If everything is magical, nothing is
I'm on board with the "a little goes a long way" - I should probably be more broad minded about contemporary fantasy, but I get so tired of magic that does the housework and long for the good old days of magic that exacts its toll in blood. (There's probably a modern trilogy based on that very premise.) Oh well. Great observations, Nathan.
That is a beautiful essay. It's interesting how we change over time. What appealed once doesn't anymore, or we see value in other things. I remember loving Shenmue games as a kid a lot, doing human things was refreshing, but as an adult, it's a lot of walking and getting to your goal. I understand and appreciate it, but it's not so much for me anymore.
I think this problem with magic has a lot to do with the rise of worldbuilding as a literary form in its own right. I wrote about this last year (https://gmbaker.substack.com/p/the-rise-of-worldbuilding-and-the) and if my views on this have changed since it is simply to recognize that if people like worldbuilding as an artform, more power to them.
Worldbuilding is, of course, an element of storytelling. Worldbuilding is essential to story in that it fixes the limits of action for the characters and often provides the locus of love that motivates them, as, for example, the Shire is the locus of love for Frodo in LOTR.
But magic is corrosive of story. Story thrives on limits and magic erodes limits. Magic can be a source of trouble, but it must be limited enough that it can be credibly overcome. Magic as a tool is hugely problematic. How often do we end up asking why, if magic can get the characters out of one mess, it can't get them out of all the messes.
We should note that magic in LOTR functions mostly as a source of temptation. If there is a defining moral concern that runs through LOTR it is, can we resist temptation?
Worldbuilding in story is largely concerned with the mundane because the particularities of the character's mundane world matter greatly to the function of setting in a story: to set the limits of action and establish the locus of love. But the mundane in the case of worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding isn't interesting. This is where ever more complex magic "systems" get created. They are not the servants of story. Story is simply a device to animate the world and exercise the magic system. And if that is what lights your fire, why not? But it's a different thing from story.
Even if your world is deeply magical in nature, I would suggest it's a good idea to create the ambience of everyday, humdrum magic and then bring in the unusual (something so dynamically different from the usual) so that the contrast works.
The introduction of magic into our world works because we don't have any... other than technology... and that becomes part of everyday life as it becomes widely adopted. Smartphones and what they are capable of would be considered magic not that long ago and now many people are bored with them!
For new tech "magic" to shock people out of their everyday slumber, you'd have to introduce something like anti-gravity capability or teleportation or invisibility etc. And then people would get used to that as it becomes routine.
So I totally understand the issue in storytelling when this contrast is lacking or becomes difficult to implement because every character is a level 50 mage! In "the old days" these contrasts were subtle and subtly introduced as with Tolkien and some sci-fi, but now we're faced with an ocean of "where to next?" Where do we go from here?
IMO it's perfectly OK to start from scratch. We can go back to the old methods --- introduce mundane world with a mundane character or two, gently introduce the unusual elements and build from there. For readers today, it'll seem fresh and stand out from the magic and tech rich worlds they have been swamped with for decades.