Monday, 1 October 2018

Onslaught block Online

By the time Onslaught block came around was firmly established as the main source of official Magic info, and the Magic Book Archive and The Magic Multiverse... eh... were also still chugging along for some reason. For more details on those you can read my Odyssey block Online article. The one difference with what came before is that there no longer was a dedicated mini-site per block like or

Without these online sources Onslaught block might have gone into history as just having a terrible story, but with them an even more baffling picture emerges, as they seem to tell a quite different story altogether, with lots of altered details, a focus remaining on the Mirari rather than shifting to numena and Karona and some entirely new subplots. Leaving storyline fans to wonder "What if the novels had told that story instead?"

Before we dive in, a little disclaimer. This time there were actually a bunch of articles the Wayback Machine couldn't find. Unfortunately the old internet has a lot of holes in it these days. Luckily I've been able to dig up the most important ones elsewhere. For example, Jess Lebow's making-of of the Onslaught story couldn't be found with my "going through all the numbered URLs" method nor could it be reached from the Featured Article archive, but the version from the Magic Book Archive was still available. Still, there were url's that weren't in the Machine at all, or which kept redirecting me to an "enter your language" screen, so perhaps I've missed a few interesting ones. Despite that, I think I've managed to find enough sources to give a clear overview of the way the Onslaught era was portrayed online.

The Other Onslaught Story
The main story content for the whole block is just three featured articles by Rei Nakazawa on (Preparing for the OnslaughtFor They are Legions and Scourge of Otaria) and three story overviews on The Magic Multiverse (The Onslaught BeginsThe Coming War and The Scourge of Otaria (with a "The" this time.) If you squint, the story here is pretty similar to what we've seen already: Jeska is turned into Phage, Ixidor wants vengeance on her, Kamahl ends up in an uneasy alliance with the Cabal, then later Akroma and Phage go to war, and finally Kamahl kills both of them but "ancient, unseen forces intervene" and Karona is created, who inspires fanatical devotion in everyone who sees her. But in the details the stories are strikingly different.

For starters there is no reference to the numena or the unmen. Nor to any deathwurms. This is particularly noticeable in the way Ixidor is described. Here he doesn't get eaten by a deathwurm symbolizing the death of his lover that was created when one of his magical minions caused Phage to vomit up beetles-that-turn-into-wurms for each of her murders. No, according to "For They are Legions" he's just "gone into hiding" after being "trapped in the fix he got himself into".

The ways in Rei Nakazawa tries to explain the nonsense that happened in the latter two novels in a manner that sounds halfway sensible to people only familiar with the cards actually gets kind of funny at times. While "The Scourge of Otaria" does mention "ancient, unseen forces", in his articles the resurrection of Karona isn't because of a botched spell by these numena guys and Kamahl killing their magical mother figures with one swing of his axe, it is just that the battlefield was infused by all five colors of mana, and then the power of the Mirari fused Akroma and Phage. Now Kamahl must team up with Ixidor to defeat her! Huh? What? Lowallyn? Averru? Never heard of them.

Even more interesting is the stuff that wasn't in the novels at all. Did you know that Akroma used her angelic appearance to get the Southern Order and the Wirewood Elves to work for her? That the Riptide Project brought slivers back to life from remains they found in Urborg? That the Mirari was mutating people all over Otaria? That dragons were being drawn to Otaria due to Karona's power? Or, and this is an extremely basic fact, that the story from Onslaught onward focused on the southern half of Otaria, even though the books never mentioned Skirk Ridge, Wirewood or the Riptide Project?

There are a few times while reading the book where you think J. Robert King might have seen a style guide at least once, like when there are suddenly elves and goblins around, but every time he quickly makes clear that he isn't too fussed with the details. These online stories clearly mention the Cabal throwing their doors open to refugees from all over Dominaria so they can expand their pit fights, these refugees "seeking relief from homelands still devastated by the Phyrexian Invasion". That never happens in the novels. There the elves and goblins were suddenly on Otaria all along.

In this weird dancing around the events of the novels these articles actually end up contradicting each other at two points. The first involves the two slightly different versions of the birth of Karona. That one is easy for me to resolve though: stories trump background articles, so I'm sticking with the version from the books, no matter how bizarre it is. But what to do when "For They are Legions" says the Wirewood elves join Akroma, but "The Coming War" says Wirewood mutates into a living cage, trapping the elves inside (though they don't mind, as through their mutations they are getting ever closer to nature)? I'm just going to assume there was some sort of split, with half the Wirewood elves joining Akroma and the others turning into giant wood-skinned things.

Also of note is A Sliver Story. It was released half a year into the Mirrodin era, but as it deals with the sliver plot from Onslaught block I thought it would be best to cover it here. We already knew from the previously mentioned articles and from flavor text that the slivers were brought back by the Riptide Project from fossils found on Urborg. Without a queen they proved very hard to destroy and eventually the overran the project's island. In this article we also learn the poor confused slivers mistook the call of the Mirari for the call of their queen and came swarming towards it. For some reason this meant the majority of them ended up in the battle at Averru where Karona was born (even though the Mirari wasn't at that battle and not a single sliver was mentioned in the novel) but just as the Mirari fused Akroma and Phage (Again, the Mirari wasn't present at that time) it fused the slivers into the Sliver Overlord. Perhaps we can change this story a little to say they were hearing Averru's call to battle instead of the lure of the Mirari, just to bring it a bit more in line with what happened in the novel?

The article doesn't tell us what happens afterwards. I like to think the Overlord is still in Otaria, calling for his kin, and that when the time rifts were closed at the conclusion of Time Spiral block that call finally reached all those slivers we saw infesting Dominaria throughout that block, sending them hurrying to the ruined continent. Which would explain why none of them were around in the set Dominaria. Presumably there they formed a certain Legion, growing "a unique mind" in their midst, as the flavor text says. But that's just my personal fanon. In the Dominaria Storyline Podcasts Ethan and Kelly suggest the people of Dominaria simply pushed all the slivers out after the Mending, which is perhaps a simpler option, but I like that my version gives a bit more backstory to the various legendary slivers we've seen over the years.

Bottom line, if you join my Dominaria D&D campaign and decide to go to Otaria, you know what to expect.

A New Way of Doing Things
So that is the Onslaught story J. Robert King never told you about. But there is something else in that first Rei Nakazawa article, something that heckles me a lot more than the lack of slivers in my Legions novel. I'm just going to quote the entire paragraph:
"Now that you know something of the story, let me divert for a moment to more general matters. As you read the Onslaught block storyline, you may notice that card set and novel may not always be completely in sync. As I’ve explained previously, there’s a gap in the schedules between novel writing and card creation that makes some of these differences almost inevitable. However, we’re also trying to change the relationship between the novel and the cards. This link was closest during the Weatherlight Saga, especially during the Tempest block. However, this made the Magic creative team’s job much harder, since they had to make sure continuity was rock solid. Did Gerrard have the cut in his lip in the same place in Sadistic Glee and any other card following that that depicted him? Were there enough key plot points in flavor text and art? More often than we were willing to accept, a plot point had to be crammed onto a card, making the overall concept weaker. In the end, we discovered that this was much too much work for too little payoff, so since Odyssey, we’ve been trying to present a world, maybe a few characters, and almost no plot. This way, those who are interested in the novels can pick them up and read them, and those who aren’t can fill in the gaps for themselves. This follows a model used in Antiquities and Fallen Empires that players seem to enjoy, and is a lot easier on those who have to pay attention to continuity. This also lets the authors get a lot more creative with their stories. J. Robert King, who is writing the entire Onslaught trilogy, has a lot of weird things in store, things he couldn’t have done under the previous model!"
Well Rei, you're right about King having weirdness in store, but if that weirdness would've stayed away from any Magic novels under the previous way of making the story you are really just advertising the old model!

And sorry, but this paragraph feels like a terrible straw man argument. If people complain about Gerrard having a scar on the wrong side of his face, you should just shrug and say it was an art error. Most people will not even notice, and for the few that do it will just be a silly bit of trivia. You don't go changing your entire way of telling the story over that. Moreover, even if you just want to show the world rather than the plot, Onslaught block goes quite a bit further than that! The world in the novels does not match up in the slightest with what is shown on the cards! You mention Antiquities and Fallen Empires, but at least the Antiquities stories featured a whole load of artifacts and the cards had references to Urza and Mishra! At least And Peace Shall Sleep and the Fallen Empires comic featured thrulls and thallids and goblins fighting dwarves!

Oh, and that "we don't want plot in our cards cause it is too much work" argument sounds especially disingenuous when you are still foreshadow your slivers a set early with cards like Riptide Replicator and Graxiplon. Between the ever escalating mutations, cards like Uncontrolled Infestation, and Karona looming in the foreground of all the Decree cards, Onslaught block is still clearly telling a story through its cards. It is more of an environmental story compared to something like Tempest block, showing how the Mirari is influencing Otaria as a whole rather than following the actions of individual characters, but that is fine. That is where Magic's strength lies. The problem is that you then let your writer tell a completely different story!

I'm sure that his statement about the schedules of making sets and novels is addressing a genuine issue, but the fact that the appearance of slivers was foreshadowed a set in advance, and that Mirrodin was being worked on early enough for Argentum to be introduced in Scourge, suggests that there should have been enough time to, at the very least, send King a note saying "It has to be about mutations happening due to the Mirari. Oh, and put some slivers in it"!

I really shouldn't be getting mad over an 16 year old article introducing a design paradigm that has long since been dropped, but I find it genuinely a bit saddening to read that the gap between the cards and the storyline during this period, the very nadir of the storyline in my opinion, was a conscious decision. Ah well. I'm going to save this for the Otaria Saga overview article, in which I'll try to speculate on just what happened to create such a train wreck. Right now I'm going to do some breathing exercises to calm down and then return to look at the rest of the online material.

The Magic Book Archive
When we looked at the Odyssey online stuff, we noticed that there seemed to be some inconsistencies between various tellings of how the story was made. For example, Will McDermott said the author summit came up with the idea of not using the usual creature types, while MaRo says it was his idea. This continues here. In the series "Onslaught: the Making of a Story" (parts 12 and 3) Jess Lebow talks about meeting J. Robert King and discussing the upcoming Onslaught story, suggesting it was their idea to turn Kamahl green, after rejecting turning him white. Given that Kamahl's conversion was already a big part of Judgment's plot, I'm guessing he is remembering this.

Other than these inconsistencies there is surprisingly little of interest in these articles. The articles detailing the creation of the Odyssey block gave us a lot of behind the scenes details, but these ones are more casual, devoting quite a bit of time to discussions about donuts between the two creators. When it does get into the story it mostly deals with the beginning of the trilogy, with Kamahl turning green and Jeska becoming Phage, nothing much of what came after. Understandable from a marketing standpoint, rather unfortunate for the historian looking back on it.

The one interesting thing I take from it is that during the Odyssey authors summit an ending for the Otaria Saga was devised, but it was a very vague one. Jess Lebow says they knew where the ending was in the same way you sort off know where Seattle is when you say it lies on the west coast. And even that vague ending needed significant reworking by the time King started on the Onslaught cycle. This is all very interesting to me, but Lebow remains frustratingly sparse on the subject, merely stating that "things had simply evolved to a higher level" rather than explaining why the original ending no longer worked. We simply do not have enough information to speculate why it happened, but the remodeling of the ending could explain the ultimately lackluster explanation behind the Mirari, and the sudden shift from it being the center of the storyline to it being peripheral to the story of the numena and Karona.

Also interesting are the two "Where are they now" articles on planeswalkers and wizards. They are far from exhaustive, focusing entirely on the Revisionist era of continuity, and the wizards one especially feels like it was written about just the characters the author could remember of the top of his head (No Rayne? Jhoira? Lim-Dûl?), but they do have some noteworthy tidbits in them.

  • Apparently Glacian was constantly tormenting Urza, driving him mad (or at least madder)! That interpretation is certainly viable, but it is not something that was ever outright stated in the novels!
  • Taysir is called the oldest planeswalker who ever lived. It's a bit difficult to figure out what this means. Obviously this was written before characters like Nicol Bolas or Ugin were introduced, but I have a feeling Jess Lebow write this without thinking about pre-rev characters like Geyadrone Dihada. Still, even if we take this claim as just meaning Taysir was older than any of the planeswalkers on this list, that would place the Arabian Nights comic before The Brothers' War, which is significant because, as discussed in my Armada Continuity Overview, there are conflicting sources on the order of Arabian Nights and Antiquities. In fact, Tevesh Szat is on the list, and the Fallen Empires comic said he was 2000 years old, so that would put the Arabian Nights comic as far back as before ~-1850 AR!
  • Then again, Tevesz Szat is described as "the black dragon lord", like he was pretending to be in Planeshift. That suggests Lebow hasn't read Fallen Empires, and thus would probably not know about the claim that Szat was 2000 years old at that time either.
  • Even worse, in the wizards article The Dark is said to have happened 6000 years ago, so as tempting as it might be, we can't really trust these sources as a foundation for our a timeline.
  • If we did try to do that though, the Phyrexian Invasion is described as a year-long onslaught, strengthening my case for pushing Apocalypse to 4206 rather than keeping the whole trilogy in 4205.
  • The Ertai entry is weirdly incomplete, saying he sacrificed himself to let the Weatherlight escape Rath and then omitting his whole story from Nemesis and Invasion block, making it seem like he died at the end of Exodus!
  • Jodah is rumored to still be alive, and the article teases an appearance from him in a future novel. WotC does live in the future, but I doubt his appearance in Planar Chaos 4 years later was already in the works this early.

The Gods of Dominaira is a strange article about the recurring discussion within WotC on why planeswalkers can't make it onto the cards. There isn't any sort of resolution to that, for that we'd also have to wait another 4 years. Instead the article introduces the "brown line". MaRo tries to create a tier system of power levels by drawing concentric circles on a whiteboard, with the outer, brown, line being the "gods of Dominaria". Then Jess Lebow says that the creative team is the brown line, as Magic has no in-universe gods. This led to much hilarity, causing the name to stick. At the time of the article it was still used for meetings of their team. In fact, after this article was published, some storyline fans also started to use the term. It's not the most flattering name though, and it has pretty much fallen from the Vorthos collective subconscious by now.

Other than those articles there are two interviews with Scott McGough around this period, but those deal mostly with Legends II cycle, an author profile on J. Robert King which doesn't really go into his last few Magic books, and a weird story about Urza not being able to pitch a movie in Hollywood. You can find them all here.

The Rest of
To be honest, there isn't a whole lot to talk about here. Pretty emblematic of the content of this era is the article Introducing the Pit Fighter Legends which, from a Vorthos perspective, does nothing of the sort. It just shows you the cards and drums up some hype to play with them, and that's it. Sure, back in those days having fatties with reasonable casting costs was still noteworthy in itself, but surely if you do a whole article introducing them, even giving them a cool name like the Pit Fighter Legends, you want to at least give a hint of their story? But no. Silvos and Rorix at least had some backstory in their flavor text, and Jareth was a reference tot he megoliths we saw in Chainer's Torment, but we are now 16 years onward and the "legend" of Arcanis and Visara is still just "They are big and look cool." (Well, Arcanis will get a very minor backstory blurb in the Battlegrounds videogame, but let's just say any lore from that game is suspect at best. We'll get to it eventually.)

Later articles give us sketches for Rorix and Visara and even an explanation for their names (in Behind the Pit-Fighters), but they remain pretty much lore-less.

What story related articles there are mostly focus on the past. There is the complete version of The Love Song of Night and Day, parts of which were featured on flavor texts from Mirage and Visions, and the Tempest Storyboard, which originated in The Duelist. And there is The Story of the Story, which explains the various approaches WotC has had to making the story over the years. It mostly focuses on the difficulties with the way things were handled during the Weatherlight Saga in order to sell you on the modern way of doing things. I've made my opinion on that clear above, but this article does say you can see the "fullest results" of the new approach in the upcoming Mirrodin block and I must admit Mirrodin does do things better than Onslaught block. It's still by no means perfect, but that's a story for another time.

There are behind the canvas interviews with rk PostMark TedinArnie Swekel and Donato Giancola which might interest the more art-Vorthosi among you. The Mark Tedin article even has an early sketch of one of my "favorite" Magic characters ever!

The last full article I want to note is A Three-Year Mirage, about the creation of Mirage, which I mention mostly for the single sentence at the end where Bill Rose is asked if he has any ideas for the setting of this set he's worked on for three years and the response is "Nah, just do whatever!"

In the daily Arcana shorts there are quite a few looks at the various style guides. "Braids and Wurms" has the first ever sketch of Braids and the design sketches for the Otaria Wurms. Look at that scared Chimeric Idol!

In Styleguide: Gix we learn that the Urza's Saga style guide described him as a "construct" of Yawgmoth, which clashes with his origin as one of the original Thran-turned-Phyrexians but quite closely matches the description he was given in A Time For Remembrance. It does surprise me that the Arcana asks the question what we know of Gix but then just dumps the styleguide entry on you while saying it is not very helpful. I know these things are supposed to be very short articles, but a bit surely you could've given a bit more info?

In a series of Arcana entries we get one picture of a soldier from the style guideone of a mutating zombieone of a goblin and one for wizards, which make it clear there was a difference in the style guide between "refugee" and "pit-fighter" designs. Finally there are style guide entries for Akroma and Phage.

Of interest among the non-style guide related Arcana's is this one on pieces of art that got rejected for their original cards. It reveals that the art for Thoughtbound Primoc was intended for Abduction, all the way back in Weatherlight! It got rejected to put Sisay's kidnapping in the art instead. Apparently the decision to make that set the springboard for the Weatherlight Saga was made quite late if the cards had already been designed!

There is also an entry about Phyrexian Dreadnought's little man, although it doesn't mention that that little man is actually Taysir! To be fair though, while this detail was revealed in The Duelist #13, absolutely everyone missed it, except for @araarataihen.

In other art news, of course various Arcana make reference to the mutations the Mirari was causing. For example, the ones showing sketches of Daru Warchief and Unburden. Oh, and we learn that the "bad-assifying" Mirari takes away clowns and butterflies. And possible also cute little fishes.

Final Thoughts
And that is the online world of the Onslaught era. Now that we've covered this strange parallel universe it is time to put the two versions of the story next to each other and to try and figure out how on earth this weird era of the storyline came to be. I'm not making any promises, but I'll try to put my Otaria Saga overview article out soon. It's high time to be done with Otaria and to move on another part of the storyline!


  1. "But there’s a lot going on behind the scenes—stuff that the novel may or may not tell you—for the events shaping up on Otaria are complex and mysterious."

    Yeah, I guess that's one way to put it Rei.....

    1. I always got the feeling, thanks to this and the weird way King wrote this trilogy, that at some point someone in Creative just threw their hands up and said "look, Otaria just doesn't fuckin' matter okay, we're leaving Dominaria once it's done and we won't be back for a while". And this attitude just kind of prevailed and infected everyone and that's why the Onslaught trilogy is one of the most whacked out.

  2. Thoughtful and intriguing as always. Just a heads up, the link for that scared Chimeric Idol is toast.