Alive and Unwell

Posted in Savor The Flavor on September 24, 2008

By Doug Beyer

Senior creative designer on Magic's creative team and lover of writing and worldbuilding. Doug blogs about Magic flavor and story at

Before Grixis split off from the mega-plane of Alara, things were different. White and green mana still flourished there. The land was called Vithia, a white-aligned empire of humans and other races, a land proud of its dynasty of wise and honorable monarchs. If you wanted to be part of the solution rather than the problem, you lived in Vithia. If you wanted protection from the necromancers and demons who sometimes plagued the outlying ruins and trade routes, you lived in Vithia. Good times.

Bant vs. Grixis – Similar to the transformation of Vithia

But when the subplane became separated from the others, it lost access to its white and green mana. Chop. No more healing spells. No more growth magic. No more protective wards. No more huge, shaggy beasts to summon. No more angels. No more life-nourishing spells. No more—

Waitwaitwait. No more angels? Hey... that sounds kind of bad. Wouldn't that be problematic for a kingdom founded on white mana? If there were demonic forces running around, wouldn't a kingdom want some kind of protection against them? I mean, with the angels no longer watching over Vithia from above, it would only take one devious-minded individual with a little bit of dark power to—

Okay, hold on, we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Power Trumps Death

At the same time that Vithian mages and clerics lost the main source of their magic, they also had to contend with the rise of black mana, and the associated rise in power of the necromancers and demons. Over time, the defenses of Vithia failed. Vithian citizens became prey for the necromancers' growing armies, slaves to rampaging demons, and victims of treachery of corrupted forces within the kingdom.

Art by Karl Kopinski

Strongholds across the kingdom became prey for those mages who practiced necromancy with a military bent. Vithian knights became overwhelmed by, and then part of, the rotting armies. Over time, proud castles became cities of the dead, ruled by necromancer barons, ogre warlords, vampires, or demons.

It was a bad situation all around. The surviving Vithians still had a chance, however—they still had military superiority over the mindless minions of the necromancers, and they had something even more precious—they had life. As decay gripped the world, Vithia remained a sanctuary for the living, a beacon of optimism in the increasingly dismal and angel-free world, simply by the magic inherent in the simple cycles in people's lives. As long as the Vithian kings remembered this faith in the fundamental power of life, Vithia would never fall.

(Dramatic pause.)

The Vithian king known as Sedris was human once. He ruled Vithia as one of its wisest kings in the early years after the plane's separation from Alara. No one knows what triggered him to give in. It's unlikely that anyone alive today even remembers that he once sat on the throne in Vithia's capital.

A King's Downfall

For you see, Sedris was seduced by evil forces. Demons, unable to assault the kingdom directly, instead tempted its leader with dreams of power, and he fell. Sedris handed the lives of thousands of humans in his kingdom to demons in exchange for the power and unlife of a lich.

Think about what that must be like. You've made a bargain with demons, thinking you could expand your power and maybe even use that power to protect your kingdom just a little bit better. At the same time you know you're fooling yourself, and you're acting completely out of the greedy desire to rule others, not to protect them. You feel miserable, but the thrill of the power comforts you, in a sick sort of way. You feel the disapproval of your family, your friends—but you don't care. They can rot for all you care. They chose to fight a losing battle against inevitability. They chose to delude themselves that everything would be okay if they just held on and kept having babies. You know the truth—that in this new world, the only thing that would matter is power—a force even stronger than death.

As his body died, Sedris's mind flooded with dark power. His humanity fell away. The transformation was complete—Vithia's king was now a lich.

In the end, Sedris massacred all of his family and close advisors to fuel the bloody ritual that would ensure the continuation of his consciousness into unlife. That's what happens when you mess with demonic pacts, folks. The knights and paladins of the realm, astonished and unable to assassinate or thwart him, perished with the old word for "traitor"—grixis—on their tongues.

The kingdom flooded with demons and the forces of the undead. The capital fell, and just as Sedris had changed, the capital of Vithia, too, became something else. Today it's known as Sedraxis, the largest necropolis on the plane, named after the last of the Vithian kings. It's still ruled by Sedris, now a lich warlord, whose mastery of the combined arts of battle and necromancy remains unsurpassed throughout the world of Grixis.

Sedris, the Traitor King

Sedris in Action

If you've been watching the previews, you've already seen the unearth mechanic on cards like Sedraxis Specter and Corpse Connoisseur (and now you know where Sedraxis Specter likes to hang out). Sedris turns every dead creature in your graveyard into a potential undead minion, inspiring their bones to rise into servitude for you. What can you do with this?

  • Pay only to smash your foes with enormous monsters. Get a Hellkite Overlord in your graveyard, and smack your opponent in the face with 8 power of hasty nastiness, plus whatever firebreathing mana you have around. Use Corpse Connoisseur to get another hit in with your 3/3, and set up your next reanimation trick. Or just chain Connoisseurs into one another.
  • Kill off your own creatures with Demon's Herald, Ooze Garden, or Jund's devour mechanic, and get in another hit with them. Power up your Siege-Gang Commander. If you can pay twice in a turn, you can throw two of your doornailed minions at your opponent per turn. Your opponent has the same choice every time: to block or not to block? It's painful to throw chumps in the way of creatures that only have one last attack in them, but it becomes even more painful to just let them through.
  • Get more bang out of "comes into play" effects. Set up another 5 damage with Where Ancients Tread by unearthing a behemoth. Recycle the Lorwyn evoke creatures in your graveyard to get more cards or Terrors. Get more use out of Ravenous Rats, Clone, or Broodmate Dragon. (Please don't try to unearth Phage the Untouchable. She doesn't like that.)

Here's a bit of FAQ text for Sedris, the Traitor King:

* Despite the appearance of the reminder text, the unearth abilities that Sedris grants are activated abilities of each individual creature card in your graveyard. They're not activated abilities of Sedris.
* Sedris may cause a creature card in your graveyard to have multiple unearth abilities. (For example, a Fatestitcher in your graveyard would have unearth {U} and unearth {2}{B}.) You may play either of those abilities.

The Rest of the Story

After the corruption of Sedris, the plane became known as Grixis. The necromancer barons and demon lords conquered more and more of the lands that formerly belonged to the living.

As the power of white and green mana ebbed away, the only sources of life that remained were the survivors. Creatures that depended on life energy, such as demons and blood-sucking vampires, couldn't feed on the dead. As the supply of living humans dwindled, their power struggles became more violent. Even necromancers have learned to seek out the precious energy of life, known as vis, to power their spells, causing the surviving humans to seek shelter in remote, ward-covered strongholds called hermitages.

The living humans of Grixis today don't remember much about Vithia, even as they crouch in its ruins. They fight the forces of undeath with cleverness and magic, focusing on the power of red and blue mana to thwart the death magic of their predators. They still call themselves Vithians, the word a tattered reminder of times long past.

But it's a losing battle. Every time a human being (or an ogre, or a kathari, the plane's vulture-aven) dies, it becomes a resource for necromantic warlords like Sedris, meaning they add to the enemy even as they subtract from their own number. If something doesn't change, humanity will go extinct on Grixis in a matter of years.

Art by Karl Kopinski

You can find much more about Grixis in A Planeswalker's Guide to Alara. Pick up a copy! It explains the shards of Alara better than I can—or, uh, perhaps more accurately, exactly as well as I can.

Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Time for Esper":

Alara would have been a great set to bring back the "watermarks" in the text field that Ravnica introduced for the guild logos. A nice, stylish logo for each of the representing sub-planes of Alara would have fit in very well. I have not seen this in any of the preview cards.

Was this talked about by the staff before printing? Why was it not done?


We did talk about it. We like players to be able to easily identify the different factions of a setting—it helps players get into the flavor of the world(s) and collect and build decks around their favorite factions. And Ravnica's watermarks were a great success in that regard.

Part of the reason we decided not to do it came from the flavor itself. The world of Grixis, for example, is a plane, not an organization or "faction" of a world the same way the guilds of Ravnica were. Grixis has no "flag," the same way Earth has no flag (well, I've seen attempts at an Earth flag, but certainly none that have been universally adopted). Most of the denizens of Grixis don't know that there are four other shards of Alara (with a few exceptions for old, old undead creatures like Sedris), and even those who have an inkling of this have no occasion to interact with the other shards, so they have no need to create a symbol to distinguish themselves from the others. Ravnica is another story—all ten guilds (well, at least nine of them) knew about each other and had plenty of reason to create iconography to represent their organizations and philosophies, and emblazon it on their armor and banners and guildhalls.

Also, in Ravnica, cards that weren't gold or didn't have one of the guild mechanics weren't watermarked—and many of these cards represented magic or creatures that lived outside the guild system. In Shards of Alara, all the cards are flavored around one of the shards—which would lead every single card getting a watermark, or lead to a somewhat arbitrary assignment of watermarks to some of a shard's cards but not others. A card like Ad Nauseam, as Mark Rosewater mentioned in his column on Monday, is flavored as a Grixis spell, but doesn't have anything in particular to do with the unearth mechanic or with blue-black-red decks—should that be a Grixis-watermarked? Some argued that it should, but in the end we decided just to leave them aside.

There were other reasons, too, but I can't talk about those just yet.

We like the Ravnica watermarks too. We'll use something like that again, when it's the right setting and the right time.

Don't miss your first chance to play with Shards of Alara cards at the worldwide Prereleases this weekend (September 27 and 28)! And get your first opportunity to buy Shards of Alara at worldwide Launch Parties October 3, 4, and 5!

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