Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Magic the Gathering: Battlemage

For the past months we've been looking at the Armada comics, a look I've been enjoying tremendously. Like the Harper Prism books the quality of the individual stories has been variable, but the greater continuity here has made even the lesser lights in the series interesting to me. (Gee, the guy who writes endless streams of articles about how Magic's various stories hang together likes continuity? Who would've guessed!) Over the course of 15 series the Armada crew has revealed much of the extensive history of Dominaria and its planeswalkers and from the very first series released (Shadow Mage and Ice Age) they have been building toward a big climax in the form of the Planeswalkers War. Today we will finally see the culmination of all this effort with Magic the Gathering: Battlemage, the second computer game based on Magic to be released.

Let me get this out of the way first though: this resolution is a huge let down. It is not the story that was planned for the comics. It doesn't resolve the majority of the lingering questions. Heck, it doesn't even feature most of the characters that were set to appear in the War! Worst of all: there isn't an actual story to play through. There is a campaign mode, but the course of the story is essentially random. Who fights who and who wins is determined by your choice of character, how you play and whatever random lands the computer opponents decide to attack. So after all this build up the only thing about the war we can say for certain is "A bunch of planeswalkers fight".

Well, there is a little more that can be deduced, which I will explain below, but those who wished to see a true ending to the Armada saga will be sorely disappointed. If you are one of those people though, I would still advice you to keep reading, as I have a rather exciting announcement for you at the end of this article!




REVIEW
First I'm going to disappoint you a bit more: I haven't actually been able to play this game. I've tried, but I just couldn't get it to work on my computer. There is a website out there that allows you to play it online (I'd link to it, but I don't know how legal it is) but even that is laggy to the point of unplayability for me. I'll try some more to get it to work, but I didn't want to delay this update any further, so for now I'll just talk about all the lore I have been able to find in the accompanying website and some walkthroughs. Maybe if I do get it to work some day I'll go back and update this section. "Luckily" the random nature of the encounters make the canonical status of all the dialogue in the game very shaky, so I'm not missing that much lore here.

Judging by the reviews I've found online I'm not missing much at all actually. The game was universally panned. In most reviews by people who, unlike me, have been able to play the game, the word "unplayable" still turns up more often than not. The main problem seems to be the unwieldy, virtually impossible to understand controls, and the fact that your AI opponents will slaughter you simply because they are not hampered by them. For now I will just link to the guys from Clearance Rack's... attempted playthrough. Their struggle to make sense of it should give you a clear idea of the problems with this game.


With the gameplay "covered", let's move on to what we are actually here for: the lore!

THE STORY OF THE BATTLEMAGE RAVIDEL
Let's start with the big one, the story I've been referring to since my very first Armada review. The Story of the Battlemage Ravidel, or as I've started to refer to it: TSOTBR, was featured on the website accompanying the game. That site is by now so old that it's been slipping into oblivion even from the Internet Wayback Machine, but luckily the story itself has been reposted on MTGSalvation by the sexiest moderator the storyline forum there ever had.

TSOTBR is mostly just a recap of all the Armada comics (Only Elder Dragons, Serra Angel and Shandalar aren't referenced), written from the point of view of Rahel, the Serra Angel who defeated Trine in the Fallen Angel comic. She's not allowed to interfere in the war for some reason, but she hopes that her little history lesson will help with understanding and defeating Ravidel. I won't summarize the thing here, as you know pretty much everything in it already if you've been reading my reviews (plus it isn't that long, so you could just follow the link above and read all of it), but there are a few things of note.


The best thing about TSOTBR is that it includes references to stories that were never released, including the plot of Alliances, the pivotal moment of Taysir's rejection by Kristina and Taysir's subsequent imprisonment of Leshrac. In later years more information about the unpublished comics was released, but at the time TSOTBR and some stray references in the backmatter of some of the latter comics were the only sources we had on those events, making this a very important source. It should be noted that when other information did start appearing we discovered that TSOTBR actually changed some details. Most notably: Leshrac was imprisoned in Phyrexia according to TSOTBR, but in Estark according to the unpublished comic script.

Another important aspect of TSOTBR is that it brings the Armada comics in line with the official Magic timeline. The earliest Armada comics put several millenia between the Ice Age and the Summit of Minorad and a further thirteen centuries between the Summit and the present day. This despite being released after the (by now famous among my readers) Fourth Edition Pocket Players' Guide, which put the time between the Brothers' War and present day at "about 4000 years". Already the last few comics that were released showed the incorporation of the official version of the timeline. Homelands included a "History of Dominaria" article that was basically a quick re-write of the Pocket Players' Guide timeline with the word "Carthalion" thrown in. But TSOTBR is the point where this new timeline was really cemented, as it showed where (almost) all comics fit on the timeline.


This brings me to the downside of the text. It not only compressed the timeline, it also switched a number of stories around for no clear reason. As I explained in my review of The Dragon War, the references in Fallen Angel and Dakkon Blackblade are quite clear: Angel happens first, then Blackblade, then Dragon War. Yet TSOTBR puts Fallen Angel last, by making the motivation of Sol'kanar for summoning Sivitri Scarzam that he wanted to challenge Trine. It also puts Arabian Nights after the Brothers' War, but places the birth of Kristina before that war (which I long though was new information, but which turned out to already be mentioned in the "History of Dominaria" article in Homelands.) This would make Kristina older than Taysir, despite their dynamic being based on him being older. He even makes a few remarks about Kristina being "wise beyond her years" in Ice Age.

None of these problems couldn't be explained away. Maybe Sol'kanar was just not informed about Trine's demise. Maybe Kristina lied about her age to Taysir, or maybe Taysir was just the biggest condescending prick in the Multiverse. Personally though, I prefer to keep the stories as they are, and to assume that Rahel was just misinformed in writing her history.


This creates a rather strange situation though, where on the one hand I'm embracing TSOTBR as an important source for various events such as the Taysir/Kristina break-up and Leshrac's imprisonment, but on the other I'm rejecting it when it comes to the reshuffled timeline. The Ice Age cycle novels have a similar problem, in that they reference the events of the unpublished Alliances comic while at the same time pushing the end of the Ice Age comic and the beginning of Shandalar out of continuity. These are the main reasons for the fact that my continuity sections became so difficult to read about halfway through the Armada comics. I will attempt to create order in the chaos with an article that should go up later this week, in which I will look at the Armada continuity as a whole, and the various ret-cons it has endured over the years. That will hopefully be easier to understand than dealing with the ret-cons on a story-by-story basis. (And no, that is not the exciting announcement I promised. It's quite a bit more exciting than that!) (Hashtaghype, as all the cool kids say these days.)

Some other interesting notes on TSOTBR:

  • Here it is explicitly stated that Dakkon lost his planeswalkerhood in his battle with Geyadrone Dihada, presumably when she marked him with her symbol. This was left rather vague in the Dakkon Blackblade comic itself.
  • We are told that Ravidel's parents gave him to Faralyn to save his life from whatever disaster was happening to his plane, even though Ravidel himself would rather have died alongside them. Ravidel's resentment to his apprenticeship is a new wrinkle to his origin story. Apparently Chromium Rhuell was his only friend during all the time he was with Faralyn, which makes his heel turn after Rhuell's death a bit more understandable.
  • We are told that the Null Moon came into orbit "before the Antiquities War" and that is was said to have once been occupied by an unspecified "enormously powerful being". Years later we will learn that it is actually a Thran artifact. The powerful being must just have been a character of myth.
  • Another little tidbit from an unpublished comic: it is revealed that during the time of Alliances Ravidel and the Ash Warlord Embereck fought over the Sylex. "A bargain was struck", but Embereck apparently didn't count on Ravidel later threatening him with the very artifact he let him get away with. I also just realized that both here and in Wayfarer the thing is only referred to as the "Argivian Sylex", not the "Golgothian Sylex". That could be another explanation for it supposedly having a different effect than the Sylex we will see in The Brothers' War.
  • Rahel speculates, though she admits she's not sure, that Kristina's exile to her woods after Ravidel's attack on Minorad may have been at Taysir's command.
  • We also learn that Liana and the Scarlet Vizier helped build Arathoxia.
  • Further scenes from unpublished comics: around the time of Shadowmage the reformed Taysir visited Leshrac, to see if he had repented by then. Unfortunately the Walker of Night had just gone mad.
  • We are told that Taysir is still in love with Kristina. I guess that means that he's lying in Invasion, when he says that the Anaba Shamans wouldn't give him his body back until he "got shut of the rut."
  • There is a rather strange timeline error near the end, when it says that several years have passed between Shadow Mage and Wayfarer. It still used the same dates for the Shadow Mage prologue and Wayfarer as were given in the books though, and states that Ravidel searched for Jared for 16 years after the Battle of Aster Falls. Put that all together and you'll find that Wayfarer had to follow shortly after Shadow Mage, as was the case in the comics.
  • According to TSOTBR the Mox Beacon is made up of all five Moxen. In Shadow Mage and Wayfarer we only saw the Sapphire, Jet and Ruby, so Ravidel must've been hiding the others up his sleeves. (Wait, he doesn't wear sleeves... up his boot then.)
  • Finally, we learn that Ravidel "has concieved of a way to empty the spell troves of his enemies". Obviously this is a conceit to the video game, explaining why all these ancient wizards start out with crappy starter decks. However, the idea of Ravidel hampering the spellcasting abilities of the other planeswalkers did actually make it into the script of the planned comic book!

As you can see, Ravidel has finally taken some time to clean himself up. He's looking a lot better than he did in Wayfarer!

THE MAP OF CORONDOR
Another interesting feature of the Battlemage website is the interactive map of Corondor featured on it. At the moment it is still working, but in case it ever goes down: here is another thread on MTGSally on which the map and the descriptions were copied by that handsome and intelligent moderator I mentioned earlier.

We already knew from the backmatter in Shadow Mage that Corondor is made up of three regions: Stonehaven, Cassindral and Golthonor, which are roughly divided from one another by mountain ranges and the Dueling Chasm. This map gives us a little more detail, naming pretty much every location of Corondor we've seen in the comics so far. Including some quite ancient ones! We already saw Khone, one of the ancient countries from The Dragon War being mentioned in Wayfarer, but from this map we learn that Shikar has been rebuild as well, though TSOTBR tells us that didn't happen until thousands of years after its initial destruction. The Darkling Plains, home of Mandek Ironfist from Fallen Angel are also still present, despite these stories having happened over 4000 years ago.

The map also includes a number of pictures which aren't included in the MTGSally thread, so I'll post them here. These arts are taken from the game. There is actually one for each region of Corondor, which you are shown when you try to invade that land. The game then also gives a little intro to each region in the form of a sound clip. Unfortunately only these four pictures are included with this version of the map. That alone makes me anxious to try getting the game to work again. You should know by know that I'm a completist, so it won't surprise you that having only four pictures out of a collection of thirty-one is quite annoying to me.

The ruins of Arathoxia, the city in which most of Shadowmage took place. 
Quirion! One of the few locations on Corondor to make it into the card game.
The Spine of Corondor, aka the obligatory mountain rage dividing the continent that you get in most fantasy settings.
Inside Mt. Torvash, the southernmost mountain of the Spire. And look, a Torvash Engine, like the one we saw in Wayfarer!

THE GAME ITSELF
While most of the game is random, there are some interesting things to mention. For starters, let's take a look at the Character select screen. The introductions here mostly recap the stories from the comics, but there is some new material here. It states that Tevesh Szat's motivation is still the ending of all life on Dominaria and that Geyadrone Dihada has come to Corondor to get vengeance on the Carthalion lineage and re-recruit Dakkon as her main lieutenant. Also of note is that these blurbs tend to conflate Ravidel with Taysir, in that Ravidel is described as the jealous planeswalker who saw Kristina and Sandruu together and who was responsible for Leshrac's imprisonment in Phyrexia. I guess both statements are kinda-sorta true, since it was Ravidel who set Taysir on Sandruu and Leshrac, but it's clearly conflating things in order to keep the blurbs simple.

The most interesting character blurb is Leshrac's, who "pursues the spells of Mirage" in order to "unleash the chaos of Phyrexia upon the Multiverse!". This has gotten quite a few storyline fans excited over the years, as it implies that during his imprisonment he was converted to the Phyrexian cause! We should take into account though that this predates the reinvention of Phyrexia in the Weatherlight Saga. At the time Phyrexia was still thought of as a mechanical wasteland filled with demons and gremlins that feasted upon artifacts stolen from throughout the Multiverse. Plus, Leshrac has gone completely insane during his imprisonment. Unleashing the chaos of Phyrexia probably just means summoning a whole bunch of mechanical monsters to wreck havoc. Still, the idea of Leshrac having some sort of deal with Yawgmoth is very appealing. Especially since it opens the door to one of my favorite bits of fanon: the idea that it was Leshrac who first created the artificial plane of Rath!


After selecting a character you are plopped down onto the map, with your powers stripped because of Ravidel's spell. You'll have to build up your power by gaining control over the various lands of Corondor, either through diplomacy or conquest. Diplomacy involves just talking to the people you find in various nations and picking the right dialogue options. To showcase how this works you immediately run into someone once you've started the campaign. If you picked Kristina, Jared, Sandruu or Geyadrone you'll be offered an alliance or a truce by Ravidel. It should be noted that Ravidel suddenly speak in very odd "thees" and "thous", as if he has just walked in from a 1960's issue of Thor. This is the result of some shoddy planning. Jeff Gomez himself had scripted a number of the dialogues, but by the time the developers realized they needed much more dialogue than initially planned it was simply impossible for him to do all of that extra work. Thus other people were brought in who clearly hadn't read the comics and just fell back on stereotypical fantasy-speak.

Tevesh Szat first runs into Grenfell Mor, who begs Szat not to kill him. But once again the most interesting case is Leshrac, as he runs into...


...Teferi! He doesn't participate directly in the war, but he does give the player a number of "spells of Mirage" if you say the right things to him. You'll notice that he is looking a bit more... stereotypically African than how he will be eventually portrayed. He has put on a bit more clothes in the 1998 Magic calendar, (See here for another, slightly better version of that art) but his eventual distinctive outfit and staff won't appear until Invasion.

As I've said, I haven't been able to play the game through, but from this walkthrough I have found a list of other people you can talk to, and found it contains quite a lot of characters of the comics. The characters I recognize are Yorgo, Jared's bully-turned-ally from Shadow Mage, Visionary Kadesha, who send the D'Avenant Archer after Jared in Wayfarer, the lord of House Khone (Still only called Black Knight), the elvish Exarch Amadis from Wayfarer, Caliphaer the Nightmare, and Taysir.

Curiously, there are also a number of names here of dead characters. First there is Nikko, one of Yorgo's followers who was killed in the final battle with Ravidel in Shadowmage. Much more intriguingly, it appears that if you play as Jared you can talk to his parents, Adam and Gwendolyn! I'm guessing they would appear in the form of either ghosts or memories, but this is another mystery I can't solve until I manage to actually play the game.

Of course, all dialogues after the initial one are of questionable continuity thanks to the random progression of the game. Heck, it's even impossible to know how the opening conversations "officially" end, since their progress depends on which dialogue options you take! Jeff Gomez himself says he considers the bits of lore given on Corondor's history and geography to be canon, but not the "story" of the campaign. He still considers the unpublished version from the comics to be the canonical ending to the saga. While I agree that the game doesn't provide much in the way of stable continuity, from a fandom perspective it is rather impractical to have the canon be contained in a number of unpublished sources, the content of which has only reached the fans from second or even third hand. I'm afraid we'll have to continue to use this game as our canonical source, despite the very limited amount of concrete information it provides. The original stories are certainly the official ending to the story in my personal head-canon, but as a community, we are stuck with this crappy game.

CONCLUSION
So, to sum up, what do we know about the Planeswalkers War?

  • First, it is clear from the game that the main conflict was fought between Ravidel, the conquering planeswalkers Tevesh Szat, Leshrac and Geyadrone Dihada, and those trying to defend Corondor: Jareth Carthalion, Kristina of the Woods and Sandruu.
  • From the end of Wayfarer it is clear that Daria was also present, but apparently not involved, since she wasn't featured in the game.
  • Since you can talk to them in the game, I feel confident in saying Teferi and Taysir were also present, as were those minor characters from the comics, Yorgo, Grenfell, Caliphear, etc.
  • From the start of the game I think we can also safely assume that Jared, Kristina and Sandruu start the war in Kristina's Woods with a meeting with Ravidel, Tevesh in Telemar bullying Grenfell Mor, Geyadrone in the White Woods with another talk with Ravidel and Leshrac in the ruins of Arathoxia, running into Teferi. 
  • The only thing I think we can say about the resolution of the conflict is that Ravidel is defeated. After all, he is an opponent no matter which character you play as, and defeating him is necessary to complete the campaign.
  • From their later appearances in the novels, we can also say with certainty that Taysir, Daria, Kristina, Teferi, Tevesh Szat and Leshrac survived. The status of Jared, Sandruu, Geyadrone and pretty much every other character from Corondor is officially unknown.
And that really is all we know. There has been much speculation about the inclusion of other planeswalkers like Eskil, Lord Windgrace and Freyalise (who were all slated to appear in the comic. More on that below.) It also seems reasonable to assume that Urza, who later stories reveal was very active on Dominaria at this time, was also called by the Mox Beacon. It has been speculated that the Planeswalkers War may have been when he recruited Taysir and Tevesh Szat for his Nine Titans. But that is all just that: speculation. Despite this being the culmination of such a huge storyline, the first big saga in Magic's history really, we really know very little about what actually happened in the Planeswalkers War.

TIMELINE
One final thing to consider is when did this all take place? I already mentioned last time that the dates given in the comics, which place the war events of Shadowmage, Wayfarer and the war slightly over 1280 years after the Summit of Minorad, can no longer be considered canon as there is only 1271 years between the Ice Age and the Invasion.

The clue to when it does happen is in the cameo appearance of Teferi. We haven't covered Mirage yet, but when we do we will discover that Teferi accidentally removed himself from the timeline for about 200 years. In that time Mangara of Corondor travels to Jamuraa and sets up a golden age with the help of the Quirion elves. Mangara is said to be a pupil of Eskil of the White Woods, who we saw in Fallen Angel. Crucially, there is no mention made of a huge war having ravaged Corondor. Which implies that either the war happened long before Mirage, or after. But now look at this bit of dialogue from the game...

Image taken from MobyGames.com
Kaervek was a mage from the Burning Isles who came to Jamuraa and started the war that ended Mangara's Golden Age, the conflict that was shown in the Mirage and Visions expansions. If this game happens while Kaervek is not yet defeated, and is known as "Kaervek of Jamuraa", but also features Teferi, then the Planeswalkers War must happen in the last year of the Mirage/Visions conflict, in the period in which Teferi is indirectly aiding Jamuraa's defenders against Kaervek. This must be a busy time for him, getting involved in two wars at the same time, just after having returned to the time stream! No wonder he only gets involved peripherally in both!

The official WotC timeline places the end of the Mirage Wars in 4196. The script of Prelude to War puts a year and a half between the activation of the Mox Beacon at the end of Wayfarer and the start of the war proper. While I, as I explained above, think we unfortunately can't take the scripts as canon, this period of time seems reasonable. It would place Wayfarer in 4194. the bulk of Shadow Mage and Nightmare in 4193, the second half of Shadow Mage #1 in 4185 and the prologue (with the Battle of Aster Fall) in 4178.

If we don't want to rely on unpublished sources at all, we could place the war in 4196 and give Shadow Mage, Nightmare and Wayfarer the vague designation of "In the years before 4196" or something similar to that. Since I like my timeline to be as precise as possible I will be using the definite dates, but I'll add my usual qualifier of "probably".

WHAT'S NEXT?
So, with the Armada line wrapped up, what will I do next? Well actually, I'm not quite done with this saga yet.

First, as promised above, I will put up an article later this week that will try to make sense of the canonical status of the Armada saga and the pile up of ret-cons that have been applied to it over the years.

Now for the promised big announcement. As I've said numerous times during these reviews, I have been talking to Jeff Gomez, the writer of Shadow Mage, Ice Age and Wayfarer and the Line Editor of all the Armada Magic comics. Not only has he been giving me a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes information, but he has actually showed me the story outlines for the unpublished Walker of Night, Prelude to War and Planeswalkers War comics! While I am not allowed to share these documents for legal reasons, I have been granted the tremendous honor of giving you all a summary of them!

So soon I will run a pair of articles that will finally, after 19 years, reveal the original story of the Planeswalkers War! Finally it will be revealed who would live, who would die, who gave birth (no really!) and who took up the name Cosmic Ferret of Death! Hopefully I will be able to put those articles up next week, but since I want to run them by Jeff first (and he is a busy man, having an actual job and all) they might be up a little later. In that case I will already start with my reviews of The Duelist Magazine and return to the Armada saga as soon as possible.

Whichever comes first, I sincerely hope that you will all join me in the coming weeks for both the original finale of the Armada comics and the reviews of The Duelist!

4 comments:

  1. So cool, Squirrel-man! Good job. :)

    Speaking about typos... I think you should take a look at "Who who fights who an, who wins" and at least two instances of "I wont".

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  2. So soon I will run a pair of articles that will finally, after 19 years, reveal the original story of the Planeswalkers War!

    Oh man! You´re awesome! (As always) ¿We will know something about the "long forgotten in the history of the Multiverse" Planeswalker War? ;-) Wow! Desperatly waiting to read that. Congrats again and again!

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