Wednesday, 4 March 2015

A Historian's Guide to Elder Dragons

Recently, after years of obscurity, the term "Elder Dragon" has made a comeback on the MTG storyline message boards. First there was the discussion whether Ugin was an Elder Dragon or just an old dragon, and last Monday all hell broke loose when Wizards revealed they were re-appropriating the term for a new cycle of Mythic dragons in Dragons of Tarkir. Since a lot of the sources we have on the Elder Dragons are obscure and, appropriately enough, very old, I thought it would be a good idea to give a little overview of them. That way even new players can know just how much, or rather how little, we know about that cycle of Summon Elder Dragon Legends from the Legends expansion.

For those who don't know, "The Revision" is a term used by Magic storyline fans to describe what happened around 1996, when Magic's continuity was cleaned up a little. Before that time the story had been told through novels published by Harper Prism, comics published by Acclaim and articles in The Duelist, published by Wizards of the Coast. As a result some inconsistencies had appeared. A team headed by Pete Venters was tasked with working out the continuity issues, changing a few things in the process. Later, between 1998 and 2000, a number of books were released by Wizards of the Coast that outright replaced some of the pre-revisionist continuity. This has called the canonicity of pre-rev sources into question, but at the time the official stance was that everything still counts, unless a new source directly contradicts it. This all is important to keep in mind, since all appearances of Elder Dragons who aren't Nicol Bolas are in pre-rev sources!

Let’s first look at the sources we still have available. The relevant Armada Comics are Dakkon Blackblade, Elder Dragons and Ice Age, which all feature Chromium, who is given the name Chromium Rhuell there (Presumable the writers thought he wasn't as cool sounding as his cycle members? The text pieces in the Dakkon Blackblade comic state the Rhuell is his "human name".)

Chronologically, Dakkon Blackblade comes first. In it, the evil planeswalker Geyadrone Dihada summons Chromium and his mate Piru to fight Dakkon Blackblade. Dakkon tries to mind control Chromium, but he resists the attempt, and Dakkon is forced to just unsummon him. Later Dakkon manages to stab Piru with the Blackblade. She explodes, creating the Dueling Chasm of Golthonor. Geyadrone absorbs the energy of Piru, which almost overwhelms her and forces her into a monstrous appearance. (More happens in the story of course, but I'm only focussing on the Elder Dragon-relevant parts)

(Click on the images to enlarge them)

We learn little about the Elders here. Only that they are powerful. Powerful enough to tussle with planeswalkers. Geyadrone, when absorbing Piru’s energy, claims the power is “like that of a planeswalker”, though what that means in not made clear. 

The most interesting thing in this comic is probably Piru. Very little is told of her in the story, but the text pieces in the back describe her as "the fabled sixth Elder Dragon" and the back cover goes with "the terrifying sixth Elder Dragon". Emphasis theirs. But that's it. No explanation of what Elder Dragons are, where they come from, why there suddenly is a sixth... perhaps the next comic will tell us more? It's called Elder Dragons after all. 


In this comic Chromium is masquerading as a human (Called Ham, not Rhuell...), performing magic to keep his sister Palladia-Mors asleep. 80 years prior the two were chilling in a cave, when a human girl approached them. Chromium befriended her, but eventually other humans came looking for her. Assuming that the dragons were evil they attacked. Palladia, already annoyed by her brother's fascination with the little human, decided to just eradicate all the invaders. Chromium put her to sleep to save the humans. Now a warlord shows up with a dragon whelp familiar. The familiar tricks him into digging up Palladia-Mors. Turns out the dragon whelp was an enchanted Vaevictis Asmadi, who wanted to wake Mors so she could undo the enchantment. Palladia plans to pick up where she left wuth killing all the humans, but Chromium stands against her again. He convinces Asmadi to turn on Palladia, but he’s not very effective, immediately getting blasted (it’s unclear if he gets unsummoned or killed). Chromium then casts "the ancient spell" on Palladia, who crashes into a swamp. The last we see of her is a claw sticking out of the marsh. Presumably she's been put back to sleep.


So we learn a little more about the Elders here, but not an awful lot. Palladia-Mors and Chromium are siblings, and Asmadi (Or Asmodi, as it is written in the comic, though not in the accompanying text pieces) is their cousin. Or at least calls them cousin. He just refers to Palladia as mistress before she calls him "Cousin Elder" and hesitates before calling Chromium cousin. Also note the interesting bit in the third scan where Chromium says Elders never "rampaged mindlessly" over humans. (Ironically, he's the one with Rampage...) and in which Mors calls him "A traitor to the five". It should be noted hat this book was actually released BEFORE Dakkon Blackblade, though the editorial is already promoting that issue, and the appearance of "an all-new Elder Dragon!". An overview in the last Acclaim comic to be printed claims Elder Dragons actually happened before Dakkon Blackblade, but the Dakkon comic itself claims it is the other way around. That would actually make more sense. Palladia's comment about "The Five" suggests Piru is already dead at this point, and Elder Dragons ends with Chromium dramatically telling the girl who fell in love with his human form the he can "never love again", while in Dakkon Blackblade he's still happily mated to Piru.

Speaking of that last scene, here's another interesting quote:

That mention of Elders hailing "from the dawn of time" is interesting. Not only is it the closest thing to an origin we get here (Jup, the Elder Dragons comic makes no mention of the War), it is also the first appearance of a boast Nicol Bolas likes to repeat, and that Sorin has used to describe Ugin.

We should also look at the text pieces in the back of the comic, those have some interesting quotes. Some are just meaningless, but impressive sounding, fluff...
"Deep in some dark corner of the world, the mysterious origins of these creatures are scrawled within the most ancient of Dominaria's tomes. To most, these majestic creatures are simply not to be trifled with. Each Elder Dragon is born of many magics, and therefore is not so easily controlled by those brave enough - or foolish enough to summon them."
...but others are a lot more revealing:
"In the legends of Dominaria, the Elder Dragons have ascended far beyond the physical realm that most dragons inhabit. Elder Dragons are special. The are not bound by the forces that can bind most dragons. Although they can be summoned, don't be fooled. The Elder Dragon is always the one in control."
"Waiting to escape the Shard as much as any planeswalker, Rhuell allied himself with the planeswalker Faralyn (indeed, the very mage that metamorphed Vaevictus Asmadi into a Dragon Whelp) in an effort to learn the nature of this bizarre phenomenon."
This is the first evidence we have of Elder Dragons being able to travel to other planes, which we never actually see them do in the comics. The talk of them having "ascended beyond the physical" is odd though. That seems to suggest they are some kind of dragon planeswalkers rather than an ur-race of dragons. There is no further explanation than that given.

Finally there is the Ice Age comic. Issue three chronicles the Summit of the Null Moon. A whole bunch of planeswalkers have come together to discuss a way of getting out of the Shard of the Twelve Worlds. Faralyn has brought along his spellsquire Ravidel and his friend Chromium Rhuell. Secretly Tevesh Szat, Leshrac and Faralyn are planning to start killing other ‘walkers, and use their energy to escape to Shandalar. Although the three don’t manage to kill any ‘walkers, Rhuell and Ravidel die, and their energy proves enough to allow Faralyn, Szat and Leshrac to escape. The other planeswalkers are left behind, but now Freyalise has realized what must be done and sets of to cast the Worldspell that will end the Ice Age. (It should be noted that while the Eternal Ice novel ret-cons most of issues two and four of the Ice Age comic, it does not touch upon the Summit of the Null Moon. In fact, there are some allusions to Freyalise and Leshrac doing stuff behind the scenes that suggest issue three specifically IS still in continuity.)


Very little facts here. We get confirmation that Elder Dragons are planeswalker-level powerful, as Chromium’s death is just as good as a planeswalker dying when it comes to escaping the Shards. The text pieces in the back don't provide any other information, only the hilarious statement that Tevesh Szat kills Chromium with the awesomely powerful Thoughtlace/Terror combo. The only new info we get is that one of Chromium's brothers was killed in a duel between Leshrac and Kristina. This exchange has been taken to mean that Arcades Sabboth is dead, since after the appearance of Nicol Bolas years later he is the only Elder unaccounted for. But we should remember that that at the point this comic was released Nicol Bolas had never appeared either, and since the Elder in question was summoned by Leshrac, it actually sounds more logical if it was intended for that him to by Bolas, who fits the colors Leshrac uses.

The only other source left to mention is the short story The Going Price from the Tapestries anthology. In it, we get the following quote from Reod Dai, who is buying some dragon eggs.
"They drop eggs every autumn for a few years and then they - vanish. There are legends of elder dragons- " He exhaled. "Which I hope stay legends, because the whelps start out mean and just get meaner every year."
This suggests the author, Sonia Orin Lyris, is  under the assumption that “elder dragon” (Note the lack of capitalization ) just means “big old dragon”. Interestingly she later wrote the novel And Peace Shall Sleep, which continues the story from The Going Price. The second chapter of that novel is actually the entire short story reprinted with some minor changes. One of those changes is that the reference to elder dragons is removed. Since APSS was released in 1996, when Pete Venters and his team had already started consolidating the various strands of continuity, I imagine it was taken out because by now it had been established what Elder Dragons actually were.

And that’s it. Those are all the pre-rev sources we have on the Elder Dragons. And not a single one of them mentions the Elder Dragon War. So where did that come from? Well…

Jeff Lee, probably the first storyline guru, had a site, which is actually the main source we have on the Elder Dragons. I’ll get to it in a bit. But what did he base that site on? Well, if you look at the posts he made on MTGSalvation, you’ll see that there was a tearaway calendar released once upon a time.
"I recall a 365-day tear-page calendar that had numerous discrete storylines for individual cards from the early sets"
(And no, it’s not the one GavinVerhey has been posting, that one barely has any cards from Legends.) Most interestingly would be the entry for Elder Land Wurm in that calendar.
"The calendar goes further and talks about the Elder Land Wurms being those of the Elders that were stripped of their wings during the ancient war."
So that is where the Elder Dragon War, the origin of the Elder Land Wurms, and presumably the idea that the five Elders are the ancestors of all dragons in the Multiverse, come from. We don't know exactly what was said there though.

Jeff Lee also talked to member of the continuity department, including Pete Venters. He incorporated all that into a site, which is where we get virtually all our facts about the Elder Dragons from.

The site is now also lost, but luckily there is still the Internet Wayback Machine. You can find the site here, and the relevant bits about the Elder Dragons here, here and here. This is where we learn of the Elder Dragon War, the origin of the Elder Land Wurms, the fact that all dragons are descendants of the five we saw in Legends, et cetera. The facts that come from this site are:
  • Elder Dragons are described as "a master race" of "planeswalking, magic using beings" who dominated Domina (so the Multiverse, not just Dominaria), the Elder Dragon War is called the "Dragon War of Dominia" and "a great civil war". Those who lost "were either killed or stirpped of their power, forced to wander the land as flightless Elder Wurms that would sire their own dragon races"
  • Arcades Sabboth and Nicol Bolas are brothers of Chromium and Palladia-Mors, they and their cousin Vaevictis Asmadi are described as "the five that did survive" and are "the progenitors of every natural dragon race present (true dragons and drake are descendant of the winners of the Dragon War; wurms are from the losers)"
  • Piru and Scarzam are "Lower Dragons" or "Sub Elders", the first generation after the five.
  • Sivitri led her army of Scarzam dragons against Corondor during the Dragon War.
  • Viashino are also descendants of dragons, though the site doesn't state how.
  • Wurms are described as "cursed to wander the land for all eternity"
Obviously Jeff’s site is an amazing source. Unfortunately though, we can’t take everything on it for granted. For example, the site outright states that Piru and Scarzam were Lesser Elders. But this post makes it clear that this was not based on the calendar or WotC inside info, but on discussions within the old storyline forums. Or how about this: it states that Sivitri Scarzam’s attack on Corondor happened during the Dragon War. But if you read the short story The Dragon War, which first appeared in the Dakkon Blackblade comic, but has been reposted on the MTGSalvation forum, you’ll see that this attack actually happened shortly before Geyadrone Dihada came to Corondor. As the Dakkon Blackblade comic is described as happening “millenia after the Thran”, that places Sivitri's attack much later than Jeff states. Presumably the fact that the Sivitri story was called "The Dragon War", which is also the term Jeff Lee uses for the Elder Dragon War, caused some confusion. I see no reason to doubt any of the other facts on the site, but it would be wise to remember we are still not dealing with an official WotC source, and we don't have the calendar to check. There could be more interpretations or mistakes. 

More importantly, we should should pay a lot of attention to what is actually on the site and what isn't. I often see the claim that the Elder Dragons had an empire, or that there was some Multiverse-spanning spell that turned all Elder Dragons except the five from Legends into Elder Land Wurms. Neither claim is made on Jeff's site though. I am guessing that such stories came into the world because Jeff used words like "civil war" when describing the dragon-on-dragon conflict, and the word "cursed" to describe the wurms. But those are words chosen by Jeff, we don't know if they were the words WotC used. And even if they did, "civil war" could just be used as an evocative way to describe a conflict between dragons, it does not constitute proof an elder draconic empire. And even if it turns out "cursed" should be taken literally, there still is no proof that this curse was one big spell that turned all the Elders in the Multiverse into Land Wurms. This is actually rather important to remember, since people were claiming that Ugin could not possibly be an Elder Dragon because of said spell: it would've turned him into an Elder Land Wurm. But we have no prove of said spell existing. For all we know the Elders were killed or maimed on a case-by-case basis, which would make it quite possible for Ugin just to have hidden during that time.

Have a picture of Ugin to break up the wall of text on this page!

Perhaps Jeff Lee can clarify some things? He does have a habit of popping up on the MTGSalvation forum every time I mention him. But surely a Multiverse-spanning spell would've made it onto his site? The only reference to a "worldspell" ending the Elder Dragon War I could find was on the MTGSalvation Wiki, on the timeline entry. It was added in by an anonymous editor, so I'd say that's not the most reliable source.

I should also mention the write up on dragons. That is a source we should just ignore altogether. Not only does it repeat the claims that Piru was a Lesser Elder and Scarzam’s attack happened during the Elder Dragon War, it also continuously misspells Piru as Pira, is under the impression that Chromium and Chromium Rhuell are different dragons, and claims that the death of "Pira" is unconfirmed, even though she exploded on-panel in the Dakkon comic. This is also the source of claims that the Elder Dragon Wars lasted "epochs", even though there is no official source that mentions the length of the conflict. If you read other articles by "Tyler" on you'll quickly see that they are filled with stuff that's just completely made up, and not very well based on sources at all. The Viashino entry especially is a load of drivel.

After that it remains quiet on the Elder Dragon front for a long, long time. But that's not to say they weren't discussed. J. Robert King, writer of many Magic novels in the era between Tempest and Mirrodin, added a whole new race of immensely powerful dragons to continuity, the Primeval Dragons scene in Invasion. The storyline community of course immediately wondered how the existence of these could be squared with that of the Elders. Clearly they weren't the same as the Elder Dragons themselves: the Primeval Dragons were overthrown by humans rather than slaughtering each other in a huge war. But did they predate the Elders? Or were they their descendants? And where on earth Dominaria did they come from? We never got an answer to that last question, but the timeline issues were eventually solved in 2003 with the second Legends cycle, when finally another Elder Dragon enters the canon. After two novels referencing a mysterious emperor, that emperor finally reveals his identity in the following monologue:
“I was old before this world was even born. I watched my brothers rule for a thousand years until little worms like you overcame them. But I am not my brothers. I am older than they are, greater. I have devoured stars and shattered worlds. I have sired whole races, populated entire planes, and then hunted them to extinction for my amusement. I have bathed in the blood of gods and used their bones to build my nest.“I am the mind-ripper, the deathbringer, the winged dark that terrifies your dreams. I was the first to witness the sun rise on this world, and I will be the last to watch it set for the final time. I have no beginning and no end. I have always been, and I shall always be. My name is the foundation of all that is, and those who hear it will obey or become as nothing … I am Nicol Bolas … Planeswalker, elder dragon, the oldest and most powerful being that has ever or shall ever exist"
Quite an entrance. Bolas references the status of the Elder Dragons as progenitors of all dragons ("I have sired whole races") and says he is older than the Primevals (His brothers who were overcame by "little worms like you", a.k.a. Humans.) Writer Scott McGough loves to put in references like that. While we should obviously take into account this is Nicol Bolas boasting, the timing of the Primevals and Elders is later confirmed in the Time Spiral cycle. We have conflicting sources on the Primevals, some saying they rule 10.000 years ago, while other say it was 20.000 years ago. (The latter is generally accepted, since the first brings them a bit to close in time to The Thran.) Whatever the case, in Time Spiral was learn that Bolas was born 25.000 years ago (A date repeated in Agents of Artifice and by Brady Dommermuth on the Wizards forums), and that 20.000 years age he was already a planeswalker. I wouldn't say it's conclusive evidence, especially since we still don't know the relation between the Elder Dragon War and Bolas' ascension, but it does put the Elders in a time bracket prior to that of the Primevals. The community has accepted this, partially because it matched up with earlier timeline made over on (Which might have had some input from Scott McGough himself in regards to the Elder/Primeval issue, though I'm not 100% sure of that.)

Let's look at some more quotes from Time Spiral and Future Sight:
"Nicol Bolas. The oldest and most dangerous planeswalker ever known. One of the original dragons, one of the great elder legends, the source from whom all other dragons flowed. Bolas had been godlike even before he ascended to become a planeswalker, and ever since he treated the entire multiverse as his personal preserve."
"Nicol Bolas. The name had been spoken in terror and dread from the moment there were spoken languages in which top whisper. Bolas was the oldest and most powerful of the elder dragons, a planeswalker, and as ferocious and unstoppable as a primal force of Nature"
"Madara is not the largest rift, nor the most dangerous, but it is the oldest. Twenty thousand years ago this was the site of Dominaria's first-ever duel between planeswalkers ... how I would have loved to have seen it for myself, but alas it predates even me. A mighty dragon on one side, a demonic leviathan on the other. They met and fought here, two powerful planeswalkers. Did you know Madara's coastline used to stretch all the way to the outlying islands? The duelists shattered over a third of the continent in their struggle. In my more reflective moments, I think it's no wonder Dominaria's history is so violent and combative - one of the first things to ever happen here was a battle to the death between gods"
"I saw this world born, and I will see it die"
The first quote is Jhoira thinking, the second and third come from Leshrac, the last one (obviously) is big bad Bolas himself. As you can see McGough is really hitting the "As old as time" button quite hard here. The Elder Dragon War is not just the first thing on the timeline, the Elders actually predate Dominaria itself! The battle between Bolas and the leviathan is described as the first event to ever happen on that plane! The reaction to these claims in the community, as far as I have seen, has been mixed. Some assume it's just Bolas grandstanding or the Elder Dragons having become mythologized. Others have accepted the claims at face value. Personally I'm in the first camp. If Bolas predates Dominaria, it means Dominaria is less than 25.000 years old, and I've always assumed natural planes were like our universe in that they take a couple of billion years to form. I haven't been able to find any quote from Brady Dommermuth or Doug Beyer commenting on the issue, so I think Wizards is keeping this deliberately vague.

Apart from that question though, it is great that Time Spiral block finally invoked some of the Elder Dragon lore, like how all other dragons are their descendants and their immense power. But it should be noted that the war itself never comes up. Nor Bolas's ascension. Leshrac talks a while about the battle with the Leviathan, but Nici is already a planeswalker by then. It seems obvious to tie his ascension to the end of the Elder Dragon War. I really can't see him surviving such a war without ascending. But whenever you see someone on the internet claim that Bolas ascended in whatever event ended the Elder Dragon War, or that he ascended and then used his new-found power to end the war, that is purely speculation.

After Future Sight, there is very little new info released about the Elder Dragons. Plenty stories that feature Bolas, but they just mention that he's old and powerful. Him having been a pre-Mending planeswalker and immensely powerful has become more important than his Elder status. There is one source left to talk about though: his profile on Specifically, this line:
"Witness to countless wars, cataclysms, and rivalries, Bolas is one of only five elder dragons to survive the Dragon War."
Seems innocuous at first, but look back at all I've discussed in this article. This is the only still extant source published by Wizards of the Coast that mentions the Dragon War. Which seems bizarre, I know, but it's true. The calendar is gone, Jeff Lee's website is technically a secondary source, the makers of the comics may not even have known of the war and the later novels avoided the subject. Hence the oldest official source mentioning it coming from around the time Alara was released.

I think authors and editors may have been avoiding mention of the War (cue Fawlty Towers joke) deliberately out of fear of contradiction, as they couldn't figure out what was supposed to be canon, fanon, or fanon-assumed-to-be-canon-by-the-storyline-community. Figuring that out would be a difficult task indeed. In fact, I rather suspect that is why they haven't come out and said Ugin is an Elder Dragon. They clearly want him to be an inversion of Nicol Bolas (You only have to compare their planeswalker cards to see that!) and making him an Elder Dragon would fit that goal. He's even colorless, so he wouldn't screw up the cycle! But if there was a spell that turned all Elder Dragons into Elder Land Wurm that's impossible. And since people working at WotC don't have as much free time on their hands as I do, they can't do a full review of every single source mentioning the Elder Dragons to see if that spell is actually part of canon or not.

So now we've reached the present day, and the introduction of a new cycle of Elder Dragons. Those have absolutely nothing to do with all the stuff I've been talking about, they are just using Elder Dragon to mean Old Dragon, thus bringing my story nicely full circle, since that was how the term was used all the way back in that later-ret-conned story in the Tapestries anthology.

I love the Elder Dragon lore. It speaks to the imagination, and them being the ancestors to all dragons in the Multiverse is a rare bit of Multiverse-wide continuity in a canon that can often feel a bit episodic due to every plane having its own rules and history. The obscure nature of the sources also attracts me, because I'm an insane historian who actually enjoys figuring out which sources are trustworthy and which aren't, and delights in discovering the origin of an oft-repeated myth. But when those myths are repeated so often that they seem to be elevated into canon, and if that pseudo-canon makes the actual authors hesitant to write about this part of continuity, we've got a problem.

By all means, let us fans keep wake by the flame of continuity, so the creative department can look up stuff on our fora and wikis. But in order to do that we must first make sure we actually know what is and isn't in continuity. I hope to have shown in this article that in the case of the Elder Dragons this can actually be very tricky.


  1. Articolo eccellente, signor Scoiattolo! Very interesting and informative. By the way, do you know if there's a possibility to collocate the clash between Bolas and Ugin in the timeline? 1280 years ago seems a precise number, and would be very useful in find out also what's the current year in Magic (at least the events of Tarkir).

  2. The MTGSalvation wiki has some very specific dates for the recent events, but I haven't read enough óf the recent stuff to say how accurate those dates are. As far as I know everything happens approximately in year 4600, which would place the clash between Bolas and Ugin around 3320.

    1270 does indeed sound very specific. I wonder what made them decide on that number!

    1. 1270? I thought 1280! Still, thank you very much. Keep on with the reviews. :)

    2. Whoops, sorry, that was a typo! It is indeed 1280 years. (4600 - 1280 = 3320, so at least I got it right when doing my calculations!)

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Gun to your head: what Dragon War events do you think are canon, and is Ugin an Elder Dragon?

    1. Canon: everything from the comics & books, plus everything from Jeff Lee's site except for the Sivitri Scarzam & Piru bits. I've got enough fate in Jeff, plus enough stuff has been corroborated by other sources, to assume there aren't any other mistakes in there.

      What I would deliberately not take as canon are the supposed Elder Dragon Empire, the Worldspell ending the war or anything pertaining to Nicol Bolas' ascension. Everything you hear about those is speculation.

      Ugin: Not an Elder Dragon, since Doug Beyer said so. Do they want him to be one? Probably. Would I like them to make him one? Jup. But is he? As far as we know, nope.

  5. A-W-E-S-O-M-E! Like all in this blog. Sorry to come to this a "little late" but well... we talked about that on the mails before. I will continue reading as much my time allow me. Thanks again for these "EXCELENTE" blog ;-D. I´ll try to keep in touch.

  6. Ugin can simply be an Elder Dragon:
    It dies or become "not alive" during/before Dragon War so he is not the one who survived. And he could not be affected by the dragon-to-wurm spell because he was not alive.
    So he is something like spirit of elder dragon.