Friday, 30 April 2021 08:00

Magic History: Taking a look back at 'Scourge'

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

In this video, we take a look at Scourge, the final set in Magic: The Gathering's Onslaught block.

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

Video transcript:

On May 26, 2003, the 143-card set Scourge was released.  When that happened, Magic: The Gathering experienced two endings:  The end of the Onslaught block and everything with it (including Kamahl’s six-set story arc) as well as the end of Magic: The Gathering cards as players knew them as it’s the final set in the game’s almost ten year history with what’s now referred to as the “old” card frames as the cards in every set thereafter would look strikingly different (with the rare exception, of course).

The set’s story concludes that of the vicious war between the angel, Akroma, and the powerful new leader of the Cabal, Phage, after their simultaneous deaths in battle by the druid, Kamahl, forged a new threat: the powerful avatar and self-proclaimed god, Karona.

You can read all about it in J. Robert King’s novel, Scourge.  Failing that, here’s a story summary:

The battle at Sanctum halts as a new being, an avatar of pure magical essence called Karona, gets the attention of everyone in the fray.  Her appeal and allure enormous, all fighting stops and seemingly everyone on the battlefield begin to worship her as a god.

Overwhelmed by the immediate attention, she flees the scene and ventures out into the Otarian desert.  She is immediately followed by many of those from the battlefield (the druid Kamahl included).

Stonebrow, Sanctum’s former protector, is trapped under some rubble and is unable to join.  Karona’s influence now gone, the giant centaur realized just how much of a danger this newcomer is and enlists the city guard to defend the city in case of her return.

Kamahl is the first to catch up to Karona.  He finds her confused as to who she is and what her purpose is.  Shortly thereafter, the rest of the crowd arrives, trampling one another in a mad attempt to be close to their new god.  Again, Karona flees.  Kamahl, sensing now that the avatar could prove to be incredibly dangerous, departs for Krosa to retrieve the only weapon he feels can defeat her: the Mirari sword.

Karona, now traveling near the illusionary city of Topos, happens upon two strangers in dire need of assistance: Sash and Waistcoat.  As it turns out, they are the two unmen who escaped Akroma’s wrath after she had provided them with corporeal form before attempting to kill them for desertion.  Karona, noting that the two strangers are acting rational towards her rather than rabid like the throngs of Otarians who are so desperate to worship her, takes a liking to the two.  She cares for them and names them her prophets, asking them to communicate with her fanatical worshippers on her behalf.  Her two prophets then suggest they travel to the mage city of Eroshia.

Meanwhile in the Krosan forest, the rampant growth around the Mirari had become cancerous.  A giant growth of brambles and trees has grown around the site under which Kamahl ventures to reclaim his sword.  In the vast underbrush, the ghost of his fallen mentor, Balthor, guides him past the area’s various perils and to the corpse of the former Mer ambassador, Laquatus – the merman’s long-dead body still pinned to the Krosan ground, impaled by the Mirari sword.

Like the forest surrounding the Mirari, Laquatus’ corpse has also grown considerably in size.  It attacks Kamahl just as soon as the druid removed the sword from its resting place.

The druid is able to destroy zombie Laquatus, but the corrupting allure of the Mirari begins to infect his mind once again.

Elsewhere, Karona and her prophets, Sash and Waistcoat, reach Eroshia.  Despite being a city populated by wise wizards and other such mages, the result is the same.  They bow down before her and display worship so extreme that it endangers the lives of everyone around them.

Sash and Waistcoat enjoy a life of luxury in the city due to their status as her prophets and Karona explores her new world, unaware that Otarians all over the continent are converging on Eroshia so that they, too, may worship her.  This includes not just the barbarian tribes of the Pardic Mountains and what’s left of the Order, but the Cabal as well as Kuberr sends a contingent, led by the slightly mad cabalist Braids, to capture her.

Once she returns to the city, she finds army upon army whipped into a fanatical devotion for her.  Almost as if commanded to, the assembled Otarians begin murderously rampaging to be near to her.  Karona grabs her two prophets and looks yet again to flee.  At the suggestion of Sash and Wastecoat, however, the god-like avatar uses her power to create a vast chasm beneath the armies.  It swallows everyone and everything within it – Braids included – before being filled back in again, burying everyone alive.  Karona’s prophets are terrified.

Back in the Krosan forest, Kamahl seems to be having some trouble with the Mirari, falling victim the artifact’s seductions.  Aided by Balthor’s ghost, he tries to manage, but finds himself attacking his mentor’s spirit, slashing the sword through it and dissipating the ghost entirely.  The shock of having killed is old friend a second time snaps the druid back into reality and provides him with the sanity he needs to finally control the weapon that had for so long controlled him.  He then departs for Topos.

There, he locates the deathwurm that had consumed the illusionist, Ixidor.  The druid allows himself to be swallowed by the beast and finds the man, still living inside if it and weeping over the lost soul of his dear, slain love, Nivea.  In order to bring Ixidor back to reality, Kamahl destroys the wurm from the inside out and departs with a protesting Ixidor in tow.

Ixidor decides to clean himself up with a quick bath a river near Topos.  He emerges from the water not as Ixidor, however, but rather as Lowallyn, the third numen who had yet been all but missing in the story up to this point and had been lending his powers to the mortal Ixidor all this time.  Much more agreeable now than just a few minutes before, he departs (along with Kamahl) to locate his brothers, Kuberr and Averru, so that they may together face the goddess, Karona.

And speaking of Karona, she’s still trying to figure out exactly what it means to be a diety.  (Please note that a part of what happens next has been retconned as it proved problematic for Magic: The Gathering continuity, but enjoy the ride anyway.)  As part of her research, she summons other figures – one for each of Magic’s colors – who are considered to be godlike: Multani, Fiers, Ixidor/Lowallyn, Teferi, and even the ghost of Yawgmoth himself.  While none of their advice proves helpful, she decides to embrace her deified destiny and build her own army of followers to destroy those few who oppose her.

Getting back to Kamahl and Lowallyn, they reach the city of Aphetto and meet with Kuberr.  Almost immediately after their arrival, however, worshippers of Karona to turn against the city.  Right before Aphetto is wiped off of the map, Kamahl and the two numen escape through a portal that brings them to Sanctum (now known simply as Averru).

There, it’s revealed that the entire city itself is their brother – the final of the three numen.  They are the three sons of Karona, the mother of magic, and whose power had forced them into their generations-long slumber.  It is because the simultaneous death of their mothers – Phage for Kuberr, Zagorka for Averru, and Akroma for Lowallyn – that Karona was given new life.

With assistance from Kamahl, the three numen set up a trap that succeeds in luring and capturing the god-like avatar.  Immediately after her capture, however, it comes to light that the three brothers just want Karona’s power for their own.  Realizing that Otaria would just be exchanging one tyrannical ruler for three, he decides to believe that Karona should have the ability to planeswalk.

As a surprise to everyone in attendance, she does just that: she planeswalks away, leaving the three numen powerless and resigned to death, having failed to capture her magical essence.  With her departure, however, she also took all magic with her from Dominaria.  All magic except for what power resides within the Mirari.

(Now, a note again that some of what’s about to occur has been retconned for continuity purposes, but let’s just go with it.)

Unleashed onto the multiverse, Karona hops from plane to plane, her prophets Sash and Wastecoat in tow.  They visit a goblin-ruled Mercadia, a restored Serra’s Realm (and even meets a surprisingly revived Serra despite her having permanently perished in the canon Homelands comic book series), Phyrexia (also post-destruction, apparently), and eventually land on a plane known as Argentum.  There, they meet a metallic man named Lord Macht.  He tells Karona that he watches over the world while he waits for his master, the plane’s creator, to return.

He also reveals the true nature of the Mirari.  It’s a probe created by his master that was sent to Dominaria as a way to keep an eye on and learn more about the plane, but that it was made too powerful and eager to assimilate that the device’s allure became destructive.  Karona, however, sees through Lord Macht’s storytelling and realizes that he, himself, is the creator and that he feels tremendous guilt about unleashing the Mirari onto Dominaria.

She insists that their status as gods makes them special.  It’s not his fault if the humans and other common species of the plane misused the artifact.  He invites her to stay with him on Argentum, but she refuses as her desire to return to Dominaria is just to great.  She is shown by Lord Macht how to get back to her home plane and she returns posthaste.

Appearing back at Eroshia, she and her enormous army of followers begins a conquest of Otaria and eventually reach the living city of Averru.  The three numen, along with Kamahl, Stonebrow, and Averru’s guards, put up a desperate fight, however they prove no match for the goddess’ power.  She quickly overcomes them all, killing nearly everyone save for the Mirari sword-wielding druid and his centaur friend.

She manages to disarm him and, just as she’s about to lay the finishing blow on Kamahl, her prophets, Sash and Waistcoat, assume control of the blade and run the goddess through with it just as Lord Macht had instructed them to while they were all on Argentum.

Lord Macht arrives immediately thereafter and takes the corpse as well as the Mirari away with him Argentum, leaving Otaria’s survivors to figure things out on their own.  Kamahl bids a final farewell to his sister, then reunites with Stonebrow, Sash, and Waistcoat to begin anew.

Back on his metal plane, Lord Macht lays the deceased Karona down to rest as she reverts back to being just Jeska, Kamahl’s sister – the evilness of Phage and the magic of the numen drained from her body by the Mirari sword’s fatal blow.  When she awakens, Lord Macht reveals himself to be none other than Karn, Urza’s silver golem who had become a planeswalker slightly more than a century ago when in the blast from the Weatherlight that killed Yawgmoth at the end of the Phyrexian War.

Karn levels with Jeska.  He reveals to her that the entire reason she was never affected by the Mirari like so many others had been, why the Cabal Patriarch’s touch turned her into Phage rather than killing her as it should had, and why she survives still today is because she, like him, is a planeswalker.

Before setting off to explore the multiverse along with his new apprentice, Jeska, he repurposes the Mirari by reshaping it into a sentient being that would act as Argentum’s protector while he is away.  He names this new creation Memnarch and releases it onto the plane.  The two planeswalkers then set off for destinations unknown.

As for what happens next on Argentum, well that’s a story for another day.  For now, let’s just take a look at the story behind the Magic set that is Scourge.

Despite the Karona-heavy storyline, Scourge’s set expansion symbol is that of a dragon skull.  It’s meant to reflect the set’s dragon tribal theme (despite there not really being anything in the way of dragons, story-wise) and, like with its predecessors, Onslaught and Legions, it does indeed continue the block’s focus on tribal themes.  And dragons, which have had a couple of cards here and there in the block’s previous two sets, get a higher-than-usual amount of creature, auxiliary, and support cards this time around.

For the non-dragon tribes, Scourge provided some additional support in the form of warchiefs.  With one each for soldiers, illusions, zombies, goblins, and beasts, these cards all reduced the casting cost of a shared creature type by one generic mana.  They each all also had an additional ability for that shared creature type, such as Krosan Warchief allowing its controller to regenerate a target beast and Daru Warchief providing all soldiers in play with a +1/+2 buff.

In addition to having a tribal theme, Scourge also had a “size matters” sub-theme.  In this case, that would be the size of a card’s converted mana cost as the set has many cards that care about such a thing such as Reward the Faithful, Dispersal Shield, Rush of Knowledge, Cabal Conditioning, Torrent of Fire, and Accelerated Mutation.

In part to assist with the “size matters” subtheme, Scourge has a cycle of cards cards known as “decrees.”  Costing anywhere from four to ten mana apiece, these are expensive, game-changing cards that all feature Karona in their respective artworks.  In addition to having their primary mode, such as the enchantment Decree of Silence automatically countering the spells an opponent casts, they also have a cycling ability that provides its owners not only with card draw, but also with a second, replacement ability.  In keeping with the Decree of Silence example, the card instead turns into an uncounterable counterspell.

In addition to continuing the block’s main mechanic, morph, it also introduced a new type of cycling called landcycling that allows the card’s owner to tutor for a specific type of basic land and put it into their hand rather than simply drawing off of the top of their deck as they would with traditional cycling, and storm.

Storm, which was designed by Brian Tinsman, is a triggered ability on instant and sorcery cards that triggers when the spell is cast.  It lets the controller of a storm spell to put copies of that spell on the stack with new targets (if so desired).  Thanks to a number of cards (Brain Freeze, Mind’s Desire, and Tendrils of Agony, for example) turning out to be rather powerful when copied through their storm ability, the storm mechanic formed the essence of a deck archetype that noticeably dominated competitive Magic.

In fact, the mechanic was considered to be so broken and degenerate that head Magic designer Mark Rosewater designed an entire scale of likelihood that a mechanic would return in a Standard-legal set.

((Maro DTW: Scourge1 – 4:26 “So it’s called the…can kill players.”))

Those aforementioned storm cards aren’t the only cards in Scourge worth mentioning, however, as the set had a good number of good cards despite its small size.

The ability-only counterspell Stifle made its debut in the set, as did Carrion Feeder (used in Hulk Flash and Kiki-Jiki decks), the Astral Slide deck staple Decree of Justice, Dragon Breath (a key card in Cephalid Breakfast decks), Eternal Dragon, Goblin Warchief, Dragonstorm (which didn’t actually become strong in Standard until its reprint in Time Spiral), the preemptively-banned-in-Vintage Mind’s Desire, the popular Legacy burn card Pyrostatic Pillar, Siege-Gang Commander, Sliver Overlord, legacy/vintage staple Xantid Swarm, and the first-ever “You Make The Card” contest card, Forgotten Ancient.

(Maro DTW: Scourge3 – 2:17 “One of the things…was sent in.”)

There are also two other cards of note in Scourge that didn’t really see much play anywhere other than the kitchen table.  The first of which is Bladewing the Risen, which is a storyline-progressed version of the Onslaught card Rorix Bladewing who had fought and died in the pit fighting tournaments at the Grand Coliseum only to be revived by the Cabal.  The other is Soul Collector, the set’s prerelease cards and a far better version of a similar card from years prior, Ice Age’s Krovikan Vampire.

So, where does Magic: The Gathering go from here?  Well, it’ll take a new card frame and (technically) a new plane to continue the Magic story, but we’ll get to that in a different video.

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

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