I’ve become obsessed again with the trading card game Magic: The Gathering. One of the fascinating things about the game is the way it relays a story through and around its cards in what I think is a textbook example of transmedia storytelling.
Since I’ve not paid attention to the development of the game for over a decade, in which more than 10,000 new cards have been released, I was looking for a guide to lead me through the forest of lore, materials and fandom that has sprung up over this time. I found him in Jay Annelli, who is a “Vorthos Writer” for the site Gathering Magic and one of the hosts of The Vorthos Cast. He explained a lot of things to me I had not fully grasped so far, and he also put into perspective some of my gushing from my last article about the online communication of Magic‘s company Wizards of the Coast.
To make this interview interesting for folks who don’t play the game, I have tried to annotate Jay’s answers in italics where I thought necessary.
So I turn my back on Magic for just 17 years and when I come back, there is this whole community of people who call themselves Vorthoses. What is a Vorthos and what do they do?
The term ‘Vorthos’ only became part of the zeitgeist about 13 years ago. Back in 2005, Matt Cavotta began an article series called ‘Taste the Magic’. Around that time, Wizards had made public their psychographic profiles for Magic players: Timmy, Johnny, and Spike. Later that year, Matt published Snack Time with Vorthos, which introduced a new profile that wasn’t tied to a specific way to play the game, but instead was all about people who enjoyed the worldbuilding. People who like Magic’s lore, story, art, and flavor began calling themselves Vorthos. There were story fans before, but they didn’t have a unique name until then. Because almost all of Magic’s story was confined to novels at the time, only die-hard enthusiasts were really engaged in the Magic community. That all changed in the last few years, when short fiction started being published weekly to the web, and the cancellation of the novel line eventually led to the entire story being available for free on the Magic website. The Vorthos community has exploded since then, as it’s now more accessible than it has ever been. This is a pretty broad overview, as the community has had its ups and downs over the years as different storytelling models were tried.
Jay’s colleague Sam Keeper has recently published a three-part series of articles on “Gathering Magic” that explain how Wizards went from novels and comics only vaguely tied in to the release of new trading card sets, to closely linked novels and ebooks to short fiction written in-house and published online. It is well worth the read as a chronicle of trial and error. The most recent model that was in place when I re-entered the game last fall worked great for the story but took its toll on Wizards employees. For its next set, “Dominaria”, Wizards has kept the release model but hired a freelance writer again.
Magic is a phenomenal arena for transmedia storytelling. There are, of course, the cards themselves that tell a vague story through art and flavor text and card names, but there are also many other texts. Can you give me a quick breakdown of the sources you consult to assemble your knowledge of Magic’s worldbuilding and story?
I started out as a forum goer on MTG Salvation (MTGS), reading the latest story, but I was lucky enough to start during Magic’s soft reboot known as ‘The Mending’, which depowered planeswalkers from god-like beings.
Magic takes place on a potentially infinite number of fantastical planes. Since the cards represent spells and creatures to be summoned, the players assume the role of “planeswalkers”, able to collect and work magic from all over this multiverse. Accordingly, the first planeswalkers in the stories surrounding the game, were pretty much all-powerful. The depowering of planeswalkers through story event “The Mending” allowed Wizards to introduce Planeswalkers as relatable characters into the game and marketing. The first planeswalkers promoted this way were the Lorwyn Five, with each character representing one of the five colors of Magic.
I’ve been following this new crew from the start. The most helpful source of information I had at the time was MTGS’s associated Wiki which has a ton of information for a casual fan who wants to know more. But the wiki’s greatest weakness is that it’s written by fans, so it can often be misleading or outright false, especially when looking back at older lore. That I’ve also read basically everything story-related published since 2008 helps, too. I’ve compiled all the critical story sources into a Magic Storyline Resources thread over at MTGS.
With this many texts, written by a host of different people, how consistent is the continuity? How do people decide what’s canon and what’s not?
Continuity is fairly consistent, thanks to Wizards having a centralized creative team (or continuity manager) for most of the last two decades. The novels or short fiction are the final word in most cases for canon, followed closely by the cards themselves (art and flavor), although it’s important to remember with a visual medium not everything is going to be literal. With things like character bios, video games, marketing materials, etc., I generally relegate them to lower priority as it’s not clear who is writing them or even if the creative team had any input into them.
How did this evolve over time? Have there been many retcons? I noticed that even bizarre side projects like 90s videogames have apparently been integrated successfully into the narrative.
Most people don’t realize this, but almost the entirety of Magic’s current story is built on foundation of massive retcons. Magic’s story wasn’t developed in-house until about five years into the game’s life, and so when Wizards of the Coast took over, the policy was that all that old stuff is still canon, unless contradicted. And a bunch of it has been contradicted, from the nature of a planeswalker to the time frames that those events happen in. That old lore is generally referred to as pre-revisionist continuity.
Modern continuity has been much more streamlined, but that’s not to say there haven’t been continuity errors or the dreaded retcon since then. Magic Origins, a set released in 2015, retold the origin stories of the main characters and changed a number of details, but other than fairly minor details, there isn’t much that has been retconned out of existence in Magic. People make a bigger deal of retcons than is warranted, I think.
The 90’s video games are technically canon, but it’s unclear how much they’ll ever be referenced. The name of the new Card “Time of Ice” was taken from an in-universe work named in the Battlemage video game, though, and credit to Wizards for going deep on our first return to Dominaria in a decade.
Dominaria is the name of Magic‘s “home plane” where many of the early expansions were set. As Magic is coming up on its 25th anniversary this year, it is returning to the plane and catching up with the story and the history of the game there.
What’s the state of affairs now? I noticed that Wizards employees keep a good rapport with fans on social media. How would you describe the relationship between the canon givers and the Vorthos community?
It’s a mixed bag. The Creative Team has always tried very hard to engage with the community. Years ago that meant authors or members of the creative team posting on the story forums. Doug Beyer ran a popular blog on Tumblr called A Voice for Vorthos, which he’s hasn’t had much time for since Magic Origins. More recently, the best way to reach them is through Twitter. They’re always open to community feedback … but the mixed bag part is that the community can be very bad at giving constructive criticism.
What about the fans among themselves? Is it a large community? Are you working together or are there factions that emphasize different aspects of Vorthosdom? (Unlike in other fandoms, I have not found a lot of fans reshaping the fandom in their own image, through fanfic and other aspects of “participatory culture”, yet.)
The closest things to factions you’ll find in the Vorthos Community are where people prefer to interact. You’ve got Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr, MTGS and a host of smaller forums, various Discord servers. There was a pretty big divide in the fan base around Future Sight in 2007, when the Mending happened. There was a pretty big split in the fan base back then.
There are also groups that emphasize art, you’d want to follow someone like Mike Linnemann for art, and there are groups dedicated to buying, selling, and trading original magic art.
Since I sent the questions to Jay, I have also noticed that there is quite a cosplay community during Magic‘s weekend events.
In your podcast The Vorthos Cast you and your co-hosts Cary and Andrew analyze and reproduce Magic’s storytelling. What is your primary goal? To educate? Or just to talk about something you love?
I can’t speak to Andrew or Cary’s goals, but mine is to have fun while educating. It’s also much easier to talk about a topic than write about, and people have apparently been enjoying it.
The Vorthos Cast is still pretty new. How did you meet your co-hosts and what made you decide to start a podcast?
Andrew and Cary were the first people I started following seriously on Twitter. We became friends and eventually started chatting together as a group, I don’t know how long ago. We’ve talked about a podcast for a long time now, but it’s finally a possibility in our schedules.
The episodes are regularly linked to on the “Mothership”, the Wizards of the Coast website. How does that make you feel?
I’m glad our work is popular. Our friends over at the Loregoyfs podcast are an excellent resource as well, but we have different approaches.
Although the crew of The Vorthos Cast crack some jokes every now and again, it really feels more like an educational resource to help people keep up with the vast lore accumulated over the years. The Loregoyfs are generally more playful and silly, but of course listeners need a baseline knowledge of the lore to be in on the jokes.
How much work do you put into a typical episode, both in preparation and in production?
We actually do very little preparation. We might re-read something if it’s not familiar, but generally over the week between recording sessions we add to an agenda for us to talk about. We usually reserve about an hour and a half, because we talk before the episode proper. To edit the podcast usually takes 2-3 times as long, but as we’ve gotten better at editing and public speaking, it’s gotten easier. We actually did three practice podcasts to get our rhythm and rapport down before deciding to do our first ‘real’ podcast for Dominaria.
What does being a Vorthos mean for you, personally? Why is it fun to practice this sort of forensic fandom and where do you hope it will lead?
I don’t think there’s any special meaning to it other than being a fan. My son was born right around when the Magic Origins paradigm shift was happening, and there were a lot of new fans who wanted to know more about the plane Zendikar for Battle for Zendikar. Talking about lore has always been fun for me, it’s my favorite part of any content I consume, and I found I could do my writing in the times my son was napping. I didn’t have time for much in the way of Video Games anymore, so it was just kind of serendipity. I’m just hoping people continue to enjoy it for a while, I’m not really interested in a job at Wizards of the Coast, so I’m not looking to parlay this into employment.
What is something you don’t like about Magic’s worldbuilding and story at the moment?
Magic is in a state of transition right now, as they have brought on a Narrative Designer who is working with professional authors brought in from the outside. I’m not sure how that’s going to shake out just yet, so I’ll withhold judgment until I’ve seen.
Dominaria, the next expansion to be released, is promising to round up and reflect on 25 years of Magic history. Do you think they are doing a good job so far?
Definitely. Time Spiral block, the last one set on Dominaria in 2006/2007, was too full of in-references. By treating Dominaria as ‘history’ world, I think it’s a lot more accessible for fans new and old alike. And the references have been on point.
What are you most excited about?
I want to know who the Raven Man is! And also my favorite character in Magic, Jodah, just got a card!
Thanks to Jay for taking the time to answer my questions! Check out The Vorthos Cast wherever you get your podcasts.