The First Days of the Conflux

Posted in Savor The Flavor on February 4, 2009

Five worlds have merged into one. But the Conflux is no gentle reunion. There's no delicate re-weaving of planar boundaries. No amicable fusing of cultures. No teary-eyed reconciliation of old friends, no back slapping or "you haven't aged a day." These are worlds that have been invaded by alien lands, by cultures and creatures they've never dreamed of before. The lands of the shards overlap, mixing the physical aspects of the worlds in a confused tangle of terrain types—and also flooding strange colors of mana throughout every world. Behind the mana flows the urge for war, a product of both natural fears and the paranoiac murmurs of Bolas's minions.

The Conflux proceeds slowly at first. Each shard comes in contact only with its two planar neighbors, each one seeing a new color of mana from two strange lands. Suddenly each shard is fighting a war on two fronts, facing enemies so different from themselves, wielding magic formerly thought to be so impossible, that none refuses the call to war.

Today we take a look at the five-way conflict from each shard's point of view. We'll see five perspectives on the nascent war, five cogent arguments for assaulting the other realms, five worlds full of fears and hopes. As the frontiers of each world crash into the alien lands of two others, the Conflux in effect brings a unique war to each shard.

    Naya vs. Jund and Bant

Naya faces an end to its celebrated tranquility. Knights and aven from Bant scout through Naya's forests, trampling the woodland paths and upsetting the migrations of the gargantuans. Dragons from Jund circle overhead, following the rivers of lava that burn new, blackened trails, and the footfalls of raiding goblins.

Guided by the visions of the elvish prophet Mayael, the elves, the Nacatl, and the earthshaking behemoths of Naya march to war with its new neighbors. In Bant they see a stifling imperialism, threatening to rein their jungle utopia under the yoke of a caste system. In Jund they see a cauldron of primordial savagery, a world not unlike their own but devolved such that life proceeds without respect, honor, or grace. The murmurings of the legendary Progenitus, deep under the Valley of the Ancients, whisper strange, dire truths into Mayael's visions, convincing her that war is a necessary evil to defend her paradise.

Invasion is a foreign concept for Naya's noble warriors and jungle celebrants. They've always revered the natural splendor of their lands, and yet now they must march out of them into strange terrain filled with frightening magics. For the first time they face spellcraft that can alter the mind or kill a living being outright. They only hope that their own nature-based magics, and their reverence for the gargantuans, can preserve them in the strife to come.

    Bant vs. Naya and Esper

Bant's ruling Blessed caste face terrifying reports from their farthest frontiers. Esper's seas and etherium towers crash through rifts in Bant's shores, dredging in legions of metallic horrors. Naya's wild jungle encroaches, strangling well-tended orchards and engulfing border strongholds, bringing with it immense, untamed predators.

Bant's cultures take solace in a story-prayer about the legend of Asha, an archangel who gave her life to destroy the demonic menace Malfegor. Some believe Asha may even return one day—and now that the world seems made of enemies, the faithful hope that day is near.

The knight-captains of Bant soon realize that their time-honored forms of ceremonial combat have proven naïve. Instead of sending their champions out to meet their own exalted knights in single combat, the warriors and mages of the two fronts fight in massed armies led by titanic monsters, throwing chaotic and deadly spells with abandon. The angels seem powerless to enforce Bant's cherished law, and soldiers fall by the hundreds.

    Esper vs. Bant and Grixis

Esper's etherium supplies are running low. But as the shards merge together, the agents and mages of Esper see an opportunity to venture forth on a hunt for carmot, the red stone said to be crucial to the manufacture of new etherium.

But the Conflux brings Esper in contact with the boundless gardens and unenlightened flesh of Bant on the one side, and the horrid dregscapes and undead armies of Grixis on the other. Green and red mana encroach on the precision of the Esper landscape and foul the mages' efforts to perfect their world. The analytical vedalken see no way to interact with the brutish, flesh-loving beings of their neighbor-shards, and their gifts of precious etherium are spurned without a thought. The sphinxes decide that war is the only recourse, and legions of mages and their etherium-enhanced retinues press into the fray.

It's not long, however, before mages of the other shards discover that Esper's reliance on etherium is a point of weakness as well as strength. Esper armies are met with spells that target their filigree enhancements directly, crippling their power.

    Grixis vs. Esper and Jund

Grixis was a dying plane, a world feeding on its own meager living essence with diminishing returns, a world where humanity was going extinct. As the Conflux causes it to collide with Esper and Jund, the tantalizing energies of life—white and green mana—flood across the boundaries into Grixis for the first time in centuries. Long starved for living victims, the demons and undead horrors swarm into the adjacent borderlands like a plague, gorging on all the life essence they encounter.

For now, the "war" is nothing but a feeding frenzy for Grixis. Fleshcrafters slake their thirst for power by invading the sanctums of clueless Esperite mages, ghastly parasite-pets in tow. Vampires and zombie slave-drivers lurch into Jund, finding its reptilian predators unprepared for the vicious relentlessness of the undead.

Meanwhile, biding his time in a secret necropolis lair, the dragon planeswalker Nicol Bolas confers with his general, the abomination known as Malfegor. He bids Malfegor assemble an army of the most powerful necromancers and the most horrifying undead, and to demolish any remaining human holdouts he can find on Grixis. Malfegor knows that Bolas has deeper plans for this vast army of death, but for now, the elder dragon's true purpose remains unrevealed.

    Jund vs. Grixis and Naya

Jund was an ashen hell lit by dragonfire. Trapped in a cycle of predation, its warrior-clans, viashino thrashes, and goblin warrens all hunted one another, competing endlessly—only to have the winners die to carnivorous plants, reptilian monsters, or the whims of a ravenous hellkite. It was a plane in need of an exit—or at least in need of expanded hunting grounds.

When the shards merged, the rotten-flesh lands of Grixis overlapped Jund's primordial cauldron on one side, and the vine-infested jungles of Naya surged forward on the other. The goblin tribes of Jund began to explore the new lands, wondering whether they could find a place where they weren't the bottom of the food chain—but failing completely. Jund's scaly landwurms crashed into the adjacent shards, adopting both the lands of the living and lands of the dead as their new lairs. The warrior-clans found new frontiers of prey for their world-spanning Life Hunts, and the tyrannical hellkites found new threats to their dominion.

Jund's new enemies bear magics that its warriors scarcely understand. Grixis's black and red spells, and Naya's red and green, make sense in their destructive rage. But the transformation and perception magics of blue and the unity-encouraging and rule-imposing magics of white befuddle the predatory mind. In order to prevail in this new war, Jund will have to learn to think past its surges of instinctive hunger.

    Art of War

I've shown you quite a few pieces of art that depict the shards at war with one another. But there's plenty more card art in Conflux that shows hot shard-on-shard action. Some of them show out-and-out fighting, but others are more subtle, showing a creature from one shard set against the background of another. How many such shard-overlaps can you find? Check out the set at a Launch Party near you, and let me know what you see!

    Letter of the Week

Ty has some questions about the character of one of last week's preview legends, Gwafa Hazid, and about his master, the one and only Nicol Bolas.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Bolas's Secret Minions":

Gwafa Hazid seems like an interesting card. As you said, his bribery ability is quite flavorful and exciting. Something doesn't quite mesh though: why would an ambitious individual be aligned with the colors of blue and white mana? I understand Bolas needs minions from every shard, but as we saw in the White/Blue Azorius Guild, they were the guild most concerned with rules and upholding them. What elements of blue and white mana create Hazid's personality?

Question number two. Will Bolas take over Alara? Pieces of art have been released that show the mighty Bolas fighting against the planeswalker coalition of Ajani, Sarkhan Vol, Tezzeret, and Elspeth. As we all know, good almost always triumphs. I would really hate to see Nicol Bolas, a near omnipotent planeswalker, with the intelligence of blue mana, the ferocity and strength of red mana, and the pure, unadulterated power of black mana, be forced to walk a Path of Exile by these lesser planeswalkers. I think that a shard that is evil incarnate would be rather flavorful, instead of these orderly, neat, peaceful planes.

Plus, did I mention that Bolas is a dragon? A dragon!!!

P.S. Is it too late to apply to be one of his minions?

Great questions, Ty.

I think the blue parts of Gwafa Hazid's personality are pretty clear. I mean, blue has no problems telling people what to do, and manipulating their actions, as long as it's the wisest course of action—and of course blue is, in its own opinion, the best-qualified to decide what course of action is wisest.

The tougher part, to my mind, is why is Gwafa Hazid white? Nonconformism, law-breaking, and personal ambition at the cost of others are attributes of white's enemies. To my mind, that leads into a more general question—how does anyone ever break the law at all on Bant, a world centered in white mana?

To answer this question, I want to paste you guys an (almost exactly one-year-old) email that I sent to the Shards of Alara flavor text writers. That team had asked very similar questions about Bant and the Unbeholden, that caste of bandits and undisciplined ne'er-do-wells. Remember that this is from the time of Shards of Alara, before Conflux had caused them all to merge and overlap. ("Rei" is longtime flavor writer Rei Nakazawa, who was on the team.)

To: Shards of Alara flavor text team
From: Doug Beyer

Hi gang,

Rei was asking a couple good questions about Bant flavor, and I wanted to share my answers with everybody in case others were having the same thoughts. Rei noted that there was discussion of some "bandits" on Bant in the style guide, and wondered whether there would even be bandits in such an orderly, white-mana-dominated place that was cut off from red and black mana.

My answer is this: Yes, there are still criminals on honor-driven plane of Bant, just like there are still heroic living holdouts on Grixis alongside the evil lich lords, and still the occasional wild beast on the carefully controlled plane of Esper. Although each plane has been cut off from two types of mana, that doesn't mean two aspects of human nature, or two aspects of the world, have been totally ripped out of the planes. The humans on Bant are just that -- human. They have the same foibles as every other human throughout the multiverse. They haven't become orderly robo-lawyers just because there's no mountains or swamps on Bant.

What the mana situation affects dramatically is magic. On Bant, they've never heard of magic that can summon fire right from your fingertips, or magic that turns the dead into horrible unlife. Their magic is centered around protection, nurturing, wisdom, and summoning lots of flying critters (for example). It's heroic magic, you might say. So that naturally tends to make the plane evolve in a heroic direction -- knights and castles, angels and priests, lion-steeds and mighty rhox soldiers. Their culture and ecosystems have evolved around law and order. But that doesn't mean that individual people there are brainwashed with white mana -- individuals can still decide to make selfish choices, like to become highwaymen and rob traveling caravans or whatnot.

So as you're submitting flavor text, think of the sub-planes as cut off from magic of the appropriate types, not from any and all phenomena that would normally fall under those colors' jurisdiction. On Bant, you can't will a wall of flame into being using the power of your focused passion, but you can still make a campfire with flint and tinder. On Grixis, you can't magically bind the musculature of a wound using the sheer power of your faith and devotion, but you can treat simple lacerations with a tourniquet and bandages.

Bant has no demons -- but it certainly still has sin.

So, to saunter back in the direction of your original question, Ty, Gwafa Hazid is a human being of Bant. Yes, he grew up in a world and a culture that evolved around orderly colors of mana. Yes, he makes his living inside a network of laws and codified traditions that stretch back through many generations of honorable heroes and leaders of Bant. But rather than put his head down and devote his life to supporting those laws, Hazid has chosen a different path. In fact, he has taken advantage of his lifelong familiarity with Bant's laws, his knowledge of its bylaw idiosyncrasies and loopholes in enforcement, for his own purposes. He's transcended the role of mere rule-following caravan-merchant to become a rule manipulator—which, on Bant, is a pretty powerful thing to be—and which is certainly a reasonable thing to be represented as a white-blue creature.

You're right that Gwafa Hazid isn't the white-blue of the Azorius, who combined white's rule-centric ethos with blue's passion for truth. Rather, Hazid is his own style of white-blue, combining white's ability to set the rules, and blue's ability to manipulate for advantage. Of course, the more Hazid's actions are motivated strictly by power, and the further his moral code becomes outstripped by his raw ambition, the more he just becomes a black character, or at least a black-and-other-colors character. That's probably his trajectory, the longer he works for Bolas.

*big breath*

Okay! So your other question, Ty, was: Will Nicol Bolas take over Alara, despite the presence of lots of goody-goody planeswalkers? Good question. In fact, great question, and I have rather a lot to say about it. In fact, I wrote a bookabout it, which will release soon. More on that later.

For now, go buy Agents of Artifice! (Ari Marmell gives me a dollar every time I plug his book.) (Not really. Only a quarter.)

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