Friday, 5 February 2016

The Art of Magic the Gathering: The Rath Cycle

As this is one of the few books I do not have in my personal collection, let me start by giving many thanks to reader, commenter and occasional spellchecker Leonardo for providing me with the opportunity to do this review!

I've been doing this blog for little over a year now, and looking back I see that I've deviated a lot from my original planning. Partially for fun reasons, like people lending me books or magazines I do not own, allowing me to review them anyway. Other times it was just real life getting in the way, leading to delays. It really annoys me when that happens, but it turns out some good did come from it, as I am now writing my reviews of the Rath stories around the time Battle for Zendikar block is current. Reviews the first block that told the story through the cards, kicked of an ongoing storyline and came with an art book, while Wizards has just returned to showing the story in the cards, kicks of their new ongoing storyline and released their second art book? (Even called "The Art of Magic the Gathering: Zendikar", as if it is part of a series alongside the work I'm looking at today!) It's all very serendipitous, and you can certainly expect a comparison between the two blocks in my Rath block wrap-up article!

So, let's make this review a little more topical and put it side by side Magic's newest publication. They both have gorgeous art and plenty of lore tidbits, and are each well worth your time. Zendikar gives more space to exploring the plane, while Rath Cycle gives more attention to the characters, which is to be expected. Currently we are just coming of a years long stretch in which worldbuilding was the primary job of the creative team, so obviously they'd want to show of the world. Plus the Weatherlight has a literal boatload of characters while the Gatewatch, so far, only has four. I think Rath Cycle is my favorite of the two, partially because of nostalgia, and partially because it makes extensive use of sketches and paintings from the style guide and comes with some interesting behind the scenes information from the designers. Zendikar only has a handful of arts not taken from the cards and is written much more from an in universe viewpoint. The downside of Rath Cycle is that it keeps a lot of backstory deliberately mysterious, saving it for future stories, whereas Zendikar goes into great detail on the backstory of the plane, the Eldrazi, the planeswalkers and the current story. It almost feels like an encyclopedia of the Zendikar story, whereas Rath Cycle is much more of a companion piece to all the other media outlets that the Weatherlight story appeared in.

And... what more is there to say? The art is beautiful, as you would expect of a Magic the Gathering product, and that alone is enough to make me want to track down the book anyway, despite no longer needing it for my project. Lorewise it is not essential, but does contain a number of interesting facts that I will cover below.

  • My usual categories are going to be mashed up for this review. Since a large part of the text of the book comes in the form of short blurbs of info, it's hard to say where trivia ends and continuity relevant stuff begins.
  • The book starts with an intro by Richard Garfield, followed by a short piece about the art of Magic in general, which rambles on into (sigh) another global telling of the Rath story. Then we get 27 pages on the design of the Weatherlight, 31 pages of characters, 9 on the Predator, 15 on the Stronghold and 28 on the races of Rath.
  • The introduction gives a short overview of the changes the story has gone through. Originally people could just make their own story, or at least "assemble their own view of Dominia", as mister Garfield puts it. Antiquities telling an actual story sounded insane to him, but he came to realize their archaeological approach, where opening a pack was like digging up ancient artifacts, was not very different from what he did in Alpha. You'd think his praise for this approach would be out of place for the much more traditional storytelling of Rath block, but he manages to segue nicely into promoting the art book as an atlas to help exploring archaeologists.
  • The chapters are separated with pages showing... a planet maybe? Is that supposed to be Rath, with a bizarrely extended Stronhold? It does remind me a little of the talk of planes as spheres connected with threads from Dominia and its Walkers, so maybe it's supposed to be Dominaria connected to the smaller, parasitic Rath?
  • I found the following quote very interesting, although it's a bit of a shame those "physics of planeswalking" aren't actually described in the book.
"Exploring Weatherlight's equipment has helped us examine the physics of planeswalking, since Weatherlight can grant ordinary Dominarians the ability to planeswalk. It's also given us insight into the history of the Thran, because the Weatherlight's design is based upon the templates of that ancient civilization."
  • Also interesting is the description of mana given here. I don't think the bit about emotions and dreams having mana is ever referenced again, but as far as I know it isn't contradicted either. This could be used to bring some consistency to the more out-there ways of spellcasting in the canon, like the Song Mages in Song of Time or the Dementia Casters from Odyssey block.
    "Mana is the basic, all-pervading energy that is the foundation of all the planes of Dominia and everything on those planes. Every creature, place, or material object in the multiverse contains some mana; in addition, some things that do not have a material existence (spirits, strong emotions, even dreams) contain some mana. It is both a sort fo magical "electricitry" as well as the "soul" of things."
  • After that quote it is said lands provide the purest form of mana and that spellcasters can only tap lands from the plane they are located on at that moment. That last bit seems unlikely, as we've seem planeswalkers cast spells directly after finding a new plane. It may be a reference to that bit in Shattered Chains where Greensleeves and company are trapped on a plane because she can't find any mana there. I'd blame that on her not being a proper planeswalkers yet though.
  • The Weatherlight is described as half made up of Thran-iron, with heavy beams of Yavimayan woods having grown around the ship's spine. It's several centuries old, but where it comes from is unknown. Rumors put her origin in half a dozen places and suggest she was grown, rather than created. All of this meshes perfectly with the revelations about its origins we will get in Urza's block.
  • What fits less well is that it is repeatedly described as the only flying ship on Dominaria, the "age of skyships" having been over for centuries, perhaps even millennia. In Invasion we will get mentions of Benalia having a whole fleet of flying ships! But we'll deal with that when we get there. For now let's just say all the rumors about Weatherlight match up nicely by the legend about a flying ship told to Ayesh in Ashes of the Sun.
  • The ship's planeswalking device is called the shift drive. Mention is made of a sample from the target plane being needed, but not that it has to be a person or that a wizard also needs to be around. In fact, the text only speaks of a mechanical process, and of engineers pouring over the Thran Tome to figure out how to work the engine. It seems very clear that this book thinks the Weatherlight can planeswalk of its own accord.
  • Given that it isn't stated that a wizard is needed, Ertai's role on the ship is not explained. It's only said that Barrin made sure he was given a post, in a quote that makes Barrin sound... well, like a vindictive jerk really.
"His (Ertai's) presence on the ship is a constant reminder of Barrin's undisguised displeasure in his daughter's decision to join the crew"
  • In the character department there are a few statements that don't quite match up with other sources. For example, the backstories of Gerrard and Volrath only focus on antipathy growing between the two, suggesting there was never much of a bond between them. It's not explicitly stated though, so we can imagine it as Vuel harboring some jealous feelings towards his dad's acceptance of Gerrard, but that these didn't come to the fore until his botched initiation ritual.
  • Timelinewise, we are told that Gerrard is send to Multani as a 17 year old, and that Vuel attacks Multani when Gerrard is 18. We are also shown a picture of Gerrard aged 15 and Vuel as a child of undetermined age.

  • In Sisay's section it is said that she was "the first captain of the Weatherlight", but that must just be an awkward way of putting she was the captain before Gerrard, as the book itself states that she inherited the ship and that it is centuries old.
  • Also interesting is that her write up really focuses on the death of her family. In fact, it suggests a motivation for her we never really see in the actual text
"The line between her desire for revenge and loyalty to the Legacy is now so blurred she is no longer able to separate them ... Her drive never undermines her dignity, even if it has, at times, clouded her judgment."
  • If we do accept this as part of her character, she hides it very well. I like to think that her stay in Volrath's prison made her realize there are bigger things at stake than her personal vengeance. That would explain why this motivation is never referenced again.
  • Mark Tedin provides us with a picture of a more emaciated and scarred Sisay, to reflect her time on Rath. I love it when so much attention is payed to details like that.
  • A fact that I knew already, but never knew where it was from: Orim and Hanna met at university before joining the Weatherlight! It would've been fun if the backstories of the crew had continued in The Duelist. After Tahngarth's duel for the life of Sisay and Crovax's doomed love affair with Selenia... Hanna and Orim go to a kegger and try to skip classes!
  • Speaking of Orim, it turns out she's not just the resident healer, but also the ship's translator, tailor and quartermaster, trained in politics and diplomacy! Good thing she become a much more central character in Masques block. She deserves it, apparently being the hardest working person on the ship!
  • We had already knew that Mirri was abandoned by her kin, but here the reason is revealed: it's because of her eyes were of mismatched colors. Unfortunately that's not really clear in the various arts we have of her.
  • One more timeline notice: Mirri stayed in Llanowar for three years before rejoining the Weatherlight.
  • For Tahngarth, we get confirmation that he becomes first mate directly after the death of Meida, which happened in Sisay's Quest. It's awesome to see such tight continuity there! 
  • Oh, and if you want to see something terrifying, check out this sketch of Tahngarth laughing!
  • Karn is described as having an "innate resistance to positive thinking". It fits how he appears in other stories, though it does make him sound like Eeyore. Also, according to this book the space in him where the smaller Legacy items are kept is reached by unhinging his jaw! In Gerrard's Quest his chest flips open, which I find less silly.
  • Starke, as always, seems to be one of the most interesting, layered characters. We are told that his dalliance with Takara's mother (not named here, but called Aniyeh in Rath and Storm) was the only moment of weakness he allowed himself in his life, and that he actually barely knows Takara, but wants to save her since "she's his last connection to anything legitimate."
  • Takara herself has inherited Starke's ability to scheme, but used those skills in the Dal resistance movement. This is the first time we learn anything about her personally. In the other iterations of the story she really is just a prop to motivate Starke. Without this book you'd think she was only captured by Volrath to manipulate her dad, but here we see she was a thorn in his side herself.
  • Rofellos is only described as a wanderer, which lead to him leaving Llanowar and joining up with Gerrard and Mirri. This will be vastly expanded upon in Urza's block.
  • Speaking of stuff that will change, Selenia is said to have been "generated to guard over the family's Urborg estate." The Urza's Saga printing of Persecute will state she was originally from Serra's Realm.
  • We also learn more, maybe a bit too much, about her relationship with Crovax:
"Crovax nursed a secret obsession for the guardian angel, summoning the armored nymph in seclusion, tentatively establishing a relationship he could never quite bring himself to consummate. It probably wasn't possible while she was bound to her duties. It may never have been possible."
  • Who on earth decided "armored nymph" was a good way of describing an angel?
  • The backstory of Maraxus also fits oddly with Urza's block, though a bit better than Selenia.
"Keldon Warlords were created in a bid to generate the definitive soldier, a creature who could command the rage in others."
  • That bit about manipulating the rage of others is of course exactly what we saw in Final Sacrifice. That first bit is trickier. Future stories will give us another origin of Keld that has a more mystical origin of the Keldon Warlords. However, Urza's block introduces Gatha's experiments among the Keldon, which indeed were an attempt to create the perfect warrior for war against the Phyrexians. Perhaps that's what is meant here? Later in the text the rulers of Keld are called the Witch Kings, which is a term that I haven't seen before, but which will be featured a lot in future stories about Keld.
  • Gallowbraid and Morinfen are not given an origin, it's just said that they were in the employ of Volrath. Oh, and that they might still be "cavorting" through the ruins of Crovax's estate. Which gives me another cool idea for a "missing" Magic story: Some time during Planeshift, Crovax, as the Ascendant Evincar, returns to Urborg and finds these two hanging out in his old mansion. What do you think he will do to them?
  • You will have noticed I've mainly posted sketches so far. Actually, there is much more art in the character pages, but most of it comes from cards, Vanguard cards and The Duelist covers, so I thought I'd focus on the unique stuff. You can check out the Mirri and Hanna pages if you want examples of what the average page of the characters section looks like. That look changes for the Predator and Stronghold sections though, which are almost entirely filled with art taken from the style guides. Which is just fantastic, so... let me just share a few pages.

  • After that, we shift back the the set up with mostly art from cards for the section on Rath's races.
  • The three shadow races, the Soltari, Thalakos and Dauthi, are "generally known as the Etherics". I'd like to know where they are generally know by that name, as this is the only place I've ever seen the term used!
  • Skyshroud elves are described as particularly xenophobic. Moreso than the Llanowari and those we'll see in Lorwyn? Funny how after "nature loving" the trait uniting all Magic's elves is "racist".
  • We already knew the Skyshroud/Rootwater conflict was about resources. Here we get the extra little detail that all-out war began when the elves started to take the Rootwater's water serpents as food.
  • Anson Maddocks says he designed the Skyshroud Elves to be "somewhat buglike". Not something I had noticed before, but now he mentions it I guess I do kinda see that influence.
  • The Kor apparently have been changed "modified in flesh and essence", whatever that means, by eating the bizarre magical creatures that live in the Rathi wastes. Certain members, presumably the Shamen or the Spirits, can reach a "half-substantial trance state." We don't get more elaboration than that. Makes me wonder if their weird look, with the chin tentacles, was originally supposed to be part of this mutation as well.
  • The description of Licids, Slivers and Spikes is very minimal. The Dominian Chronicles articles from The Duelist thought us more about them. The part labeled "Other Races" only shows arts.
Today's article was a short review, but I see I've more than made up for that with the trivia and continuity section! Next up is Born to Greatness, the follow up to Sisay's Quest that covers Crovax's backstory. After that, we'll have seen the entirety of Rath block, so it will be time for the wrap up article, which will also try to resolve all the continuity issues raised here. Hope you'll join me for that as well!

Oh, and have some more art pages!


  1. Fantastic review, Berend. I'll say it another time: "Multiverse in Review" needs to become a series of e-books divided per year, or something like that.

    Little heads-up: "Mirri stayed in Llanowar for three years before rejoining the Weahterlight." :P

    P.S. What a sexy left thumb I have.

    1. Thanks for the heads up on the typo, you sexy thumb haver ;)

    2. Excellent work, both of you! ;-)
      @Leonardo, I have a favour to ask you, but I don't know how to contact you... would you be so kind to write me at (obviously with @instead of #), thank you!
      @Squirle, could you please check your inbox on Mtg Salvation? Thank you very much!

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Hi! Is there a way to find this book as an ebook or a PDF file?