It’s a bad story. Plain and simple. But you didn’t come here for simple and plain, did you? No, you want the nitty-gritty of why this is perhaps the worst story Magic has told in at least eight years. Now don’t let the negativity in this article make you think Magic’s story is bad: for the most part it’s really good, because if it wasn’t I’d hardly care anough to write this up. Indeed, when it comes to story, Magic’s the best card game out there. Now, the Battle for Zendikar storyline consists of many installments, and some were even good, but Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones also had some good parts, but that doesn’t stop it from being an awful movie. What I’m saying is just because a few stories were good doesn’t mean I can say Battle for Zendikar is a good storyline. Onward, as they say.
Recently, Magic entered a “new era of storytelling,” as they always put it. It goes away from the environmental stories, where the main character is essentially the world the story takes place in and what Mark Rosewater describes as the story type Magic is best at telling, and instead is focusing on more character-driven tales. That’s okay; trying new things is okay. In fact, Theros’ story was the perfect blend of focusing on the world, whilst telling a character-driven story. The issue here is executing things poorly, and so to talk about this storyline’s pitfalls, I’ll need to talk almost entirely about the main characters because the world took a back seat this time around.
Anyone that knows me knows I despise this character. I don’t see what’s appealing about him. Well actually I do since he’s a smart-mouth, brooding pretty boy with mind powers, nobody understands him, but beautiful women all adore him somehow, and he’s associated with the Color in Magic that has had the most powerful cards over Magic’s 20+ year history and has never had any bad cards associated with him personally. Yeah, I get all that, but the character type is really played out and uninteresting, you know? That’s why writers tend to not have characters like him onscreen for too long (see: Itachi from Naruto), lest the readers catch on, but Magic has graffiti’d Jace’s image onto every product it produces, so he’s everywhere even when he shouldn’t be. Naturally, he’s a major part of the problem with Battle for Zendikar’s story, right?
Wrong. Jace is written competently, as boring as he may be. He comes in, isn’t on screen for long and does whatever he’s meant to do, then goes away again. He only got screentime when it was time for him to contribute, so his stories were always succint and to the point—the plot felt like it was moving whenever Jace was around. The only issue I have with his involvement in this story arc was how he got into it in the first place. You see, someone said the word “puzzle” when describing a conundrum they were faced with, so that made one of the characters have a eureka moment where they went “Wait, I know a guy that solved a literal puzzle once. Maybe he can solve this metaphorical puzzle too!” Had the original speaker not say “puzzle,” and instead said “mystery,” Jace wouldn’t be a part of the storyline. At the time it felt like a flimsy reason to get him involved in the story, but I digress.
She’s not done much at all, though some of the writing decisions baffle me as it concerns her. At the start of the storyline, Jace and Gideon traveled to her to get her help. She refused because she was going to take up the responsibility of becoming the leader of an order of monks. That’s okay, and is character development for a character that always avoided responsibilities (more on this later). But at the end of the storyline, after having not been it since that one installment where she showed up to turn them down, she has a change of heart and decides to throw out the responsibility of leading the monks and instead help her friends (more on this later). I’m left wondering “Why”. Why did they have a story about her staying with the monks, if she was only going to decide to go help Zendikar at the last minute without any outside elements influencing her decision. What’s worse is after that ONE story, we never got mention of her again until the story where she decides to go. It’d be like if Yoda told Luke in Episode 5 that he wouldn’t train him, and then decided to train him anyway, but without Obi-Wan telling him to. It’s weird, but I hesitate to say bad.
More on this later section:
- Chandra was star of the novel “The Purifying Fire,” and the lesson learned at the end is “You have to take responsibility for your actions.” Through a chain of events, Chandra was the reason her parents died, but she refused to accept this and through another chain of events that include the support of Gideon, she was able to accept responsibility for it and as a result was no longer shackled by the past and was free. It’s not really character development to have her learn responsibility so much as it is restating a character trait.
- Chandra was star of the novel “The Purifying Fire,” where she was enemies with Jace and friends/lovers (whichever you choose is up to you) with Gideon. I don’t know why she would consider them both friends.
Recently, there’s been massive retcons that axe most of the novels through contradictions, but the writers of these stories keep bringing up past elements without telling us which novels are canon and which aren’t. If we assume The Purifying Fire isn’t canon anymore, then what is her new canon history with Jace and Gideon? I could talk at length about this, but let’s save it for the next entry.
As far as problems with Battle for Zendikar go, she’s the second most important one. Nissa’s old backstory can be viewed here, but was retconned to bring her more into line with what wizards views as its image, according to wizards writer, Kimberly Kreines. Without getting into the issue that depicting something does not mean endorsing it, retcons are fine when you tell us what is actually retconned and what isn’t.
In a significant story for the character, the plot is her letting go of her past, and changing from what she was into who she needed to be. That’s fine, but exactly who is Nissa of the past? Because we’re to assume that the novel of which Nissa is the main character, “In the Teeth of Akoum,” is no longer canon, and so all the attributes given to her there have to be thrown out. In that novel, she was an action girl, a pragmatist, distrustful and fairly rash (more on this later). Had they not retconned this past for the character and merely used the age old tool of character development to get her to where they needed her to be, then the story would work because we’d know who she was and be able to contrast that with who she would become. Sadly, the story rung hollow because we don’t know this character they’re calling “Nissa” because the one we did know effectively no longer exists.
That’s the problem she brings to Battle for Zendikar. All her stories are the same, so they ring hollow. Every story she’s the main character of follows this mould: she’s wandering around, trying to find her place in the world, a fight scene happens and then she decides, “Yeah, this is who I am and where I belong.” She’s the opposite of Jace in this regard. When Jace is in a story, the plot is moving forward, but when Nissa is, the plot stagnates, meanders and many times, reverts. This is why people groan when it’s time for a Nissa story.
Nissa’s stories give one the impression that they’re writing just to meet a word count—writing just to meet the weekly schedule. Writing to meet a deadline isn’t even the crux of the issue here, since there’s many a medium where authors write installments week to week. The issue here is they have a pretty simple and straightforward plot, but rather than do what Uncharted Realms did so well in the past, where it told stories of non-main characters going about their lives (a section on this later), the writers instead decided to artificially stretch the plot as much as possible with week in and week out of Nissa crying about Zendikar.
Another thing that sticks out to me about Nissa in this storyline is in Nissa’s old incarnation she was a warrior, but this new one is more akin to a spiritualist, and in keeping with that idea they invented a new “character” rather than using a perfectly valid older one that fans have clung to (more on this later) for her to bond with in order to show her closeness with nature. This is another problem with the storytelling: the disregard for old in favor of new. Now, you don’t want to be a slave to the past, but you also don’t want to create new superfluous elements when old ones exist that could fill the role.
- In the original Zendikar story, which the novel “In the Teeth of Akoum” covers, Nissa was the one to release the Eldrazi titans. Why did she do such a boneheaded thing? She was partnered with Sorin, who refused to tell her anything other than the fact that these ancient destroyers were pulled from “somewhere” and sealed on Zendikar and that the Roil was a result of them being there and trying to get out. Anowon, who was traveling with them, told her these things and that Sorin couldn’t be trusted, and based on Sorin’s own actions throughtout the novel, this was clearly true. Distrust, and pragmatism led to the fairly rash decision that maybe if she freed them, they would return to where they came from rather than continue to thrash at Zendikar. Her hypothesis proved false and Rise of the Eldrazi happened.
- Ashaya is the spirit of Zendikar and an elemental that they created to be Nissa’s Iron Giant. A character with no plot baggage attached to him, Omnath, could’ve easily filled that role. He could’ve been Zendikar’s spirit because not only was his effect tied to mana, which represents life and nature, but he was a very popular character without having any characterization. When Ashaya died, nobody cared because they just didn’t have a chance to form a bond with the character, but had he instead been Omnath, that would’ve gotten a more guttural reaction from players. Perhaps then Nissa’s whining about losing him would actually hit home rather than come off as… whining.
Let me preface this by saying I don’t hate Gideon. In fact, I love him for being an objectively good character in a setting with so many greys. This is the guy that got stabbed by a goblin trying to kill him, but then protected that same goblin a page later from being immolated by Chandra. This is the guy that looks out for the innocent, regardless of cost to him. This man makes Dudley Doowright look like an antihero, and I love him for it. The issue with him in regards to this story is… the writers don’t know what his role is. To fully understand where I’m going with this, you’ll perhaps need to familiarize yourself with his original ascension:
“When I felt my Spark ignite, I understood. It was…” He hesitated. “I killed someone [we now know this to be Erebos’ titan],” he said quietly. “Someone very powerful. Very dangerous. I knew I shouldn’t have lived through that confrontation. Not logically. I was shocked at how much power I had accessed. I sensed a clarity in the world around me. I felt an intensity of experience, an awareness of simply being that I had never known. I had a moment, however fleeting, where I understood everything around me. I understood the Multiverse on a fundamental level, if you can imagine such a thing, so that when I slipped into the aether I knew where to go.”
“Is it like that every time?” [Chandra is speaking now]
“No,” he said. “As soon as I had landed on another plane, it was gone. I have tried to achiever that state of awareness for most of my life since then, but I have yet to come close.”
Gideon, in his original novel incarnation, is calm and at peace with things, and this is why he can get along with a spitfire like Chandra: because he’s wise and knows better than to fuel her fire. Gideon instinctively knows right and wrong, and that’s Superman. Superman, from his upbringing has a strong moral fiber and it’s one of his defining characteristics.
Then Magic Origins happened and they decided to slightly alter Gideon’s backstory where instead of reflecting on the fact that he survived, he instead unlocked his spark through the trauma of having those he cares about die. That’s not Superman. Superman doesn’t need to see a million people die to know that it’s wrong. That’s Batman’s backstory. Batman, unlike Superman, was a sheltered rich kid and it was the trauma of his parents’ death that changed him. He knew that a punk with a gun being able to just take a kid’s life away was wrong and dedicated himself to stopping that from happening.
Gideon being like Batman is cool on paper, because that’s who he’s closer to being… until you try to have it both ways. You can’t have Gideon be Batman but have Superman’s powers. It doesn’t work on any level. The tragedy of Superman is he can’t be everywhere at once, as Kevin Smith often says. Batman, however, legitimately tries to be everywhere at once because he’s obsessed, and that why he creates Batman Inc. Do you see the problem here? Batman has no powers, but is everywhere; Superman has all the powers, but can’t be everywhere. They’re opposite characters and not meant to be one character because that defeats the purpose of both.
Gideon can’t be Batman and Superman at the same time. He has the power of invulnerability, legitimate invulnerability, and they seem to be pushing the same “Gideon can’t be everywhere at once” thing that Superman has going on, but that fails because he has the pathos of Batman. Why isn’t he out there forming a Gideon army on each plane? You know what happened when Batman got powers? He killed every criminal on Earth and ended crime.
Wizards, Gideon can’t be both a man and a god. It doesn’t work. Pick one and tell that story because they’re both separately really good stories. Or pick both and tell THAT story of a person that is both man and divine, instead of picking both concepts and trying to tell a singular story with them. Essentially, the former is’ “He’s a man and a god” versus the latter of “He’s a man, except when he isn’t! He’s a god, except when he isn’t!”
We’re told the Eldrazi are winning. We’re told life on Zendikar has taken a turn for the worst. We aren’t shown that though. If we go back to spring 2014 when Theros was the story going on, Uncharted Realms told stories about random individuals not on cards but lived on the world of Theros, and how the story is affecting them. We saw from the perspective of civilians how the grander plot of the block was changing life on the plane. The plot was a new god rising to power and the other gods unleashing their contempt on the mortals. We saw it play out with people taking up arms, we saw how it destroyed the status quo—we saw it.
Battle for Zendikar, on the other hand, is comfortable following Gideon around as he cuts Eldrazi to pieces, underselling them as a threat. If we got a story about Bob the Blacksmith from some doomed continent where the Eldrazi were rampaging, then we’d see the plight of the millions of people in that world, and we’d see the Eldrazi as actual threats (more on this later). This is why we see The Joker shooting random people in the streets, and why comics often switch perspectives on who’s narrating: so you can see the threat these villains pose to the average guy just trying to get to work, so you can then see why the heroes are needed.
Wizards employees have said that Planeswalkers are like Magic’s superheroes, but a truth of superhero comics is there’s an infinite number of branches stemming from the tree. We get stories starring Superman while simultaneously getting stories starring Jimmy Olsen. We’re at a point where every Robin is a star of their own comic book now, without Batman anywhere to be seen. We’re seeing the world from multiple different perspectives, and this makes whatever story you’re telling stronger.
This is my major issue with Battle for Zendikar. I wrote a post months ago about Lovecraft in games and how his work is often misrepresented, so you can go check it out here. Not much has changed since then, and since I already went in depth in that article I’ll just list some problems I had with their depiction here:
- The Eldrazi aren’t fathomless. They’re simple hulking monsters that just want to eat. Stop telling me they’re fathomless, wizards. It doesn’t work anymore. There’ve been too many stories where that’s all they’re doing. Back when they messed with hedrons, had weird monuments and didn’t kill everything they came into contact with—that’s when they were fathomless.
- It That Betrays is a lie. Perish the Thought is a lie. Silent Skimmer is a lie. Void Winnower is a lie. Annihilator and Titan’s Presence are lies. All the Eldrazi do is smash things with their limbs and appendages. They’re strictly melee fighters and there’s nothing at all cerebral to them. Every story with Eldrazi fighting is just them swinging at people as their limbs get hacked off. Looking at them doesn’t drive you insane, nor does it disintegrate you.
- The titans aren’t gods. Ulamog couldn’t beat a post-mending Planeswalker (basically, just a strong mage) in Gideon. In previous stories, we’re told three pre-mending Planeswalkers (basically, gods with no limitations on what they can and can’t do) couldn’t beat the titans. There’s a disconnect somewhere in there that needs addressing.
- The Eldrazi aren’t a threat. The only thing they do in most of the stories is get killed en masse, outsmarted and outran. How are these guys winning again?
- The Eldrazi are not Lovecraft. This is the most important one. They really aren’t. You can, again, read the post I did before on Lovecraft, which can be found here as well.
Their depiction aside, this is something I intentionally hadn’t touched on in my previous article: Zendikar isn’t a Lovecraftian setting. It has some elements of one that if emphasized could’ve evoked the idea just as well. Innistrad, for example, is a dreary and dour world, filled with madness, mankind barely scraping by, terrifying mysteries, little to no fantastical elements and a whole lot of bleakness is a typical Lovecraft setting, where a reveal that some cosmic entity’s existence is the source of the world’s problems is believable. Zendikar wasn’t very dreary or filled with madness, but it had all the other elements, and had Battle for Zendikar focused more on Eldrazi devastation and featured a maddening population (more on this later), then it’d be more like Lovecraft’s settings and more conducive to selling the Eldrazi as a Lovecraftian threat.
I was wondering where to put this, but I figured I’d just have this be the point made after the Eldrazi, rather than the last point made overall. When we left Zendikar, the three titans were rampaging on it. When we returned to Zendikar, we were told by wizards employees and by characters in-story that word of mouth is only Ulamog is left on Zendikar. Okay, that’s fine. At the end of the Battle for Zendikar story, however it’s revealed Kozilek was there all along! That’s the big twist… but it fails as one. The expectation going into Battle for Zendikar is all three titans, so it is in no way a twist that another titan showed up when most people are wondering “Hey, where’d the other two go?” It’s more of a twist that Ulamog is the only one there, in all honesty, since nobody expected that going into this story.
To be perfectly honest, I’m very iffy on whether I should include this section or not, so I flipped a coin. It’s in now.
The actual text-on-screen for the most part is very competent, but there are outliers. I mentioned how Nissa’s stories are very going through the motions-esque and uninspired, and that is due in no small part to the person that wrote all her stories, Kimberly Kreines. Allow me to give you an example of her writing of a very popular character, Ob Nixilis:
“Don’t be naive,” the demon snapped. “Power belongs to those who take it. I took it. So it’s mine.”
Now let’s put that up against one of my favorite writers on Uncharted Realms, Nik Davidson’s depiction of the same popular character:
[Ob Nixilis:]”… Their language was a direct predecessor of our own, you know, although we adopted our modern alphabet from the Liex. They had a word that meant ‘victory at any cost.’ Do you know what it was?”
He shook his head.
[Ob Nixilis:]”Victory. The distinction is for lesser souls than ours.”
At the risk of sounding like a tv commercial, when you compare there’s just no comparison. Ms. Kreines needs to step up her writing, or write less so her stories mean more instead of going through the motions weekly.
This is related to the previous three sections, and it coming now is meant to in no way diminish its significance. I touched upon it a bit here and there, but let me restate things by first placing a quote from one of the stories here:
Gideon absorbed the blow, gritting his teeth under the weight of it. A second tentacle hurtled his way from the other side. He shifted the focus of his protection.
How much longer should he wait? He slashed back Ulamog’s reaching fingers. Just a little longer…
The titan leaned forward, bearing down toward Gideon. Gideon dug his feet into the rock and stared straight into where he imagined the titan’s eyes would be. “You’re not getting past me.” He turned his shoulder to meet Ulamog’s chest, focusing all of his power into that single point, the point of impact. He grounded himself, clenching every muscle in his body, pushing back.
Think about that for a second. We’re told that the titans are this unstoppable force that not even the gods of Magic’s lore, who are infinitely more powerful than its current slew of characters, could stop nor even hinder, yet here we have one of these new and less powerful characters impeding a titan on his own. That is actively breaking the rules the story established, which only further diminishes the threat of the Eldrazi, and serves to break suspension of disbelief. Rules are important, so adhere to them.
As an example: imagine if the Death Star couldn’t get past one X-Wing despite it having the firepower to destroy a planet. The Death Star works as an example beyond that level, because the weaknesses it had that Luke exploited at the end of the movie were established beforehand and then taken advantage of. Imagine if it was in the middle of that last mission that: 1) someone told Luke the Death Star’s structural weakness was the exhaust port and 2) the Death Star showed it couldn’t shoot consecutively because it needs to recharge. These would come off as deus ex machinas and weaken the effectiveness of the storytelling. Had the Eldrazi been given actual tangible weaknesses that could be exploited before the final confrontation, or not be presented as being more powerful than gods, then the verse’s rules would’ve been preserved and the story strengthened.
“Haven’t you been sharing all your thoughts?”
Yes, and no. What you read through was how I perceive this storyline, but this is the section where I talk about how I perceive the writing process of this storyline. If you’ve been following Magic any at all over the past year or so, you’ll know there’s a Magic movie in the works. At first I was baffled how the storytelling could’ve messed up so profoundly with Battle for Zendikar, but then I remembered this movie. It explains literally every pitfall.
- The main characters. Originally, the five main characters of Magic were: Liliana, Jace, Chandra, Garruk and Ajani. After Magic Origins, the five main characters became: Liliana, Jace, Chandra, Nissa and Gideon. Obviously, you don’t want the main character of your live-action movie franchise to be a CGI/costume-wearing Cat-man, you want it to be just a guy in armor so you can pull in as many viewers as possible. Same with Garruk. You don’t want an 8-foot tall hulking man in a loin cloth because casting for that’s going to be pretty hard; you instead want a 20-something cute Elf girl where all the actress has to do is put in contact lenses and wear pointy ears.
- The focus. Marvel movies are popular, and they’re just the main characters playing off each other and quipping as they beat down the faceless bad guys en masse. Cerebral films that talk about the world and how it’s being affected by an invasive force aren’t doing too well as summer blockbusters, so Magic’s shifted its focus from Mirrodin, Theros, Zendikar and Tarkir-like stories and is instead focusing on bringing all their heroes together to quip and beat up faceless bad guys in droves.
- More on this later. Why is this story not very cerebral and does not highlight the madness Eldrazi merely existing supposedly causes? Well, to be frank, that doesn’t make for an easy summer blockbuster. The low-hanging fruit is the Michael Bay method, where there’s big battles, shaky cameras and lots of explosions. A movie where the world is filled with people driven mad by the gloom of the Eldrazi is not as appealing as a simple monster movie where the main characters beat up a bunch of flying tentacle monsters.
A cynical view, perhaps, but one I feel is fairly accurate. I hope that going forward Magic will understand that trying to emulate what Marvel is doing isn’t a route to success. Why watch something try to be like Marvel when you can go watch Marvel? At this rate, Magic isn’t going to be the next big screen Harry Potter; it’d be lucky to be the next big screen John Carter.
The thing I’ve seen is people scoff at these criticisms and say “It’s just the story to a card game.” I find that completely insulting both as a fan and to the authors that sit around and pen these stories, even if they currently are doing a less than stellar job of it. You’re saying they can’t produce anything to stand up to par with a story told through a more traditional medium. When you try to defend the story using that excuse, you’re essentially saying “A card game story can’t be good,” and after having been exposed to so many of Magic’s past stories since becoming a fan back in 2013, I can say that is completely wrong. Theros is a rich story. Scars of Mirrodin is a rich story. The original Zendikar block is a rich story.
No, it’s not “just” a card game story, it’s a story and I will judge it and analyze it on the grounds that it’s a story. Let’s not forget that 15 years ago comic book movies had to make fun of their costumes and plots because comic books are silly and had to be Matrix knockoffs to pull an audience. Now we’re living in a post-Batman Begins world where comic book movies are taken seriously and judged on their own merits. Let’s not forget that 80 years ago, films were “just movies” and were things to be laughed at and not taken seriously, but then came Citizen Kane.
Actually, comics are a niche audience and films have been taken seriously for so long that it might not even hit home with you that these are facts. Let’s look at video games: 10 years ago nobody took video game stories seriously, but now Telltale Games makes its living making award-winning video game stories. This only happened because people took the story seriously. The medium through which you tell a story in no way dictates the quality. Indeed, the only right way to view Magic’s lore is not to think of it as a “card game story” but as a “story told through a card game.”
Overall, Battle for Zendikar’s story gets no higher than a 4.5/10. It’s just below average competency.