How is the storyline for the Magic cards created? Do you invent the storyline, characters, and plots and then make up cards for it? Or make up the cards and then a story for them? How exactly do these two things coincide?
-- Zachary Porcu, CA
Starting with the Fallen Empires set, Wizards assigned some people to create a richer background for sets. These attempts were generally "card-centric," however. The idea was to create only enough story to provide cool, evocative names and flavor text. This model was used for the Ice Age, Alliances, Mirage, and Visions sets. The Homelands set was an exception: two writers came up with a full story, then worked very closely with R&D to implement that story on cards. It was the first and last time that the creative staff had lots of influence on the design of individual cards.
Next came the grand experiment: the Weatherlight saga. This was Wizards' first attempt to use story to grow the Magic game into something bigger than just cards (for example, Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh have TV shows, toys, games, and so on, even though the Magic game predates them both). But different groups of people within Wizards had different ideas about what an overarching Magic storyline should be like, and there were some intense disagreements and changes in leadership between the Weatherlight set and the Urza's Saga set. In the meantime, we had found it difficult -- maybe even damaging to the game -- to try to tell a complex story with only cards. Players couldn't figure out the order in which plot events were supposed to be happening, and many just weren't interested in the Weatherlight crew. When The Duelist magazine published a storyboard of the Tempest plot using card illustrations alone, lots of people loved it, but without it, the story couldn't be easily told, and that frustrated many players.
Finally, we arrive at the present day. We would still like the Magic game to grow beyond the cards, but we know that the cards are its heart and soul. The first priority of all our creative efforts is to create cool cards. Here's our current approach: Start with a Big Idea. Maybe R&D would like to do a block that's all about the graveyard. Or maybe the creative staff would like to do a block set in an underwater civilization (yeah, right). The initial idea can come from either side. Once an idea is agreed on, R&D starts designing cards, and the creative staff develops a setting -- a world that grows from that idea. These two things happen simultaneously, and there's a lot of interplay between the two processes (the more, the better). Sometimes we'll develop a few characters and a very basic idea about a story plot while we're building the world, but that's secondary to creating a rich setting.
Here's another way to think about it: In this new approach we're trying, my job is to lead a handful of writers and artists to create a world that will yield cool cards. Once that world is fleshed out enough for cards, we're able to hand it off to any other creative folks (such as novelists, illustrators, and so on) and say, "Here's the world you're in. Explore it however you want."
You'll see the fullest results of this approach in October when the Mirrodin set hits the shelves. I can't wait to see what you think of it.
Other Storyline Resources and Links