Friday, 29 May 2020 11:10

Magic History: Taking a look back at 'Mercadian Masques'

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Magic History: Taking a look back at 'Mercadian Masques' WOTC/MAGIC UNTAPPED

Sometimes it's nice to look back and see just how far things have come since the early days of Magic: The Gathering.  To that end, we're bringing you a series of short videos that highlight Magic: The Gathering expansions throughout the years.

Previously, we looked at Urza's Destiny, the final entry in the infamous Urza's block.  This time around, we take a few minutes to look back at Mercadian Masques, the first set after what was considered by many to be the most broken Magic: The Gathering block ever.

You can check it all out in our retrospective video (below).

Video transcript:

The 18th Magic: The Gathering expansion ever printed, Mercadian Masques released in October of 1999 and kicked off the Masques block – a block that was drastically different than the previously-released, over-powered Urza’s block.

The 350-card Mercadian Masques uses a set symbol that is a stylized mask.  It’s meant to evoke the intrigues, deceptions, and double dealings involved with the Mercadia storyline.

Speaking of storyline, the set follows the events found in the novel Mercadian Masques by Francis Lebaron.  It picks up not where the previous set leaves off as that set, Urza’s Destiny, was a prequel story that led into the Weatherlight set.  Mercadian Masques picks up where Exodus, the final set in the Tempest block, leaves off.

It finds the Weatherlight crew trapped on the merchant plane of Mercadia after busting through the Erratic Portal on Rath experiencing a crash landing soon thereafter.  Five members of the crew perish while a number of others are badly wounded.

The ship gets mistaken by some of the locals as Ramos, a dragon engine that crashed-landed there a long time ago that is now worshiped as a diety.  The ship gets taken in by these religious forest-dwellers by way of a magical flood who see it as a sign of prophecy.  Unfortunately, Orim, the crew’s healer, was still on board at the time.  She and the ship get taken to the Rushwood forest where the Cho-Arrim reside.  Orim’s wounds are treated and healed as she is taken in by the revolutionaries and their leader, Cho-Manno.

Meanwhile, most of the rest of the now shipless crew are then encounter soldiers from a city called Mercadia.  After a brief skirmish, the army arrests these remaining crewmates – Gerrard included – for illegial migration, resisting arrest, and a few other things and takes them to their city.

Once there, Gerrard and crew are introduced to what appears to be an inverted mountain with a modest bazaar and a heap of garbage at its base.  After taking the lift to the mountain’s flat top, however, they find themselves being escorted through a very busy, bustling merchant-focused city where nearly everything can be bought and sold.

It’s in the middle of this crowd that Gerrard and crew try once more to avoid their arrest.  Another fight ensues, but this time the Mercadians have additional help in the form of a strange creature known as a Cateran and a giant.  Karn, a pacifist, distracts the giant by dancing with him Peter Quill style.  The Cateran, however, succeeds in disarming both Gerrard and Tahngarth and is about to kill them when Squee, the crew’s silly goblin member, throws fruit in its face.  The Cateran takes one look at Squee, then bows before him, apologizing to the goblin saying that he was unaware that the Kyren (the mafia-like goblins who run things behind the scenes in Mercadia) were in support of Gerrard’s crew.  In short, our heroes are no longer under arrest and get to walk free.

Funnily enough, the encounter gives the Weatherlight crew the reputation of “giant killers” despite not actually killing (or even technically fighting with) the giant.  They decide to use this newfound fame as leverage and Gerrard and Takara climb the Tower of the Magistrate to confront the man in charge.  While there, they notice a bunch of nobles playing with small animated toys.  The power source for these toys, as it turns out, are powerstones.

Gerrard makes the magistrate a deal.  He’ll train the city’s troops to be legendary giant killers like himself and, in return, Gerrard asks for Merciadian citizenship for him and his entire crew, for his ship to be retrieved from Rushwood, city assistance in repairing the ship, and enough powerstones to fuel it.  Oh, and essentially a grand to compensate the poor farmers whose farm the Weatherlight’s crash landing all but destroyed.  Surprisingly, the Magistrate agrees to all terms.

A month has passed and we find ourselves back in Rushwood.  Orim has been accepted into Cho-Arrim culture and society.  One night, Orim is awakened by violent visions.  She finds Cho-Manno who says he, too, had such a dream.  The forest, it seems, was trying to communicate with the Cho-Arrim to inform them of an invasion by Mercadia.

The Cho-Arrim set up their defenses, but they prove no mach for the beastly Cateran mercenaries who are forcing their way through the forest.  The rebel’s wizards, however, arrive as reinforcements just in time to turn the tide and slaughter the invaders.

It isn’t long after that Cho-Manno figures out that the Caterans were after the Weatherlight – the very item that the rebels believe to be the second-coming of their diety, Ramos, and the very same item that Gerrard asked Mercadia to retrieve for him.

A few weeks later, the Mercadians try again – this time with Gerrard and crew, his newly-trained troops along, and another band of Cateran mercenaries.  Let’s just say that when Gerrard and the Mercadians arrive and begin slaughtering the Cho-Arrim left and right to get the ship back, she’s less than pleased.  And, to make matters worse, Gerrard’s troops and the Cateran mercenaries both turn on Gerrard and the Weatherlight crew, capturing them and confiscating the skyship in the name of Mercadia.

The crew attempts yet another escape, but it doesn’t go quite so well this time around.  The Magistrate now having the upper hand, he has Gerrard, Takara, Karn and Tahngarth imprisoned and, after some convincing by Takara, sends Hanna, Sisay, and Orim to the seaside city of Saprazzo to collect a powerful artifact known as the Power Matrix.  As could be predicted, the trio are once again betrayed by their Mercadian captors who steal the artifact, kill its handlers, and point the blame at Orim.  Thanks to Saprazzan telepaths, however, Orim’s name is quickly cleared.

As fate would have it, the Cho-Arrim leader, Cho-Manno, is not only alive, but also now residing in the seaside town along with Lahaine, the leader of a group of Mercadian-hating Ramos worshippers known as the Ramosan Rebels.  Everyone involved – the three members of the Weatherlight crew, the Sapprazzo, the remaining Cho-Arrim, and the Ramosians – agree to form an alliance with plans to attack Mercadia and reclaim the Weatherlight.

Now, back in Mercadia, Gerrard, Tahngarth, and Karn have figured out that their other companion, Takara, has been trying to tear the group apart.  Sure enough, it turns out that Takara is actually the shapeshifter Volrath in disguise.  Not only that, Volrath is actually the behind-the-scenes leader of Mercadia.  Disguised as Takara, Volrath even goes as far to kill the real Takara's father, Starke il-Vec.

Soon after, the rest of what remains of the Weatherlight’s crew shows back up fresh from their excursion to Saprazzo.  Takara engineers the crew’s escape from Mercadia and most of the party ventures to a location known as the Henge of Ramos in order to find the powerstones needed to fuel the Power Matrix.  Begrudgingly and despite their misgivings, the crew allows Takara to tag along.

While at the Henge, they encounter a huge war machine that turns out to be Ramos itself and, as it turns out, Ramos is none other than the very Phyrexian dragon engine that Urza had reprogrammed to save people from the cylex blast that devastated part of Dominaria some thousands of years prior.  After some convincing, Ramos provides Gerrard and crew with their sought-after powerstones – the Horn, Tooth, Eye, Heart, and Skull of Ramos, artifacts that contained the differently-colored essences of the deified dragon engine.  Of course, Takara steals them away and vanishes.

While most of the Weatherlight crew was at the Henge, Hanna, Karn, and Squee stayed back in Mercadia.  Takara, upon her return, unmasks and publicly shows her actual identity as Volrath.  He captures the remaining Weatherlight crew and forces Karn and Hanna to rebuild the Weatherlight on his behalf, threatening to kill Squee if they disobey.

They oblige, but, not long after, revolutionaries attack the city and Hanna and Karn retake the now repaired skyship and begin to destroy the other skyships that have been stored there for future Phyrexian use.

The rebel forces prove the victor and the Weatherlight begins its escape, though not before one final showdown with Volrath’s flagship.  The Weatherlight takes Volrath’s ship down but fails to eliminate Volrath as the Evincar of Rath escapes back to his domain through a planar portal.  The Weatherlight, meanwhile, heads back to Dominaria to prepare the plane for the inevitable Phyrexian invasion.

And that’s a quick rundown of Mercadian Masques’ story, but what about the tale of the set itself?

Coming hot off the heels of the extremely powerful sets that comprised the Urza’s block, you’d think that Mercadian Masques would make yet another big impact on Magic’s tournament scene.  Interestingly enough, it’s because of how over-the-top powerful the Urza’s block was that Wizards of the Coast decided to dial back the power of Mercadian Masques.

<<SOT: MaRo DTW>>

Largely because of this pull back that Mercadian Masques not exactly considered to be as high caliber of an overall product as many other sets.  That said, the set did produce some tournament-quality cards such as Gush, Rishadan Port, Squee, Goblin Nabob, Waterfront Bouncer, Hunted Wumpus, and Food Chain have all seen various degrees of tournament play.

Despite the set being considered a huge, though justified step back in power level, some cards did find their way into the game’s top-tier decks.  Jon Finkle’s 2000 World Championship winning Tinker deck ran four Rishadan Ports and four Saprazzan Skerries maindeck and 2001 World Champion winner Tom van de Logt found room for copies of Vendetta and Rishadan Port in his Machine Head deck.

Unusual for a Magic set, Mercadian Masques introduced no new named keyword abilities to the game. However it was advertised as introducing new creature types, which were continued throughout the block: Two of these types were rebels and mercenaries, creatures able to search through their controller's library and "recruit" creatures of a specific type directly into play. Another type was spellshapers, which are creatures that had repeatable activated abilities that mimicked various classic spells, such as Bog Witch casting Dark Ritual and Blaster Mage casting Tunnel. All of the set’s spellshapers required paying mana, tapping the creature, and discarding a card to use their ability.

There were also creatures with abilities usable by any player such as Squallmonger and Flailing Manticore.  These weren’t too popular, as you might imagine.

Masques also brought back spells with alternative casting costs, a mechanic that hadn’t seen use since Weatherlight. Unmask, Invigorate, and Gush are probably the most well known of such cards in the set.

In terms of lands, Mercadian Masques provided players with depletion lands that could tap for two of any one color of mana for as long as they stayed in play as well as storage lands that were functionally the same as the ones that debuted in Fallen Empires, just with cleaner templating.

Expanding upon the now standard practice of releasing sets in starter decks, booster packs, and pre-constructed decks, Mercadian Masques was the first set to have an accompanying fat pack.  It consisted of three boosters, a tournament pack, two premium cards, the Top Deck Magazine Mercadian Masques pullout section, and the aforementioned Mercadian Masques novel.  Magic fat packs would prove to be an extremely popular product for Wizards of the Coast and the company would continue the practice in one form or another until replacing it in May of 2016 with what’s now known as a “bundle.”

Mercadian Masques also holds the distinction of being the only time Magic players have ever visited the plane of Mercadia as it’s the only set not just in the Masques block to take place there, but the only set in all of Magic.  The last time Wizards of the Coast did a one-plane/one-set setup was in Homelands four years earlier.  In fact, Mark Rosewater said in December of 2016 on his Blogatog Tumblr blog that the odds of returning to Mercadia are rather low, stating “It was poorly received and, creatively, a bit of a mess.”

So, seeing as the plane of Mercadia is only seen in Mercadian Masques, where does the block go from here?  Well, let’s just say that after seeing the heroes’ storyline in Mercadian Masques, it’s time to let their Nemesis have a moment in the spotlight as players are whisked back to the plane of Rath once more.

Is Mercadian Masques among your favorite Magic: The Gathering sets?  If so, let us know in the comment section below.

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