Today I’m happy to introduce you all to Nic Kelman, the man who is shaping Magic’s narrative going forward. Nic is a long time Magic fan with some serious writing credentials. He’s been working on Magic’s story for months now, but recent discussions have brought to light that many fans weren’t even aware his position existed! So, this month, I set about rectifying that. I reached out to Wizards of the Coast for the opportunity to talk to Nic about his past, his vision for Magic’s narrative going forward, and what he loves about the game.
Nic Kelman, Author and Pretty Boy
Nic, the community has been curious about your role in creating Magic's narrative, but let's start by focusing on you. You're an author with several published novels and original screenplays picked up by major studios. What would you like fans to know about you and your work?
Thanks for asking, Jay! I’ve been writing stories since I was 8! My first real success was a literary fiction novel which is still available in about 14 languages, but I then went on to write a few other books including the very first art history of video games back in 2006 and most recently the illustrated novel, “How to Pass as Human,” from Dark Horse Books, which is currently in development as a film. But over the last decade or so, I was mostly focused on screenwriting and sold original science-fiction scripts to the likes of Steven Spielberg, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Roland Emmerich, and most of the major studios.
When I heard about the new role Wizards was creating for Magic, I jumped at the opportunity. I’ve been playing since Beta and used to carry an Alpha Serra Angel signed by Richard Garfield to all of my movie pitches as a good luck charm. The chance to help evangelize the Magic universe to new audiences and help grow that universe in fun ways for the existing audience was just too good to pass up!
Nic has authored a wide variety of titles over the years.
What is your role at Wizards of the Coast as Senior Franchise Narrative Designer? How do you fit in to the Creative Team? There has been a lot of flux lately on the creative side.
There has been some flux recently for sure, but it’s all dedicated to helping grow Magic into something even bigger and more awesome beyond the card sets. I am part of the new Magic Franchise Development Team and my official title is Principal Designer for Franchise Entertainment. I have an Art Director counterpart, Daniel Ketchum, who was an editor at Marvel Comics for the last 11 years and oversaw all of the X-men titles. Both of us meet multiple times a week with all the other teams here at Wizards to discuss upcoming creative decisions — everything from what Planewalkers will be in a set three years from now to what might be a good story for a novel.
I try to make sure there’s consistency in the essence of our characters across all our offerings, as well as help plan out the narratives and character usage, while Daniel does the equivalent on the art side. I am also responsible for developing story offerings outside of the actual cards—so planning out the web fiction and also trying to get some other fun things off the ground dedicated to Magic story!
The idea is that Daniel and I will be able to make sure everyone gets to see and hear their favorite planeswalkers and planes at some point in exciting new stories across a variety of media.
Daniel Ketchum worked on many titles at Marvel, X-Men Gold being the most recent.
Can you tell us a bit about the process for picking authors for Magic Story?
When we set out to get established fantasy authors for our web fiction, I really wanted to bring in writers “with chops” as editors sometimes say, as well as help develop some new voices in the same way Magic has developed new art talent over the years. Ultimately, we’d like Magic to have the same high quality reputation for fiction as we do for art.
That meant reaching out to established writers with several critically-acclaimed books under their belt as well as newer writers with some heat in the fantasy space. It also meant coordinating their writing schedules and fees with our timing and budget. Martha was my first choice for our Dominaria story because she has been writing at a high level for a long time, had done some licensed work already (for Star Wars) and I knew she would treat the material with the attention and care it deserved, as well as deliver a solid final piece of work. Sure enough, we’ve been enormously happy with the collaboration and the fans seem to be enjoying it too!
We’ll announce more authors soon, but I can promise we have some amazing talent coming down the pipe, and I feel sure fans of both Magic and fantasy in general will find some of the names mind-blowing as free fiction offerings!
Magic’s art is highly regarded and has won many awards over the years.
Developing Return to Dominaria had to be the most difficult possible jumping on point for someone in your position. What can you tell us about your approach?
Yes, it was a baptism by fire for sure. Not only is it the most storied plane in Magic’s long history, but the stories had to fit in with the arc that’s been going on for some years and also feature the old characters we knew fans wanted to see in the return to the plane.
We started with a loose structure from Kelly Digges and Alison Luhrs, and then Martha and I worked through it together to reach what was eventually a 40 page outline. I sent Martha literally hundreds of pages of world guide material, all the old Dominaria stories and relevant web fiction, over 120 pieces of art from the upcoming set along with descriptions so she could see the characters and environments she would be writing about, and also a large amount of material about “color philosophy” and so on so she understood our philosophical and cosmological underpinnings. She really did an incredible job absorbing and integrating all that material.
What's your vision for Magic's narrative going forward? Are you looking to expand to other media?
We are absolutely working on expanding out into other media and we hope that expansion will have something for everyone in the same way Marvel or Star Wars has managed so successfully. Some things will probably be geared more toward people who don’t know our worlds and characters, others will be “love notes to our fans,” but hopefully most will be both. I’m already enormously excited about our M19 stories and think they fall into that latter category. I think we’ll be announcing that author very soon, so stay tuned for that.
In terms of a vision for our storytelling moving forward, we want to keep in line with existing canon but also give these amazing creators room to breathe. In the same way there are dozens of versions of Spider-man’s origin story, for example, where the spirit and major beats are all the same, but the details are all slightly different, we want creators to have room to own our stories and characters but still be true to the most important elements of our multiverse, our cosmological underpinnings, and our characters’ existing backgrounds and histories. The example I always use is that, canonically, Jace lost a toe to frostbite but if he takes off his shoes in a comic book, or cartoon, or TV show, or whatever, he’ll probably have all his toes!
Agents of Artifice cover by Aleksi Briclot
Jace lost that toe in his first novel appearance. It’s never been relevant again.
There have been some concerns about continuity in Return to Dominaria. Can you talk a bit about the creative process and what you've learned?
I think the previous answer probably covers this philosophically, but specifically, we actually had Alison’s scene before Martha wrote hers and the three of us (myself, Alison, and Martha) discussed it and decided rather than copy and paste Alison’s scene into Martha’s story, Martha should write her own version that felt organic to her story and her needs for the characters in that context while still keeping the key details the same.
How much did you know about Magic's lore when you started? How did you get started? Obviously you couldn’t have read every novel out there, even I haven’t.
I spent literally the first six weeks on this job reading day and night. I haven’t read all the novels, no, but a lot of them, the comics, the internal world guides, the published art books, thousands and thousands of cards, and thousands of wiki pages at this point! I also had a lot of long meetings with Doug, Kelly, Alison, James, and Jenna which were purely immersion based.
And yes, the first time I was the one in the room who caught a world-building error was a very proud moment! (If I remember correctly it was about the Yavimaya remnant in Urborg). :)
What story threads and characters do you feel an affinity for?
Wow. That’s a big one. I really love so much of the Magic Multiverse, it’s hard to say. Daniel would tease me about my love for Tamiyo, which is true enough — I mean, she has “story magic,” what more could I want?
But I guess if I was forced to pick some favorite characters in no particular order (besides Tamiyo!), they would be: Karn (I’ve always been a sucker for androids and he’s our closest analogue), Sorin (Vampire lord who makes angels! Come on!), Nahiri (she’s just a badass), Narset (I love kung fu movies and she’s our closest analogue there), Angrath (he appeals to the Dad in me), Vraska (love her dedication to her people), and, of course, who doesn’t like Liliana and Chandra?
Planewise, I actually love Lorwyn (I’m a big 19th Century children’s illustration fan), Ravnica (I grew up in New York City and love urban fantasy), Innistrad (love gothic horror — I collect editions of Dracula for example, and once sold an idea about HP Lovecraft), Tarkir (who doesn’t love Dragons and martial arts?), and I’d love to see us do more with Mirrodin (appeals to the sci-fi side of me) and Fiora (I love Italy), but we’ll have to see if that happens or not!
What other elements of Magic's lore have you been drawn to?
We have had endless conversations about cosmology here — I’m someone who really feels like the deepest details of how a universe works can’t be handwaved, and there are still some big outstanding questions about how planeswalking works, what the Blind Eternities actually are, etc etc. Most of the scripts I sold, sold on the basis of the complexity and consistency of their worldbuilding, so that’s what I hope I can bring to the Magic narrative team as my strongest contribution.
I’m also a really big fan of the color wheel as a writing tool. It’s been really helpful for me to have long chats with Mark Rosewater about color philosophy, how different color characters interact, what their motivations are, etc. I’ve then been passing on a lot of his materials to authors and creators, not as something dogmatic that must be integrated, but as a way to rapidly understand where a character who may be new to them is coming from. I always tell creators that if they’re stuck on what a character might do in a given situation, they should look at that character’s card in Gatherer and then look at the color wheel and say, “OK, they’re , so what would someone with those qualities do in this situation?” It’s a really fantastic thing to lean on when you’re bringing in outside creators to write your characters.
Who is the Raven Man?
Nice try. But I can tell you we’re trying to answer that question next year!
Thank you so much for your time, Nic! I've really enjoyed Return to Dominaria, and I can't wait to see what's next!
Thank you! Great chatting and I hope you love the M19 stories as much as we do!
Well, I had to give the Raven Man question a shot. A year is a long time to wait, but with the announcement of three Ravnica sets, I have to imagine the Raven Man will be relevant again with whatever Bolas has planned for the plane. I’m excited to find out!