Ixalan is a plane filled with stunningly beautiful flora, staggeringly dangerous fauna, and four peoples gunning to rip each others' heads off. The Sun Empire, River Heralds, Legion of Dusk, and Brazen Coalition vied for the power of the Immortal Sun, an ancient and mysterious artifact that changed hands many times throughout the plane's history. This was the setting where Jace, void of memory, forged an ironbound alliance with his old nemesis, Vraska.
If you haven't read this block's stories yet, you can find Ixalan's here and Rivals of Ixalan's here. You'll want to have at least a basic understanding of what goes on, as I had the privilege of interviewing creative team member Alison Luhrs about her work on this block's narrative. We went deep, serious, and silly on this adventure, so I hope you all enjoy this interview as much as we did.
For those that might not be familiar with who you are and what you do, can you introduce yourself and talk a little bit about what you do at Wizards of the Coast?
My name is Alison Luhrs, and I’m a Game Designer for Magic: The Gathering. I’m responsible for writing art descriptions, generating creative text (like card titles and flavor text) and worldbuilding. I work closely with the designers to make sure the mechanical side of cards and creative side of cards is harmonious.
Magic Origins began a new era in Magic storytelling, following a core cast of characters so that they had the opportunity to grow and change with the narrative. Ixalan and Rivals of Ixalan contain a lot of character development for Jace. How was it getting to finally write his big development arc?
The very first thing I did before outlining was to create a list titled ‘ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT JACE’. He’s a character who is vastly overshadowed by absurdly powerful cards and notorious flavor text, so our fans have a lot of assumptions about who he is as a character that don’t necessarily reflect the reality of the text. Those assumptions carry over to our team, too, and sometimes resulted in short shifting him because we knew some fans would love it (as someone who once wrote Nissa literally throwing him I am definitely at fault for this too). The ‘Jace Assumptions’ list covered everything from ‘WHINY WIMP’ to ‘EGOTISTICAL KNOW-IT-ALL’ – it was purposefully harsh, but necessary to figure out how best to allow him to grow. If he is assumed to be a wimp, put him in a situation where he has to learn to be physically strong. If he’s a know-it-all, have him doubt for the first time whether any of that matters in a world where he can’t remember anything. Character growth starts with treating your characters with sympathy and allowing them a chance to demonstrate their growth. The Jace from Jace, Alone and the Jace from Sabotage are the same person, but the lessons he learns in between are manifested in his actions and attitudes. Gregg Luben, Kelly Digges and I had a wonderful time tricking the audience into caring about a character they assumed they hated.
Vraska was a character who didn’t have much presence in previous Magic stories. What was the process that led to the expansion of her character? What motivated the shift from framing her as a scheming villain to that of a misunderstood hero?
Assassins who kill people because they like it are incredibly dull, in my opinion. Assassins who kill people because their society assumes they can’t do anything else (when they absolutely can) are a million times more interesting. Magic has its share of mustache-twirling murder machines (hello, Nicol Bolas!), and we knew that set design required Vraska to be here as well as Jace. It would have been an easy choice to make her the antagonist, but if our secondary goal is to give Jace a chance to learn how to be an adult for the first time, he needs someone to do that alongside. So, knowing that future was near, back in Pride of the Kraul, we started to seed the idea that Vraska was capable of friendship. That she cared about her community above ALL else. That extreme ride-or-die attitude is very green-black, and is the core of how she interacts with the world. The turning point for her character is the slow realization that Jace, a man she despised for his position alone and had tried to kill in the past, was a lot like her. He had been treated terribly, was burdened with a powerset tailored to ruin lives, and most importantly, was the first person to listen to her struggles, and treat her as a person to be respected rather than feared. Vraska’s arc is about recognizing that her community can be extended beyond what she assumes it should be. At the beginning of Ixalan, if Vraska had been told that the rest of Ravnica were in danger, she probably wouldn’t care so long as the Golgari were safe. That changes when she realizes that marginalization does not solely apply to the Golgari, and that the downtrodden can be found in ALL parts of Ravnica.
How important was it to show two abuse victims developing such a profoundly positive relationship?
Most readers had never put together the volume of awful things Jace has been through. A lot of that is because of everything on that Jace Assumptions list I mentioned earlier, but another part of it is because our story is very spread-out, and we don’t revisit a lot of past events. Locking away the things that hurt us is a very human thing to do, and Jace’s powerset allows him to do that quite easily. Vraska was a bit of the opposite in that she wore her hurt on her sleeve, and built her entire life around revenge for what life hurled at her. These are two very different ways to deal with trauma, and it was interesting as a writer to explore how these methods met in the middle as Jace and Vraska’s companionship thawed. Originally, Jace was alone for the events of The Flood. He was left to deal with the onslaught of information on his own, and suffer without anyone to comfort him. As an author, that felt cruel. How can Jace contextualize what he learns on his own? When we are in our darkest moments, do things really get better when we’re locked away with no one to talk to? Allowing Vraska to be there as a witness forces the audience to watch from her perspective. We, alongside her, realize the immenseness of Jace’s past. We witness his enemies and his relationships; we are invited to watch and judge, and because Vraska is a compassionate person towards those she is able to relate to, we rule alongside her that Jace deserves empathy. We all have our individual traumas, and hopefully someone reading this took comfort in the fact that they, too, deserve to feel empathy.
I love that this block connects a lot of past events: the writing of the Guildpact, the duel between Ugin and Nicol Bolas from Fate Reforged, Vraska’s encounter with Jace on Ravnica, Jace’s meeting with Ugin at the Eye of Ugin, and so on. How do you feel about Magic’s narrative tapestry being in a place where it can be so tightly woven together?
As a storyteller, I’m a big believer in stocking the fridge. Imagine an empty refrigerator. When you tell a story, you’re putting different ingredients in the fridge. A character, an item, a nugget of information. As a story is told, you use different ingredients from the fridge to piece together a story. That character picks up this item! That nugget of information is dropped in casual conversation! Magic has a RIDICULOUSLY FULL FRIDGE, so it is very satisfying to pull out obscure ingredients from that fridge to make a story sandwich. Bringing back those ingredients makes your reader feel smart, and creates cohesion within your story.
Jace, Vraska, Huatli, and Angrath all got fairly satisfying endings. What was it like getting to write a block with tons of closure?
Closure is nice, especially when you know the audience doesn’t know when certain characters will be coming back. Sometimes we don’t want the audience to know where somebody is, but I like to avoid that if possible. Plus, if we don’t establish closure, our team gets a tweet once a week demanding to know if someone is dead or not, so avoiding that is nice too.
There are also a few juicy hints for the future seeded in that last story, both for Ixalan and the greater Multiverse. Is it difficult to keep those secrets for so long?
It SUCKS and is the WORST in the moment, but it’s worth it in the end.
On a scale from one to Nicol Bolas, how satisfying is it to watch the Vorthos community comb stories for clues in order to speculate about future events?
It is either the most entertaining thing in the world or Actual Torture, depending how correct they are.
Can you talk a little about how the “choose the ending” promotion came about for Rivals of Ixalan? It’s not every day that fans get to determine Magic canon!
Writing a story with alternative endings is a delicate balancing process. The structure had to be solid enough that the core story wouldn’t change depending on which faction won. Then, there was the matter of deciding on endings that would convey a teensy bit of new information in case we return to Ixalan in the future. The ending the audience chose revealed that the Emperor of the Sun Empire has set his sights on Torrezon! Which is a big deal! The other endings weren’t necessarily as world-changing, but were written with the goal of being entertaining above all else.
Which was your favorite faction to write for?
The Brazen Coalition, hands-down. But the Legion of Dusk takes a close second, because with the exception of Saint Elenda, it is really fun to write about truly terrible people.
Which is the cutest dinosaur on Ixalan?
Cherished Hatchling, no contest.
What would your pirate name be and what would you name your ship?
My pirate name would be Dianne because let’s be real, I would be a horrible pirate. Using that logic, my ship would probably be something horribly cheesy like Hang on Sloopy.
Most of the vampires suck, but Elenda was actually a good person! Magic has a long history of “good religious figure turns out evil,” but this was a reversal of that. What made Ixalan the place to invert this trope?
We just did an entire block about a religion turning out to be a corpse factory in Amonkhet, so switching that up was more of a relief for us writers than anything else.
Do you think the other merfolk are going to make fun of Kumena due to his comically short reign?
Ixalan is structured as a farce. A farce is built on physical humor, clambering characters, exaggeration and horseplay. After the serious nature of Amonkhet, we wanted to deliver a completely different tone, hence the farcical structure. The plot doesn’t really matter in a farce – what matters is the characters and the relationships between them, and that was true in Ixalan; the point isn’t the race, it’s the themes. Power is rewarded with punishment in a farce, and our two most powerful characters in the narrative (Kumena and Azor) are rewarded for their hubris with comic defeats. Kumena in particular had a comically short reign because in a farce, he’s the comically incompetent character – the bodacious up-and-comer who thinks he is a great revolutionary, only to be cut short by literally being thrown out the window. There are plenty of other fun tropes to play with, too! Angrath is the furious and tone-deaf patriarch, Huatli is the naïve youth, Mavren Fein is the obnoxious puritan, and what happens to Jace and Vraska is a play on the trope of lovers with mistaken identities. Playing with genre in fantasy is fun, and opened up new spaces we wouldn’t have found without approaching it with farcical playfulness.
Is there a cool fact about the world of Ixalan that didn’t make it into a story but you’d like to share?
There was going to be a big chunk of story about Inti and Huatli’s cousins stealing the Helm of the Warrior Poet from the Emperor, but we never had the time to write it. I love a good heist.
"SEE YOU NEVER, PATHETIC FOOLS"
Like Angrath, it's time for us to leave Ixalan behind. The adventure-filled block was the first wild step in a post-Gatewatch-defeat Multiverse, and the growth Jace and Vraska experienced set an inspiring tone for what's to come. What is to come? An epic return to Magic's past in Dominaria.
I want to give a brontodon-sized thank you to Alison for agreeing to this interview and crafting the characters, worlds, and stories we Vorthoses love. Magic Story returns on Wednesday, March 14th, so prepare your brains for more thrilling tales!