Reign of Terror – Oath of the Gatewatch

Reign of Terror – Oath of the Gatewatch

It’s… still a bad story. But less bad than the previous leg of the arc. I do not want you, dear reader, to think of that as any kind of praise, because it isn’t. This Oath of the Gatewatch section is only better than the Battle for Zendikar part due to having to tell far fewer stories. I stand by my assertion that a few good stories in a bad whole doesn’t mean the whole can be considered good. My reviews are usually written in prose format, but the previous review was received so well that I think I’ll stick to that format from now on. Now, with that out of the way, shall we begin?

The Characters

Actually, it’s just “the character”—singular. The last time I picked apart the main five, and since those critiques still apply to them, I see no reason to repeat what was said. Instead, we’ll talk about the one prominent character in this story that consistently delivered. You know who I’m talking about. Let me give you a little hint:

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The wonderful Nik Davidson

If that image doesn’t help you, I’m talking about:

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Ob Nixilis’ stories were, by far, the best of this section of the story. This is due to several facts, the main of which is he’s consistent. Ob’s character is the only one where you feel a continuity of logic going from story to story: his actions make sense with his goals. Further, he’s a Black character that actually exemplifies the color, and is allowed to do so. Unlike the main Black character in the story, Liliana, wizards has Ob Nixilis do bad things, face punishment for his actions, and doesn’t try to paint him as a good guy. This is why people like the character—not because they’re told to, but because he exhibits cunning, determination and guile to achieve his goals. No character pulls punches against him, and the story doesn’t break itself in trying to vindicate or protect him—he’s loved because he faces and overcomes adversity believably. Who would’ve thought that people liked stakes in their stories?

Now, I didn’t just link Nik Davidson’s photo because he’s a gorgeous man. I did so because he’s intrinsically tied to the character. That consistency exists only while Nik is writing Ob, and thus far every other writer that has tackled the characters has failed to truly capture what Nik Davidson has put down on paper (so to speak; this is a web thing). Their stories don’t resonate because they tend to write him in stories starring the main four characters—characters that are such paint-by-the-numbers tropes that nobody takes them seriously—and in trying to make them look good end up writing a clichéd caricature of Nixilis. Consistent characterization is a huge issue that the Creative Team needs to work on, especially if multiple writers are gonna be involved.

With all of that said, I encourage you to read the Ob stories written by Davidson. They’re very good pieces.

Side Stories

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Who are these people? Who cares? What’s important is they got a story.

Last time I mentioned the fact that there weren’t enough stories about the Zendikari trying to cope with the menace of the Eldrazi. I’m happy to say that Oath of the Gatewatch mostly rectifies this by featuring more non-Planeswalker-centric stories. I wasn’t alone in voicing this critique for the Battle for Zendikar story, and I’m glad wizards listened to us on this.

This praise, however, comes with a caveat (as you will see is the case for pretty much every positive going forward). What Creative seemed to miss is the fact that the second half of why we wanted these non-Planeswalker-centric stories is so that we could see the Eldrazi being threats. No named character has died, even ones they just made up in this story. That severely undercuts the threat level of the villains, no matter how much you tell us they’re super powerful. In the end, how many did the Eldrazi kill? Maybe millions of faceless redshirt cannon fodder, but their lives don’t matter because we have no personal investment in those useless numbers. That leads to the next point.

Stakes

Remember my last review where I said that players would feel more investment if they had used Omnath rather than creating a whole new character to fill the same role? The fact that players felt invested when Lorthos died proves my point. Wizards always talks about the limitations of the card game genre in relation to story, but never talk about the strengths. The characters on the cards will always hold special meaning to players because maybe that card snagged them a pretty cool win in Commander; maybe it got them out of a bind in a Standard game; maybe it was given to them by someone special—there’s an infinite number of personal stories surrounding every card you print, and that’s one of the strengths of the genre. Lorthos had no story behind him beyond the personal stories of players that used him, yet his death in the story meant so much more than that of the scores and scores of redshirts that die. His death created stakes, however fleeting they were.

Stakes are wonderful, and every story needs them. Oath of the Gatewatch fails to be a compelling narrative because from day one (Battle for Zendikar) it lacked stakes. We came back to Zendikar to see that the Eldrazi are kind of just… around not doing anything. When the Phyrexians took over Mirrodin, we saw the world actually change into what looked like a toxic waste dump—which is exactly what we were told the Phyrexians did. When we returned to Zendikar it wasn’t a crater or space dust—it was just chalk (and later, a pretty bismuth pattern). Ulamog wasn’t a great devourer, he was just a giant tentacle monster, and an ineffectual one at that.

Do you see the problem? From the get-go we knew Zendikar wasn’t in any danger. The story, at no point, does anything terribly dramatic to make us think otherwise, and that’s why it fails as a dramatic story. Stories can’t exist without tension or stakes of some kind—someone needs to want something, something needs to be in danger etc.

The end result of this arc seems to be that Zendikar’s land is forever scarred by the Eldrazi, but what does that mean to us? There’s an infinite number of other worlds out there that this story takes place on, and they failed to develop any truly resonant characters for us to care that they have to live on the scarred world due to not being Planeswalkers. If we look at this from an in-universe perspective, the only thing that’s really changed on Zendikar is there’s a lot more chalk and bismuth around. The Eldrazi didn’t ruin the atmosphere, making people have to go live underground, they didn’t dry up all the water—they didn’t do anything that couldn’t be reversed by the next time we visit Zendikar. They already started, for crying out loud.

Stakes: Consistency

I know I said I wouldn’t talk about the characters, but this is a sub-topic to the whole lack of stakes thing.

We’re told Gideon is just a man, but he can still contend with god-like beings. He can still fight after spending hours being tortured by Ob Nixilis. We’re constantly told things, but never shown them.

We’re told Jace isn’t that strong for the entirety of the story, but in an instant he can dispel, without effort, a spell powerful enough to raise 3 miles’ worth of ocean to crash down on them. I’ve seen some try to defend this by saying “Negate can counter All is Dust,” and to that I say “10 squirrels kill Kozilek”.

I will talk about the Eldrazi in the next section.

The Eldrazi and their defeat

Yes, I know I opened with saying I wouldn’t recap what I already discussed, but seeing as this is such a crucial part of the story, not reiterating would be a disservice. I recommend reading my article about Lovecraft if you’re not familiar with them beyond Cthulhu being a tentacle-faced monster.

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This scenario is as contrived as Chandra is inconsistently-drawn

Many missteps were made this story arc, and a huge chunk of them come with the Eldrazi. They were, again, treated as just tentacle monsters and kaiju. That’s a disservice to the material on which they’re based and what the previous writers on the Creative Team put down back during Rise of the Eldrazi.

A lot of people clung to the whole “The titans aren’t actually what you see. The ones you see are just projections. The real Eldrazi are still out there,” in defense of the asinine plot, but that doesn’t work . Those projections, they’re the ones actual oldwalkers couldn’t defeat and the ones that destroyed whole planes. An equivalent defense would be to say “That regular guy just destroyed that 65-ton tank with his bare hands! Don’t worry though, he didn’t kill the guys inside so they can just return with a new tank!”

A lot of people also try to say that nobody tried killing the Eldrazi before, but that’s equally false. Sorin and Nahiri were trying to kill them and couldn’t even handle Ulamog on his own (I used the wayback machine so that wizards can’t just go back and edit the article, which they’ve been known to do when a future story conflicts with an older story). Ugin suggested to them that sealing was the only way because the creatures were so powerful, and even if they did manage to kill them on a plane it wouldn’t be a permanent fix.

The story’s power level inconsistency aside, the Eldrazi don’t work as villains thematically either. They wanted to copy the Avengers, and have the heroes unite under a huge threat, but then solidify their status as a team by overcoming those odds.

[ @maro254 How much consideration was given to the idea of having the Eldrazi win this round of the story?
— Thos, Ruin Diver (@The_Arcanix) January 8, 2016

The plan was always for this adventure to be the start of the Gatewatch, and we didn’t think you could start a team by having them lose out of the gate. Why would people continue to work together if their first attempt failed miserably? So I would say very little consideration was given to the idea.]

This is a bizarre thing for Mark Rosewater to say, since he was a screenwriter. Some of the best team-ups stem from the pain of loss, and vowing that such loss will never happen again. It would’ve been poignant beyond belief if Zendikar was destroyed and everyone on it killed, then the group of planeswalkers decide to unite to prevent something like that from happening to another world. That would’ve preserved the Eldrazi as threats and made the main characters be underdogs. Listen to another screenwriter talk about this.

They did a story where the characters come together and recite an oath. This is meant to be the big “team up” moment. You know, like that pan shot in the Avengers, or that scene in Batman v Superman where the trinity lines up to take on Doomsday. Except where those had a logical build up that led to the heroes coming together, this one just had them, without external pressure, decide that they’re a superhero team now. No Agent Coulson died for them to unite, no unstoppable force was there for them to unite against. There is no emotional catharsis to be gained, not from them uniting (because there was no conflict between them) nor from them overcoming a threat that isn’t competent enough to kill even one named character.

Further, what does this mean for future stories? So the team forms and wins against the most powerful beings in Magic’s lore. Now what? Make bigger monsters? It’d be like if Thanos was the main villain of the first Avengers, or if the Fantastic Four formed to beat Galactus. It just doesn’t work. I don’t care that Emrakul is the most powerful titan when two others can be defeated so easily. I don’t care.

I mean, to further undercut the Eldrazi as a threat, the writers had Chandra use Ulamog’s skull as a chair after it died. I guess it’s to show off how irreverent Chandra is, but to do so at the cost of Ulamog, an Eldrazi titan, is silly, especially if you expect to use another titan in the future. There’s a reason Krypto the Superdog hasn’t peed on Doomsday’s broken body after Superman killed it. There’s a reason nobody has tried to kick Darkseid in the crotch—these things lessen your villains. Don’t lessen your villains. It’s too late, however.

Eldrazi: Not Personal

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Those two cards tell a guttural, personal story that yanks at emotions far more than the seemingly infinite number of stories about Nissa trying to find herself, or the Planeswalkers dancing through the plot without danger. This is what the Eldrazi story should have been: stories about brother fighting brother and the internal strife that generates in the characters we’re supposed to care about, not fighting indistinguishable tentacle monsters.

Had Creative actually analyze the movie they were copying practically beat for beat, the Avengers, they’d see there is a personal core to it. Loki is Thor’s brother, and it’s his inferiority complex in regards to Thor that drives the plot of the movie. With the Eldrazi, we can’t get an emotional payoff because the Eldrazi aren’t characters. A story with a villain like that is fine, like Lord of the Rings with Sauron’s Eye, but those villains tend to be treated as forces of nature and death itself. The Eldrazi were not treated as the natural disasters they were built up to be, and they also weren’t treated as the Lovecraftian mindfreaks they were promised to be—they were just… kaiju.

Defeating the Eldrazi doesn’t bring with it an emotional payoff because they mean nothing to the characters, and that’s the absolute worst outcome for any story.

The Resolution

The Eldrazi were defeated by concepts introduced in this story. They were beaten by MacGuffins and deus ex machina. How the hedrons work (never mind that they’ve retconned quite a bit about the hedrons already) got explained to us recently, and only in time for the Eldrazi to be destroyed by them. It was a whole lot of nonsense about leylines and mana explosions—just things never hinted at or explored before this storyline. Again, this makes the resolution feel cheap and undeserved.

The main characters at no point in the story were in danger, things fell into place quite nicely for them at the end and this was due to elements introduced in this story arc. That’s hackneyed.

Terrorking’s final thoughts

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I see people with the notion that naysayers were ultimately complaining about nothing since the stories elucidated on things people thought were bad. This is a poor view to have because without the naysayers stating their opinion, the creative team would’ve kept going along with their Battle for Zendikar model. How do I know that details were changed on the fly? Well, you can look at the book, The Art of Magic: The Gathering: Zendikar, which features the original plans of the story arc, and its information got contradicted near the end. This is an assumption on my part, but one I feel has support because:

  1. We’re told time and time again that the Creative team is working several sets ahead, which means they have BFZ-OGW’s plot figured out.
  2. The book would have to be printed weeks or months in advance of release date so they can have copies to sell.

What this means is for details in the book to be different than what happens in the story, that would mean the story was changed.  That, which is most likely, or the Creative Team simply lied in the book with every intention to not do what it described, which is not likely at all.

Now let’s look at the changes that took place:

  1. We finally got official word on what Nissa’s backstory actually is. Further, her Ashaya-focus has severely decreased for this stretch of the story.
  2. We got more stories on the plight of the Zendikari, instead of filler stories with the “Gatewatch”.
  3. Nik Davidson is sole writer of Ob Nixilis.

These are all things I asked for in my previous review, and what the community at large has been asking for. What I’m saying is, when you see people complaining because things aren’t up to snuff, don’t try to snub them. Let that person complain, because only then will wizards know that what its doing is subpar, and only then will wizards be incentivized to make adjustments to its course. That’s what corporations do: they listen to consumers for fear of losing them. We’ve seen it with Mass Effect 3, we’ve seen it with the XBox One. You have a voice, so use it. If you aren’t going to, don’t damn those who do.

Another point that bothers me is it’s easy to put the blame on Hasbro and not wizards, but… why? If the bad decisions made are on Hasbro, then why aren’t the good decisions also on them? Unless someone comes forward and says these were mandated changes, especially with what Mark Rosewater said above, I’ll put the blame squarely on wizards and on the creative team.

Let’s not forget that going by Creative’s admission that they’re working two years ahead, Battle for Zendikar and Magic Origins (the two worst story sections) are the first sets not to have Brady Dommermuth involved.

This is the last thing I’ll say: I’m now convinced that all the changes made to the storytelling and the genre itself that wizards is now writing a superhero narrative because that’s what the big thing is in Hollywood. They want the Magic movie to succeed desperately. A word of caution is the superhero genre itself is moving away from what wizards is just now starting to do. Deadpool is currently the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time, and its campaign was built on it not being the typical superhero movie. People are getting burned out on the genre’s old tropes and studios are in the process of reinventing the wheel. Deadpool, Suicide Squad, Guardians of the Galaxy—all shake up the formula in an attempt to keep it fresh, since it is a rapidly aging genre.

I guess what I’m saying is this whole thing sucks for so many different reasons. It’s all a mess. I don’t know if I’m interested enough in Magic anymore to write another one of these, in all honesty. Do note that this article isn’t as massive as the previous one, and that’s largely due to me losing my zeal for the story. If I want superheroes, I can read the much better-written comics I look through every month. I got into Magic for fantasy (more specifically, the Eldrazi and their Lovecraftian roots), not this.

Overall, this arc—this story—ultimately gets a 4/10. I know I said it was better than Battle for Zendikar, but that was only on a week-to-week basis. As a whole (convoluted ending, ineffectual villains, contrived scenarios, wholesale reliance on macguffins, and leaps in logic) it is far worse.


 

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As an aside, someone really needs to start proofreading these articles before they’re submitted.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Reign of Terror – Oath of the Gatewatch

  1. Okay, another quite rationally put article from you.
    If I were you, I would not leave just now – the SoI story (and especially the accompanying materials) are shaping up to be quite interesting, indeed Lovecraftian, etc. I would quite like to read your opinions on the story then.

    Like

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