Rivals of Ixalan has been revealed and there's a whole lot of juicy flavor to sink our fangs into. While the story doesn't start until tomorrow (Don't forget to catch up on the story with Recapping Ixalan), I thought I'd take some time to examine all the great flavorful cards from a lore angle.
Let's get the big one out of the way first: Azor, the Lawbringer! If you're thinking that name sounds familiar, you'd be right. Azor is the founder of the Azorius guild, one of ten original guild leaders (called paruns). He's also the author of the Guildpact, the massive spell that brought stability to Ravnica for almost 10,000 years before it was broken. During all that time, it kept Planeswalkers out, sort of like The Immortal Sun keeps them in. So what do we know about Azor?
There was exactly one clue this was coming: Ixalan's Binding.
Azor, the First Judge
Azor's name first appears in the novel Ravnica: City of Guilds, where he's played (poorly) by a human actor. The stage production wasn't the most historically accurate to begin with, and Azor's species is never brought up again. In Dissension, it was revealed that Azor knew of travelers from other planes, and in The Secretist Part 3 we learn that Azor set up a failsafe in case of the Guildpact's eventual failure. When Jace tries to get out of assuming the role of the Living Guildpact by saying he isn't from Ravnica, that failsafe informs him that Azor wasn't from Ravnica, either. This last bit ignited a flurry of speculation, and the community has been divided as to whether this meant he was a Planeswalker or brought to Ravnica like many others.
I AM THE LAW!
Azor, the Lawbringer by Ryan Pancoast
Rivals of Ixalan reveals the truth, not only was Azor a Planeswalker, he's a sphinx! According to both his profile on the Ixalan Plane Profile and The Art of Magic: the Gathering - Ixalan, Azor gave up his spark to create The Immortal Sun. Apparently, he deliberately hid Ixalan and prevented Planeswalkers from leaving. The question now is why? What was he protecting that wouldn't be safe elsewhere and what on Ixalan was worth sacrificing his spark? The art book left Azor's reasoning and fate deliberately vague, so my hope is the upcoming stories will tell us more.
Also of interest is Jace, the Living Guildpact coming face to face with the Planeswalker who engineered the power he now wields. What will Azor's reaction to Jace be, I wonder? My guess is probably not pleased that his failsafe is stuck with him instead of arbitrating guild conflicts back home. Oldwalkers (Planeswalkers who ignited before the Mending) don't particularly seem to like Jace. Regardless, seeing how Azor interacts with this . . . less than lawful group of Planeswalkers should be fascinating.
The Story of Rivals
The story of Rivals of Ixalan is a short one, only five episodes and three story spotlight cards. Flood of Recollection shows Jace regaining his memories flooding back into him (you can make out Mage-Ring Bully, Emmara Tandris, and the Mage-Ring Network). The implication here is that Jace is remembering everything, and for the first time Jace will be whole. With the exception of his story from Magic Origins, Jace has always been missing huge chunks of his memories. I wonder what he'll think of Azor in comparison to his old mentor Alhammarret, High Arbiter? The two sphinx appear to be of the same breed and fill the same role, although Jace's old mentor was obviously corrupt while Azor has seemingly selflessly sacrificed his own godhood.
Induced Amnesia shows Jace removing Vraska's memories of Jace on Ixalan. He's done that sort of thing a bunch in the past, usually to save someone's life, and this time is no different. It's something Vraska has consented to, and the mechanics of the card seem to imply the memories of their time together could come back. The exact details are again left vague, will Vraska act as a sort of undercover spy for the Gatewatch?
The final spotlight, Mastermind's Acquisition shows the Planar Bridge in action. During Aether Revolt, Tezzeret installed the Bridge's modular core in his own arm before his duel with Liliana way back. The Bridge is central to whatever Bolas's plan is, and when Vraska sends the signal, Tezzeret arrives to claim The Immortal Sun, teleporting it away. This allows all the Planeswalkers still on Ixalan to finally leave. Jace has been missing for months now, I wonder what the others in the Gatewatch have been up to in that time?
And that's basically all we know about the story at this point. Those are some broad story beats, and tell us almost nothing of what is going to happen to Azor, Vraska, or most importantly, Angrath. Will everyone's favorite murder dad find his way back to his little girls?
We do know a little something about Huatli, however. Huatli, Warrior Poet surprised everyone when it was revealed she would come back as Huatli, Radiant Champion. The Ixalan story implied that Huatli had yet to embrace the more Green aspects of the Sun Empire's philosophies. So much so that her first feature, A Question of Confidence, is listed on Ixalan's Product Page as "The Third Aspect of the Sun" (for the third color of the Sun Empire). Now we know why that was so important. But what leads Huatli on this journey?
Azor values order and law, but that doesn't necessarily make him good.
Sphinx's Decree by Daarken
There are two major events we know of for Huatli in Rivals of Ixalan. The most important is clear: an elder dinosaur, pictured in her new art, falls under her sway. You can see it in her Planeswalker art. The second is more subtle: Sphinx's Decree. While at card size it isn't clear, the higher res version shows Huatli encountering Azor. What kind of impact would meeting Azor have on Huatli, whose entire mission is predicated on mistaking her quest for The Immortal Sun as a divine mission? It probably has to do with her shift to Green stuff. Don't ask me, I'm the lore guy, not the color pie guy. Maybe she likes plant stuff now? We'll find out.
New Kaiju on the Block
Over the next two weeks I'll be talking your ears off about the lore surrounding elders, both dragons and dinosaurs, but for now I wanted to give some early impressions of them. The elder dinosaurs as an asymmetrical cycle was a fantastic decision, giving us a look at more classical pop culture dinosaurs in the Ixalan setting.
Zacama is wrecking Azor's Sanctum of the Sun.
Shake the Foundations by Zack Stella
While all the elder dinosaurs are cool, I want to focus in on the outlier, Zacama, Primal Calamity. Zacama shows up on three different pieces of art: his own, Shake the Foundations, and Huatli, Radiant Champion. Zacama is interesting for a few reasons. There is the obvious Kaiju inspiration, so much so that even the most casual of observer can't help but notice it. This is a giant monster in the vein of Godzilla and his chief antagonist, King Ghidora. Especially the three-headed, golden King Ghidora. There's no way anyone involved in creating Zacama didn't know what they were doing.
What struck me about Zacama, back when the Ultra Pro playmat was first revealed, was this big, bright, and shiny elder dinosaur has three heads. This dinosaur, I thought, seems way more representative of the Threefold Sun than Gishath, Sun's Avatar. The flavor text of Shake the Foundations seems to confirm some kind of connection:
The threefold bit is important, because that's not an accidental inclusion. I'm not complaining about getting another sweet dinosaur legend, but lore-wise, it's curious. Zacama has far more feathers than the rest of the elders, and being in Naya colors, I wonder if Zacama is the progenitor of the more common dinosaurs of Ixalan, like the elder dragons of Dominaria were of dragons.
The fact that Huatli bonds Zacama, of all the elders, also seems thematically important -- important enough to show Zacama in particular. What about Zacama helps her embrace the Green aspect she hadn't yet? I'm excited to find out. And to smash things.
I'll have more to say on Zacama in a future piece on the elders of the multiverse.
Sunset of the Dusk Rose
Elenda is an important figure in Ixalan's past. She was a guardian of the Immortal Sun back on Torrezon, but when Pedron the Wicked tried to steal it, Azor reclaimed it and took it west to Ixalan. The vampires of today remember her, but they've got their own spin on what she looked like. In The Race, Part 1, Mavren Fein describes her as being larger than life.
"Pedron the Wicked killed them all. Guilty, greedy, foul betrayer of his own!" Mavren spat. "But she, she survived; she was nine feet tall! Hair like a raven's wings and nails like lightning's edge! She ran outside to fight Pedron, but the Immortal Sun had been stolen from the fiend by a winged beast in the sky!"
Except, that obviously can't be true. We've seen Elenda now, and she looks like a fairly normal vampire to me.
Like a treasure from a sunken pirate wreck, scrub the deck and make it look SHINY!
Elenda, the Dusk Rose by Chris Rahn
Elenda is impressive, but she's obviously not nine feet tall, much less any of the other things. We see an interesting interpretation of Elenda in the Tomb of the Dusk Rose. It looks a LOT more like Mavren Fein's description of Elenda. But it's in Orazca of all places. And speaking of, why do these vampires seem so drawn to certain Ixalan temples, like Profane Procession and Arguel's Blood Fast. Where is the bat-god of night from Temple of Aclazotz?
The simple answer is that there is no demon named Aclazotz. Demons are way in the background of Ixalan's conflict. That name only appears once in The Art of Magic: the Gathering - Ixalan, and the implication is that Aclazotz is the place where Arguel finds the temple, not the name of the bat-god worshipped in the temple. But I think we can pretty easily figure out what's going on.
Let's start with the Dusk empire religion. One of their primary precepts is The Sinking Sun:
This same passage appears in both the Planeswalker's Guide to Ixalan, Part 2 and The Art of Magic: the Gathering - Ixalan (which is definitely worth picking up). The art book also tells us of a rogue sect on Ixalan located in Iclaquiampa, the temple of sunset. This rogue sect wanted to overthrow the Sun Empire and replace it with their own religious regime. If you're thinking that 'Sinking Sun' and 'Sunset' are basically the same thing, you're not wrong. Could these two groups be related somehow? And could this sect have also been responsible for the Temple at Aclazotz?
There are not words to express how awesome this piece is.
Tomb of the Dusk Rose by Bastien L. Deharme
If Elenda, upon arriving on Ixalan, established a version of her own faith, it would certainly explain why the Legion of Dusk keeps finding sites that appeal to them and have vampiric themes. The fact that the Tomb of the Dusk Rose seems to be located in or around Orazca seems like a rather large indicator of the connection. And to the people of Ixalan, who are used to bat-like demons and imps, could easily interpret a vampiric Elenda as some kind of bat-god. Hence why Tomb of the Dusk Rose features a statue that looks strikingly like Mavren Fein's description of Elenda.
Now, the tomb implies that Elenda is dead, but I'm certainly interested in seeing if her final status isn't as settled as it seems.
The Prophecy of the Sun Disc
I would be remiss if I didn't bring up The Hand That Moves. In that story, Nissa glimpses a series of visions that hinted at the story's future. Both Ixalan and Dominaria seem to have been foreshadowed in this story, and then we also got this line.
Given that Ixalan has become something of a Ravnican reunion, this scene really seems to reference The Immortal Sun (decidedly disc-shaped) being brought to Ravnica, as represented by the Tablet of the Guilds. Azor's sudden return, Vraska's reward being leadership of the Golgari, and Ral Zarek's inexplicable connection to Tezzeret and Bolas (something I talked about at length in Ral Zarek and the Elder Dragon) all seem to point to a Ravnica return coming soon. We will have to see where Rivals of Ixalan's story leaves us to know for sure.
Mr. Sun Please Shine Down
One of the cooler cards from Rivals of Ixalan is Blood Sun, which implies a connection between the Immortal Sun and the actual sun, shining in Ixalan's sky.
I've thought about this a bit, and I think I've figured out what's going on here. The battle for Orazca is taking place during the Threefold Sun phase known as Tilonalli, the Burning Sun. While Sun Empire cards from Ixalan show all three aspects of the sun equally, the cards in Rivals of Ixalan are basically just for Tilonalli. And it makes sense! The Sun Empire is on a war footing, they don't have time for that life magic nonsense right now, only for bashing heads and roasting fools.
Flavor Lightning Round
Now that Azor is confirmed, the look of Ixalan's Binding makes a lot of sense. Azorius magic, more so than the other guilds of Ravnica, manifests as sigils or script of light. You see it on cards like Righteous Authority or Inaction Injunction. In that context, Ixalan's Binding is essentially Render Silent, but on a grander scale. The magic in Sphinx's Decree shows this as well, with concentric circles made up of script. Sphinx's Decree uses the same script.
The famous Azorius "Talk to the Hand" spell, on a grand scale.
Render Silent by Matt Stewart
There's a rough character cycle of cards I'd like to call out, including Vona's Hunger and Kumena's Awakening. They are strikingly reminiscent of cards like Aboshan's Desire or Patriarch's Desire. Both Ixalan and Odyssey are blocks spent in pursuit of a macguffin that will grant untold power to those who possess it. The similarities are such that a few early theorists thought maybe The Immortal Sun was the Mirari. Now that we know what the MacGuffin is, we've got a similar 'threshold' mechanic in City's Blessing.
Azor really messed up every culture on Ixalan with his antics.
While it would have been neat to see the other key players each get a piece of art like this, the asymmetry of Ixalan as a block is something that weirdly appealed to me. Moment of Triumph and Moment of Craving are great dual cycle, like Kumena and Vona's cards. They show the same vampire on the same landscape, but in two very different poses, showing the duality of the Legion of Dusk.
The inspiration for several dinosaurs in the set are obviously from the biggest pop culture dinosaur reference of them all, but Zach over on Twitter has spotted two pretty famous references.
And then you've got Colossal Dreadmaw went from the ultimate terror to being quaint compared to the elder dinosaurs. Poor guy, at least you got a few months of being the biggest, scariest guy on the block!
Honestly, I could drone on about flavor for entirely too long. Here's my question for you: what's your favorite flavor from Rivals of Ixalan? There's a lot I didn't cover, a lot of cool little touches all over the place. Let me know what you've found in the comments here or over on Twitter!