Lore and Order - Part 6: Land of Confusion
To make the storyline characters part of the actual game side to Magic, Wizards had to find a way to translate aspects of those personalities into game mechanics and before Planeswalker cards – before Alara, really – they did that with Legendary Creatures.
Success in this translation was varied, with some cards that had both poor gameplay and little connection to their story counterparts, and some that really hit it out of the park. One card that really needed to have impact was this one:
The latter third of the Lorwyn/Shadowmoor storyline spends a lot of time building up Ashling as a powerful destructive force (so much so, that she is referred to as ‘the destroyer’ for most of the narrative), and the card really needed to reflect that. Unfortunately, even though she has enough power to level entire towns and burn vast swathes of elf-protected countryside, Ashing, the Extinguisher is little more than a slightly-above-curve 4/4 with an interesting, but ultimately mediocre, ability.
She’s certainly not got the destroyer-of-worlds vibe that she deserved.
Positively, though, Wayne Reynolds delivered a wonderful piece of art for the Eventide transformed Ashling – it’s evocative, beautifully coloured, and filled with crackling power. As the original artist for Ashling in Lorwyn, it’s nice to see that he was asked to portray her again at the end of the block.
If Ashling received a lukewarm card for her part in the closing section of the story, however, things were worse for Maralen. The once-elf-now-something-else could well be considered the most important character in the Shadowmoor/Eventide section of the tale, and yet she doesn’t get a card at all.
From Day to Night
The land of Lorwyn has changed and become the dark world of Shadowmoor. A year has passed since the Great Aurora, and the inhabitants of Shadowmoor fear for their homes as the destroyer, once the pilgrim Ashling, burns her way through the land, incinerating everything without prejudice. Normally at conflict with each other, the various tribes of Shadowmoor come together to fight this threat though it seems, even combined, they do not have the power to stop her.
Only Brigid, Maralen and the Vendilion Clique even remember who Ashling was. Brigid is protected from the strange amnesia that seems to be considered normal for everyone else – an amnesia that means no one can remember Lorwyn, and instead believes the world has always been Shadowmoor. The fae are immune to the mind-alteration, and Maralen – well, no one understands Maralen.
The Sapling of Colfenor remembers too; remembering is part of her reason for existing.
Design First, Creative Later
Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block was a real experiment from the part of the design team. Back in the real world, Wizards had found that releasing four sets a year was right for them in terms of sales and meeting player desire. Every second year saw the release of a core set (something that was about to undergo some serious revamping back in 2008), but that left a hole in the release schedule during alternate years that needed to be filled.
Some odd things had filled that hole. One year Magic players were given Unhinged, two years later was the experimental ‘missing set’ Coldsnap (which went down badly across the board) – what were they going to do next?
The answer was to have a fourth set as part of the normal expansion block. It was a sensible idea – after all, the main expansions sold a lot more than a weird supplemental product, and it would allow some more depth to the storyline. Design felt, however, that a single world with one set of mechanics wouldn’t be able to go the distance and something more was needed.
Enter Lorwyn and Shadowmoor – technically the same block, technically the same world, but actually two smaller ‘mini blocks’ of two sets each. If they worked as four, then great, and if not then they would neatly separate as two twos. It was ideas within ideas, backup plans and testing waters. Reset mechanics, keep the creative. Keep some characters, get rid of others.
Perhaps the timing was wrong – straight off the back of The Mending sequence, debuting the new Planeswalker cards – there was probably too much going on that felt ignored by Lorwyn/Shadowmoor. Technically things were a little off too, with too much focus on tribal in the first part of the block, and a flood of hybrid mana complicating the second half. Whatever the reasons, Lorwyn and Shadowmoor weren’t quite the success they deserved to be.
Moreover, the creative was a mess and felt squeezed to fit the complexities of design and development for the four-set block.
It should have been made simpler – a world that’s day for the first half of the story, and then night for the second half. It’s a simple concept that didn’t need the complicated treatment it received.
Writing the narrative was obviously hard too, because four books were printed for a trilogy! It was Magic’s model at the time to include a book with every set (given away in the ‘fat pack’), but this meant four books were needed and there’s no doubt that Cory Herndon and Scott McGough wrote a trilogy. Rather than stretch it, they printed it as a trilogy, with Lorwyn as book one, Morningtide as two and Eventide as three.
Shadowmoor had the unenviable honour of being a collection of short stories.
On the face of it, this could have been quite successful. Indeed, if it had been given to the creative team of today, it might well have been, but in 2008 it didn’t quite work out. A collection of stories were printed that had no ties to the main thread, no reference to each other in any way, and absolutely nothing to add to the overall whole – with one exception. Herndon and McGough penned the opening tale, a 70-page novella giving a little more oomph to the overall arc, and introducing another kithkin character, Jack.
Unfortunately, they didn’t see fit to follow up this extra work with any depth in the following novel and Jack (though mentioned in Eventide) has zero impact in the block story.
Despite almost fifteen years of creative experience by this point, the Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block lore became a mess of overcomplicated narrative, further weakened by an experimental business model.
Yet, even with all that against it, it’s strangely enticing.
Defeating the Destroyer
It is Oona, Queen of the Fae, who stops Ashling in her tracks.
All the companions come together – Brigid, Sygg and the merrow, Maralen and two of the three faeries form one group, while the Sapling of Colfenor, Rhys, the third faerie and the giant make the second. They make their stand in the very same place that forms the central location for the first act and throw everything they have at Ashling.
Everything, at this point, includes using powerful magic to wield an entire river as a bludgeoning club - there’s some crazy stuff going on in Shadowmoor!
Ultimately, Ashling shrugs it all off until Oona enters the fray and, seemingly effortlessly, puts an end to it all.
Then it all kicks off.
Here it all is then:
Oona, queen-mother of the faeries, is a bit of a crazy power-craving loon. At some point in the very distant past, she decided that a natural cycle of day and night for the world of Lorwyn was not in her best interest, and extended the periods, creating the Great Aurora as a crossover event. Under her influence, Lorwyn lives in the day for hundreds of years, before becoming eternally-night Shadowmoor for a similar length of time. Then the cycle goes around again.
Part of this is that the creatures of Lorwyn (fae excepted) are mentally affected by the change and become dark versions of themselves for Shadowmoor.
At some point, the ancient treefolk sage Colfenor decided to put an end to Oona’s scheme, and set into motion a convoluted plan to have his memory survive the change. It is also his intention to have this memory merge with other powerful elemental beings to create something to bring about Oona’s downfall.
Elsewhere in the multiverse The Mending occurred and messed with the timing of the Great Aurora – causing it to occur prematurely.
Sensing this, Oona made a mirror-copy of herself. She’d done this before successfully and thought merging her essence with that of the elf Maralen would be a good backup plan if anyone did get to her. Only new-Maralen exerted her individualism and decided Oona was her enemy.
What follows is a sequence of events which all amount to one of Oona, Colfenor (and later, his sapling), or Maralen trying to gather up other powers and take them for themselves.
Ultimately, Maralen comes out on top. Lorwyn and Shadowmoor enter a period where night and day are on more usual (as the multiverse views it) schedules and the threat of Oona is gone.
Only Oona is still alive and growing again, and Maralen really is Oona anyway…
The Future of Lorwyn
Dominaria, Mirrodin, Ravnica, Zendikar, Innistrad – all of them planes that Wizards has chosen to return to. It’s not surprising, as each of them had a first introduction that went down really well with the players. Lorwyn passed many people by as an average experience at best - does this mean we won’t see a return to the setting?
It would be a real shame if we didn’t.
Lorwyn has so much going for it. There’s a real sense of difference and depth to the creature races here, and the interplay between the light side of Lorwyn and the darkness of Shadowmoor has a lot to offer – not many settings allow for multiple versions of legendary characters in the same block (or even, now that the change is more regular, same set!).
It would also be great to see what might happen to some of the regular planeswalkers were they to experience the change.
Then there’s this:
Nissa, everyone’s favourite green Gatewatch member, had her first planeswalking experience visiting Lorwyn. It meant that Lorwyn had a minor comeback in 2015’s Magic Origins and definitely shows Wizards willingness to feature the plane.
We can but hope.
The Last Standalone Story
Closing the final page of Eventide marks the end of the final planeswalker-free Magic story. While there are a few short pieces that show up in following years that don’t feature a planeswalker, they are all there to further the main story threads of those characters and are influenced by them. The story of Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block was the last time a Magic story was written without any reference or thought to planeswalkers, and will probably remain as such forever.
In terms of the overall success of the brand, it’s undoubtedly the right decision. There’s something a little sad about it, but at its core, the story is there to serve the game and it serves the game best showcasing the planeswalkers – not to mention the fact that the planeswalker stories are great and getting better with each block.
It’s ironic, of course, that the final planeswalker-free story came with the set to debut Planeswalker cards.
Ashling, Flamekin Planeswalker
It never happened, of course, but the greatest missed opportunity was that of turning Ashling into a planeswalker. Of all the characters in the story, she is probably the most interesting. As a flamekin, her species is somewhat unique and though there’d be some design space crossover issues with Chandra, Ashling the Planeswalker would have been a really fascinating character.
What’s more, the story drives to the point where it could happen three times! First, at the end of Lorwyn when Ashling is tortured close to the point of death to burn Colfenor, second at the end of Morningtide, when the Great Aurora and her elemental combine to turn her into the Extinguisher, and finally during the end stages of Eventide, when Oona tears her power from her and returns her to being, simply, Ashling the Flamekin. Any of these three moments could have been a spark-ignition point.
Sadly, none of them were.
It’s back with the planeswalkers, and Jace’s early story next time. Before Ixalan, before Zendikar and the Gatewatch, before the Living Guildpact, there was a little boy on Vryn…