Today is an ode to many things. It is an ode to meticulous research. To continuity. To the powerful forces of nostalgia. To the desire to always be pressing forward. To the clear devotion many fans have for a hobby and of their particular enthusiasm for it. And to history.
As a student of the historical record, I always appreciate the time and attention people put into any effort to chronicle long and complex stories that span multiple locations, ages, and events. Mostly because unlike so many other endeavors, there’s no guarantee that if you don’t someone else will. So much history is lost to time simply because nobody in that time and place took the effort to write anything down. All of which makes trying to learn about that specific period in history later on much more complicated, or possibly even impossible, leading to conjecture at best and myth-making at worst. Which is why accuracy is paramount. Historical research is not a sexy topic, but it is utterly fascinating the things we can unearth about ourselves and our past the more we dig – especially when the focus shifts to the everyday people within that moment. It grounds us. It allows us to not only learn about those who came before us but it connects us across time and permits us to comprehend where our worlds are so completely alien to one another – and often how they’re remarkably still the same.
In this sense, having a comprehensive, continuous record of our collective story is essential. The more complete a record of our past, the more we can utilize that information to both learn about our past mistakes and not repeat them (yes, that age old chestnut). But knowing where we came from can also inspire us to reach for all new challenges. Most people, when prompted, seem to instinctively understand the promise and potential history can have on our everyday lives if given the chance. Even if from the outside the field of history is treated as, well, rather boring.
That, by the way, is mostly because of how we generally teach history, but that’s another topic for another day.
The point here, however, is that while people in general appreciate an attention to continuity detail with the real world, when that devotion and fervor is transposed to a fictional setting, a rift develops. On one side are those who dive into the a rich, vibrant fictional world and are immersed in the detailed worldbuilding crafted around it. To them it brings a greater life to the story and allows them to trace the path of the narrative as it is unfolding. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, for example, doesn’t have the same impact if you don’t have some kind of understanding of how long and arduous the journey was from The Shire to Mount Doom. Rather, it’d just be three books of a bunch of people walking from Point A to Point B. Maps of Middle-Earth are incredibly detailed at the point that the books take place, let alone showing the sheer scope and degree the realm’s topology has changed over thousands of years preceding it – all of which are also equally detailed. Although it started merely to tell a story, Tolkien’s vision of Middle-Earth eventually took him to creating an entire historical record, as well as developing several unique languages with actual linguistic function. Such attention to detail is sprawling and often tough to keep track of – just like our own history. But that’s done on purpose. It is meant to feel like a complete world. Just like in Le Guin’s Earthsea, Jordan’s Wheel of Time, or your friend who has a book’s worth of notes for their 15 year old D&D campaign. The longer you stay in one world, the more vast and complicated it becomes.
All of which is perfectly fine. The problem that arises is when some anachronistic thing pops up that’s clearly wrong, creating at the most mundane levels an irksome inconsistency and at the most problematic actually breaks entire elements of the story. It’s sort of like if you were to add guns to ancient Rome: it would fundamentally warp the story and take you out of an experience the author has painstakingly presented to you.
On the other side are those who, well, don’t care if details get messed up so long as the result proves entertaining. These are people who come upon a story and either haven’t the inclination, time, or desire to dive into the various fictional worlds presented. Instead, they simply want to be told a good tale before moving on to the next thing. To them, the intrinsic value of the story told is immediate, a respite in the here-and-now, a pause in their everyday lives where they can simply distract themselves for a couple hours. They don’t mind at all if elements from a book were changed for the cinematic version because a) they’ve never read those books and b) there’s a good chance they won’t later on either. With nothing to contrast with, the story presented to them is the story being told. They’re completely content with that fact.
And for the most part, that’s fine too. For while the first group certainly has a greater passion for the subject matter, it’s also that group – not the second – that can also take things too far, getting overly upset about poor adaptations, historical accuracy, or the most unforgivable of all: a retcon.
Look, I’m a person who also is much more the former camp than the latter myself and cringe at things like retcons and anachronisms, but I’m also the first to admit when one source material is adapted for use in a different medium, sometimes changes are warranted. This is doubly so when it’s adapted into something like a game, where the focus is more on having fun than being 100% faithful to said material.
Which brings us to Wizards of the Coast.
Wizards, the masterminds behind Magic: the Gathering, have been creating new planes to explore for over two decades at this point, and they show little evidence of stopping anytime soon. It’s impressive how many times they’re able to reinvent the wheel by creating a new world from scratch…but there is a cost to the speed of this approach. Simply put, as efficient and detail-oriented as the company is towards creating new and exciting worlds, in order to fit that pace into their release schedule they only really world-build as much as is needed to tell a single overarching story, largely via the cards in the set. The planes, while providing plenty of information, also sometimes have trouble maintaining its essence once that story is finished. Places like Kaladesh or Ixalan are interesting, but they also feel incomplete. As if there is more story to tell. Which is why the more you return to the same place, the more fleshed out it feels. There’s a reason a location like Ravnica feels more comprehensive: they’ve been back to that plane several times now. And although Wizards would have us play the chicken and the egg game, whereby their logic is that more popular sets get returned to more often, what they really mean is that they don’t really have the resources for deep worldbuilding on sets that don’t sell immensely well. They will gladly return to a place if they feel it has market potential, but that also takes priority over exploring a world further.
Or to put it more simply, they would rather create a new plane entirely rather than explore a uniquely new continent on an existing plane as to keep their planes as siloed and basic as possible to remember. (Mark Rosewater particularly likens this to the ‘Star Wars’ approach, where each planet has a single identifiable characteristic to keep things instantly recognizable.) Only once have they actually bothered to take a Tolkien-esque dive into forging a deeply complex world that explores wildly disparate parts of a plane in a returning fashion, and it was mostly out of necessity. Because that plane was Dominaria, and it was the primary location for the entire Magic storyline for the first decade of the game’s existence.
We were on Dominaria for a long time. The information we have there spans centuries. We saw civilizations rise and fall. We saw whole swaths of land disappear and change. We’ve seen major upheaval across multiple continents. And it’s one of the few planes where they actually needed to create a comprehensive map to make sense of that plane’s vast source material (though as this article illustrates, there still wasn’t much of an imperative internally to bother). It shows, among other things, that Dominaria has a ton to offer in terms of storytelling and the richness of its diversity. Until only very recently Wizards has argued that its geographic diversity actually gave it an identity problem (i.e. it’s not Star Wars style salable), which is why they’d stayed away for so long. Many, myself included, have long argued that’s a poor mentality, as if its player base was incapable of processing that you could be on the same plane but be elsewhere from the previous story, but they have yet to be convinced otherwise based in part of the tepid sales of blocks like Odyssey and Return to Zendikar – where they tried to split the difference and executed it rather poorly.
I would argue that Dominaria’s upside is, in fact, its depth, as being able to reference back to past people, locations, and events not only trigger the lovely, lovely response nostalgia triggers in our brain, but it also has a jolt of excitement in recognizing a reference to something you’ve seen in the past. Time Spiral may have sold poorly to new players, but for veterans, it was absolutely brimming with callbacks and homages to the halcyon days of early Magic. The block itself showed bits and pieces of Magic: the Gathering history in tangible form.
One that personally hit me was a question I had early on but forgot as I got older, and it stemmed from two particular cards: Roc of Kher Ridges and Kobolds of Kher Keep. Although overshadowed almost immediately in cards and references by the grandeur of Shiv, I briefly wondered at the time exactly what or where Kher was. It was a monumentally inconsequential and fleeting thought that was forgotten about entirely until years later when Time Spiral triggered that question all over again, spurred on by this week’s card pick.
Today we have: Scourge of Kher Ridges
Name: Scourge of Kher Ridges
Edition: Future Sight
Focus: Creature Damage / Board Control
Highlights: Surely, the least aspect most players saw when looking at Scourge of Kher Ridges was its name, but it was one of the numerable card mashups the Time Spiral block had to offer. In this case it mixed the aforementioned Roc of Kher Ridges alongside the body of Odyssey’s Ashen Firebeast…albeit now in the form of a big flashy dragon.
And big is an apt description.
Although hardly used competitively outside of Dragonstorm decks, Scourge has proven to be a useful casual dragon, particularly in Commander environments where you have the time and resources to bring this card to bear. Just like the Firebeast, this dangerous beastie costs eight mana for a 6/6 frame, definitely putting it in the heavy hitter category even within Commander standards. Some may balk at its cost, but if you can get it to the battlefield and have it stick around even for a couple turns, the investment via the damage it can wreak is substantial.
While the 6/6 Flying condition is certainly something to take notice of on the battlefield from a combat perspective (and can in the worst cases be used solely as such), it is its pair of activated abilities that make it truly dangerous – abilities which also slightly mimic the early cards Earthquake and Hurricane. The first echoes Ashen’s activation but improved, stating that for two mana you can do 2 damage to all nonflying creatures. Which means that in most cases 4-6 mana has the potential to wipe most nonflying creatures off the battlefield with ease, creating an incredibly dangerous, reusable weapon. Its second ability does the opposite, stating that for six mana it can do 6 damage to all other Flying creatures besides itself, clearing away all but the largest floating behemoths. In tandem, this Scourge lives up to its name by having the potential to destroy the vast majority of creatures without never needing to attack or block. In typical Red fashion it will have some trouble with abnormally large opposition, but its ability to sweep away most everything else is enough to get most people to sit up and pay attention.
All it needs to do is survive till that point. Which will be this creature’s biggest drawback – it paints a sizable target for itself as soon as it hits the battlefield. However, so long as you can protect it, and don’t mind taking out a few of your own creatures in the process, it can change the board state of the game in your favor in a hurry.
Oh, and if you’re curious: the Kher Ridge is a mountain range on the western side of what is now part of New Argive, the easternmost island of what is left of the continent of Terisiare. So…now you know.
Keep an eye out for us to be regularly featuring other more accessible-but-worth-it Commander cards going forward. In the meantime, we’ll keep the light on for you.
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