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The Pulpy Flavor of Ixalan


Are you ready for Ixalan Block?

I know I am!

In terms of pure flavor, I think Ixalan Block is going to be a set that really resonates with me, and could be one of my favorites. In my opinion, it ranks just after the original Zendikar Block in feeling like a classic pulp novel. As someone who has a serious love of all things pulp, I created a Pulp Cube for you.

What do I mean when I use the term “pulp”? It refers to a specific genre of fiction that dominated for four to five decades from around 1890 to 1940. These stories were all about exploring strange lands and finding great adventures there. From the sands of Arabia to the ice of Antarctica, adventuring and exploring were the key currency of pulp fiction.

Pulp was the era of great stories, and big characters; the era of Tarzan, Conan, The Lone Ranger, John Carter of Mars, Buck Rogers, Zorro, and Flash Gordon. It was the era of pirates and archaeologists, adventurers and pioneers, detectives and reporters. I would argue that these heroes and their stories have had a greater impact on modern fiction and storytelling than any other. These characters are larger than life and directly inspired famous super heroes like Batman, Superman, Captain America, and many others.

The best authors created worlds for their characters to explore; secret kingdoms in deep Africa, South America, at the poles, on tropical islands, or hidden within our earth. As one example, take the novel The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle where the protagonists find a high plateau in South America previously unseen by modern man that houses dinosaurs and tribal men, as a perfect example of pulp. Pulp has resonated into the fantasy genre as well, with its influence showing in everything from Dungeons and Dragons to, of course, Magic: The Gathering.

Ixalan, from what I have seen, absolutely resembles the Lost World subgenre of pulp fiction. In particular, the images strike me as eerily reminiscent of the Pellucidar series written by Edgar Rice Burroghs, creator of Tarzan, John Carter, and arguably the greatest pulp writer of all. I would advise anyone out there to pick up and read Burroughs, especially the John Carter stuff.

In the Pellucidar series, the world is hollow, and within it are dinosaurs, human tribes, constant day, and a lot more. The first novel of the series was At the Earth’s Core. In this novel, a professor and an adventurer travel inside a rock drill through the earth’s crust and discover that that the planet is hollow. Adventure awaits, and they change the world with their presence and what they choose to fight for.

Down in the Hollow Earth there are a number of pirates raiding the seas, as well as dinosaurs both domestic and ferocious. The art from the plane of Ixalan showing pirates on the shore with artillery and people on a shore on dinosaurs is evocative of Pellucidar to those who are familiar with it. When I saw the art, I was immediately reminded of the Korsar Empire.

Here’s a map of Pellucidar:

Notice the place in the middle? That is the empire of Korsar, descendants of pirates who came to Pellucidar from above, and kept their pirating ways. They were one of the great antagonists of Pellucidar, introduced in the third novel. One of the major advantages of the Korsars, was that they were recent immigrants to Pellucidar. Most of the tribes of Pellucidar just had Stone Age technology, but the Korsar nation had the mighty sailing vessels and flintlock pistols of the 17th and 18th century. This gave them a distinct technological advantage over the other inhabitants.

Here’s the cover of the third novel of the series, as an example:

Now compare this to the preliminary imagery for Ixalan:

With the similar juxtaposition of advanced ships and artillery against Stone Age technology, it’s hard not to see a potential connection to the Korsar nation.

And here is a more modern cover of another novel in the series:

And here is an alternate cover for the first novel:

These images form a strong argument that Ixalan is a spiritual successor to the Pellucidar world created by Burroughs.

Now, we also know that Ixalan seems to have a Mesoamerican connection as well. Here’s another piece of art from the world, released by Wizards of the Coast:

I’m sure you can see the evocation of Mesoamerican themes in this work, from the use of feathers to the landscape and design.

Now, this isn’t new to the Hollow World or Lost World motifs but that’s okay. Taking something that already exists and building on it is perfectly fine and was many people’s favorite thing about sets like Innistrad and Theros.

Burroughs’s Hollow World concept, as well as the general Lost World theme of modern people finding places where dinosaurs or sabretooth tigers could be found was extremely influential on many adventure, fantasy, and science fiction concepts to follow, from gaming to movies to fiction. His stuff always seemed to create a tether with his audience for his worlds, and Pellucidar, Mars, and Tarzan’s jungle are all extremely influential works. There is even a modern RPG based on Pellucidar.

Giant dinosaurs? Check. The drill used of get to the Hollow Earth identical to the big drill in At the Earth’s Core? Check. Beefy warrior and scientist exploring? Check. Psychic powers by some of the locals down here? You get the idea. If you are interested, you can check it out here.

However, the real benchmark of Burroughs’s influence is the Hollow World campaign in Dungeons and Dragons:

That’s right! There is a Hollow World campaign set in a hollow world created inside an existing game setting. By the way, that game setting, Mystara, is my favorite and, I would argue, really just a Pulp World. It has flying airships, a hollow world, spaceships landing from other nations, cowboys with pistols, a lost island with a bunch of dinosaurs on it, lost civilizations in deserts behind pyramids, and a lot more. So I call it Pulp World in my campaigns, and embrace that aspect of it when I run campaigns there. Many of the best adventures in D&D take place there, including my favorite: X1. The Isle of Dread, which was inspired by The Lost World.

A D&D module that has both an island of dinosaurs and tribes of humans surviving it. You sail there, explore the entire island, and in the surrounding area there are encounters with pirates. In the adventure, you will raid a pirate camp that is on the Isle of Dread.

The Hollow World setting did not sell well despite how good the flavor was. So, after the initial rules and flavor explained the setting, only a few adventures and sourcebooks were made. One of the key empires in the Hollow World campaign and one of the only ones to get a sourcebook was the Azcans.

Based on how important the Azcans were in the core rules, this was the first sourcebook printed in the world. The Azcan society was a direct interpretation of Mesoamerican culture in a Hollow World source.

Of the four adventures published for the Hollow World setting, three took place in the Azcan Empire. That’s how vital it was to the setting and how popular it was in the real world.

So let’s recap:

In 1914, Edgar Rice Burroughs publishes At the Earth’s Core, which begins this central concept of an ancient lost realm in the center of the world. It introduces people fighting against dinosaurs, intelligent reptiles, and other extinct creatures like Sabretooth Tigers. Later novels feature an entire society of pirates with advanced technology attempting to dominate the seas and center of the world, people domesticating and riding dinosaurs as well as fighting against them, and travelers from outside of Pellucidar that arrive and change the world simply by their presence or intentionally as they overthrow evil nations and unite various tribes. That sounds familiar.

This concept has resonated across adventures for more than 100 years. It has often included pirates, dinosaurs, and even occasionally Mesoamerican themed nations.

Can you see the direct line from 1914 to 2017 with the release of Ixalan? I certainly can!

Now, I don’t work for Wizards. I do not know if these links between the plane of Ixalan and the world of Pellucidar are intentional, although the similarities cannot be overstated. I’d love to hear how aware of these connections the flavor team at Wizards of the Coast was. Did they read the Burroughs novels? Play the Hollow World campaign? Play the Isle of Dread adventure module? In fact, if they did intentionally use the Hollow Earth concept for the inspiration of the look and feel of the plane of Ixalan, imagine how cool it would be if it was revealed in one of the Rivals of Ixalan short stories published on the Wizards website that the place they thought was the plane of Ixalan was actually inside of another plane we already know about.

The adoration and hope I feel for Ixalan in terms of flavor would have been really matched by some cool Masterpieces. Unfortunately, WotC stopped including the Masterpiece series in every set. Tomorrow I want to look at a group of high value cards that would have made wonderful choices for an Ixalan Block Masterpiece series.

Did you enjoy this look at the pulp-inspired flavor of Ixalan and the investigation into the resonance of this upcoming set with the pulp worlds set in motion by Burroughs? I hope so! Let me know what your thoughts are, and I’ll see you tomorrow for the continuation of our pre-Ixalan journey.

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