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Elders of the Multiverse

Last time, I covered the original elder dragons of Legends in Elders of Dominaria. Today, I’m going to take a look at what the Elder creature type means around the multiverse . . .  and I’ve got some answers from the creative team! While the original elder dragons were unique for twenty years, Dragons of Tarkir introduced a new crew of elder dragons, who obviously were not of the same race of elders as Nicol Bolas. So if elders aren’t just of this specific race, what does it mean?

The Elders of Tarkir

When Bolas showed up to kill Ugin, the Spirit Dragon on Tarkir all those years ago, he unwittingly birthed a new set of elder dragons. Now these elders are not the same as elder dragons of old. During Fate Reforged, 1,280 years ago, they weren't elders at all, merely the dominant dragons among their various broods: Atarka, World Render, Dromoka, the Eternal, Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury, Ojutai, Soul of Winter, and Silumgar, the Drifting Death. They were definitely cool and had useful tribal abilities to support the dragon theme.

Technically, Tarkir introduced six new elders, despite one being a planeswalker.

Dragonlord Atarka by Karl Kopinski | Dragonlord Dromoka by Eric Deschamps

Dragonlord Kolaghan by Jaime Jones | Dragonlord Ojutai by Chase Stone

Dragonlord Silumgar by Steven Belledin | Ugin, the Spirit Dragon by Raymond Swanland

And then Ugin was cast down and the dragon storms he spawned grew out of control. Within the span of a few years, the balance between dragon and khan was tilted irrevocably in the dragons' favor. One by one the Khans were conquered. First the Sultai Khan, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, found himself betrayed and outmatched by Silumgar in The Doom of the Golden Fang. Tasigur swore his allegiance, and Dragonlord Silumgar became the first dragon to rule a clan. Several years pass, and Daghatar the Adamant is finally defeated by Dragonlord Dromoka in No End and No Beginning, saving his people but losing the ancestral spirit magic that had defined them in the process. The remaining Khans convene a summit in Khanfall, made up of Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest, Reyhan, Last of the Abzan, Alesha, Who Smiles at Death, Yasova Dragonclaw and mysteriously, Tasigur. Yasova tells the others of how she worked with Bolas to kill Ugin. The reason for Tasigur’s presence soon becomes clear, as Silumgar and Ojutai assault the Jeskai stronghold where the meeting was taking place. Shu Yun successfully hides the true history of the clans before sacrificing himself to ensure his people’s future under Dragonlord Ojutai. The other khans fell or submitted soon after, each remaining clan changing as they came under the direct rule of Dragonlord Atarka and Dragonlord Kolaghan.

When we caught up with these dragons in the present, each of these dragonlords had become elder dragons. At the time, Doug Beyer was still active on his blog, A Voice for Vorthos, and he addressed the obvious question of why there were suddenly new elders.

Q: Doug, please, explain WHY is silumgar an Elder Dragon. And does Nicol Bolas know this?

A: We chose to use the term “Elder” here for a few reasons:

  1. As you’ll see as preview season continues on, Dragons of Tarkir contains a lot (!) of dragons. It was crucial to emphasize the importance of these dragonlords — both in the setting, and compared to other dragons in the set. They’re dragons who have risen to become the heads of entire clans. They are revered as wise and awe-inspiring leaders. Their commands are seen almost as divine edicts, even by other dragons. Other than Ugin himself, these dragons are the quintessential elder beings of Tarkir.
  2. Similar to the time of the Dominarian Elder Dragons, Tarkir now sees dragons battle one another for supremacy. Silumgar and the other dragon leaders are the most powerful members of massive broods of dragons (it’s thought that the mana of the terrain causes the tempests to spawn “families” of dragons with similar characteristics). Although they do not dwell on Dominaria, these five dragons are worthy of the same term. They are the movers and the shakers of a world full of, and led by, and reverent to, dragons. They are Tarkir’s Elder Dragons.
  3. This is a time travel story, and the term “Elder” helps tell part of the ending of that story. Tarkir and these five dragonlords are, in fact, 1280 years older than we saw them last time — it helps point out the difference not only between one legendary Silumgar and the other, but between the middle of the story and its completion. In one word, “Elder” serves to enshrine the story of the way an entire world progressed from an earlier state.

Those were some of the motivations behind the term! So: Cool? Massive betrayal of a nostalgic term? Something in between? Curious to hear what you all think as it all rolls out.

—A Quote from A Voice for Vorthos

In essence, being an elder wasn't just about being one of the first race of dragons anymore. It can also apply under specific conditions elsewhere, supposing the dragons there are in a position of supremacy over the plane. The Dragonlords were here to stay as elders. But with the new shift in terminology, who else might be an elder? Elder Land Wurm didn't get a creature type update, despite being both of the race of original elder dragons and an elder to the wurm race. Many other cards with 'elder' in the title didn't get an update, either. So clearly elder is still a very exclusive and restrictive typing. Maybe the best explanation is that elder is something exclusive to legendary creatures, which would explain why Elder Land Wurm lacks the typing. Based on Doug's criteria, I can also see why random creatures with 'elder' in their name didn't get an update, and also why other legendary dragons didn’t get it, either. But where does this new paradigm put the two other most ancient dragons we know of, Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon?

Niv-Mizzet, Older but not Elder

Niv-Mizzet is the guildmaster and parun (founder) of the Izzet Guild. According to the novel Guildpact, he's at least 15,000 years old and the sole surviving dragon of his kind, with the implication being he killed off the rest. As an ancient, intelligent dragon who won his own version of the Dragon War, you'd think Niv-Mizzet might be an elder of some sort, but to date neither of his cards have been errata'd with the elder creature type.

Niv-Mizzet is about as impressive a dragon as you can be without being an elder.

Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius by Todd Lockwood

When Doug Beyer was asked if Niv-Mizzet was a concern for Nicol Bolas, we got a surprisingly evasive answer. The key idea from that response is Nicol Bolas' attitudes toward other dragons in general.

My sense is that Nicol Bolas does keep an eye on, and is likely not overly fond of, other powerful and intelligent dragons.

—Quote from A Voice for Vorthos

I've previously explored how Nicol Bolas may be attempting to undermine Niv-Mizzet by manipulating Ral Zarek. Whether that's because of Niv-Mizzet in particular, or part of Bolas's grander plans for Ravnica remains to be seen, but it's clear a conflict is brewing between the two oldest known dragons in the Multiverse. I don't think Niv-Mizzet is an elder dragon in the same way that Nicol Bolas is (although he shares a lot of similarities), or he would have received the elder type a long time ago; but, in light of the elders from Tarkir, I think it's worth talking about whether or not Niv-Mizzet deserves the type in the same way they do. Let's look back at the three reasons Doug gave for the Dragonlords being elders.

  1. Like the Dragonlords, Niv-Mizzet has risen to become the head of an entire 'clan', namely his guild, the Izzet Magewrights. Especially in the first Ravnica block, the story emphasizes how important and special he is, one step down from a god. The original Guildpact (in Guildpact) is said to have been created, in part, as a response to the dragons of the plane. As a parun and 15,000-year-old dragon, he is most definitely an elder being of Ravnica.
  2. Niv-Mizzet is the victor of a time when Ravnica's hyperintelligent dragons fought one another for supremacy. In the present, he doesn’t have a brood of his own, but there’s some confusion as to whether or not he’s really the last Ravnican dragon. After all, dragons appeared in the original Ravnica block, and Hypersonic Dragon shows that lesser dragons that look an awful lot like him exist. And he's a mover and shaker of a world that is most definitely reverent to dragons.
  3. While Ravnica may not have time travel elements to separate an older from a younger version of Niv-Mizzet, I think he meets a lot of the same conditions as the Dragonlords.

I feel that Niv-Mizzet is essentially what a Dragonlord would be once they win supremacy over the others. I understand that errata for Niv-Mizzet would be problematic, as there isn't really room to add a third type. That might really be the only thing holding him back, and the 'wizard' type is functional enough with tribal to be worth keeping. But Niv is a borderline case. There are plenty of old legendary dragons who don’t meet the epic requirements to be ‘elders’, and I’m deliberately stretching things with Hypersonic Dragon to make a case. The point here is, the bar for elder is very high, and not just any legendary dragon is going to make it. Not even the Firemind.

So what about a dragon planeswalker we’ve never seen as a creature?

Ugin, an Elder in Spirit

Over 6,000 years ago, Ugin was one of three planeswalkers to seal the Eldrazi on Zendikar during the events of The Lithomancer. This is, basically, the only thing we really knew about Ugin outside of his existence on Tarkir before Rivals of Ixalan. When I was talking about Nicol Bolas's history last time, I mentioned how in The Reforged Chain, Bolas showed up to kill Ugin 1,280 years ago, for unknown reasons. There are a lot of reasons to think Ugin is an elder dragon in the same way the five from Legends were, not the least of which is his physiological similarity to Nicol Bolas. And when described, the same kind of language is used to refer to Ugin as the other elders.

"Nahiri, this is Ugin, called the Spirit Dragon. He's as old as time, and about as easy to argue with."

—Quote from The Lithomancer

We know he's ancient, and that he existed (and was already 'as old as time') some 6,000 years ago. That already puts him in the top three still-living ancient dragons in the Multiverse, although we don’t actually know if he’s older than Niv-Mizzet. He's powerful enough that Bolas viewed him as a rival, and took personal action to end him. He's also the progenitor of the Dragonlords, who became elders themselves, so I think it’s fair to say he meets all the requirements to be an elder himself, at least as far as the Tarkir elders are concerned.

Even Ugin doesn’t know how he survived this.

Crux of Fate by Michael Komarck

But is Ugin an elder dragon in the same sense as the original five? Is that even a distinction worth making anymore? I don't know. It's certainly an interesting line of thought to pursue, and it's definitely not a coincidence that Ugin has been established as the anti-Bolas, with his ultimate loyalty ability mirroring that of Bolas. Now, even if Ugin isn't an elder dragon of the same race as the Dominarian elder dragons, being a spirit dragon is nothing to scoff at. O-Kagachi, Vengeful Kami and the other Kamigawan spirit dragons show that spirit dragons can be massively powerful beings in their own right.

When Doug Beyer was asked about Ugin's status as an elder dragon, he had some very candid answers to give.

Ugin and Nicol Bolas are certainly both “elder” in the little-e sense of “very old.” We haven’t talked internally about whether Ugin was involved in that particular war that killed lots and lots of dragons on Dominaria long ago, so I would hesitate to either confirm it or rule it out here.

—Quote from A Voice for Vorthos

I think it's important how Doug framed this discussion. While they may not have decided if Ugin was involved in the Dragon War, Doug firmly places the Dragon War on Dominaria, whereas the unofficial materials that most of our ideas of the Dragon War came from referred to it as taking place across Dominia, the old name for the Multiverse. Doug follows up in the same answer reiterating a critical piece.

We have consistently thought of Ugin’s homeworld as being Tarkir, so he would have had to planeswalk to be involved in a war on Dominaria. That’s a wrinkle, but doesn’t make it impossible to my mind.

—Quote from A Voice for Vorthos

Ugin would have had to planeswalk to be involved in the Dragon War. So it's important to note that as of Dragons of Tarkir, when the creative team would have had discussions about the nature of elder dragons, Doug was very specific about the Dragon War being on Dominaria. It also rules out the idea that the original elder dragons had some sort of planeshifting ability, which can mostly be chalked up to very loose rules when it comes to moving between planes and what makes a planeswalker during the time they featured into the Armada Comics line.

I'm curious as to what this means for the wurms of the Multiverse. Is it only Dominarian wurms descended from elder dragons? Or was Doug being a little over-specific? That would certainly explain why wurms became more and more worm-like over the years. The newest set of elders seems to have thrown a new wrinkle into this whole idea, as we turn finally to Ixalan . . .  where we just learned last week Ugin had sent Jace.

The Elders of Ixalan

Ixalan's elders are in a unique situation. These elders aren't dragons, but dinosaurs. In fact, during our time on Ixalan, we didn't see dragons at all (except in Jace’s flashbacks)! This, of course, ignited some interest on my part. Were these dinosaurs losers of the Dragon War that lost their wings but not their limbs? Were they related to dragons at all, or were dinosaurs cool enough to get the same treatment as dragons? Dragonskull Summit further confused the issue, by either lampshading the card name or implying a deeper connection. The card’s visual similarity to the early preview of Ghalta, Primal Hunger was suspicious. Clearly, the people of Ixalan retained some cultural memory of these elder beings.

Rodan, Anguirus, Titanosaurus, Gorosaurus, and King Ghidora are all here.

Zetalpa, Primal Dawn by Chris Rallis | Nezahal, Primal Tide by Sam Burley

Tetzimoc, Primal Death by Zack Stella | Etali, Primal Storm by Raymond Swanland

Ghalta, Primal Hunger by Chase Stone | Zacama, Primal Calamity by Jaime Jones

“Kinjalli crafted us from the clay. But the Threefold Sun shaped the elder dinosaurs from the bones of the earth. They embody all of nature, from the rising of the sun to the rotting of the swamp.” — Huatli

—Quote from The Art of Magic: the Gathering - Ixalan

The other elder dinosaurs revealed in Rivals of Ixalan were all fairly dissimilar from the dinosaurs we came to know in Ixalan: Zetalpa, Primal Dawn, Nezahal, Primal Tide, Tetzimoc, Primal Death, Etali, Primal Storm, and Zacama, Primal Calamity were massive, golden creatures at a scale far larger than what we had seen so far. We learned that they had been sealed inside Orazca, and were awakened by the city’s re-emergence. As to why they’re gold? Something about Orazca seems to be to blame, as with the golden city’s emergence, not only were these golden elder dinosaurs freed, but gold veins have emerged seemingly all over the continent. It’s not clear as to why, yet.

What’s important to note is that unlike the Dragonlords, the elders aren’t central to this block. That means that there isn’t nearly as much lore on them — in fact the art book only has a paragraph, which I’ve already paraphrased here. The Ixalan profile doesn’t say much more. So while we don’t know why exactly these dinosaurs are elders, we do know that each of them are primal manifestations of nature. Perhaps they’re the elders of the dinosaurs of Ixalan in the same way that the Dominarian elders were, a race of supreme beings, the forerunners of their kind?

Well, I could speculate all day, but instead I reached out to Magic’s Creative Team. Thanks to Alison Luhrs for coordinating a response! Kelly Digges, lord of creature types, gave a pretty awesome response.

Can you tell us what being an elder dinosaur means? What makes these six dinosaurs elders?

Kelly Digges: The “Elder” type means more than just being really old. The details vary from world to world (like a lot of creature types), but “Elder” implies a metaphysical connection to lesser members of the species, and often to the plane itself. So they are usually the oldest of their kind, but more importantly, they’re the most connected to their kind’s primal essence as well. Much as elder dragons ruled primordial Dominaria and gave rise to all of dragonkind, these elder dinosaurs ruled ancient Ixalan and were the forerunners of other, lesser dinosaurs. Zacama obviously holds a special place in this pantheon, and it seems likely that he’s the eldest (and “elderest”) of the bunch.

What's the relationship between the feathered dinosaurs of Ixalan, the dinosaur avatars, and the elder dinosaurs?

Kelly Digges: The elder dinosaurs were the first dinosaurs on Ixalan. It’s not clear whether they’re the actual ancestors of all dinosaurs (or how that would even work), but whether literally or metaphysically, they served as the template from which all other dinosaurs on the plane came to be. As for the avatars, they’re almost certainly related to Zacama, since they share his colors. I’d assume that the threefold nature of Zacama, and the one-plus-three avatars that sprang from him, inspired the religious beliefs of the Sun Empire. But it’s possible that instead Zacama inspired the Sun Empire religion directly, and that in turn somehow led to the creation or emergence of the avatars.

Zacama is the beautiful love child of Godzilla and King Ghidora.

Shake the Foundations by Zack Stella

That’s a lot to unpack, but it definitely lines up with all three kinds of elders we’ve seen depicted. It’s a very cool detail to learn the elder dinosaurs of Ixalan are indeed the forerunners of dinosaur-kind on Ixalan. But what gets me the most are the added details on Zacama. Shake the Foundations flavor text mentioned a threefold calamity, which obviously connects to the Threefold Sun god of the Sun Empire. It’s very cool to see that proven out, especially when it’s what I’ve wanted for Zacama all along.

Some of my first impressions are really good. Most are not.

The fact that Huatli, Radiant Champion is clearly going to encounter the being who inspired her faith is fascinating. More so: Do the elder dinosaurs have the intellect of elder dragons? We’ll have to see. Gishath, Sun's Avatar, Burning Sun's Avatar, Wakening Sun's Avatar, and Verdant Sun's Avatar seem to all be manifestations of Zacama’s power, and by extension it seems that the feathered dinosaurs of the plane are influenced by him the most, too. So what effect will that have on the Warrior-Poet of an empire built on the worship of this being?

Elder Taxonomy

So after looking at all the elders over these two weeks, I think Kelly’s explanation is the cleanest, especially in light of Doug’s comments from Tarkir. Even if it rules out Niv-Mizzet from the running, it’s nice to get a sense of what does and does not qualify a being for the elder type. Taken all together, here’s what we’ve learned:

  1. An "elder" is not a specific race of beings, but more like a title bestowed on beings the creative team believe meet certain criteria.
  2. The elder type is often associated with supreme ancient beings who are the most powerful members of their kind.
  3. Elders usually have an innate, metaphysical connection to the lesser members of their kind.
  4. Elders embody the primal essence of their kind.

Both the original elder dragons, the Tarkiran elders, Ugin, and the elder dinosaurs embody these traits to one degree or another. All are connected to their kind’s most primal essence. In the case of the Legends elders, that’s to The Ur-Dragon itself. Other dragons, like the Primeval Dragons of Planeshift (Darigaaz, the Igniter and his kind) or Niv-Mizzet have some of the elements intrinsic to elders, but don’t have that connection to lesser members of their kind or fail elsewhere.

That's it for today, Elder Lore Wurms! What do you think of the evolution of the Elder type over time?


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