The Multiverse is overflowing with memorable villains. From Yawgmoth's corruption to Nicol Bolas's scheming, you don't have to look very far to find a clever attempt at planar domination. This is part of what drew me to Magic in the first place; I'm a sucker for a good bad guy.
My preview today is one of the best bad guys of all time. He's never had his own card before, but if you played a lot during The Dark (or did well in your AP Dominarian History class), you've almost certainly heard of his work. It's time to meet one of the most powerful Wizards of the pre-Mending world: Mairsil, the Pretender.
Before we get into Mairsil's fantastic art and mechanics, I want to take a couple of paragraphs to recap what we know about his story. It began in the Dark Age, a distant period of Dominarian history that spanned a couple hundred years from the end of the Brothers' War to the start of the Ice Age. This was a period of catastrophic climate change, civilizational collapse, and increasing danger.
The Dark Age was also a time when magic was considered taboo. The Church of Tal lived by the words "Suffer not a magician to live," and their acolytes controlled much of Terisiare, Dominaria's northern continent, during that period. Magic-minded folks were forced to gather in isolated communities like the Conclave of Mages to practice their skills away from the Church's prying eyes.
Lord Ith (you might have heard of his maze) was the ruler of the Conclave until the power-hungry Mairsil usurped his power and imprisoned him below the Conclave's citadel. His prison was a cage made of watersilver that hung directly over a bottomless pit, siphoning his mana and driving him mad. (It's depicted on Barl's Cage, for those of you with a stack of old The Dark or Fifth Edition cards.) Mairsil kept his former master alive for years, feeding off his power and using his mana to power the citadel.
If Lord Ith hadn't managed to summon a Rag Man in a fleeting moment of lucidity, Mairsil's trap would have been his end. But the Rag Man eventually led the powerful wizard Jodah right to him, allowing Ith to escape. He was almost completely mad by that point, though, and Ith destroyed both Mairsil and the Conclave before Jodah was able to cure his mind.
But that wasn't the end for Mairsil. His essence survived for the next 2,000 years, trapped in a small ruby ring. The artifact was eventually found by Lim-Dul, a Kjeldan Soldier, who gained vast necromantic abilities thanks to the power of the ring. It was almost the end of the Ice Age at this point, but Jodah was still alive thanks to the water from a magical well that he'd hidden inside during his youth. Wanting to take down the man who caused his downfall, Mairsil attempted to take control of Lim-Dul so that he could use the necromancer's powers against Jodah.
But Mairsil wasn't the only person with designs on Lim-Dul. The necromancer had also made a deal with a dark and powerful Planeswalker named Leshrac who needed help conquering the plane of Shandalar. Mairsil finally managed to gain control of Lim-Dul, but Leshrac cut off the necromancer's hand—the one with the ring—during the climax of his final battle with Jodah. The Pretender was plunged into darkness once more.
The ring's final wearer was a task mage named Jaya Ballard—Jodah's trusted confidant. Mairsil spent the next decade poisoning her mind, eventually willing her to betray her master and slit his throat. But Jodah fought back, managing to ignite Jaya's Planeswalker spark with a powerful artifact. As she ascended, Jaya was able to purge Mairsil's consciousness from her mind, finally putting an end to the Pretender's twisted reign.
The Commander (2017 Edition) card takes us back to Mairsil, the Pretender at the height of his corporeal powers. His ability is evocative of the moment when he decided to imprison Ith beneath the citadel. When Mairsil enters the battlefield, you can "cage" a creature from your hand to give Mairsil access to their activated abilities. Mairsil becomes much more powerful, naturally, but it comes at a cost: whatever permanent you decided to cage is probably going to be trapped in exile for the rest of the game. That you have to remove a card from your hand to use Mairsil is a great way to represent his villainy, too. Mairsil didn't betray just anybody—Ith was his master. If you want to use Mairsil, the Pretender to the fullest of his abilities, you're going to have to make some tough choices about the other folks in your deck. Might I recommend exiling Ith, High Arcanist? His activated ability is alluringly powerful . . .
Lastly, I just want to take a moment and appreciate the work that Izzy put into Mairsil's art. I love it when a card's color identity is matched by its palate, and it's clear from the moment you glance at this piece that Mairsil's personality is dominated by blue, black, and red. The angle on the action is perfect, too—we're in the perspective of someone in the process of being imprisoned by Mairsil, a fact made frighteningly clear by how powerfully he looms over us. The cliff walls and dark circular background evoke the pit underneath the citadel, and the Pretender's facial expression and body language ooze smugness and strength. I also love the prominence of the ruby ring—the piece doesn't draw too much attention to it, but it's easy to spot if you're familiar with how Mairsil's story plays out.
I'm pretty excited to grab Mairsil's Commander 2017 deck and try him out, but I'm not sure any of the deck's other Wizards are particularly psyched about that. Oh well—being trapped in a magical cage can't be that bad, right? I guess I'll find out soon enough.