Lore and Order - Going Back to Theros : Part 2
One of the most important jobs that has to be done by the Magic creative team is making characters that resonate with the audience. Of course, they only have to resonate with some of the audience to be a success, and what works differs hugely depending on the demographic of the target, but there’s little doubt that Elspeth resonated.
Part of that was due to this card:
Elspeth, Knight Errant
2008’s Shards of Alara was only the second set to have planeswalkers in it, so the situation that we are used to now, of a new major character introduction every three months, wasn’t anything like the world of 2008. In fact, there were many people who were unsure if planeswalkers would be back at all!
Elspeth, Knight Errant was a high-impact planeswalker card. Not only because it was our first new planeswalker, but also because it was really, really good. It saw tournament play in everything from Standard through to Legacy (and still does, in some circles) and helped shape Modern when that format was in its infancy. Far more than Ajani, the slightly odd-looking lion man with a lifegain mechanic, Elspeth was what players wanted.
There’s little doubt in my mind, that when it came to considering which planeswalkers to include in Theros, little argument was needed to put Elspeth at the top of the list. Coming out of Ravnica’s second visit, we’d seen a lot of Jace; Liliana had featured majorly in Innistrad before that, and it was time for white to shine.
Bringing the knight to Theros
When you work with an interweaved storyline as complex as the Magic multiverse, there are moments when you can use a delicate touch to make a really wonderful moment of impact. In Theros block, this was done here:
Fair, it came a few months later in Born of the Gods (the first Theros expansion set), but nonetheless, this card is an absolute masterclass is how to make Magic story relevant in cards. That girl with the wooden sword being trained by a centaur; that’s Elspeth - before we met her in Shards of Alara.
In this instant, we learn that there’s a lot more connecting Elspeth to Theros than a simple ‘next chapter in the Magic storyline’; she’s been here before!
Elspeth’s place in the Theros block storyline then isn’t as simple as a planeswalker stumbling on the conflict between Gods and the mortal Xenagos, it’s a plot that’s actually far deeper.
When Elspeth planeswalks to Theros following the horrific goings on that forms New Phyrexia, it’s a return to somewhere (and someone) she trusts.
Running from the Phyrexians
The connections between Theros and Phyrexia may not be obvious, but they are there. As we ready ourselves for the new set, there are already whisperings of a phyrexian connection, but it’s not something that’s new and starting here - no, Theros’ tie to the multiverse’s plague was there from the very beginning.
The story goes that as a child Elspeth sparked fleeing Phyrexians on her own plane, and she came to Theros. There she met Daxos of Meletis, a young boy himself struggling after the loss of his mother and left to the Gods, and together they witnessed a fight between Heliod, God of the Sun, and Purphorus, God of the Forge. The white God and the red God having an argument that led to Purphorus throwing a sword out of the Nyx and to the world below tearing a hole with its passing.
It’s Elspeth who takes up that sword before she leaves Theros the first time.
Some adventures later, she comes back to the world of Gods, once more running from the Phyrexians.
From the contagion to Theros twice? Has she brought anything with her?
Battling Gods, a heaven in the stars, a magic weapon, a monster and a champion
Elspeth is far from the only character in Theros to be worth looking at. Some of the supporting cast are equally inventive and fun.
Polukranos - The monster
Every good hero story needs a monster to battle. Polukranos does the job so well, that (spoiler alert!) even though he dies to Elspeth’s blade, he’s back in Theros: Beyond Death. Hurrah!
Polukranos was an excellent monster. A hydra, he fit in with the Greek theme, and as a 5/5 for four mana he was already pitched at the top end of the curve. Mechanically then, he showcased the monstrous mechanic, able to take out multiple creatures while growing in power (and toughness) himself. He was, in short, a perfect card.
Add to that his story: as Purphorus and Heliod fight, the God of the Forge cuts a hole in Nyx with his sword and allows the terrorising hydra to get free and return to the world of mortals (Polukranos had long been imprisoned in Nyx). The hydra proceeds to rampage across the realm (mainly in Nylea’s territory), egged on by Xenagos who both loves the random destruction and also sees the hydra’s use in his own plans.
Yes, Elspeth turns up and, with help from Daxos and a couple of others, cuts him to pieces. Twice, because as everyone knows, decapitating a hydra the first time just means more heads and a need for new strategy.
Poor Polukranos! (He’ll be back soon!).
Nyx - The heaven in the stars
Though the Gods are free to pop down and mess in the world of mortals whenever they like, they reside in the starfield of Nyx, an ever-shifting arrangement of constellations that form the nighttime roof of Theros. It’s a very evocative part of the plane, including the star waterfall that ends the world.
Events, including Polukranos’ stampede and Elspeth’s arrival, mean that half way through the story, the Gods are all summoned back to Nyx and stuck there, leaving the world of mortals to its own machinations for a while. Just what Xenagos needs.
Godsend - The magic weapon
Purphorus made the sword, Heliod fears it, Thassa lied about it and Elspeth has it. It has the power to defeat a God, so obviously some care is needed. Heliod, in a Godlike moment of ‘what are you doing, exactly?’ reforges it for Elspeth, turning it from her sword into a mirror image of his own spear. Great; now it has longer reach.
“You could reach Nyx with that!” one of the characters remarks. An exaggeration, no doubt, but the point is made.
If nothing else, it’s good at cutting off hydra heads.
Elspeth - The champion
In all this, Elspeth is really just looking for some peace. She prays to Heliod, despite the God’s obvious dislike of her; she follows his instructions and becomes his champion in the ongoing petty conflict of the Gods; she bests Polukranos.
But is her growth and journey across Theros really going to do her any good? And will it help her with her real terror - the spread of the Phyrexians?
Heliod and Purphorus - The Gods
The story of Theros starts with these two immortal beings in conflict, and one by one their family are dragged into it. Thassa is insulted by Heliod even as he asks for help, and Nylea is watching her forests crumble as the hydra tramples all over the place - what’s more, she cannot see deep into her territory as the arrogant satyr, Xenagos, challenges her. Kruphix, oldest of the Gods, seeks to maintain harmony; Erebos, guardian of the underworlds, is looking for information; and Keranos seems content to just chuck about lightning bolts when the scene demands it!
It’s a chaotic mess that’s threatening the stability of the world. But then, that’s what Gods do. Their perspective is too vast, it is said, that they cannot understand the impact of their actions on a smaller scale.
Magic is a game that works best when the flavour suffusing the cards leaks into the consciousness of the players and draws them in further. That’s why, from the very beginning, evocative images like angels, demons and dragons were used to give the cards meaning beyond their mechanics and statistics. What is more exciting, to play a card that tells you to adjust your opponents score by -3, or to cast a Lightning Bolt and strike your opponent for three points of their life total?
When the images and words on the card become a story in our hands, the people at Wizards of the Coast are doing their job just right. Cards being turned 90 degrees across from each other become soldiers, minotaurs and monsters entering into lethal combat, and dropping Elspeth, Sun’s Champion onto the table is less something that merely makes a few token 1/1s, but the very summoning of the woman who is wielding a God-forged weapon that will save us all.
Theros is one of the most successful examples of flavour in a Magic set that’s happened in 25 years of the game; Theros Beyond Death looks sure to follow in its footsteps.
But the story isn’t quite done. Join us just before the pre-release for part three, where we follow Xenagos to his ascension and Elspeth to her destiny.