For years, when quizzed if we would return to Dominaria, Mark Rosewater would ask what execution could possibly make everybody interested in a return happy. After more than a decade of consecutive sets on the plane, Dominaria had been home to a huge variety of themes, both mechanical and creative.

This was the Dominaria problem. Was Magic’s home the Gladiatorial world? Apocalypse world? African world? Ice Age world? Any one of those answers would leave the vast majority of Dominaria fans unsatisfied by sheer virtue of any given set not being able to cover even a tenth of what people loved about the plane. It certainly didn’t help that Time Spiral’s take on “Nostalgia world” had been a financial failure at the time and had done everything in its power to burn the creative setting of Dominaria down to an ashen, post-apocalyptic wasteland.

More than a month after Dominaria’s release, I think it’s safe to say that this problem was solved better than anyone could have hoped. The team working on the set took their biggest challenge and turned to into their greatest strength, creating a set drenched in its own history without making it inaccessible to those who hadn’t been around for Dominaria’s first dozen runs as a setting—myself very much included.

That’s not what I’m here to talk about today though. Today I want to look at how the Dominaria problem affected the set’s story in ways that nobody really expected. This article has been forming in my mind for several weeks now, but it was primarily influenced by two major factors: the conversations I had with other Vorthoses after the timeline problems in Episode 9, and the relative lack of influence that the Cabal have had on the story up to this point.

I’m not going to be talking directly about the timeline issues today because plenty of people have weighed in on it already. The problem should’ve been caught in proofreading, and that’s all I’ll say on the matter.

The second issue is something that I haven’t seen anyone touch on. I started to notice it around episode 7, when I realized that the pacing of the overall story felt off. It might seem weird to claim that the Cabal lack influence on the story being told. They’re the main antagonists after all. To illustrate what I’m talking about, let me briefly cover the story up to the start of today’s episode.

  • Episode One: We see some interactions between two cabal agents and set up the Blackblade being inside the Stronghold. Jhoira’s quest to rebuild the Weatherlight is introduced. The Gatewatch is fractured and we follow Gideon and Liliana as they figure out what they do now and why Liliana’s former home is overrun by Cabal forces.
    • Main Antagonist: Cabal footsoldiers & zombies
  • Episode Two: Primarily covers the fight against Josu Vess’s forces in the Caligo morass. Ends with Liliana using the Chain Veil to lay her brother to rest.
    • Main Antagonist: Josu Vess
  • Episode Three: The story changes to Jhoira’s point of view as she begins the Weatherlight’s reconstruction and scours Dominaria for a crew. Introduces Tiana, Raff, Shana, and to a lesser extent Arvad.
    • Main Antagonist: There’s a few Cabal death priests, but they’re mostly cannon fodder. This week is more about gathering allies than building up the enemy
  • Episode Four: Tiana’s perspective this time. We learn her unique circumstances and lack of purpose, get to meet Arvad for real, and deal with a few random threats to the Weathlight’s construction. Ajani gets a peekaboo cameo at the end.
    • Main Antagonist: Tiana’s self-doubt. Also a random Phoenix
  • Episode Five: Back to Liliana and Gideon, they get picked up by the Weatherlight and forge an alliance with Jhoira & Co to take down Belzenlok. There’s a quick trip to one of the Tolarian academies to capture a Cabal agent that Raff had heard might be hiding out there.
    • Main Antagonist: Unnamed Cabal spy
  • Episode Six: We follow Teferi as he tries to solve a puzzle left behind by Urza so he can retrieve an artifact. He fails when working with his daughter, but after the Weatherlight shows up Jhoira and Liliana are able to help him complete the puzzle. In exchange he agrees to help against Belzenlok.
    • Main Antagonist: The centuries-old maliciousness of a long-dead Urza
  • Episode Seven: We flashback several decades to watch Teferi struggle with the realities of no longer being a godlike oldwalker. On one level it’s a mystery about solving a murder and dealing with assassins, but the real story is Teferi’s growth as he comes to realize that phasing out Zhalafir was a mistake.
    • Main Antagonist: Kwende, Pride of Femeref
  • Episode Eight: This story picks up Chandra’s arc as she travels around New Argive and Yavimaya; trying to find Jaya Ballard so she can learn more advanced pyromancy and become a stronger mage. She meets some familiar faces along the way, including Karn and a surprise appearance by Prossh.
    • Main Antagonist: Chandra’s rashness. There’s also some kobolds and treefolk, but mostly Chandra is just making problems for herself.
  • Episode Nine: Chandra and Jaya get into a gigantic fight over whether Chandra really needs/deserves special training. They eventually set aside their differences to help Karn, Chandra teaches a tree to meditate, and all three are picked up by the Weatherlight. We get the timeline-breaking cameo by Jace and he warns the rest of the Gatewatch against helping Liliana before peacing off to Ravnica. Jaya agrees to help Chandra.
    • Main Antagonist: Multani? Jace? Chandra’s internal turmoil again? This one is hard to pin down.
  • Episode Ten: This week is a recap episode from Slimefoot’s perspective. For the most part it exists to give us some breathing room in the narrative and watch a bunch of the introduced characters bounce off of each other. It ends with the Stronghold appearing on the horizon, implying that the final two Episodes will be dedicated to an epic fight with the Cabal.
    • Main Antagonist: Assorted external forces: a shovel, fire, a dangerous fall, more fire, etc.

Each one of these stories is very well written and they work exceptionally well individually. But together there’s a major problem with the pacing of the stories. Put simply: from the interrogation of the Cabal spy in episode five to the Stronghold appearing on the horizon at the very end of episode ten they have zero influence on the story. Fully half of the narrative takes place with little to no influence from our main villains. In the opening two episodes they feel like an omnipresent threat strangling the world like a cancer, but the further we get into the story the less present (and therefore the less threatening) they become.

In practical terms episodes three through nine are almost entirely concerned with gathering heroes together to fight the menace of the Cabal, but the flip side of that is that the menace everyone is banding together to fight gets almost no screen time. Considering just how strong the allies they’ve gathered are, there’s very little tension as to what the outcome will be.

At this point I want to ask a simple question. Realistically speaking, could this have been done better? While little touches such as the Cabal being mentioned during Chandra’s brief stop at Argive would have helped, there simply isn’t room for them to really become a greater threat in a story that spends this much time building up the heroes and the world. Just talking about the main protagonists and settings, we visit six continents during the course of the story and there are twelve crew members on the Weatherlight, each with their own personalities, backstories, powers and relationships that needed to be established.

To make the Cabal more than the somewhat ill-defined menace they currently are, we would have needed to severely cut back on either the number of protagonists, the time we spend developing each protagonist, and/or the number of locations we travel to. And for my money, there isn’t a way to do that without compromising the core of what makes Dominaria, well, Dominaria. It probably could have been done if the second Dominarian set hadn’t been lost to make room for Core Set 2019, but one set simply isn’t enough room to tell the kind of epic story that Dominaria deserves.

Almost every other set runs into problems where they run out of named legendary characters in the set and have to start inventing new ones to round out the story. Dominaria has the opposite problem. Despite an absolutely massive cast, only twenty-three of the sixty-one printed legendary cards have appeared in the story up to now.

It is an absolute shame that some of those remaining legends aren’t getting the spotlight they deserve. Just to give one example, Radha, Heir to Keld was a brilliantly written character back in the Time Spiral novels. Ferociously blunt and possessed of a breathtakingly volatile temper, she acted as a perfect foil for Teferi’s then-godlike might and gave a story that could’ve easily boiled down to “stop the arbitrary doomsday disaster” some intimately personal stakes. Her pervious arc (burning up her spark to close the time rifts) could’ve meshed very well with Liliana’s current journey, and since she was affiliated with Teferi the last time we saw them it would’ve been easy to rope her into the current story.

That is where the Dominaria problem comes into play. Even if we’re only counting characters that are still alive sixty years after Time Spiral and a few centuries after the Weatherlight Saga, there are countless characters on Dominaria who are worthy of being at the helm of a major story push, and there just isn’t room for all of them. There can’t be. At the same time there is a relative dearth of antagonists worthy of Dominaria’s scope, simply because so many of its villains were vanquished.

It’s no mistake that Belzenlok and Josu Vess are the only named characters to not have roots in the pre-mending world. In a set and a world obsessed with history the villains are bereft of it. And that is a fantastic solution to the thematic problems presented by Dominaria. The problem they weren’t able to get around is that, once again, there isn’t room to develop both sides of the conflict in one set’s worth of stories. The result is an unmistakably enjoyable story, but one that can’t truly stand on its own. Dominaria is essentially serving as a prequel to the upcoming Ravnica Saga. While we have to wait until next week to look at the story in its entirety, I can’t argue that what we’ve gotten isn’t fun and well-written.

So let’s all take a moment to remember how the story has improved in recent years. Despite its slightly wonky ending, Ixalan was the greatest piece of fiction that Magic has produced in the entire time I’ve spent with the game. That doesn’t take away from Dominaria’s accomplishments, even if it does overshadow them.

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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