The card Serra Angel has been a mainstay of Magic since Limited Edition Alpha. Serra herself appears in the names and flavor texts of dozens of cards. She's spawned legendary creatures like Radiant, Archangel, Selenia, Dark Angel, and Reya Dawnbringer. Although the planeswalker Serra died long ago, her influence lingers to this day, from her spiritual successor in Elspeth Tirel to her angels and adherents across the multiverse. So who was Serra, and why might she be important to Dominaria?
Elspeth was in large part templated on Serra.
Serra (Vanguard) by Matthew D. Wilson
Goddess and Planeswalker
Serra was the name of both a goddess and the planeswalker named for her, although there's nothing to indicate the planeswalker Serra isn't the origin of all the Serra Angels we know. The flavor text is so ambiguously worded it might mean that they were always the same person, like it was a prophecy that goddess with her name would arise. This is the only time the goddess Serra is mentioned in all of the comics and novels about Serra or Serra Angels. So who is Serra? As was the norm for planeswalkers of her time, she cause some unintended havoc. Her lasting influence, however, has been to the overwhelming positive of the multiverse, filling several known planes with benevolent angels who fight for mortals. She often reigned as a goddess despite herself, as she had serious doubts as to whether or not that was her place. Overall, however, she was a compassionate soul who built an entire plane according to her ideals.
We first encounter Serra in the novel Planeswalker, which the official timeline places around 2500 AR (Argivian Reckoning). Please note, I'm going to be placing these events as best as I can chronologically. If you want to see how these events compare to what was happening around the Multiverse, check out my timeline. Urza Planeswalker and his protégé, the Phyrexian newt Xantcha have been hunted from plane to plane by Phyrexia for centuries. On Serra's Realm they finally discover a safe haven, a plane of purity and order created by the will of Serra Planeswalker alone. Serra's Realm was a near-infinite cloudscape populated by floating islands of plains, with the citadel of Serra's Sanctum dominating the skyline.
Do you fall forever if you're dropped in Serra's Realm?
Sanctum of Serra by Rob Alexander
Serra takes in Urza immediately, but Xantcha's Black mana nature was considered a taint on the plane, and she's forced to remain on a remote floating island, guarded by one of Serra's attendants. Xantcha manages to get back to Urza, who was healed by Serra and had become enamored of her. Eventually, he and Xantcha leave the plane, but they're unaware of the damage they caused: they'd led Phyrexia right there. Catastrophe strikes, and the taint of Phyrexia on the plane eventually causes Serra to leave.
Serra's Realm was populated by humans and angels of Serra's own creation (although the humans were born, so it's not clear if she just brought some or made the early humans). The people there worshipped Serra, although their devotion was somewhere between viewing her as their liege lord and their god. Serra's Realm was one of the few known artificial planes, and required regular maintenance from Serra to keep the plane in balance and prevent it from collapsing. When Serra left the plane, she set it on a path to collapse, a path that would only be helped along by a covert invasion of Phyrexians. Radiant, Archangel was left in charge, and was ill-equipped to deal with the subtle manipulation of Phyrexian Sleeper Agents.
Tales of Serra Angels trace back to Fallen Angel #1, which takes place before The Brothers' War. In the story, on the continent of Corondor, the wizard Xarl corrupted a summoned Serra Angel named Trine. He used the Fallen Angel's power to secure his reign over the continent for centuries, and pretty much all of the nobility of Corondor could be traced back to him by the end of his reign. Upon his death, his apprentice (and distant descendant) Eskil tracked the now freed Trine, who wanted to slaughter the nation she helped forge as a slave. Eskil summoned another Serra Angel, Rahel, and the two angels battled. Trine was defeated and reverted back to her true self. Upon Trine's death, more Serra Angels appeared on Dominaria than ever had before or would again.
From the Library of Leng: Serra Angel takes place on Terisiare, in the mountains between the Balduvian Steppes and the nation of Kjeldor, a town that is known as Epityr today. About 300 years after the end of the Ice Age, the Sheoltun Empire invaded from across the sea (from Aerona, specifically). The Sheoltun were an oppressive regime, and the people of Epityr bridled under their reign. Enter: Thabit of Almaaz.
Based on the numbers given, this revolt took place around 3274 AR. The Temple of Serra in Epityr is now one of the most famous in all of Dominaria, most notably for a giant carving of Serra in the mountain. This feature was visible in the map of eastern Terisiare from the Magic: the Gathering Tactics video game that I've labelled here. Along the mountains, you can see the statue and the city itself.
The final story is Serra Angel #1 (written by Margaret Weis), which is a fable having to do with a young, embittered mage named Aldon and a summoned Serra Angel. The angel dies trying to save her young love, and he ends up turning to darkness. What is notable, however, is that the story is said to take place in the Western Domains... which is interesting because the worship of Serra was outlawed by the Sheoltun Empire and its successor, Benalia (both of which are in the western Domains), after the events of Epityr I described above. The Church of Angelfire rose to replace it. So while no specific date is given other than after the Ice Age, I think this tale takes place before the uprising in Epityr.
Back on Serra's Realm, the problem with Radiant's reign was that Serra's people weren't terribly creative, and neither were her angels. After fighting off the Phyrexians and experiencing devastating losses, Radiant's reign turned more and more authoritarian. What's worse, her closest advisors were Phyrexian sleeper agents, infiltrators who turned Radiant's loyalists against all dissidents. When Urza returned to Serra's Realm in 3360 AR, the plane had begun to collapse in Serra's absence, in part because she wasn't there to balance it, but also because of the Phyrexians.
The Phyrexians had begun using soul torches, which absorbed the life force from the dissidents slain by Radiant's forces. Urza discovers this, and uses soul torches that he collected to transport Skyship Weatherlight to Serra's Realm, captained by Jhoira of the Ghitu and crewed by Karn, Silver Golem. A massive battle ensues, with the Weatherlight evacuating as many Serrans as possible before shifting back to Dominaria using the power of the soul torches. Urza is defeated by Radiant, but when she combines his powerstone eyes, she is obliterated in the ensuing explosion. With his allies gone, Urza does what he came to do: collapses what is left of the plane into a massive powerstone to fuel the Weatherlight's engines.
The survivors of Serra's Realm are resettled across Dominaria, but most notably on Benalia... which you might remember we literally just discussed have a death penalty for Serra worship. Oops. Things like this make way more sense when you realize Urza was awful. According to the card Persecute, Selenia, Dark Angel was taken by Phyrexia around this time, because Radiant is still alive. I'm not really sure what to make of this with what happens in the Weatherlight Saga, but perhaps this is just when she went to Dominaria.
After leaving Serra's Realm behind, Serra wandered the planes for a while. She found Ulgrotha, a strange plane where centuries before the Apocalypse Chime destroyed all life, save for that in a relatively small radius around the Dwarven Gate. The Dwarven Gate provided this small pocket of life with the mana from another plane, allowing it to continue and thrive while everything else died. According to Homelands #1, Serra arrived around 3420 AR. She immediately took a liking to the place and began organizing the nomads of the plains into a single society under the rule of the city-state Aysen. According to the info dump at the end of the comic, her role in Aysen's society quickly took on that of a benevolent goddess, and Aysen Abbey was formed as a church dedicated to Serra. To enforce order and justice, the Serra Paladins and Serra Inquisitors were formed.
Working against Serra was the nefarious Baron Sengir, a vampire lord who had sired his own lineage of vampires on Ulgortha, Dominaria, and elsewhere. He was abandoned by his planeswalker ally on Ulgrotha, and set about making it his own. He ruled the slice of Ulgrotha known as The Dark Barony. Sengir provided a threat for the people of Aysen to rally against. Serra and Sengir reached a sort of equilibrium with one another, until the arrival of Feroz.
Feroz was a researcher and explorer who abhorred the practice of summoning intelligent beings to fight duels. He was quickly befriended by the native minotaur planeswalker Sandruu, who helped him acclimate to the plane. Feroz met Serra and the two fell in love, with Serra tending to the people of Aysen while Feroz taught magic to the people of the plane, founding a Wizards' School and conducting research on the multiverse. When their friend Sandruu was cast across the multiverse by a jealous planeswalker named Taysir (Sandruu had fallen for Taysir's former paramour Kristina of the Woods), Feroz cast a Ban over the plane to keep other planeswalkers out.
Ultimately, it wouldn't be Sengir but a lab accident that ended Serra's happiness on Ulgrotha. Feroz had been studying a fire elemental encased in crystal, when the crystal shattered and the resulting inferno killed the scholarly planeswalker. In her grief, she leaves Ulgrotha behind her as well, never to return. Just a couple decades later, without its creator to maintain it, Feroz's Ban falls and planeswalkers can once more enter the plane.
When Serra left Ulgrotha in roughly 3780 AR, she arrived on the continent of Aerona on Dominaria, in the region known as the Domains (this time in the east, in Sursi). She was accosted by someone who claimed to be a planeswalker, after her wedding ring (believing it to be magical in nature). A nearby monk witnessed Serra's grace as she was attacked (struck by the visage of angels) and fought off the bandit, but he was too late. Serra was mortally wounded, and with her love Feroz dead she hadn't the will to heal herself (the physical forms of planeswalkers in this era were an extension of their will). The monk who cared for Serra erected the Cathedral of Serra in her honor and began yet another branch of the Serran faith.
The refugees settled in Benalia, founding a town called Devas (which is a cute theology nod), quietly trying to go unnoticed by larger Benalian society. Over the course of Bloodlines, Urza was experimenting on the Benalians by creating genetically advantageous marriage alliances and then using magic to subtly enhance the resulting offspring. The most promising of these lineages was the Capashen bloodline, whose heirs were brought to Devas to be trained by the Serrans. Karn was assigned to guard the heirs, and had a hero's welcome upon each return to Devas. As Phyrexia got wind of the project, they began hunting down every bloodline. The Serrans aided the Capashens in fighting them off, but soon only the infant Gerrard Capashen was left, taken to safety by Karn. After becoming the guardian of Crovax's family estate, Selenia was kidnapped and corrupted by Phyrexia.
During the Phyrexian Invasion, Serra Angels were among Urza's premiere allies for the battle against Phyrexia, but they were unable to save Benalia and many perished between the battles for Benalia and Urborg. Reya Dawnbringer was the prominent Serran of the Invasion, although she doesn't factor into the story and it's not clear if she survived. The Weatherlight's powerstone core fused with Karn as the Legacy Weapon finally activated, and it's likely Serra's Realm remains within him to this day. However, centuries later, Karona, False God went on her vision quest and muddled continuity by finding a version of Serra and her Realm restored. Given that Serra is dead and her other visions are equally questionable, I'm going to chalk this up to not being canon.
Shadows Over Innistrad
The next in-lore reference wouldn't come for a decade, where, seemingly out of nowhere, Serra's Realm gets namechecked in Shadows Over Innistrad's story. Tamiyo, Field Researcher has a set of scrolls that fuel her magical abilities, stories she's been told on her travels. Three of which she has vowed never to use, banding them in iron. One of those scrolls has a familiar tale of Planar Collapse...
That's really interesting. Why Serra's Realm, specifically? Does this mean Tamiyo has been to Dominaria and met the survivors of Serra's Realm? Maybe she met Karn, given she has a Mirrodin story as well? And how did she get the amount of power contained in that spell? Honestly, there are a lot of questions surrounding her creation of this scroll. But then we learn that scroll was used to seal Emrakul into the moon!
If you read the whole story, there's more context where Emrakul, in her guise as Emeria, is rewriting the spell contained in Tamiyo's scroll. When she puppeteers Tamiyo into using the forbidden scroll, the resulting massive output of energy gets sealed with Emrakul, presumably for her to feast on and recover. I think it's a bit foreboding that Emrakul herself engineered this with the Serra's Realm scroll, and I don't think it's a coincidence when they would have known Dominaria was coming when the story came out. Tying the Eldrazi Titan who poses as an angel goddess to Serra seems pretty ominous.
New Benalia and the New Order of Serra
We didn't see much of the Serrans in Time Spiral block, outside of one of my favorite cards of all time, Serra Avenger. Serra's Boon, however, contained an interesting flavor note. It's flavor text seemed to initially be a bit of a throwaway line, but, in the context of the Serrans' return, could be relevant.
By the time you read this, the connection might already be revealed, but the artwork we've been teased with so far for Dominaria indicates a connection between New Benalia and this New Order of Serra. Why? Well, first, we know the Serrans were settled onto Benalia and made it their home. The artwork for New Benalia shows stained glass structures floating in a Serra's Realm style reminiscent to many of the preview images we've already been given (the image below, for example).
I'm diggin the stained glass aesthetic a lot.
Art by Chris Rallis (Right)
If you note, the knight on the art book and the knight in the Chris Rallis art both have heavy stained glass motifs and the standard resembles symbols in the artwork. You can also see the Serra's Sanctum-esque building floating in the upper corner. This pretty clearly ties these two groups together. You can see it even better in the Angelic Page art from Masters 25. The structures have the same stained glass aesthetic.
This isn't Serra's Realm! The Sanctum is the one from the Dominaria art book.
Angelic Page by Chris Rahn
Obviously, the Serrans have greatly increased in power since we saw them last, with floating cities above what is likely New Benalia. That's a cool detail, but they'll probably factor heavily into Dominaria's story, as well. Why? Well one of Serra's symbols, the quartered circle, seen in Cessation, matches exactly the artwork for Ihsan's Shade and Renewed Faith from Masters 25. It also matches, exactly, two of the five pieces of booster art packaging revealed for Dominaria so far (you can check out my blog for the extra images). We know from the Interview with Martha Wells on the Mothership that a member of Weatherlight's crew will be an angel named Tiana. There's also a connection to the Forward Order of Liliana's story (Tweetstorm) with the cleric's clothing and palette matching the booster art characters as well. All of this together is a pretty strong indication that this New Order of Serra will be major players on Dominaria.
One last note. In Mark Rosewater's fantastic shortlist article Tell Me What You Want, he lists the top fan requests. There's a lot of cool stuff in there, and a whole lot of it has been printed since. Commander 2018's product page seems to indicate planeswalker commanders are making a return. Given that the number three most requested character (after Urza and Yawgmoth) is Serra, and given the push for Serran iconography in Masters 25 and Dominaria, I would be seriously shocked if one of those four C18 decks wasn't headlined by Serra herself.