Lore and Order - Going Back to Theros : Part 1
This month we will all have the pleasure of opening booster packs to find cards set on the beautiful and rich-in-lore world of Theros. Theros: Beyond Death is our first return visit to this incredible plane, and for some it will represent the very first time playing with these enchanting (pun intended) cards.
What is behind Theros, though? Who are Elspeth and Ashiok and what is going on? Read on, and the answers will be discovered!
Designing ‘The Greek Plane’
True top down design for Magic started with Innistrad. Ah yes, the purists and literalists among you will scream about Champions of Kamigawa and even Arabian Nights, but really, Innistrad is where it was done right, and why would we focus on the times it went a little awry?
Innistrad really set the scene for Theros. Although the subject matter between the two worlds has very little that’s immediately in common, it’s the way of working that joins them as brethren. Top down design means starting your thinking with the flavour and story of the place and building the card set around that, rather than the other way around.
In Innistrad we were given such brilliant top down designs as:
Each of these showed how the development of the card was more about the story it evoked than the mechanics behind it.
Jump forward a few years to Theros and the Magic design team had all the experience they needed to take on one of the riches pools of inspiration that exists in human history - Greek mythology.
Tapping the richest vein
Greek mythology doesn’t just have a few stories in it about Gods and monsters (though there are plenty of those), it has a huge variety of themes, ideas and even words that make up the world and the language that we speak today. It’s astounding how many of our common terms come from Greek myth and legend. Words like chronological- derived from Chronos the God of Time, echo - the name of a nymph who was condemned to only ever repeat the words said to her, or hypnosis that comes from Hypnos, God of Sleep. It’s a well of words that is even deeper for Magic players and fantasy lovers; take Lycanthrope, the term for a werewolf - it comes from the king Lycaon, whom Zeus punished by turning him into a wolf.
And then there are the images, the stories, the pure imagination. Gods that interact with mortals from their place high in Mount Olympus, the Titans that came before them, shaping the world, and the bitter jealousies and rivalries that humanity is all too often caught up in.
Everything is covered if you look deep enough. Ever wondered why the seasons occur the way they do? Is it because of Hades’ love of Persephone? Or the roots for the story of Beauty and the Beast? Look to Eros’ wooing of Psyche. How did man get fire? Why do volcanos erupt? What happens upon death? The Greeks and their stories had answers for it all.
What did this mean for Theros? It meant that the resulting world was going to be the richest Magic had ever envisioned.
The key to making Theros work was with the Gods. Just like in the tales of ancient Greece, these beings would provide the very backbone to the world and (as we shall see later) also provide the springboard needed for a story unlike anything else Magic had delivered. Gods represented something new to Magic lore - not a planeswalker, but of equal or even superior strength. Something that wasn’t a creature but had aspects of that. Something that defined the world and the people and their lives.
Their cards had to be fabulous, and they were. The first five Gods, one for each colour of Magic, had strong ties to their Greek roots (including exact name copies for some) but were also quite essentially Magic: the Gathering. For the world that debuted enchantment creatures, the Gods were the top end of that new invention. Five creatures that required the devotion of their people to manifest themselves physically, but who always affected the world with their power. Indestructible, impressive, immortal.
Once the Gods were there for us all to see, Theros really began to take shape.
Tying Theros to the greater Magic storyline
Magic planes are not simply self-contained with their storylines. They are made part of the overall whole through their role as backdrops to some of the ongoing character arcs that we follow. Theros had a great part to play here, then; who wouldn’t want to be part of this rich mythology?
Ah yes, the young Kytheon Iora, who grew up and had a subtle name anglicisation to Gideon Jura. There really was no better place for this young hero to be born. Gideon’s story has recently come to an end, but at the beginning, he had his origins on Theros.
A champion of light, Kytheon decided to go toe-to-toe with a God (a theme that will recur!) but still a boy, he didn’t quite have the chops needed. Erebos, with his legendary whip, was quick to dispatch Kytheon’s friends and would have killed the boy himself if it wasn’t for that pesky planeswalking thing. Kytheon sparked, left Theros for Bant (on Alara), and Erebos was left striking at empty air.
His was not the story of the set though, for that we have to look elsewhere.
Wrapping the main tale for Theros around the Gods was necessary to continue to evoke that feeling of ancient Greece and its myths and legends - and there was no better way to do that than to tie God and planeswalkers together in their own story. The story of a planeswalker who would be God!
Power has long been a theme for fantasy stories, driving the characters forward in their search for more and more power, and of course corrupting those who get it. The story surrounding Xenagos starts on that same path.
Xenagos’ was never a calm soul. Even before his birth he murders his twin sister in the womb, and the psychotic behaviour doesn’t stop there, with multiple attempts on his own mother’s life as a child and a sociopathic drive throughout adulthood that cared little for others. By their nature, Satyrs on Theros are considered hedonistic and seek pleasure above all things; Xenagos exemplified these qualities.
The strength of the Gods is the highest power to those that live on Theros. To them, Gods are tangible and real, demand devotion from their followers and reward them with gifts. Xenagos sparked, however, and became a planeswalker able to travel the multiverse. Once he left Theros and saw truly how insignificant the Gods were outside of their home plane, his perspective on life was altered forever.
Revelling in hedonistic activity when there is nothing making you question the very nature of being is easy enough, and Xenagos was a master of the art, but with the constant niggle in the back of your mind demanding answers; he could not lie lazily and find fulfilment in drink, dance and song any longer.
And so Xenagos, once a pleasure-seeking King of revellers, becomes determined to rise in power - to become a planeswalking God, a true master in the multiverse.
Setting the scene for Theros
Like the Greeks, Theros has a flair for the theatrical. When we first visited the plane, the scene was set with Xenagos attempting to ascend to Godhood, the world developed with devoted followers worshipping oft-substantial Gods, and a thread of magic and starlight that weaved its way through every card and every piece of artwork available. Its story would be told through the next few sets (Born of the Gods and Journey into Nyx) before being left somewhat hanging for half a decade!
For that, we need to bring in the rest of our characters, starting with the heroine destined for tragedy - Elspeth Tirel. Her entrance onto the stage, we will look at next week.