Magic's iconic creatures vary from plane to plane. A Tarkiri Goblin is different from a Dominarian Goblin, and Lorwyn's Elves wouldn't fit in on Zendikar.
Goblins around the Multiverse are more similar than different, though. With a few exceptions (Mercadia being the most glaring), Goblins are small, fast, and aggressive. They're usually green and often have grotesque facial features. They almost always have a red (or red/black) color identity, and they fight in packs.
I could create a similar list for Elves, Merfolk, Dragons, Angels, Humans, and most of the other creatures found on multiple planes. Drop a Kithkin Soldier on Zendikar and she'll be able to tell you the difference between a Goblin and a Merfolk.
Elementals are the biggest and most interesting exception to this rule. Unlike Elves and Goblins, Elementals come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some are humanoid, while others are bat-winged blimps the size of a football stadium. Some aren't even corporeal—Weatherlight's Fog Elemental is just a cloud with a face on it. Is "Elemental" just another word for "weird monster that doesn't really fit anywhere else"?
Heck no! There's a logic and beauty to Magic's Elementals, and that's what we'll be talking about today. Grab your binoculars, strap on your boots, and dig out your pith helmet—it's time to go exploring.
Elementals in History
Elementals weren't created by Richard Garfield or Mark Rosewater. In fact, their existence goes back hundreds of years. Many ancient cultures believed that the natural world was made up of various combinations of four elements—earth, water, air, and fire.
Back in the early 1500s, well before the advent of the periodic table, a Greek alchemist (seriously!) named Paracelsus decided to anthropomorphize the four elements. He borrowed aspects of Greek mythology and came up with four kinds of elementals that were human-shaped but invisible to the human world—creatures that embodied and personified the abstract concepts of earth, water, air, and fire. Elementals became popular enough in Greece that the idea spread to other cultures, including ours. In 1974, Paracelsus's Elementals showed up in the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons.
Elementals have been part of Magic from the beginning. Alpha has four Paracelsus-style Elementals, and if you played Magic back in the '90s, you might remember them:
These four Elementals hail from the earliest days of Magic design, so there isn't much mechanical cohesion between them. Air Elemental flies, but the other three are vanilla creatures. Garfield used flavor text, not game mechanics, to explain his Elementals' personalities. Through this text, we learn that Water Elementals are fickle, Fire Elementals are ruthless, Earth Elementals are strong, and Air Elementals are whimsical. I can't help but think that if Alpha were released using today's design sensibilities we'd have gotten one Elemental in each color and each would have a color-specific and evocative keyword.
The Elementals of Dominaria
Elementals didn't show up that much in the pre-Modern days. And even though Alpha's four Elementals were red and blue, most of the Elementals that showed up over the next few years were green. This probably had something to do with Tempest's Verdant Force, the most beloved and powerful Elemental from Magic's first decade.
Verdant Force is humanoid, but barely. It mostly looks like a tree (likely a swamp cypress) that has come to life and grown monstrous features. The idea of green having tree- and plant-related Elementals is seen in almost every set over the next several blocks, from Fungus Elemental to Ivy Elemental to Silvos, Rogue Elemental. There isn't much mechanical or artistic synergy linking these cards, but they all do their best to evoke the idea of a plant or tree taking on an animate form.
More specific variants of the Alpha Elementals were also printed during this era. Blizzard Elemental and Thundercloud Elemental gave form to specific types of Air Elemental. Waterspout Elemental and Wave Elemental continued Water Elemental's tradition. Flame Elemental was a new kind of Fire Elemental, and Subterranean Spirit was an updated Earth Elemental.
This doesn't mean there wasn't innovation going on, though. Check out these four cards:
These cards may have been printed years apart, but they are united by what they represent: new ways of thinking about Elementals.
Bog Elemental and Skizzik are the most straightforward—Bog Elemental is an attempt at giving black its own kind of water Elemental, and Skizzik gives red an electricity-type Elemental in addition to its earth and fire types. Time Elemental attempts something similar, but on a more conceptual level. Instead of trying to represent a tangible force of nature, Time Elemental captures the ineffable.
Dawn Elemental is an attempt at doing something similar in white, but it takes a different path to get there. Dawn Elemental isn't drawn as the actual dawn made flesh—instead, it's some sort of bright, flying, vaguely reptilian creature.
Storm Elemental also represents a different way of thinking about what an Elemental can be. It isn't a cumulonimbus cloud with angry eyebrows on it—it's a weird monster head with one eye, a giant horn, and bat wings that might be made from smoke. This surreality—the idea that an Elemental can evoke the idea of something without looking exactly like it—would become an important aspect of Magic's Elemental design many blocks down the road.
The Elementals of Mirrodin
Mirrodin doesn't have many Elementals—there are thirteen in all six sets combined—but the ones that do exist are interesting. Plasma Elemental and Quicksilver Elemental are cool attempts at reimagining the idea of a water Elemental on a plane where almost everything is made from metal. Spark Elemental continues the Skizzik idea of giving electric and lightning Elementals to red. Tornado Elemental explores the possibility of giving air Elementals to green in the vein of Desert Twister.
Mirrodin also has a few conceptual Elementals. Desecration Elemental is a new take on horror, War Elemental follows in the chimeric footprints of Time Elemental, and Ageless Entity somehow manages to seem more alien than both of them.
The Elementals of Ravnica
Kamigawa block didn't have any Elementals, so we're on to the City of Guilds. Both Ravnica blocks have quite a few Elementals, including the first humanoid Elementals we've seen in quite a while. Brought to life by Boros's Angels, Ravnica's Flame-Kin are capable of donning armor and jumping into the fight before burning out. The Root-Kin and Wood-Kin are smaller, more humanoid descendants of Dominaria's "the trees can fight, too!" Elementals. From this point forward, there isn't a block that doesn't have some version of these guys.
Ravnica also gave us Molten Sentry, Magic's first volcanic Elemental. This is another kind of Elemental that has shown up in almost every block since.
Ravnica doesn't have many conceptual Elementals, but Cobblebrute, Wayfaring Temple, and Rumbling Slum bring the cityscape to life in a (literally) concrete but evocative manner. Ravnica also introduces the Weirds, an Izzet fusion of water and fire Elementals.
The Elementals of Lorwyn and Shadowmoor
If you're a fan of Elementals, Lorwyn is the plane for you. There are more than one hundred Elemental cards in this block, and all the Elemental tropes from Magic's long history are on display.
Lorwyn is a tribal set, and most of the Elemental focus is on a tribe of red Warriors and Shamans called the Flamekin. They're similar to Ravnica's Flame-Kin (and were probably inspired by them), but there's no relation. The Flamekin are made of volcanic rock and use their Elemental fire in battle. After the Great Aurora, the Flamekin turned into Cinders—humanoid skeletons whose internal fires are dead or dying.
Beyond the Flamekin, Lorwyn is filled with the biggest rogue's gallery of conceptual Elementals ever printed. I've used "evoke" as a verb several times when referring to Elementals in this article, but Lorwyn's designers actually decided to make it a keyword and placed it on many of the set's most bizarre and interesting Elementals.
Mechanically, paying an evoke cost is a way to represent the idea of the creature without having the creature itself in play. From a flavor perspective, though, these are among the most evocative creatures in Magic—cards designed to conceptually represent abstract ideas. The cycle of rare Elemental Incarnations (Guile, Hostility, Purity, Vigor, and Dread) are the clearest examples, but cards from Mournwhelk to Mulldrifter take an abstract approach toward Elemental representation. Talk about a Horde of Notions!
The Elementals of Alara
Alara managed to tell an interesting story about its plane's Elementals in just twelve cards. Before the Conflux, Elementals only existed on Jund. There was a wide variety of them, too—an earth Elemental (Rockslide Elemental), a couple of electric Elementals (Hell's Thunder, Hellspark Elemental), a few magma Elementals (Bloodpyre Elemental, Igneous Pouncer), and a few plant-based Elementals (Thornling, Skullmulcher) as well.
What happened after the Conflux? This guy. Boom!
The Elementals of Innistrad, Theros, and Tarkir
Elementals exist on all three of these planes, but we've only seen them in small numbers so far.
All of Innistrad's Elementals are red or green. The green ones are tree- and plant-related. The red ones are all fire Elementals save Malignus, who appears to embody fire and lightning at the same time.
Theros block only has six Elementals, four of which are water-related. Of the other two, Humbler of Mortals stands out as the most conceptual Elemental in quite a while. Not only is Humbler green's only earth Elemental, but it's a Nyx-starfield enchantment creature. Pretty neat!
Tarkir block has fifteen Elementals, most of which are Temur-aligned. Aside from the normal handful of tree people and magma Elementals, it's nice to see cold-related Elementals for the first time. Embodiment of Spring is my favorite—it's humanoid, but it manages to be both bizarre-looking and evocative at the same time. Neat trick!
The Elementals of Zendikar
The first Zendikar block is one of the most Elemental-heavy sets in the Modern era of Magic design, which is part of why I felt that now was a good time to visit this subject. Much like Innistrad, nearly all the Elementals on Zendikar are red and green—Roil Elemental, Tideforce Elemental, and Living Tsunami being the exceptions.
Red gets all three of its iconic non-humanoid Elementals—there are fire Elementals, magma Elementals, and lightning/electricity elementals on Zendikar. Green's Elementals, save one, are all plants or trees.
The exception, as you may have guessed, is Omnath, Locus of Mana. Out of all the Elementals in Magic, Omnath is the only one that personifies an aspect of the game that isn't found in the world outside. Omnath is green mana, given form and brought to life. Omnath was one of the cards I most wanted to see come back in a new form, and I'm happy that Battle for Zendikar fulfilled that wish in a really cool way.
Magic's Elementals may not be as cohesive a tribe as Elves or Goblins, but that doesn't mean they aren't flavorful creatures to analyze and build around. Should I craft my next Elementals deck around green plant life? Red Flamekin? Five-color evoke creatures? Hmm . . . looks like I'm adding three new decks to my "build it" list!
Until next time,