Critiquing Magic Set Trailers
Beginning with War of the Spark, Wizards of the Coast changed the way they did trailers for sets in two substantial ways. First, they switched from animating card art to creating high quality, video game-style animation not restricted by what art was commissioned for cards. Second, instead of using a voiceover to provide information about the story of the set, the trailer itself tells a story. While all four trailers in the new style have had excellent animation, they have delivered on the story-telling with variable success, leading to large differences in audience reception. In this article, I will examine each of the four trailers as stories; I will discuss what they did well, what they didn’t, and how they could be improved.
War of the Spark
12.7M Views, 87K Likes, 1.6K Dislikes
I remember tuning into the War of the Spark panel at PAX East and just missing the end. Instead, I caught shots of people in the audience looking amazed, wiping their eyes, and then Jimmy Wong commenting on the tear on his finger. I was completely bewildered; no Magic trailer I’d ever seen had evoked a strong emotional response. How could some moving art with a voiceover be so powerful? When I saw that Wizards had done something entirely different, I was blown away.
War of the Spark was the first of the new era of trailers, and also, by far, the best. It broke a million views less than three hours after being posted, climbed to the top of the Trending on YouTube list, and people both inside and outside the community were talking about it. This is all for good reason; from a storytelling perspective, it does everything right. One of the many things it does so well is that even if you know nothing about the Magic story or characters, the trailer succeeds in building investment and resonating. If you do know the story, it just becomes that much more powerful.
From 0:15 to 0:54, we experience the first half of Act I. The trailer builds an emotional investment and a sense of fear and desperation. The trailer does this by showing us the results before the causes. We see a clearly evil dragon (Nicol Bolas) reigning supreme, a warrior (Gideon) being bludgeoned by evil armored things (Eternals), innocent bystanders murdered, and a dude (Dack Fayden) getting his soul (spark) stolen. Whether you know the story or not, the takeaway is very much the same: the music and the scenery lead us to feel that we are very much in the end of this conflict, and the bad guys have won. Knowing the story only furthers investment.
From 0:54 to 1:35, we experience the second half of Act I. This is where we connect with Liliana as the main character of this story, and we approach the point where Liliana is going to have to confront a difficult choice. We empathize with her because the focus is entirely on Liliana’s reaction to seeing a woman and her younger brother or son being killed as an unintended consequence of Liliana’s actions. This is the audience’s first hint that Liliana, the apparent cause of this death and destruction, is having second thoughts. We can’t help but to root for her to change her mind, to make the right decision. People love redemption arcs, and the first half of the trailer sets up exactly that.
Of course, if you know the Magic story, the bystanders’ death is even more powerful, as the woman strongly resembles a younger Liliana, and the young boy calls up memories of Josu, Liliana’s brother. Liliana went to desperate lengths to save Josu, failed, and blamed herself. Here, again, she is seeing her actions result in the death of an innocent young boy despite the caretaker’s attempts to save him. The lingering shot on Liliana’s face is incredibly powerful; we see the horror and confusion in her face as she comes to recognize that she actually feels guilty for doing this, that perhaps she’s finally found a price that she’s not willing to pay.
Then, we enter Act II; the slow-motion reverse-order stops, and we go full-speed forward. Viewers have formed an emotional connection with Liliana, as they are invested in seeing her do the right thing. This could mean changing what happens in the reversal or making a decision that will redeem her after the reversal began. We see Liliana charge forward with grim determination, setting the soldiers on Gideon. There is no enthusiasm to what she is doing; the audience has hope for her. Then, Bolas gestures toward the fallen family. Whether or not you know the story, it’s clear that the big evil dragon wants her to, in some way, use the fallen family.
Here, we approach the end of Act II as Liliana is faced with a decision. We see the disgust on her face as she looks down at her hand. The family has died by her hand already, which she was unhappy about, and now she’s being asked to reanimate them as undead slaves; will she do it? For those who know the story, we see her raise her hand in preparation for the use of her Magic, which is also the same pose she made when she made her Oath to the Gatewatch.
From the moment that she experiences the sick dualism of her raised hand, we see her experience a range of emotions very rapidly as we transition into Act III. First, Liliana is sad and defeated. She realizes that she can’t do what Bolas asked her to. She’s in an impossible position, for defying Bolas would mean death. But then, it goes beyond that; as a Black-aligned character, Liliana prizes independence. We also know that Liliana is terrified of death, and has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that she will not die. This has always been the tension in her character; she has exchanged her freedom for immortality, reasoning that she can earn her freedom later, after murdering all the demons with which she made deals. Bolas’s power over her, however, presents a dichotomy; she cannot have both. She either continues to live and serve Bolas, or she turns against him and dies.
We finally see her rage bubble over, not just at Bolas usurping her will, but at him causing families the kind of pain that led to her becoming what she is today. She snaps, and she turns the Eternals against Bolas. In the ultimate act of defiance, we watch as Bolas begins to kill Liliana. We see her literally disintegrate as she remains committed to her choice: finally, after years of Magic story, Liliana is willing to face her greatest fear, death, for what she believes in.
This trailer worked, fundamentally, because it was a story about character. It didn’t matter whether or not you knew the larger Magic story; we first got invested in the character, then the character was faced with a difficult choice, then the character made the impossible choice to sacrifice herself for the greater good. The trailer didn’t go out of the way to try to explain planeswalkers or the colors of Magic or why the War was happening or that Gideon probably whipped his sural. It was a human story about people, about someone who seemed to be lost redeeming herself by paying the ultimate price.
The War of the Spark trailer is powerful because it is well-structured and emotionally resonant. It is hard to imagine a better Magic: the Gathering trailer. This kind of humanity in the fantastic, in the idea of people making hard decisions in hard circumstances, should be at the heart of any adaptation of Magic to bigger screens.
Throne of Eldraine
9.3M Views, 48K Likes, 2.1K Dislikes
The Throne of Eldraine trailer has a very different feel from the War of the Spark trailer because it is a completely different genre. Whereas War of the Spark was a fantasy-drama, Throne of Eldraine is a fairy tale-romance.
The genre is established immediately; we see a book of fairy tales, castles, knights, poison apples, golden eggs, and even the three pigs dead and ready to eat all in the first thirty seconds. Then, we get introduced to our main characters, a couple of gingerbread people who are literally stuck together at the hand.
Once again, Wizards did a fantastic job with the trailer because they told a character-driven story. Couple meets under goofy circumstances (gingerbread people baked together!), couple chooses to be together anyway (they join their free hands), couple overcomes hardships, (avalanche of falling dinner plates!), couple dies for each other, survivor avenges the other (fork in Garruk’s eye). The stories of WAR and ELD are simple; they require no knowledge of Magic: the Gathering to enjoy. The universal ideas of redemption for WAR and love for ELD are perfect, simple ideas for short trailers. Each trailer is well-structured with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and both establish the setting that players can expect of the new set.
Theros: Beyond Death
8.9M Views, 19K Likes, 447 Dislikes
After fantasy-drama with WAR and fairy tale-romance with ELD, WotC switches genres again to fantasy-horror with Theros: Beyond Death.
The trailer opens with legions of Returned wearing their masks lumbering through some sort of magical veil. It’s unclear where this takes them or why they’re doing it, but we can guess that perhaps they’re returning from the Underworld to Theros proper. We see Elspeth among them, and she removes her mask. She looks at the giant magical wall and seems reluctant to cross it, unsure of what she’s even doing.
Elspeth then spots a young girl, who stands out among the adults, who all seem to be men. The girl is wearing a gold wristband with two glowing blue gems that match Elspeth’s mask. Perhaps this is Elspeth as a young girl? Elspeth investigates, dashing over to her with urgency, trying to reach her before she touches the veil. Again, the reasoning here is not clear, but when the girl turns around, her face is unmasked, instead a horrific skull of dark flesh and criss-crossed scratches. We spot Ashiok behind her, and then Elspeth’s ankles are grabbed by zombie hands, and she is dragged underwater. She fights desperately to escape and swim back to the surface, where Ashiok and the nightmare girl stare down at her, but fails and is drowned. Except… after that she explodes with energy, looking like she is sparking again? We then see the tagline of THB, which is “Escape Your Fate.”
While the THB trailer received a similar number of views as the ELD trailer, it received far fewer engagements in the form of Likes and Dislikes. When I watched it, I certainly didn’t experience the kind of emotional investment in Elspeth that I experienced in Liliana and the Gingercouple. Why?
First, I will compliment the trailer on the visuals. They are eerie, creepy, and appropriate for horror. Unfortunately, that’s where the compliments end.
Even as someone who knows the story of Elspeth, I don’t understand what is happening in the trailer. The story is unclear, Elspeth’s motivations are unclear, the significance of the girl is unclear, Ashiok’s role (especially to people unfamiliar with the Magic story) is unclear, and even the setting is unclear. Why is everyone walking toward the magical veil thing? We might be able to surmise that Ashiok is raising some sort of army, but in fact, Ashiok plays almost no role in the actual THB story.
While the structure is lacking, leading to a confused and unclear narrative, the absence of emotional investment is the real problem. I might be able to accept that there’s a lot going on that I don’t understand if I felt like Elspeth was feeling the same way. But throughout the trailer, we’re not given any reason to support or empathize with Elspeth. All we know is that she sees a girl and then gets drowned.
This begs the question: how should the THB trailer have been done? Let’s assume Wizards wants to keep the tagline “Escape Your Fate” and Elspeth as the central character. When they did WAR, the arc was one of Liliana’s redemption, which has been Liliana’s larger arc for years. What is Elspeth’s larger arc? Perhaps we can turn the THB trailer into a microcosm of that.
Incredibly, Elspeth’s arc really has been well-summarized by “Escape Your Fate.” Her story is the story of a woman who keeps fighting back despite loss after loss after loss. Magic players might appreciate the specifics of her story, but non-Magic players won’t need to know the difference between Phyrexia/Bant/Urborg/etc. My version of the trailer would show Elspeth’s environment changing around her as she goes from plane to plane, losing fight after fight, but always getting back up to fight again.
(30 seconds) We would open on Elspeth’s home plane (which was compleated by Phyrexians). The background is a world ravaged by Phyrexia, but the focus is on Elspeth fighting to protect her family, the last piece of her ruined home world that she can save, but when a Phyrexian attacks her, she sparks and accidentally planeswalks away, leaving her family to die.
(40 seconds) We see her on Bant, broken, but committed to protecting others from the fate her family experienced. She wears the armor of a Bant Knight. She fights off Grixis and Esper invaders during the Conflux War, but after using her full powers to decimate an enemy, we see her tossing her armor aside; she feels she’s betrayed Bant. She doesn’t belong. She planeswalks away.
(30 seconds). She violently defeats challengers in the Arena on Urborg. Ajani stops her from killing one of them and tries to bring her back to Bant, but she refuses. He leaves her with her armor from Bant, and we see Elspeth’s tears. This brings a newfound determination to Elspeth.
(30 seconds) We see her on Mirrodin/New Phyrexia battling Phyrexians again, joined by Koth. She slaughters armies of Phyrexians, but her allies fall around her. Soon, she and Koth are alone, fighting against an army in a world that bears a striking resemblance to Elspeth’s compleated home world. Koth urges her to retreat, and seeing no other path, she does.
(40 seconds) Finally, we see her on Theros, vanquishing Xenagos and then betrayed by Heliod and cast into the underworld. We see Ashiok tormenting her in nightmares, but Elspeth gets fed up and fights back, grabbing the Shadowspear, a dark replica of the one Heliod killed her with. She looks to one of the rifts that have opened from the Underworld into Theros, and she grips the Shadowspear, stepping through. The message is clear: I’m not done yet.
Each scene is characterized by Elspeth being defeated, and escaping, and then continuing to fight on in the next scene. With about thirty seconds per scene, we’d have a trailer on par with the length of the previous ones. The repetition gives the audience a sense of just how resilient this woman is, how hard she’s fought despite all odds, and the degree to which she suffers from survivor’s guilt as all those around her fall. Elspeth has escaped her fate many times, and my trailer would show that while building an emotional investment in the Elspeth character.
Ikora: Lair of Behemoths
29M Views, 15K Likes, 4.6K Dislikes
The Ikoria trailer is by far the worst of the four trailers that Wizards has developed. It has 29M views, which is approximately the same number as all three of the other trailers combined, but has fewer Likes than any of the others individually. It also has by far the worst Like to Dislike Ratio (3.26). Compare that to WAR (54.3), ELD (22.85), and THB (42.5). It is an entire order of magnitude worse. What makes the Ikoria trailer so bad?
The Ikoria trailer is bad because it has no characters in it. You might say, “Wait a minute! Vivien is a character in it!” But… that’s a bit of a stretch. Vivien is presented as a spunky Pokémon trainer who sends out the monsters she’s captured to fight others. Most of her screentime is her firing monster-arrows at the other monster so that her monsters can fight. Almost the entire trailer is fighting between monsters.
I get it; Ikoria is Kaiju World. Monsters fighting is cool. But the thing that made the WAR and ELD trailers so successful was that they told stories about characters. Based on the trailer, I have no emotional investment in Vivien. If she were eaten at the end, the audience would not feel sad, and at the bare minimum, if your audience doesn’t even care whether or not your main character lives, then you have a problem with your main character or your storytelling.
Perhaps, one might argue, the main character is the monster that Vivien sends to fight the other monster. It’s true that I felt some emotional investment in that monster because it was presented as the “good guy” fighting the “bad guy.” If that monster had died, I probably would’ve felt a twinge of disappointment. But the fact that I could write paragraphs describing Liliana’s character journey in the WAR trailer, and the only thing I can write about the monster is that it’s the “good guy,” would seem to suggest that this monster is also a pretty poor candidate for a lead character.
The Ikoria trailer communicates that the world is about monsters and fighting monsters. The tagline, “There’s Always a Bigger Monster,” hammers that point home. But the stakes feel low; the music choice is silly and lends a spunky, no-real-danger atmosphere to the story, and there are no characters whose outcomes we care about.
So how could we have built an Ikoria trailer that succeeded? One of the things that stands out the most about Ikoria, that sets it apart from other planes, is the bond that humans can form with monster companions. I’m actually somewhat surprised that this wasn’t used for the trailer, considering that it lends itself to a story so well that they put it into the cards.
Simply put, this should’ve been the trailer. There’s a clear three-act story right here; monster and human meet and bond, despite society frowning on their particular bond; monster gets captured and is in danger, and human fights tooth and nail to save him, perhaps sacrificing some part of himself, and then the monster can save the human as well from something else; monster and human are reunited, living happily to their old age where we close on human’s child and monster’s child playing together on the floor or something. A simple story about a relationship where each partner is totally committed and willing to do whatever it takes to protect the other and preserve the relationship.
In closing, it was the emphasis on character-driven story that set the WAR and ELD trailers apart from the others. I hope that WotC recognizes and emphasizes this in future trailers as well.
Ryan Normandin is a grinder from Boston who has lost at the Pro Tour, in GP & SCG Top 8's, and to 7-year-olds at FNM. Despite being described as "not funny" by his best friend and "the worst Magic player ever" by Twitch chat, he cheerfully decided to blend his lack of talents together to write funny articles about Magic.
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