Saturday, 24 March 2018

Dominarian Annotations, episodes 1 & 2

Wizards has just started its previews of a new set that seems tailor made for me, a historian/archivist who has been a fan of the Magic storyline since 1998. I can't not talk about Dominaria on this blog! So welcome to the first installment of Dominarian Annotations, where I explain all the references to old lore in the latest Magic Storyline articles!

I'm not sure how frequent this series is going to be, that depends on the reference-density of the future episodes. The first episode was almost nothing but references, but the second was more plot focused and added little more to talk about, so I'll probably save these up until I've got a decent collection of things to discuss. I do intend to annotate all episodes of Return to Dominaria though, and I'll do a full review of the story after the last part has been released. Keep your eye on this blog, or on my Twitter or Tumblr, for future updates! Oh, and stick around for the regular articles of course. The Jedit review will be up tomorrow!

Now, let's dive into Return to Dominaria: Episode 1 and Episode 2!

"Sadage, cleric of the Cabal"
We start with the Cabal, who are set up as the main bad guys of the new story. This organization first appeared in Odyssey, where they were running a criminal cartel cum magical gladiator competition on the continent of Otaria. They were founded by a guy called Virot Maglan, later known as The First (and simply called Cabal Patriarch on the cards), an immortal whose mere touch would kill people and who planned on resurrecting Kuberr, the god of avarice and profit worshiped by the Cabal.

The Cabal had a lot of little quirks and mannerisms that they no longer seem to have. They employed dementia casters who sacrificed their own sanity in order to summon nightmare creatures, they had their own greeting, "The Cabal is here", to which the response was "And everywhere", every one of their members had a secret name and a nickname in addition to their birth names... the current Cabal seems to be a more generic death cult so far, but that would fit with Belzenlok's appropriation of myths and religions without regard of what the past was really like.

"...made his way to the doors of the high-vaulted worship hall of the Stronghold"
Okay, this is a doozy. To explain the Stronghold I need to talk about Rath, and to explain Rath I need to talk about Phyrexia... okay, here it goes.

The Phyrexians were bio-mechanical monsters from Phyrexia, a plane also known as the Hell of Artifice. They were first introduced in Antiquities and initially seemed mostly concerned with capturing and torturing artifact creatures. Later stories changed their depiction, making them horrific bio-engineers with an interest in invading Dominaria. Their most famous invasion is of course the one that gave the set Invasion its name. To facilitate this invasion the Phyrexians created an entire artificial plane called Rath, which was the setting of Tempest block and Nemesis. During the invasion this plane merged with Dominaria (the eponymous event in Planeshift), instantly transporting a world worth of Phyrexian armies across the globe.

Which finally brings us back to the Stronghold. This was the command center of Rath, from where the evincars ruled the plane, and where the flowstone that created and sustained it was created. It gave its name to the set Stronghold and appeared on a card in that set, where it was called Volrath's Stronghold, after the then-current evincar of Rath. During the merger of Rath and Dominaria it was transplanted to Urborg, and you can see its gutted remains on the card Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth.

"They begged for entrance to the hall, begged for the favor of the Scion of Darkness within."
The Scion of Darkness is a card from Legions, and was intended as an avatar of Kuberr, the god of the Cabal. Kuberr was actually an ancient wizard who killed the primeval dragon Crosis and stole his power.
"He recognized the leader as Needle, an agent of the Cabal tasked with infiltrating New Argive."
New Argive is a country on the continent of Terisiare. It was formed from the merger of Kjeldor and Balduvia in the years after the Ice Age, and named after Argive, an ancient country on roughly the same location that was the home or Urza and Mishra. New Argive was the home of a famous academy where Hanna and Orim both studied. Actually, there had been various universities and libraries in the region for millennia, build above the underground tomb of the long-forgotten dragon Treva.

Quick aside, the fact that this Cabalist is called Needle suggests that the habit of giving people nicknames based on their favorite tools or fashions has stuck with the Cabal to some extend.

"A fabled blade, a soul-drinker. The one who forged the sword killed an elder dragon and absorbed its strenght- ... It's said it was the Planeswalker Dakkon Bl-"
Now this is cool! This is a reference to the comic Dakkon Blackblade, released way back in 1996! In that comic it is revealed that Dakkon created the Blackblade for the planeswalker Geyadrone Dihada. He worked on it for 10 years, tempering it in the blood of a slave after each firing, absorbing those slaves' strength. In exchange Dihada turned Dakkon himself in a planeswalker, but then stuck the sword in his shadow, capturing his soul. Later Dihada tricked a boy whose city she had conquered into summoning Dakkon with a special amulet that binds his planeswalking powers, enabling her to "tag" Dakkon and to use him as a summoned minion whenever she wants. Basically the whole comic is the story of a planeswalker creating the ultimate summoned creature by enslaving another planeswalker, from the perspective of the patsy she manipulated to accomplish this.

Oh, but before he is enslaved Dakkon has a big battle with Dihada, during which she summons Sol'kanar the Swamp King, Chromium and Chromium's mate Piru. Piru gets stabbed by the Blackblade and explodes, creating a huge chasm on the continent of Corondor. If you look at the map of Dominaria accompanying Episode 1 you can still see that chasm!

"It was Belzenlok! Belzenlok forged it. Belzenlok slayed the elder dragon. Belzenlok."
Belzenlok is of course the fourth demon Liliana made a pact with, after Kothophed, Griselbrand and Razaketh. We first learned his name from the Magic Duels tie-in to the Magic Origins set.
"It was Belzenlok, Lord of the Wastes, Belzenlok, Slayer of Elder Dragons"
"Lord of the Wastes" was one of the names by which Yawgmoth, creator and ruler of the Phyrexians, was known on Dominaria.
"It is his sword. Belzenlok, King of Urborg"
Urborg is one of the prime black mana regions on Dominaria, and the home of quite a few characters, including Lord Windgrace, Gwendlyn Di Corci, Nevinyrral, Crovax and Venser. Once it was a lush jungle, until Urza ended the war he fought against his brother Mishra in the Antiquities expansion by detonating the Golgothian Sylex, the magical equivalent of a rain of atomic bombs. This started the Ice Age. The rest of Dominaria's climate eventually returned to normal, but Urborg never recovered, staying a fetid swamp. Like I mentioned above, during the Phyrexian Invasion the Stronghold ended up in Urborg, which thus became the focal point of the war.

"Jhoira leaned forward over her diving ship's control wheel"
Jhoira of the Ghitu is an ~1275 year old wizard who first appeared in the novel Time Streams as a student on the Tolarian Academy, where she witnessed the first activation of Karn, whose best friend she would soon become. She was seduced by the castaway Kerrick, who turned out to be a Phyrexian sleeper agent. Kerrick killed her, but Karn went back in time with Urza's time machine and stopped this, only the device exploded in the proces, killing the majority of the students and staff, and hideously distorting the flow of time on Tolaria. Jhoira was one of the survivors left behind on the island, the only one to survive the full ten years until Urza returned to rebuild the Academy.

After that she became one of the Academy's main artificers and eventually became the first captain of the Weatherlight. She was the one to realize the Tolarian water could pass through the various time bubbles and used this knowledge to build a device the saved Teferi from the extreme slow-time bubble he had been captured in. Before the destruction she had considered Teferi an annoyance, but over time they grew close and he actually proposed to her once! She turned him down, but they remained friends. When the Phyrexian Invasion began Teferi phased out his own homeland, Zhalfir, and that of Jhoira, Shiv. They returned in Time Spiral and were instrumental in mending the time rifts that threatened to destroy Dominaria. She was last seen hanging out with Jodah, another immortal wizard who got involved in the Time Spiral plot. Hopefully he'll pop up later in the Dominaria story. If not, see my reviews of the Ice Age trilogy (1, 2, 3) for his story.

By the way, I like that Jhoira made her submarine into a fish. She's moved on from making her artifacts look like insects!

"He was an older man, and had come to Tolarian Academy from Jamuraa"
The Tolarian Academy was obliterated during the Phyrexian Invasion, but a new academy turned up in Future Sight called Tolaria West. Jamuraa is the massive supercontinent on the Dominarian equator, a small part of which was the setting for Mirage, Visions and Prophecy.
"The tube sent her voice through the water, transformed into vibrations the Vodalian merfolk could understand"
The Vodalians are a surprisingly stubborn group of merfolk on Dominaria, whose empire has been destroyed twice before. They were first introduced in Fallen Empires, where their empire fell to attacks from Homarids, who where driven from their trenches due to the climate changes following the war between Urza and Mishra. Empress Galina attempted to teleport to the more northern colony of Etlan Shiis (bastardized by surface dwellers into "Atlantis") but somehow the spell actually transported her 3000 years into the future. She found an Etlan Shiis that had developed into a prosperous nation of its own, which had shed the militarism and the strict caste system of Old Vodalia. Galina quickly arranged a coup and took over, establishing a strict policy of isolationism. (This story comes from the old, old Encyclopedia Dominia website)

Near the end of Apocalypse Yawgmoth took the form of a huge deathcloud that killed everything it touched, which included most of Vodalia. The planeswalker Bo Levar sacrificed his life to prevent the cloud from reaching the Eliterates, a artistic commune set up in a deep trench to escape from Vodalian society. A short story from the anthology The Secrets of Magic, which I haven't reviewed yet, reveals that the Eliterates were instrumental in rebuilding Vodalian society. As Ziva seems to have no problem working for landwalkers, I guess the Eliterate attitudes stuck and Vodalian isolationism is ancient history by now.

"Now we raise the Weatherlight"
The Weatherlight is of course the famous flying, plane-traveling ship that gave its name both to an expansion set and the whole saga that ran from that set to Apocalypse. I won't relay its whole history here, as that could fill several articles on its own. Suffice to say it was created by Urza at the Tolarian Academy as the centerpiece of the Legacy, a collection of artifacts meant to defeat Yawgmoth and Phyrexia. At the end of Apocalypse the Legacy was completed, Yawgmoth died and Karn ascended as a planeswalker. Unfortunately this left the Weatherlight an empty husk that crashed from the sky into the ocean. But now Jhoira has found its remains!
"The second thing Gideon noticed was the hole in his shoulder and its piercing pain. He took a deep breath and did not stagger or collapse onto the muddy stone. Liliana, Chandra and Nissa stood nearby, disheveled and shaken by battle."
These are some new characters. Some were introduced in that recent set Lorwyn, others even later. I haven't had time to read up on them yet. No idea why they are looking all mushed up.


Okay, okay, I'm not that out of the loop! I know the Gatewatch story, I know these four have just come from their defeat at the hands of Nicol Bolas in Hour of Devastation! But I should say that my expertise lies with the pre-Mending story. I've read most stuff predating Future Sight twice. I've read most stuff postdating it... half? So I'm not going to be much use annotating the more recent stuff. Chances are that if you've been following the past few years of the storyline closely you know more about it than I do. If you don't, look up the Vorthos tags on or and you'll find people who know a lot more about the most recent stories than I do! I do know one more thing though...
"Where's Jace?"

"You can rouse the treefolk of Urborg's Yavimaya remnant"
In Apocalypse, as the battle was raging around the Stronghold, Multani transported a part of his home of Yavimaya to Urborg so the troops there could aid in the war effort. This bit of jungle was later seen in Time Spiral block, when Lord Windgrace made it his home.
"Liliana couldn't believe this was Vess ... The Cabal has come here, then. To Benalia ... We fought to keep them off Aerona, but we failed. You see what their influence has done to Caligo Forest over the years."
Vess and Caligo Forest were introduced as part of Liliana's backstory, and until now we really had no idea where they were located. Turns out they are in Benalia, on Aerona!

Aerona is a continent that contains a lot of locations that have been with Magic since the very beginning. Benalia, Llanowar, Keld, Hurloon, the Ironclaw Mountains, Verdura, ShanodinD'Avenant and others. It is also the setting of the earliest Magic novels, like Arena and Whispering Woods.

Benalia was the premiere white mana location of Magic's early days, and the home of one of its most famous heroes, Gerrard Capashen. Founded by Torsten von Ursus, a knight who had been kicked out of his homeland after an evil mage took over and who then studied philosophy among the Hurloon minotaurs. Benalia operated on a complicated system in which its seven clans where placed in a hierarchy that rotated each lunar year, with the clan that ruled the country one year next becoming the lowest in the order. The system was further complicated by the star-castes, whereby people born under certain stars would by placed into other clans at their twelfth birthday. Only those who reach the rank of "Benalish Hero" are exempt from all this.

"A visit from the sanctimonious Church of Serra would have been the perfect cap on this foul disaster of a day"
Serra was a planeswalker who was worshiped as a goddess across the Multiverse. She created her own plane and legions of angels, and is featured in Urza's Saga and Homelands. (In that order. The early Magic stories were rarely chronological.) Her angels appeared even more often in Magic's early stories, being summoned by all sorts wizards in need of some muscle to do justice. Going through all appearances of Serra and her angels would take ages, so I'll focus on the relationship of the Serrans with the Benlish. It seems like they get along fine now, but originally the Serran religion was persecuted in Benalia!

This history starts prior to Benalia being founded, with its predecessor the Sheoltun Empire, which I'm sure you all remember from... eh... the flavor text of Tobias Andrion. At one point Sheoltun conquered Epityr, but a passing wizard summoned a bunch of Serra Angels that liberated the city, which in turn destabilized the empire. It collapsed, and in its place Benalia would rise. But anti-Serran sentiments lingered. The most popular religion of Benalia was the Church of Angelfire, with about 20% of Benalkin adhering to it according to the Encyclopedia Dominia.

Around the time Benalia was establishing itself Urza turned up with refugees from Serra's Realm. (That plane had been invaded by Phyrexians. Urza couldn't liberate it, but took as many people as possible out of there on the Weatherlight and then collapsed the plane into a powerstone that would power the ship's plane-traveling engines.) The refugees were placed on various places on Dominaria, including Zhalfir and Benalia. The Benalish contingent obviously got into trouble with the locals that were intolerant of their religion, though in the end the shared threat of the Phyrexians was enough to get the two groups to work together. I imagine that seeing the Church of Angelfire fail to protect Benalia during the Invasion, while the Serrans were prominent members of Urza's coalition forces made the Benalkin reconsider their position.

"It was an aven soldier on watch"
Outside of Kangee, we really haven't seen Dominarian aven outside of Otaria, the setting of the Odyssey and Onslaught blocks. They must have spread out over the globe after all the destruction on their continent over the course of those stories.
"Ahead over the rooftops, the stone curve of an ancient Thran ruin loomed out of the mist."
The Thran were an ancient but very technologically advanced empire that ruled large parts of Dominaria 5000 years before the Brothers' War, which is about 9500 years before the current story. The novel Planeswalker revealed that the Phyrexians were originally part of the Thran. The novel The Thran reveals how the Phyrexians split from them and how the empire fell. Thran artifacts are found all over Dominaria. Most famously Urza and Mishra got their starts as artificers while working as archeologists digging up Thran artifacts.
"It was an angel, with skin like burnished bronze and hair in a dark cloud."
Although they worshiped Gabriel Angelfire we've never really seen angels among the Benalish. It always seemed a very human-centered place. In fact, most depictions of angels on Dominaria show them as very special magical summonings, usually working alone, not members of any military hierarchy. The exception to this is the Order, the white organization from Odyssey block. A few preview cards from Dominaria have shown that since we last saw it, the Order has merged with the Serran religion, so I guess this new station of angels (and the avens) has come over from Otaria as the Order spread out across the globe.

That is everything I thought worth mentioning in the first two episodes. I am super excited that magic has finally gone back to Dominaria. Even just reading the preview cards and finding all the new lore tidbits from them has been an absolute delight for me. I hope these articles can communicate a bit of that enjoyment to the people who have not (yet!) been able to read every source on Dominarian history.

Check back soon for the next annotations, and check back tomorrow if you are interesting in the story of Jedit Ojanen!


  1. Ha! I knew you couldn't resist all of those tasty references - good stuff.

    However, I am surprised to see the map pass without comment. After all of these years, we get a complete map, and according to the Dominaria Livestream, it was even based on Pete Venters' globe? And it gives us canon locations for Otaria, Videnth, Sarpadia, Madara... even Tamingazin? This blew my mind!

    (I know you are not a fan of retcons, but still, surely some real canon now is worth throwing out, say, Otaria's super-boring original map?)

  2. Oh yeah, the map...

    But I had another question. As far as I know (I'm reading through the the backlog but haven't gotten through all of it) you've mostly stayed away from cards as sources on this blog. Still, I'd really like to see you comment on Sagas. Things like "History of Benalia" or - especially? - "The Mirari Conjecture" r e a l l y seem tailor-made for this blog.

  3. Glad you are enjoying this slightly different type of article. I'd love to go even deeper, covering the map and all the references in the cards. My main issue is the time involved. I'd love to do a full Set Review (purely from a lore standpoint), but doing so would probably require me taking a few days of work to make space in my schedule, so I'm not sure it will be possible.

    I do love the map though, Otaria weirdness or not. I'm 100% putting it up on my wall once the poster becomes available!

    1. Me, too! I get chills whenever I look at it (which is pretty telling about what a nerd I really am).

      I totally understand about not having the time to unpack all the assorted references squeezed into the cards and stories, but I do think it would be great if, after the full release and all the stories, you could write an article summing up any new information on topics you already covered.

      Though I guess those are likely to be the most time-consuming puzzles of all, so probably not that.

      In either case, however, pat yourself on the back! I think even WotC themselves are learning a lot about classic lore from you, and that mention of the likes of Tamingazin in recent sources can be directly traced to this blog. Bravo!