Almost nothing can claim immunity to the relentless claws of entropy. Living bodies die. Grand institutions keel over and rot. Even plastic, designed to be chemically inert, will decay by natural entropic processes given proper exposure to the elements and a long enough time horizon. Everything* is temporary.
When you are born, a clock begins to tick, counting down the moments until your inevitable demise. Every wedding is the beginning of a sacred bond—that ends a matter of years later, either in a courthouse or the grave. The moment that the silver golem Karn created the artificial world Argentum, later called the plane of Mirrodin, the lurking hint of Phyrexian corruption inside of him infected his creation. A single drop of the oil was all it took. Like the trickling sands of an entropic hourglass, Mirrodin's life dwindled away as Phyrexia has grown within it. In time, everything* falls.
There is a substance so hard that it can only be shaped by the magic of the most powerful artificers. It is so durable that it never degrades, testing the patience of Time itself. Traditional weapons are useless against it; it is easier to put dents in the laws of physics than in its surface. It is the metal that is innocent of death. It is called darksteel, and fortunately for the Mirrans, it is found on Mirrodin.
The Look of Darksteel
Darksteel is a magical, dark gray or black metal. It can look glossy black, matte black, or silvery-black—steel, but dark. Sometimes in certain light the dark metal can shade toward greenish or yellowish-bronze or reddish-purple—compare, for example, the art of Darksteel Myr, Darksteel Axe, and Darksteel Gargoyle.
Motes of magical energy orbit objects and artifact creatures made from darksteel. The trajectories of the energy motes form golden-yellowish streaks around the artifact. Check it out:
The "energy orbits" visual cue was meant to give darksteel a unique look that would distinguish it from other metals. In a metal world full of metal artifacts, just being gunmetal-colored would not be enough to keep it visually distinct.
Check out Darksteel Reactor. It fuses these yellow motes of energy into a pulsing sphere of power that grows over time. Look out, it's gonna blow! Resulting in my victory! Assuming victory is a matter of accumulating a whole lot of charge inside a Darksteel Reactor! Which it is in this case! Presumably because of the inelastic properties of the darksteel exerting irresistible pressure on the reaction within, causing a radical transformation of the mystical energies into a triumphant new state of total enlightenment! Woot!
Shaping the Unshapable
"Did it have this shape upon Mirrodin's creation,
or did some inconceivable force shape the unshapable?"
—Pontifex, elder researcher (Darksteel Forge)
So let's go ahead and anticipate a Letter of the Week. If darksteel is indestructible, how exactly do you forge it? How can you alter the shape of something that is harder than diamonds, more resilient than plastic, and more timeless than David Lynch's Dune? (Some may disagree with me about the latter. Toto guitar riffs, for teh win.)
Or, I'll go ahead and print such a letter, since reader Oren sent in this exact question a few months ago:
Dear Doug Beyer,
I thought of something interesting while reading last week's article. Darksteel has been a fixture since the Mirrodin block, so I'm sure people have asked this question before ... but darksteel is mentioned as a metal that is indestructible. However, it is also used to make weapons and form structures. How is this possible? It can't be forged in the normal manner, obviously, because that requires hammering it and cutting it. On the other hand, if magic were used to shape it, couldn't magic similarly be used to destroy it? How is darksteel even obtained, since if it were truly indestructible it could not be mined?
Excellent questions, Oren. To my knowledge neither the novels, nor flavor text of the cards, nor articles on this site have ever specified an answer for this—probably because the questions poke at the logical difficulties of such a material.
STILL! We are Vorthos. We are beings comfortable with fantastical logic. We dwell in impossibilities and use conundrums as our hearthside La-Z-Boys. We can reason this out.
Traditional steel is an alloy of iron and other metals. I don't think darksteel is an alloy—that is, I don't think it is created by merging metals, nor can it be smelted to break it down into other metals. It can clearly change shapes, but I don't think it ever changes states in any fundamental way—it is forever itself.
Is darksteel mined? Probably. When Karn created Mirrodin as a metal world, it included many metals as part of its composition, and some amount of the plane's crust was likely darksteel. The way that you mine an indestructible metal probably doesn't have to be very subtle—just dynamite a Mirrodin hillside and you'll find all the darksteel that was in it, neatly untouched.
So it was probably not very long before the peoples of Mirrodin discovered darksteel. And probably not long after that before they had mined a lot of the darksteel that was near the surface, or otherwise easily reached. Is there more deep down? Mirrodin has a Mirrodin's Core, but there's miles of crust before that, and it seems likely that there's more darksteel yet undiscovered.
So it can't be destroyed, by definition—but it can be forged, by evidence of cards like Darksteel Axe. I'm assuming that objects like Darksteel Axe or creatures like Darksteel Myr aren't just lying, fully formed, in Mirrodin's crust somewhere. Someone, somehow, managed to shape darksteel into those forms—it's not that all the darksteel objects are just already in their permanent shape.
Although that'd be funny. "Hey Miner Bob, check out this one I found! This one's shaped like a Darksteel Brute!"
Darksteel can't be destroyed, so it has to be shaped in a way that is nondestructive. In ancient forging as well as modern metalworking, you forge metal by increasing the pressure and/or temperature of the metal until it liquefies. While it's in a liquid state, you manipulate the liquid metal into the shape desired, and then you let the metal crystallize and take solid form again.
But here's the thing: I don't think darksteel can be a liquid.
Darksteel can't be cut or hammered into shape, sure. But I think even liquefaction is inherently destructive. Without imposing too much science on a fantastic concept, I feel like a fluid intrinsically implies the breaking of certain structural bonds. Darksteel—it don't break. So I feel like you don't forge it the regular way—with just a whole lotta hot.
So, yeah, as Oren points out, darksteel is probably forged by using some serious magic. But what magic can shape that which cannot be destroyed? How do you get from one indestructible form of darksteel to another, especially without going down to some kind of fluid state in between?
I think that being able to forge darksteel involves a kind of shift in perspective. The artificers who can do it understand that it's more about altering everything else around the darksteel. It's easier to make tiny changes to reality than it is to change darksteel. You change the fact of its shape rather than alter the metal itself. Rather than transform a quantity of darksteel into a suit of badass darksteel armor, you transform the fact that what you have is not already a suit of badass darksteel armor. Maybe "Hey Miner Bob, check out what I found" is not that far from the truth. Forging darksteel may be about putting enough existence pressure on a particular design of darksteel object that it becomes easier for it to exist than not.
As another example, presumably someone at some point took issue with the fact that there are no Darksteel Colossi on Mirrodin. That someone may have put enough stress on the natural way of things that the Colossi were forced into being. Or maybe the design of the Darksteel Colossus is so powerful that it necessitated itself. (Philosophy majors, take note: Descartes used something like this line of reasoning to argue for the existence of God in his Meditations.)
Yeah? No? What do you think? I'm at the limits of my fridge logic powers here—maybe you guys can come up with better explanations.
At any rate, I think it's clear that this kind of magic is not commonplace. Creating a darksteel artifact or artifact creature is no casual Saturday afternoon undertaking. Even once you have the required amount of precious darksteel—which something you do not find in the 25-cent bargain bin at Vulshok estate sales—shaping it takes tremendous magic. Maybe artificers take entire lifetimes to learn this stuff. Maybe the metal-altering principles that operate inside the guts of Ferrovores (sacrifice effects are not destroy effects, wheeee) are part of the key. Maybe it's magic that's similar to what Karn used to create Argentum in the first place—acts of spellcraft that operate not in the heat of the forge but in the abstract realms that lie a couple of realities up.
Darksteel as Mirran
As Scars of Mirrodin divides things up, darksteel falls on the Mirran side. I think it's clear that darksteel was around since Mirrodin's first moments, so perhaps the Mirrans have greater claim to it—but then, Phyrexia's been incubating since the beginning, too. But as it has turned out, as the Mirrans fight that civilization of oil-blooded necro-monstrosities that share their plane, they've turned to darksteel to aid in their fight. To date, the Phyrexians have not shown the ability to manipulate or infect darksteel. I mean that ... that would just be wrong.
Letter of the Week
Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "The Nonhuman Cultures of Mirrodin":
I loved this article. I really like the Savour the Flavour articles, and this one (plus the human cultures one) was really good. But may I ask where are the Myr? They are a huge part of Mirrodin in game terms; I don't see any Auriok decks out there. I accept word count, but may I request more info on the Myr? And the Vampires? I am particularly curious to find out about Mirrodin's Vampires, especially after Zendikar's Vampire hordes. I would also like to know about the Golems, Ogres, and Trolls, who were barely even mentioned here. They may be minor races, but they still deserve their day in the suns!
It's true, they do. And although the Scars of Mirrodin style guide focuses on the major races detailed in the article last week, it does have a bit more text on some of those races you mentioned. For example, here's a short piece about the vampires of Mirrodin:
In the years since the Nim Onslaught, more vampires have been spawned and their nature has changed. Faced with the choice of becoming nim or becoming vampires, Moriok increasingly chose the latter, and now entire communities of vampires exist, often where a Moriok settlement once stood. The vampires contest for control of territory and undead servants, each hoping to one day steal control of the Vault of Whispers from Geth. They ring the Vault at a great distance, each a potential besieging army biding time.
The Bleak Coven. These vampire warriors and assassins use their mastery of stealth magic to strike down targets and feed on their strength. Although these mercenaries work for the highest bidder, their price is the bodies and souls of others. They demand the lives of the strongest servants of their clients as payment, and thus they weaken two potential rivals whenever they fulfill a contract. Those who can be converted join them. Those who cannot, serve as fuel for the deadly weapons they create.
Note that the Bleak Coven vampires are from Rey-Goor, an area where the Mephidross Swamp has spread into the periphery of the Tangle Forest (see another style guide snippet on that at the bottom of this article).
Some of the races don't have write-ups in the style guide, however. Ogres, for example, have art reference in the style guide, but there's no text about them. The style guide shows two pieces of ogre art from back in Mirrodin to show artists what they look like on this plane—Ogre Leadfoot and Rustmouth Ogre to be precise—and that's it for the whole race. Traditionally any given block only has a handful of ogres, max (compared to lots of goblins and Vulshok)—and ogres' personality is pretty clear. They're ogres. They're big and mean. They stomp on things (a la Ogre Leadfoot) and they eat things (a la Rustmouth Ogre). So it wasn't seen as necessary to assign a writer to detail them any further than that.
We're not afraid to overwrite—there is always some bit of textual material in the style guide that never gets used. There's always some stuff, even stuff we like, that never manages to see the light of cards or books or comics; that's just the way it goes. And on the other hand, it always turns out that there are some details that we have to round out after the fact. No matter how detailed the style guide is, no matter how fat that document becomes (and it's been growing in page count for the last few years), there are always gaps we didn't anticipate. In those cases, we and our creative text writers do what we do—we fill in those gaps as needed, writing up something cool and flavorful so that every creature and feature of the world gets the proper Vorthos treatment.
I hope you all have a great holiday season. Nog it up, and I'll see you back live in 2011.