Who’s psyched for Ixalan? I sure am, but before I can write about it, I have a series to finish! I’ve already taken a look at the Gatewatch story from Magic Origins, Battle for Zendikar, and Shadows Over Innistrad. Now it’s onward into the retrospective’s home stretch with Kaladesh!

The Cards

Kaladesh brought one wonderful innovation to the on-card storytelling: the Magic Story watermark. The five clearly-marked Story Spotlights have made it very easy to follow the chief arc of the set’s story, and the first set of Story Spotlights did a good job of tracing the story’s basic arc. Inventors’ Fair serves as a nice establishing shot, Captured by the Consulate and Deadlock Trap set up the key plot obstacles well, Fateful Showdown offers a nice cliffhanger, and Confiscation Coup serves as a good bridge to the action of Aether Revolt.

Elsewhere, we have a good smattering of planeswalkers and legendary creatures showing up, helping to give them some weight and importance on the plane. Impeccable Timing was a really nice way to give Ajani his surprise return. The perspective on Dramatic Reversal is a bit funky (Liliana towers over Gideon), but it does do a nice job of pointing to what happens during the duel between Pia Nalaar and Tezzeret, as does Metallurgic Summonings. Insidious Will offers a nice introduction to the warped Baral, Saheeli’s Artistry helps sell Saheeli’s stature on her home plane, and the new Diabolic Tutor art wonderfully depicts the budding friendship between Liliana and Chandra. Lost Legacy is a brilliantly touching tribute to Chandra’s father, and Cathartic Reunion is a nice surprise as the true finale of the Kaladesh story. It would have been nice to see a little more Dovin Baan—he feels like he gets lost in the shuffle a bit—but on the whole I can’t really complain.

I do, however, feel like Aether Revolt missed the mark a bit in its on-card storytelling. Consulate Crackdown and Pia’s Revolution set up the action nicely, but Disallow really does not rise to the weight of Baral’s confrontation with Chandra. Battle at the Bridge gives us a reasonable glimpse of the final confrontation with Tezzeret, but Dark Intimations makes no sense as the final beat of the story: after the battle Tezzeret is gone. The art seems like it was meant to be Tezzeret trying to figure out the Planar Bridge after Rashmi’s escape, which is a story I would have really liked to see.

The expertise cycle was a bit hit-or-miss for me too, in terms of making the set’s legends feel important. On one hand, Yahenni’s Expertise and Baral’s Expertise both make their central characters look like serious threats, while Kari Zev’s Expertise makes her look like a total badass.

I like Sram’s personality in his flavor texts, but Sram’s Expertise feels oddly pedestrian compared to the others, and it’s weird that Rishkar, Peema Renegade, unlike the other four, is not depicted in Rishkar’s Expertise.

Beyond that, Call to Unity is a nice “true ending” card, we get a nice glimpse of Tezzeret’s duel with Liliana in Metallic Rebuke, it’s cool that Chandra’s Revolution makes a diptych with Pia’s Revolution, and Heroic Intervention and Oath of Ajani both give everyone’s favorite leonin planeswalker some nice face time. I think the set could have given a little more attention to key legendary creatures and planeswalkers to edge the story along a little more, though. Nissa’s absence feels particularly noteworthy, given the sizable role she ended up playing in the story.

Speaking of which…

The Story

Overall, I think Kaladesh block has been the high point for Magic Story so far. The Gatewatch members (except maybe Jace) all underwent interesting developments: Liliana’s surprisingly intense protectiveness of Jace and her hunger to kill Tezzeret advanced the story of Jace and Liliana’s potential romance, Gideon had some good moments of considering the Gatewatch’s role in planar conflicts and working on knowing when not to be the hero, and Chandra’s reconnection with her mother and renewed vendetta against Baral both added a wonderful weight to the story.

Perhaps the biggest step forward, however, was with Nissa. Her spirit seemed markedly heavier in this story (which I read as some lingering trauma from the Emrakul confrontation), and that weight sits well with her development as a thoughtful, introverted person who want to cultivate a friendship with Chandra but doesn’t completely know how to connect with someone who processes things so differently from herself. I also really enjoyed that almost every legendary creature in this block (and there were quite a few of them) got a moment to shine in the story; I think Rishkar was the only one not to turn up in a story, and from the banality of Sram’s complicit service to an increasingly oppressive Consulate to Yahenni’s decadence, empathy, and desperation, these many characters really brought a lot to the story.

The clash between Chandra and Baral stands out for me as a high point in the story. It was intense and weighty, and created compelling opportunities for four different characters to develop. John Dale Beety has written compellingly about Baral as a tragic figure. Chandra and Nissa’s intense friendship (and attraction on at least one side) is perhaps the most intriguing relationship between Gatewatch members. Baan arresting Baral makes him an intriguingly complicated villain, truly lawful neutral compared to Tezzeret’s lawful evil.

Unfortunately, Tezzeret ended up feeling a bit like a miniboss for Bolas rather than a compelling villain in his own right. The fact that Liliana could take him down single-handedly (although, based on the end of Hour of Devastation, perhaps this was Bolas’s intention all along) did not do much for his legitimacy as a villain, and neither did his modus operandi of being a big jerk to everyone. Oh well. At least he’s highly punchable.

I also feel that the story mishandled its new planeswalkers. Dovin Baan crushing the Hope of Ghirapur and planeswalking away feels like it makes no sense for his character—his devotion has been to the Consulate first and foremost, and the Consulate survives the block largely intact, just giving the Renegades a seat at the table (and minus the erratic leadership of Tezzeret, which was already a source of some consternation for Baan). Saheeli Rai, meanwhile, joined Arlinn Kord in solidifying the trope of the Planar Guardian, electing not to join the Gatewatch in order to help Kaladesh rebuild.

While I respect Wizards wanting to test characters before adding them to the game’s flagship super-team, we now have a trend where they keep introducing new characters—who are more likely to be women and/or planeswalkers of color, as Wizards works to balance out the larger cast of planeswalkers—and then abandoning them to remain focused on a group of protagonists that looks pretty dang white. At some point, Wizards either needs to take a risk on a new planeswalker or hurry up and get someone like Narset, Kaya, or Koth into the Gatewatch. If they don’t, the recent efforts to diversify the game’s planeswalkers risks feeling like so much window dressing.

Beck’s Top Five Stories of Kaladesh

#5—The Skies Over Ghirapur by Ari Levitch

This story was a lot of fun. Jace is usually my least favorite Gatewatch member, but I enjoy him in supporting roles; and the young, bold, and impulsive Kari Zev is a great foil for him. It also gave Depala, Pilot Exemplar a surprise return, and I also really enjoyed the way it cleverly and flavorfully captured Kari Zev’s Expertise by having her contrive to cover Skysovereign, Consul’s Flagship with aether, inspiring a skywhale to slam itself into the hull.

#4—Born of Aether and In the Dead of Night by Alison Luhrs

Alison Luhrs gave us one of the most captivating planebound characters of the last couple years in her stories about Yahenni. Magic Story uses first person narration very infrequently, but this approach did so much to get at what it means to be aetherborn in this society. Yahenni’s decadence, flamboyance, and sense of humor, balanced with an intense precision born of knowing when they will die, helps to build a compelling narrator. Mixing this with compelling situations, like Chandra and Nissa’s pursuit of Pia and the consulate measures that deny them their Penultimate Party makes for compelling storytelling. They are also, in many ways, a perfect pairing for Nissa. Their empathetic senses help Nissa open up, making for a nice progression in the relationship between the two across the block.

#3—A Time for Innovation by Kimberly J. Kreines

Kreines’s story about Rashmi, Eternities Crafter does a staggeringly good job of establishing the zeitgeist of Ghirapur, with Rashmi and Mitul’s measured desperation to complete their invention in time for the Inventors’ Fair. It gives Saheeli Rai a really good introduction, sticking her with an intriguing moral dilemma as she grapples with her duties to protect the multiverse, to help her friend, and to help the people of Kaladesh pursue the spirit of invention. The story also sets up the Renegades as sort of cheeky anti-authority scamps (with their underground robot battles in the Inventors’ Fair grounds). All in all, it’s a great introduction to the plane, and it was a nice surprise that Rashmi’s invention ended up being a key part of the plot during Aether Revolt.


#2—Renewal by the Magic Story Team

This was a perfect ending for the block. Chandra and Pia restoring Kiran’s portrait together and getting some closure with the imprisoned Baral put a nice cap on those relationships. Yahenni’s final moments (including learning about the multiverse from Nissa) blended sadness and celebration beautifully, and I truly bought the different Gatewatch members’ takes on whether or not they should go to Amonkhet as making sense for their characters. Chris L’Etoile’s grand finale was also exquisite: Chandra falling asleep in Nissa’s lap as Nissa communes with Kaladesh through the aether streams. It was a fantastic way to cap their relationship’s development over the course of the block. And speaking of Chris L’Etoile being fantastic…

#1—Everything Chris L’Etoile Wrote

Chris L’Etoile would probably put three stories in my top five for the whole Gatewatch era to this point, so I decided this cheat was necessary so that my list wasn’t just everything L’Etoile worked on. “Homesick” is everything I want out of a glimpse of the day-to-day lives of the Gatewatch. At times, it verges on sitcom as these five individuals with different philosophies and values try to train and live together, Jace and Gideon awkwardly try to negotiate who’s the leader, and Liliana nicknames Gideon “Beefslab.” At the same time, through Nissa and Chandra’s interactions, L’Etoile expresses what social interactions are like for folks who struggle a bit socially (which is certainly something I connect with), and the interactions often have a delightful subtlety to them.

Then he wrote “Release,” which twinned the stories of Ajani hunting to save Oviya Pashiri (who is stuck with Chandra and Nissa in the Deadlock Trap) and Ajani bringing Tamiyo news of Elspeth’s death as he grieves himself. Tamiyo’s appearance was a nice surprise. The paired stories did a really good job of showing the shift in Ajani’s worldview that has made him insist on using nonlethal force (which also sets up his joining the Gatewatch at the end of the block), and the scene of him telling Elspeth’s story to Tamiyo’s adopted children as they hold him until he breaks down is some of the most exquisitely moving writing in all of Magic Story.

And then, somehow, L’Etoile topped it again with “Burn.” Chandra’s fraught emotions, Gideon’s struggles not to let his feelings get the better of his judgment, Baral’s viciousness, tactical cleverness, and self-loathing, Baan’s strict moral compass, Nissa saving Chandra by talking her down from going supernova under Baral’s attempts to goad her into suicide—wow. I think this is the greatest story of the Gatewatch era, in its weightiness and in how much it managed to develop so many characters and relationships.

All in all, while it has some flaws, I really enjoyed Wizards’s work on the storytelling of Kaladesh. Next week, as we bask in Ixalan previews, I will be finishing up this series by looking at Amonkhet!

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.

Don't Miss Out!

Sign up for the Hipsters Newsletter for weekly updates.