At the end of last year it was announced that players would be able to influence the ending to the Ixalan story. The results of a geocaching event would be combined with results from polls on various social media sites and the main WotC website to determine which faction would gain final control of Orazca. The creative team had pre-written endings for each of the four factions and in the end it was the Sun Empire that claimed the golden city for themselves.

Last week, with the story proper wrapped up and Ixalan officially over the three endings that went unused were published online. Since we now have as much information on this writing experiment as we’re going to get, I wanted to take a look at Magic’s first foray into letting the readers steer the course of the story.

I’m not a fan.

There are a lot of pros and cons to this kind of Choose-your-own-adventure style of writing, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard to talk about the upsides. The weaknesses mostly show themselves in the quality of the finished story and are pretty easy to dissect, while the pros come in terms like reader investment and engagement that are difficult if not impossible to analyze. I might not feel a deeper connection to the story just because the faction I voted for came out on top, (and I did actually vote for the sun empire) but someone else absolutely might. With all of that being said, I still believe that this experiment shouldn’t be repeated, and today I want to look at some of the reasons why.

Issue 1: Wizards is really lucky the Dusk Legion didn’t win.

I’m of two minds about the Vampire ending. On the one hand, it’s genuinely hilarious and quite a fitting way to wrap up Vona’s story. For that matter, it’s actually the ending I like most in a vacuum. On the other hand, it’s a storyline that exists for the sole purpose of rewarding the Vampire fans who (potentially could have) voted to push the Legion of Dusk to supremacy, and it ends with the only vampire in Orazca getting eaten by a Wayward Swordtooth. Considering that the whole purpose of having the alternate ending in the first place is to build fan investment that’s an appalling choice and a giant slap in the face to everyone who voted for the Dusk Legion. After all, we were told to Vote for Control of the Golden City!, not for who’d get turned into Meow Mix.

I’m not entirely sure that they had a better option available, because a lot of work was put into making the Legion of Dusk both literal monsters and a pretty straightforward analogue to European colonizers. Giving them an actual victory to cap off the story would’ve been questionable choice for a lot of reasons, especially if they decided to have Elandra stay and try spin the vampires taking the golden city as a good thing. I can easily see any option where the Legion actually wins getting vetoed by the brand department or someone higher up the corporate chain.

Personally I would’ve liked to have this ending steer into how horrible it is. Have Saint Elandra, Marven Fein and Vona reach the shoreline and the abandoned crew, have Saint Elandra order the conquistadors to pack up and head home, only for a frustrated and angry Vona to snap and attack the living Saint. It looks like Elandra has the upper hand, but Vona’s crew (who were established early on as the most ruthless and blood-hungry members of the legion earlier) side with the Butcher of Magan and collectively eviscerate Saint Elandra and the protesting Marven Fein. From there have the entire crew head back inland and reclaim the golden cirty, preferably while massacring a fledgling alliance of the River Heralds and the Sun Empire to leave the city stained with blood to really drive home how terrible this ending is.

There’s a whole bunch of reasons that might not have been on the table, but in general I say if you’re going to do a ‘villains win’ ending, go full Empire Strikes Back with it.

Issue 2: Where’d all the Planeswalkers go?

I’ll be honest, I checked out of Ixalan’s story the instant that Huatli decided to go on vacation. For better or worse Wizards has done an amazing job of driving home the fact that Planeswalkers matter, that they’re ones that will be showing up time and time again, that they’ll have the most focus laid upon them, that they’ll be the characters who grow and develop the most. Personally, I think it’s a huge positive because people who care about the story need a through-line from block to block and world to world. But here, it kind of came back and bit them. Of the four factions two of them were championed in the story almost exclusively by planeswalkers.

Which is fine, and a great way of placing emphasis on the factions that Wizards knew would be fan favorites anyway. But when Jace, Vraska and Angrath left Ixalan within five minutes of the Immortal Sun disappearing and Huatli’s already on Kaladesh at the start of the last story there isn’t much point in caring about what’s happening.

That might sound callous, but there’s another problem with the planeswalkers being gone. They were the faces of those factions. Right now, try to remember the name of the Sun Kingdom’s emperor. I can’t, partially because I’m usually pretty horrible with names and partially because he only appeared in three stories, usually in minor roles. And after Huatli he’s the most developed member of the Sun Empire that we see.

The Pirates suffer from this problem as well, somehow to a lesser extent despite losing three flagship characters instead of one. While Breeches is a great and funny character he was always in Vraska’s shadow and he just doesn’t have what it takes to elevate the Brazen Coalition ending above a throwaway comedy gag. Which leads us to:

Issue 3: Landlocked Pirates

The Brazen Coalition is far and away my favorite faction on ixalan, and it had most of my favorite characters in the block, with the exception of Kopala. I voted for the Sun Empire to win. Here’s why. Imagine for a second that we got the ending with co-emperors Breeches and Malcom gambling and swigging ale in Azor’s old sanctum. Good piraty fun. Now fast forward three years. Return to the Battle for Scars of Ixalan has been announced, cards are starting to be revealed and the first story segment is revealed. You start reading, eager to see how things have changed. Huatli is back from forging her mecha dinos and is busy chipping away at the stubborn nationalism of her emperor, Elandra has disposed of the old clergy is coming to grips with the fact that she has to rule a nation of ruthless warriors that don’t really understand why what they’ve been doing for hundreds of years is wrong. Kopala is morning her mentor’s passing and unsure about what the future holds, especially as she’s now uncomfortably close to being the highest ranked speaker.

And the pirates… are stuck in a golden city that’s darn near dead center of a continent. Their ships have been pulled upriver until they ran aground, and it’s not uncommon to see Galleons laying on their side in the middle of a perfectly dry patch of forest, abandoned after the river heralds simply diverted the stream that they were sailing on.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s an extremely touching story here about a displaced people making a home for themselves in a troubled land, but they wouldn’t be pirates anymore. By definition everything that made them that, the raiding, the lack of a permanent home, the freedom & total disregard for the rules, would be gone.

I mean sure, they could still put the Pirate creature type on cards, but do you really want to read a story about pirates negotiating trade agreements and repelling raiding parties from the Sun Empire? This would’ve been an inevitable result of the Brazen Coalition taking the Golden City, and it would’ve thrown a major wrench into any future narrative set on the plane. And here’s the thing, because the structure of the block’s story Orzca had to be at an inland location, which means this problem was unavoidable.

Issue 4: Tishana did what now?

Throughout the majority of the story Tishana is one of the most consistent characters. She doesn’t get much in the way of character development, but since she’s a supporting character, already ancient and wise to boot that’s not a bad thing. Her goal is to prevent anyone from misusing the Immortal Sun by stopping anyone from using it in the first place, and she’s more than willing to ally with her people’s traditional enemies to do so. Compromise, empathy, and patience are hardwired into the DNA of her character from the moment we meet her, so for the River Heralds’ ending to conclude with Tishana betraying her prospective alliance with Huatli about five minutes after the Warrior-Poet left Orazca and claiming the city for herself was wildly out of character.  

This ending honestly felt like the writers got to the end, realized they needed a Merfolk to take the throne and only then remembered that Kumena had been killed off in a previous story.  I could probably rewrite a passable ending where the Sun Empire launches a preemptive strike against Tishana and the river heralds that stayed in the city, causing Tishana to abandon any thoughts of an alliance and officially claim the city for her people, but much like the vampire storyline I proposed it probably would’ve taken at least double the resources they had access to, given that each of the faction’s endings clock in at somewhere between three hundred and six hundred words.

That simply isn’t enough time to build an emotionally resonant story where a well-established character changes one of their core traits without it coming off as forced.

Issue 5: Making four storylines that are okay means that none can be great.

Up to this point the problems I’ve been pointing out have been relatively minor flaws that are specific to the Ixalan storyline. As I’ve pointed out some of them are fixable, but these specific problems wouldn’t matter in another setting. Here’s the thing, Vona’s ending being a bad reward for vampire fans and Tishana acting out of character aren’t the root of the story’s problems: they’re a symptom.

Writing a story is incredibly hard, but most of that difficulty doesn’t come from the actual craft of writing. Writing believable dialogue or clear action scenes is far easier than ensuring your story acts as a cohesive whole. Every story has a starting point, takes a character through a series of hurdles and challenges before reaching an endpoint. That’s a vast oversimplification, but it serves as a clear enough framework for me to explain what I’m talking about.

If any part of the story doesn’t mesh with the pieces around it creates dissonance that can pull readers out of the story, muddle whatever themes an author is working with or even make story unreadable. And because everything in a story leads up to its ending, that also means that everything has to lead up to that ending. The themes, characters and continuity that you’ve been building all have to come together in a way that makes sense, isn’t self-contradictory and doesn’t lose any of the threads you planted earlier.

If that sounds hard, it is. That’s why one of the best ways to plan out a story is to figure out what you want the ending to be and then figure out how to build to that point. And that becomes more than a bit tricky when you need to keep four endings in the air and equally viable. It’s not technically impossible to pull off, but the best you’re ever really going to hope for is one really good ending and a number of others that don’t violate your continuity.

To put this in terms of Ixalan, if they needed to plant the seeds of Tishana assuming a role of militaristic power or give the Emperor or Breeches more screen time to get the reader invested they could have. But they couldn’t do all three, not while also telling the story of Jace and Vraska’s growing friendship/possible romance, Angrath’s quest to get home and Huatli learning what being a planeswalker means.

Add in additional pressures like pleasing the people voting and not undermining future card mechanics (Such as the Pirate creature type) and there actually isn’t a way to write all four endings without dropping the ball somewhere. And that holds true no matter what setting you’re in. the more endings you need to keep viable, the less impactful and touching each one will be.

Issue 6: What we’re voting on doesn’t matter.

This is honestly the biggest issue with the whole contest. I was initially tempted to compare these alternate ending the after-credit scenes that Marvel movies have become famous for, but that would be doing Marvel a disservice. Post-credits scenes serve as a way to build hype for the next movie coming out (or massively troll the crowd if you’re at a Guardians of the Galaxy movie.) Jace crash-landing inside the Weatherlight did that in spades. This…

Imagine if at the end of Black Panther we got a trailer for season 7 of Agents of Shield, coming out in 2021. It’s not bad, per say, it’s just totally underwhelming compared to the platform it’s been put on.

What’s more, it’s a well-known fact that WotC works roughly two years in the future. Given that fact that a vote impacting the story in such a way could have massive mechanical implications for the next set on the world it’s set in, they wouldn’t be able to begin design on such a set (Ixalan 2, in this case) until after the vote is in. Even if they started at the first possible moment, we won’t see Ixalan again until the spring of 2020, probably much later. The same would be true of any vote we take with worldwide implications. And because we’ve moved into an ongoing story where the major plot points usually immediately impact the next block, it will only ever be feasible to have the readers influence the less important storylines.

Perhaps the best-case scenario I can see in this regard is to have a vote determine the result of a duel between planeswalkers, and then slot the winner of the duel into the next possible slot, probably nine months to a year out from the vote taking place. This couldn’t be done with the core planeswalkers for obvious reasons, but determining who won a fight between Huatli and Angrath or two similarly important characters seems like it could be done.

Issue 7: the rest of the story is really good.

Honestly, the problems I’ve been going on about here wouldn’t be that big of a deal if it weren’t for one simple fact: Magic’s Story is good. Considering the platform they have to work with and how truly dreadful the novels have been in the past, it’s amazing that the online stories have reached the levels they have. “The Talented Captain Vraska” and especially “The Flood” are easily the best pieces of writing WotC has produced in years, and the inherent problems with the side storyline stand out in stark contrast compared to how good the tale of Jace and Vraska was.

If a vote like this had happened at the end of the Battle for Zendikar storyline, I don’t think I would’ve minded. That story was inconsistent enough that an ending that was a little bit off wouldn’t have really stood out. Heck, the ending they actually went with had some pretty massive flaws. But the overall quality of the writing has improved to such a point that the little flaws do stand out, and that’s a good thing.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have a consistently good story than a series of gimmicks.

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 the go-to advisor of his playgroup on deck construction for more than five years before joining Dear Azami.

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