I Cannot Tell Ally
I firmly believe that Magic flavor and mechanics are currently as close as they've been in a long time. In fact they're ensconced in such a firm and lengthy bro-hug that it's starting to make onlookers shuffle their feet and fake-cough nervously. But darn it, those two are meant to be together, and the heck with anybody who would tear them apart. In what I hope and expect to be a pattern for future blocks, the world of Zendikar was born from mechanics—in this case, the importance of lands in the design of the set—and then the flavor of that world was fed back into the set design, which in turn gave rise to new mechanical-yet-flavorful themes such as traps, quests, Vampires, Kor and their traveling gear, and Allies. Without the foundation of land mechanics, there would be no Zendikar setting; but without the Zendikar setting, there would be no brave explorers banding together to seek out those wondrous destinations. Flavomechanical bro-hugs for everyone.
As we were commissioning art for the Allies, their specific templates were still solidifying out of their hot proto-selves like the cooling Precambrian crust. They didn't have the Ally type yet, or any subtype that would unify them; at that time, they still had a placeholder keyword binding them together (see Mark's article earlier this week for more on the attempts at a keyword such as "teamwork" and "adventurer"). We commissioned art for them in the style intended by their flavor, which was a mix of races and classes—fighters, mages, clerics, rogues, rangers, shamans, scouts—archetypes of the archetypal D&D-style adventuring party, with a few twists to make them belong to Zendikar.
Interestingly, this approach actually eliminated one of the options that was on the table, which was to unify these creatures with a new creature type such as Adventurer. The "Adventurer" subtype was flavorful, but it would have been too long next to race and class types. The creatures had originally been concepted as having different classes, which meant they had to have class types like Warrior, Cleric, Rogue, and Wizard, plus their race types (some of which would be short words like Elf or Kor, but some of which would be long like Minotaur). A long word like Adventurer just wouldn't fit on the type line as a third type with any kind of readable font.
Could we just drop the class type, some wondered, and just make them all [Race] Adventurer? That would make it work sort of like Spellshaper, a class type that goes on creatures that would otherwise most likely be Wizards, Clerics, or Shamans. But eliminating the class type from the card seemed to fly in the face of the very design goal of letting you build up an adventuring party from various class roles.
So for a good while the designers and developers worked on giving all the Allies a keyword instead of a shared creature type. After much hemming and hawing and card-tinkering, it became abundantly clear that a subtype was still the simplest and best way to go. Some quiet time with the thesaurus later, the new creature type Ally—truly a fitting word, on so many levels—came to be. Finally the cards in the file had cooled into a solid foundation of mechanics layered with flavor.
Profiles of Famous Allies
Not everyone in Zendikar has what it takes to be part of an expedition in search of treasure, lore, and renown. It takes a sturdy constitution, an instinct for danger, and an unshakable—or at least properly-motivated—sense of loyalty. As such, expedition leaders must search from one end of the plane to the other to identify those brave souls who are hardy enough for the task. Let's look at a few of them.
Father Rami the Kabira Evangel – A dedicated holy man and master talespinner from the outpost at Kabira. His fireside tales of past travels can inspire any party to defy danger when dawn breaks over the wilderness, but some believe Rami's past holds a dark secret.
Assar Ihmad the Kazandu Blademaster – A loyal and trustworthy fighter, far from stealthy in his heavy armor but sharp of eye and unmatched with the sword. Though he spends much of his current time looking for work in the relatively civilized outposts of Murasa and other towns, he cut his adventuring teeth in the thickly forested canyons of Kazandu.
Moliq the Makindi Shieldmate – Once an architect and civic leader, Moliq now serves as a shieldmate, devoting his life to getting in the way of injury that would otherwise cut into the party's tender mages and scholars. He hails from the near-vertical crags of the Makindi Trenches where, before his adventuring days, he led the construction of a new outpost for mining and exploration. An World Queller, enraged at the audacity of his fledgling community, wreaked havoc there, killing hundreds and teaching Moliq a harsh lesson in allegiance and humility.
Radrik the Ondu Cleric – A cleric of the kor wind-goddess Kamsa, Radrik entered his study of the goddess at an early age, along with his younger sister Ayli. The nomadic siblings became renowned for their wisdom and guidance for troubled souls, but the more insightful Ayli quickly outshined him. Disillusioned and envious, Radrik stopped traveling with his sister and joined up with an expedition to Jwar Isle, and ever since has offered his healing talents to adventurers.
Vado Thal the Sea Gate Loremaster – The famed field scholar and linguist Vado was trained at the Lighthouse at Sea Gate. As a student of ancient languages, Vado analyzes the lore and relics "acquired" by his fellow adventurers, and in turn feeds them clues about what to expect in the ruins ahead.
Thairin the Seascape Aerialist – Not many parties call for an aerialist, but when an expedition calls for an exploration of a sky-ruin or passage across a days-wide canyon, that aerial expertise can be the best solution. Thairin has been called "the Conqueror" for his leadership during successful forays into the archipelago of floating islands along the coast of Tazeem.
Sharpwing the Umara Raptor – Many expeditions hire beasts of burden and beasts of war, and many wizards and rangers have their familiars; but Sharpwing is famous for being more like a full-fledged member of the party herself. A keen-eyed scout, a diligent messenger, and a surprisingly vicious huntress, she has been requested for some of the most dangerous expeditions undertaken in her young life.
Niobe the Bala Ged Thief – "Hotshot rogue from the teeming shadows of Bala Ged" and "unerring loyalty" are not phrases that are generally spoken together, but Niobe has gained a reputation as a valued team member nevertheless. She has adapted her quick fingers and pickpocketing skills to the needs of adventuring parties, and has become one of the finest relic hunters on the primordial continent.
Morodrath the Hagra Diabolist – Only a desperate party would add a mercenary ogre to their number, and only an even more desperate party would hire a dabbler in demonic magic—and Morodrath is both. But sometimes when marching into the evil-radiating gloom of a subterranean ruin, the expedition requires skills such as his.
Khalish the Nimana Sell-Sword – At heart, Khalish is a businessman. As long as he's paid, he'll cut whatever necks you ask him to cut and won't complain even in the nastiest of wilds. But forget his wage for one day and he'll happily take an equivalent fee out of your flesh—and he won't bother to wait until you're sleeping.
Dronn the Highland Berserker – Some seek treasure and fortune in the wilds of Zendikar. Others just want an excuse to swing their axes at something that'll fall funny. When Dronn looted the axe of a fallen trench ogre, not only did he ignore the advice that the weapon was too big for him, he also had a second one forged identical to the first.
Thraur the Kazuul Warlord – Murasa's famed Cliffs of Kazuul are controlled by the tyrannical ogre slaver Kazuul, whose warrior-slaves demand tribute at every access up the precipice. As a rule, Kazuul's slaves never escape; but Thraur is an exception to that rule. Now he practices his melee expertise, inspiring even for a minotaur ally, as part of some of the world's toughest expeditions—but he's vowed never to return to those Cliffs.
Scorcher the Murasa Pyromancer – The shaman known only as Scorcher is known for neither prudence nor precision in his application of fire magic. But if there's a broad semicircle of wilderness you need scorched, it's obvious whom to call.
Bindi, Paldi, and Zurdi, the Tuktuk Grunts – Inspired by the curious and unusual leader of the Tuktuk warren, these three goblin siblings have thrown themselves headlong into a life of exploration. Their capacity for cunning and forethought is about what you would imagine for their species, but expedition leaders all over the world bear a certain respect for these grunts' unstoppable zeal for discovery.
Nikou the Joraga Bard – A poet from the Tangled Vales of Bala Ged, Nikou has contributed over a hundred lines to the Chanter's Epics collection of bard-songs. Whether he's reciting lyrics or playing an extended tone on his warhorn, he can always be counted on to keep the party alert to danger.
Yon Basrel the Oran-Rief Survivalist – Hailing from the twisting, coral-like forest of Oran-Rief, no one has seen more of the woodland areas of Zendikar than Yon Basrel. Though his long experience with passes and trail routes is valued, his knowledge of the pressure points of every creature from meepling to Pelakka Wurm is what gets him hired again and again.
Elenar the Tajuru Archer – His bow was carved from the very canopy limbs of Kazandu where he hunted as a young man, and his deadly aim was hewn from the same experiences. For years Elenar has traveled with Samila, famed Murasan expedition leader, providing assurance in the form of eye-socket-bound arrows.
Zalek the Turntimber Ranger – The most skillful ranger and beastmaster in Ondu, Zalek is also the hardest to find, spending even his fallow moments in the embrace of the wild, especially in the haunting glade of Turntimber known as the Wolfbriar. Some claim that Zalek has the soul of a wolf; others say that wolves have the souls of men like Zalek.
"Tawny" the Stonework Puma – The ancient product of an unknown runesculptor or sculptors, stonework pumas have long been the reliable choice of many adventuring parties. There are known to be less than a hundred such artifact creatures in existence, and each one has been named after its famous exploits. "Tawny" was the only survivor of a disastrous run-in with a Bala Ged yellow ooze; though its compatriots were slain, the living sculpture faithfully returned to its last base-camp, covered with acidic ochre slime and carrying what the party sought, a prized Everflowing Chalice, in its mouth.
Letter of the Week
Dear Doug Beyer,
I also appreciate the vampires that Zendikar has received. But one vampire is both cool and puzzling: Vampire Hexmage. It can remove all the counters from a permanent. But there are dozens of types of counters: +1/+1, -1/-1, age, charge, storage, tide, ice, loyalty, and so on. So how is it that a single type of mage can dismiss planeswalkers, destroy arcbound creatures, heal an Aboroth, or free the deadly Marit Lage from its icy prison?
Card mechanics that are very abstract or flexible, for example abilities that interact with such a broad range of game elements as everything that has counters on it, can sometimes be tough to nail down to a specific flavor. But I think there's a cool story behind the flexible powers of the Hexmage nevertheless.
A hexmage is a mage, often a vampire, who uses her talents at curse-magic to drain quantities other than blood. It's likely that she began using her skills to drain a particular kind of quantity, and gradually learned that it could apply to other situations. Perhaps she first learned to drain that strength that an Oran-Rief Survivalist gains from the companionship of his adventuring cohorts (indeed a useful knack on Ally-infested Zendikar, and perhaps one of the reasons that expeditions tend not to hire vampires!). Or perhaps she initially trained in something more abstract, such as the ability to sap one's mental progress toward Beastmaster Ascension.
But as she plied this one particular draining skill, she found that she could bleed other mystical quantities as well. She found that she could deplete an Eternity Vessel or scatter a Scute Mob (note that in her art, she's swarming with creepy beetles). The more she cast her hexes, the more victims she found that were susceptible to them—but also the more she found that this power draining her, as well. Now she's a master at dominating just about any kind of entity that relies on a measurable internal resource or supply of power, but every time her curses steal these quantities from her victims, she risks becoming overwhelmed by the power she bleeds from them. If she ever intends to face off against the likes of Sorin Markov, she'd better be willing to give up her life entirely (or heaven forbid, Dark Depths of some ancient Dominarian god-monster sorceress, whose thick ice many planeswalkers summoned her to smash at Pro Tour–Austin)! Thanks for your question, Paul!