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Dominaria Retrospective: Part 2


Much of Dominaria feels like a prelude. That's probably by design. Just as Time Spiral encapsulated one era of Magic's story and mechanical focus and then made way for the next, so too does Dominaria. Sort of. That's the tricky thing about serial fiction: we can't actually know whether anything presented now will be capitalized on later. As I noted last time, that's a pretty bog standard experience of reading, but serial fiction expands the timescales of reading out until this process of anticipation and fulfillment or frustration get really exaggerated.

Will we get more time with the crew of the New Weatherlight, for example? We got a lot of hints that there are future stories to be told. The Weatherlight is hinted to have a power all its own, a power that calls its various crew members aboard. Tiana and Arvad are the most obvious instances of this, strange remix versions of Crovax and Selenia, a cursed nobleman and his Serra Angel companion. Except this time the angel is a mechanic, and Arvad's faith in the Church of Serra keeps his curse in check. Where is that going? Will their story end in tragedy again, or does the Weatherlight in some sense wish to do the past better this time?

Tiana, Ship's Caretaker
Arvad the Cursed

And there's the descendants, too. Raff Capashen is a Capashen in name but more like the arrogant wizard Ertai in nature. Are there consequences for his use of higher level magic than he's really prepared for, as there ultimately were for Ertai? The story seemed to hint at this but, in one of the more frustrating dead ends, Raff's interrogation spell is played up as dangerous and perhaps morally questionable, and then it simply succeeds off screen and nothing more really is made of it. Is that just because they're leaving that hook for later? (And if it was just an artistic error of time constraints and word counts . . .  does that matter if later it gets picked up and employed anyway? Intentionality gets real weird in a serial shared universe.)

The story of the Weatherlight Crew as it stands in Dominaria draws great strength from this kind of intertextuality. Magic has been criticized periodically for reusing character concepts (Chandra as New Jaya and Elspeth as New Serra are two perennial complaints) but in recent years the creative team has opted to lean into the parallels between past and present. This technique allows them to explore similar narrative patterns and draw new meaning from their similarities and differences much the way allusions to external works or certain modes of fanfiction do. No, Jace isn't really that much like Urza, but one of his recurring character conflicts is his potential to become someone like Urza. History might not repeat in good serial fiction, but it might rhyme, and anticipating those rhymes is one of the pleasures.

For Dominaria, as Wells explores the Weatherlight crew in captivating detail, this enhances that readerly experience of pulling from past information to understand future possibilities. It heightens, at its best, the intrigue of building and breaking expectations about where the story is going.

I really want to emphasize too that this isn't just happening on the level of plot and fan theorizing but on the level of thematics as well. When I look at Tiana, I'm not just wondering whether she and Arvad are going to reiterate the plot of Selenia and Crovax's doomed codependence. I'm considering the harsh line between purity and corruption that Selenia's narrative suggests. I'm looking at Tiana and seeing an angel that is atypical, that remains angelic despite [checks reddit] . . .  having red hair? Wait, "redheads can't be angels" is really the hill you're gonna die on? Well screw you too, buddy!

The point is, the reading process here is one of piecing together not just plot potential but thematic potential as well. And it really is a process. If I'm going through all this laboriously it's because I really want to contextualize anything I say about what succeeded or failed in Dominaria in the specific experience of encountering it as a serial work. The high and low points don't exist in isolation from each other, the serial reading experience, or the formal techniques available to serial narrative.

Let's dive into another example.

The opening of Dominaria's story initially unsettled me. It came off almost like a prank. The opening paragraph drops several proper nouns that old storyline fans should be familiar with -- the Cabal, the Scion of Darkness, and the Stronghold. We get New Argive in the next paragraph, and after some dialogue we get an info dump on the Blackblade, including its forging by Dakkon Blackblade and its use to kill the elder dragon Piru (though her name is not mentioned). It felt . . .  deeply weird to me, initially. Surely this is what I wanted, after all -- references to old material! But it was all relayed in such a perfunctory way, just a series of namedrops, one after another. You want your storyline references? Well here, choke on them!

And then:

"It was Belzenlok! Belzenlok forged it. Belzenlok slayed the elder dragon. Belzenlok . . .  It was Belzenlok, Lord of the Wastes, Belzenlok, Slayer of Elder Dragons."

This brought a whole new perspective on the previous lines. Now, there was an actual satirical heft to these info dumps -- all this stuff will be referenced, but not because these Cabal randos are super enthusiastic about history but because Belzenlok is strip mining the past for his own propaganda efforts.

As Dominaria's preview season rolled on, this became more apparent as a theme on the cards, paralleled with themes for the other colors like the Red Keldon "reforging" of the past. This was not just a block about history, it was about reflecting on history and its relevance to the present day. Really, Dominaria ended up being a triumph of different modes of storytelling, leveraging everything from names and flavor text, to more figurative styles of art, to the mechanics of specific cards to explore Magic's past, present, and future.

Some of this comes through in the serialized story quite strongly. Liliana has to face down the legacy of her traumatic past and past mistakes. Ultimately she cannot escape a past that is literally written into her skin. Jhoira resurrects the past in the form of the Weatherlight out of, it's implied, a sense of longing and grief. Tiana finds new purpose and a new future alongside the Weatherlight and its ancient power core built from a lost home world. Teferi struggles with the burden of his actions and the generally domineering way in which he and other oldwalkers like Urza behaved.

But, in other ways, the references that worked so well on cards that could rapidly compress a lot of information into a small area didn't quite translate as well to short stories. Initially I thought the namedrops that led this story were stylistically honed to emphasize Belzenlok's authoritarian control of the past . . .  and yeah, that's there, to be sure . . .  but it's not really explored or employed consistently. We do get a nod to Belzenlok's growing delusion in the final chapter as he fights Liliana and Gideon, but the development of the Cabal as Belzenlok's cult of personality is mostly present extratextually in interviews and art books -- as, basically, a suggestion of what plot dynamics might exist, rather than a plot proper.

Muldrotha, the Gravetide
Stylistically, as well, the story suffers somewhat from inconsistency. This heavy use of namedropping isn't used as strategically as the opening might suggest. Every character, it turns out, is ready to drop information like: "It's a powerful lich. But like the spirits created from the purest dark magic, it's never been human." or "It's Muldrotha, a corrupted elemental!" I'm not gonna lie, I started mentally putting a (TM) after each name drop in the absolutely stuffed final chapter. It stands out all the more for the fact that Wells's writing elsewhere, when given room to breathe, is solid and serviceable, a far cry from these clunky intrusions.

These problems are two sides of the same coin. This storyline's extreme compression means that these individual components, whether the themes around Belzenlok's stranglehold on history, or the impact of the specific legends who show up, can't be explored much beyond a quick cameo appearance, with someone blurting out their worldbuilding importance to catch the reader up to speed. The unfortunate side effect of this kind of compression is that it can feel more like product placement than worldbuilding, a mining of a world and its past as raw material reminiscent of Belzenlok's own strategy.

This is, I think, a failstate of the kind of intertextuality that Dominaria elsewhere uses to great strength. Juxtapositions happen, references to the past occur, but it doesn't feel like anything much can be drawn from the result and projected forward as a thematic reading. Maybe I just haven't pondered enough on the symbolism of Muldothra being a kind of daughter of Multani and Yavimaya, summoned by a thallid by way of a bunch of Urborg spirits to challenge a monster created by the occupying Cabal . . .  but maybe that's because that juxtaposition does not, for all the clunky exposition, actually get any explication in the text. Muldothra is simply "a corrupted elemental," another legend to be checked off in the Dominaria return tourist attraction list.

The most compelling moments of Dominaria pulled from the past in a way that prompted all kinds of interesting questions about the present and the future, narratively and thematically, and -- with characters like Tiana and Teferi -- opened up the past for reconsideration as well. But often the compression of the story from two sets to one and/or perhaps the transition from in-house writers to an external writer new to the continuity meant these promises of intriguing new readings went unfulfilled . . .  at least for now.

The question of whether they will be fulfilled in the future . . .  well, that's a big question indeed, and one we'll dive into next time.

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