My favorite part of Magic: The Gathering isn’t that it’s a deep, rich card game with a large competitive scene and a variety of interesting ways to play it. Those are all great reasons to love it, but ever since I learned about the world of Dominaria, the brothers Urza and Mishra, and the very concept of the planeswalker, I have been interested in the worlds of Magic. Now, literally decades later, we’ve left those initial stories that I enjoyed and traveled to a contiguous city world, a world of living metal, a gothic world where monsters and angels fight for domination, and many other places that take us to the strangest edges of the fantasy genre.
After a string of “return” card sets where Magic continued the stories of places that we’ve already played in, we’ve now come to Kaladesh, a steampunk plane with a flavor of precolonial India, and its aether-fueled technological revolution (I’d be remiss here at the top if I didn’t link this take on the plane and its Indian costuming by Shivam Bhatt).
Inventors across Kaladesh are inventing new and exciting steampunk-y objects to improve their lives, do interesting things, or to simply prove that they’re better inventors than their peers. It’s a whole world of science fair nerds going head-to-head, and they’ve divided into groups to better show off their skills.
I spoke to Kimberly Kreines, a Creative Designer on the Story Team for Magic, about the world of Kaladesh, and she told me a bit about the Inventor Societies that make up the structure of the invention-crafting renaissance that is taking that world by storm.
As many long-time players of Magic will note, the game’s “color pie” (meaning the wheel of white, black, blue, red, and green mana that makes up all of the resources of the game) has a structuring effect on many aspects of the game. Mechanically, that means that each color has qualities that it excels at better than the others: white cards are often centered around order and control; red cards are often about smashing things.
The Inventor Societies fit that general structure of the worlds of Magic into a guild-like framework of how individuals of these worlds might want to pursue their inventions. “We wanted there to be somewhere for everybody,” Kreines explained. “All of the inventors aren’t doing the same thing. We have artisans and crafters, and then we have the theorists. We have the people who are building and racing. We didn’t want it to be a one-size-fit-all. We wanted inventor societies that lots of our players, readers, and fans could relate to. It’s kind of like the ‘you be you’ thing, you find where you fit, your group, to add that layer of excitement to the world.”
It’s hard to think about the Inventor Societies without thinking of Magic designer Mark Rosewater’s “psychographic profiles; a kind of shorthand way of thinking about ways that players of the game interact with it. It’s clear, however, that the fiction of Kaladesh is leaning harder into what Rosewater calls the “Vorthos,” or a player who is interested in Magic because of the story and “flavor” of the game. Being in that category myself, I couldn’t help asking Kreines hyper-specific questions about the actual structure of the world. In a world of invention and unfettered creation, are there any downsides? What are the actual concerns of Inventors Societies outside of the proper use of aether? Kreines explained:
“So far it’s been blue skies on this world, and they’re pushing boundaries. Every new invention is leading to ten more new inventions. We did talk a lot in our worldbuilding about how technology in our world is accelerating at such a rapid pace, and it feels like if you stop to think about it you might sometimes wonder about the ethics of what everybody has done. I would imagine that people in this world would think similarly — “Where are we going? Where are we pushing our inventions? What is most beneficial to our society? What do we want to avoid? What do we want to pursue? Who benefits?”
From a practical perspective, the work that the Magic Creative team does is pretty spectacular. They begin with a set of material preconceptions about the world, like Kaladesh’s natural resource of aether, and then build out from there in order to understand what kinds of historical conditions might exist within those confines. It’s the kind of work you see done most often in sprawling fantasy books (Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun is a personal favorite), but the team at Wizards is able to stretch their stories and concepts across cards, the interactions those cards provide, short stories, and world books like the one this preview page is from:
Kaladesh is beautiful and lush, but the connections to our own world make me wary. We have techno-overlords spouting the fantasy of Mars while our smartphones and game consoles produce lakes of toxic sludge that has a literally immeasurable impact on the future of our warming, dying planet. I pushed Kreines to talk about how tightly Kaladesh is bound to our own world.
“So much of it is optimism, and so much is excitement, and so much is good. That’s the big tone that we want to hit: that this world is about being able to invent without bounds. We don’t want to impose too many of the negatives that we see in our real world. We want this to be an optimistic, creatively-fueled society. But I would imagine that these aether theorists sit around thinking ‘Are we doing the right thing? Where could this lead best case scenario? Where could this lead worst case scenario?’”
There’s something wonderful about the inventors of Kaladesh living in the Venn diagram space of where Silicon Valley libertarians and hardcore Marxists both want us to be: people interacting with the world on their own terms and finding their own fulfillment while helping out others implicitly. There’s a bit of solarpunk optimism in there that I find refreshing after coming off of two Magic stories where entire worlds were wrecked by Lovecraftian horrors.
We’re still in the first set of Kaladesh, however, and January’s “Aether Revolt” is (presumably) going to kick off some conflicts in this world that might drag it into the negative. I asked Kreines if she could tell me what was going to happen to this place. Would we see the same kind of mass destruction that we’ve seen on Dominaria, Mirrodin, Zendikar, and Innistrad over the past 20+ years? Is this utopia going to become a horrifying dystopia? “Every world is individual,” Kreines said mysteriously, “so whatever happens to it is very specific to the world.” I guess we’ll find out what happens to the inventors when the Kaladesh art book drops early next year.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.