World Building and The Potential Scope of Commander

First and foremost, I am a fan of the grandness of Magic’s story and worlds. Whenever I pick up a new game, or start watching a new TV show, the larger the scope for what stories could happen the better. I think this is why, despite never once playing a game of it, I’m completely enthralled by Warhammer 40k’s many worlds and beyond-deep lore.

However, MTG has been stumbling over the last few years to really tie story into their larger products. It used to be that we’d have a series of stories released in conjunction with a new set that would tell a clear, coherent and vibrant narrative. Now, ever since our Return to Dominaria, the stories of sets exist in a strange limbo where the cards tell us one thing and the disconnected monetised novel tells us another. Take, for example, the revelation that Lukka becomes a key antagonist, who sees monsters as only another weapon, in the cannon narrative of Ikoria’s novel, and yet we’re told the exact opposite on cards like Go For Blood. Even the cards which point towards his characterisation as a villain like Weaponize the Monsters do so in an indirect way, light on concrete narrative fact.

Another issue with the scope of Magic’s story is that Standard, being the place which supposedly carries the main cannon thread of the narrative, cannot keep up with the breadth of what fans what to see. With hundreds of beloved characters, old and new, and dozens of planes fans are desperate to visit and revisit, on top of the need to introduce new worlds and characters to keep the multiverse fresh, four products a year really can’t hope to keep a player base sated, even if each of them visits a different locale. Even then, cries of “undeveloped” or “underwhelming” rise from the Vorthos crowd like irate bats from an ever-more-neglected quarry. 

But what to do? Simply releasing more magic stories disconnected from sets doesn’t seem to be the answer. The IDW comic books which followed Dack Fayden were beloved, but threw up many questions about if the events were canonical (it seems like certain cherry picked events were, whilst others are not). Additionally, the meagre introduction of his character into the official canon of the game, namely his first appearance in 2014’s conspiracy followed by his second and last appearance where he got killed to death in a piece of marketing material, left many fans of his character feeling like the greatest thief in the multiverse had been stolen from them.

Players want to play with the characters they read about, or have heard about from other fans of the game. This is where supplemental products become invaluable to filling gaps between big canon releases like an welcome yet off-theme banger amidst a pleasant concept album. Conspiracy is an amazing example of this, introducing a whole new world, new characters, and new aesthetics between the two big Standard releases of OG Theros block and Khans of Tarkir. Battlebond was less of a narrative slam dunk, being more of a random football match set in the future than an intriguing plane people wanted to explore more. 

This is all well and good for exploring worlds and mechanics that wouldn’t fit within the ‘standard’ (excuse the pun) Magic narrative and game space, but it runs into a snag when we want to revisit old planes that have previously been in standard rotation. Kamigawa, for example, is a plane that’s widely disliked not because of the setting itself but instead from its association with the sub-standard three sets where it made it’s debut. It has a 7 on the Rabiah Scale (a ranked scale from 1-10 which describes the likelihood of seeing said plane in a standard set). This means that it’s very unlikely we’ll see this plane again in standard, ergo we will likely not get any continuation of the Kamigawa narrative outside of stories featuring Tamiyo, references in core sets, or whistle-stop visits in within unrelated stories such as the Story Circle scenes in the Kaladesh narrative.

A solution has, however, presented itself in the fantastic recent Commander and Brawl products. Ikoria’s Standard release was heralded by the simultaneous release of five Ikoria based commander decks, each showcasing locations, characters, and events on the plane of Ikoria. One of the face-cards, Jirina Kudro, was even a pivotal character in the canon narrative of The Sundered Bond, Ikoria’s companion e-book. Whilst the vast majority of the legendary creatures in these products had no canonical relevancy to Magic’s story, their inclusion certainly helped to flesh out a one-set-plane. Lavabring Floodgates added a locational context to the limited all-star Lavabrink Runner. The ten Partner cards provided categoric examples of both Bonder characters and their bonded monsters. The decks even confirmed the canonical existence of Boggles on Ikoria with the card Slippery Bogbonder!

If Wizards is willing and able to dedicate subliminal, preconstructed products like Commander and Brawl to the fleshing out of standard narratives and worlds; why not take the opportunity to revisit worlds and stories that we’re not going to see in Standard? 

I’m not talking about just reprinting old legends with new art and abilities such as characters like Tahngarth and Volrath were treated to in Commander 2019; rather expanding or re-examining planes and stories from Magic’s past through additional new printings of cards that can fill in new/unaware players as to the richness of Magic’s worlds. Imagine, if you will, a series of commander products that acts as a “Where are they now?” for planes, long overdue for another day in the sun. We can see how the balance of Lorwyn and Shadowmoor is panning out, see how the millennia of time between OG Kamigawa and the current Magic story has treated the plane. Even very recent sets that maybe lack the kind of narrative scope for a fully-fledged return, like Amonkhet, could get a desert based deck that recaps it’s introductory story (literally through flavour text and mechanically through Sagas and reprints) whilst showcasing how the plane is progressing under the leadership of Hazoret.

There’s also scope to re-tell old stories with a fresh coat of paint. I, for one, know only the spark-notes version of the story of Original Ravnica and the Brothers War, for example. I think it’d be a remarkably cool idea to re-tread these narratives in duel commander decks designed to represent the story’s conflict through the gameplay against each other, or a commander deck that represents the story of a key character, for the player base that, like me, started playing only in the last decade. It’d be like the live-action Disney remakes of their classic movies, only still animated… and that would actually compare well to their originals… and not just be a soulless and hasty re-hash performed in order to retain copyright on the original materials… Okay, maybe it wouldn’t be like the live-action Disney remakes at all. 

I really enjoyed the cohesive feel of the Ikoria commander products, and Eldraine Brawl products, but found their general lack of direct relevance to the story to be a missed opportunity. It very much used to be that every, or at least close to every, Legendary permanent in Magic had some relevance to the overall narrative. Maybe they were a key figure in a subplot, or a mythical artifact of legend, or an important location in a world. With Ikoria’s official book only touching on a handful of the nearly 50 legendary creatures spread across its two main products, the space to print new cards (or creatively reprint old ones) that do more to explain and expand this world is there and sorely unfilled.

Imagine if, rather than a jumble of fun yet disconnected creatures and spells, Ikora’s commander products had gone all in and showcased different stages, locations, characters, and events in the set’s story (during and both before and after the events of the book). It would have required a great deal of communication between departments which is the rub for most ideas and proposals from the Vorthos crowd when it comes to better integrating story into game. But this new line of themed commander products does give me hope that we see the design team be even more experimental with them as time goes on. 

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