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Friday, April 27, 2012

The State of MTG Fiction 2012

Happy Anniversary to MTG Fiction! Last year I said my annual "State of MTG Fiction" article was going to be posted after completing the Read Through of each year's Block novel, but instead I'm posting it on the anniversary of the site, and for a good reason. The Magic book line is no more. This is a major blow to fans of the fiction, and so let's discuss that first.

The State of Magic: The Gathering Fiction


My conclusion last year was that Magic fiction was worse that ever. This conclusion was mainly based around the quality of the Block novel Scars of Mirrodin: The Quest for Karn. It's a book that should never have been published, with pretty much no redeeming quality to it. Across the course of the year I finished my Read Throughs of every Block novel, and it makes he wonder if the quality of those books isn't at least part of the reason why the novels had stopped being included as part of the Fat Pack released with each set.

So What Has Happened Since The Quest for Karn?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

On the book end at least.

When the books switched from one book per set to the Block/Planeswalker Novel and Planswalker's Guide in 2009, we saw the Planeswalker's Guide to Alara, Agents of Artifice, and Alara Unbroken released.

In 2010, it was decided that sales for the Guide wasn't good enough and so part of the new strategy was folded into dailymtg.com starting with Zendikar spoiler season. Whether intentional or not, that seemed to open up space to allow for two Planeswalker novels to be released, one of which was delayed (Curse of the Chain Veil), and so what we ended up with was The Purifying Fire and Test of Metal.

In 2011, news of delays for the Planeswalker novel centered around Liliana Vess, and Curse of the Chainveil ended up being delayed indefinitely.

As of this moment, the only remaining part of the strategy in delivering Magic fiction to those who love it is the Planeswalker's Guide concept which has found a nice home on the official site.

The Novels are Dead

So we've seen the results, the novels are no more. Why did this happen? Simply put, no one was buying.

(For some numbers straight from the mouth of Brady Dommermuth himself, as well as on and off-topic thoughts of Ari Marmell and Laura Resnick, authors of Agents of Artifice and The Purifying Fire respectively, please see this thread from the official forums.

(At a glance, here is the most important bit of info:

I'll say this, though: By a very conservative estimate, 1 in 10,000 Magic players bought any given Magic novel. That's using the highest sales numbers among our books historically (not counting fat packs, which were priced in such a way as to make the book essentially free) and our lowest estimates of total Magic players. Given the meager profit margins on books, that's simply not enough sales to sustain that part of the business.

(Later on in the thread he also mentions that quality of book as evaluated by the flavor seeking community does not correlate to most book sold. Read on for more words straight from Brady's mouth.)

Wizards is a business first and foremost. We are lucky that as a business they believe that creating a great game is the best way to sell a lot of product. We are lucky that as a business they believe that supporting a tournament scene is a great way to sell a lot of product. And we're lucky that as a business they believe having weekly articles that explain behind the scenes decisions around design and development is a good way to sell product. Unfortunately sinking money into books is not a great way to sell a lot of product.

Taking a step back, the book industry is tough.

It's important to remember that as an industry, selling books is hard. I wish I could provide direct sources for these numbers I'm about to say, but I've heard these numbers from people I believe know what they're talking about so I'm going just going to say it. It's no secret that most books do not sell like in the numbers that Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or any book by Stephen King. These are the exceptions to the rule, and the money that these books bring to a publisher is what allows publishers to invest in unknown authors to find the next hit because most books lose money.

So what kind of numbers are we talking about? I know I was shocked when I first learned these. If you write a book and self-publish and it sells two thousand copies, that's enough to get noticed by a publisher. A first time author who sells five to ten thousand copies of their first book through a publisher can be considered a success. That's it. There's no one million copies on the day, no 100,000 books a year after launch. Sell ten thousand copies at paperback prices of your first book and you did a pretty good job there, and that money of course then gets split amongst those involved.

It's easy to recall stories of huge successes because no one hears about the failures. There are plenty of authors that fail and return to their day jobs. In fact, as I understand it, publishers must take back unsold copies from bookstores to be shredded and recycled as standard practice, because shelf and storage space costs money and opportunity for these stores. If a book's not selling that's valuable space that could display a book that will, so a return policy is just part of the deal so the publisher takes on part of the risk. You can bet that kind of policy doesn't exist for car lots or electronics stores.

It's also important to remember the book industry is changing.

Let's also not forget that the book industry is in a transitional period. E-books are gaining steam and major book retailers are closing locations or are shutting down completely. But while Apple is selling a ton of ipads, there is a reason we don't hear much about the ibooks store. And while the kindle is amazon's best selling product, the majority of book buyers still rests in the physical world, not the digital. And let's not even talk about the global recession. This is a terrible time to sell books in a line that was already struggling without this shift in the industry still ongoing.

But forget the industry you say, Wizards still sells Dungeons and Dragons books!

(Okay, no one's actually said it that I know of, but thinking about the two helps to illustrate the difficulty in writing fiction for Magic.)

There are three major differences between Dungeons & Dragons and Magic.

- 1) Dungeons & Dragons comes in book form, Magic comes as cards. -

Simple enough. Dungeons & Dragons players are more likely to walk into a bookstore simply because that's where their game is sold. Once you get them in the door, they might stop by and take a peek at what else is in there.

- 2) Dungeons & Dragons is about imagination, Magic is about competition. -

The player base of Dungeons & Dragons is, almost by definition, pretty much 100% vorthos. I'm sure you can break them down in Timmy, Johnny, and Spike when it comes to play styles, but flavor appreciation is pretty much a given if you're going to play that game.

On the other hand, Magic is more about the competition. It's a duel between one or more players where you are encouraged to mix and match cards, regardless of whether or not they make sense flavor-wise, like equipping human shaped armor on a dragon or sea serpent. It's a game where the big names care about strategy and winning, and hardly any of them even notice that flavor text exists, let alone care about flavor in the larger scheme of things.

When one game centers around imagination and the other centers around competition and flavor is just the icing on the cake for most of the player base, you can be sure that the first game will have a larger percent of its player base looking to see what might be out there in the book realm.

- 3) Dungeons & Dragons has Drizzt Do'Urden, Magic does not. -

Dungeons & Dragons found their Wolverine. They found their Batman. Drizzt is a character that caught on like wildfire and became bigger than the world he inhabited. Put him in a book, and that book will sell.

Yes, Magic has the planeswalkers now. It has Jace and Chandra and Sorin and Garruk. But they caught on as cards, not as characters. The flavor loving community is tiny compared to the total amount of people who play the game. While flavor is important to Magic, what flavor that is conveyed through the art and flavor text is enough for most people. What is posted up on the website is enough for the people who want a little more. Magic isn't a cheap game, so why spend money on something that can't be used to improve your deck?

- All in all -

Wizards can still print Dungeons & Dragons books because a following that spends money on the books has been built up, while the same has not happened for Magic. Those of you reading this likely want more, but we are in the vast minority. One in ten-thousand. That's 0.02% of players at best. It's important to understand that Flavor Seekers are just a tiny drop in a very large pond.

(That's easy enough to see by looking at what kinds of Magic sites are out there, and by looking at how many people frequent storyline related sub-forums.)

While I feel saddened that the strategy that was launched in 2009 didn't pan out, and while it feels like it was never given a fair chance because the quality of the block novels could most certainly have been better, the state of the book industry and the interest from the community right now is at a point where it wouldn't have made a difference had they been the best Magic novels ever written.

The Comics are Reborn!

Good news. While the novel line is dead, the comic book line has been relaunched, thanks to a fairly new publisher in the comic book realm, IDW. If you haven't heard of them, they focus on bringing already established brands to life such as Transformers, Ninja Turtles, Star Trek, and G. I. Joe. IDW is the ideal publisher for Magic: The Gathering.

Better news. The comics are actually good. There is a lot to appreciate in terms of quality of the writing and the art.

Best news of all is that the first four-issue mini-series did well enough that a second mini-series titled Magic: The Gathering: The Spell Thief has been green lit.

I'd say that if you're a fan of Magic fiction, even though the planeswalker Dack Fayden is an unknown, it's worth it to buy these now. The comics are good, and supporting them now will show IDW and Wizards that we want more in the future.

Don't buy them just to show support, buy them because they're good and show that you appreciate the effort that went into creating a good product in the only way that matters.

Comics are a fantastic format for Magic fiction and I hope for their continued success. The dream is that There comes a point where the comics are profitable enough, and sales are steady enough that there is both an on-going series, and one or more mini-series. If there was ever a time when the Block novel was instead evolved into a twelve-part mini-series, and that was released every year with each block, that would be enough for me.

Innistrad Goes Viral!

A very pleasant surprise in regards to Magic fiction was the viral story that Wizards put out when Innistrad was released. This was a first attempt as exploring storytelling through the medium of the internet and they while they didn't turn it into a full on Alternate Reality Game, it was still quite a ride.

While some players were confused about what was going on, and I was certainly was disappointed when no card was revealed at the end of the whole event, (And Brady Dommermuth said in the same thread about the end of the novels that the reaction wasn't as great as they were expecting), an attempt at something like this will happen again at some point in the future.

So What's the State of MTG Fiction? 

Sadly, even though the novel line is dead, it's actually improved over the course of the year. While no novel came out, there was the fantastic Innistrad Viral Story that was put together by the Creative Team, and the Planeswalker's Guide series continues to be grade A work. On top of that, the new comics show promise, and the only question is if there will be enough support to justify more. This next year is going to be crucial for the comic line, and as the only money making venture into Magic fiction, it has a lot of weight to carry, and a lot of promise.

The State of MTGFiction.com


Last year the site launched and I began my first Read Through with Scars of Mirrodin: The Quest for Karn. While other parts of the site could use some attention, the core concept of reviewing one chapter a day held fairly strong.

A very big special thanks to The Munsen's Apps for his script which allows for the auto-card popups on the site. He's an awesome guy that was there, almost literally the minute I asked for help getting it to work. My posts both became easier to write, as well as improved dramatically, once his script came online.

(He also has other Magic related themes, apps, and chrome extensions if you want to check out his work.)

So What's Happened Since Then?

- Achievements -

1) I made it! This is the most important thing of all. I'm still here, still posting after one year, and my desire to push on has no end in sight. While I haven't posted every single day like I wanted to, due to time management issues, internet issues, and the occasional mis-click, I've done a fairly decent job. There is plenty of room for improvement, and if I were to grade myself, I'd probably give myself a B- at best, but there is nothing to be ashamed of with what I've done.

2)  11 Reviews and 14 Read Throughs complete! More than one book a month. That's not too bad. I would have preferred if it was 14 and 14, but the good news it that I scored the books as I finished reading them, and I have hidden posts where I wrote down some final thoughts, so when I do get around to catching up with those reviews, I already have all the pieces I need to put those together.

3) People are reading! The fact that anyone at all has interest in what I'm doing here on this site is encouraging. I want to thank VoyagerOrchid and Troacctid for their constant presence in the comments while also trying their best to keep things spoiler free, as well as everyone else who stopped by to say something. And thanks to those of you who came by just to read and didn't say anything at all. I know you're there, thanks to Google Analytics.

4) I'm (sort of) on Reddit! Thanks to VoyagerOrchid and his work in putting together his Storyline Comprehensive Guide, which was quickly made into a permanent link on the sidebar, I now have a permanent link in the MagicTCG subreddit. (I post there as Loremaker.)

- Number Tracking -

For the sake of number tracking:

1) I've gone from 0 to 71 Twitter followers.

2) Across the year, I've had 24,358 visits, with 13,009 unique visitors, 46.20% of visitors are returning visitors,a nd the average duration of time spent on the site is 3:37.

3) It's no surprise that the highest amount of traffic I received was during the hype of Innistrad while I was collecting all the bits of the Viral Story together.

Plans for Year Two

It's easy to come up with ideas, the trick is coming up with ideas that I can actually accomplish. I would love to have video, skits, a podcast, my own stories, shorter summaries of all the books, longer in-depth looks at the each of the books, a deeper look at every character, a closer look at the art of the cards, and so much more.

Too much content that I'll never be able to do.

As it is, right now I'm still trying to keep up with doing one chapter a day and fitting that into my work schedule. There was actually a time when I had written enough entries ahead of time that I was literally three books ahead of what I was posting up on the site, and I foolishly decided to try posting up two different books at the same time since I had all the extra content, and so I squandered all that cushion I built up. Otherwise I would have had a perfect record when it comes to keeping up with my posts.

Those posts will of course continue. By this time next year, the Urza/Weatherlight Saga should be complete. But I also want to do more.

What do I actually think I can accomplish?

- Anthologies -

While I've shown to myself that I can't handle a schedule where I can work on two novels at one time, and I've hit the Urza/Weatherlight saga where the books are going to be going in chronological order, there is still a lot of stand alone stuff that can be covered. In this instance, the various anthologies of Magic.

I'm going to start slow, with The Colors of Magic, and cover one story per month. That's nice and simple. Let's move on.

- Comics -

Because the comics exist, I still have plenty of hope for the future of Magic's fiction. And the launch of any comic book series is a critical time. Sales are going to have to justify it's creation. Whether it succeeds or not, I have no idea, by while it's around, I'm going to cover them. I'm still struggling with how much I want to say about each issue. Copyright is a tricky thing. I need to do more research into how comic book sites cover other comic books and I might have to emulate them. I will do what I can, but there is a definite limit to what I can do. I just need to find out what that limit is.

I just want to reiterate how important it is that people go out and buy the comics. Otherwise even this escape into the multiverse will be closed off to us. I'm doing my part. I'm actually buying every cover of every issue, as well as buying the digital versions.

Since comics come out on a monthly basis, the idea is to cover them on a monthly basis.

- Articles -

I made an attempt at writing an article series of my journey into the world of casually competitive Magic. I love Legacy as a format, and Worlds was happening in my backdoor. Unfortunately, Worlds also happened the first month at my new job, so that put an end to that. My one and only chance to see Worlds, and the last time it would be open to the public and I couldn't go.

Just because that ended, that doesn't meant I can't find other things to write about. But coming up with topics is hard. What would I ever write about?

What's that you say? Magic's official site has scheduled theme weeks twice a month to help inspire articles for their writers? And we get told what those themes are at the beginning of each of those weeks? Why don't I just write about that!

That's the plan. I'm going to try a little experiment, and each time there is a theme week, I'm going to write an article on theme.

- Schedule -

Hold on a second... a monthly anthology post, a monthly comic post, and a bi-monthly article post? I could have something up once a week!

But when's the best time? Since Savor the Flavor is scheduled to return, it wouldn't make sense for me to write an article on theme and post it the very same day as those articles, despite thinking of Wednesday's as Vorthos Wednesday thanks to Mike Linneman formerly of Gathering Magic. On top of that, I'm likely going to need more than just two or three days to figure out what to write exactly.

So let's move it to the end of the week. Theme week on DailyMTG.com is Monday-Friday. I'll post on Saturday.

- Too Much? -

Will I actually be able to pull this off? I have no idea. I certainly expect some rough patches. But as a way to ease some of my burden, there will be no chapter Read Through updates posted on Saturdays, and instead it's this content that will be posted. I'm attempting to reign myself in... but I may very well still be trying to run before learning to walk.

I'm going to attempt to begin executing on this plan on Saturday, May 5th.

So What's the State of MTGFiction.com?

I think I did a decent job last year, but I want to do more. The fire is still in me to keep updating the site, and I actually want to try expanding the type of content posted on here. Am I reaching too far? Too fast? I might very well be.

In fact, expect an official update on how I feel the plan is working six months from now, if not three. It's an uncertain future, but I'm having fun taking this journey. Thank you all for reading.

Bonus! The State of Vorthos Related Content

I thought I'd take the time to plug a couple sites around the internet. I don't do art, but there are people out there who do! Here they are my favorites in alphabetical order:

Durdling Around - My favorite Magic web comic. It has a very tight, traditional four-panel style when it comes to writing and layout, and it looks quite professional. The art is on the cute side when it comes to his cartoon depictions of the planeswalkers and other characters and the humor is fantastic. Durdling Around comes to us courtesy of manadeprived.com, publishes every Friday.

Inkwell Looter - Sometimes he does a webcomic. Sometimes he makes tokens and emblems that you can print out yourself. All the time it's great stuff. Content comes as he thinks of it, but you can still expect a couple updates a month.

Klug Alters - This guy is amazing. He's the one card alterer on my list. If card altering is something you're interested in, you've probably heard of him already. If you have no idea what card altering is, this is a fantastic place to see what the best has to offer.

Lotus Cobra is Evil - This is brought to us courtesy of mtgcolorpie. It's a personal blog with occasional webcomic. He has a very clean black and white style when it comes to comics, but the comics only come as they come with no set schedule.

No Shyfts / 5 Color Control - This is the exact opposite from mtgcolorpie. The art has a rough around the edges style to it, but it comes out every Sunday. The exact opposite from mtg color pie. The art style is a little rough, but it's up every week, and the humor is fantastic.

Since I'm plugging sites, and since I don't have any forums, (Is that something I should do? There's nothing more sad than an empty forum, and while I appreciate the traffic I do get, I can't see it being enough at this moment in time for a community to build around.), there are other places to go to to talk MTG fiction.

Official Flavor and Storylines Forum

MTG Salvation Magic Storyline Forum

MagicTCG Subreddit

Gathering Magic Lore, Role Play, & Stories Forum

That's it. See you next year for The State of MTG Fiction 2013!


  1. I'd like to see some story themed articles or sites related directly to current sets. It might help your traffic too, much like the Viral story did.

    I'll be putting together more story-themed link pages based on blocks or story sections, but I'll be doing that one by one, using also a lot of links to your book reviews.

    Individual sites or sections based on "worlds" themselves would be interesting, I think. Being able to see in semi-timeline fashion what happened there when.

    1. All good suggestions. That's the kind of stuff that I wanted in the Dominia section but it's so hard to find to do it all. I my head there are all kinds of timelines and family trees and other more targeted information.

      I should probably do something in relation to Ravnica since we know that's the next block. At the very least I'd like to have the flavor text of every card in the first Ravnica block up on my site so it's all easily searchable and easy to glance at.

  2. Quite. Have you seen the Phyrexia.com's continuty page? They used to be the main go-to for storyline articles. Now, it seems mtgsalvation's wiki is good, but it's very limited in scope for individual articles.