Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Homelands Document

Regular readers may have noticed that until now I've pretty much only been talking about stories, with a handful of articles thrown in. But there is another important part of the Vorthos landscape: settings! In the early days good overviews of those were hard to come by however. Nowadays, whenever we visit a new plane, we get extended looks at the world, the species within it, the main political players, etc. in the Planeswalkers Guides. Back in the day you didn't have those. You'd have the short introductions to the settings in The Duelist, you'd have the sets themselves and perhaps a comic or a novel. If you were really lucky the comic had a bunch of backmatter explaining more. You had to gather it all together yourself, and even if you did so you were always left with a feeling that there was more to the setting than was revealed.

Pictured: a typical old-school Vorthos.

This feeling of there being some kind of "Hidden Lore" was only increased years later when Brady Dommermuth revealed a few bits of information from an in-house document chronicling Dominarian lore, or when in an article on Lorwyn's treefolk Doug Beyer could suddenly talk about characters like Flann, Fionnsutha and Aidar River Span, who hadn't even made it into the flavor text! Clearly Wizards had a habit of making worlds that were far more detailed and elaborate than could be fit into the cards! I've always found it a bit annoying, knowing that until I secure a job at WotC itself, I'll never be able to have a complete picture of all the created lore!

Yet sometimes some of this behind the scenes info comes out. This is what happened with Homelands. Scott Hungerford (The lore junkie behind the set) revealed that he had a document that not only summed up the entire history of the set and explained the setting of Ulgrotha in great detail, but actually came with a list of lore on every single card in the expansion. This document was gifted to MORT (a stalwart of the storyline forums, who you may have seen commenting on this blog) after which it circulated on MTGSalvation and Phyrexia.com, before settling down on No Goblins Allowed, where you can read it in all its glory.

Many people see this as a Planeswalkers Guide to Ulgrotha. Those of you who have clicked the link to No Goblins Allowed will have noticed that "Planeswalkers Guide to Ulgrotha" is in fact the name of the thread in which the document is posted. In reality we are dealing with something else: a work in progress. An awesome look behind the scenes that shows us a snapshot of the creation of Ulgrotha, but not a finished, canonical source. Still, given how tantalizingly detailed it is you can't blame the Vorthosi of the world for wanting it to be canonical. High time thus to take a thorough look at the document, to see what could still be true, and what was dropped between the creation of the document and the release of the set.

The document is made up of two parts. The first contains what is essentially a summary of the Homelands comic, and a timeline that matches the one from the comic's backmatter almost word for word. The main difference is to the meeting of the planeswalkers with Baron Sengir. Feroz and Serra are engaged, fight Taysir and then get married "after but a short time" on the plane. Only after that they start exploring the plane further, discovering the dead zone and Castle Sengir, but still not meeting the Baron himself. In the comic they run into that suave vampire the very same day Feroz arrived on Ulgrotha!

The second part of the document appears to have been created as a guideline for the artists illustrating the set, judging by the notes on looks of people and architecture contained within. Where the first part dealt with Homeland's backstory, this second section deals with the present. It's interest comes from the fact that in addition to the look of the creature or spell they were asked to draw, the artists were also provided with a lot of background information. Reading through these notes it becomes clear that quite a few lore changes were made between the commission of the art and the set's release. Here Eron the Relentless was made immortal by a mage in exchange for heading out into the wastelands, while according to his Library of Leng entry he got the boon in exchange for stealing a book of spells from Castle Sengir. More obviously, the dwarven trader with the counting pony is called Renzel instead of Halina and the An-Zerrin Ruins are called En-Sendra and are supposed to be haunted by the ghost of a planeswalker instead of a group of people killed by Sengir. Most obviously the description of Daughter of Autumn is ended by the following statement: "This being may also be her child, depending on Continuity needs." Clearly we are dealing with a work in progress.

And yet it's impossible for me to just shrug my shoulders and declare the whole thing non-canonical. The information here is just to juicy! The comic and the Library of Leng entries we looked at last week showed us parts of the Homelands setting, but this documents ties it all together. The intricate balance of power in which Koskun and Aysen need each other's produce despite centuries of war, with Autumn Willow and the wizards of the Floating Isle keeping the peace. The dangers to this stability, with Floating Isle apprentices feuding with Koskun Goblin Wizards, Eron wanting to add the power of the Anaba minotaurs to his forces and the troubles in Aysen between the Inquisition on the one hand and the Death Speakers on the other. Baron Sengir manipulating all this from behind the scenes and Autumn Willow faced with the impossible option of destroying all civilizations on Ulgrotha to restore the mana lines and defeat Sengir... This is the story that has captivated storyline fans for years, and most of this can only be found in this document! It's almost evil, presenting us with all this amazing lore, but in a form that is contradicted in so many ways by the official sources!

Now here's a paradox for you all to chew on: the Homelands document shows us an intricately balanced setting, filled with lots interesting characters and even more foreshadowing of a future conflict. It is so tantalizing that over the years hardcore storyline fans have never stopped clamoring for a Return to Ulgrotha block. But on the other hand... finishing the Homelands story would require the use of that thing that Vorthosi fear most: the ret-con. Either to alter parts of the Homelands comic or of the Homelands Document. Most likely both. So this document makes us want to return to Ulgrotha, but returning to Ulgrotha would mean invalidating this document!

"Luckily" Homelands turned out to be one of the worst Magic sets ever and Wizards has since been avoiding Ulgrotha like the plague. It's thus unlikely that the paradox will have to be resolved. Ulgrotha fans can just import everything they like from the Homelands Document into their head-canon without fear of it ever getting contradicted. Just make sure you double check whatever is in there with what was published in the comic and The Duelist!

  • In addition to the differences I mentioned above, the biggest change to the story is that after taking the castle from the dwarves, Baron Sengir and Irini, eh... go to sleep for no reason, and in the centuries they spend slumbering Feroz and Serra pop up on Ulgrotha. This would explain why Sengir doesn't act against the 'walkers (their immense power is also a good explanation, but remember that this story was written with the idea that a 'walker could be defeated by a whack to the head.) I'm glad it was removed from the final version of the story. It simply doesn't make much sense.
  • Last week I mentioned that Homelands essentially had three separate stories: the Feroz/Serra love story, the Autumn Willow/Baron Sengir conflict and the planeswalkers popping up and rediscovering Ulgrotha. This document actually manages to neatly tie all these plotlines together! It reveals that the unraveling of Feroz's Ban is due to the presence of the Dwarven Gate underneath Castle Sengir, and that destroying the Gate might restore the Ban. Thus the Autumn/Sengir conflict is directly tied into the Feroz/Serra backstory and may result in keeping the planeswalkers out! Very neat!
  • The Document also gives more information about the Tolgath/Ancient conflict, and gives the origin of the Rift that provides Ulgrotha with its mana: it was opened by a Tolgath Warlord to fuel spells during the war with the Ancients.
  • A possible difference between the canon and the document: the comic seemed to suggest Ravi rang the chime after being overcome by the horrors of war, while here it was her sensing her friends getting killed one by one. I'd say both motivations have their narrative merits, but the one in the comic is canon.
  • Oh, and one reference for the conspiracy theories: "All of the wizards who could not escape in time were burnt in the holocaust of colorless fire". COLORLESS FIRE!? Clearly Ugin created the Apocalypse Chime!
  • And a few lines later...  Feroz "gained a level of wisdom and understanding few planeswalkers achieve, for Feroz knew that the multi-verse (sec) was connected on every level"... So... Feroz IS Ugin?
  • Here's a thing I'm very glad they changed: in this version of the story Feroz, with his last breath, asked Serra to leave Ulgrotha, to never tell anyone about what they had done and "to leave "their children" to live their own lives." This leads to Serra's anger preventing her from saving the mortal man from his accident with the apple cart, while in the comic it was grief. So in this version of the story Serra was pretty much useless without Feroz's guidance, which is an a terrible use of Magic's original white-mana planeswalker and first female star!

    • Ravi was apparently a green/black wizard! That's new information! Well... except for those of us who read Scott Hungerford's article in Fallen Angel, where he let that information slip. Guess this is one bit of lore that is thus confirmed in the official sources.
    • Ulgrotha apparently has merfolk that herd manatees! I would've liked to see those in the set!
    • Now that I think about it, there are quite a few creature not in the set that are on the world according to this document. In addition to merfolk there should be elves, goblins, orcs... even kobolds!
    • Aysen means "Harmony", according to Serra, while its main city was named after the first abbot, Onella.
    • The term "Aysen Crusader" apparently refers to lay zealots, a group of rabble that is only turned into a true fighting force when a hero takes charge... which is very odd flavor for a card that clearly represents the hero taking charge, not the rabble being led.
    • Despite the Samite showing up time and again on Dominaria, this document is actually our main source of info on them. Luckily their depiction here, as dedicated healers who don't pick sides since they don't believe in true good or true evil but in balance and destiny, doesn't clash to much with what we see of them elsewhere. Unluckily though, that characterization matches the philosophy of green better than that of white these days...
    • The entry of Serra Bestiary mentions that the Aysen might imprison a minotaur in their Bestiary, as they see them just as beasts. Neat little flavor win: the 5th Edition version of the card actually shows a minotaur behind bars!
    • The Ebony Rhino sounds like it should be made by Teeka. However, this document reveals it was left behind on Ulgrotha after the Tolgath/Ancient conflict, while Distant Planes suggested that Teeka lives in "modern" (~4000 years after the Brothers' War) Dominaria. So either Teeka is centuries old, or someone else made the Rhino. Or Teeka's story should be moved to a much earlier point on the timeline, but I'm not going to make such a drastic revision based on a source as unreliable as the Homelands Document.
    • A very strange entry is that of Ironclaw Curse: It reveals that the Ironclaw Orcs were cursed by a wizard to always run away from larger critters. This actually turned them into military geniuses among orcs, as regular orcs always charged, no matter the odds. I think this is pretty silly, as the original flavor was clearly that these guys were just cowards. Maybe the idea was to differentiate goblins from orcs, with goblins being coward and orcs always stupidly running into battle? If that was the case, it didn't really stick. Goblins and orcs would essentially be interchangeable in Magic until Khans of Tarkir reinvented the latter. 
    • The entry is made even odder by the reference to all Ironclaw apparently being dead and their last stand being uncovered by archaeologists. I'm fairly certain some Ironclaw Orcs turned up somewhere in the Harper Prism stories, the Encyclopedia Dominaria talks about them as if they are still around and they certainly are back by the time of Time Spiral. The weirdness is further exacerbated when it states that a scroll containing their curse was found "On Dominia". Presumable that is just the umpteenth mix-up between Dominia and Dominaria though. Having the Ironclaw die out and then return in the chaos of Time Spiral is a rather interesting wrinkle in the history of Dominaria, but I'm not sure it fits the canon. If only I had kept an eye out for the Ironclaw while reading the Harper Prism stuff!
    • Also, note how the art of Ironclaw Curse portrays something completely unrelated.
    • Retribution's flavor is just brutal, yet awesome. Don't mess with Eron, or he will kill you and mutilate your family!
    • Irini Sengir's mind was twisted by Sengir so she loved him instead of her father. That's creepy. It's also said she's Reveka's great-grandmother! No idea who the great-grandfather is though.
    • In this version of the story Sengir turns Ravi into a vampire, but I'm pretty sure that's not possible for pre-Mending planeswalkers. Maybe she was so insane she forgot she wasn't a normal human? Whatever the case, the Creature Type update turned her into a Human Wizard, so her status is pretty weird anyway. I'd say her stay in the Basalt Spire suppressed her spark turning her into a human again, but that she wasn't sired by Sengir afterwards.
    • One neat bit is that Grandmother Sengir is stated to be "Nearly the same age of Baron Sengir". I say this is neat because it matches up perfectly with the Song of the Plague Rats story from Secrets of Magic!
    • Just so you all know, it's stated about Baron Sengir that "though he has dark tendencies, he is not evil - just practical and rather direct." I love the Baron, but to say he's not evil is a bit much. Not mustache-twirling, evil-for-the-sake-of-evil, certainly. But feeding innocents to your horses is evil in my eyes, no matter what spin you give to it.
    • Perhaps one of the most obscure planeswalkers in the sort-of-canon is Timmothius, the dude said to be in charge of the Timmerian Fiends. It sounds like he ascended during the Brothers' War and has now created the Fiends (which are capable of planeswalking themselves!) to ransack worlds for magic and artifacts. The community hasn't really embraced his existence though. He's not even on the MTGSally wiki!
    • One thing that isn't contradicted by any published sources, but which I would keep out of the canon anyway is that Ravi has traded Apocalpypse Chime with a Dwarven Trader for a few trinkets. Yeah Grandmother Sengir is completely insane, so perhaps she would do it, but it seems like a very strange, silly plotpoint to get rid of an artifact absolutely central to the story. I'd have her keep the thing and have it play a central part in the resolution of the story. Having her give away the Chime would also nullify it's creepy, foreshadowing flavor text...

    Despite many of the facts giving in the document being contradicted by other sources, there is one thing that it has made me wonder about: the placement I've given Homelands on the timeline. You see, I went with the interpretation that the timeline given in the comic (which matches the one in the document pretty well) covered the backstory of Ulgrotha, while saying the period allocated for "Homelands" in the official timeline covers the set itself, rather than the backstory. Yet this document very consistently talks about the present day as a short period. It's been 20 years since Feroz and Serra died, everything is already going to hell and there is but a short period before Autumn Willow will no longer have the power to do anything about it. It's quite clear that Hazduhr the Abbot is on his last legs and he's certainly not going to live the 330 years the official timeline gives to Homelands.

    Of course, it could be that this, like some many elements of the lore, was changed between the creation of the Document and the release of the set, or ret-conned by the time the official timeline came out, but I'm starting to doubt it. No new Homelands story was released to replace the original, so we really only have this one, which seems to happen in a much small time scale. Autumn Willow's Library of Leng entry seems to confirm the short scale as well.

    But that brings back the problem I originally face when trying to put the Homelands comic on the timeline: it takes place over 600 years (counting the prologue) or over 240 (not counting it). Neither dates matches up with the 330 years given in the official timeline. So... back to different length of years between Ulgrotha and Dominaria, or even different speeds of time? Both are possible, but seem to be pretty big leaps to me. Instead I'm just going to say that the 4130 date, the later terminus of the Homelands time period on the official timeline, matches the "present day" on the comic timeline. It seems to be the neatest option and has the nice side-effect of matching the Ulgortha "present day" with the original Dominarian "present day". I will also assume Ulgrothan and Dominarian years are roughly the same lenght, putting the prologue 600 years earlier and the main part of the comic in the 240 years previous. With the qualifiers "probably", of course. And yes, those qualifiers are starting to become nearly omnipresent. Don't worry, we'll get back to actual concrete dates when we reach the Weatherlight Saga! As for the "~3800" starting date the official timeline gives for Homelands... I'm stumped as to what it could mean. I've not had any success in contacting Scott Hungerford, but maybe one day he could clarify the issue.

    One final timeline note: In the comic an old abbot and a falconer are featured in the scenes before Taysir duels Sandruu and Feroz, which is 200 years before the present. The abbot isn't named, so we could assume it's Hazduhr's predecessor, or say he's over 200 years old. Odd, but not necessarily impossible in a magical setting. The falconer is explicitly named as Soraya though. Assuming that she is also that old only not showing it seems impossible, especially when compared to Hazduhr's case. So I'd say either Soraya's card is a flashback to an earlier period of Ulrgotha, or maybe Soraya is a common name in Aysen and she's just the second falconer called that. Either option works.


    1. Ah, Ulgrotha. One of my favorite settings - it has a certain quality that I'm not able to describe. And the Baron, he's so cool! Another thing I like of the document is the description of the Timmerian Fiends. But really, it's a very interesting setting.

      Heads-up: "to juicy" and "Iringi".

      1. Once again, thanks for the heads up!

        Irini is one of those names I still miss-spell constantly, alongside Storgard and Tahngarth.

    2. I still hope without hope for a Return to Ulgrotha...
      By the way, I'm starting to read the Harper Prism novels. I'll keep an eye out for the Ironclaw Orcs (having just read Arena I can tell you they are still around because an opponent of Garth summons one of them... to BLOCK A BEAR! What happened to the curse, and to game mechanics?) Are there other things that, with better knowledge in retrospective, you want me to research?