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The History of Elspeth Tirel


Your fight is not yet done, Lore Seekers! Today we're going to look into the history of Elspeth Tirel, our new angel planeswalkers! It's been a long, bumpy road for our hero Elspeth. Although we learn very early on that Elspeth had a traumatic past, it wasn't until recently that we got the full picture. Let's dive in!

Elspeth's Backstory

When the Phyrexians invaded New Capenna centuries ago, the majority of the survivors escaped to the big city. In the years that followed, some people left the city to resettle the wilderness. However, pockets of Phyrexians still remained out there, and tragic things happened to those settlers. Elspeth grew up in a Phyrexian dungeon before her spark ignited, although we don't know how she got there... we can guess.

When her spark ignited, the fledgling planeswalker was flung to Theros, where she arrived in the midst of a battle between Heliod, God of the Sun and Purphoros, God of the Forge. Purphoros had forged a blade, Godsend to cut down Heliod, but it fell from Nyx in the battle. When it landed in the mortal realm, it was claimed by a young Elspeth who promptly planeswalked away with it.

Shards of Alara

Art by Jason Chan

A teenaged Elspeth arrives on the Shards of Alara, where she trains to become one of the noble knights of Bant. She believes she's finally found a home in the idyllic plane, but her peace is shattered when the shards begin reuniting in the Conflux. During this chaotic time, she meets Ajani Goldmane, who she finds wounded from his first planeswalking misadventure. Elspeth nurses him back to health, and the two become friends.

Ajani warns Elspeth of what is to come, and armed with the knowledge of the impending collision between shards, she works to stop it. Unfortunately, she's too late, and soon the undead hordes of Grixis, led by the demon dragon Malfegor, are unleashed on Bant. She uses her magic to help Rafiq of the Many slay Malfegor, but in the aftermath she feels that the world is tainted, and she does not deserve to remain.

While I don't think Alara is required reading for understanding Elspeth as a character, the webcomics won't take more than a half hour to read. The novel is far more focused on Ajani's story, it's still the beginning of one of the greatest friendships in Magic.

Scars of Mirrodin

Art by Jason Chan

We pick back up with Elspeth in the fighting pits on Dominaria, aimlessly spending her days in pointless combat, wallowing in her regrets. Ajani's arrival snaps her out of it, as it is his turn to tend to her wounds - physical and mental - and return her armor. With a renewed spirit, Elspeth finds purpose again with Koth of the Hammer. Koth needs help freeing Mirrodin from the New Phyrexians, and Elspeth remembers the horror of the Phyrexian dungeon and agrees to help. Together with Venser, the Sojourner (who Koth coerces) they head to Mirrodin to find the situation much worse than Koth suspected, a full-fledged invasion has already begun!

Their only hope lies with Venser's old friend Karn, Silver Golem, who disappeared decades ago and warned others not to follow. They surmise that Karn is hidden deep in the plane's core, and set out to rescue him. Along the way Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas, who even then was playing both sides, tips them off to the existence of Melira, Sylvok Outcast. Melira was born without metallic growths common to Mirrans, and also has an immunity to phyresis. The planeswalkers rescue her, and soon Melira develops the ability to cure others of phyresis, and even grant an immunity. So protected against the glistening oil, Elspeth, Koth, and Venser dive deep into the plane and find Karn.

Except, it's too late. Karn has languished in the core for too long, and he is corrupted beyond healing. Venser sacrifices his life, and his spark, to pass along his immunity to Phyresis, and Karn Liberated is freed! And that's where the story ends this time around.

While I quite enjoy the webcomics with this story, I can't recommend the novel The Quest for Karn. The web comics cover the majority of the early plot of the novel, and much of the book is dedicated to traversing New Phyrexia grossly. The summary above is all you really need, anyway.


Solidarity of Heroes by Eric Deschamps

During the Theros block, we got a little bit of closure for the New Phyrexia storyline in The Lost Confession. It turns out that Karn determined that the New Phyrexians couldn't be defeated by conventional means and left in search of a weapon that could vanquish them. Later, Koth forces Elspeth to leave the plane when an attempted assassination of the praetors goes bad. Elspeth returns to the only place she knew had real gods, Theros, in the hopes of finding answers. Instead, she gets embroiled in Xenagos, the Reveler's plot to become a god.

When she arrives, she spends a lot of time as a mercenary in Akros, and even communes with Heliod, who does not like the young upstart with powers he doesn't understand wielding a weapon that could kill him. I should note here that Heliod tries to smite Elspeth with light but fails, which is funnier in hindsight with Elspeth's later angelic ascension. Heliod transforms Godsend into a spear and commands her to bring it to his temple in Meletis. When she arrives, Xenagos' machinations have freed Polukranos, World Eater, but Elspeth is able to stop the hydra with the help of Heliod's oracle, Daxos of Meletis.

After some time in Meletis, Daxos and Elspeth have fallen in love - but Akros needs their help. A minotaur army has besieged the city, and so Daxos and Elspeth go to help break the siege. They succeed, but it turns out the actual battle was unimportant - instead Xenagos has planned to use the massive afterparty - the revel of an entire city and multiple armies - to ascend into godhood.

But to ensure Elspeth stays out of his way, he causes her to hallucinate. Elspeth stabs what she believes to be a Phyrexian Obliterator, but she awakens from her daze to realize she has instead killed her love Daxos. Worse, she is now public enemy number one, believed to be Xenagos' accomplice by the pantheon.

Art by Tyler Jacobson

Ajani arrives in the midst of this, reconnecting with his old friend Brimaz, King of Oreskos and seeking out Elspeth with his fellow leonin. Together, Ajani and Elspeth are able to find a way into Nyx to deal with Xenagos, but first Elspeth is required to complete an ordeal. She chooses one from Erebos, God of the Dead, asking the god to revive her love Daxos. In the god realm of Nyx, the pair confront Xenagos, God of Revels, and Elspeth slays him with Godsend.

But their path out of Nyx is blocked by Heliod, who is furious that Elspeth is beyond his power, that she killed Daxos and a fellow god, and that she chose his rival Erebos for an ordeal. He takes Godsend from Elspeth and stabs her with it, killing her. He allows Ajani to bring her body back to the mortal realm so that her soul can pass into the Underworld, where it will remain for years.

And of course, in a final twist of the knife, Daxos is indeed returned, as the undead Daxos the Returned, devoid of all his memories of his life. I really enjoy the novellas for the original Theros, and I recommend them as a core insight into who Elspeth is.

Theros: Beyond Death

Heliod's Punishment by Aleksi Briclot

The only fiction for Theros: Beyond Death was a story summary, and to save my word count, I'll just direct you there. Here's the gist: Ashiok, Nightmare Muse reminds Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis that her fight with the Phyrexians is not yet finished (although that wasn't Ashiok's intent, they just wanted to make beautiful nightmares and torment her). Elspeth seizes the Shadowspear from one of Ashiok's nightmares, and uses the false version of Heliod's spear to trick him into entering the Underworld for a confrontation. Once there, Erebos traps Heliod and grants Elspeth a true return to life for allowing him the upper hand against his rival. Ashiok, meanwhile, found Elspeth's nightmares of New Phyrexia delightful, and goes to instill a nightmare in their leader, Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines.

Streets of New Capenna

Daring Escape by Ekaterina Burmak

The Streets of New Capenna story is less than a year old, so I'll keep this summary brief. Elspeth reunites with Ajani, who directs her to New Capenna, which he suspects to be her true home plane. There she discovers the plane once defeated a Phyrexian invasion at great cost, leaving only a single city controlled by demon mobsters. She discovers that the Phyrexians have something planned imminently when Vivien on the Hunt comes looking for help, and also discovers that New Capenna's long dormant angels may be waking up. And that the young girl she is protecting, Giada, Font of Hope, is one of those angels! There are also hints here of her own angelic destiny, but I'll get into that later. Ascending as an angel herself, Giada gives Elspeth a new weapon to use against Phyrexia: Luxior, Giada's Gift.

The Brothers' War

With Vivien, Elspeth meets the Gatewatch for the first time, finally meeting the extended cast of Magic only to learn Ajani has fallen to Phyrexia. She ends up joining their planned Assault on New Phyrexia. The plan? Detonate The Filigree Sylex and destroy New Phyrexia before they can begin their invasion of the multiverse.

As an aside, I really love the 'Letter from Ashiok' in Chapter 4, the most uncharitable possible look into Elspeth's life. You should really read these stories and not just my summary.

Phyrexia: All Will Be One

Resistance Reunited by Aurore Folny

The assault on New Phyrexia goes wrong from the start, but there's a glimmer of hope: Koth, Fire of Resistance lives! He reunites with Elspeth, and together with the strike team they plunge into New Phyrexia's depths. But near the seedcore and their final destination, Elspeth is forced to fight Ajani, although she's able to keep from killing him. She goes to join the others in the core, only to find the New Phyrexian's Invasion Tree connected to other worlds, and a corrupted Jace detonating the Sylex while Kaya and Kaito try to stop him. Forced to make a split-second decision, she stabs Jace with Luxior, then grabs the Sylex and planeswalks away, seemingly to her doom.

March of the Machine

Moment of Truth by Rovina Cai

Or was it? Elspeth is not dead, but instead in some metaphysical state, guided by a mysterious figure that takes the form of people close to her. As they journey through her past and the battles raging across the multiverse, Elspeth is forced to choose where to fight so that she can make the most impact. Realizing that while she could help in many places, there was only one place that mattered if Phyrexia was to be defeated: to defend Wrenn long enough for her to reach Realmbreaker, the Invasion Tree. Her decision made, the figure reveals her true name, the name of the goddess once forbidden for her to name in the Phyrexian Dungeon where she grew up: Serra.

Art by Livia Prima

Archangel Elspeth is reborn, Elesh Norn's worst nightmare, arriving in time to save Wrenn and get her to the Invasion Tree and end the Invasion.

The Angelic Hints

With my remaining word count for these double-sized spectacular, I want to take a moment and dive into the hints that Elspeth was more than she seemed along the way. From her very first story appearance in Honor Bound, Part 1, we're treated to the idea that Elspeth is more than she seemed:

If the others knew what I can do, they would call me an angel.

This is, of course, more poetic language than actually indicating an angelic transformation was on the way. The Creative Team doesn't plan out decades-long arcs so much as leave story seeds for them to pick up and cultivate later. What is true, however, is that from early on, Elspeth's story set her up as a thematic parallel to Serra.

The two planeswalkers share a lot in common, from abandoning a plane because the idyllic paradise had been tainted by evil, to feelings of not being worthy of others, to their loves dying in tragic accidents. The big difference is that Elspeth has refused to give up, even in death. We wouldn't see the real angelic hints until Streets of New Capenna. From Episode 5: Hymn of the Angels

Elspeth blinked, several times. It wasn't a trick of the light. These statues gave off their own glow. Much like Giada. Like-

She stared at her palms. How had she not seen it before now? Dimmer than the rest... but Elspeth was also emitting the faintest golden haze.

This was followed-up less than a year later when Wrenn made a particularly insightful remark into Elspeth's nature during The Brothers' War Chapter 4: The Dark:

"Every being is part of a song," said Wrenn. "A melody that contributes to the whole. But you - there are two melodies in you. One is a single note, constant and unerring. The other is cleft, an aria throttled midway."

"I . . ." she began. "You must be mistaken."

"There is no mistake. It is as if you live two separate lives. One in light, one in shadow."

Finally, all these disparate threads come together in March of the Machine Episode 6: The Last to Leave. An echo of Serra appears to Elspeth on the edge of eternity - it's only fitting that Elspeth's thematic parallel guides her through her apotheosis. In the same way that it would have been impossible to revisit The Brothers' War without having a chance for Urza and Teferi to meet one last time, for the first time, I can't imagine a more fitting way to shepherd in our new angel planeswalker.

Next Time: The Ascension of Archangel Elspeth

As for the Serra stuff? You'll have to wait until next week for me to break it down. I've already run out of my double word count, and I have yet another entire article's worth of lore to impart.

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