Writer - Kate Elliot
Originally released June-August 2018
Eh... do you all want me to do a summary? Doing those makes sense when I'm reviewing 20 year old stories that might be tricky to get your hands on these days, but the story I'm covering today has been released this year and is available for free on MagicTheGathering.com. I suspect most of you have already read it. So I'm just going to drop the link to the beginning of the story... here. You can click on the link to the next one at the end of each chapter. Except for the last chapter, as the link in the second-to-last one is missing for some reason.
Let me know in the comments if you want me to do actual summaries instead the next time I cover something so recent. For now I'm taking the quicker option!
As Magic's story continues its unprecedented interest in its own ancient continuity, I continue my unprecedented covering of stories that were released in the same year I review them. Just a quick heads up before I begin: I am not as knowledgeable about the Mending era as I am about the older stuff, and I really have not had time to re-read everything Bolas or Ugin related before covering Chronicle, so there is a chance that I overlooked some reference to another recent story. I've gone through Jay Annelli's looks at the various chapters in an attempt to remedy that, but feel free to bring it up in the comments if I've missed something nonetheless.
Having given that disclaiming... Oh my god, it's the origin of Bolas! The Elder-freaking-Dragon War! No way I'm skipping this just because I haven't read the Tarkir story in a while!
Obviously the premise alone is enough to get me enormously hyped. The Elder Dragon War is a subject that has captivated storyline fans ever since its existence leaked out through Jeff Lee's website, but which remained shrouded in mystery to such an extend that up to Dominaria a single line from Nicol Bolas's planeswalker profile was the only evidence we had that it was even in continuity! But all that hype also made me a bit apprehensive... what if, after all those years, the story... sucked?
Well, luckily it doesn't. With good character work, well build tension, great use of foreshadowing and parallel storytelling, and amazing continuity references, this really is everything I could have hoped for.
Telling the origin of a villain that has gone so long without one is always tricky, and Kate Elliot takes a big gamble by making Bolas's first appearance so... pathetic. He's little (for a dragon), stuck in his own egg and then running from human hunters, a far cry from his later portrayal as the biggest baddest monster in the Multiverse. But his turn to the dark side and rise to power are very well done. I think it was smart to tell most the story through Ugin's eyes, who sometimes loses track of his brother's development, like during his time with Te Ju Ki, which allows us to see Bolas's turn without truly knowing what goes on in his head, keeping most of his mystique. It also helps that the dragons are portrayed as already having lots of knowledge and personality from birth which keeps us guessing whether Bolas could have taken another path or if he was doomed from the start to become a villain. With tricks like these the story neatly avoids giving Bolas any kind of sympathetic origin that later, hackier, writers could use to portray him as misunderstood or even to set up a redemption arc. Yeah, he's mad about Merrevia Sal being killed by hunters, but none of the other Elders go down the deep end over that.
The story also keeps a lot of the mystery around the Elder Dragons as a whole. Take the vague description of the Ur-Dragon, the way its spawn is born knowing their two names (but Ugin and Bolas each having only one), and just the simple fact that we don't get to see most of their war. They are shown to be weird and described in a mythical fashion, which keeps them mysterious even while revealing so much about them. It is that old Fantasy writers wisdom of introducing a new mystery every time you wrap one up.
Speaking of that framing sequence... I'll be honest, when the chapters first came out I was tempted to just scroll to the flashback bits. I know, I know, I'm a philistine. I guess a sibling rivalry that doesn't involve a planet-spanning war and someone mooning over a sexy monk just doesn't interest me as much as the revelations around a decades old bit of obscure lore. My weird personal preference aside though, the Tarkir parts of the story are also excellently written and very well tied in to the flashbacks. I also really liked the way it seemed to be setting up the rebirth of the clans in a future visit to Takir with all of the reference to secret knowledge being stashed away by the Temur and the Jeskai.
Can I think of anything bad to say after all that raving? Uhm... well, it's very petty, but if I must say something: that missing link on the penultimate chapter, and the fact that the link back to it in the last chapter uses the wrong name... that's a bit sloppy. But if that's the worst I can think of, you've got an instant classic on your hands.
There's actually a whole bunch of references in here, showing that Kate Elliot payed close attention to what had been established about the Elders before. But let's start with the big thing, the Elder Dragon War itself. Does it match with what we know?
The short answer is "Yes, because we didn't know anything before". There was that one line in Nicol Bolas's planeswalker profile that said he was one of only 5 survivors of the war, and the Dominaria Art Book added that he was the one who killed most of the others. That's all the official sources we had! The original 5 Elder Dragons are the only survivors mentioned here (I'll talk about Piru in a bit), so that fits, and Bolas plunged them all into war to begin with, so I can see how that counts as him killing them all.
But of course that is just the official publications on the War. We first learned about it many years before those sources had been released through Jeff Lee's website, and what we are shown here does not match up with what was told to us there. There is no mention of the defeated dragons being turned into Elder Land Wurms for example, although that could have happened behind the scenes. More importantly: while Jeff Lee painted a picture of a conflict that spanned many planes, here the fact that it happened purely on Dominaria is a huge plot point. (Although I should point out that Doug Beyer has been describing the war as purely Dominarian for years now) (I'll get to the bit in that link about Ugin being from Tarkir in a bit as well!)
It's easy to just ignore this, as Jeff's site was never an official source, but I think it is worthwhile to remember he did have inside information given to him by Pete Venters and others in the know, and that without his revelations we wouldn't know about the Elder Dragon War at all, let alone be so hyped about it being featured in a story. Personally I am more than happy with the story we got, but I do understand the people who are unhappy it is not closer to the version that has been circulating in the community for nigh on 20 years. Things are left vague enough to accommodate quite a bit of fanon, allowing you to put things like the Elder Land Wurms back if you want, but the days when we would refer to the war as an interplanar conflict are definitively over.
So what is new? Well, the whole things kicks off essentially just because Nicol Bolas can't abide anyone stronger than him, which is perfectly in character for him. He sets up Vaevictus's brood against their progenitor, and Palladia-Mors as well. Chromium Rhuell is driven into hiding during the conflict. Humans are marching under dragon standards, and are driven mad over generations of warring. The last battle we see in one between the armies of Bolas and Arcades Sabboth. Ugin pops up in the middle of it and causes Bolas's ascension (because "how dare he have what I have not", another perfect line for Nicol Bolas), and then the whole conflict ends of screen while Bolas is exploring the Multiverse. So we don't know whether it ends with another apocalyptic battle or if it just peters out. Or if it ends with a World Spell turning all the losers into Elder Land Wurms, as was the (completely unfounded) rumor that was going around a few years back. There are also huge chunks of the conflict that we are only told about in overview, allowing for future stories to take place in it, but also giving us some wiggle room to place stuff in there, like perhaps the Primeval dragons. More on them in the Timeline section of the review.
Now onto the two Elder Dragons I promised I would get back to before: Piru and Ugin.
Poor old Piru had her status as an Elder question for years before Dominaria finally confirmed she was a proper one. And then Chronicle of Bolas comes along and says only Bolas, Ugin, Arcades, Chromium, Vaevictis and Palladia survived the war! So has she been demoted again? I would say no. She was probably just left of the list to prevent confusion to the average reader, who has never heard of her. She is not in the Core 2019 set after all. In-universe we could say that this list of 5 survivors is given to us by Nicol Bolas, who may simply have missed her. Chromium went into hiding, so it would make sense that he hid his mate as well.
Oh, and we can't just put her death somewhere behind the scenes of Chronicle of Bolas. The Dakkon Blackblade comic happens "millennia" after the fall of the Thran, while all this mythohistory happens millennia before it.
As for Ugin coming from Tarkir... well, the story shows him forming a bond with Tarkir, so it is his home plane in that sense, but it is clear from Doug's posts that this wasn't the original idea. So yeah, it is a ret-con, albeit not one that impacts any actual stories, as far as I know. This is precisely why I rank backstory stuff from Tumblr posts and revelations on fora or other social media so low in my hierarchy of sources; they are the first things that get contradicted when a better story is thought up. I still think it is perfectly fine to use sources like that (I kind of have to at times when making my timeline), but be aware that you are building on very unstable ground.
Okay, on to some quick references!
- The Elder Dragons are revealed to be the children of the Ur-Dragon, which lives in the Blind Eternities. In the Dominaria Story Podcast Kelly Digges mentioned that the Elders were "linked" to the Ur-Dragon, but we now also know in what way. That podcast is also where he presented the theory (nothing more than a theory, as he was quick to stress), that the Primevals where "the second generation after the Elders". We get no further update on that here.
- Arcades Sabboth, Chromium Rhuell, Palladia-Mors, Merrevia Sal, Ugin and Bolas, as well as two eggs that don't hatch, all fall together. Chromium then spots other eggs and dubs them "cousins". This all matches with what we saw in the Elder Dragons comic, in which we learned Palladia and Chromium were siblings, and Vaevictis was calling Palladia cousin. In the Ice Age comic mention was made of a brother of Chromium dying in a duel between Leshrac and Kristina, and Jeff Lee's site mentioned that Bolas and Arcades were siblings of Palladia and Chromium, but this is the first official source that confirms that.
- I'm super happy Chromium Rhuell uses his full name from the Armada comics, but also bit sad it didn't end up being used on his card.
- Chromium also seems to be the nicest of the bunch, the only one who, at least for a moment, tries to check up on their small siblings, matching his portrayal as a generally good guy from the comics. In the Elder Dragons comic he mentioned that the Elders didn't used to rule over humans, but I guess that's more him trying to shame Palladia than an accurate description of the past.
- Chromium Rhuell appears as a pregnant human. When we saw him in human form before he appeared as a dude named Ham.
- The Windfolk were mentioned in the Planeswalker's Guide to Khans of Tarkir. I don't think they appeared in an actual story before.
- Ugin visits Zendikar (which is already "tumultuous"), Innistrad, Lorwyn, an un-shattered Alara and Shandalar. Later we also see "Bustling" Kephalai, and "Growing" Ravnica. I'm not sure if that means a lush, pre-city Ravnica or a Ravnica where the city itself is growing.
- Nicol Bolas claims to have named Dominaria, "because I claimed its song for myself". This is a reference to "the Nature of Dominia" one of the oldest Magic lore sources, in which Dominaria was said to mean "The Song of Dominia". I still think Bolas is just bragging here, but he at least gets points for mentioning the song. In Scourge the Numena also claimed to have named the plane, but they said they picked this name simply because they dominated the world.
- Bolas and Ugin first turn up in the Meditation Plane, rather than the Blind Eternities. Bolas says of it:
"I suspected this was not a plane but some manner of artificial construct, built by an unknown agent that had left neither claw nor footprint to mark its authorship."
- I fully expect "Who build the Meditation Realm" to become the next big mystery in Magic.
- Oh, speaking about the Realm, there is a continuity issue with it. When it was first introduced in the Legends II cycle it was a place Nicol Bolas's minions could reach through mediation, but he himself seemed unfamiliar with it. In fact, Tetsuo Umezawa was able to kill him precisely because of this unfamiliarity. This has been something of a continuity issue for a while now, although I thought that up to now we could assume Bolas didn't take control of the plane until after his death and resurrection. This story makes it clear that he's been in control of it for millennia before Legends II. How to reconcile this? I have no idea. I'm hesitant to make up a theory without having reviewed all its other appearances. So I think I'll do with the Meditation Realm what I did before with Lat-Nam: make note of its depiction whenever it pops up in a review, and then do a separate article on it after a couple of years...
- After killing Ugin for the first time Bolas ends up on the island chain of Madara. He was weakened from his battle, but says he eventually recovered his strength... by eating a demonic leviathan perhaps?
- Bolas says human flesh is not to a dragon's taste. This is probably because humans taste like goat balls. (Sorrynotsorry)
- The dragon-killers' war and Bolas manipulating Arcades Sabboth into destroying his own empire are entirely new.
Huh. I wouldn't have guessed, but it is actually kinda hard to figure out anything that should go in the trivia section. I think I've already mentioned everything either in the review or the continuity section...
Finally, the timeline. Lets start with the framing story. It is stated it has been 18 years since Fate Reforged, which was said to happen 1260 years ago, so around 3300 AR. As I've mentioned before, I kind of hope that 1260 years thing is an approximation, allowing us to move Fate Reforced to 3307, as that is the year the Tolarian Academy's time machine exploded, and when Empress Galina exited her time warp. Making it the one year when time travel is possible would be a great way of tying continuity together. We do not have official confirmation for that yet though, so for now I'll put Fate Reforged at ~3300, and Chronicle of Bolas at ~3318.
EDIT: Dang it, I always screw this up! Sarkhan went back in time 1280 years, not 1260, meaning Fate Reforged happens at ~3280, and Chronicle of Bolas at ~3298. I guess I just subconsciously try to put it as close to 3307 as possible...
Placing the flashbacks is a bit trickier, because Elder Dragons are not very good at time keeping. At one point Ugin says "years, as you Jeskai would measure the span of days", and later Bolas says "That day happened four or five thousand years ago as humanoids measure time". Still, we can work a few things out.
For starters, we already know Bolas was born approximately -20.000 AR, and that he was a planeswalker when he battled a demonic leviathan around -15.000 AR. That gives us some boundaries. At the end of the dragon-killers' war the son of the man who killed Merrevia Sal is still around, so the entire war has to happen within two human generations after Bolas's birth. As we are talking about periods of centuries and millennia when dealing with Dominaria's mythohistory I would say those two generations fall within the "approximately" of "approximately -20.000 AR". Ugin's ascension happens right after the dragon-killers' war, so that also goes there.
Then there is that gap of four or five thousand years "as humanoids measure time". In that gap the Elder Dragon War starts and Ugin shapes Tarkir. At the end of that period, so between -16.000 and -15.000, Ugin returns to Dominaria and Nicol Bolas ascends.
After that things get tricky. Bolas spends some time visiting hundreds of worlds and we know from Ugin's earlier sojourn that millennia just slip away during such jaunts. When he returns to Dominaria he finds it completely changed. Not only has the Elder Dragon War ended but rivers have changed course and the sea level has risen. Still, it can't have been later than -15.000 AR(ish), because this is his first return visit to Dominaria, and in -15.000 he is supposed to have his battle with the demonic leviathan on that plane. I guess it's possible that the battle with the leviathan happened during this trip and that Bolas just didn't mention it in his story, but the fact that Bolas's story ends on Madara, with him weakened but eventually regaining that strength, suggests to me that defeating the leviathan and eating its remains to gain its power is supposed to go after his battle with Ugin. So I suspect Bolas's ascension happened closer to -16.000 than -15.000, allowing for a couple of centuries of him traveling the Multiverse during which Dominaria can have some climate change.
The only thing that gives me pause in that Madara is described as an island chain, which suggests that maybe the landmass has already been shattered during the duel? And maybe that is why Bolas ended up specifically on Madara, from his link to the Talon Gates that was created while he ate the demonic leviathan? Then again, it is entirely possible Madara was already an island chain before it lost one third of its landmass in the duel, and that line about Bolas eventually regaining his strength is much more persuasive to me. So I will keep Bolas's battle with Ugin before -15.000.
Ugin is then reborn after either "a millennium" or "no time at all", which is not very helpful.
All of this together gives us the following:
- ~-20.000: Nicol, Ugin & their siblings and cousins born. Dragon-killers' war. Ugin ascends.
- Between ~-20.000 and ~-16.000 or -15.000: Start of the Elder Dragon War, Ugin shapes Tarkir.
- Between ~-16.000 and ~-15.000: Nicol Bolas ascends. Elder Dragon War ends. Bolas kills Ugin for the first time.
- ~-15.000: Nicol Bolas battles a demonic leviathan, destroying part of Madara. He kills it, absorbs its power and uses its horns to create the Talon Gates.
- ~3280: Fate Reforged, Bolas kills Ugin for the second time.
- ~3298: Chronicle of Bolas takes place.
Which brings us to the Primeval Dragons and the Numena. We know from Legions, with confirmation from the Dominaria Storyline Podcasts, that the Numena overthrew the Primevals around -17.000 AR, and fell themselves around -16.000 AR. So... that happened during the Elder Dragon War?! That's not what I expected! It feels weird to have a millennia long rule by human wizards as an intermezzo of the Elder Draconic age, but with the information we now have, it does seem like that is the case! If in the future WotC wants to wiggle out of this they probably could, as we are dealing with approximate dates on huge time scales, so the margins of error could easily cover a millennia or two, but for now this is how things play out!
I do wonder if this means the rule of the Primevals and the Numena was not as global as previously stated. If it was, the empires of Bolas and Arcades must have only recently been rebuild/liberated around the time Ugin finds them battling. Either way, I'm not surprised Bolas left such a setback out of his story! Part of me hopes we will get some more details on the Primevals's relationship to the Elders, but I'm not holding my breath.
Then again, I never thought we would get a story set during the Elder Dragon War either...