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The Story of Return to Dominaria


Magic Story: Return to Dominaria is finally over, and after such a long road I'm sad to see the story move on. The loss of Dominaria's small set meant abbreviating the story, and one can't help but wonder what might have been with that extra story space, and what plot lines had to be cut in order to streamline the narrative. Regardless, Martha Wells has done an amazing job on Dominaria, using the space she was given to focus on great characterization and why we should care what happens to the Gatewatch or the crew of the Weatherlight. Let's get started.

Nissa is the first to leave, proving color balance has no hold on the plot.

Broken Bond by Ryan Yee

The Gatewatch Divided

On the Dominarian continent of Urborg, in the heart of the Cabal Stronghold, servants of Demonlord Belzenlok confer over the new prize they've found for their master, the Blackblade Reforged. As are all things stolen for Belzenlok's glory, the original tale of Dakkon Blackblade forging the blade and later killing an elder dragon with it is rewritten with Belzenlok as the lead.

Just off the Urborg coast, Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain recovers the remains of the Weatherlight beneath the sea. She has it towed to the nearby Bogardan for repairs. Jhoira's mission? To end the growing threat of the Cabal.

We then return to the Gatewatch, still reeling from their defeat at the claws of Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker in Hour of Devastation. Jace Beleren is missing (check out my Ixalan and Rivals of Ixalan recaps for where he's been), the team feels betrayed by Liliana Vess's submission to Nicol Bolas, Gideon Jura is wounded, and both Chandra Nalaar and Nissa Revane are conflicted about the encounter with the elder dragon. Nissa decides to leave, something she had been pondering for a while. With that Broken Bond, Chandra too decides to leave, although not permanently. She's obsessed with becoming stronger, and leaves for points unknown to figure out how. That leaves only a wounded Gideon and Liliana to ponder their next steps. Liliana is surprised to find Gideon calm and rational about the situation. He still needs Liliana's power, and agrees to help her with her fourth demon, none other than the elder demon Belzenlok.

It turns out they're in Vess, the lands once controlled by Liliana's family. In town, Liliana learns that the Cabal have turned the once verdant Caligo Forest into the marshland Caligo Morass. Liliana goes looking for herbs to help heal Gideon, and finds the Raven Man instead. She learns that Belzenlok leads the cabal, that he knew she would be coming, and that he sent her brother, Josu Vess, Lich Knight, to prepare for her.

Liliana and Gideon decide to take down Josu and the Cabal influence in the region. They enlist a routed band of Benalish troops to aid them in taking on the Cabal's forces. Gideon acts as a distraction for the Cabal's heavy hitters, giving the rest of their forces time for Liliana to confront Josu. With the power of The Chain Veil, Liliana removes her brother's curse and lays him to rest (Final Parting) . . .  but not before he tells that she is the true Curse of Vess, and is responsible for the death of their entire line.

Awful lot of ravens in the Story Spotlight art . . . 

Final Parting by Eric Deschamps

The New Weatherlight Crew

Back on Bogardan, the angel Tiana, Ship's Caretaker from the Church of Serra has been sent to oversee the repairs of the Weatherlight. The guardian angel, whose charge was destroyed because she came into being too late, had nothing else to do. She finds herself strangely connected to ship and once the powerstone (a holy relic to the Church thanks to it being powered by Serra's Realm) is activated, she decides to help oversee the reconstruction.

Trusting the ship to Tiana and her other allies, Jhoira begins to assemble a crew. Her first stop, Suq'Ata City on Jamuraa, where she finds Shanna, Sisay's Legacy already locked in combat with Cabal Cultists. Shanna easily sends the cultists packing, and readily agrees to join Jhoira on her ancestor's legendary ship.

Jhoira's next stop is Benalia, where she hopes to find someone to live up to Gerrard's legacy. Her first choice, Danitha Capashen, Paragon, refuses to simply abandon her duty among the Benalish like Gerrard did, even for such a worthy cause. Shanna and Jhoira find, however, that young Raff Capashen, Ship's Mage wants in after his sister refuses. Feeling it would be wrong for the crew to lack a Capashen, Raff is brought on.

As the Weatherlight is rebuilt, a mysterious vampire appears amongst the shipwrights. He introduces himself as Arvad the Cursed, and claims the Weatherlight's powerstone drew him from continents away. Arvad was once a Benalish Knight, but was turned by Kazarov, Sengir Pureblood. He's been fighting his bloodthirst ever since, turning his new powers on the Cabal limiting himself to drinking from cultists. Tiana is skeptical about this new arrival, but Arvad proves himself defending the ship from a Warcry Phoenix, and indeed appears more human and in control thanks to time spent near the powerstone. In the chaos of the attack, no one notices Slimefoot, the Stowaway detach from a fungal stain on the hull and flee inside.

When Jhoira returns with Shanna and Raff in tow, she accepts Arvad's help. Tiana decides to stick around as Weatherlight's guardian angel (and mechanic). Crew assembled, Ajani Goldmane arrives, and the Weatherlight sets course to meet his allies in the Gatewatch. Along the way, Ajani conveys the news of Venser, the Sojourner's death restoring Karn, Scion of Urza's spark to Jhoira. She's saddened by the news, and wonders why Karn hasn't returned to see her.

Gideon and Liliana travel to Benalia City and Board the Weatherlight, but Ajani is unhappy to hear of their reckless actions on Dominaria. When it's clear that they prioritize killing Belzenlok and freeing Liliana from her deals over finding Bolas, he leaves to continue his search for allies in the coming battle. Gideon vows to join him as soon as they're able. The crew turns to planning an assault on the Stronghold, and realize they need intel. Raff offers rumors of Cabal agents having infiltrated Tolaria West, and they set a course.

Jodah, Archmage Eternal and Naban, Dean of Iteration greet the Weatherlight crew upon their arrival. Jhoira wasn't expecting Jodah, her former lover, and some awkwardness ensues, but the crew is able to help locate an undercover Cabal cultist. They extract the information they need (including the potential of the elder-killing Blackblade), but learn that there's no way their group will infiltrate the Stronghold on their own. They need a time mage, and Jhoira just happens to know one.

The story wisely devotes a lot of time to the newest member of the Gatewatch.

Oath of Teferi by Wesley Burt

Teferi, Hero of Dominaria

Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and his daughter Niambi, Faithful Healer are attempting to solve a mystery left behind by the mad planeswalker Urza. Teferi believes that Urza's puzzle is the key to an artifact that may one day allow him to phase Zhalfir back in to Dominaria. As a planeswalker, during the Phyrexian Invasion, he had phased it out to protect it. After losing his spark during the Mending, he hadn't the power to stop a rival planeswalker from sealing the rift he'd created before he could return Zhalfir, losing it in the process. Years as a mortal teaches him perspective on the errors of his past.

Teferi and Niambi have spent years trying to solve Urza's puzzle, so when the Weatherlight arrives, it's a chance at a new perspective. Jhoira believes Urza to be a cheat, and with Liliana's help, spirits bound to the puzzle's structure are revealed. Teferi finally claims his prize, but must escape with his daughter and the crew as the structure collapses behind them. Aboard the Weatherlight, he agrees to join the crew and bids his daughter goodbye.

Karn's obsession with New Phyrexia smacks of Urza.

Ancient Animus by Titus Lunter

Mother Jaya and Karn

Chandra's first move upon leaving the others was to return to Keral Keep on Regatha. She's sensed a powerful pyromancer's aether trail on Dominaria, and decided that it must be the legendary Jaya Ballard herself. Keral Keep is dedicated to Jaya's teachings, and the ancient planeswalker's Pyromancer's Goggles lay there for safekeeping. She sneaks in to take them as a gift for Jaya, only to be caught by the matriarch of the monastery, Mother Luti. Chandra declares that she's found Jaya, and has a bad parting with Luti.

On Dominaria, she spends weeks on Terisiare, following the trail to Argivia and the Kher Ridges. Jaya Ballard had been spotted with Argivian troops led by Baird, Steward of Argive to put down a Kobold insurrection, worshippers of Prossh, Skyraider of Kher. Chandra discovers the kobolds planning an ambush for the Argivian, one which she defeats (with less control than she'd have liked). A grateful Baird informs Chandra that Jaya was on her way to Yavimaya, to meet an old friend.

When Chandra arrives at Yavimaya, she's forced to make a Fiery Intervention between attacking treefolk and automatons in the woods. A smaller automaton greets her, who she learns is Karn. Karn is trying to dig something up from the forest, and the forest is responding badly. It's Ancient Animus is thanks to the guardian spirit, Multani, Yavimaya's Avatar still lying dormant from his obliteration decades earlier. This meeting is cut short, however, as the target of Jaya's quest announces herself . . .  and it's Mother Luti.

Chandra is confused, then angry. She feels as if Mother Luti has betrayed her, as after all this time she never shared that she was Jaya herself (CALLED IT). Jaya reveals that Keral Keep was basically founded on her getting super drunk and showing off one day. The old planeswalker decided when she returned decades later that she liked the idea of guiding a younger generation of mages. The problem? Keral Keep worshipped her as a nearly god-like figure, and so she assumed the identity of Luti to escape her own legend. Shouting matches follow, and Jaya refuses to train Chandra when the young woman had always ignored her teachings as Luti.

Karn and his constructs continue to fight off the forest's assaults, but as he finally uncovers his goal, the forest's reaction is fast and overwhelming. They're only saved by the timely arrival of the Weatherlight. The three planeswalkers escape onto the ship, but not before Chandra uses skills she learned from Nissa to calm Multani's fury. Jaya see's she has the potential to be more than just a hothead, she agrees to train her. Karn reveals he's claimed the cylix (likely meaning the Golgothian Sylex) as a weapon against New Phyrexia. A reunion between Karn and his oldest friends, Teferi and Jhoira, finds them all grieving the fallen Venser. Jhoira reveals that she has the means to restore Teferi's spark, a gift he isn't sure he wants, but that he takes.

After they depart, Jace arrives from Ixalan with dire news: Nicol Bolas's endgame involves Ravnica, and is likely a trap. Jace has plans of his own, and needs to gather more allies to spring the trap from the inside. He tries to convince the others to come with him, but Gideon and Chandra are committed to helping Liliana first. Jace insists she can't be trusted, and departs, wanting to waste no time after all his negligence as Ravnica's Living Guildpact.

Return to Dominaria was not Time Spiral 2, but we did see many favorites.

Weight of Memory by Eric Deschamps

Settling the Score

As the crew heads for Urborg, they discover Slimefoot hiding away inside the ship, having spawned during its weeks in hiding. They quickly accept the Thallid and its brood, and the crew has a chance to bond on the trip to Urborg. Chandra learns greater control from Jaya. Liliana tries to learn what motivates people like Arvad or Gideon to be good people. Raff makes jokes.

When they arrive on Urborg, Jhoira contacts the local resistance, made up of some humans and some panther warriors, formerly Windgrace Acolytes. They get the location of a recent battle for Liliana to make undead soldiers, and Teferi, Karn, Gideon, and Chandra sneak toward the Stronghold in disguise (Chandra as a Cabal bounty hunter, Gideon as a captured slave). An offer to join the Gatewatch is extended to both Teferi and Karn, and while Teferi readily accepts (but notes he was summarily defeated by Bolas last time they dueled), Karn is still focused on New Phyrexia. Teferi casts a time displacement spell over Gideon and Chandra, which allows them to sneak into the Stronghold unnoticed.

The Weatherlight, meanwhile, heads to the scene of the last battle between panther warriors and the Cabal. Liliana raises hundreds of zombies, and several Liches arrive at her summons. As they arrive, however, Yargle, Glutton of Urborg rises, sensing them. Slimefoot calls out to his new Urborg thallid friends, who summon the elemental of their transplanted section of Yavimaya, Muldrotha, the Gravetide. Muldrotha and Yargle do battle, and saves the Weatherlight crew.

In the Stronghold, Belzenlok arrives, heralded by Whisper, Blood Liturgist. Whisper demands sacrifices be thrown into the pit. When Chandra hesitates, Whisper threatens them both. Gideon insists she push him in, and reluctantly, she does. In the pit, Gideon allies himself with Grand Warlord Radha, and together they survive until the Weatherlight's attack begins. As the cultists head to defend the Stronghold, Chandra uses her newfound pyromantic control to fight off the cultists. She helps Gideon out of the pit. Whisper is prepared to kill them both, but Radha puts a dagger through her eye, killing the cult leader.

Outside the Stronghold, Liliana's undead are joined by various spirits who overwhelm the Cabal. Gideon finds Belzenlok, but can't get close enough to attack with the Blackblade. It gets knocked out of his hand, but cuts Belzenlok. Liliana, having deboarded the Weatherlight to help kill Belzenlok personally and Settle the Score (the rest of the crew remained behind to fight off Urgoros, the Empty One). She picks up the blade, and the minor wound becomes fatal as the blade drains away the elder demon's lifeforce, reducing him to a dessicated husk.

After a decade, Liliana's story is finally ready to move forward.

Settle the Score by Yongjae Choi

In the aftermath, Teferi's Oath aligns him with the Gatewatch, while Karn and Jaya agree to come along. Karn refuses to join because he still intends to go to New Phyrexia next, and Jaya because she's Jaya and just doesn't do that kind of thing. Together, the Gatewatch and their new allies leave for Ravnica.

All except for Liliana. She intends to go with them, but Bolas manifests on Dominaria to her dawning horror. He reveals that she is In Bolas's Clutches (I know, I know, but I have to fit these card tags in somehow), and that her debt reverted to him as the broker on the death of her demons. Left with a choice between a painful death as she ages to dust in moments and waiting for her moment to strike, she chooses to leave with Bolas.

On Ravnica, the planeswalkers are met by Jace, who notes again that Liliana wasn't trustworthy. Gideon and the others disagree, that Liliana had changed and grown during their time together, and Gideon goes back to check on her. Finding only that she had planeswalked away somewhere else, he returns to Ravnica dejected.

On the Weatherlight, Jhoira is almost disappointed at the end of their quest, as her deal with the Serrans involved returning the powerstone after defeating the Cabal. Tiana asks if that's really what they've done, as it would take years to chase down all the Cabal remnants. With a knowing grin, the crew embarks on their next adventure.

The New Paradigm

Return to Dominaria was our first outing under the new storytelling paradigm (which I discussed with Nic Kelman last time), and I think there's a lot to learn from it going forward. Writing a story set on the most lore-dense plane in Magic's franchise was not an easy task. Cutting out an entire set's worth of story had to be even more of a challenge. And then add to that a new paradigm, with new people just getting started? I'm honestly surprised it came together as well as it did. There were a number of incongruities in Return to Dominaria, and thanks to the history theme it wasn't always clear what was an example of characters being wrong about history, what was a retcon, or what was a continuity error that just wasn't caught before publication.

I think there needs to be closer attention paid to the continuity of these stories, as continuity errors can pile up and sour fans. I'm certainly not happy with how many cropped up in this story. Continuity management is going to be essential to keeping a contiguous narrative between different authors. Every paradigm shift in Magic's history has had a rocky start, and I'm hoping that's all this is.

The schemes of Magic's longest running villain are finally coming to a climax.

In Bolas's Clutches by Zack Stella

What's Next?

So what's next? Core 2019 comes later this summer, and with Bolas on the key art and the various other glimpses we've seen so far, it's pretty clearly a set with a lot of history packed in it. My thinking is that these two facts combined probably means we're getting a history of Bolas' schemes. This way, we can finally learn what, exactly, he's been up to with all these different plots hatched on various planes. That leads us into the three Ravnica sets through next year, with the final set probably culminating as an Hour of Devastation style war against Bolas' invasion of Ravnica.

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