Wizards’ Head of Story and Entertainment Discusses Lore, Inclusion in ‘Magic’ Universe at SDCC

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Nic Kelman, Wizards’ Head of Story and Entertainment, and Executive Producer on the new Magic Netflix Series

During SDCC, I braved the crowds surrounding the Magic: The Gathering booth to chat with Wizards of the Coast’s Head of Story and Entertainment and Executive Producer of the new Magic: The Gathering Netflix series, Nic Kelman, to discuss how Wizards develops story for the series, as well as how they’re ensuring everyone can see themselves in a game of Magic.

Sean
So we’re here to talk about Magic: The Gathering, and just in case a reader hasn’t interacted with it before, can you just say what is Magic?

Nic
Magic: The Gathering is a 25-year-old trading card game, and it has more than 38 million players to date worldwide.

Sean
When I think of Magic, I normally think of, as you said, the card game. And while I also think of the amazing art on all the cards, I don’t normally think of lore and story beyond just the color text.

But you have built a lot of lore over the years through books, through stories, through the material online, so can you tell us a little bit about that history of telling stories within the Magic universe? How do you go from the text on the cards to these full-length novels and the new show?

Nicol Bolas, God-Pharoah by Raymond Swanland

Nic
Well, the card game is where it began, but these days, we just had a new novel that debuted at number five on the New York Times best seller list. We have web fiction. We have a digital version of the game called Magic: The Gathering Arena, which is in beta right now, and obviously toys and all kinds of other things. But one of the things that Magic is really famous for is the art on the cards. You see the art in other places, and it always feels like there’s a very, very rich universe behind it. That’s because there is.

The process that goes into creating the worlds and the characters that are a part of Magic is enormously deep and complex, and we really build these worlds out, in terms of their history and their culture and how they function. Then, all that gets boiled down into those pieces of art, but you still feel that when you look at them.

It’s a long answer to your question, but really what that means is that then it’s very easy to take all of that material that’s already been created and have authors turn that into fantastic stories. Over the years, there have been dozens of novels. There have been thousands and thousands of pages of web fiction written, which we’re continuing to do, and recently we brought on some really fantastic fantasy authors to do that for us. We have a comic book series that just came out from IDW relatively recently that’s been critically acclaimed.

Sean
So, even before you did the novels, before you had the web fiction, if I looked at a card from 2003, you would have been able to say, “Oh, before we even design the art, we had a full story for this character, or we had like at least an idea of what we wanted before we even set the art up.” A story has always driven the art?

Nic
Yeah, absolutely. 100%.

Sean
Given that there have been so many people working on Magic over the years, what is it like to build in an existing framework? Is it easier as a creator? Is it harder as you’ve moved to the Netflix series?

Nic
Well, I certainly don’t want to answer for all artists or all writers, but I used to be a screenwriter, and certainly with most of the writers that I know, I feel like there’s a little bit of a myth that artists create things completely out of nothing from the ether, but in my experience, all the artists and writers that I know personally like to have something as a prompt just to start things flowing. So, in my personal opinion, it is much easier for somebody to build off existing things and take those building blocks, take those toys and start to play with them than to have to invent everything from nothing. I think the simple answer is it is easier, and I think more fun for a lot of people.

Sean
Going from that then to the new Netflix series, what can we expect from the Netflix series? As we’ve said, Magic has a long history of lore. Can you just walk us through what we should expect?

Nic
I can’t really say anything new about it, but, it is going to involve Planeswalkers. It’s going to involve our planes. It’s going to be true to both the reputation that Magic has for amazing fantasy art, and it’s going to be true to those characters and planes that people already know and love.

Sean
Magic in my mind is high fantasy, and despite high fantasy being fantastic, you often don’t actually see that much variation of characters and that much diversity. But Magic is impressive in that it’s very much pushed forward on including diverse characters—

Nic
When you said that, I first thought you were talking about Magic, and I was like, really?

Sean
No. Actually, your former Director of Communications Hugh McMullen, had that wonderful comment, that you want to make sure that everyone can be seen in a game of Magic.

Nic
That’s absolutely right. Our goal is always to be as absolutely inclusive as possible, and that quote is—that’s exactly right. We want to make sure everybody sees themselves in the game, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of executing on that inclusivity.

Sean
For me as a gay man to see the Guardians Card, I had this moment of “Wow. Gay people actually exist in the Magic world.” That was an amazing moment for me.

Guardians of Meletis by Magali Villeneuve. The card, which debuted in 2013, was the first to reference gay characters in the Magic series.

Nic
Yeah. I’m glad.

Sean
As a creator, since these people aren’t normally seen in stories, what does the process of inclusion look like at Wizards? Once you say, “okay, we want to include a minority character,” do you hire people of color as artists? Do you hire different writers? Do you have sensitivity readers? What does the creation process look like?

Nic
I think the answer is yes to all of those things. It’s a little different depending on whether you’re talking about the art department and the cards or you’re talking about the fiction and the backstory. But those are subtle differences about what happens when, but yeah, all those things you just listed are things that we do.

Sean
So, just to confirm, there are people of color working on characters of color. Because that’s an error some companies make.

Nic
Absolutely. And we have hired sensitivity consultants, and we make sure we get wide internal readership for things that may be more sensitive.

It’s a big deal for Wizards. It really is. It’s something that’s incredibly important to the company, and it’s something that we build into the process from the moment we start talking about a new character or a new story. It happens in that very first conversation.

Sean
Can we expect that that kind of focus on inclusion and everyone will be able to see themselves will carry forward into the show?

Nic
I can’t give any details about the show, but given that it is like a core tenet of Wizards’ philosophy for creating things, you can draw your own conclusions.

Sean
That’s a totally fair answer. My final question was, so many people like me have played the card game but really haven’t figured out where to start in the lore, what books to start with, for example. Could you give people just a couple of suggestions of, “Okay, I play Magic, but I want to read more about the worlds. Where should I start?”

Chandra, Acolyte of Flame by Anna Steinbauer

Nic
That is a good question. I think the Chandra comic book from IDW is a pretty good entry point, which you can buy now. War of the Spark: Ravnica, the novel that Del Rey just put out, is designed to be an entry point, even though it is kind of the conclusion of a longer story.

Actually, a really good place to start is we published some stories by Kate Elliott last year that are about our two most popular dragons and their interaction, and that is actually a really good starting point because [the dragons are] very old, and it covers quite a lot of early story in Magic. You don’t need to know anything that came before, so I think that’s a pretty good place to start reading, too.

I would say the IDW comic, the War of the Spark novel, and the Kate Elliott stories that you can find on the website [are good starting points].

Sean
I think that’s most of the time we have, do you have anything you want to add about working on the product or the Netflix show?

Nic
Obviously we’re incredibly excited about the Netflix series and working with the Russo brothers, and it’s going to be awesome.

Sean
That sounds great. Thank you so much for your time.

Nic
Thank you, Sean.

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