(Spoiler warning: children who love Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny should not read this post. Also those who wish to know absolutely nothing about Action should turn away, as I will be saying the small amount that I am legally able to say on that subject - but you probably know that from the title of this blog post. So mostly I'm just telling the wee ones to go away before I crush their innocence between the rocks of reason and disillusionment.)
For some time now, I have been concealing a secret which has been fraying at the edges of my sanity. Mark Rosewater has spoken many times about how one of the hardest parts of his job is having to keep his trap shut about something that he's bursting at the seams to babble about, and I can now corroborate his statements. We geeks/nerds/hobbyists/whatever are defined by our passionate love of particular topics of interest; when some awesome idea is burning a hole in our mind, having to shield the light of our excitement from others is definitely a bummer. That is why I am immensely glad that, as of yesterday, the company has finally let the cat out of the bag.
On February 14th, 2011, Monty Ashley's Magic Arcana post openly admits for the first time that the question of who wins the war between Mirrodin and Phyrexia has already been decided. This isn't truly news, as anyone who reads Rosewater's column will note that he has made no secret of the fact that Magic sets are created well in advance of their publishing. (For a specific proof, consult the 09/27/10 column "State of Design 2010", in which he points out that he began designing Scars of Mirrodin a year earlier.) It takes time to run a set through all the stages of the creation process - weeks of design, months of development, weeks or months of creative work, followed by shipping the order off to printing companies to have the physical cards made, then packaged, and then distributed - a year sounds about right for the whole shebang, though I don't know exactly how long each segment takes. (I'm guessing on development being the longest phase, just because it seems likely that they do the most "grinding" in order to gauge things like limited balance and Standard metagame.) So in truth, it becomes inevitable that at least the initial concept push for "Action," which establishes the look of the set and thus can hardly be done based on an unawareness of the set's very nature, had to have been done before Scars of Mirrodin ever released.
Why, then, did the company decieve the public by pretending that there was some sort of uncertainty? Why encourage players to pick a side knowing that half of them would be disappointed? The answer can be compared to why parents lie to their children about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, or why religion tells stories of God and the afterlive which, if not lies, are at least not provable facts. Life sucks sometimes, and in order to keep your spirits up, it can help to be told pleasant stories, things that help you view your world in a positive light. Long after learning that Santa Claus doesn't actually bring them presents, children and the adults they grow into may smile at the knowledge of how happy they were when they did believe. There's a comfort in being able to accept notions which become obviously preposterous when analyzed with logic. So even though anyone who reads Making Magic, and therefore knows that Magic sets take somewhere around a year to make it from the first design meeting to the shelves of your FLGS, can logically realize that there's no feasible way they could have paid to produce two sets and only published one, they can still enjoy the illusion that two possible outcomes to the war exist. They get to indulge for a few months in the fantasy that they are fighting for their chosen side, enjoy the uncertainty of not knowing how the story ends, and treasure later the memories of that wide-eyed belief in the possibility that the outcome they preferred would be proven true, even if that's not actually how it happened. Much of the product that Wizards creates is surprise, excitement, suspense; they kept this secret in order to entertain their audience, and those who are disappointed by the outcome would be wise to remember that they could only be crestfallen after their excitement had been built to a peak. Treasure the joys of the experience, I say; don't focus on a negative outcome, but rather be glad of the good times you did have.
(And on a purely speculative basis, Wizards did pay to copyright/patent/trademark/whatever both of these set names, and create a logo and everything; they paid money for those privileges and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if they still plan on getting the other name used in some future set. I could imagine that if Mirrodin Pure doesn't come out in a few months, there might someday yet be a third block set on Mirrodin which could use that name, maybe some time in the past before even the rise of Memnarch, when it was still a "Pure" metal plane. Whereas if New Phyrexia is the name that doesn't take the place of Action, it could easily be reused for any other plane where Phyresis took root.)
With all of that out of the way, the announcement that I have been waiting for an unspecific length of time, which felt longer, to make. I WAS ON THE CREATIVE WRITING TEAM FOR "ACTION!" After all these years of loving the game, I finally got to help make it, and that feels amazing. Which also means I know which side wins, though I won't spoil the surprise for the rest of you; you get to spend a few more weeks wondering, savoring the joy of seeing two possible futures, not having to stamp one with the condemnational label of "false" just quite yet. Wotco does have to make its money, and generating excitement in order to fuel sales is part of how they do business - but it's also them being gamer geeks like us who enjoy getting wrapped up in a thrilling, suspenseful story.
I signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement as all contractors for Wizards must, but the possibility I'd be sued for giving away company secrets is not my only reason for honoring that NDA, or I wouldn't have signed it in the first place. If I really couldn't stand the thought of keeping a secret as I have done, I would not have subjected myself to the temptation; instead, what I have done is act in accordance with my own beliefs, my own love of the game, which includes my joy in the very uncertainty which I surrendered by peeking behind the curtain and flipping a few switches. Wizards keeps secrets in order to entertain their audience, the way a modeling agency refrains from displaying pictures of their starlets without makeup or retouching, to further the pleasant illusion that purchasers of the product are interested in. Some information is classified, while other facts are allowed to exist but attention is not drawn to them; in both cases, the intent may be partially mercenary but is also sufficiently idealistic that I, the most starry-eyed unrealist you could ever hope to run into, have no qualms going along with it. They cultivate a vagueness about their exact timetable for the same reason the supermodels don't discuss their medical histories or questionable personal habits - the beautiful facade conceals ugly bones and organs that might spoil your enjoyment of the beautiful facade, so the secret is kept in order to help you appreciate the very thing that you're here to appreciate. There is some fun to be had learning what's beneath the surface, but there are better ways of getting that fix than to dissect something that was meant to live and breathe, and Magic is just such an organism - its beauty comes from seeing it in motion, and so it must be allowed to preserve the mysteries which breathe life into it.
So, I worked on Action, writing names and flavor text. I helped to create the experience you'll get to enjoy in a few more months, and I hope I have helped to make that experience better. Even if the outcome isn't what you expected or rooted for, I hope you'll take an interest anyway, as I believe (on a purely rational and objective basis, I assure you) that the set is very cool indeed. While I can't exactly compare the experience of working on this set to anything else (and believe me, it was a weird place for me to be, knowing how the war ends without knowing how it began, and then discovering the new beginning to the familiar end while still remaining ignorant of the middle), I do believe that this particular set was just about perfect for me, and would have been regardless of whether it was Mirrodin or Phyrexia which came out on top. Both are fascinating aspects of Magic's mythology, with Mirrodin being my second-favorite plane in the game's history and Phyrexia being the magnificent archnemesis my grognard self has loved to hate since I was a teenager, and my delight in learning about the process of creating Magic's flavor was matched by my fondness for the actual environment I was working in. I had an absolute blast working on Action, and I can hardly believe I got paid to do it, which is exactly the way I've always thought a paycheck ought to make you feel.
But let's get back to the uncertainty thing. Again, I'm going to speculate; I've already exhausted my store of behind-the-scenes-but-not-in-violation-of-my-NDA commentary, so the rest of this is just me letting my imagination run wild as I've always done. When I first learned about the Phyrexian war shtick for this block, having already known the outcome but not exactly what the gimmick was that would lead up to it, my mind went to the game "Legend of the Five Rings", one of the only other TCGs whose age and longevity rivals Magic's own. Part of what has helped L5R retain a cult following in spite of its massively unwieldy gameplay is that its players are given the opportunity to become part of the legend itself - the game's owners have for some time held "Storyline Tournaments" in which the winning player's faction receives some extra goodies in the next upcoming set. L5R players have fought to determine which Clan would bring fort the new Emperor of its setting, whether Good or Evil would triumph in a particular age of the Empire, and similar exciting ideas.
So why doesn't Magic do this? My guess is that the answer is they're thinking about it. I theorize that Mirrodin Besieged was a test-market for the idea of audience participation, not just through the creation of a card or a deck, but of an entire expansion. They couldn't do it now without a substantial risk of capital - had the players hated the whole idea and refused to buy the set, losses would have been catastrophic and responsible parties would have suffered for pushing such a radical idea without proof to back it up. The marketing blitz we are seeing these days could well be an attempt to procure that proof. If the Brand department is sufficiently satisfied with the excitement Magic's players have/do/will display/ed during the Besieged season, if they are confident that the audience wants a Storyline Tournament badly enough for it to be a good investment, then we might just see something of the sort in a future product. It's the sort of thing I would absolutely love to see them do, and I have a vague suspicion that feeling is shared by many of the people who work in the Wotco offices. Perhaps it remains a pipe-dream for now; perhaps the idea will be scrapped and will never occur at all. But maybe, just maybe, you could get to decide the outcome of the next war against Phyrexia, the Eldrazi, or some other threat to the whole multiverse. That thought should excite you, even if it never proves to be true. Treasure that excitement, and hope for the best. You never know what the future might hold - which is exactly the point of keeping it secret.