The arena, the arena, this is our world stage. The arena, the arena, this is our death cage. Break out the moxen, because I’m starting off a look at the extensive literary universe that sprung from the collectible card game Magic: the Gathering. And here’s where it all began: with Arena, by William R. Forstchen
Even the greatest fight-mages will learn to fear the one-eyed stranger.
WHERE MAGIC AND MAYHEM MEET
Festival will never be the same again.
For even as the fight-mages of the four great Houses prepare for their annual battle in the Arena, a stranger arrives for Festival. Who is Garth One-eye, and where did he get his powerful spells? What is his interest in the fifth House, destroyed a generation ago? And why is the Grand Master of the Arena so afraid of what Garth might do?
The answer may bring about the fall of the four Houses – or Garth’s death.
Magic: the Gathering, created by Richard Garfield, is one of the most popular trading card games in the world. As a young teen, I, like many others, was ensnared by its sticky web and goaded into spending an ungodly amount of money on small pieces of cardboard. Now, I was never actually that good at the game itself – whenever I tried playing my casual mono-Black Zombie tribal deck, I’d inevitably get crushed by some asshole packing a deck stuffed full of every Urza-block bomb to ever hit the ban list. What I loved more than playing the game itself was the art and flavor text of the cards: the world, the characters, the story, the lore. I had endless hours of glee discovering cards which could be lined up to tell a story: for instance, Sudden Impact, Abandon Hope, and Broken Fall telling the story of Gerrard miraculously surviving a fall from the Weatherlight; or Repentance, Vhati il-Dal, and Diabolic Edict telling how Greven finally got fed up with his underling Vhati and dropped him to his doom. That makes me what Head Designed Mark Rosewater would call a member of the Vorthos psychographic, I guess.
In any case, with my liking the story more than the game, it was only a matter of time until I stopped collecting the cards themselves and started collecting the novels telling the Magic story. And now that I’ve started this book review blog, I figured I should put my love of the setting to use by reviewing them. All of them. All 42 novels and 8 anthology collections. (I’m still on the fence about the published comic strip collections; because even an uber-fan has to have his limits).
You may be wondering why I have numbered this book as #0 in the series, when series traditionally begin at #1. Well… Arena isn’t exactly in the main Magic: the Gathering continuity. You see, before Wizards of the Coast began publishing Magic novels themselves, they farmed the license out to Harper Fantasy. The result was ten books known as the “pre-revision” continuity, aka “wow, get a load of the weird stuff that people wrote before the creative team decided to step in and set down some standards for the property”.
So, given that Magic: the Gathering is a fantasy game, how do you write a book that feels specifically about Magic rather than just generic fantasy? Well, obviously, there’s the simple method of name-dropping cards at every opportunity: every protective spell is a Circle of Protection, all elves are Llanowar Elves. Ideally, though, you’d want something a bit deeper, a bit more integral, than that. And bless them, they try everything they can think of to reflect game mechanics in the story. In Magic, you get mana to play spells from Land cards, so the wizards in the book draw on their ties to distant lands in order to cast magic. At the time, tapping land for mana and then failing to spend it would result in taking damage called manaburn; and this is reflected in the story when a wizard draws on mana to cast a spell but then changes his mind – though it’s not exactly the best depiction, the way he starts yelping like he stubbed his toe or got a particularly bad ice-cream headache. A future book will give a much more compelling description of the experience of manaburn when Jodah has a close call with it during his training. Finally, back in the day, Magic had ante rules allowing the winner to take one of the loser’s cards; this is reflected in the story by any wizard who wins a duel claiming one of the loser’s spells. How, you may be wondering, do you “take” something abstract and intangible like a spell? If you’re picturing something like a Highlander quickening, prepare to be disappointed: it seems that, in this world, every spell is linked with a physical token: an amulet or a totem or a magical thingamajig. Which just goes and raises all sorts of questions – since a standard Magic deck contains 60 cards, I’m now picturing each wizard hauling a huge piece of luggage behind them containing a bunch of random assorted knick-knacks and brick-a-bracks.
Now, you’d think one of the easiest mechanics to reflect in the story would be the color system. Magic is well known for its color wheel, where all magic is divided into five colors which represent different elements, abilities, approaches, and philosophies: White, Blue, Black, Red, and Green. So, when it’s revealed that the city setting for Arena contains five noble houses, it’s pretty clear where they’re going with that, right? Yes, each house has its own distinctive heraldic color, and they are… Grey, Turquoise, Purple, Orange, and Brown? Eh? Was there an accident in the laundromat which resulted in the tones getting muddied? Well, it’s said at one point that the Turquoise house used mana from forests and islands, and turquoise is a blue-green color, so I guess they could represent multicolor combinations. In that case, Grey would be Black/White, Purple would be Black/Blue, Orange would be Red/White and Brown would be Black/Red, I guess. Not that it matters, since it doesn’t really seem like any of the wizards are strongly linked with specific colors: a wizard will cast a zombie-summoning spell (Black), win an ante of a fireball spell (Red), and then be able to cast the fireball with no difficulty. And as for the color pie philosophies, with Red being the color of passion and instinct versus Blue being the color of intellect and calculation? Well, I’m not sure such clear distinctions even existed at the time – it took a while for the color pie to really settle into its modern form – but if they did, this book really failed to articulate them. The houses may be supposed to represent different colors, but all the wizards basically act and behave the same as one another.
Then, of course, there’s the ultimate way to make it a Magic: the Gathering book: have characters in the fantasy world also play Magic: the Gathering.
A number of patrons were gathered around a table, watching as two of their compatriots played a card game which represented the fighting of magic users.
– Arena, Chapter 3
It’s Inception, folks. We need to go deeper.
One last thing I’d like to talk about before moving on to the book’s actual story. When the pre-revision novels were first coming out, Wizards marketed them by releasing a small number of promotional cards which you could only get by purchasing the books. The back cover of Arena proudly depicts the two promotional cards you could obtain with it: Arena and Sewers of Estark. Now, Arena is actually a pretty decent card, and even got a reprint in the “Time Spiral” block. Sewers of Estark, on the other hand… well, it’s kind of shit. It has a high cost for a very weak effect and is completely out of color pie (making a creature unblockable is usually Blue, while preventing a blocking creature from dealing or receiving combat damage has been in White, Blue, and Green). And, it seems, the design for Sewers of Estark wasn’t quite complete at the time Arena went to print… for, in the image on the back cover, the card is titled “Sewers of Cityname”.
Finally, we get to the story. Here I’m guessing the author had a lot of free reign; unlike modern Magic sets, where the story is thought up in tandem with the set and carefully woven into all aspects of the cards, the early sets were just a random assortment of whatever the developers thought up. A set like “Arabian Nights” may have a loose theme, but there aren’t any real characters or storylines running through it. The story they’ve chosen to tell here is a basic revenge narrative: Garth One-eye, a badass with a dark and mysterious past, rolls into town looking for vengeance against the corrupt authorities; and his plan involves entering into the local fighting tournament, where he will have to battle many other powerful fighter-mages in order to reach the top position. Pretty standard stuff, but at least it’s well-executed: you’ve got your motley crew of supporting characters to keep things interesting, such as an elderly thief and a Benalish Hero; the villains are kind of flat, but are played up as entertainingly over-the-top caricatures of vice to make up for their lack of depth; Garth is kind of overpowered compared to the foes he faces, but does encounter enough setbacks to prevent the completion of his quest from becoming a boring foregone conclusion. I do have to note that the story contained a large number of what I’d consider juvenile pandering: gratuitous female nudity, bragging about implausible sexual conquests, someone getting pissed on while hiding in a sewer – Magic’s primary demographic is early teenage boys, and I suspect someone wanted to write down to their level. I find this notable because the post-revision books feature far, far less sex, or even discussion of sex. I suppose when Wizards assumed direct control over their product, they got a lot more concerned about keeping it family-friendly.
Finally, I guess I’ll close out with a few notes on continuity. Arena includes integral Magic concepts such as planes, planeswalkers, and the multiverse. However, it seems to imply that anyone who accrues enough mana and learns the proper spells can ascend to the rank of planeswalker; whereas in post-revision continuity, only those born with a spark can awaken as planeswalkers. Other stuff can be handwaved away: like, there’s a bunch of talk about some god called the Eternal, who has no actual place in proper Magic cosmology; but you could just say that’s just a local religion on this “Western Continent” of Dominaria. (The plane is never called out by name; but the references to locales such as Llanowar and Benalia mean the story is indeed set on Dominaria).
All in all… better than I expected. I assumed that the pre-revision novels would be cheap dreck churned out just to make a quick, as opposed to the post-revision books expressing the storyline and expanding the lore of Magic, but Arena turned out to be a good read.
Final Rating: 3/5