Friday, 27 November 2020 10:00

Magic History: Taking a look back at 'Odyssey'

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Magic History: Taking a look back at 'Odyssey' 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.

The blocks-long Weatherlight Saga has come to its end and Yawgmoth, one of Magic: The Gathering's most iconic evils, has been vanquished.  In this video, we move on to Magic's next story arc which begins with the Odyssey block and its first set, Odyssey.

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

Video transcript:

Released on October 1 of 2001, the 350-card set, Odyssey, came out and launched the first truly new storyline in Magic: The Gathering since (technically) the Mirage block as it takes place in a completely new part of Dominaria and, storyline wise, more than a century after the events of Apocalypse that concluded the blocks-long Weatherlight saga.

With the new set and storyline came new tribes, card concepts, characters, locations, and more.  Gone are the trials and tribulations of Gerrard, Urza, and the like.  Instead, due to the set taking place on a never-before-visited continent on Dominaria, Otaria, Magic players get introduced to the likes of the barbaric pit fighter Kamahl, a mysterious artifact called Mirari, and the sinister and occult-like Cabal. 

The entire story can be experienced by reading the Odyssey novel by Vance Moore, but, for the time being, here is a quick summary:

On the far side of Dominaria far from most of the rest of the plane’s land masses lay Otaria, a small island continent that survived the Phyrexian invasion 100 years before relatively unscathed.  It’s home to a variety of species and tribes like mountain-dwelling dwarves and barbarians, centaurs, anthropomorphic avians, merfolk, and the like.

A barbarian named Kamahl, having found no more adventures or challenges left in his native Pardic Mountains, ventures to Cabal City with dreams of becoming a champion pit fighter in an upcoming event where the grand prize is an odd chrome sphere of sorts that seems to have some sort of unnatural allure to it and is said to be able to fulfill the wishes of its beholder.

Once there, he registers for the tournament and meets a streetwise youth and member of the Cabal known Chainer, a huge centaur named Seton who has come to the city to win protection for his forest home, as well as others, such as Lieutenant Kirtar, a representative of an anti-Cabal group known as The Order, and Turg, a slave under the control of a merfolk known as Ambassador Laquatus who has his own plans for the event’s grand prize.

During the presentation of the fighters at the tournament’s onset, the three-day event’s various prizes were shown: gold, weapons, armor, and the sphere – an artifact called Mirari.  Upon gazing at the sphere, Kamahl was infatuated and was determined to do anything necessary to obtain it.

Kamahl excelled at the tournament at the Cabal fighting pit and quickly became a crowd favorite.  During one of the later rounds of the tournament, however, the event gets interrupted by a dragon attack.  All of the pit fighters (along with some of a secret army under the command of Ambassador Laquatus) help to defend the arena against it with Kamahl landing the killing blow.

Unfortunately for the barbarian, he found himself crushed under the body of the fallen draconic foe and the Cabal ultimately claim that Kirtar, an avian soldier fighting for The Order, to be the ultimate victor.  The bird-man is allowed any prize he wants from the Cabal’s vaults and, of course, Kirtar chooses the Mirari.  In the artifact, he is able to see great visions of battlefield valor.  He then departs for the Order’s headquarters to present the sphere to Pianna, The Order’s leader.  Kamahl, Seton, and Laquatus all eventually follow – the allure of the mysterious orb too strong to resist.

Laquatus, with assistance form a brainwashed member of the Order, catches up to Lieutenant Kirtar before the other two can and is able to infiltrate the encampment.  There, Kirtar presents the artifact to Pianna.  The Order, however, distrusts artifacts, fearing that they could bring upon the destruction of the world.  Pianna confiscates the Mirari, which causes Kirtar to plan a coup to regain control of the artifact.  Meanwhile, nearby, Laquatus is forming his own scheme to gain ownership of it.

Shortly thereafter, Kamahl, having departed from Seton so that the centaur can recover in his forest home from injuries sustained in the tournament, reaches the Order Citadel.  It’s then that several plots fire off at once.

Kamahl attempts to rob The Order of their newfound prize, but fails to steal the artifact in part due to Kirtar’s own plans hatching.  The avien lieutenant had gotten to the Mirari first and used it to cast a spell that froze much of the fortress, ironically killing both Captain Pianna and Lieutenant Kirtar.  Kamahl managed to avoid being caught in the spell’s blast and resumed his search for the artifact, but it was already in the hands of another: the cephalid Laquatus.

The Ambassador sends the artifact to the underwater Mer empire while he held the barbarian at bey.  Kamahl is ultimately able to escape Laquatus, but finds himself unable to reach the undersea empire and, thus, unable to claim the Mirari as his own.  He returns to Cabal City empty handed and continues to fight at the Cabal’s fighting pits, but no prize won had much value to him as all he yearned for now was possession of the artifact that has thus far eluded his grasp.  Eventually, the barbarian settles in a coastal town not far from the Mirari’s new underwater home to bide his time.

Meanwhile, in the Mer empire, Ambassador Laquatus returns home, though with plans to off the Mer emperor, Aboshan, and claim the realm for himself.  Ever good at mind games, Laquitus plays into the emperor’s insecurities, creating an aura of uncertainty and doubt around the emperor as Llawan, the empire’s estranged empress, has begun challenging rule.  All the while, Laquatus searches the imperial treasury for the orb with the help of a cabal dementist he had met during his time in Cabal City.

Over time, the cephalid emperor begins to succumb to the Mirari’s call and greatly has a desire to touch the artifact.  As he does so, he sees visions of a vast, infinite ocean void of any sort of land mass.  Unfortunately, like with Kirtar before him, Emporer Aboshan is unable to control the Mirari’s power and the artifact goes haywire – only this time worse than before.  The resulting wake causes a third of Otaria to fall into the sea and destroys the Mer empire’s capital before Laquatus and the cabal dementist, Fulla (who’s better known as Braids due to her hairstyle), manage to intervene.  Like with Lieutenant Kirtar previously, the emperor did not survive.

The Mer empire now in ruins and Laquatus’ plans now changed, he and the cabalist venture back to Cabal City with the Mirari in tow.  Kamahl, independent of the other two, also sets off for the city feeling the Mirari’s call yet again.

As for what happens next, we’ll have to leave you in torment until the next video as this is where the story of Odyssey as a set ends.

Of course, there’s always the story behind the story.

As a set, Odyssey was largely well received.  It’s considered to be mid-range in terms of power level as it’s incomparable to both those sets found in the Urza’s block – arguably the highest power level ever in Magic – and that of the Masques block, which consists of some of the weakest sets printed up to that point.

The set had a very prominent graveyard theme, which had its own mixed reaction from players.  While Odyssey’s graveyard theme was one of the best-executed such theme at the time, players often felt like they were more-or-less forced to play Magic with graveyards in mind.

That theme was even more in the forefront thanks to a little gravestone symbol next to the name of every card that had the new flashback ability, which allows players to cast the card from their graveyard.  It’s an ability that showed up only on instants and sorceries and would ultimately prove quite popular among Magic players.  It would make its return not just in the remaining two Odyssey block sets – Torment and Scourge – but also in the Time Spiral and Innistrad blocks, as well as Modern Horizons and Commander 2019.

In fact, Wizards of the Coast designer Mark Rosewater calls Flashback the best mechanic he’s ever designed despite early misgivings.

((Maro DTW: Flashback – 9:30 “We had some debates…exciting to people.”))

But flashback wasn’t the only mechanic in Odyssey that fit the set’s graveyard theme.  Threshold, the brainchild of Magic: The Gathering originator Richard Garfield, is also prominent within the set.

((Maro DTW: Odyssey – 25:25 “Richard was very interested…had to meet.”))

The mechanic grants players a bonus of some sort if and when the card’s controller had seven or more cards in their graveyard, though at first that wasn’t going to be the case.

((Maro DTW: Odyssey – 25:55 “Originally, threshold had a number…mind melting…”))

And, in addition to the graveyard theme, Odyssey had a token creature subtheme with a number of token creature generating cards.  In fact, several token cards were offered as prizes in the now-defunct Magic Player Rewards program.

In addition to graveyard matters and token creatures, Odyssey also boasted a nice variety of cycles -- 15 of them, to be exact.

Most notable of these are:

  • Bursts, which are common instant or sorcery spells that scale up by having copies in the graveyard;
  • Rites, which scale up depending on the number of cards its caster discards upon cast;
  • Eggs, which are one-time mana filters that include a bonus card draw;
  • Filter lands, which, for one and tap, will produce one mana each of any two-allied-mana combination;
  • Lhyrgoyfs, the first five in the creature type since the original namesake creature was introduced in Ice Age with each’s power and toughness being determined by the number of cards of a particular type in all graveyards;
  • Atogs, the first multicolored Atogs to be printed for the game, these allied-colored creatures have activated abilities that “eat” a specific resource in order to grow larger. There’s also the five-colored Atogatog, which eats other Atogs.  Atog is an anagram of “goat,” by the way.

There were also a few vertical cycles, such as the common-uncommon-rare cycle that creates creature tokens: Chatter of the Squirrel, Roar of the Wurm, and Call of the Herd.

Odyssey also has a cycle of shrines, which are rare enchantments that have their own specific triggered ability.  Unlike the shrine cards that would be later printed in the Kamigawa block and in Core Set 2021, Odyssey’s shrines don’t actually count as shrines despite the word being literally in the name.

Now, as mentioned earlier, the entire Odyssey block takes place on the island continent of Otaria, far removed from much of the rest of the major areas of Dominaria where most all of the game’s other sets – many of which were part of the iconic Weatherlight Saga story arc – have taken place thus far.  To further separate the block from Weatherlight Saga relations, many common creature types from previous sets such as elves and goblins were replaced with new or unusual types such as barbarians, centaurs, cephalids, and insects.

In fact, the contemporary creature types antelope, cephalid, and squirrel were all introduced to black-border Magic in Odyssey.  Interestingly enough, the next block, the Onslaught block, will bring back a lot of these more traditional Magic: The Gathering creature types despite being on the same continent as the Odyssey block, but we’ll get to that little tidbit in a future video.

Getting back to the cards themselves, Odyssey has a handful worth mentioning despite StarCityGames writer Abe Sargent saying that out of the set’s 250 cards, only four of them are any good.  Those four, by the way, are Wild Mongrel, Upheaval, Roar of the Wurm, and Psychatog.

And it’s that last card, Psychatog, which made the largest impact.

Beyond more than 35 percent of respondents in an online poll conducted on MagicTheGathering.com in 2002 saying that they believe the printing of the card to be a mistake, the uncommon was well represented at the 2002 World Championship with six of the top eight decks using Psychatog-based decks.

This includes the 2002 World Championship winner, Carlos Romao.  The Brazilian’s blue-black Psychatog deck focused on well-timed counter magic paired with the Psychatog-Upheaval combo.

Not only was the win big for Romao, but it was big for all of South America as he became the first Magic: The Gathering player from the continent to be crowned World Champion.

((Quote from Romao – Credit WotC video))

But, the set’s good and noteworthy cards go beyond that small selection of highlighted by Sargent due in part to the eventual rise in the popularity of the casual Elder Dragon Highlander format (also known simply as Commander).

While the cards Braids, Cabal Minion and Entomb eventually found their place on the tournament scene, more casual-oriented cards such as Bearscape, Patron Wizard, Tarnished Citadel, Deserted Temple, Time Stretch, Traumatize, legacy dredge staple Cephalid Coliseum, legacy burn staple Barbarian Ring, the flashback direct damage spell Firebolt, and Diabolic Tutor, a strictly worse version of the O.G. Magic card Demonic Tutor.

There are also three cards worth mentioning for other reasons.

A number of Cephalid Looter cards left the factory misprinted with the creature type Cephalid Wizard rather than simply Cephalid.  Since then, the card’s creature type has been updated to Cephalid Rogue as part of Wizards of the Coast’s Grand Creature Type Update in 2007.

There’s also the card Bash to Bits.  It features artwork by Matt Cavotta, despite the card’s art credit giving a shout out to Gary Ruddell.

Odyssey also has the once-popular card Shadowmage Infiltrator.  While the creature saw some play thanks to it being a draw engine with evasion, the real story is the artwork.  If the person in Rick Farrell’s illustration looks familiar, that’s because it’s based on Jon Finkel, winner of the 2000-2001 Magic: The Gathering invitational tournament.

Then there’s the set’s prerelease card, Stone-Tongue Basilisk.  Like with the Invasion block before it, which featured prerelease promotional cards that were printed in a language that was otherwise unavailable on a Magic: The Gathering card, Odyssey’s prerelease card was printed in Arabic.

And, finally, the artwork on the card Repentant Vampire is a reference to Angel, a character from the then-popular television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well as his own spin-off show.  In fact, when combined with the white uncommon card Gallantry, the two cards form a single scene of Buffy and Angel fighting against the undead.

You’re welcome.

Is Odyssey one of your favorite Magic: The Gathering sets?  If so, let us know in the comment section below.

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