Heading up to the release of War of the Spark: Ravnica, expectations from Magic: The Gathering (MTG) players ran high. Ravnica and its sequel, Forsaken, were touted as MTG’s version of Infinity War and Endgame, a culmination of the years-long Gatewatch saga and the epic conclusion to the dastardly plan of dragon god Nicol Bolas. Although author Greg Weisman had never written an MTG story before, fans were willing to give him a chance.
But when War of the Spark: Ravnica came out, readers were aghast. Weisman’s previous experience was largely in comic books and animated television, which shows in Ravnica’s constant perspective hopping, infuriatingly distant action scenes, and repetitive, by-the-numbers plot structure. Forsaken somehow doubles down even further. At several points Weisman bypasses grammatical convention altogether, leading to whole chapters in italics or all caps or without spaces between words.
Not only that, but the story runs roughshod with MTG source material and disregards anything resembling social justice. In doing so, War of the Spark destroys MTG’s main characters, from making the gorgon queen Vraska fall for easy tricks to reducing Bolas to a cackling, cliché caricature.
1. Jace’s Entitled Behavior Ruins His Romance
Back in the day, Jace Beleren was MTG’s broody boy. He was obsessed with mysteries, trying to figure out every problem the Gatewatch faced and taking their failures personally. He had a slew of formidable telepathic skills, as well as planeswalking, the ability to teleport between MTG planes. He always used these powers to help others. That version of Jace is nowhere to be found in Ravnica. Instead he’s brash and overconfident, charging into battle with scant attention paid to well-thought-out strategy. He objectifies his significant other Vraska and has little respect for her boundaries:
Jace planeswalked back to Ravnica, directly into Vraska’s royal bedchamber. He had been hoping to find her there – and hoping there were things they could do there together… (Forsaken, 118)
Despite Vraska’s status as a guild leader and all of the important responsibilities that entails, Jace is primarily concerned with Vraska’s ability to have sex with him. He expects her to drop everything else for the sake of hanging out a bit longer and pouts relentlessly when she doesn’t. He also thinks his refraining from mind-reading her non-consensually is some big favor he’s doing her, not basic human decency:
He could tell something was on her [Vraska’s] mind, something that troubled her. But she said nothing, and he chose not to pry – physically or otherwise. (Forsaken, 30)
To make matters worse, the moment someone crosses Jace, his qualms about his telepathic powers disappear:
[To Storrev, one of Vraska’s servants:] “Another thing I don’t doubt you’re aware of is my abilities… Tell me where Vraska is, or I’ll take the information from your mind. And it will not be pleasant, I assure you.” (Forsaken, 119)
“I told you we only came to talk. But to be honest, I was kinda hoping you’d pull something like this. Now I really feel no compunction about reading your mind… I don’t like you, either, Exava. And you’re way less fun than you think.” (Forsaken, 204)
The way Jace talks, it seems like he’d never do something like this to Vraska, but the way he jumps at the chance to break into Exava’s brain indicates otherwise. It gives the impression that Jace is only holding off because Vraska’s on his good side. For all we know, if Vraska ever tried to break up with Jace, or even showed a greater preference for her duties in a way that inconvenienced him, Jace would bypass any “compunction” that kept him at bay. Worse, this abusive and coercive behavior isn’t treated as a character flaw, nor would it be interesting if it was. Jace is as villainous as the dragon god Nicol Bolas, but this story is miles away from recognizing it.
2. Vraska Is Robbed of Agency
Even outside of her relationship with Jace, Vraska is consistently demonized for being a gorgon. This isn’t entirely Weisman’s doing, since this prejudice has existed for years in MTG lore, but rather than challenge it, Forsaken drives it home:
Jaya had warned Vraska that there were no gorgons native to Kaladesh, so Vraska was expecting the same kind of response she’d always received on Ravnica. Fear. No one liked to encounter a monster loose in the streets. And Vraska had long ago been trained to regard herself as a monster. The label had defined her for so long, from her earliest childhood memories. (Forsaken, 143)
Ral had done [Vraska] no harm, yet she had been prepared to kill him. Perhaps in self-defense, but more likely because he was a living reminder of her treachery. Or maybe she simply needed to prove to herself that she was truly the monster that her world had always told her she was… There’s no place for a monster like Vraska on Ravnica. (Ravnica, 93)
Weisman could’ve made this work if he treated Vraska’s ingrained prejudices as harmful and centered her arc on overcoming her internalized self-hatred. But not once are Ravnica’s broader societal prejudices questioned. Vraska’s doubts are always presented from her perspective, as though they’re natural, not shaped by decades of resentment and discrimination. Her only salvation comes through her relationship with Jace, after which “she suddenly want[s] very much to live” (Ravnica, 294). She can only exist normally in Ravnican society or redeem herself as a character by melting into Jace’s arms. Vraska might turn some Eternals to rock, but she’s the real stone trophy in this book – sitting on Jace’s wall.
3. Kaya Isn’t Allowed to Accomplish Anything
Despite appearing in only two card sets prior to War of the Spark, Kaya the ghost assassin (people hire her to banish ghosts out of the mortal realm) is one of the surprise main characters. This would normally be a great thing, since MTG sorely lacks quality representation for characters of color and women. But the cool, competent, charismatic killer that readers expected is nowhere to be found. Right off the bat the story finds a way to hamstring her:
They exchanged quick anxious glances, then took off at a run.
Immediately Kaya felt winded. Winded and annoyed. I’m in better shape than this. I shouldn’t –
Then she realized. This had nothing to do with her physical conditioning. If she was tired, weak, out of breath, it was because of the magical weight she was carrying… It affected everything she did now, and she was constantly fighting off exhaustion. (Ravnica, 81)
In an earlier MTG story, Kaya banished the ghost leader of one of Ravnica’s guilds, to whom many Ravnicans owed significant debts in the form of mystical contracts. After the leader is gone, all of their contracts transfer to Kaya instead (because this guild has a “survival of the fittest” governmental strategy, I guess). Plot-wise, these contracts are nothing more than a contrivance to make Kaya collapse or faint at pivotal moments. You could replace “contracts” with “the vapors” and it wouldn’t look any different from a book written in the 19th century. Kaya nearly keels over numerous times and has to be physically caught and held up by men (and only men). This happens again when she planeswalks with another person in tow, which just so happens to floor her:
[Abbot Barrez] had arrived on the scene and had with exasperation ordered his charges ‘to help these poor women… Teyo aided the weary Rat, who was considerably shorter than the boy, forcing him to stoop to support a portion of her weight as she gingerly descended. Kaya, who was just behind them and was herself being supported down the stairs by a dwarven acolyte. (Forsaken, 158)
For being a trained assassin, Kaya doesn’t show any skill at killing, or anything else. On the few occasions where Kaya does anything epic under her own power, she’s immediately reprimanded for it, like her efforts to slay necromancer Liliana for supporting Bolas. After the battle of Ravnica ends, Kaya is for some reason overwhelmed:
Numb. She felt numb… Kaya was certain she should feel it more, both the exaltation of triumph and the pain of the losses that earned it… what passed for her emotions seemed –
Shrouded? Is that it? …Maybe the real tears will come later. Catch me unawares and lay me out.
She found herself hoping so. She didn’t like feeling dead inside. (Forsaken, 5)
Kaya has no reason for this emotional isolation. She’s seen hundreds of dead people and literally makes a living off of them. If she was feeling physically exhausted from the hours of fighting she just went through, maybe Forsaken would get a pass here, but it’s not about that. She’s not alone in feeling this way, but only Chandra and Liliana join her:
Honestly, it was a relief [to Chandra that] she could cry. She was actually happy she could cry; the numbness of the night before was gone – at least for the time being. (Forsaken, 85)
[Liliana] remembered being on Ravnica. She remembered whispering, “Kill me now.” She remembered wiping her tears away, tears that in the moment she was grateful to have the capacity to shed. Then she remembered rejecting all those emotions as self-pity. And even now, she pushed them down. (Forsaken, 15)
These quotes are so similar that you might assume they’re from the same person. And in Forsaken, they are – Kaya, Chandra, and Liliana are unworthy of defining traits, just all part of “the womenz.” And speaking of which…
4. Rat Is Little More Than Teyo’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl
The choice of Araithia “Rat” Shokta as a main character in War of the Spark was confusing for a story sold as the end of the Gatewatch saga. Weisman had a lot of work to do for an unknown addition to earn readers’ trust in such a short time span. And what we got was… a magically invisible,* fast-talking kid who’s in way over her head and whose self-destructive tendencies are played for laughs. Her character introduction consists of “adopting” Teyo, the other insufferable newcomer, two minutes after meeting him, and launching page after page of unbroken, repetitive monologuing. Her obnoxiousness is most apparent during her romance with Teyo, during which she throws out thoughts so fast it feels like someone is flipping a switch:
She felt a tremendous urge to wipe that smile off his face. To kiss it off his face. She wondered if he ever felt that urge with her. She thought she’d better punch him again. (Forsaken, 193)
Rat’s only purpose is to give Teyo a love interest. Not only do Teyo and Rat completely lack chemistry, Rat’s character “flaws” are played just to make her more desirable. She giggles incessantly, can’t stop focusing on how “adorable” Teyo is, and has almost Disney-princess-style moments, like convincing a minotaur cyclops to fight Bolas by giving the cyclops a kiss. Even putting aside the fact that Teyo is a legal adult and Rat is sixteen (and mentally about eight), there are egregious instances of older people giving Rat disturbing levels of attention, including the author:
[Rat] stepped into the shower and let the water flow over her face and hair. She closed her eyes and soaked in the sensations… the hot water streaming onto her various muscle groups felt very, very good… suddenly a hand reached in, turned the spigot and shut the water off… Rat peeked out and saw Madam Blaise picking up her pile of clothes and griping.
The fact that the door was wide open wouldn’t have bothered her normally, but Teyo was loose in the suite, so she quickly grabbed the robe, and threw it on soaking wet. Only afterward did she close and lock the door, take the robe off again and towel herself dry. (Forsaken, 39)
An elderly person just barged in on a teenager while she was taking a shower, and all Forsaken cares about is how much Rat is infatuated with and embarrassed by Teyo. However, her romance with Teyo isn’t the most unsettling of Rat’s relationships. Rat is obsessed with Kaya to an unnerving degree considering their age differences (Rat is sixteen, and Kaya is late twenties at the youngest). While it never goes so far as to have Kaya express sexual interest in Rat, Rat refuses to call her by anything but “Mistress.”
MistressKaya’scloakandMistressKaya’sarms…ForRat,thesensationwasbothunpleasantandreassuring…Theunitywasunnerving,enthralling,exciting,terrifying,thrillingandhorrible…They practically threw each other apart, and both wound up on their hands and knees, breathing hard and retching, though neither actually vomited.
Rat tried to stand but found she couldn’t. The journey had drained her completely. Apparently, Mistress Kaya was in a similar state… Kaya’s memories – Mistress Kaya’s memories – were quickly fading, receding from Rat’s consciousness. Perhaps all of her secrets were likewise fading from Rat’s mind… All that proximity, that complete inclusion, that oneness with someone who cared for her, loved her, was being extinguished. (Forsaken, 127-8)
If you’re confused about why Rat is so devoted to Kaya, you’re not alone. Rat hasn’t known Teyo or Kaya for more than two days, and already Forsaken claims that she feels a deep emotional connection to them. Rather than actually establish compelling character dynamics, the story blows past all manner of development in favor of just stating Rat’s affections outright and expecting readers to believe it. Her “Curse of Insignificance” can be magically seen through by Teyo and Kaya for no reason. And in case you thought the creepiness was over, here’s Lazav, head of a shady gang of political assassins, monologuing about Rat:
Lazav had known about Rat for over a decade and a half, since shortly after the girl was born. Right away he had realized that her unique condition would be extremely useful to himself and House Dimir. So unsurprisingly, he had been – and continued to be – determined to exploit it. The girl wasn’t the first child Lazav had “recruited” (or perhaps a better word would be collected); nor would she be the last… Her Curse of Insignificance did not affect him.
Never was Araithia Shokta insignificant to me.
And of course that made things much easier. As time passed and she grew from a baby to a little girl, he would approach her periodically – in one form or another – and have his kind little talks with the girl-who-was-so-grateful-to-be-seen, before using his mental prowess to cause her to forget those chats seconds later… In fact, Lazav had brainwashed the girl into his perfect little secret assassin… But Araithia had been so young when Lazav started working with her – on her. (Forsaken, 370-1)
So, in summary: Lazav psychologically manipulated Rat into becoming a killer, and Lazav specifically values Rat’s youth and magical curse because both make her more useful. If you need an explanation for why kidnapping toddlers and ogling them for years on end is bad, find yourself a different article. Forsaken doesn’t treat it as a good thing, but it’s still an eleventh-hour dramatic reveal with zero setup and negative payoff. At no point does the narrative address the incredibly disturbing implications. All it wants is a villain to do a bad thing and leave it at that.
5. Gideon Gets All the Candy
Gideon Jura wasn’t a complex character in previous MTG stories, but War of the Spark dove even further down that rabbit hole. Gideon is magically invulnerable, physically fit, chosen by the Gatewatch to strike down Bolas, and so charismatic that Ral Zarek fawns over him two minutes after meeting the guy (more on Ral himself later).
Gideon does have moments where he charges into battle without proper planning, but none of them ever cause harm to him or anyone else, and it’s unclear whether he could’ve been harmed in the first place. He gets every important dramatic beat in the fight against Bolas, from leading a squad of angels against Bolas’s undead army to giving the big pump-up speech to stabbing Bolas with a massive sword. Even when he’s struck down and lying on the ground dying, he can’t bear the thought of someone else doing something important:
[Liliana] watched as [Gideon] extended his invulnerability to her, over her.
No, he’s not extending it… he’s gifting it.
She found herself thinking, Stop. You do this, and you’ll take on my burden—without protection. This will kill you. And you don’t have to die. You’re the one person who doesn’t have to die… Liliana glowed with Gideon’s invulnerability – pure white light, which held her together, bound her back together, replenished her and made her whole… Looking back over her shoulder, tears now definitely rolling down her cheeks, she nodded to him. (Ravnica, 321)
Despite having years’ worth of conflicting loyalties over serving Bolas, Liliana isn’t allowed to make the choice to betray Bolas herself. The invulnerability transfer in Ravnica makes it look like Liliana killed Gideon, so the entire next book centers around Kaya’s efforts to kill Liliana. If Gideon hadn’t done anything, Liliana would’ve defeated Bolas and gotten a logical conclusion to her character arc – and not been hunted for murder. The only reason for Gideon to take the fall is so he can steal Liliana’s glory. Even after Liliana has spent the entire length of Forsaken fleeing for the crime Gideon saddled her with, she still layers him with compliments:
“I suppose you could call it hubris. Something Gideon always warned us against. Just another thing about him I didn’t take seriously.” (Forsaken, 323)
The only character flaw that Gideon ever got in previous MTG stories was an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Forsaken not only erases that, but it gives Gideon a massive funeral, makes Liliana obsess over his loss (to the point of hallucinating him in a swamp in order to stop her from dying by suicide), and has three female characters “lovingly wrap” his empty armor in a bunch of leaves and cart it around like a holy relic. Gideon always had more muscles than personality, but in Forsaken, he’s all the former. And he’s not the only over-candied male protagonist.
6. Teyo Is Astounded By Basic Plumbing
Things began poorly for MTG newcomer Teyo Verada, when he and his fellow acolytes stop at a hotel in a big city:
But that wasn’t the real wonder of the place. There were no chamber pots. No latrines. No washbasins that required filling from a jug, which required filling from a pump a hundred yards away. Water was piped right into a small lavatory down the hall for drinking, washing, bathing and, well, waste. And said waste was then piped away somehow to somewhere that wasn’t right outside your window, causing a stink worse than the carry-beast’s gases. And his mind just wouldn’t, couldn’t let it go. (Ravnica, 10)
Touted as MTG’s first Latinx planeswalker, Teyo starts off the story by being obsessed with the concept of plumbing. Not only does it make no sense in a magic adventure story, it plays into harmful stereotypes of people of color being unhygienic and astounded by basic technology. Teyo never manages to rise beyond that stereotype.
Teyo does get some character development later on. He’s inexperienced with planeswalking and his magical shieldmage abilities, so he’s rather nervous when interacting with MTG hotshots like Jace or Gideon. But while Weisman overemphasizes how weak the female characters are, he forgets about Teyo’s nervousness whenever it’s convenient to the plot.
[Teyo] began chanting and formed a largish diamond shield of white light to separate them from their pursuers mere seconds before the crush of Eternals smashed into it. Teyo grunted painfully but maintained the shield, even expanded it into a rectangle that spanned the width of the alleyway so that none of the creatures could slip around it. (Ravnica, 127)
Instead of doing actual work to build his self-confidence, Teyo turns out to be naturally gifted at anything he tries. Forsaken goes so far as to have his mentor retcon his backstory:
“From the time you were four years old – if not before, I didn’t know you before – you could summon up geometry with no lore, no chanting, no training, no orthodoxy whatsoever… Teyo Verada, you have always been a natural shieldmage, a prodigy, a savant.” (Forsaken, 190)
Teyo becomes a baby Gideon: skilled, well-liked, spotlight-stealing, and obsessed over by a female love interest with whom he has no chemistry or history. He’s the voice of reason, power, and humility all at the same time, which gives the other characters very little to do. This turns Forsaken into a boring slog-fest, since nothing in the story presents Teyo with a challenge. He never grows because there’s nowhere for him to grow into.
While Teyo does have flaws, they induce serious mouth-vomit:
At his wit’s end, Teyo stepped into her path, faced her and roughly grabbed her by the arms, shouting, “Listen!” In fact, he was so rough, he hesitated, worried he might have hurt her.
But she seemed pleased by the contact, smiling up at him with her bright eyes. He noticed she had irises of a deep-violet hue. “I talk too much, don’t I?” she said. (Ravnica, 34)
War of the Spark just doesn’t consider nonconsensually grabbing strangers to be a problem. Since, you know, she’s pleased by the contact. And she just talks too much, so she needs someone to manhandle her into shutting up. All this done by the guy who we’re supposed to root for.
7. Ral’s Homosexuality Is Linked to Sexism
While most relationships in War of the Spark range from creepy to abusive, the romance between guildmasters Ral Zarek and Tomik Vrona is remarkably positive. It’s also gay, which is great. They’re perfectly confident in their feelings, have some interesting conflict regarding Ravnican politics, and get one of the book’s few genuinely sweet scenes.
However, Ral doesn’t stay admirable for long. After Bolas is defeated, Ral heads off to defeat one of Bolas’ minions alongside the Wanderer, a planeswalker who wears a mask. As they travel, Ral’s curiosity about the Wanderer grows, until:
“Would you let me see your face?” He hadn’t meant to ask that. He had just blurted it out.
“No,” she said, simply, flatly.
“Why not? Why do you hide it? Why do you go to such extremes to hide it?… I haven’t been this desperate to see a woman’s face in, well, ever. You’ve turned it into a mystery. Mystery creates fascination. I take it that was your intent… Are you that beautiful?”
“I think I was, once.” She sounded wistful.
Again, she paused for quite some time. Eventually, she said, “You understand how intrusive you’re being, don’t you? You think because you have no sexual interest in women, that it gives you the license to speak to us and about us with objectivity. A false objectivity. You say to yourself, It’s not an approach. It’s not a line. It’s not a judgment or evaluation, so what’s the harm? You say to yourself, I’m just a safe haven. A non-threatening vessel into which any woman can spill her secrets. But all you’re really doing is sating your own curiosity at our expense.” (Forsaken, 178-9)
On the surface, the Wanderer’s words are the wisest from any character in either book. Ral has no reason to maintain such an incessant interest in how she presents herself, beauty or no, and he deserves pushback for it, pushback that he and other Forsaken characters have skirted until now. However, the way that the Wanderer focuses on Ral’s homosexuality brings this should-be-cathartic moment crashing down.
Since the one sexist character is gay, it sounds like the Wanderer is linking homosexuality and misogyny. This not only targets an already marginalized group, it lets straight men off the hook. It doesn’t even make sense according to MTG lore, since Ravnican women wouldn’t be subject to this sort of widespread harassment, and Ravnican men, homosexual or otherwise, wouldn’t perpetrate it. But if you thought Forsaken was done screwing up LGBTQ representation, strap in.
8. Nissa and Chandra’s Romance Gets Buried
Of all the Gatewatch subplots set to conclude in War of the Spark, one of the most prominent was the relationship between pyromancer Chandra Nalaar and elemental animist Nissa Revane. As MTG is sorely lacking for LGBTQ representation, fans were eager for the setup of earlier stories like “Homesick” to pay off. This anticipation was spoiled in advance by Wizards of the Coast confirming that Chandra and Nissa’s relationship would end in Forsaken. This announcement greatly lowered fans’ expectations, but the final result was much worse than they feared.
Both characters are written as caricatures of themselves. In previous MTG stories, Nissa was less physically emotive than other Gatewatch members, and Chandra had issues with recklessness and letting her feelings trump logic. In War of the Spark, Nissa might as well be a statue; the only thing she’s allowed to feel is “uncomfortable.” Chandra is petulant and childish, throwing tantrums and “snits” whenever she doesn’t get her way and needing guidance from others to wield her own powers. Her internal dialogue reads like a 13-year-old (when she’s actually 23).
Speaking of treating women badly, remember how Liliana got her epic moment overshadowed by Gideon? She’s not the only one. During the battle, Nissa summons a massive tree elemental to fight Bolas’s Eternals (a genuinely epic feat that earns her almost no credit). But when the Eternals finally overwhelm it:
On the ground, Nissa seemed to feel the blow as if she herself had been struck. She doubled over as Chandra and Gideon both rushed to her side to support her.
The four dead gods quickly surrounded the elemental… Nissa screamed and relinquished her control. The elemental collapsed, inert.
Rather hopelessly, Gideon asked Nissa, “Do you have another one?”
Jace watched her shake her head no and collapse into Gideon’s arms. (Ravnica, 139-40)
As soon as Nissa’s one contribution to the fight is neutralized, all the strength goes out of her body and she faints toward the nearest male character. Clearly her delicate feminine frame just can’t withstand the strain of doing big magic things without a big strong man to support her. Never mind that Nissa is the person who, along with Chandra, incinerated multiple elder gods back on Zendikar, saving the entire plane from one of the greatest existential threats in the Multiverse. But that level of power and companionship between Chandra and Nissa is nowhere to be found.
This mindset rears its ugly head later, when Weisman fulfills his mandate to end Chandra and Nissa’s relationship. Forsaken does this in the worst way possible, not only finishing their connection but rolling it back altogether:
Chandra had never been into girls. Her crushes – and she’d had her fair share – were mostly the brawny (and decidedly male) types like Gids. But there had always been something about Nissa Revane specifically, something the two of them shared in that great chemical mix – arcing between them like one of Ral Zarek’s lightning bolts—that had thrilled her. From the moment they first met.
Now everything’s different.
It was over. Before it had ever had a chance to begin. (Forsaken, 357)
Chandra’s real type, according to Forsaken, is the muscle-bound, personality-less, intelligence-bereft hunk of breathing bicep flesh called Gideon. The only important part about Chandra or Nissa’s characters is their capacity to swoon over him. “Decidedly male” only makes sense in this context if you accept Forsaken’s binary portrayal of gender as physically strong, dominant men and docile, powerless women constantly in need of rescue and help. Effeminate males are too girly and weak, masculine females are too willful, and transgender people don’t seem to exist at all.* This isn’t how you respectfully describe the loving end of a queer romance. By focusing so much on how Chandra just isn’t (and never has been) into girls, this section goes out of its way to retroactively erase as much of the relationship as possible.
Once Chandra’s identity is effectively vaporized, we find out that the major reason for the breakup is that Nissa is too passive to speak her desires aloud. The most charitable interpretation is that Nissa prefers nonverbal communication. The least charitable interpretation is that communication itself is too physically demanding. Meanwhile, Chandra has apparently been so profoundly altered in the last 48 hours that she doesn’t find women attractive anymore – and never really did.
Prejudices run deep, and even stories that tout themselves as progressive can help entrench bigoted views. The War of the Spark novels show how that bigotry can damage beloved protagonists. The characters are defined solely by singular aspects of their identity, never their personalities. Readers don’t have anyone to root for, since everyone is either denigrated or glorified relentlessly, either too flawless to be sympathetic or too bland to be interesting. It’s especially disappointing that a story with so many opportunities for quality representation ended up so horrible. Marginalized readers deserve better.
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