Choices in the New Alara

Posted in Savor The Flavor on April 29, 2009

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

A good story is like a bad chess game, or like some sort of Twincast / Isochron Scepter combo: you get forked over and over again.

By "forking" I mean being presented with a tough choice between two bad alternatives. In chess it's awful when your opponent makes a move that threatens both your queen and your rook. But in a story, it's exciting and dramatic when the hero gets forced into choosing between love or money, fame or happiness, death or dishonor, etc. It's agonizing for the character, of course, but excellent for you, the reader or moviegoer or other type of entertainment-consumer, because you get to see the hero react to those impossible situations, and rise to greatness to overcome them.

(The Scepter-Twincast thing is probably somehow just as bad for you as a fork on your queen and your rook, although the exercise of figuring out the rest of such a forkin' deck I leave up to you, kind reader. Also: fork.)

All over Alara, people are now facing just these kinds of dilemmas, and making the choices that determine their fates. Today we take a look at five strategies that the denizens of Alara can adopt to cope with the rejoined plane and the massive inter-shard war; each of these strategies represents a difficult decision with stiff consequences.

The Invaders

Some Alarans don't merely join the war effort, but volunteer to march on the attack, pushing far into foreign lands. These guys are the front lines of the war between the shards, the mud-booted doughboys who bring the fight to their enemies with their own longswords, spells, or teeth. Prominent examples of these invaders are the cycle of cycling-effect Sojourners and the cycle of gold-loving, two-mana "goldblades" (Bant Sojourner and Bant Sureblade, Esper Sojourners and Esper Stormblade, Grixis Sojourners and Grixis Grimblade, Jund Sojourners and Jund Hackblade, Naya Sojourners and Naya Hushblade). The art of each of them shows a warrior infiltrating a foreign shard, ready to slice through whatever defenses his or her foe can muster.

Naya HushbladeArt by Jason Chan

Jason Chan's Naya Hushblade might be my all-time favorite art in Alara Reborn. This Naya elf has made her way into the filigree halls of some Esper sanctum by stealth and guile, allowing her to avoid nasty targeted magics that might stop her. She's graceful and badass at the same time, and I love the way her organic Naya costuming contrasts with the glass-and-steel Esper structure around her. You go, Naya Hushblade!

But her victory might be short-lived. Even as she gets ready to sink her golden blade into an etherium-enhanced vedalken or two, Esper has some agents infiltrating her home town as well.

Esper SojournersArt by John Avon

In John Avon's Esper Sojourners, three etherium-ified vedalken explore the jungles of Naya. We don't often get to see Naya in this kind of dramatic lighting, in the breaking of the gloom-hour right before dawn, but I think it intensifies the furtiveness and strange confidence of the scene. I admire the poise of these narrow-headed mages. They're artifact creatures in the land of Disenchant, for Progenitus's sake, and yet they seem bold, capable, self-assured. Let's see, their ability is—to Twiddle? Well, I hope that keeps them alive long enough to carry out their mission. Clearly they know something about Naya that I don't.

Also—in case you didn't see this guy in action at the Prerelease, you must check out Dan Dos Santos's Jund Hackblade:

Jund HackbladeArt by Dan Dos Santos

That goblin is having a grand time on his foray into enemy territory. Could a Jund goblin receive any better orders than this?

  1. Go to Bant.
  2. Freaking wreck the place.

Goblin paradise! All the soldiers there even stop and chant silly battle-rites for several moments before charging in, and their swords are more shiny than sharp. Maybe Bant truly is heaven.

The Joiners

War takes many forms, and so do its warriors. Instead of joining up with their own armies, marching shoulder-to-shoulder with their fellow pointy-ears or sharp-beaks, many Alarans choose to join the armies of other shards, offering their services in a gesture of unity against common enemies. Each who chooses this path has his own reasons. Bloodbraid Elf once lived among her Cylian kin, but sees more opportunities for quick and bloody action among the warrior-clans of Jund. Gloryscale Viashino has experienced the thrill of military service, and now enjoys the fame—and weaponry—of Sigiled rank. I love the creature type Viashino Soldier, as opposed to Viashino Warrior, by the way—that type line tells a cool story all by itself.

Some of Naya's Nacatl have also joined up with the forces of Bant. The elder Qasali Pridemage expands his definition of "pride" to encompass the peoples of Bant, helping defend the stone walls recently erected to keep Jund, Grixis, and Esper from encroaching on the sunnier lands of Bant and Naya. And this Cat Soldier has even abandoned the term Nacatl altogether, favoring an older, less Naya-customary word for his kin: leonin.

Leonin ArmorguardArt by Steven Belledin

I kind of love the look of Leonin Armorguard as the human squire works fit him with armor. The leonin's job, of course, is to bolster the defenses of those small folk around him. But hey, why not strike a pose and look cool while the little humans fuss with the sigil-covered metal skin they're so proud of? The leonin has considered the forked options before him in the new Alara, and he's boldly made his choice—if his mane blows in a conveniently picturesque wind and he looks extra-cool in his custom armor, then what's the harm in mugging a little?

The Heretics

Rather than take up the sword in alliance with their peers, some Alarans have devoted their lives to forging a new path. These guys are the desperadoes, the trailblazers of new philosophies, those passionate thinkers and warriors so inspired by the reborn plane of Alara that they reject the old ways and attempt to build something entirely new.

Ethercaste KnightArt by Steven Belledin

Steven Belledin's Ethercaste Knight has abandoned the traditional Bant structure of castes—not to rid himself of castes entirely, but to forge a new Ethercaste of etherium-enhanced citizens. After all, etherium is just the strategy of encasing oneself in metal taken to its logical extreme.

Raymond Swanland's Rhox Brute, on the other hand, rejects the constraints of Bant's rigid society, joining the wilds of Jund. I'll let the art description for the card speak for itself:

Color: Red and green creature
Location: Jund (see below)
Action: Normally, rhoxes (rhino humanoids) are from the heroic, orderly world of Bant. This one has traveled to the primordial world of Jund and has rediscovered his savage roots. Show him having replaced some of his shiny soldier armor with some of the Jund human costuming (bones, hides, etc.), and he has a cool but crude weapon of some kind.
Focus: The rhox warrior
Mood: I used to care about valor and virtue and all that nonsense. Now I just care about kicking your ass.

Rhox BruteArt by Raymond Swanland

Vithian Renegades represents some surviving Grixis humans who have sacrificed almost everything to fight their way out of that dead land. They've left the horrors of Grixis—and, likely, some weaker members of their own family—behind them, choosing to tough it out on the road to other lands, hoping that new frontiers can bring new hope. They've picked up some artifact-smashing green magic during their exodus—especially handy when traveling in Esper. Knight of New Alara, on an even bolder mission, attempts to forge a whole new society, encompassing Alarans of all colors and cultures who wish to join. It remains to be seen whether his optimistic sort of message, or Bolas's fear-spreading one, will (Movie Trailer Voice) determine Alara's future. That's just the kind of drama-fork I like!

Perhaps the most heretical of the Alaran heretics is the Vedalken Heretic herself, an Esper vedalken who has "gone native" in the verdant jungles of Naya, transforming her intellectual study of the Filigree Texts into a mystical enlightenment inspired by the natural world around her. She's shown here without any etherium at all, with a coatl (a Naya species of snake) coiled around her. New world, new ways of thinking, new spells, and scaly new pets. Hmm, do I smell a Lorescale Coatl deck? (Or is that just the smell of a vedalken who has given up Esper-style hygiene?)

Vedalken HereticArt by Greg Staples

The Recruits

Although many Alaran humanoids have made recent career changes, many of Alara's creatures had no choice in the matter. Through summoning, mind control, and sheer force, many creatures have been taken from one shard and recruited into the war on another. It can seem harsh, but desperate times call for desperate monsters.

Enlisted WurmArt by Steve Prescott

Steve Prescott's art of Enlisted Wurm is a complete story in itself. The wurm has been outfitted with harnesses and ropes and even a golden sigil, but the huge beast is still barely under control. The captain points to direct it toward a decrepit Grixis necropolis, but it's unclear whether the wurm will become a powerful siege weapon or simply a toothy friendly-fire disaster. At least it has cascade—maybe it'll summon you up a few more soldiers to help hold its restraints.

Sanctum Plowbeast and Deathbringer Thoctar both represent mighty Naya beasts pressed into service on far shores. The plowbeast has been fitted with etherium to serve as a mighty guardian of Esper cities—proud and huge, it doesn't even look like it's missing its Naya home—and as a bonus, now you can hang pictures on it with refrigerator magnets. The thoctar is a very different story—it died, got reanimated by some Grixis spell, and is now being used as a terror weapon on an invasion run into Jund. The poor monster probably remembers nothing of its revered status on Naya, and now only feels the mindless hunger of the undead—but hey, its new job comes with free goblin munchies.

Spellbound Dragon was once one of Jund's wrathful sky predators, but now faces that most sinister of control mechanisms: mind-control magic. Some enterprising Esper mind-mage has taken over the brain of this ferocious monster and sends it to the front lines, perhaps even against its own Jund compatriots. The dragon would be very powerful among the forces of Grixis as well—it'd be quick to draw its owner into mind-harrowing removal spells while filling the graveyard with all manner of unearth nastiness, all while howling in agony as the clammy fingers of a necromancer penetrate its mind. Strange how very few Alarans have joined the forces of Grixis by choice ....

Spellbound DragonArt by Jesper Ejsing

The Old Guard

Our final way of adapting to reunified Alara is not to adapt at all. Some Alara Reborn creatures simply dig in, embrace their home shard's ways, and try to hang onto the status quo for dear life. Or unlife.

ThraximundarArt by Raymond Swanland

One hundred percent of over-the-top, dreg reaver–riding zombie assassins agree: the best way to enjoy yourself in new Alara is just to do what you've always done, but more so.

Breath of MalfegorArt by Vance Kovacs

Malfegor is another Grixis monster who's trying to ply a strategy of business as usual. He remembers the old days, when he was the most fearsome being on a young Alara, and has no agenda in the new world other than to restore his forgotten position. Ironically, pursuing a similar, and similarly ancient, mission are these beings:

Sovereigns of Lost AlaraArt by Donato Giancola

Kings and queens of old Alara have begun to return in spectral form, bearing magical protection for the soldiers in the plane's vast war. Their magic is reminiscent of the kingdoms whose glory fell out of memory when Alara broke into five shards, and whose splendor may rise once again.

Or—maybe not. Forking war.

Letter of the Week

Johnny asks a future-directed question about planeswalker characters.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "The One, The Only, Nicol Bolas":

I've always been interested in the new Planeswalker card type - personally, I find the flavor potential absolutely endless. But with the Alara block, I've started to think about the future of Planeswalker cards - in particular, which future Planeswalkers will be depicted, and how.

Let me interrupt you here for a moment, Johnny. Note that I won't answer questions about the specifics of what planeswalker characters will show up and in what form—that's part of the surprise of future sets. But I can answer general questions about our thinking on these matters.

First off, the reintroduction of Ajani made me ponder about "remaking" the Planeswalkers. Ajani Vengeant is Ajani being, well... very, very angry. It shows him in a new light - more irrational and wild than Ajani Goldmane. However, haven't most Planeswalkers been through moments like that? Wasn't there a period where Tezzeret the Seeker was irrational and angry? Logically, remakes would appear as the game needs, but from a flavorful perspective, what would warrant an entirely new card?

That's a very intriguing question, and one we wonder about a lot. What's the dividing line between Planeswalker Version 1 and Planeswalker Version 2? What's enough of a life-change for a planeswalker character to cause us to print a new version of that character? Certainly becoming a new color (or set of colors) would represent a dramatic enough shift to show off in a new card. Ajani, thanks to the trauma behind his brother's death, not only ignites his planeswalker spark but also becomes open to furious red magic, when he was just a white-aligned cat before. Just getting angry wouldn't be enough to branch off a new card, but vowing an epic mission of revenge against your brother's killer, and tapping into the fierce mana of Jund to fuel your vengeance, would be.

But other story events could be enough to justify a new card, too. Planeswalkers grow and change all the time, learning new spells and abilities, re-emphasizing certain skills while changing their magical focus on others, sometimes even within their own color(s). A planeswalker might head to a new plane, have new experiences, and show up with a new card to represent that next stage in his or her life and magical development.

Secondly - this was mostly inspired by Nicol Bolas and his new, Planeswalker-ish version - will other characters from the multiverse make reappearances? I'm sure that Magic lore has dozens of Planeswalkers that could make an appearance at some point, and I imagine that those will be included - again - as storylines dictate. On the other hand, could non-Planeswalkers... become Planeswalkers? Could Raksha, Golden Cub suddenly learn about the worlds beyond Mirrodin? Could Kumano, Master Yamabushi's spark ignite during particularly intense meditation? On both a flavorful level and in the "real world," is that kind of thing possible, and if so, when would it come into play?

We can't say any specifics, but we are, under the right circumstances, open to some examples of this. Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker represents our willingness to remake older legendary creatures and/or other personalities from Magic's past as planeswalker cards—but a lot of conditions have to hold for it to be right. Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker met those conditions.

Alright, the answers to those questions are fairly obvious, but on a more personal level - for future sets, would you prefer pre-existing characters as Planeswalkers, or prefer a wide variety of "newbies" in new sets? I'd love to hear your opinion on the matter; thanks in advance!

So ... I can't think of a way of answering this last question that doesn't spoil future sets. Sorry, Johnny, and you, dear reader, but since I'm partly responsible for future directions of planeswalker characters, I can't speculate any further here about the "mix" of brand-new planeswalker characters vs. reimagined old planeswalker characters vs. "planeswalker-ified" legends. All I can say is: stay tuned.

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