Running Wild

Posted in Savor The Flavor on September 10, 2008

By Jenna Helland

Jenna Helland is a designer and writer for the Magic creative team. She's a member of the story team, a creative liaison with design teams, and the author of the Theros novella, Godsend.

Remember the Nacatl? We caught a glimpse of these ferocious cat warriors in Future Sight. Blades drawn and fangs bared, the members of the Nacatl War-Pride prowled through an unknown jungle. Their origins remained mysterious—until now. In Shards of Alara we get to meet this proud and divided race, starting with Wild Nacatl:

Wild Nacatl

The Nacatl come from Naya, a world of dense jungles and steep mountains, spiritual elves and hedonistic humans. This female leonin is one warrior of the tribe of cat-people known as the Wild Nacatl. The Nacatl live in the mountainous regions, spending their night stalking prey and their days sleeping in the vine-covered ruins of their lost empire.

At one time, the Nacatl were the most civilized race in Naya and the undisputed rulers of the plane. In its heyday, the Nacatl's Empire of the Clouds would have rivaled Rome, with an extensive system of roads, bridges, and aqueducts. But internal strife destroyed the empire. A revolutionary group known as the Claws of Marisi waged a guerilla war, shattering the rule of law and bringing Nacatl civilization to its knees.

"The Cloud Nacatl sit and think, a bunch of soft paws. We are the Claws of Marisi, stalking, pouncing, drawing blood."
—Wild Nacatl flavor text

Aggressive to the core, Wild Nacatl plays well with lands that are both Plains and Mountains. Use a Farseek or Wooded Foothills to fetch a Sacred Foundry, and she hits for 3 on turn two. The Wild Nacatl characterizes Shards of Alara's particular brand of multicolor—this kitty practically demands a three-color deck. She wants her hunting grounds to include as much territory as possible—from the misty forests high in the mountains to the humid jungles and open plains of the lowlands. She believes it's every Nacatl's duty to embrace his or her warrior nature and unleash the predator within.

    World-Building Basics

At the end of last summer, creative lead Brady Dommermuth and the rest of the Magic creative team had already done a lot of world-building on the Alara setting when additional writers were set loose on the set. I wasn't on the creative team yet, but working as an outside writer, I was assigned the jungle shard of Naya and given these precepts as a starting line:

  • Naya is a glorious jungle empire where huge behemoths roam and are worshiped by the inhabitants.
  • Unifying concept: Abundance—of life, of wealth, of emotion
  • Humanoids: Elf, cat-people, human
  • Land types: Forest, mountain, plains
  • Motifs: Hedonism, celebration of life.

In other words: Big monsters. Beautiful people. Oh, and there should be a humongous mammalian hydra. Ready, set, go!

Right out of the gate, I thought one of the most interesting challenges was to build a world without black and blue mana. This didn't mean there wasn't any water or death in Naya. Rather, blue and black magic—and their distinguishing features—don't influence the world in a profound or meaningful way. So, Naya is a world without illusion or control magic. Scheming, trickery, and artifice are rare. There is no necromancy. In a world of abundant resources, power and ambition won't get you much besides an extra handful of berries and a tree with a better view. Disease, horror, and the undead inhabit a different realm (namely Grixis—but you'll hear more about that later.)

Was Naya destined to be a utopia? A jungle paradise where everyone had everything they needed and was free to pursue pleasure in whatever form they desire? Yes and no. Conflict is what makes life—and a world—an interesting place to explore. And one of the main conflicts in Naya was the jungle itself.

    Seeds of Reality

When I'm world-building a fantasy world, reality is a good place to start. Many authentic details (spiders live in jungles) can be borrowed and co-opted (spiders are humongous, stealthy, and can block creatures with flying). Real-world jungles are about incessant growth, brute force, and the ascendancy of nature—a perfect combination for Naya.

"In the lower elevations, the jungle is the undisputed king. With heavy, intermittent rainfall as the lifeblood of the jungle, the rampant vegetation is in a constant race, always clawing upwards in the competition for sunshine. The canopy of leaves is laced together by massive lianas—thick, woody vines that connect the trees together and can grow up to five feet in diameter. Animals, humans and elves use these lianas as highways to travel across the jungle . . . Amid the massive buttress roots are termites, fungi, and oversized logger-ants who hunt by scent using coordinated movements and can easily take down an unsuspecting human or elf."
Shards of Alara Style Guide

Whatever lives on the jungle floor must survive on what falls from or through the canopy. When a tree falls it creates an opening in the canopy, and thousands of seeds fight for the chance to grow in the rare shaft of sunlight. The jungle is constantly trying to outgrow itself: whatever can get the highest has the best chance of survival.

I began to think of Naya as having three distinct habitats, one for each of the dominant races:

Humans inhabit the forest floor—the most dangerous place in Naya. Some of Naya's creatures, known as gargantuans, have grown to enormous size. A gargantuan can easily kill a tribe of humans or crush and entire settlement with one misplaced footstep. While many humans still live in primitive dwellings carved out of the trees, more and more humans are building permanent villages and clearing land for agriculture. Using domesticated pip fawns and trained gargantuans called plow beasts, the humans wage a constant war against the rampant jungle growth in their quest for open space. Despite the constant threat of predators, the humans have developed ingenious ways to survive in the jungle.

"In the dim world under the canopy, among the massive buttress roots of the towering trees, the humans are intent on making the most of their existence. For the humans, it's all about pleasure: the pleasure of the hunt; the pleasure of the body; the pleasure of celebration; the pleasure of competition."
—Shards of Alara Style Guide

The nomadic elves live in the tree canopy and gather around dewcups, pools of water that form in the canopy's giant ferns. There are many of these oasis-like gathering places in the canopy, and it is here that the elves camp. Led by Mayael the Anima, the elves worship the gargantuans of the plane. They carefully monitor their movements and offer sacrifices to keep them placated. The elves believe that the behemoths' actions are signs from Progenitus, an enormous five-headed hydra who sleeps under the ground in the Valley of the Ancient.

The elves are expanding their territory in Naya and have surpassed the Nacatl as the dominant race on the plane. There is more hostility between the elves and the Nacatl now that the Wild Nacatl are moving down from the mountains into the lowland jungles.

"The elves are territorial, but in a convoluted sense. There are shifting allegiances, complicated untraceable boundaries . . . There's an elven saying about leaving their handprint in the air. It's the idea that by living somewhere for a time, they then claim a fleeting ownership over that area of the canopy."
—Shards of Alara Style Guide

The Cloud Nacatl still have a few strongholds left in mountains, such as the city of Qasal. In these cities, the Nacatl still retain allegiance to the Coil, a complicated system of laws that were once recorded on a massive stone wall. By the time the empire fell, the Coil had become so convoluted that most Nacatl couldn't understand it or follow it even if they wanted to. The Coil was enforced at first by societal pressure. Eventually the Pride of Judges, an elite group of Nacatl, threatened the citizens with physical harm unless they followed the letter of the law. Soon there was open warfare in the streets as the Claws of Marisi and the Pride of Judges fought for dominance. In the end, Marisi's revolutionaries triumphed and the Coil was broken.

"During the destruction of the city, the wall was defaced and in some parts destroyed. For the members of the Claw, it was a symbolic breaking of the strictures of society that kept them down and subjugated their true nature."
—Shards of Alara Style Guide

Many Wild Nacatl make their homes in the overgrown ruins of the Cloud Empire. It is not unusual to see a pride of Nacatl basking in the sun under a crumbling aqueduct or on the cracked remnants of a marble plaza.

    The Artful Predator

Painted by the amazing Wayne Reynolds, the art of Wild Nacatl embodies the contradictions of Naya itself: beautiful and savage; vicious and playful; the innocent warrior. You'll hear a lot more from the Nacatl as the Shards of Alara is revealed. Ajani Goldmane was born into a pride of Wild Nacatl, and his story begins on Naya. And the incredible behemoths who walk the plane will soon thunder onto the scene, pulverizing anything crazy enough to get in their way.

Visit the Shards of Alara product section for information about the five shards, an up-to-date visual spoiler of the cards revealed so far, product information, and more!

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