The Elder creature type has returned in Rivals of Ixalan, 24 years after it first appeared in Legends and three years after it was redefined for Dragons of Tarkir. This time, it doesn't just apply to dragons, but elder dinosaurs. There is a lot to say about the elder dragons of the past and the new elder dinosaurs, so today we're going to focus on the elder dragons of Dominaria.
For decades, the original elder dragons were a sort of hallowed ground for Magic, in part because of their mystique. These five dragon were some of the most powerful creatures in Magic at the time, and were the very first three-color cycle in the game. Part of their enduring popularity probably stems from the format originally named in their honor, Elder Dragon Highlander (now Commander), which remains one of the most popular casual formats. But despite their popularity, what do we actually know about them?
Nicol Bolas is probably the most playable of the original elder dragons.
Nicol Bolas by D Alexander Gregory
The Great Elder Dragon Wars
The earliest known event in Magic canon is the Dragon War, also known as the Elder Dragon Wars or The Great War of the Dragons. There's almost nothing officially published about the Dragon War, with Nicol Bolas's Planeswalker Profile being one of the few easily accessible sources of information.
Those five survivors were Chromium Rhuell (Chromium), Arcades Sabboth, Palladia-Mors, Vaevictis Asmadi, and none other than Nicol Bolas. That these five survived isn't a coincidence. For the most part, they're close relatives. Of them all it was Chromium, not Bolas, who was the most well known for much of Magic's history. Bolas wouldn't take the spotlight until much later, and we'll dive into that shortly. We know virtually nothing about the losers of the Dragon War, except that they weren't all killed off... they were cast down and humiliated, too.
Way back in Legends, appearing alongside the elder dragons was Elder Land Wurm, a card that hinted strongly at a connection between the wurms and dragons of Magic. While the printed flavor text doesn't say much, it does imply that the wurm itself is actually a dragon.
This would later be confirmed in a creature type update for Elder Land Wurm, making it a dragon wurm instead of just a wurm. The art direction for wurms would diverge from the draconic origins over the years, becoming more worm than wurm, the original idea for their backstory persisted thanks in part to Jeff Lee's personal website and a fanbase hungry for lore. This backstory was confirmed by an anecdote published a decade later...
Thanks for decades of confusion, you wurm jerk.
Elder Land Wurm by Quinton Hoover
Note that it says "Dominia", which was the name of the Multiverse at one point, not "Dominaria", the plane where most of Magic's first fifteen years took place. If the difference between Dominia and Dominaria is confusing to you, you're not alone, and it's a subject of consternation to lore buffs. It was frequently used interchangeably with Dominaria because, frankly, Magic didn't really go anywhere else. If you want a good look at the complicated history of the lore, check out A Historian's Guide to Elder Dragons, as that tackles historical development I won't be getting into here.
What I will comment on, briefly, is the nature of how Magic's lore was passed on over the years. Jeff Lee's site wasn't exactly official, but given that it was 'word of god' from one of the game's early creative leads, the ideas presented there were quickly cemented in the accepted canon. Magic didn't have a very well defined canon at the time, so word of god details passed on like these were hugely prized. It's important, in hindsight, to recognize the difference between unofficial word of god and officially published materials. Many of these sources were secondhand from now-defunct websites. Vorthos at the time made a great effort to preserve as much as possible, but it also occasionally resulted in blatantly false information making its way to things like the early wiki. A lot of pre-Weatherlight lore was passed along this way, as anecdotes posted to forums but never officially published. There are some common ideas about things passed along this way that might not actually be true. How beholden should the current creative team be to unpublished ideas from twenty years ago?
All that said, it seems that the ideas behind the Dragon War are shared by the current Creative Team. Alison Luhrs tells essentially the same story as Jeff Lee's website and the rejected Elder Land Wurm Flavor Text in one of her Commander 2017 podcasts.
Of course, this information was already so prevalent in the Vorthos zeitgeist that it's possible the current team, decades removed from Legends, simply accepted it and moved on. The backstory of the war is vague enough that they can essentially do whatever they want with it.
Death of the Elder Dragons
Much of what we know about those five surviving elders comes from the old Armada comics line of Magic: the Gathering titles. Nicol Bolas was notably absent from those events, which all took place in Dominaria's distant past. In fact, every elder dragon featured in the comics would be dead before the end of the Ice Age. In Dakkon Blackblade #1 (of 1), Chromium and another dragon named Piru were summoned in a duel between the titular Dakkon Blackblade and his foe Geyadrone Dihada. Dakkon was unable to fight the two elders and banished Chromium, leaving only Piru to contend with. Piru was touted as a sixth elder dragon in the preceding comics, but there was some confusion as to what that actually meant. Purists believed that 'elder' referred to a specific race of progenitor dragons, of which Piru was the second generation (or lesser elder). Honestly, the truth of Piru's status is largely moot as Piru is promptly blown up in the duel between Dakkon and Geyadrone.
We don't see Chromium again until the appropriately titled Elder Dragons #1-2. This comic series tells the story of how Chromium and Palladia-Mors met a young girl who Chromium befriended. The people of the girl's village assumed the dragons to be evil and attacked, and to prevent Palladia from wiping them all out in retaliation, Chromium was forced to put a sleeping spell on her. He then took the guise of a human to ensure his sister remained at rest. This rest is disturbed when Vaevictis Asmadi arrives on the scene. Vaevictis had been transformed into a dragon whelp by a Planeswalker, and manipulated a local warlord into freeing Palladia. Once awoken, Palladia renewed her attack on humanity. Unable to abate his sister's rage, Chromium convinced Vaevictis to turn on Palladia. It didn't work out great, because Palladia dispatched Vaevictis with ease, killing him. Chromium was forced to choose between the people of the village he'd been living with or his rampaging sister. He struck down Palladia, and just like that only three elder dragons remained.
Palladia-Mors was the first Naya-colored elder.
Elder Dragons #1 Panel by Doug Tropea Wheatley
When we see Chromium again in Ice Age #2-4, we learn that Chromium's brother was killed off-screen after being summoned in a duel between Leshrac and Kristina of the Wood. The dead sibling was left open to interpretation until we later learned Nicol Bolas was alive and well as a Planeswalker, meaning the dead dragon was Arcades Sabboth. And so there were two. Chromium is present during the comic at a summit of Planeswalkers that includes both Leshrac and Kristina, but Chromium is killed by the villainous Tevesh Szat before he can avenge his fallen brother. The last we see of Chromium is his young friend Ravidel, having been driven mad, using the elder dragon's corpse as a planar barge (yes, really). And so, only Nicol Bolas remained.
I wasn't sure what to make of most of this until I got my hands on these comics myself. The reality is they don't actually establish very much about the elder dragons, and the Armada comics as a whole tried to cram entirely too much plot into very few pages. Most of their story arcs were only one to two issues long. They're also what are known as pre-revisionist sources, lore before the Weatherlight Saga, when individual (non-Wizards of the Coast) writers had a lot of creative freedom. The concept of a Planeswalker spark wasn't well established then, and it seemed like every powerful mage was capable of becoming a Planeswalker. According to these comics, the elder dragons themselves had Planeswalker-level power. That power level is a large reason for the consternation over later creatures getting the Elder type, because it was believed to denote a race, not a title.
Years later, the last remaining elder dragon was revealed to be a Planeswalker himself, rendering discussion of the other elders largely academic.
I headcanon this art as being the duel between Bolas and Umezawa (it isn't).
Wit's End by Chris Rahn
Nicol Bolas, God-Emperor
Nicol Bolas wasn't always the big bad of Magic's Multiverse. He wasn't even really on anyone's radar until 2002's Assassin's Blade, the first book of the Legends II cycle. Legends II established Bolas as the God-Emperor of a previously unheard of corner of Dominaria (it has a lot of those) called Madara. This appearance was important, because in the span of a few years Bolas went from a footnote in Magic's history to one of the most enduring players.
Somewhat amusingly, Bolas's earliest chronological appearances were established later. They're all about him killing people, too. Because Bolas' past jumps around a bit, I'm going to tackle them in order here. Bolas is stated as being about 25,000 to 30,000 years old, although obviously the bigger the number you round the more room for error there is. The Dragon War would be the first major event in his life, but we know very little about it, only that he and the four close relatives I mentioned above survived. Around 20,000 years ago, Bolas (already a Planeswalker) dueled a demonic leviathan on Madara for a full month, which is just a really awesome story that I need to quote here.
The bones of the fallen Demonic Leviathan would form what became known as The Talon Gates. We have to skip forward almost 19,000 for the next known event in Nicol Bolas' life. He reappeared 1,280 years ago (a suspiciously specific number) during the events of Fate Reforged on Tarkir, where Bolas co-opted Yasova Dragonclaw to help him defeat Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. Yasova guided Bolas to Ugin's location, and the two titanic dragons dueled. Ugin's dragon brood comes to their progenitor's defense, but Yasova and Bolas cast a spell that turn them against Ugin instead. Overwhelmed by his own progeny, Ugin is unable to stop Bolas's final strike, felling the spirit dragon. When Ugin's body struck the earth, Bolas Planeswalked away, his goal met.
We don't know why Bolas viewed Ugin as a big enough rival to personally assassinate.
Crux of Fate by Michael Komarck
It wasn't the end for Ugin, however, but we'll get to Ugin's story next time.
We pick up with Bolas again roughly 900 years ago on Dominaria, in the aforementioned Legends II cycle. Nicol Bolas established himself as the god-emperor of Madara, and had anchored himself on the convergence of leylines there. He was a god in practically every aspect of the word, and needed that anchor to manifest without damaging the plane. He and his lieutenants make use of the Meditation Realm (Pools of Becoming) there, a pocket realm used for remote communication and training by those in the Madaran Empire.
Bolas had established the Madaran government as three separate rivals with different goals. The Emperor's Champion was responsible for safeguarding the god-emperor's honor. What this actually meant was that the champion went around representing the god-emperor, dealing with threats to the empire and encouraging the respect of the people. This sometimes lead the champion to come into conflict with the Emperor's Assassin, who was the more ruthless side of the government. The champion of the time, Tetsuo Umezawa, gets himself embroiled in the machinations of the assassin of the time, Ramses Overdark. Ramses, known as Lord Dark, wants to assassinate the leaders of some rebellious outlying islands.
Tetsuo and his entourage managed to stymie Overdark's plans, and Ramses was punished by Bolas for his failure. Instead of sitting idly by, however, Overdark launched a coup on the military (the third branch of government). Bolas was impressed by Overdark's ambition, and established him as Lord Regent, second only to Bolas himself. Tetsuo realized he needed to act or Overdark would kill too many people trying to destroy him. Leaving Wasitora, Nekoru Queen (and her kittens) to guard his home, he went to the Imperial Shrine to confront Overdark and Bolas. He kills Overdark and takes the regent's power, and then pretends to flee to the Meditation Realm. Bolas follows, but unbeknownst to him Tetsuo cast the Meteor Hammer spell on the Imperial Shrine before leaving, which destroys the shrine, Bolas's body, and severs his connection to the leylines of the plane. Tetsuo confronts him in his weakened form in the Meditation Realm, and defeats him. The pocket realm appears to collapse following Bolas's death. Bolas isn't truly dead, however. His spirit lingers in the rift beyond the Talon Gates.
The Meditation Realm just reappeared in Ixalan's story.
Pools of Becoming by Jason Chan
Following his death, we would not hear from Bolas again until about 60 years before the current story, just weeks before the Mending. In Time Spiral, he plucks Teferi's companions Jhoira, Radha, and Venser from the rift network in which they were trapped and deposits them on Madara. He appears to them as a disembodied voice named Sensei Ryu, and coerces Venser into helping him return to life. The rift-connected sparks of Venser and Radha act as a focus, allowing him to return to life. Upon his resurrection, Bolas easily defeated Teferi's attempts to stop him. Teferi does succeed in making Bolas concerned about the rifts. Bolas also becomes enamored with Radha's lack of boasting or begging, and because of her he allows the group to keep their lives while he departs Dominaria to prepare for what he knows is coming... and a little bit of vengeance.
We later learn that in these few weeks, he prepared Alara to be his home following the coming Mending. He also sought out the Umezawa bloodline for his revenge, as well as the Kami who transported Toshiro Umezawa to Dominara, the Myojin of Night's Reach. When he finally returns to Dominaria in Future Sight, he's confronted by Leshrac, Walker of the Night, and the only other major big bad Planeswalker that remained.
Leshrac believed that he had the upper hand, as Night's Reach granted him a simulacrum of her mask that allowed him to absorb the powers of others. The two dueled across the known Multiverse (with most known planes -- at the time -- getting a shout-out of some sort). It appeared for a while like Leshrac had the upper hand, until Bolas revealed the damaged, true mask of Night's Reach which contained most of her power. He used the mask to absorb Leshrac entirely, and sealed the Madaran Rift using Leshrac's spark. In a show of generosity, he once again allowed Teferi and his allies their lives, offering/threatening to return for Radha if she wishes (or even if she doesn't). With that, he departed Dominaria once more, this time to use his now-fading powers to dominate Amonkhet, murdering three of their gods and twisting them to his purpose.
After that, we finally meet the Nicol Bolas we've known the entire post-Mending era. His minion Tezzeret staged a coup on several of his Infinite Consortium cells, but with the help of Liliana Vess, Bolas recovered Tezzeret. In Alara Unbroken, Bolas recovered a great deal of power from the Maelstrom, but Ajani Goldmane stopped him from destroying the plane just to test his new power. He manipulated Jace Beleren (who had taken control of what was left of the Consortium) and Chandra Nalaar into a confrontation at the Eye of Ugin on Zendikar (along with his minion Sarkhan Vol), releasing the Eldrazi for an unknown purpose. He sent Tezzeret to infiltrate the New Phyrexians and later to Kaladesh to encourage the creation of the Planar Bridge. Days after the completion of the Bridge, he put his plan into effect on Amonkhet, releasing his twisted versions of the gods and reaping his army of undead Eternals. In the process, he also handily defeated the Gatewatch, a group of young mages who believed that with very little planning they could defeat an elder dragon who once lived as a god.
It's not entirely clear what Bolas is planning yet, but what is clear is that the Lazotep-armored Eternals and the Planar Bridge are to be put to work for a singular purpose. One that requires the Immortal Sun of Ixalan as well. But Ixalan has elders of its own, ancient dinosaurs of incredible power recently reawakened. Next week we'll talk about those elder dinosaurs, as well as Ugin and the Dragonlords of Tarkir... and whether or not Niv-Mizzet should qualify as an elder dragon, too.