Any work of fiction is influenced by its authorship* and the choices made in its creation. Uncharted Realms, the serial storytelling column of dailymtg.com and the official prose outlet for Magic: The Gathering , has a mix of strengths and limitations that are unusual but not unprecedented in writing, or even speculative fiction writing.
Uncharted Realms is capable of hitting me right in the feels, such as the devastating Kelly Digges novelette " Khanfall," but when it's bad it's a cringe conga line. So what gives? I'll unpack the choices that went into Uncharted Realms, where certain stories are going wrong, and what Wizards could do to fix up the place.
Before I go any further, I'll link to the best list I know of Uncharted Realms stories. Yes, it's on "mtgsalvation.gamepedia.com" instead of a Wizards-affiliated address. It's also in chronological order without clicking a bunch of times.
Unpacking Some Assumptions
What are some of the choices Wizards of the Coast made with the structure of Uncharted Realms?
Serial storytelling. The serial format means literature told in "units" (a certain number of words, chapters, or stories) on a regular or irregular schedule. For Uncharted Realms, this means one story or episode a week, minus occasional gaps for holidays and the like. Past famous examples of serial storytelling includethe Sherlock Holmes stories and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
Multiple authors in a shared universe. A shared universe is exactly what it sounds like, a built-up fictional world that is used by multiple authors more or less independently of one another. George R.R. Martin's Wild Cards superhero anthology series is one of the most famous and longest-running shared universes.
Complete corporate control. Capitalist cheerleader that I am, I list this as a "fact" rather than a "negative." Since the decision not to monetize Magic prose storytelling after the Theros e-book, all Magic fiction has been, strictly speaking, advertising for the game. It's meant to draw a certain audience in and keep them involved.
Those are three of the choices. What are some of the consequences?
A need for stories that are complete as themselves yet feed a larger narrative arc. At their pulpy best, serial installments establish and resolve mini-plots (will the taciturn hero outwit the enemy of the day?) while advancing a larger story (will said taciturn hero get closer to unmasking the true villain?). The X-Files mixed story-arc episodes with "monsters of the week."
Unevenness in storytelling. Even among writers of recognizable quality, different authors have different strengths; nobody reads F. Scott Fitzgerald for his well-rounded female characters, for instance. Unevenness of voice is inevitable in any anthology regardless of the number of writers, and the serial nature of the Uncharted Realms column further complicates things. Done well, multiple writers can bring out different aspects of a single fictional personality; done poorly, those same writers can tear a character in two (or more).
Limits on the sorts of stories that will be told. By corporate strategy, Magic is positioned as brash and edgy (but not too edgy)! Sexiness is part of the game, but though Liliana and Jace might go on a dinner date, they'll never be shown going past first base. Similarly, while they might enjoy a vintage Ravnican wine -- it's classy enough and with enough of a history to get a storytelling pass, even from Magic -- they won't be shown doing shots like Sam Smith at a bachelor party.
So with all those needs and challenges and limits, is it possible to tell a good Uncharted Realms story? Absolutely! I mentioned "Khanfall" above, and the Jace-Liliana dinner date tale not only advances the larger plot, it gives valuable insight into several Planeswalkers' personalities while functioning perfectly well as a self-contained tale.
On the other hand, there are some installments of Uncharted Realms that haven't been working out.
Want to send a Magic-playing Reddit browser into a fit? Just say "Ashaya."
A quartet of Nissa stories -- "For Zendikar," "The Silent Cry," "Nissa's Quest," and " Nissa's Resolve," all by Kimberly J. Kreines -- have been pretty much panned. So what went wrong, and how can things improve in the future?
Niss(a)ing the Mark
The Nissa columns haven't fit in with the rest of Uncharted Realms in part because of Nissa herself.
Nissa recently underwent a retcon and isn't as well-established a character as the other Planeswalkers. As I mentioned in my previous article on the Nissa retcon, the significant changes to Nissa's backstory and personality mean that even established Vorthoses can't assume too much about her and her character.
Nissa's story is more internal than external. Much of the fun of Uncharted Realms is in throwing characters with different motivations and personalities together -- think Jace and Liliana on their dinner date, or Gideon trying to convince Chandra to ditch her monastery. Nissa, on the other hand, is largely wrapped up in her own world: trying to make contact with an elemental who won't say anything back, getting cut off from her connection to Zendikar, etc. That's fine, but...
Combining the two points above is an iffy recipe. It's entirely possible to take a previously unknown character and make an internal struggle the focus of a tale (Ernest Hemingway's " Big Two-Hearted River" is really about a mental fight, barely seen, instead of a fishing trip). Even Magic has done it in the context of Uncharted Realms, with Drana, Liberator of Malakir as she does awesome things in the Ken Troop story " Memories of Blood."
It takes a well-realized character to pull it off, though, and...
Nissa isn't that character. She doesn't exist as an independent piece of literature; she exists to sell Magic cards. As an archetype of green, she's defined as much by the color pie as by the particulars of her life -- and we don't know the particulars of that life anymore. Consider this paragraph, from "Nissa's Resolve."
"Nissa could see herself slipping off into the shadows. She turned away from the sight, from the elf she had been. She hadn't thought of that elf in a long while. In fact, she had done all she could to forget that elf. That elf had made so many mistakes-horrible mistakes-after leaving this village. Mistakes that still haunted Nissa, mistakes that would haunt her forever."
But what are those mistakes? Neither an established Vorthos nor a new one knows for certain! Four of the Planeswalker origin stories from Magic Origins show the Planeswalkers' acts, and in some cases, those mistakes. Gideon taunted a death god and got his friends killed. Jace mind-shredded his mentor-abuser. Liliana made deals with demons to keep her youthful beauty. Chandra discovered her fire magic and an even bigger reason to hate authority figures.
Nissa, by contrast, got kicked out of her tribe, went wandering, mind-encountered an Eldrazi, peaced out to Lorwyn Place of Mean Meanie Elves, and promptly bailed back to Zendikar. Scene.
She's acted upon rather than acting herself, which may be true to green in the color pie but doesn't make for a satisfying protagonist.
But Nissa herself isn't the only problem with the Nissa parts of Uncharted Realms.
Playing Well With Others
Nissa's stories went off in a separate direction from the Battle for Zendikar main arc. She purposefully separates herself from the main push to secure civilization on Zendikar, which wouldn't be as much of a problem if Nissa were better-established as a character. She's not, though, and the interactions with other Planeswalkers that could bring out her personality are lacking.
Nissa's stories have a lower rate of plot advancement per word. A Planeswalker hacking and slashing through Eldrazi is just a Planeswalker hacking and slashing through Eldrazi unless there's a larger purpose to it. Gideon's earlier Battle for Zendikar stories suffered some from the same issue.
Minus the hacking, slashing, and repeated frustrating attempts to talk to an elemental, "For Zendikar" has an interesting story (the vampire and the seeds) and a story that could be interesting (solving the puzzle of the elemental's gesture). A story with just those elements -- or, preferably, two stories, one of the vampire encounter and one of the elemental -- had a better chance of working than the vampire story bookended by the elemental story and padded out.
The one-author problem. Aside from an assist from Adam Lee on Nissa's Magic Origins story and a cameo appearance at the end of James Wyatt's " The Liberation of Sea Gate," Nissa's had just one author, Kimberly J. Kreines. Compare that to Gideon, who has James Wyatt, Doug Beyer, Ken Troop, and Kreines all contributing and filling in different facets of Gideon's personality and struggles.
As a writer, Kreines seems to focus on the inner lives of characters, which is great in certain doses but counterproductive when overdone in serial storytelling like Uncharted Realms. By the time "Nissa's Resolve" came out, I was dreading yet another story about Nissa told the same way.
I don't know exactly why Kreines ended up writing the vast majority of the Nissa content, but in retrospect, that wasn't the best choice. There's a rather interesting quote from an interview Kreines did in 2014 for a literary magazine :
"First you should know that I don't play well with others. Never have. So I have a really hard time thinking about co-authoring anything with anyone."
That perspective and shared serial storytelling just aren't compatible.
So those are the problems. What are the solutions?
Get Nissa a more concrete personality. No more dancing around it. Tell us what Nissa did, so we care about how she's dealing with it.
Cut the padding. Without emotional investment in a character, that character's fights are just stomping and noise. Less hacking and slashing, more getting readers hooked.
Show Nissa in other lights. Not just other characters seeing and interacting with Nissa (look back and see how often Nissa's stories are from her perspective and how often other characters see Nissa through their eyes), but other authors using their gifts to illuminate the shared character.
Overall, Uncharted Realms has done a surprisingly good job of making shared world serial storytelling work, with some real highlights like "Khanfall" and "Memories of Blood" along the way. I have confidence in R&D's ability to correct course where they've wobbled, as with the Nissa stories, and continue refining its new approach to Magic prose.
That doesn't mean it's guaranteed to happen, of course. But a Vorthos can hope.