Combos, synergies, mana ratios and curves… however important the mechanics of the game, there’s no denying that the experience of playing Magic: The Gathering would not be the same without its underlying storyline and associated artwork.
It is the artwork that Rise of the Gatewatch: A Visual History most celebrates.
Structured according to the principle Planeswalkers, it focuses a chapter each on Chandra Nalaar, Jace Beleren, Liliana Vess, Gideon Jura, Nissa Revane, Ajani Goldmane, Teferi, Kaya and Nicol Bolas, culminating – as the title suggests – with the Gatewatch in their ultimate showdown against Nicol Bolas.
Jenna Helland’s foreword sets the tone, offering both creative insight and character background. She explain how humanizing the Planeswalkers within the design process fed character depth and nuance to their story arcs. She explains:
‘In my mind, the overarching narrative philosophy of Planeswalkers mirrored a real-world ethical dilemma: if you saw something bad happening, would you get involved.’
Underpinning their plot-lines within world, this development is relayed in the ensuing chapters.
Each chapter opens with a full-page illustration and brief yet comprehensive history of the featured Planeswalker. Oversized printings of their feature cards offer illustrative details that might be missed on the smaller printings. The presentation of these feels a little unsophisticated, given the carefully structured introduction – one card pasted into the middle of each page – not quite filling it, but offering no additional detail or explanation in the surrounding space. As the story is ultimately delivered through the game their inclusion is important – necessary even – but the awkwardness of the layout is perhaps symptomatic of one of my key quibbles with this book. I’ll come back to that shortly…
There is some imbalance in the weighting of the chapters; Kaya, Teferi and Ajani are given notably less space than Chandra, Jace, Lilianna and Nissa. Initially I thought this was simply a reflection of their representation within the Multiverse’s history; Conspiracy 2: Take the Crown was Kaya’s sole named appearance until Ravnica Allegiance. However Teferi has been a mythos staple since Mirage, so is disappointing that his chapter commands only 5 pages whilst Liliana gets 40. Even as Lili fan this feels unfairly distributed.
The imagery is without a doubt the highpoint of Rise of the Gatewatch.
Accompanied by flavour text, story snippets and quotes from editors and designers, the extended artwork is a delight on its own, and (as is often the beauty of such a vast interconnected narrative) at times recontextualises the cards themselves (of course it is Liliana offering a Tainted Remedy. I should really pay more attention to the flavour text!). The graphics take us from concept art to exquisite full-page spreads. They could almost take your breath away, if…
And here is my one persistent niggle.
The book feels undersized.
The current dimensions (15cm x 20cm or 6”x7.5” by my measure) are more akin to a graphic novel. Which makes sense if you’re trying to fit a continuous visual story with large numbers of panels into a book-sized product. For others it may work. But when I open a book like Rise of the Gatewatch I want the pages to fall open under their own weight. To relish the double spread artwork without peering in from the side to get the full effect of images shadowed by the groove between pages. To flick through and land at a new page each time. In its current dimensions, Rise of the Gatewatch simply closes. Don’t get me wrong, it is a lovely, tactile production. But to make it the perfect coffee table piece (the niche I would buy it for), it needs to be bigger.
I suspect it was a decision based around price.
A smaller book means lower print, transportation and storage costs, allowing for the lower of RRP £13.99 (or $19.99 USD). For that price it becomes an easier sell – it is a great stocking filler or present for that MTG-mad friend, or a pick-me-up treat at the end of a long week. Larger dimensions would likely push the book into the £20 bracket, where it sits in competition with a new Challenger deck. At the current price point you can treat yourself to a copy, a Planeswalker deck and a packet of sleeves and still walk away with change from £30. Perhaps it’s a smart move after all.
So would I recommend it?
In short, yes. 3 stars is perhaps a little harsh, because for all my griping, Rise of the Gatewatch: A Visual History is delightful in many ways: the production quality is high, the paper is thick and glossy and flickable, the text:art ratio feels sound, and the artwork is stunning. Would I buy it for me? Possibly. For a friend? Absolutely.
Rise of the Gatewatch: A Visual Guide releases 23rd July. Preorder your copy here.