Dominaria Magic Story


The Tentacled One
So yesterday I read the last chapter of the Magic Story for Dominaria. I mean, I saw most of this coming since they spoiled the card In Bolas's Clutches long before they got to this chapter. Anyway, I don't think it's quite worth a full article, but some of this stuff is bugging me...

First, I should note that I think the quality of the writing has generally gone up. That's kinda why I'm complaining in this manner in the first place. I mean, I take everything in the lore with a grain of salt and I try to take the perspective that it's all in good fun anyway. While I can't pinpoint it right now, I remember that over the past few years (at least), many of the story segments posted on the official website have been so riddled with typos, with stilted dialogue, and with amateurish melodrama that I couldn't really take it seriously anyway. I mean, I wrote that rant about Amonkhet, but most of that was about card flavor and my obsession with ancient Egypt. Anyway, I guess they finally hired an editor or something? I didn't really pay that close of attention, but the writing got better somehow.

The exact nature and limits of Karn's abilities has never been firmly established. He's a "silver golem" for the purposes of time travel, which seems to be irrelevant now. He's big and strong. He's extremely tough, possibly kinda invincible, and at the very least has survived a lot of trauma that would kill other beings. Also, back in the Invasion craziness, Karn got back old memories showing that he'd fought and killed lots of Phyrexians to protect Jhoira. Phyrexians were formidable, so it stands to reason that Karn was even more formidable. While we don't know exactly what made him such a potent killer, it seemed reasonable to assume that if Karn was built by Urza, his abilities should be impressive.

All of that was before Karn absorbed Urza's soul or whatever and became a planeswalker. And then after that, Karn created an artificial plane, Argentum. A probe he'd built to monitor events on Dominaria broke and became the Mirari, one of the most powerful magical artifacts ever. Of course, all of that was before "the Mending." Planeswalkers got powered down by "the Mending." While we were never overtly shown Karn's exact powers, the combination of his history, his accomplishments, his importance in the New Phyrexia story (the praetors sought, above all else, to control him), and the flashiness of the card Karn Liberated...

...all taken together gave the audience a kind of inferred notion that Karn is extremely powerful. What can he do and what can he not do? Well, we're not exactly sure. But he's not a chump. He's a nigh-invincible artificial planeswalker born from the death of Urza himself. He's going to war against the Phyrexians, the foremost recurring antagonists in the story. Karn is a badass. You do not mess with Karn. Is he more powerful than Nicol Bolas or is Nicol Bolas more powerful than him? Eh, we're never really told one way or another, but I always thought the implication was that Karn was so powerful that he was among those few elite beings providing the impetus for Nicol Bolas to keep his activities in the shadows.

So then Karn shows up on Dominaria, agrees to help, and proceeds to do something between "zilch" and "nothing." The story features this big showdown between the Weatherlight/Gatewatch alliance and the Cabal, and amid all of that action, Karn mostly just stands around talking. For the purposes of telling a compelling story, I get that we need conflict: it wouldn't do for the protagonists to simply recruit Karn and have him snap his fingers and zap the Cabal into oblivion. But there are a lot of other options! Have him leave to go fight the Phyrexians, like he intended. Introduce some other threat that he has to deal with. Throw in some mumbo jumbo about how he somehow lost most of his vast power due to circumstances in his war against the Phyrexians. Something. Anything! Don't just have him mope around and inexplicably stand helpless following the emergence of a ghost frog. Or if you do, you'd damn well better write something in explaining that Karn's great weakness was secretly always ghost frogs (for some reason).

When I wrote that ranting article about Amonkhet, I noted my frustration with the transformation of Nicol Bolas from a master manipulator into a bullheaded brute who charges headlong onto a new plane and fights eight gods at the same time. I won't rehash that here. But I do find the conclusion, obvious as it was, to the "Liliana's contract" arc of the story to be unsatisfying. It fits the character depictions of both Liliana and Nicol Bolas. Liliana prior to the establishment of her contract was desperate, less experienced than most other pre-mending planeswalkers, and vulnerable enough to blunder into an obvious trap. Nicol Bolas, always playing the long game, would have anticipated the possibility that Liliana might get her demonic masters killed, which would play into his hands, er, claws. In the context of those two characters, it makes sense. And it actually seems possible that Liliana's character was always intended to reach this point. But there's a bigger problem...

Mark Rosewater has pointed out that the lore and card design of Magic rely on resonance. They borrow concepts with the expectation that the audience will recognize them and that this familiarity will do the legwork for them, obviating the need for exhaustive explanations of what things are like and of what's going on. Liliana's contract is an example of this, the trope being most commonly known as a "deal with the Devil." You probably don't need me to tell you that. Everyone is familiar with the concept. In fact, I knew before I checked just now that the TV Tropes site would have a page called "Deal with the Devil" and that Liliana would be cited as an example. A key detail in the trope is that the mortal victim is in over his/her head. Through some character flaw, such as lust, cowardice, or greed, the victim excepts the bargain, but the bargain is skewed in favor of the devil. The mortal underestimated this magical villain, and must now pay a price. Generally, a "Deal with the Devil" ends in on of two ways...
  1. The victim is well and truly duped, dragged into Hell, etc.
  2. Through some extraordinary circumstances and against all odds, the victim turns the tables, defeating the Devil.
When WotC made Liliana's contract be with four demons instead of just one, they put the potential for option #2 in an awkward spot. For the mortal victim's triumph against the "Deal with the Devil" to be meaningful, it has to feel special. It's one thing if the protagonist is a clever trickster herself and was pulling some elaborate trick herself the whole time. But we're made to believe that Liliana is a genuine case of the trope in action: she really did get in over her head when she made the deal. She might be a special case and beat the odds, overcoming her debtor once. But four times? Five (counting Nicol Bolas)? That leaves the audience thinking "demons are stupid." And if demons are stupid, that breaks the resonance. If a mortal outwits the Devil in the end, it's a testament to the talent of that individual, a tale of overcoming a great obstacle. If our mortal protagonist has to replicate the feat four more times, then it's not really so special after all, is it?
This was a bit of a problem from the beginning, but not an insurmountable one. The people who initially set this up probably planned for Liliana's contract to be an ongoing part of the story for a long time, that it might occupy most of her attention and occasionally crop up. If her demons were more spread out, made to be more ominous, then I could see this working well as resonance. But the whole "Gatewatch" thing messed with this. Still, it seemed like the writers were trying to maintain resonance. There'd be some technicality, some foreshadowed turn of events, which would turn things in Liliana's favor. Taking stock...
  1. Liliana defeated Kothophed by exploiting his overconfidence. He believed himself to have so much control that he armed her with the Chain Veil. He wasn't aware of the possible X-factor of the Raven Man's involvement, and he was overwhelmed by the power of the Chain Veil. So far, so good.
  2. Liliana ambushed Griselbrand on Innistrad, where he'd been conveniently trapped by Avacyn in the Helvault. Due to this circumstance, Liliana was fully prepared for the fight (and once more, armed with the Chain Veil), while Griselbrand was not. Lucky for her.
  3. Liliana tried to attack Razaketh on Amonkhet, but he was able to use her contract to immobilize her. Liliana survived through the power of friendship. Razaketh was prepared to deal with Liliana, but not with her "Gatewatch" buddies. He's caught off-guard and then Liliana has him eaten by an army of zombie crocodiles.


The Tentacled One
So, Liliana has beaten the odds three times and three of her demons are dead. But now Belzenlok is a different story. He has taken over the Cabal in Otaria on Dominaria. He has revived Liliana's undead brother and turned him into a weapon. He's a huge threat and Liliana isn't going to be able to use her usual tricks against him. So it's going to take something truly extraordinary, right? Right? Turns out the answer is, "No, not really." The anticlimactic victory over Belzenlok raises some awkward questions...
  • If Belzenlok is such a chump, how was he able to wreak so much havoc on Dominaria? It's a world that still has some powerful people. Jhoira, Jodah, and Teferi, for instance. Could they really not beat one demon? They were known to be powerful before? What happened? Prior to the helpful intervention of some young Gatewatch upstarts, these far more experienced individuals were struggling to fight Belzenlok's puppets in the Cabal, let alone Belzenlok.
  • Belzenlok is strong enough to produce dire threats as an afterthought. Yargle presented a threat the protagonists couldn't even handle, but he was created by Belzenlok as a joke or something. Shouldn't the demon himself be more formidable?
  • The "Deal with the Devil" trope relies on the understanding that these demons are intelligent and evil. Overcoming drooling idiot demons just isn't compelling. And yet Belzenlok's master plan seems to be bossing the Cabal around and pretending he can rewrite history? To what end? His dialogue makes him seem like he belongs in a mental institution, not ruling the world.
  • Why is Belzenlok an "Elder Demon" anyway? He seems, if anything, to be least effective of Liliana's debtors. He's a chump. He sucks. Even Kothophed is smarter. Do demons get dementia eventually or something? Is that why he's the only "Elder Demon"?
  • Nicol Bolas tricked Liliana with his "your contract defaults to its broker" clause. Classic "Deal with the Devil" trope, to a T. Except for the part where that requires all four demons in the contract to die. The compelling part about Liliana making it that far in the first place is that it's against the odds. So that can't really have been Nicol Bolas's plan all along, can it? Because that'd be stupid. We could stipulate that Nicol Bolas was making a "Xanatos Gambit", that he benefited in some other way and that Liliana killing all four demons was only one possible outcome of many others that all played to his advantage. Fine. Seems dubious, but whatever. But then there's the far greater problem that unlike Liliana, those four demons should notice Bolas's "default" clause. Even more than Liliana, all four of those demons are now plainly suckers, duped by Bolas. So are we really going with "Demons are stupid"? Is that supposed to make for compelling resonance?


I was just thinking I was going to have to reply "Xanatos Gambit" when you covered it. Gg.

I don't know enough Magic lore to know if there is a connection, but historically in D&D, devils and demons are different. Devils are the truly dangerous ones, because they are often careful planners willing to use whatever is the most effective means in the long run to achieve their goals.

Demons, by contrast, are sometimes so chaotic that they actively help their opponents for reasons that never become obvious outside their own thoughts (see Lolth). A relevant phrase might be, "Any sufficiently destruction focused mania is indistinguishable from stupidity."

Not sure that applies, but it is an idea.


The Tentacled One
I don't know enough Magic lore to know if there is a connection, but historically in D&D, devils and demons are different. Devils are the truly dangerous ones, because they are often careful planners willing to use whatever is the most effective means in the long run to achieve their goals.

Demons, by contrast, are sometimes so chaotic that they actively help their opponents for reasons that never become obvious outside their own thoughts (see Lolth). A relevant phrase might be, "Any sufficiently destruction focused mania is indistinguishable from stupidity."

Not sure that applies, but it is an idea.
It's actually the opposite in Magic. Irritating because the D&D model was already established, I know. Early depictions of demons were inconsistent and devils were extremely rare prior to Innistrad, but eventually WotC went with something like...

Demons: big, strong, powerful, have wings, evil, intelligent, manipulative, mostly black mana
Devils: small, vicious, destructive, stupid, no wings, sadistic, subservient to demons, mostly red mana

I suspect that the reason for this is that they weren't consistent with demons: the most iconic early ones established a kind of identity. And for a long time the only devil card was Stone-Throwing Devils. So just going by what Richard Garfield set up in 1993, there were the following models to base ideas of demons and devils on...