Blake Rasmussen: Hello and welcome to the Magic Story Podcast, where we go behind the scenes with the people who create the worlds and characters of Magic: the Gathering. I’m Blake Rasmussen and I’ll be your host. I’m joined today, as I often am, by story guru Alison Luhrs.
Alison Luhrs: Hello!
BR: Also known as queen of the cat dragons.
AL: Queen of the cat dragons, Luhrsgoyf, I go by many names.
BR: So we’ve been spending the last four weeks talking a lot about Commander 2017.
BR: But we’re past that! We’re onto something new and different and forward-looking. So we are talking, this week, about Ixalan.
So next week is going to be the first official Ixalan story on DailyMTG on Wednesday. But in the meantime, we’re going to dip our toes into the world of Ixalan before we plant our boots there for the foreseeable future.
AL: Boots, that’s a good pirate reference, I got it.
BR: Thanks, I worked on that one for a while.
BR: Cause it’s all about exploring, get it?
AL: Yeah, I get it. Totally.
BR: So it’s been about five weeks since the last story, so why don’t you catch us up. How did we get here?
AL: So if we’re talking about we as in “the focus of the story,” Nicol Bolas, big, big, bad dragon, just stomped all over Amonkhet. Like all over. It wasn’t pretty, like a lot of the gods died—one god survived! But the Gatewatch went there without a plan, without any real idea of how to defeat him, and got their butts kicked. Like really hard. So yeah, it was kind of a smack down.
AL: Yeah, that’s pretty much it.
BR: So they got smacked down, then where do we open for Ixalan?
AL: So Nicol Bolas attacked each member one by one, delivering their defeats in charmingly poetic ways, as one is wont to do. Nicol Bolas attacked Jace first, splintering his mind, discarding his memories. It was excruciating and awful and oddly familiar; this has happened to Jace more than once before. And Jace instinctively planeswalked away.
So imagine a vortex of color and light. He didn’t consciously choose where to go, just to get away, and his destination was the result of pieces of memory as they fled from his mind. More than anything, it was an instinctive urge just to leave that made him get sucked down to the one specific very hidden place with absolutely no memory of who or what he is.
So this is our chance to remeet Jace. Who is he without his history, his titles, wins, or losses? Who is he when he chooses who he wants to be rather than playing by someone else’s instruction as he has for most of his life?
BR: So we’re definitely following just Jace right now. This is not really a Gatewatch story, is it?
AL: No, it’s really not. You will not see any of the Gatewatch other than Jace here.
BR: Oh, okay. So we do know however that he’s not the only Planeswalker there. We’ve already seen from art and whatnot that Vraska, Jace’s old nemesis from Ravnica, is also on Ixalan. And I’m sure that we’re going to find out more about that, I’m not asking you to give away what Vraska’s doing there or anything like that. Were there any hints that we might have known Vraska was getting involved in Ixalan?
AL: Yes! So back on Ravnica, Ral Zarek developed a neat device to track Planeswalkers entering and leaving the plane. He recorded the assassin Vraska leaving Ravnica, but was unable to tell where she ended up, and I swear there’s a good reason for that.
The other clue came from Vraska’s dear bug friend, Mazirek. He’s Kraul and leader of a very marginalized group among the Golgari. Vraska cares about people like her, disenfranchised and downtrodden, and she and Mazirek became close friends. She didn’t tell him her plans, but he knows that she’s gone and has big plans for whenever she returns.
BR: So, we’re on Ixalan now. Jace has all kinds of memory things.
AL: Or a lack of.
BR: Vraska’s there for reasons. What is this world like that they’re coming to?
AL: Ixalan is one continent on a larger world. This story focuses on the actual continent itself of Ixalan. It is lush jungles surrounded by rich azure seas, massive dinosaurs, and it’s home to empires all its own. It’s home to two major people: the dinosaur-riding Sun Empire and the merfolk River Heralds. And, to complicate all of this, these two groups are encountering two additional forces: the pirates of the Brazen Coalition and the vampire conquistadors of the Legion of Dusk.
BR: Conquistador’s really fun to say.
BR: So at the time we’re recording this, you’ve written this whole story, right?
BR: Yeah, so you know what’s going to happen.
AL: I do.
BR: When you were writing this series of stories, where did you draw your inspiration?
AL: A lot of what inspires both the Sun Empire and the River Heralds comes directly from the Aztec and Maya and the succession of control from one to the other. One group having been there for much longer, the River Heralds in our case, now on the tail end of control over the continent of Ixalan, and another, the Sun Empire, directly confronting the other on their borders. Influence from the Incans can also be seen in the terraced farms near the Sun Empire cities of the mountains. So there’s a lot of real-world inspiration that went into all of this.
Choosing the setting also meant actively deciding to tackle the imperialist baggage that comes along with it. The nice thing about fantasy is that we get to look at the real world and decide what stays and what goes. Those choices, in the creative for our set, were made thoughtfully with help from our Latin American office. We looked to them and asked them for help in making this not just a story that has a little bit of a foot in reality, but also recognizes that these places our real, these people are real. And we want to be able to make this about fun, not necessarily about drudging through the really heavy awful stuff that we don’t think belongs in our game.
The residents of Ixalan, to kind of go along with this, are technologically advanced. They make steel, they build immense cities, already have empires of their own. Their stories do not involve sacrifice, getting duped by invaders, or any other tired trope like that. Instead, we wanted to give them a quest of their own. The invaders are a delightfully thin metaphor here in the form of vampire conquistadors, and those that invade here lack the weapons and diseases that our true history had. Instead, the vampires, the Legion of Dusk, sail on cathedral-like ships from the east and arrive to a hot, humid jungle, in very clammy armor, driven by religious fervor to reclaim a relic stolen from them centuries before.
I can’t emphasize enough how much the vampires stick out here. It’s really funny to look at some of these pictures. But I really want to emphasize that this is not a story of invasion. This is not a “let’s make a cool place just to blow it up in the next set” set. It is not about one group dominating another and wiping it out, but a race to a single goal by all parties. It’s a race.
BR: And I’m sure we will find out what that race is when the stories start.
AL: Oh, absolutely.
BR: So a couple episodes ago we talked about vampires. What made them different throughout the Magic Multiverse. What kind of makes these vampires unique or different? What sets them apart from the rest of the Magic Multiverse?
AL: So these vampires are part of the Legion of Dusk. It is an alliance between a powerful church and an iron-fisted monarch. The Legion of Dusk comes from the continent to the east, called Torrezon. The vampires who lead the Legion of Dusk are viewed as holy figures, dark paladins and their undead existence is full of ritual and taboo. Most importantly, they feed only on the blood of the guilty: enemies of war, rebels of the state, or heretics who defy the church. They seek an item called the Immortal Sun, which once belonged to them, but was stolen and brought across the sea to Ixalan. And they pray its power will allow the hopes of the church to be fulfilled and eternal life be available to all without the need to subsist on the blood of the wicked.
To kind of go into a bit more history about them, the Legion of Dusk began a series of wars centuries ago in Torrezon and eventually kind of took over the whole continent. So they spread their kingdom across this entire place, really disrupting pretty much everything else there. And they have brought their ships and their conquistadors to find this item that they think will allow them to live an eternal existence without needing blood to survive.
BR: Mkay. We’ve covered vampires, so we might as well talk about the other four tribes that we mentioned. Let’s start with the most awesome of tribes: I don’t even have to tell you what they are. Go, go for it.
AL: Sure! So dinosaurs.
BR: Ah! I meant merfolk.
AL: [laughs] We can do merfolk first.
BR: I’m kidding, we were on the same page. Dinosaurs.
AL: Dinosaurs. So dinosaurs are native to Ixalan. They have colorful feathers, like in science! The dinosaurs are closely tied with the Sun Empire, one of the four key groups of Ixalan. Like South America and Mesoamerica’s great empires, the Sun Empire are an empire with a capital and a central power structure. The Sun Empire has awakened after long years of quiet. Besieged by pirate raids and the advance of the Legion of Dusk, caught between the invaders from the sea and the wall of jungle behind them, the Sun Empire rises with the ferocity of a dinosaur and the righteous light of the radiant sun to fight off its enemies.
BR: Also with actual dinosaurs.
AL: Also with actual dinosaurs. The Sun Empire is in a new era of prosperity. Fueled by the magic of their sun priests and the dinosaurs that they command. Their cities are built to accommodate their dinosaur riders with high arches to allow their knights to pass through unobstructed. And just for some chronological stuff, the Legion of Dusk only started arriving maybe two years ago, like fairly recently. And the Sun Empire is strong enough that they can fight them off fairly easily. Also they have dinosaurs.
BR: And they ride them?
AL: And they ride them, yes. They can ride dinosaurs, they can command them, they are their steeds in their fight to not only rule their own empire on Ixalan but also to prevent other people from coming onto it.
BR: So are the dinosaurs all—domesticated isn’t quite the right word—but are there wild dinosaurs?
AL: Oh yes. There’s a lot of them. They are definitely not just like cows and horses. There are definitely wild dinosaurs, there are pterosaurs, there are all sorts of very familiar looking dinosaurs to our modern sensibilities. And there are also ones that the Sun Empire uses and rides for domestic tasks.
BR: Mkay. And with feathers?
AL: With feathers. Because they’re pretty and awesome and historically accurate.
BR: Let’s talk again about merfolk.
AL: Yes. So merfolk are the River Heralds, that is the name of their group. So they are people of the water. They wield the natural, raw force of nature to protect the world from disaster. They were once the dominant inhabitants of Ixalan with a large power of their own, and their strength was once enough to drive the Sun Empire out of the interior. Nowadays that the Sun Empire is a lot bigger and a lot more powerful, they live a more nomadic lifestyle. Powerful shamans can shape the rivers and jungles around them and they believe that this place that—no one really knows where it is—called the Golden City, houses the Immortal Sun and must be kept hidden from all, even themselves.
The merfolk in the set are visually striking; jade jewelry and weapons and armor. And their appearance is one of my favorite depictions of them in Magic. Their fins are colorful and bright like tropical freshwater fish and a lot of Ixalan, the continent’s, history is between the struggle of the merfolk and the humans who live there. Kind of like struggling against each other like who’s in charge, who’s not. Their history is pretty vast. I’m certain part of it will end up in the art book later, which you should totally buy because it’s really pretty, but yeah.
So most of Ixalan’s history is kind of this power struggle. And at the center of it all is this mysterious place known as the Golden City that houses that Immortal Sun that was stolen all those years ago. But no one knows where it is.
BR: Hmm. Interesting.
So, not even the pirates?
AL: Not even the pirates, not even the merfolk, not even the Sun Empire. No one knows where it is.
The merfolk have kind of taken it on themselves to defend the Golden City since they believe that no one should have the power that lies inside of there. So to protect its secrets, the kind of know where it is, but not the exact location. They’ve been making sure no one gets there for centuries.
BR: Gotcha. We’ve covered merfolk, we’ve covered dinosaurs, we’ve covered vampires. Let’s talk pirates!
Is it all treasure, walking the plank, and adorable monkeys and parrots?
AL: So it is, but our pirates are also the descendants of refugees. Their ancestors are from Torrezon, the continent to the east. The Legion of Dusk conquered the continent over hundreds of years of war, and the pirates we see today are the children’s children etc. of those that escaped to the sea. They formed the Brazen Coalition, a society that answers to no one but themselves. They may not have a land to call their’s, but they own the seas. They seek the Immortal Sun as well, an ancient prize rumored to be more valuable and powerful than any other in existence. One that could possibly be the key to returning to Torrezon and driving out the Legion of Dusk to reclaim their ancestral lands.
BR: Mkay. But there’s definitely adorable monkeys and parrots?
AL: There is, there is. There definitely are.
But yeah, so with those four groups, you’ll notice a common theme in that all of them want something and there is this mysterious item somewhere in the jungle that can help each of them attain that.
BR: That sounds like a plot point.
AL: Sure does!
BR: So let’s go back to Vraska. Were you writing stories when Return to Ravnica was a thing?
AL: I was not.
BR: So Vraska’s a new character for you as far as writing is concerned. So how did you catch up on Vraska for these stories?
AL: So I reread her old story appearances in Jenna Helland’s The Shadows of Prahv and Doug Beyer’s The Gorgon and the Guildpact. Those provided a great background for her, but not a good bridge to get her from sneaky, isolated assassin to brave and bold pirate captain.
So most of the work that I did was investigating what it would take to get someone with a history like her’s into a headspace where she would want to take this sort of leadership job. The answer was in Jenna’s story. Vraska’s backstory is horribly sad and all of it comes down to things happening to her that she had no choice in. So when I think of Vraska, I think of someone who was never allowed to be anything other than what they were born to do. She’s a gorgon, so what would she be good for other than killing? I don’t buy that. Vraska has been imprisoned, beaten nearly to death, marginalized again and again. And until now she compensated by injecting her sense of justice into which assassin contract she would accept, but I think she’s tired of being unseen. She deserves more agency than that, and I can’t wait to explore what she wants to do when someone believes in her talents.
BR: Ooo. Someone believes in her talents. Interesting.
AL: Yeah! Interesting.
BR: We obviously can’t go deep into the Ixalan story, as that’s the point of reading the story, but can you tell us some tidbits that we can maybe look forward to in the Ixalan story? Are there vampires riding dinosaurs? Are there pirates battling dinosaurs? Are there merfolk fighting dinosaurs? Are there dinosaurs riding dinosaurs?
AL: [laughs] So when I was trying to workshop how all of these stories would fit together, I literally made a chart of “Pirates vs. Dinos, Dinos vs. Pirates, Dinos vs. Merfolk, Dinos vs. Vampires” and made sure that one of those ended up in every single story that we did.
BR: Ah, that’s amazing.
AL: Or at least in the really action-heavy parts of the story. That’s not a guarantee like “every single one” but that was definitely part of it; making sure that we saw all of those combinations that make the actual gameplay of this set so much fun.
But as for an overarching theme to this set, this is a story about desire. It is desire for power, desire for companionship, desire for approval, desire for discovery, and everyone is racing to get what they want first. Everyone wants the Immortal Sun, no one knows where it is inside the Golden City that no one also knows where it is, but everyone needs to be the one to get there first.
BR: Cool! Well, as always, thank you for joining us, Alison.
AL: Thank you for having me!
BR: And thank you for the down low on what we’ve got coming in Ixalan. Magic Story will resume next week!
BR: Which means the Magic Story Podcast is going on hiatus. So thank you for listening!
AL: Thank you!
BR: And enjoy the story next week. Bye!
AL: Enjoy! Thanks for reading, everyone!