OVERVIEW OF THE OTARIA SAGA
When I was done with the Weatherlight Saga I did an overview article where I asked questions like whether the saga as a whole worked as a story, and how its continuity held up. For the Otaria Saga I think we can be a bit shorter on that front. Did it work as an ongoing story? Yes. In fact, it only works as an ongoing story, as the books all continue on directly from one another. Is it any good? Nope, the second half is very bad, which kinda ruins the first half for me as well.
So instead this article will cover the main question that this whole saga raises: how did this happen? How could the quality drop so low? Now, as far as I know no one involved in the creation of the saga ever came out to outright tell us what went wrong, but if we take a look at the various sources we do have and compare the Otaria era with other periods in Magic's history, we can can make some educated guesses.
First I would like to go back to that Weatherlight overview article and compare the Otaria Saga to its predecessor. Because back then I also brought up a bunch of continuity issues (Ramos's origin story, the portrayal of Tolaria, Gix being Thran or not...) and mentioned a few lackluster installments (Prophecy...). Why don't issues like that ruin the Weatherlight Saga the way they do the Otaria Saga?
Well, in part it is because of the difference in structure between the two sagas. The Otaria one is one continuing story, with each book following directly from the next. Its predecessor is much more divided. It is a collection of mostly stand-alone books that come together in a larger story. This makes it much easier for me to judge the novels on individual merit. I've never let the existence of Prophecy dampen my opinion of The Brothers' War, as those are clearly individual stories. When I read Chainer's Torment however, I have to deal with parts of it being weirdly choppy because Kamahl and Laquatus have to go off to star in Odyssey instead, and with a central mystery surrounding the Mirari that I know will be resolved in the stupidest way possible.
This structure also means that continuity issues are much more tied to the quality of the story for me. Here's a shocker: if I'm 100% honest, if we discount Scourge the continuity is really not that much worse than that of the Weatherlight Saga. It's just far more obvious and obstructive. When Planeswalker revealed Gix was once one of the Thran, that contradicted him not knowing what the Thran were in The Brothers' War, but the problem stems from a throwaway line in the middle of the book. Even with a massive error like the origin of Ramos, the simple fact that there is a 4000 year gap between The Brothers' War and Mercadian Masques gives us some wiggle room to come up with our own fan theories to fix things. Yes it is annoying to those paying attention to the continuity, but even I find it fairly easy to shove the continuity issues in a separate part of my posts from the actual review. With the Otaria Saga though... when the ending of one book simply doesn't match the beginning of the next despite those two supposedly having to flow directly into one another, and when even the spelling of some main characters' names gets changed between books... at that point I feel I have to start detracting points.
So... doing an ongoing story where each story is really just one chapter of a larger plot is just harder to do than a story with a looses structure. It's a lesson Wizards' had to relearn just this year when it turned out Jace's appearance in Dominaria didn't match up with the ending of Ixalan. Suddenly complaints about continuity errors are not just coming from the extremely focused timeline weirdos, but also from the people who just want to follow the story to see where the characters are going next.
Having said all that... the Otaria Saga is also just worse in all these respects than the Weatherlight Saga. Scourge's wrecking ball approach to continuity is far worse than any continuity issue we've seen since the pre-revisionist days, and things like the bizarre ending to the Mirari plot or the inclusion of Sash and Waistcoat have nothing to do with the structure of the saga. Say what you want about the ending of the Weatherlight Saga (and I have), but at least it began with the Weatherlight crew heading out to gather the Legacy to defeat the Lord of the Wastes, and it ended with the Weatherlight crew using the Legacy to kill Yawgmoth, after he was revealed to be that Lord! It didn't shove everything it was doing aside in its second-to-last book to talk about resurrected wizards, only to shove those aside to talk about a false god in the last book!
It's tempting to just blame it all on J. Robert King. He did write Legions and Scourge after all. But we know from Time Streams, The Thran and Born to Greatness that he can write much better than this. So maybe he just needs a better editor to keep him in line? But that leaves us with the same problem, as editor Jess Lebow and the other members of the continuity department have also all produced much better works than this. So did the entire company just have an off-day? Well, that would have to be about an entire year of off-days, which seems unlikely, to say the least. No, it seems that there was more going on, some kind of structural problem.
Here we return to those few tantalizing glimpses behind the curtain that have come out over the years. Clayton Emery's experience of working on Legends I which suggests the book department was commissioning books the pr department then refused to promote. The confusing and contradictory statements on when it was decided Odyssey would have no elves, merfolks and goblins that nonetheless make clear that communication between the continuity department and the card makers was fairly sporadic. The fact that MaRo had to do all the flavor text for Odyssey because the entire creative department had been fired. Clearly something was going on behind the scenes.
If that "something" happened right at the start of the Otaria Saga though, I'm going to have to disappoint you: I don't really know what it could be. We just don't have enough information. If we knew why the creative team had to go, that could perhaps explain things, but with what we know now, I don't see any clear breakpoint at the start of the Otaria Saga.
But perhaps it is a bit unfair to compare the Otaria era and the Weatherlight era (and the following Planeshopping era) as separate wholes. The two blocks we are covering here came out at what seemed to be the absolute nadir of WotC caring about the storyline, but that trend wasn't unique to this period. It started much somewhere during the Weatherlight Saga, and would not recover until well into the Planeshopping era (It could even be argued that we didn't return to Weatherlight-era levels until the Gatewatch came around, but that is a discussion for another time.)
We should remember that way back in The Duelist #33, which came out when Urza's Saga was current, we got our first admission that the Weatherlight crew had hogged the spotlight too much and that WotC was going to showcase less of the story in the cards. And Nemesis and Invasion already had spelling inconsistencies in the names of characters between book and cards. Minor issues on their own, but in light of what came later it is tempting to see this as the precursors of Odyssey block's naming inconsistencies and the complete card/story split in Onslaught block. Especially since Rei Nakazawa cited the spotlight-hogging nature of the Weatherlight crew as a reason for this new creative direction.
So I do think this larger conjuncture of declining quality set in during the Weatherlight Saga, although I can't quite figure out what was cause and what was effect. Were things already bad but was this hidden from us simply because we tend to think of the Weatherlight Saga as one concrete whole and the Otaria Saga as another? Had people at WotC wanted to ditch the original creative direction sooner, but were they unable to do so until the Weatherlight Saga had wrapped up? We also shouldn't forget that the middle parts of the Weatherlight Saga came out during the combo winter and the following exodus of players during Masques block, the time Magic came the closest to dying. I imagine that after R&D had been chewed out over that all available resources were being poured into reviving the cardgame, rather than into the storyline.
Unfortunately I really can't get any more specific than this, but at the very least I can say that I believe that the Otaria Saga's issues stemmed from something deeper than just a bad writer, and that the genesis of those issues probably lies a few years before, at some point during the Weatherlight Saga. Whether we should see them as a reflexive rejection of the Weatherlight creative direction or a more calculated approach, or if they were merely a side-effect of the troubles the cardgame itself was in... perhaps we'll never know.
One final thing I want to look at is that there is still a huuuuuge drop-off in quality at the very end of the Otaria Saga. Again, it would be tempting to just blame this on J. Robert King, but perhaps there was a little more to this as well.
Let's not forget that with that lead-in times Magic sets have, WotC was probably already working on Mirrodin while the set Scourge was being developed and the book Scourge was being written. This is pretty much confirmed by the fact that Argentum was included in Scourge's plot. This is significant, as Mirrodin was a huge change in how the creative team worked. The shift to much more extensive world building probably meant a huge increase in workload for them. Could it be that this took resources away from the finishing up of the Otaria Saga? Was this why J. Robert King was allowed to just do anything, without much apparent proof-reading or an attempt to match what was going on in the card sets?
If we do some comparative history it does seem to be the case that the flavor and story side of Magic suffers a... let's call it a hiccup, every time the workload of the creative team increases. At the shift from the pre-rev era to the Weatherlight Saga, when we went from third party to in-house publishing, Mirage's story never got a proper publication and there were a bunch of continuity issues as WotC was still finding its feet publishing-wise (Compare Maelstrom and Torrent with Rath and Storm for example). During the shift from the Otaria Saga to the planeshopping era tall sets did get books, but the secondary trilogies (Ice Age, Legends) and the anthology line were cancelled, and the quality... well, you've read the reviews. We see echo's of both those shifts around the start of the "Fifth Age of Design", when theme and flavor became more important to the creation of the card sets. Sets without a story? Yeah, poor old top-down Innistrad had to make do with just two summary articles. Continuity issues? Test of Metal says hello. Low quality of writing? Haven't heard many good things about Quest for Karn lately. And cancelled book lines? Yeah. There hasn't been one published since!
If we take all these possible explanations together we seem to get a perfect storm of troubles. At a time when interest and resources for the storyline were already at a low point within WotC, the creative team launched a story that was more integrated, and thus harder to make, than what they had done before. The entire second half of the story was then given to a writer who clearly needed a stern editor to keep him in line, only for the creative team's attention to be stolen away by the cardgame itself, as it embarked on an exciting new era that required more intensive worldbuiling.
Probably. Possibly. Maybe. I will finish up by reiterating that this is educated guesswork on my part. But if even just half of this turns out to be half-true, it still looks like the cards where very much stacked against the Otaria Saga. It is hard to imagine an alternative universe in which things did turn out okay for this period of the storyline.
Phew! Finally! I´ve made it through to the end of the Otaria Saga! It was actually kind of fun to relive this utterly bizarre period of the storyline, though I did find it difficult to put my opinions and impressions into words at times. I hope I did well enough for your liking!
So what is next? Well eventually I will have to do Moons of Mirrodin, the start of the planeshopping era in which the storyline will ever so slowly start crawling out of the hole it ended up in with Scourge. But that will not be for a while, as there is a bunch of stuff I need to cover first. For starters there are the last supplemental publications of the Otaria era, the Legends II cycle and The Monsters of Magic, the final anthology. Then there is a bunch of random stuff I've been putting off in favor of covering the main books for ages now. Portal: Second Age for example, and figuring out the exact Mirage timeline. And finally there has been a whole lot of interesting new stuff released recently. My most read article by far is A Historian's Guide to Elder Dragons and after both Dominaria and the Core 2019 had some great revelations about Nicol Bolas and his family that article really needs a sequel!
Because I'm such a sensible, structured worker, I already have a bunch of notes and half-finished articles on each of these topics, but I guess now that the Otaria Saga is done I should start figuring out which I will actually finish up first. So, eh... watch this space, I guess. No idea what is coming up next, but I know it will be fun!