Friday, 28 October 2022 09:00

Magic History: Remembering 'Shards of Alara'

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Magic History: Remembering 'Shards of Alara' 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 back at Shards of Alara, the first set in Magic: The Gathering's Shards of Alara, or simply "Shards," block.

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

Video transcript:

On October 3, 2008, Magic: The Gathering’s 47th expansion, Shards of Alara, released.

Featuring a set symbol that illustrates the five separate shards of the plane of Alara, as the plane, which, thousands of years in the past, had been one of a harmonious balance of the five colors of magic, has been broken into five separate places – each of which containing three allied colors of magic while lacking the two enemy ones.  As such, each shard evolved drastically different in the many generations that followed.

And, beyond ushering in not a new story to the game, Shards of Alara also brough with it a major change to the cards themselves.

As far as that new story is concerned, the block’s entire story can be found within in the novel Alara Unbroken by Doug Beyer, as well as the companion book A Planeswalker’s Guide to Alara, written by Beyer and Jenna Helland.

Now, without further ado, our summary…

The dragonic planeswalker, Nicol Bolas, has fled from the plane of Dominaria in an attempt to outrun the multiverse-altering Mending after the sealing of the various temporal rifts that were threatening not just Dominaria as a plane, but of time and space as well.

Bolas, however, finds that he is unable to escape the inevitable as the omnipotent, god-like planeswalker is stripped of much of his power and nigh-immortality.

Hell bent on regaining his lost power, the planeswalker travels to Alara, a fractured world of equally fractured magics that seemed ripe for the taking…

Meanwhile, another planeswalker, the dragon worshipping Sarkhan Vol has been traveling the multiverse ever since his spark ignited.  Obsessed with dragonkind, which had gone extinct in his home world, he hops from plane to plane in search of them.

He finds himself on Jund, a shard of Alara abundant in red, black, and green mana, but devoid of white and blue.  There, he finds a plethora of dragons against which he can test his skills, ironically attacking and slaying many of them.

Eventually, Vol comes face to face against none other than Bolas himself.  The two talk and Vol is amazed that Bolas moves the multiverse around him when planeswalking, rather than traveling through it as the dragon-worshipping ‘walker does.  Or, at least, Bolas used to.

Seeing the spark within Vol, draconic planeswalker asks him for his assistance.  The dragon worshipping Vol couldn’t agree quick enough.

At the same time, on the green-red-white shard of Naya, Ajani Goldmane is an outcast from his pride due to his albino appearance despite the fact that his brother, Jazal, whom he loves and reveres, is the tribe’s kha, or leader.  Depsite his strength and combat prowess, those of his tribe constantly mock and discredit the leonin outcast.

But, despite being an outcast amongst the majority of his pride, Ajani pays visits to his brother.  One night, as the other leonin tell stories around the campfire, the albino has an audience with his brother within his hut.  Inside, he notices markings on the wall that seem to resemble him, but Jazal avoids the topic.

A while later, Ajani finds himself fending off zombies – something that shouldn’t be on Naya due to its lack of black mana.  That’s when one of the pride members is heard screaming that Jazal is in trouble.  Ajani responds, but is told not to enter his brother’s room.  Ignoring the command, the albino leonin enters to find Jazal slain – killed by an axe similar to Ajani’s own.

That’s when he begins hearing his late brother’s voice telling him that he’s fine and that everything will go back to normal if he goes and tells the pride that everything is fine.

Ajani then realizes he’s having a conversation with a corpse and snaps out of it, then has what appears to be a major breakdown.  In reality, it’s his unrealized planeswalker spark igniting.

The next thing he knows, he’s in a strange, unknown, astral place whereupon he witnesses the five shards of Alara growing closer and closer to one another.

Now a novice planeswalker, Ajani returns to Alara, but lands on a different shard.  He immediately is swarmed by a group of fleeing goblins only to see a dragon hot on their tails.  Ajani joins the goblins and begins to high-tail it out of there.

Thankfully, Sarhkan Vol shows up and takes care of the dragon.  He helps Ajani up and the two talk for a moment before splitting ways, with Vol off to seek more dragons and Ajani planeswalking to his native shard of Naya, resolute on finding and killing whomever had slain his brother.

Soon, he catches up with whom he believes to be the culprit: A fellow leonin named Tenoch who had been one of Ajani’s main persecutors.

He finds his target, conveniently enough, standing on a cliff’s edge.  The albino leonin approaches the unsuspecting Tenoch and accuses him of murder before pushing him off to his death.

Unfortunately for Ajani, Tenoch grabs the novice planeswalker as he falls, pulling him down with him.  As they fall, Tenoch manages to grab hold of the cliff face with Ajani grasping his foot, only for Tenoch to push him off, allowing Ajani to fall…

And in yet another storyline, Elspeth Tirel, another planeswalker, is also on one of Alara’s shards.  Not long a planeswalker herself, she came from a yet-unknown plane that had become overrun with frightening monsters.  The terrors there ignited had ignited her spark, and she found herself on the white-green-blue shard of Bant.

Restitute to defend the innocents of Bant against the sort of horrors she had seen on her home plane, she joins up with the shard’s fellow knights.

One such knight, Rafiq, is a man of absolute honor who travels the shard participating in ritualistic duels as a means to solve conflicts.

As Elspeth is sparring against a fellow knight, she accidentally nearly kills a fellow knight.  Afterwards, the knight finds himself lucky to be alive and quickly deduces that Elspeth must have used some sort of spell to save his life.  Not wanting to acknowledge the elephant in the room, Elspeth departs.

That’s when her lower-ranking comrades alert her to the presence of a white-furred visitor – something she doesn’t really want to deal with.  Regardless, she senses the battered-and-bruised Ajani to be a planeswalker and convinces her underlings that he’s not a threat.  As he recuperates in the knights’ care, Elspeth tries to convince Ajani to join the order.  Ajani refuses, however, stating he has personal business to attend to.

Soon enough, Ajani feels his strength return and he travels back to Naya to take care of his unfinished business.

Meanwhile, another leonin, one known as Marisi, is in search of an ancient artifact known as the Relic of Progenitus on behalf of her master, Nicol Bolas.  She closes in on the artifact and activates a dragon scale vessel she was carrying.  That’s when Ajani crosses paths with her.

The vengeful albino leonin questions Marisi about his brother’s death, to which the Bolas pawn replies that the only one responsible for Jazal’s death is Jazal himself as he had no business trying to unify the leonin tribes to begin with before divulging that she is working for none other than Nicol Bolas and tells Ajani (in no uncertain terms) that he should run.

That’s when the leonin planeswalker happens upon Mayael, the de-facto leader of Alara’s Cylian elves.  He asks her if she knows what the strange dragon scale device is.  She informs him that it’s a spell vessel.  That’s when he recalls an extremely similar vessel in his late brother’s hut at the time of his demise.

The elf then tells Ajani that they must stay and speak with the mythical Progenitus.  Ajani, however, has a better idea.  He takes the vessel and departs, bound for the shard of Jund in order to confront this Bolas guy.  Problem is, he finds he cannot.  And not because he’s protected by some sort of magical barrier, but rather because Jund no longer exists – the five shards of Alara have come together for the first time in centuries.  He decides to take the long way.

Meanwhile, Mayael has an audience with the mythical Progenitus, who tells her that he cannot be healed until the world is fixed and that she needs to find a being of white in order to fix it.  The mythical being then speaks again, instructing Mayael that the elves need to destroy all outsiders…

“It’s begun,” states Bolas as the draconic planeswalker begins to divulge his great plan to send Alara into chaos during the convergence of its planes and absorb all of the rich mana the upcoming Conflux even will spill into himself.

On what used to be known as Bant, Iama, a prophet of the Order of the Skyward Eye, reveals that their shard has fused with others and that Esper can be readily seen just off of their coast, stating that all outsiders are demons that must be destroyed.  As such, Bant declares war on Esper with the honorable knight, Rafiq, as its commander.  Espeth, herself, is put in command of a contingent of Bant soldiers.

As the fighting between Bant and Esper escalates, Malfegor, an ancient beast, and his league of zombie warriors take down the last vestige of humanity on what was the shard of Grixis, and Jund finds Sarkhan Vol razing village after village with an army of dragons before returning to his master to inform him about the goings on with the war between Bant and Esper.  After which, Bolas provides Vol with five mighty (but brainwashed) dragons to command and instructs him to use them to destroy Naya.

Meanwhile, Bolas contacts Malfegor and instructs the ancient beast to travel to the Bant area and begin raising hell there.  At the same time, Mayel begins attacking Naya’s outsiders, stating that it’s the will of Progenitus (despite her underlings thinking it’s probably a bad idea).

Over time, all of the conflicts and violence between the denizens of Alara’s now combined shards comes to a head as an even known as the Maelstrom – a chaotic storm of mana created by the conflux event – forms and grows at the exact point that the five shards all meet.  As the strife on the plane increases, so does the storm in both size and strength.

Bolas is pleased as he grows closer to his goal of absorbing the rich mana that makes up Alara’s Maelstrom to regain his lost power.  He sends a now disgruntled Malfegor to Bant to activate the obelisk there – the final such structure needed to be switched on for Bolas’ goal to become realized.

After some choice words, the ancient beast does as he is commanded.

In Bant, Rafiq rendezvous with Elspeth, informing her that Malfegor is coming, but that Bant’s knights are ready to stand fast in defense.  Elspeth commands her troops to attack, but the effort is futile as Malfegor kills knight after knight, using their collective lifeforce to activate the Bant Obelisk.

The angel, Aarsil, shows us with the Sword of Asha and hands it to Elspeth, instructing her to give it to Rafiq.  The militant planeswalker does as instructed and hands it over to Rafiq.  The knight charges Malfegor.  Elspeth levitates him and hurls him, sword first, directly at the ancient beast.  In one fell swoop, Malfegor is no more.

Meanwhile, from Naya, Mayael arrives with her elven army, as does Zaliki and her ranks of nacatl.  Ajani, who is also on scene, tells both armies to run, for Bolas is on his way.  Zaliki then informs the leonin planeswalker that she was the one who is responsible for his brother’s death, having been manipulated into it by Marisi.  That’s when Ajani once again hears Jazal’s voice in his head, telling him not to kill Zaliki.  Ajani is disheartened.  His quest for revenge would go unsatisfied.

Just then, Sarkhan Vol and the ancient Jund dragon, Karrthus, arrive and attack all of the armies at once.

Ajani snaps out of it and begins to put two and two together, reaching the realization that the mana from their spells, as well as those from others on the plane, are fueling the Maelstrom.

Just then, the Bant begins to send torrents of mana directly into the growing storm.  That’s when Bolas shows up and begins the killing.

Ajani hollers at everyone within earshot, telling them to run.

As the various armies begin to retreat, Ajani notices Bolas smile.

“I’ve survived more apocalypses than you’ve had chest colds,” says the draconic planeswalker to Ajani as he toys a bit with the novice leonin planeswalker.

Bolas then steps into the Maelstrom itself, absorbing its rich mana.  The draconic planeswalker feels himself regaining his lost pre-mending powers almost instantly.  Ajani leaps in after him, severing the mana bonds feeding the storm and absorbing what remains for himself.

Using this newfound power, the leonin planeswalker summons an effigy of Bolas’ own soul, which clashes with the draconic planeswalker, causing them both to disappear from the realm.

The Maelstrom and the conflux that created it have ended.

Later on, in the aftermath, Elspeth resigns from her post within Bant’s order of knights, stating that she is leaving Alara forever.

Sarkhan Vol believes that Bolas is still alive.  He ponders leading a heroic life, but planeswalks off of Alara before coming to an absolute decision.

Ajani, meanwhile, is washing the floor in his late brother’s room.  Zaliki pays him a visit.  The two have a calm conversation, during which Ajani informs her that he will be departing from Alara.  He appoints her the pride’s new kha, then resumes cleaning.

And, well, that’s the Alara Unbroken and the entire Shards of Alara block as a whole.  Thanfully, there’s still more to tell about the Shards of Alara set itself.

Shards of Alara introduced a handful of changes to Magic: The Gathering.

First off, in terms of packaging and products, Wizards of the Coast decided to forego including the set’s novel within the set’s “fat pack” bundle (a practice that began in late 1999 with the set Mercadian Masques).  Instead, players received a brief introduction of the set’s novel and planeswalker’s guide.  Pro Tour player cards, which were found randomly as a bonus card within booster packs, were discontinued as well.

Shards of Alara also saw the discontinuation of preconstructed theme decks, which had been around since late 1997 with the set Tempest.  In their place, Wizards released a new product called “Intro Packs,” which the company felt was a better representation of what the products were: preconstructed, ready-to-play decks designed for beginner and novice Magic: The Gathering players.

In addition, design of Shards of Alara was anything but typical for a Magic: The Gathering set. Rather than one design team and one development team working on the set in tandem, Shards lead designer Bill Rose put together five design teams with three people per team.  Each team was assigned one of Alara’s three-colored shards and allowed each to come up with their own gameplay themes and signature mechanic that would be unique to their respective shard.

<MARO DTW 2008, 18:11-19:08 “The Bant world had…all the different shards.”>

As for those shards, the white/green/blue Bant a shard of rolling hills, forests, and beautiful beaches.  The blue/white/black Esper shard is a technologically sophisticated land of living artifacts.  Black/blue/red Grixis is a hellish shard of the undead and necromancy.  Red/black/green Jund is a dragon-ruled land of beasts where it’s eat or be eaten.  And, as for Naya, the green/red/white shard is one of lush growth, rich in natural beauty that often hides the savage dangers of the jungle from unsuspecting eyes.

And, possibly most importantly, Shards of Alara introduced a new rarity to Magic: The Gathering cards for the first time in the history of the collectible card game: “Mythic Rare.”

One step higher in rarity than “rare,” “mythic rare” cards featured an orange-red colored set symbol.  Of the 249 cards that make up Shards of Alara, only 15 qualified as “mythic rare.”

But, why the change?  Why add a new card rarity to the game?

<MARO DTW 2008, 16:13-50 “When Magic started…a mythic rare.”>

And, for one final new item introduced with Shards of Alara, Planeswalker cards return, but included some multicolored ones rather than the exclusively mono-colored lineup players saw when they were introduced a few sets earlier in Lorwyn.

This included:

And you might have noticed that Tezzeret never appeared in the Alara Unbroken storyline.   That’s because he was instead a focus in the set-adjacent novels Agents of Artifice and Test of Metal from Wizards of the Coast’s new “Planeswalker Novel” series.

Regardless, Shards of Alara’s planeswalkers went over pretty well.

<MARO DTW SOA 31-38-49 (Devin Low, designer, SOA) “Lorwyn was the first…and constructed.”>

Shards of Alara boasted a whopping 19 cycles (plus a few shard-specific mini cycles).  Of those, the most notable include:

  • Battlemages, uncommon 2/2 creatures that each have activated abilities that require mana from allied colors;
  • Two-color allied-colored spells, such as Blightning, a sorcery costing 1BR that deals three damage to a player and also forces them to discard two cards;
  • Two-colored enemy colored spells, like the popular white-black hand disruption creature Tidehollow Sculler;
  • Tri-colored mythic legendary creatures (one for each shard), such as the card Sedris, the Traitor King for Grixis;
  • Tri-colored nonbasic lands (also one for each shard);
  • Tri-colored Obelisks (again, one for each shard);
  • A new cycle of charms, each of which (of course) corresponds with each of Alara’s five shards, and;
  • Ultimatums.  These rare sorceries each cost seven mana each and (surprise surprise) correspond with each of their respective shards.  If played right, each ultimatum has gives its caster the opportunity to win the game.  Or, at the very least, sets the table for a win.

As far as specific cards of note that made their debut in Shards of Alara, there’s:

  • Ad Nauseam, which is the main engine powering “ANT,” or “Ad Nauseum Tendrils” decks that take advantage of the former’s card drawing ability to build up a storm count before casting Tendrils of Agony (often for the win);
  • The aforementioned Blightning, which was a key card in Jund standard at the time;
  • Cruel Ultimatum, which was an important card in standard Grixis and five-color control decks at the time;
  • Ethersworn Canonist, a “hate bear” card (as they’re called) that can really make games difficult for decks that rely on casting multiple spells per turn;
  • Knight of the White Orchid, a 2/2 with first strike that had an ability that mimicked the card Tithe from Visions;
  • Mayael the Anima, which was a key inclusion in all four of the semifinalists’ decks in Pro Tour Berlin in November of 2008, an event that was won by Luis Scott-Vargas in a more-or-less mirror match against Slovac Matej Zatlkaj
    <VIDEO CLIP>;
  • Rafiq of the Many, which is notable nowadays more as a curiosity seeing as the card appeared as a “The List” card in the recent set, Streets of New Capenna, but not in its original form.  Rather, it was given the New Capenna showcase treatment;
  • Ranger of Eos, a card popular in “weenie” strategies and was Antoine Ruel’s prize card for winning the 2006 Magic Invitational tournament;
  • Relic of Progenitus, an uncommon that is a common anti-graveyard sideboard (and sometimes mainboard) card, and;
  • Wild Nacatl, an efficiently-costed aggressive card that’s still seen today in Modern Naya and “Zoo” decks.  It was banned for the format in December of 2011, only to return in February of 2014.

So, what’s the lasting legacy of Shards of Alara, well, if you ask designer Mark Rosewater,

<MARO SOA 37:17-33, 38:38-52  “I think that Shards…factioning.” “Shards of Alara is…learn from both of those.”>

So, is Shards of Alara amongst your favorite Magic: The Gathering sets?  If so, let us know in the comment section here on YouTube.

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Thank you for watching.