters. Overall, though, I think Magic Story did a nice job of setting up the journey that
would turn these five characters into teammates and housemates over the next two blocks.

Magic Origins also did a nice job of seeding where the story was heading for the foreseeable future. The introduction of Kaladesh, Baral, the Consulate, and Mrs. Pashiri (as well as Pia Nalaar’s false death) in Chandra’s origin all paid off quite nicely in Kaladesh. Liliana’s previous dealings with Bolas and Gideon’s complicated relationship with divine beings both came to the fore at times during Amonkhet, and the Raven Man has now popped up in both Shadows Over Innistrad and Amonkhet blocks. Expect to see more threads pay off as we visit (or revisit) the home worlds of Liliana, Jace, and Gideon over the next few years.

Bold Predictions

I would bet a lot of money that we see both Vryn and Return to Theros by Spring 2020. Oh, and want a free prediction for Dominaria? I bet Liliana’s brother Josu is still alive. Well, undead, but like, still around. So, here’s to what I’m sure will be a cheerful family reunion!

In summary, I think Origins has aged well. The storytelling on the cards is first-rate, while the Magic Story episodes are compelling and sowed seeds for the future. It is a promising start to the Gatewatch era. Although the subsequent sets have not been without their bumps, it gave a great taste of what Magic’s sets and stories have been able to do at their best over the last couple years.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts on twitter (@beholdMTG), and make sure you come back next week when I take a look at the storytelling in the Battle for Zendikar block!

Beck Holden is a Ph.D. student in theater who lives in the greater Boston area. He enjoys drafting, brewing for standard, and playing 8-Rack in modern. He also writes intermittently about actually playing Magic at beholdplaneswalker.wordpress.com.

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