Sunday, 12 June 2016

The Duelist #31-34 (Urza's Saga)

When we looked at the Exodus issues of The Duelist I mentioned that with the sudden departure of Pete Venters there suddenly was a lot less lore in the magazine. The effects of that are still seen here. Issue 31 introduces a new feature called "Forgotten Lore", which is really just a renaming of the old "From the Library of Leng" articles, which focus on the lore of an individual card. This will turn out to be an irregular feature though. Dominian FAQ makes a new appearance in issue 34, only to be forgotten about again. Sets will still be accompanied with an article telling their story, but the length and depth of those articles varies greatly. The bottom line is the while there is plenty of stuff in here that will interest Vorthosi, it does come across a bit chaotic, like the magazine doesn't really know what it wants to do with the storyline.

Let's first talk about the story of Urza's Saga in general. Issue 32 has a 6 page article on how it was created. It has since been reprinted on There is very little lore in the article itself, instead it deals with the behind the scenes process, but it prints a number of pictures taken from the style guide, which is always awesome to see.

What wasn't copied in the reprint were the sidebars that tell the story of Urza's Saga. Unlike the previous sets, which got storyboards that put all cards from the set in the correct order, here we just get a quick summary with a few random arts. It does tell us that each region and era of the story corresponds to a color in the set. Urza's time in Argoth is shown in green, Phyrexia in black, Serra's Realm in white, Tolaria in blue and Shiv in red. How the story fits together within colors, and how to deal with the few exceptions (Tainted Aether is part of the Argoth story for example) we are left to figure out for ourselves. If you have better things to do with your time, has taken a pretty good stab at it.

I've always liked this set up where each color represents a different part of the story. It obviously didn't work out as a way to tell the story, as you still have to be quite invested to figure out the order of events, but I find it an interesting experiment. What I do think is a bit odd is that three of the five colors in Saga actually overlap with other sets. The Argoth parts are a retelling of the ending of Antiquities and the Tolaria and Shiv bits are essentially repeated in Urza's Legacy. The former I can get behind. Antiquities never had a clear ending. The original telling in The Duelist was vague on every detail, and the Armada comics were cancelled before they could finish the story. All we had was a throwaway line in a background article. Given its importance to the rest of the Weatherlight Saga bringing the part of Urza's story under peoples attention is a good idea. Though it does surprise me that the Sylex Blast itself didn't make it onto a card. Surely that would've been a better use of Cataclysm's art?

The overlap with Urza's Legacy is a bit odd though. Nowadays WotC still gets complaints when individual cards, the art books or the video games spoil the ending of a set's story long before the Magic Story articles get to tell the tale, but spoiling the story in the cards of the previous set? That has to be some kind of record! It's especially jarring since there is a very clear break in the story between the White and Blue cards. If you read that storyboard you can almost hear the gear shift when suddenly we get a big chunk of text to tell the entire present day story of Planeswalker (which is barely featured in the cards), after which we suddenly go from Urza and Xantcha planeshopping to Urza and Barrin running a school. If I were in charge, would've developed Eufan Pincar and the Ohran Ridge more, so they could be used as the blue and red parts of the set, though I see that using Tolaria and Shiv, two unexplored regions from the early days of Magic, further enhances the "prequel" feel of Urza's Saga. (Interesting side note: for all the popularity of Shivan Dragon, their homeland had never been featured in a story prior to this!)

While I imagine that at the time it was a bit annoying to have a big part of the novel Time Streams spoiled half a year in advance through cards like Sunder and articles in The Duelist, from a historians viewpoint it actually gives us an interesting insight in the development of the story. Notice for example that while the Tolarian disaster is featured, neither K'rrick nor Jhoira is mentioned in Urza's Saga. Teferi does show up, but only as a typical prequel cameo/in-joke on Disruptive Student. It's not until Urza's Legacy and Time Streams came out that we learned of his involvement in the story, or of Jhoira and K'rrick's existence... unless you've been paying very close attention to The Duelist, as a small blurb in issue 32 already mentions that the cover shows Karn looking for his friends Jhoira and Teferi.

On to some minor lore articles. As I mentioned, issue 31 gives us the first installment of Forgotten Lore, talking about the card Sleeper Agent. It doesn't really tell us anything we didn't already know from Planeswalker, but I would be remiss not to show you this picture of Gix.

Issue 33 has an article looking back at the past five years as part of the celebration of Magic's first lustrum. This includes a part written by Pete Venters on the history of card art, with some very interesting revelations on the origin of the Weatherlight Saga!
"...the Weatherlight would be a sub-plot tucked away in each cycle, available for discovery by the story aficionados but frankly invisible to anyone else. It was hoped this would help us build up interest in the crew without them hogging the set's spotlight. Eventually they'd get a cycle dedicated to them, bringing the sub-plot to the fore in one major event." 
That was not quite how things played out! Pete Venters cites changing managers as the reason for that. Ironically this article also contains the earliest admission I could find that the Weatherlight crew did hog the spotlight too much, and that going forward WotC was going to dial down the number of cards per set dedicated to showing the main storyline characters.

Also part of the lustrum celebrations was the article "A Magic History of Time", eventually also reprinted on It's interesting from a historian's point of view in that it admits the earliest attempts at dealing with the storyline didn't really get off the ground. It is in fact rather disparaging about the Armada comics and the Harper Prism novels, suggesting they only sold if you could get promo cards with them. It does admit Prodigal Sorcerer and Ashes of the Sun were fine books... that nobody was interested in since they didn't contain promo's.

Issue 34 sees the return of Dominian FAQ, not seen since issue 27. I had to laugh when the first questions they had to answer were still "What's up with Dominaria and Dominia?" and "What's the difference between wizards and planeswalkers?" Other than that the questions don't really reveal anything new to us.

Much more important of course is that this is the origin of the official timeline! This timeline will continue to be updated for years, all the way until Mirrodin comes around. I've already talked about its eventual incarnation quite a bit over the course of doing this blog, so there's not a lot to add here. I will note that if you look closely under The Dark and Ice Age it seems like The Gathering Dark was originally going to be a standalone book, while Ice Age would've been represented by an entire trilogy. Eventually we would get an Ice Age trilogy, but The Gathering Dark will become its book one, and Shattered Alliances book three.

Finally issues 32 and 34 also contain parts two and three of Born to Greatness, belatedly giving us Crovax's origin story. It will be the last story featured in The Duelist.

  • Here's an advertisement for the Anthologies box set. It might be a lot cooler to you if you are American and love basketball, but to me it looks quite silly.
  • Much cooler are these random Phyrexian illustrations used in a few articles.

  • At the back of The Duelist there are card lists, a necessity for any Magic player in the days before the internet. From these issues onward they are spiced up with small inserts containing jokes, combo's, and the occasional Vorthos-relevant factoid. 
  • For those of you who figured out the hidden message in Unglued, but have been wondering what the cards that never made it would've done...
  • Phil & Dixie are also still present, and start tackling Urza's story.
  • Issue 34 has the announcement of MaRo's marrige.
  • And finally, these issues feature our first glimpses of the monsters whose invasion would transform The Duelist beyond recognition. No, not the Phyrexians...

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