Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Mirage & Visions Online

Issue 15 of The Duelist gave a peek into an exciting new area Magic fiction is going to appear in: the internet! A small article urged the reader to also try out The Duelist Online. By now that website has long been replaced, but thanks to the magic of the Internet Wayback Machine we can still take a look. It seems... sparse. There used to be more there though. For example, this little post by the Wizards webteam in which they decry how unclear the legislation is on who can be held liable if they implement a chatbox and somebody says something naughty on it. Oh, and by the way, check out this adorable little search button:

Okay, okay, I'll stop making fun of the early days of the internet. I myself also had a terribly designed Geocities site with a guest book and a visitors counters and everything. It was a site about the game Dungeon Keeper. But let's move on to what I actually want to talk about: the Mirage block storyline!

What I've dubbed "Mirage & Visions Online" is actually a collection of various pages which I believe all first originated on The Duelist Online. First there is this page, which gives a more detailed version of the Mirage story and the Who's Who we saw in the magazine itself. That page was actually re-posted on a later Wizards of the Coast website, which also contained a similar page for Visions. I haven't been able to find the Duelist Online version of the Visions page, but I'm assuming that's where it originated. The Visions site actually went down after WotC moved websites again, but has since been re-re-posted here. We should probably be archiving/downloading this information, since WotC has now moved websites again, and you never know when these old pages dissolve into the aether. (Quick aside: on the website above you'll also see entries for all other sets up to Mirrodin. The earlier sets all just boil down to one paragraph summaries of the stuff found in novels, comics and magazines though, and for the later sets they mostly just give a sample chapter of the novel. These entries will not be covered on this blog. I will cover the handful of more extensive entries, like the one for Tempest.)

The second batch of websites covered in this post are Mirage: Oasis and Visions: the Oracle. These are browser games (originally contests, but I assume they will be closed by now) which Wizards ran for their expansions during Mirage and Tempest blocks. The later ones are basically unplayable these days, but you're not missing much. They just turn short scenes from the story into games. "Help the Weatherlight navigate through the storms of Rath in this flash game!" or "Help Ertai solve this puzzle and open the Erratic Portal!", that sort of stuff. The Mirage and Visions entries actually have some relevant, or at least interesting, storyline information, and as they are much more text based they are still mostly navigable. Lucky us!

Finally I'd like to quickly mention one last page, an online "From the Library of Leng" article on Suq'Ata Assassins. In the last analog entry on Library of Leng (the one on goblins from issue 15) promised the column would continue online, and the Suq'Ata Assassin article says that next month they were going to run their first non-Magic related entry (focusing on Vampire: the Eternal Struggle.) I haven't been able to find any later entries, so either the plans changed or those pages have been lost in time. Like most Library of Leng articles this one just gives a few lore tidbits. It's only 355 words long, so a full review isn't really merited. But I did want to quickly mention it, both for completions sake and because I think this is the only, or at least the first, official source that states the Suq'Ata originated in Rabiah and came to Dominaria via Cyclone portals.

Well, now that you all know what to expect, let's get to it!

The stories of Mirage and Visions told online are just extended versions of those found in The Duelist. Teferi mucks up the time stream, which attracts the attention of Kaervek, Jolrael and Mangara. Mangara creates harmony in Jamuraa but makes Kaervek jealous, so a war breaks out. Teferi returns and gives the good guys visions that lead them to victory against Kaervek. It's not the most original story, but I find it comes alive because of its unique look, the attention payed to the backstory of the nations and the depth of its characters. I highly recommend following the links above to read the lore yourself. I'm sure you'll like it!

These extended versions of events are interesting because they allow us to make a more detailed timeline of Jamuraa. We already knew Teferi's Isle was gone for 200 years, but now we learn that before retiring to his island Teferi only visited Zhalfir for a short while, trying to restore order after the country had splintered in various factions. At that point he was already considered "ancient" and had spend the last few centuries exploring the Multiverse. Luckily, this matches later information pretty well. At the end of the novel Bloodlines we will see Teferi taking up the position of Royal Mage of Zhalfir around 3360 AR. Since I have Teferi phasing out is island around 4000 AR (I'll explain that in a moment), that leaves over six centuries for his backstory to unfold. A few decades as Royal Mage until he figures out he's a planeswalker, a couple of centuries on a jaunt trough the planes, a short stop at Zhalfir to restore order and then some decades or centuries experimenting with the timestream until the big disaster. While he was out traveling planes Femeref seceded from Zhalfir and later Zhalfir split into various small states. Sounds plausible.

The one conflicting source to this timeline is Teferi's entry in the Character Profiles page of the Mirage website. There it is stated that Teferi created the Guilds of Zhalfir before retiring to his island, and that Femeref seceded shortly after that. No planar travel period for him then. I think this is just a mistake though. The rest of the page, including other Character Profiles, all support the idea of Teferi being gone twice (Once to the Multiverse and once on his island), and Femeref splitting of from Zhalfir during that first period. I guess the confusion stemmed from the fact that Zhalfir is essentially left divided twice. While Teferi is planeswalking the country actually falls apart. He returns and reunited the place, but after he goes to his island there is still internal strife, and Femeref remains a separate nation. Peace and stability don't return until after the temporal disaster has attracted super-diplomat Mangara.

Now for the meat of the Mirage story, what happened while Teferi was phased out. We know this period lasted 200 years, and we now learn that Mangara managed to creature his harmony "within a century". We also discover that the actual war doesn't last all that long. The Visions pages opens with "The war for Jamuraa has raged over a year". Rashida Scalebane's character profile does speak of her becoming a hero "in the opening year of the war", but the conclusion seems to be that the whole conflict did not even reach the two year mark.

This creates a problem for us. The official timeline gives the dates of Mirage and Visions as "~4150-4196". Far longer than the war itself, but far shorter than Teferi's disappearance, or even Mangara's Harmony. Essentially it's the same problem we faced with Homelands. Solving that issue was pretty difficult. (So much so that after reading the comic I went with one option, but then changed my mind after a closer reading of the Homelands document.) Luckily the problem is a little less severe for Mirage. Homelands' story sort of tapers off, so it's hard to say when it ends. With the death of Serra, like the comic? With the collapse of Feroz's Ban, like the timeline given in the comic? Or even with the final confrontation between Sengir and Autumn Willow, which the story heavily foreshadowed, but never showed? Mirage block, on the other hand, has a very clear ending with the defeat and imprisonment of Kaervek. This is reflected in the timeline. Homelands ends on the suspiciously round year of 4130. Visions ends in the suspiciously precise 4196.

Further proof can be found in the involvement of captain Sisay in the conclusion of the war. Putting 8 years between her appearances in Visions and Weatherlight makes sure she isn't weirdly young in the former or weirdly old in the later story, while leaving plenty of years for Gerrard to join up with the ship, have some adventures and then return to Benalia. According to the Tempest website Gerrard is 26 in 4205. If memory serves he is 16 during Vuel´s right of initiation. Which would mean that happens right before the war. Vuel subsequent uprising, which Gerrard missed since he was with Multani, happens during or shortly after the war, and Gerrard´s meeting with Sisay happens shortly after that. Vuel´s uprising happening during the chaos of the Mirage war makes sense, but I´m getting ahead of myself. For now all we need to know is that 4195-4196 is a very plausible date for the Mirage War to happen, both when looking at Mirage block itself and the Weatherlight backstory.

But what to make of that ~4150 date? Honestly, I don't know. On the original timeline, the basis of the one at the MTGSally wiki, I assumed it was a ret-con and moved Teferi's disappearance to that date. Nowadays I very much prefer to keep as much of the original story material in continuity, while changing supplemental material if necessary. While Mirage doesn't have a story per se, the pages telling its backstory clearly are closer to one than the timeline. If anything hinged on a shorter time period for Mirage block I would change it, but since that isn't the case, I'm keeping Teferi's time phased out at 200 years, so he disappears around 4000 AR. And that ~4150 date? Perhaps the idea is that the sets take place after that date, and the sets only feature the end of Mangara's Harmony and the start of the war, but not the rest of the backstory?

Some minor notes before I move on to the next source:
  • In the final battle between Kaervek and Mangara, the Mundungu of Aku summon Aku Djinn because they predicted that Kaervek will take control of them and thus power up Mangara's creatures. This is the one bit of the story I don't like, as I'm not really a fan of translating the game mechanics into the story that literally.
  • In Mangara's character profile we see another example of all the continuity consolidation done at this point. He's from Corondor, has friends among the Quirion Elves of the White Woods, and is even rumored to have been an apprentice of Eskil! While a really cool easter egg for the continuity geeks, it does create a pretty weird situation when you realize that the Planeswalkers War is happening at the same time as the Mirage War. Eskil rescues Daria from an Amber Prison while hanging out with Teferi, while at the same time Teferi is sending visions to the Jamuraans telling them how to save Eskil's old pupil from an Amber Prison! Talk about a coincidence!
  • Finally, there are a few lines here that could technically still be true, but are most likely either changed, or only part of a larger picture if you consider sources that were released later. Here it is said that Teferi develops phasing do deal with "the difficulties of magical summoning". But... we never saw planeswalkers, or Teferi in particular, to have a problem with summoning. It seems much more likely that Teferi kept mucking with time either because he became fascinated with it on Tolaria, or perhaps even because he's already planning to phase out all of northwestern Jamuraa in Invasion. Also, here he doesn't influence the war directly because he needs to fix the damage he did to the timestream. But we know he's also involved in the Planeswalkers War at this point. Making a conflict involving a whole host of planeswalkers priority over a war involving a handful of wizards only seems logical. Heck, we could even postulate that by the time he discovers the war is even going on he is already under the influence the spell that Ravidel used to limit the power of planeswalkers. 

Archived here.
By Wolfgang Baur, Kij Johnson, Michael G. Ryan, Mike Selinker, Teeuwynn and Jennifer Clarke Wilkes.

Wow, that's quite some pedigree of writers! Michael G. Ryan we already saw in Distant Planes and his Homelands story The Slowing of His Heart, and would go on to co-create the Weatherlight Saga with Mark Rosewater. Teeuwynn is Teeuwynn Woodruff, who had a ten year stint as game designer for Wizards between 1995 and 2005, and Jennifer Clarke Wilkes, while mostly working on Dungeons and Dragons, was still working on Magic as late as Fate Reforged, and wrote several Uncharted Realms articles, including a pivotal part of the Tarkir block storyline! But anyway... what is the story about?

Oasis starts with you sitting around a campfire with Hakim Loreweaver, who offers to tell you a story. You can pick between that of Fola, a Civic Guildmage and a distant relative of Rashida Scalebane, Jojo, a Mtenda Herder, or that of an Urborg Panther. Quickly these plots start intertwining, and as you can ask Hakim to switch to other viewpoints a choose-your-own-adventure story emerges.

Fola's village is under threat of a Catacomb Dragon, so she goes out to search for an Amber Prison (Yes, another one!) to trap it, after being urged to do so by the shaman Bwire. Unfortunately the prison has been eaten by one of Jojo's goats. Jojo's story mostly revolves around him losing his goats one by one to lions, goblins, dragons and summonings by Bwire and Fola.

We quickly learn that Bwire is not a nice guy, who just wants the Prison for himself. He summons the Panther and later also summons a Breathstealer and a Feral Shadow. Those who know their Mirage cards know where this is going. In the final confrontation between Jojo, Fola and Bwire he merges his three summons into the Spirit of the Night, but is then forced to quickly sacrifice the creature and use its power to save himself when Jojo plunges a knife in his back. This happens just as the Spirit was about to tear the goat who ate the Prison to pieces, leaving the goat to fall to the ground and burp out the artifact upon impact. Fola uses the prison to capture the dragon (who conveniently turned up to watch the battle.) Bwire slinks away. Fola and Jojo each go their own way.

Along the way there story has several excursions, from Hakim telling background information on the land, to Bill Rose giving strategy tips on Mirage cards, to a bit told from the point of view of a Brushwagg.

The writing here is fine, with the exception of the way to coincidental appearance of the dragon at the end. However, the whole thing doesn't come together very well. Some bits are supposed to be tragic, or dark, like Fola's village being under attack, or the Spirit of the Night being summoned, while others are whimsical or even silly, like how Jojo keeps changing the numbers of his sheep as he loses them one by one, or the thoughts of the Brushwagg. This obviously creates mood whiplashes. Now, those can be used to great effect in a story, for example when a seemingly innocent situation is suddenly turned on its head. However, here you are not following a single story but jumping from one to the other. It's possible to go from happy to dark to happy to dark, et cetera. This makes it hard to really get immersed in the feel of the story. If you're going to read it I would advise you to first read it from one viewpoint, and then from another, and if a new viewpoint is introduced halfway through, like that of the Breathstealer and the Feral Shadow, to open those in new tabs and save them for later. You'll still have to deal with some shorter excursions though.

A little warning: if you're a completist like me this thing is a pain to navigate. I wanted to be sure that I read everything, so I was constantly on the lookout as not to miss a link. I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been to read back in 1996, having to constantly press "back" on your Neanderthal version of Internet Explorer because tabbed browsing hadn't been invented yet!

Even more frustrating for me: the ending is missing! The contest for this game was guessing who was in the Amber Prison during the story. But I have no idea if the solution was ever revealed anywhere, and if so, where that would be. Once you click the last link of the story, it just loops back to the beginning! And really, I have no idea who is supposed to be in the Prison. It can't be Mangara, since we know his Amber Prison was kept in one of Jolrael's temples in Mwonvuli and that he was released when Asmira sacrificed herself, not when a goat burped. Nor can it be Kaervek, as this story is supposedly set before the war. So if any of you can figure it out, or perhaps if anyone could somehow find a later version of the website that reveals the answer, do let me know!

For all its failings though, I must say it is an interesting experiment. Give it at least one quick run through to see what it entails. And try to find the bit told from the perspective of the Brushwagg. That's really quite funny.

This story teases some interesting things, but ultimately ends up being questionable continuity. Well, the framing sequence seems clear enough. It has to happen after the Mirage War, since Hakim at one point mentions it as having ended, and before the Phyrexian Invasion, as northwestern Jamuraa is still there. As discussed above that's a period of only 8 years, allowing for a relatively precise place on the timeline.

The majority of Oasis though, the story that Hakim tells, is deliberately self-contradictory. Some scenes told from both Fola's and Jojo's points of view have very different dialogues, going for the Rashomon effect. This self-contradiction extends to references that could help us place the story on the timeline. For example, Hakim refers to the events at one point as "those days, before war was upon us", yet Rashida Scalebane is already famous and we know from her character bio that she didn't take up her anti-dragon crusade until after Mangara was imprisoned and the first hostilities had begun. Then at one point the Amber Prison is called "Kaervek's Amber Prison", but as I mentioned, that's completely impossible. Perhaps the guy in the prison was supposed to be either Mangara or Kaervek, and Hakim is just making up an entirely new story about their release?

This is a bit annoying since there is actually an interesting bit of lore here. The Breathstealer says his people have lost the ability to cast "The Raising of the Night", a.k.a. activate Urborg Panther's second ability and summon a Spirit of the Night. When Bwire sacrifices him in his ritual though, (Which, by the way, in another continuity error, as when he first appears he says this was only his first journey to Jamuraa) he learns how to do it himself and sends this knowledge to a shaman of his clan. His plot thread then ends with this line:
"But what they did with this is another story, for another day"
Ominous, and clearly foreshadowing the murder of the Council of Voices of Femeref by the Spirit of the Night during the Mirage War. Tying this story to the main plot in this way would be a sweet bit of lore for the hardcore Vorthosi, and would serve to tie this rather random story much closer to the canon. The sketchy continuity rather ruins that though. Then again, Hakim does greet us like this:
"Yes, I am the Loreweaver, though I was called Hakim in the years before that man was born. Back then, he told lies. Now I tell stories. Oh, some of them might still be lies, but every house of  folklore is build on a foundation of truth. And I've lived in many, many houses."
So he's pretty much telling us his whole story is a fiction, but that there is truth in it. I like to think that the bit about the Breathstealers rediscovering "The Raising of the Night" after one of their kind being summoned to Jamuraa is that kernel of truth. After all, Hakim does talk this Bwire fellow up as a baddie well known through history. Unfortunately the details of that event will most likely never be revealed.

If there ever is another Planar Chaos-style set, can we have a "Hakim, Proper Historian"? I think I'd like him much better than this guy!

Archived here.

The Visions game is less ambitious. Instead of  a large interlocking story we have just one scene: You play Sidar Jabari, who has to decide what to do during the siege of Tefemburu. You have five advisers, one for each color of magic of course, who each have 4 options for you. These range from the Zhalfirin Commanders suggesting either peace talks, summoning a drake or going for the all-out assault, to the Shadow Guildmages suggesting turning someone into a vampire to give them more power or to sacrifice some criminals to raise a Necrosavant. You also have an Oracle who can give you cryptic clues as to the usefulness of the various suggestions. You then issue your order and see what happens.

It's simple, and honestly not terribly engaging, especially now the contest has ended and you can just go back and try again if you fail. Still, it's a nice little addition to the story of Visions. The correct solution (spoilers) matches the description of Tefemburu given in the official story, with Hakim using Teferi's magics to remove the inhabitants of the city and the city then being destroyed, taking Kaervek's army with it. It thus seems logical to assume that in continuity the siege of Tefemburu played out like this game in the winning scenario.

Sidar Jabari clearly is a smarter guy than I am though. I really couldn't make heads of tails of the vague murmurings of that oracle...

And with that we have completed our look at Mirage and Visions! Well, at least all the official sources... but before I reveal what I mean by that bit of unsubtle foreshadowing, there's something else I want to look at. Something I have barely covered since the review of the last comic and have really been missing: actual proper stories! Yes, next time I'll be looking at the Encyclopedia Dominia, WotC's first stab at publishing short stories online!


  1. Click and scroll down to find a link to the old version of the Story of Visions. It's basically the same thing of course, except for images.

    1. Nice! There's even a list of winners of the Mirage: Oasis game there! Unfortunately not including the correct answer though... maybe we can track any of these winners down and ask them? :P

    2. I was thinking the same thing... ;D but I think it would be easier to start on the forums - maybe some of the older storyline folks remember that? Zazdor comes to mind.

    3. I checked with Zaz already, he didn't know :(