Moreover: Doing Sequels Right

Posted in Savor The Flavor on September 1, 2010

Why go back? How to do it? It's been over six years since the doors slammed shut on the Mirrodin block. The plane of Mirrodin sustained its requisite narrative licks, endured a two-hit combo of tragedy and triumph, and eventually, rotated its way out of Magic player consciousness. But even after all that, it's not as if Mirrodin went anywhere. Like the Space Needle or some similar landmark in your own hometown, it's still a big metallic structure, waiting there patiently, flashing in your side mirror occasionally as you go about your life. There's nothing really stopping you from going back there, but it's just one of those things—without something new about the place, or some uninitiated visitors who've never gone to see it, you and yours just haven't had occasion to visit it again.

Enter Sequel Week. It's a week themed around revisitation. Plus, it's the week before Scars of Mirrodin previews begin blasting out of the batteries of media cannons. It's almost time to head back—that settles the when of our return to the plane of Mirrodin. Today we investigate some big fat whys and more than a few hows.

I know that card previews start next week, but ... still want ... to divulge ... can't ... help myself...

Memnarch is gone, defeated by the elf hero Glissa Sunseeker. A green-mana sun burns in Mirrodin's sky alongside its four siblings.

The soul-traps were triggered, sending the older generations of Mirrodin back to their home planes. Those who were left stranded on the plane, orphaned by the soul-traps, were more natives of Mirrodin than of their elders' worlds. They are the true children of Mirrodin, human and elf, goblin and vedalken, loxodon and leonin: the Mirrans. They have no explanation for the vanishing of the elder generations, only uncomfortable guesses. Their world is a desolate landscape of iron, gold, and chrome. Scars are many and answers are few.

It feels like the end of an era. But every ending is a boundary that marks another dawn. The metal world's story is far from over.

Whew. Okay. Back to the whys and hows of sequels.

    The Why

There are lots of powerful practical reasons to revisit what has come before. As Mark Rosewater talked about on Monday, sequels exist because they work. They feed our craving for the familiar. They build upon the characters and locales we came to love. They weave on nostalgia's loom, covering us in a future threaded with what's past, sheltering us from the unknown with proven success. If they didn't work, sequels wouldn't happen.

But all that aside, there's only one why I care about. From a story and flavor standpoint, there's only one good reason to do the sequel.

Because there's more to tell.

Some settings don't have more tales in them. Some are one-trick ponies, one-and-done, light the fuse and blow it apart, the end. Some worlds might not have thick enough flavor-fabric to revisit—one season and they're already worn threadbare.

What we found was that Mirrodin isn't like that. It's dense, layered, populated with so many races and cultures and magics and mysteries that it had no business ending in three. We were excited to dredge up the old style guides, introduce our minds to the people and places of the world again, immerse ourselves in the lore and rekindle the possibilities of the setting.

Plus the world of Mirrodin includes a massive twist this time around. A straight-up Mirrodin sequel would have given us plenty to work with, but we decided to add a potent new ingredient, and it blew the story wide open like a pile of dramatic gunpowder. So much opportunity for strife and astonishment ... so much inchoate pain and desperate heroism ... er, sorry, I'm drooling a little. But we'll talk the twist in earnest next week.

Mirrodin is fertile ground, or we wouldn't have gone back. I can't wait for you to see.

Seriously. I'm just ... having trouble ... waiting ...

Memnarch's machines no longer have a Warden to lead them. The rampaging levelers have fallen silent. War machines drive on haphazardly, chewing up the metallic landscape. Golems follow deep rhythms unheard by flesh-folk. The odd servants known as the myr carry out curious tasks of their own.

The lacunae, those apertures in Mirrodin's surface that lead to the world's core, are sacred sites. The leonin and Auriok revere the Cave of Light, part of a structure built up around the white lacuna, and a source of powerful visions from the white sun. The vedalken study at the Knowledge Pool, a repository of thought-inducing serum within Lumengrid. Ish Sah, the Vault of Whispers, guards the black lacuna, standing as a grim reminder of dark powers within the murky Mephidross. Goblins and Vulshok celebrate the power of the red sun at Kuldotha, the Great Furnace. And the Sylvok have built a new structure in the area around the green lacuna, the former Radix, called the Araneas Altar.

    The Hows

A much more interesting question than why to do a sequel is how to do it. You have almost certainly watched, read, or otherwise experienced a bad sequel. There are a few keys to doing the sequel right.

1. Repeat the gems: It may sound obvious, but the first key to doing a good sequel is to bring back what worked in the original. That means identifying the sources of the power of the original. Was it your charismatic hero? Was it the adventurous tone? Was it the villain? In Mirrodin's case, much of power of the original was the flavor hook—a world made of metal—combined with the mechanical theme—a block that focuses on the power of artifacts. There are more gems of the setting that you'll find as Scars of Mirrodin and the other sets of the block make their way to the public. Through the art, names, flavor text, and mechanics, this new block rekindles the feel of the metal plane of Mirrodin.

2. Be selective: The corollary to repeating the gems of the original is to leave the duds behind. Just because it's a sequel doesn't mean you bring everything back wholesale. Given a large enough audience, each aspect of the original is likely to be somebody's favorite, but still you should cut anything that wasn't working. Show no mercy. The sequel is an opportunity to improve, but it can only improve if lessons are learned and the clunky bits don't make it through your sieve. The first Mirrodin block gave rise to some unpleasantly broken game-play, and that's something we left in the past. Powerful, yes—artifacts always have the potential to be powerful—but unbalanced, no.

3. Build on the vision: It's more than just repeating the good stuff and leaving out the bad. The sequel has to go beyond the original. At root, the whole reason you're doing a sequel is because you desire more, and by definition, the original already exists. Don't just rehash—it's not a do-over. Think of it as a moreover. A sequel builds on the original, expands it, unlocks new possibilities that were inherent in the original but never realized. Sequels also bloom with fresh elements that are completely novel. As I'll discuss next week, Scars of Mirrodin blasts open the boundaries of the setting as it was. It's Mirrodin, but a new Mirrodin. It's a new chapter that honors what went before but carves new trails in its steel surface.

4. Don't lose the newcomers: By definition, a sequel comes after some earlier piece of content. But not everyone saw/read/experienced the first part. That's especially possible in Mirrodin's case, where the last time we saw this plane was over six years ago. It's been so long that even those who were playing Magic during Mirrodin might not remember the difference between the Auriok and the Vulshok. So the sequel must stand on it's own. It must not require familiarity with the original to be satisfying. It must not put too much stock in the "gems" from #1 or lean too hard on the loom of nostalgia. It's a new season, and your audience is going to be a mix of those who remember a lot about the previous installment, those who remember a little about it, and those who are completely new to the franchise. Give your mixed audience a refresher, but then let the story stand on its own merits. We created Scars of Mirrodin to be a new tale with new heroes. There are hooks that connect it with older back-story, and the backdrop will be familiar to those who were around before. But what's important to the story is universal. Those who were around the first time will get a level of enjoyment that newcomers won't. But even if you're new to Mirrodin, you'll be able to appreciate the power of the conflict going on there. Scars of Mirrodin does not hinge on your knowledge of back-story trivia.

    On the Inability to go Home Again

"You cannot step into the same river twice." "You can never go home again." The sentiment is the same: you can't have the exact same experience as you did before. Even if you somehow reproduced all the same conditions, you'd still never reproduce the experience of living through that time—because youare different. You could play the same Magic set, but you'd bring a wealth of knowledge and perspective that you didn't have the first time around. You'd have a new perspective. Even if the river were molecule-for-molecule identical, you would be a different person stepping into it.

If Heraclitus were a gamer, he might say you can never attend a second prerelease. You can never come to Mirrodin with fresh eyes, experiencing it the way that you did that first time. But now you can. Sure, Scars of Mirrodin is a sequel of sorts—we stand proudly on the shoulders of those big, metal giants, Mirrodin, Darksteel, and Fifth Dawn. But we've made something that's altogether new.

As Magic players, we're obsessed with the new. We're surprisovores. We appreciate the lure of revisiting the past, but we want to uncover something we haven't experienced before. In short, we want a sequel done right.

Well, friends, prepare.

    Letters of the Week

Two weeks ago, during Opening Hand Week, I described a method to "see the future" using the opening hand of any Magic deck (note: "for entertainment purposes only," "your mileage may vary," "impossible to see the future is," and whatever other disclaimer-y boilerplate I should put here). It was goofy fun reading about your future-scrying openers and your interpretations of them, and I'm happy to say that everybody took it in the informal spirit it was intended. I share a few of them with you all here—thanks to all who generated a "prophecy" and sent it in.

Here's one from reader James—a bad opening-hand, perhaps, but a fine prophetic vehicle.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Seven on the Seven":
I'm not normally a follower of tarot or anything similar, but I thought I'd try your prophecy trick and see what happened. You asked for anyone getting interesting results to let you know, so hey, here ya go. I chose a red-green-white Standard aggro-deck. It is one of my favorites, and I designed it myself, so it seemed like a natural choice. I'm unemployed right now, so I asked the deck how I could find a new source of income.

Here was my hand: Stoneforge Mystic, Qasali Ambusher, Journey to Nowhere, Dragonmaster Outcast, Lodestone Golem, Loam Lion, and Beastmaster Ascension.

A few notes on this hand:
a) It has no lands. If I'd drawn this hand for a game, I would have been severely disappointed.
b) It has no doubles.
c) It has a card (Dragonmaster Outcast) that only occurs once in the deck.

Now for the fun part: Speculating on what the cards mean!

1. Stoneforge Mystic: This card is about searching for the right tool. In the context of the prophecy, I'd say it probably means a state of mind or belief rather than, say, a sword.

2. Qasali Ambusher: This card represents sudden, startling change.

3. Journey to Nowhere: This card represents the sensation of being lost; as the art suggests, possibly lost within oneself.

4. Dragonmaster Outcast: This card represents separation from society and the power one can find in isolation.

5. Lodestone Golem: This card represents aggressive or passive-aggressive parasitic behavior—everybody else has to work a little harder when you're around.

6. Loam Lion: This card represents the ability to adapt to continually shifting elements in the environment.

7. Beastmaster Ascension: This card represents coming into a new source of power—and the ability to bring out new strength in others.

Each card falls in an appropriate spot in the reading, following the formula you lay out in your article. Just ... terribly, terribly interesting. Thanks for the article, and the prophecy.


It's the power of the mind to give meaning to fuzzy data—especially colorful and flavor-rich fuzzy data like a random seven Magic cards—that gives this exercise its fun, of course. Thanks to your brain's built-in need to connect things, you can get eerie results sometimes.

Jordan got into the flavor of things with his prophetic question.

With the theme song to Three's Company having escaped me, I decided I would try out this little test with Good Morning America in the background.

The question: what's for lunch?
The deck: a forty-card red-white Samurai deck.

Card #1: Kitsune Blademaster
Well that's an easy one! This creature has First Strike and represents the past and I have already used knives this morning in preparing scrambled eggs with garlic and shallots. No knife use allowed for lunch!

Card #2: Plains
Frame of mind, eh? Something wheat-based, perhaps?

Card #3: Mothrider Samurai
Environment-wise, it's another scorcher... perfect for leavening a dough with the airy goodness of flight.

Card #4: Ronin Houndmaster
If my dog would stop snoring behind me, maybe I could think ... ! That's it! I must make something that both Grueber and I could both enjoy.

Card #5: Brothers Yamazaki
Okay, now this is becoming creepy. And more work. Looks like I'm cooking for the dog and my brother on this one (assuming he is up before noon.)

Card #6: Mountain
Safe to say, whatever I whip up will have to be baked in the oven.

Card #7: Mountain
A mountain... of toppings?!

Wow, it actually worked. Pizza it is! Now that's a flavor I'm sure to savor. Thanks Doug!

Not everybody got such ... happy news, let's say? It all depends on perspective, though, Tom:

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Seven on the Seven":

I decided to ask whether I would get the exam results I need for university. The cards lined up surprisingly well.

The past—Dawn Charm
My childhood (the dawn of my life) was pretty good (charmed).

My state of mind—Wall of Omens
I'm worrying too much about what will happen. It's building all these omens up into a mental wall.

My environment—Prismatic Omen
My environment is very diverse?

The aspect of me that's asking the question—Plains
Well, they say no man is an Island. Which is odd because exam results are definitely a thing the blue part of me would care about more than the white part of me.

An important person relating to the question—Draco
A giant robot dragon? That sounds like my Math teacher.

My destination—Journey to Nowhere
That doesn't sound good.

The future—Last Stand
Neither does that.

Hopefully, drawing a hand of Magic cards does not actually allow you to see the future, and I'll be fine.


One of my favorites was this one from Ryan, who showed the power of deck choice not only in the Magic metagame but also in prophesying:

Dear Doug Beyer,

I tried your seven-card prophesy trick and this is what my deck gave me:
1)Relentless Rats
2)Relentless Rats
4)Relentless Rats
5)Relentless Rats
6)Relentless Rats
7)Relentless Rats

What could this mean?

HA! Um, I think it means you need to leave that Swamp environment of yours or get comfy with a pest-filled future.

Next week: the return of an old nemesis—that isn'tNicol Bolas.

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