Scheduling a Prerelease last weekend required some serious time management, as half of the players I spoke to were already losing three-plus hours to a screening of Avengers. I don’t watch the Marvel movies—I’ve never been a serialized superhero comics guy—but I respect the careful narrative management that goes into the decade-spanning scope of them. There has not been, to my outsider’s eye, any serious misstep that could have sabotaged the entire franchise—compare to the “Universal Monsters Dark Universe,” the modern cautionary fable against franchise-building. And they’ve been doled out to match public demand, coupled with impressive marketing blitzes to bolster that same demand. I’ve seen maybe three, and hated watching them; but from a capitalist-culture perspective, they’re impressive achievements.

I thought about this as I did some spring cleaning last week and found the first few volumes of Cerebus in an old tote bag at the back of a closet. For those unfamiliar: Cerebus the Aardvark was a 6,000+ page graphic novel started by Dave Sims in the 1970s that concluded three decades later. It started as a scratchy parody of sword-and-sorcery pulp fiction before heading into social satire and then, ultimately, into “hard yikes” territory. It’s a slow evolution, but as Sims aged and experienced schizophrenia, divorce, and the creation of his own religion, the narrative goes from “sass-talking aardvark barbarian fights liches” to “hundred-page anti-feminist screeds.” I wouldn’t recommend reading it—life is, after all, entirely too short for bad art made by good people, let alone bad art made by misogynists. But it’s a fascinating example of what can happen when a true auteur has enough power and capital that they can ignore any criticism or attempts at management.

As far as comics go, it’s the anti-Marvel, but they’re both sides of the same maximalist coin. In a world of abundance, you have to stand out; if you can’t be the “Best,” you can still be the “Most.” “Most” is the watchword following the Great Recession—if you have a cost-conscious audience, the best thing you can do isn’t offer uniqueness but value. Whether it’s the Globe Theatre or Coachella, throw enough at the audience and they’ll feel stimulated.

Magic, as those who have dipped into message boards and Twitter threads know, has been killed three dozen times, from the addition of color-coded rarity icons to the holostamp to the creation of Planeswalker Commanders. The irony, of course, is that the closest calls are the ones we hear about years after—the eight months between Homelands and Alliances, the pre-geek boom, self-reflective years of 2006-2008 (my personal favorite period of Magic design, something I intend to write about in serious depth soon) when poor business decisions on Wizards’ end, coupled with supply-chain issues, had Magic on the ropes. But Magic has thrived. There are 13,000 different Magic cards, and we somehow haven’t hit Peak Magic. We have hit minor oversaturations—the printing of some sets to meet demand (from Fallen Empires to Return to Ravnica) and the poor implementation of narrative card design in the Weatherlight Saga—but the game as a whole is still acquiring new players and retaining old players.

We’re seeing Magic’s own narrative climax this weekend—one that, like the Marvel Universe, has been in the works in some form for a decade, since 2009’s Shards of Alara. The elevator pitch is simple: the most powerful dragon of all time, his power diminished by external crisis, schemes to reclaim that power at any cost. Sure, there are all kinds of silly plot elements and forced totem-collection—Lazotep coating! The Dreadhorde of Eternals! The Nexus/Crux of Fate and the Khanfall!—but the beats of the story are solid: villain seeks power at the expense of the powerless, so a band of powerful heroes must team up, overcome their interpersonal friction, and defeat him for the benefit of the universe. That’s the Star Wars franchise, that’s the Marvel structure, that’s a classic myth that lingers into the modern era.

Tolstoy said, apocryphally, there are only two stories in great literature: a person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. For action fiction, there are only two stories: a team bands together to defeat a power-hungry foe or a team bands together to defend a weaker ally—either the Avengers or the Seven Samurai. When the stakes are universal in scope, the power levels have to scale up, as well. Once your audience becomes jaded with the basic beats of the team-up, you have to up the ante: this is how we get reanimated God-Eternals and spirit bombs and Infinity Stones and all the rest.

War of the Spark could have easily been Peak Planeswalker. I thought that the set would bring a seismic change similar to the Great Mending—I assumed some Bolas-made cataclysm would result in a (probably temporary) depowering of Planeswalkers. Instead, while we’re seeing thirty-six ‘walkers, many of whom are reduced in power for Limited purposes, there’s no permanent change to the card type. When we depart Ravnica, off to wherever we go this September, we’ll no doubt see the now-traditional “+X: draw a card, -Y: remove a permanent, -Z: win the game” model. That assumption lets the Planeswalkers in War of the Spark feel desperate, like they’re calling on their last bits of power; the decision to only have minus effects on the uncommon ‘walkers is brilliant, as it makes them feel inherently imperiled. Proliferate has gone from feeling like the spread of a virus to feeling like you’re doling out an armory or delivering a crucial battlefield speech. Much like Dominaria ended up being a set about the history of the world of Magic, rather than the history of the game of Magic, War of the Spark feels like a set about being a Planeswalker, rather than a set about Planeswalkers.

Who lives, who dies, how their stories are reflected in the cards—to me, all of that is tertiary to gameplay and experience. But the fact that Wizards plotted out a story that was first conceived when Bush was President and pulled it together, from the machinations of Elder Dragons to the manipulations of Khans to the off-kilter monster-factory of Amonkhet? That is an act worthy of praise. The fact that it turned out more Marvel than Cerebus is laudable, too, and the apocalyptic-but-triumphant feeling of War of the Spark feels right.

When we leave Ravnica this fall, we may return to a smaller story. After the Phyrexian Invasion, we spent two years on Otaria, a forgotten and unaffected continent tucked away in the corner of Dominaria. But the story will still be altered by Magic’s own Infinity War, and so too will Magic players.

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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