The elvish druids of the Knotvine Altar on Naya puzzle over the strange strains of mana twined around the three colors they're used to. Sighted-caste mages on Bant reread the old prophecies of the archangel Asha, looking for some magical defense against the rising tide of chaos and death. The archwizards of Esper devote their brilliance to researching the wild sorceries that continuously thrash their etherium armies, trying to stem the onslaught on their grid-lined home realm while simultaneously searching for the components for fresh etherium. Even the putrescent lethemancers and fleshwarpers of Grixis have found cause to broaden their scholarly horizons as they encounter new forms of mind and body to twist to their own self-serving ends.
But today I talk about Jund.
In particular, one card.
This unassuming uncommon, not even a mage himself, actually represents the vanguard of mystical progress on Alara. There are other beings who are more in touch with the Maelstrom, the swirling node of mana forming at the spot where all five shards overlap—for example, Fusion Elemental and Maelstrom Angel, whose existence is owed largely to the confluence of mana in that five-color storm—but no one has seen more of actual Alara at this point than this well-traveled knight. His travels have brought him perspective on the war, mana, and spellcraft of Alara that no one else has.
He never chose to leave Jund—he was forced.
He was a proud member of one of the human warrior clans, possibly the clan Tol Antaga led by the warrior champion Kresh the Bloodbraided—but he never charged with that clan into a hellkite's lair, where many of their number died. He may have met Rakka Mar, the elementalist shaman—but he never heard her fireside urgings to spread the warriors' Life Hunts into the foreign shards, the secret propaganda of the dragon Nicol Bolas. He may have scaled to the lava pool known as the Sweltering Cauldron or explored the cavernous depths of the Bloodhall—but he never drew a drop of mana from those places' rich stock.
He was reasonable with a polearm. He was passable at riding lizardback. He enjoyed a spar now and again with his clanmates, two warriors of good skill and excellent friendship. He never thought he would see beyond the borders of his own world, let alone see the contours of four others from that viewpoint up in his worn, scale-leather saddle.
When the Conflux came, it brought thunder with it. As a denizen of Jund, the knight had felt rumblings in the crust before, but this was different. Countrysides broke with splashes of lava. Ugly black towers burst up through the land, flooding the land with shambling creatures that looked more dead than alive. Shaggy behemoths lumbered along the mountain trenches, crunching Jund's teeming predator-web without regard. The lands of Jund sloughed off at the edges, sliding into new adjacent worlds, and great plates of those other worlds hunched their way into Jund.
(It's hard being a 2/2 when worlds are colliding.)
The knight was hunting tar crocodiles when the shard-quake found its way to his part of Jund, the bejungled lowlands. He had heard of the phenomenon striking the lands farther out, so he knew exactly what to do when he felt the ground lurch. He steered his iguanar steed toward his two trusted clanmates, bounding through the razor-toothed foliage as fast as the lizard would go, ready to carry his two comrades-in-arms to safety.
He found them floating in the air, their mortal souls seeping out of their bodies.
Another force had moved into Jund even faster than the Conflux—the army of Zarratha, a lich lord from the necropolis of Unx, shard of Grixis. The souls of the knight's clanmates became fuel for the lich's undead forces, their vis harvested like mere wheat. As the bodies of his clanmates fell to the ground, two conflicting impulses struck him—to lower his polearm at the misshapen form of the lich and charge, or to run. The choice he made saved his life.
Escape Across Worlds
Mages in the time of the Conflux have some insight into what's going on. As their worlds' landforms change, they can sense the new mystical tang in the air, the psychic aroma of (to them) new types of mana. The knight had never had any shamanic training, and had no such mystical perception to help him make sense of what he saw as he fled.
Wherever he rode, he saw the forces of Grixis. Vampires stalked and circled like greedy dragons. Necropotencemancer barons and their whip-stitched monstrosities pummeled the local viashino thrashes, harvesting their sturdy hides for further necromancy. The diseased, black-feathered kathari, silhouetted against Jund's volcanic sky in great swarms, out-scavenged the scavenger drakes, picking off the weakest goblins from the mountain heights.
Grixis was everywhere. So the knight fled in the other direction.
(I mean seriously. If you were given a choice between Grixis or Naya, which way would you run? I think I'd rather be squashed by a rampaging thoctar than be drooled on by the undead forms of my former friends. That's just me.)
The knight felt something strange as he crossed over into the lands he would come to know as Naya. Even as a non-mage, he could see evidence of changes in the mana landscape, an experience even more bizarre than seeing the alien flora and fauna of Naya's overgrown jungles. Jund had never been privy to the power of white mana, but he could see it with his own eyes.
He saw it in the fighting styles of the Nacatl lion-folk and witnessed its power to protect the sunsail tents up in the elves' canopies. He had never seen spells that could create life energy itself or bind a pride of lion warriors into a single, efficient hunting weapon.
(It's like if you crossed into the next country over, and it turned out they run their civilization not just on electricity and geothermal energy, but also on the perfume of daisies. "You don't have daisy perfume? How do you power your flying cars?" "We... don't." And they'd never heard of fossil fuels at all.)
It was off-putting at first, but also strangely thrilling. Something within him stirred, the same feeling he had when he saw flights of dragons taking off and arcing across the heavens, their breaths carving ragged black scars in the ashen tumult. He mistook the feeling for wistfulness.
The knight headed on, propelled by the death and wildness behind him. He probably thought he was heading in a linear direction, getting farther and farther away from his native Jund as he crossed borders—but really he was on a long, slow round-trip. As he left the behemoths, Cylian elves, and noble cat-folk behind, he found knights riding cat-steeds, and huge rhoxes, and a race of bird-men. The influence of white mana was even more powerful here. And he found blue mana.
The feeling stirred again. He remembered a couple of years ago, when his clan met a man named Sarkhan Vol, a strangely-dressed shaman who seemed to know the minds of dragons. Vol was only with their clan briefly, but the knight had been taken with this man, who moved alone across the savage lands of Jund and shared the rage of hellkites. The knight felt now, in the presence of such diverse mana, that he had new perspective into the man.
He began to have strange dreams. They were night-terrors in which his body tore apart, revealing a fledgling dragon inside, a whelp that stretched its wings and flew away into the sky, trailing the knight's own blood. He always awoke screaming—awoke to the weird smells of Bant's meadows and the sea.
The knight headed on, into Esper, where the call of blue mana was strongest, and where he saw wonders he could never explain. He had never felt so far from home here, and unfamiliar passions warred in his chest. He had the dreams nightly now. All he knew to do was to drive on. What would the next world hold? How could it be stranger than the last? He could scarcely imagine.
The Eyes of the Enemy
Perhaps the plume breath of the beacon behemoth in Naya should have been a clue. Perhaps the locals' whispers of the Maelstrom should have made him realize what he would see next, or the surprisingly understanding glance from a wandering knight of Bant, whose shield was emblazoned with a prismatic pattern that felt oddly familiar.
But he was still surprised when he rode into Grixis. His lizard steed reared up, upset for the first time at the stench of a foreign land. He recognized the home-world that spawned Zarratha, the lich who harvested the souls of his clanmates.
The fires within him were stoked.
He rode boldly through Grixis, his polearm finding its way through many shambling corpses, the claws of his steed becoming sticky with ichor torn from the damned. When he slept, he only slumped in his saddle. The dreams were as horrible as ever, his fantasies of gory dragon-birthing mingling with the reality of the dead world around him. His iguanar knew not to pause. The two of them cut a swath, aiming for the familiar volcanic plumes on the horizon.
Then he saw them.
His clanmates. Here in Grixis? Alive again?
No. Dead. Forming the front lines for the lich Zarratha.
And that's the story of how Dragonsoul Knight, an unremarkable warrior of Jund, touched the five corners of Alara and used mana he never understood to unleash a raging power within him. It's the story of how the lich Zarratha perished under a siege of dragonfire, and the story of how a knight finally cremated his fallen friends, and returned home to begin a new warrior-clan, and a new life.
Letter of the Week
Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Planeswalking into Conflict":
I have a question about the nature of planeswalking. I understand that a planeswalker can easily travel from plane to plane, but can they choose where they end up? In the moment where they travel, do they have the entire plane in their eyes, and they just have to pick a spot? It seems unlikely that planeswalkers would be able to choose wherever they end up, but without this ability it seems they would frequently end up in the ocean, or high in the sky. Perhaps beginning planeswalkers have less control over where they land, but more experienced ones can control it better.
I was also wondering if the planeswalker could travel around on a single plane itself. Could a planeswalker jump around wherever they wish, or would they have to go to a completely different plane to "teleport"? This also ties into my other question. Could a planeswalker travel to any area on a plane from another area on the same plane, and choose where they end up?
Great questions, Story. As you suggest, and as with many of these "is it possible" questions, the answer depends on the planeswalker and the surrounding conditions. A planeswalker who is practiced at planeswalking, who's familiar with the plane to which he's traveling, and who has enough time and mana, can usually hit the basic area he's shooting for with pretty good accuracy. A planeswalker who's made many round trips to various parts of Dominaria over his lifetime, for example, could reliably travel directly to the continent of Otaria, could probably hit Aphetto in particular under most circumstances, and could possibly even expect to end up in a favorite location in or around it—the Grand Coliseum, perhaps.
A novice planeswalker, or one who's planeswalking to a world to which he's never been before, or one who's planeswalking under limits of time pressure, might end up somewhere he didn't expect. Imagine astronauts who expected to land the Space Shuttle in Cape Canaveral, Florida, but instead ended up on an ice floe in the Arctic Sea. They made it to Earth, but they still have a lot of surface travel to do to get to their real destination. If things went really haywire—if the planeswalker were under great mental stress at the moment of planeswalking, for example, or if some other strange magics were influencing the planeswalk—he might, as you say, end up in some dire situation, perhaps not only planeswalking to the wrong world, but also appearing inconveniently far from nice, solid earth. Take your time to planeswalk safely, folks! It matters.
In most cases, it's not possible for a planeswalker to "teleport" within a given plane. Some mages do know magic to pull off this feat—the Urborg mage Venser in the Time Spiral Block novels, for example, became more and more adept at instantaneous travel within his home plane of Dominaria, even before his spark ignited—but that wasn't planeswalking. The exceptionally ancient and powerful planeswalker Nicol Bolas has been known to simply appear wherever he wants to be, whenever he wants to be—but even he may actually be planeswalking from another world when he does so, rather than doing in-plane teleportation, and likely with careful deliberation beforehand.
So when you planeswalk, you're leaving the plane. You have to brave the Blind Eternities at least for a moment, breaching the boundaries of your origin world and touching down inside the boundaries of another.
Now, could a planeswalker simply planeswalk back again, and try to end up in another region back on the first plane? Sure, but remember that planeswalking can be very taxing. Too much planeswalking all at once can seriously deplete a planeswalker's mana, not to mention really tire him out. And of course, any trip through the Blind Eternities—the chaotic, senseless void between the planes—carries some risk. Most planeswalkers probably wouldn't use their powers merely to grocery shop in the next town over. Maybe if they had a really, really good deli counter there.