Monday, 21 January 2019

Unbowed


Writer - Cassandra Khaw
Originally released August-September 2018

Return to Dominaria and Chronicle of Bolas have dragged this blog into the present day and I found that I quite liked writing stuff that is more relevant to the current Vorthos discussion. So I think I'm going to try and do more reviews on newer stuff, alternating between covering recent stories and older material. It's going to be a bit of an adjustment, as I can't do my usual deep dives into continuity for these stories, not having analysed the Gatewatch era as thoroughly as the earlier periods of the storyline, but on the plus side, if recent stories start referencing older continuity (say, the plane Cabralin, to name a completely random example) it will be good to cover that on the blog in a timely manner, rather than just pointing it out on twitter.

Since I'll also need time in my schedule to continue reviewing older stuff (I want the review of Nicol Bolas's first appearance in Legends II out before the conclusion of Bolas's story in the third Ravnica set at least) I will not cover every single recent source. My plan is to do reviews for the actual stories as soon as possible after they wrap up, but other sources, like art books, player's guides, roleplaying supplements, and whatever else WotC decides to release next, will have to wait until I a) get my hand on them and b) have space in my schedule for an extra review.

So, new year, new direction! Let's see how it goes! First I'll have to catch up with everything released since Chronicle of Bolas, starting with Unbowed, the Vivien Reid story.

SUMMARY
The story can be found through the following links.
For those who prefer me summarizing things: Vivien Ried visits the vampire kingdom of Luneau on Ixalan and is horrified by its treatment of the local wildlife. When she tries to save a monstrosaur during a gladiatorial battle she gets captured. The vamps try to get the secrets of her Arkbow out of her, but she escapes and causes all the zoo animals to stampede and destroy Luneau.


Wednesday, 9 January 2019

The Official Guide to Portal Second Age


Portal Second Age is an odd one. A set full of very simple cards that would be pretty much forgotten these days if not for all the guns shown in the art. It didn't really have a storyline, but unlike the original Portal it did have a specific setting, the island of Caliman on the Southern hemisphere of Dominaria, a description of which was given in The Official Guide to Portal Second Age. A shorter version of that text ended up in the third volume of the Magic the Gathering Official Encyclopedia.


I can't say the setting is very deep though. One nation per color, conflicts along color wheel lines, that sort of stuff. The Alaborn somehow survived peacefully for "thousands of years" without contact with other cultures, but are now fighting the goblins and the swamp queen Tojira. The Talas merchants are getting into trouble by logging in the forest of the Norwood elves... you get the idea. The version from the Encyclopedia has been re-posted here so you can read that if you're interested.

The most intriguing bits are the ones that tie it to the background of the Weatherlight Saga (Portal Second Age came out right between Rath block and Urza's block). Tojira lives in the ruins of a Thran city. That buzzsaw-weapon the ogres are using is powered by a Phyrexian mana battery. It is not outright stated in the text, but it seems the unusually high levels of technology (nightstalker engines, flying ships, all those guns) either originate from the Thran ruins or from more recent contact with the Phyrexians.

 

The longer version of the text from the Offical Guide hints at an even deeper connection to the Weatherlight Saga. It reveals that the Talas also use Thran tech, that the swamp dwellers trade "evil Phyrexian artifacts" with the goblins, and perhaps most telling in its vagueness: "the humans benefit from the genius of a great inventor." If that was just some random inventor among the Alaborn or Talas they surely would have been named right, like Tojira? But no, we just get that one enigmatic line. Which makes me wonder... are we actually looking at a proxy war between Urza and the Phyrexians here?

Unfortunately that's all there is. No further hints at what is going on, how the war might turn out or anything like that. With WotC's aversion to showing guns in their arts I highly doubt we will ever get an update. Even if we ever return to Caliman we will most likely find out it has been leveled during the Phyrexian Invasion or one of the subsequent Dominarian apocalypses, to explain how they lost all their guns. Though maybe we could salvage the nightstalkers in a future Dominaria set? They are a unique Dominarian creature type and I always kinda liked their design. And hey, Dakmor itself is still around in a way, so...


All in all Caliman in a setting with a unique high-technology feel and cool hints about links to the larger continuity, but no really deep lore. In interesting blip on the Vorthos radar, but little more than that.

TIMELINE
There are a few timeline references in the text. Tojira came to occupy the swamp 10 years ago. The Talas started to chop down Norwood trees 30 years ago. The first skirmishes and disagreements between the nations started 150 years ago. Which of course raises the question: 150 years ago compared to what? I'm guessing the lack of a qualifier means the set takes place in the present, which was 4205 at the time of the Weatherlight Saga.

With there not being a real story for the set it's going to look a little weird on my timeline, but I guess I'll include it for completion's sake. All those backstory dates I'll save for now as not to clutter the timeline up any more than it already is, but I'll keep them in mind in case I ever make a timeline as detailed as the one of the Wiki.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Magic: the Gathering - Battlegrounds


Following our look back at Battlemage, I want to have a short talk about the other Magic-related video game with "Battle" in the title: Battlegrounds. Just a look though, not a full review. In fact, I haven't even bought or downloaded the game, so I couldn't review it if i wanted to.

Why am I being so lax? Well, let's take a look at the story here, which I have been able to learn through Let's Plays on YouTube. All there is to it are a bunch of cut scenes that have been uploaded here. In the game you play the reincarnation (it's kinda vague, but I think that's what it is) of a planeswalker who was defeated in a duel long ago. You must now defeat the minions and slaves of the dude who defeated you to gather the bits of a magic macguffin to regain your power. Those minions and slaves include Multani, Akroma, Arcanis the Ominpotent, Maraxus of Keld, Ishan's Shade and Tsabo Tavoc. The big bad himself? Mishra.

Regulars to this blog should already see the problem here. But for any new readers, let me explain: Mishra died in the year 63 AR. Multani was not born until 2934 AR. Maraxus died in 4204 and Tsabo in 4205. Akroma was created and destroyed in 4306!

So yeah. Any attempt to put this thing into canon is doomed to failure. At best this is an alternate universe. If any of the player characters ever turns up in the main continuity (which I'm not expecting, but weirder things have happened. This year.) we should consider it as just a reference, nothing more. If anyone at WotC does want to do a cool obscure reference some redesign might be needed though. Let's just say the outfits of the female characters might run into trouble with Magic's "no chain-mail bikinis" rule.

I'm sure the rule extends to chain-mail garter belts as well.
So why do I talk about this game at all? Well, there is actually one interesting lore tidbit that came from it, albeit one of very dubious canonicity considering all the weirdness mentioned above.

Either in the game itself or in the booklet (again, I didn't buy a copy just to check) there are blurbs about the various characters in the game. If memory serves most of them were pretty accurate descriptions of the actual lore surrounding them but, as we discussed in the Onslaught block online article, when this game was released Arcanis the Omnipotent did not have any backstory at all... so the developers just made something up! It's not much, but apparently Arcanis got all his powers by visiting the ruins of Tolaria! This revelation was of course shared on MTGNews back in the day, and from there disseminated into the storyline community at large. When MTGNews disappeared from the internet this tidbit of info seems to have gone with it, thought here and there you can still find (non-annotated) references to it, like on this Italian Magic Wiki.

So is it true? Well, I guess it could be. There is nothing that contradicts it. However, since 2003 WotC has really doubled down on the mysterious nature of Arcanis, with him not getting a species in several creature type overhauls and his later flavor text specifically telling you not to think about his origins. So even if it is true, I doubt we will ever get any kind of confirmation.


With the rest of Battlemage having nothing to do with the regular continuity I think we can safely write off this origin of Arcanis as well. It seems the collective consciousness of the Vorthos community has pretty much done that already, judging from the fact that I had to look at non-English wiki's to find references to this supposed trip to Tolaria. But you never know when these kinds of factoids will resurface. So if you ever see that origin story pop up again, at least now you know where it came from.

If you see anyone saying that Arcanis is actually Ixidor, or even Jace, claims I found on the MTGSally forums and on Reddit while Googling around for this article... I've got no idea. Some people just have a vivid imagination I guess...

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Another Look at Battlemage

A long, long time ago I covered the game Magic the Gathering: Battlemage. Or, to be more precise, I covered the lore stuff that was presented alongside it and the very beginning of the game. I didn't go any further because the game is nigh-on unplayable, even if you get it to work on your computer, and because the game does not have a set storyline. The progress depends entirely on your character choice, the way you play the game and the random actions of the AI opponents. So surely nothing in the game beyond the very opening should be considered canonical, right?

Well, that assumption was overturned, like so many assumptions I have made on this blog, with the release of Dominaria. We were already amazed by references to Carthalions, Epityr's history with Sheoltun and what not, when Ethan Fleisher tweeted the origin of this card's name:


You see, "Time of Ice" isn't just a fancy term "Ice Age". It is actually a reference to an in-universe book, one you can read if you talk a certain NPC in the game Battlemage! Suddenly there is a bunch more stuff in that game that is relevant to continuity!

I was already dreading the idea of having to try and get the game to work and do multiple playthroughs just for those lore bits, but luckily April King is a lot smarter than me and just broke into the game's code to fish out these documents. So let's have another blast to the past and dive into some in-universe books!

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Chronicle of Bolas


Writer - Kate Elliot
Originally released June-August 2018

SUMMARY
Eh... do you all want me to do a summary? Doing those makes sense when I'm reviewing 20 year old stories that might be tricky to get your hands on these days, but the story I'm covering today has been released this year and is available for free on MagicTheGathering.com. I suspect most of you have already read it. So I'm just going to drop the link to the beginning of the story... here. You can click on the link to the next one at the end of each chapter. Except for the last chapter, as the link in the second-to-last one is missing for some reason.

Let me know in the comments if you want me to do actual summaries instead the next time I cover something so recent. For now I'm taking the quicker option!

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Artbooks Reconsidered

Just a quick timeline update in between actual reviews.

Back in the Art of Magic the Gathering: Dominaria review I mentioned that I was going to stick to the "~3250 AR" date for the fall of Sheoltun and the rise of Benalia rather than use the 3500 AR date from the artbook, as that later date would contradict a mention of Benalia in Hazezon, and "stories trump background materials" is one of the rules I laid down for myself to be able to weigh contradictions while making the timeline. However, the fact that I also mentioned that maybe readers of the blog could sway me on this showed that I was never 100% happy with this.

Well, I've thought about it some more, and I have concluded that I've misappraised the artbooks as a whole.


Let's go back a bit. I've started this blog in January 2015. That's a whole year before the Zendikar artbook came out. Zendikar was the first of the current series, so they were not something I considered when making my own rules.

What I was thinking of when I said "background materials" were in the first place Savor the Flavor articles, Doug Beyer Tumblr answers and information booklets that came with Duel or Commander Decks. The first of those being weekly, routine productions, the second probably quickly typed out whenever Doug had time, and the third equally likely to have been written by PR people as by the Creative team. In other words, stuff which you would not expect to be very thoroughly researched, and from which you could thus more easily forgive mistakes than from the actual story. Crucially, these kinds of background sources are also much more fleeting than a published novel or anthology. Let's put it this way: if we ever get that Return to Kamigawa story it would be ludicrous to ask the writers to track down everything members of the Creative team ever said about that plane on various social media sites, and with the current state of MagicTheGathering.com's archives you can't really ask them to read all the Magic Arcana's either. But I would assume that they, or at the very least their editors, would be familiar with the novels of the original Kamigawa trilogy.

Furthermore, when I began my blog I had no idea that Magic would one day make references to so far back as we've seen this year in Dominaria and Core 2019. I thought the most controversial story/background inconsistencies to figure out would be between Rath and Storm and The Art of Magic the Gathering: The Rath Cycle, and between the various Armada comics and The Story of the Battlemage Ravidel. In other words: between roughly contemporaneous sources where the background material has slipped further into obscurity than the actual story. I couldn't know that Magic would step up its continuity game so much within just a short few years!

Carthalion references in 2018!
When the first few artbooks came out it simply didn't cross my mind that they did not quite match what I had imagined background material to be like. After all, they were all current and I was hanging out in Magic's history on this blog. But then Dominaria came out...

So now I see my mistake. The artbooks are neither quickly written nor PR-pieces, and they are certainly not so easily forgotten. Quite the opposite. They are excellent reference material and compulsory reading for anyone who wishes to write future stories set on the planes they cover. They are going to be the basis for a new generation's knowledge about the storyline, and a throwaway line in Hazezon... isn't.

So rather than simply stating that story takes precedence over background stuff, I should say I'm evaluating how sources where produced (where they a deliberate addition to the storyline like the Art of Dominaria, or a PR publication like The Story of the Battlemage Ravidel) and how likely it is that a source will stick around or fade away. That sounds way less snappy, but it is essentially what my original adage was supposed to do anyway, and by reconsidering the Dominaria artbook in this fashion I will end up with a timeline that does not differ so radically from what the rest of the Vorthos community and the people at WotC are using.

There is one downside to this, and that is that I have to count the 3500 date for the Sheoltun/Benalia stuff as a retcon. After all, both the original The Duelist article and Hazezon require it to have an earlier date, but hey, as a Magic storyline fan you just have to live with ret-cons from time to time and this isn't a very big one. Have some halfhearted finger-wagging and tutting over the mistake, it is all I can muster at this point.


I will keep Hazezon and the rest of the Legends I saga where it is, rather than moving it to a point later than Benalia's founding, as the fact that it happens 400 years after the Ice Age is stated multiple times, and is much more integral to the story than the throwaway line about Benalia, as the changing climate after the Ice Age is the indirect cause for the Tirras aggression. We'll just have to imagine that Benalia reference was actually talking about Sheoltun instead.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Otaria Saga Overview

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.