On day one of the release of the March of the Machine storyline, when I saw that K. Arsenault Rivera would be the author of the main stories, I knew it was a good sign for queer Magic players. Arsenault Rivera previously wrote the Midnight Hunt and Crimson Vow sets and gifted us with Adeline/Chandra, and the reconfirmed canonicity of queer Chandra.

Her work on March of the Machine has won widespread praise; it’s also probably the most explicitly gay main story for a set we’ve ever had. She joined me by video call to talk about the story, writing for Magic, and queer romance. This interview was such a pleasure, and we covered so much ground that only the first half is presented here. Keep your eyes peeled for part two!

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Content Warning

This interview contains numerous spoilers for the current Magic the Gathering story: March of the Machines. If you have not caught up on this story and wish to avoid spoilers, please bookmark this interview and return to it once you’ve finished reading the story.

Thank you so much for being here!

Thanks for inviting me.

Absolutely. How did you get started writing in Magic? How does that happen?

Well, sometimes in this life you shoot your shot. And sometimes that shot lands, and that’s always a wonderful thing. Basically a couple of years ago, I think pre-Pandemic, I saw a posting on Twitter that Magic was looking for new writers. I was like, man, I love magic. I could write. I do that professionally, somehow. So I sent them an email, and in the email I said, “well, here’s some of my writing samples. Here’s this novel that I’m working on that I think it’s the tone of magic pretty well. Here’s some short fiction I’ve done. Also I have an Avacyn Restored tattoo, if that counts for anything.”

And then I kind of forgot about it, and I think it was 6 to 7 months later I got an email from WotC saying “we’d love to have you write for Magic, and we’re so sure that you’re going to say ‘Yes,’ we’ll just send you the NDA now.” They sent the NDA in the first email. And they were right, because that turned out to be the contract for Midnight Hunt and Crimson Vow.

You’ve written three sets including both of those Innistrad sets and MOM, plus a side story. What is the process like as an author? Where do you get involved? How much are you interacting with R&D?

My interaction is more with the story team than it is with R&D. I would say that me and the story team have a pretty good working relationship at this point, because we’ve done a fair bit of work together now.

It does depend on the set. The process for something like Vow and Hunt was very different from the process for March of the Machine. With March of the Machine, we actually started that almost immediately after I was done with Midnight Hunt and Vow. Whereas with Midnight Hunt and Crimson Vow, I came in once the story had been more crystallized. It was more “here are some story beats. Let’s work together with these story beats.”

With March of the Machine, we were working together to figure out what some of the story beats would be from some of the options that we had available, and shaping the story from there. March of the Machines was story first, and it was very focused on that. I was writing parts of the story before we had art available for it, which was an interesting experience in the sequences with New Phyrexia, especially because I was like, “I don’t know what any of this looks like. I’m just gonna have to wing it.”

I actually do find New Phyrexia hard to picture, even with the art, because it’s alien.

It’s very alien, and I think that actually Seanan [McGuire] did an incredible job of it in the All Will Be One stories. I got more of a sense of what Phyrexia is, and what Phyrexia looks like, from her stories than I did from basically anything else. Especially that sequence where Nahiri is creating a model as Melira narrates to her. That was incredible.

That is a really smart explanatory scene. 

Seanan is pretty good at what she does.

Let’s talk about March of the Machine a little more in detail. So first of all, congrats.

Thank you.

Second of all, from my perspective, it seems like the reception has been pretty positive. Is that your experience?

Yeah, I would say for the most part it’s been positive. The negativity I’ve seen mostly centers around things feeling rushed and wanting more space.  As an author, it’s an interesting thing, because obviously, I would have written this as a whole novel if I could have. But the fact that the complaint is not so much “we don’t like what happened” as “we would like to see more things”? As far as complaints go, it’s a fulfilling one.

I’ve definitely seen the same thing. I think most of the criticisms that I’ve seen are something like, “I really like Urabrask, I wish there was more Urabrask.” How do you decide what to leave out, when you have to leave out so much? 

Oh, god, yeah. It’s a collaborative process is what I’ll say without getting too much into it. For me, what was more important was to hit emotional beats and to really zoom in on characters, and make it a very human journey. That’s not to say that we would only focus on human people, because obviously we have Koth, and we have Tamiyo, we have a couple of other different non-human characters. But I really wanted to focus on the human cost of this war, and on the human feelings involved with it, more than I wanted to do, you know, like big plotty setting stuff.  On all of these cards, we’re going to see these big things. We get Thalia and the Gitrog Monster, we get all of these other stories that are going to be going on on the cards that you can see in pictures.

Thalia and Gitrog taking down a bunch of Phyrexians, from the card Thalia and Gitrog.

I don’t need to tell you that a bunch of Phyrexians are going down. What I do need to tell you, and what you do need to understand, is why any of this matters to people. That’s the question that I really set out to answer.

Stuff like, it matters to Chandra because they got Nissa, and she needs to go find Nissa, and she can’t give up hope at all. It matters to Wrenn because her friend’s in trouble, and she needs to go find her friend. It matters to Elspeth, because this is the culmination of the whole journey that she’s been on. It matters to Koth because this is everyone he’s ever known, and everything he’s ever done—this is make or break time for all of that. And obviously it matters to Karn, because in some small way a lot of what’s happening now is kind of his fault—not really his fault, but something that he has to face up to.

The cards can tell you what’s going on, sure. You can get your battles, your cool moments, all of that you can get from cards. But what you can’t necessarily get from those is this sense of emotion and investment, And that’s really what I wanted to nail.

Is there anything that you wrote or conceived that didn’t make it into the final version that you wish had been concluded. 

Not particularly. There were some things that we had some back and forth about, but pretty much everything that I wanted remained.

If I were to expand this into a novel, I probably would give each of the Praetors their own chapter, where they’re messing up a plane or something like that.

That’s one common theme I’ve seen, people wishing we’d seen more of the Praetors. 

I tried to give them all spots as much as I could; I tried to give everybody a flavorful downfall. Jin getting eaten by newts, Vorinclex being distracted while he’s hunting, Sheoldred calling Norn a not-very-nice-person to her face, that’s how I’ll phrase that. And obviously Urabrask getting drawn and quartered. Urabrask is cool, I know a lot of people are very sad about Urabrask, but I thought that him getting the rebellion to where they needed to be was a pretty cool thing, and him being drawn and quartered, I thought the art for that was pretty sick.

Speaking of art, I’m really interested in your point that some stories are better told on the cards themselves, and in the art. Is that something you think about a lot while you’re writing?

Well, that’s something that’s unique to Magic. But whenever you write IP there’s always a bit of a trust fall involved. I’m going to set these things up—will somebody else pick them up? With Magic, there’s another level to that trust fall, which is “I’m not going to tell some of these stories—can they condense these stories into like one or two cards?” It’s something that you definitely do have to keep in mind while you’re writing.

When I was writing the Elspeth bottle episode, I was more focused on conveying the Elspeth bottle episode, and that maybe the very end when she comes out of that could be a cool moment, or maybe when she’s talking to each of these 3 manifestations, you could do art of that. But when I’m writing a battle scene or something, a lot of my head is just…”they’re going to get to this in cool art, you just have to keep going and nail those emotional beats as much as you can.” So definitely it is something that’s on my mind when I’m writing.

With a set like March of the Machines, where the story came before the cards, it’s not like I have the core mechanics of the set that I can reflect in the story because that’s something I try to do in Crimson Vow and Midnight Hunt, actually. With this one I just had to say, “All right, cool stuff is gonna happen, I have to make sure that there’s space for cool stuff to happen, and that there’s decent visuals to work with as prompts.”

Can you give an example of how you tried to work mechanics in for Vow and Hunt?

For Vow and Hunt, Training was a huge thing, so there’s a whole lot of mentions of regular people who are now taking up arms to fight against the vampires. There’s a lot of mentions of blood and stuff, obviously—I have Olivia in a vat of it at one point. A big example, there’s a kid who is riding a pig into battle. He was on a card, (Ed. Note: Rural Recruit) and that’s why he’s in there. When you’re writing a set, and the cards are far enough along, you can incorporate cards like that. But with March of the Machine we didn’t really have that.

Taking a step back and thinking about MOM, what’s your story about, if you had to pick one theme?

I would say that there are two major ones. One of them would be fear and overcoming fear, learning to live with fear and confronting it. The other thing that I would say is it’s kind of about trauma recovery, too.

Stuff like Chandra and Wrenn talking about how to breathe and manage the fires that are in them, all of that comes from my own experiences with panic disorder and with generalized anxiety. I’m afraid basically all the time. And one thing that I do need to learn how to do is learn to live with that fear and not ignore it, in the same way that Wrenn’s got this burning fire inside of her, and Chandra does, too.

Chandra and Wrenn standing side-by-side, making similar poses as they focus their power. From the card Into The Fire.

All of these people who are seeing all of these terrible things happen to their plane. They’re afraid—it’s not that they aren’t. It’s that they just have to keep going, and they have to try anyway. So fear is definitely something that comes up a lot.

And when it comes to trauma there’s a lot of people who have to deal with things, and a lot of people who are changed by them. Elspeth is a different person by the end. Obviously she’s become somewhat distanced from who she used to be, and from her human emotions.

Koth, even though he saved some people, he lost his entire plane. He lost his best friend. He lost most of the people he knew. He lost his entire way of life. Where does that go for him?

Chandra and Nissa, even though they’re together now, Nissa did read her for filth, and they’re going to have to talk about that, and what it was like for them to try and fight one another in that way

In the same way, in episode ten, there’s that mention of “let’s not tell Ajani what he did just yet,” because when Ajani finds out, obviously that’s also going to be something for him to deal with.

All of these people are changed by their experiences, and it’s also about what’s left when you make those changes. Wrenn ending up as the acorn, Tamiyo being unable to fully follow through and hurt her child, and therefore, leaving this echo of herself.

It’s about how we pick up the pieces, and about getting to that point.

Speaking of Tamiyo, I was thinking a lot about death as I read this storyline. What function do you think death serves in these stories? Why do we have people die when people are so attached to these characters in some cases?

This is a very philosophical question that you’ve posed to me.

Death for a lot of people, when it comes to narrative fiction, they view it as a consequence, right? It’s stakes. How do we establish the stakes? Somebody died, right? Somebody died, and they’re never coming back. In shared IP, that can be a little bit trickier. You see that issue in comic books and movies a lot where somebody dies, but they’re not really dead. They’re going to come back. Does that lessen the stakes of that fight?

With Tamiyo, what I wanted to achieve there was stakes, and was personal investment, and also an introduction of some of the themes that I would be working with further in of the ones that showed up in episode two. Tamiyo is afraid, Tamiyo has been changed, and she has these moments where she realizes everything that she’s done. And when Tamiyo chooses to die as herself, rather than continue doing the work of Phyrexia, that’s stakes there. We have Nashi, who has lost most of his mom. He has a remnant of her, and he can continue with that. But he did lose something there. That experience is going to change him.

To bring it back to death itself, I think that, especially nowadays, a lot of people want the stakes of a story to be somebody dying—somebody has to have a big hero spot. I don’t necessarily think that you need that. I think it’s one way to approach a story, but I think there are other kinds of stakes as well. There’s getting your home destroyed, for instance. There’s the stakes of Chandra and Nissa, I was also keeping in mind. What’s gonna happen with them here? We have so much investment in their story. We have the stakes of Elspeth having to give up her humanity. We have Karn losing his spark.

So death, I think, is usually seen as a way to set up the stakes. I don’t think it has to be.

Illustration of The Wanderer, her hat pulled down over her eyes and her sword out in front of her. Behind her, Tamiyo falls.

I want to ask about Elspeth, who’s come up a lot. I know she’s one of your favorite characters.

Yes, I greatly like Elspeth. Avacyn was my gateway into Magic. And then Liliana was—you can see the Liliana statue back there [points to a large statue of Liliana behind her], so that just tells you my investment. But Elspeth was one that I would always put in decks whenever I could, just because as I said, I’m somebody who has an anxiety disorder, and Elspeth has always been afraid, and she always keeps going, anyway, and she always keeps trying to look for home. So I’ve always really loved that about her.

There’s something that feels right about her becoming an angel, and a lot of people had speculated that it was coming. Why do you think it’s fitting? Why is that the next step for Elspeth?

I would say Elspeth is somebody who’s been inspiring for so long, and who has always been trying to reach for a home and been trying to find out what she is, and in every situation that she’s been in she’s enabled other people to do incredible things. She’s the Doom Guy of Phyrexia, as the memes go, yes, but her being Doom Guy allows Venser to do a whole bunch of nonsense, allows Karn to do a whole bunch of nonsense, so on and so forth. In her relationship with Ajani, we see how much mentorship is important to her, as well. Her cards mechanically have always focused on creating a lot of soldiers and emboldening them to do things that they might not otherwise be able to do.

She has an ult that’s Wrath of God, you know. I think that just in terms of who Elspeth is, she’s always felt like a bit of a spiritual leader, not necessarily in the religious sense, but in the inspirational, “we should aspire to this” sense. Because of that, I think it does make sense for her to become an angel and become something that’s a little bit above humanity.

She’s just been through so much. We’ve also seen her die three times basically. It does also fit with a godly narrative, right? Like, if we even go back to classical myth and stuff like that. People who go to Hades and come back—they aren’t just nobodies. They’re usually deified in some way. Even Psyche goes into the underworld and comes back, and then she’s made a god as well.

That’s it for part one. See you next time for part two, where we dive into Gruulfriends, Adeline, and writing queer desire!

Dora Rogers (she/her) is a writer, game designer, and heart-eyes lesbo from Montreal. She is one half of Gal Pal Games, and you can find her solo TTRPG and interactive fiction projects on itch.io. Follow her in all the places, or catch her on Arena playing questionable Vorthos decks in Standard.

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