So... this is awkward. I wasn't expecting to do a flavor gems article on Core 2019. I certainly wouldn't have had much to say about any previous Core Set. Even Magic Origins, while very flavorful, wasn't the kind of deep dive that Core 2019 is. In fact, if you had asked me about it a few weeks ago, this would probably be how the conversation went.
"Hey Jay, did you plan on doing any Core 2019 articles?"
"Psssh, a Core Set flavor article? I have minimum word counts, and Core 2019 is just a replacement for the Dominaria small set. I need to keep working ahead for Ravnica content."
Obviously, I was wrong. Core 2019 is the most flavorful core set ever. Let's dive in!
Nicol Bolas, the Ravager
This is the first artwork that shows Nicol Bolas can breathe fire.
Nicol Bolas, the Ravager by Svetlin Velinov
Nicol Bolas, the Ravager is a pretty awesome card. For the first time ever we see Nicol Bolas actually breathing fire. The flavor of the original Nicol Bolas is preserved with the discard effect when Nicol Bolas comes into play, and his transform ability is reminiscent of many oldwalkers whose spark ignited when exposed to vast power. I've already gone into the known history of Nicol Bolas and the Dominarian Elder Dragons in Elders of Dominaria earlier this year, so I won't be retreading that too much here.
What's neat is that we see Nicol Bolas without his Gem of Becoming, the little egg shaped gem that has hovered between his horns since he first re-appeared in Shards of Alara. The purpose of the Gem is still unclear, but it's great to get another look at pre-planeswalker Nicol Bolas.
Nicol Bolas, the Arisen
Wizards really wants to remind you Bolas died for a while, huh?
Nicol Bolas, the Arisen is an interesting piece, because it depicts the exact same scene as The Eldest Reborn. Some quick background on this event: A little less than a millennia ago, Nicol Bolas was killed by Tetsuo Umezawa on Madara. However, Bolas had chosen Madara as his seat of power on Dominaria for good reasons. The convergence of leylines was favorable to him, allowing to anchor himself, but it was also the site of his victory over a demonic leviathan planeswalker, a duel which created the first time rift on Dominaria. He feasted on his foe's corpse and attuned with the rift, leaving behind only the rib cage which became known as the Talon Gates. When Tetsuo killed him, his spirit lingered beyond the rift. Sixty years ago, when Teferi, Temporal Archmage, Jhoira of the Ghitu, Radha, Heir to Keld, and Venser, Shaper Savant became trapped in the time rifts, it was Bolas who saved them, depositing them on Madara. Appearing as a disembodied voice to them, Bolas coerced Venser into becoming a vessel through which Bolas could return. His triumphant rebirth is pictured in both artworks you see above.
The Other Elders
The new elder cards are a great blend of their original art and modern sensibility.
Palladia-Mors, the Ruiner by Svetlin Velinov
We also got the other four original elder dragons (from Legends, so Ugin and Piru don't count). Chromium, the Mutable was the first to appear in a story and is the most developed elder dragon outside of Nicol Bolas. In the Dakkon Blackblade comics, he and his mate, Piru, were forcibly summoned by the planeswalker Geyadrone Dihada to battle Dakkon Blackblade. Piru was killed by Dakkon (an event referenced by Blackblade Reforged), but Chromium survived.
We meet Chromium again in the Elder Dragons comics (taking place before The Brothers' War), where he takes a shining to a young girl who approaches him and his sister, Palladia-Mors, the Ruiner without fear. The young girl's people believe the dragons intend to harm her and attack, causing Palladia-Mors to go on a rampage. Chromium casts a spell to put Palladia-Mors to sleep, and takes a human guise (called Ham, the Tickery Man) to maintain the spell. His time as a human is referenced by his card's activated ability. Vaevictis Asmadi, the Dire, who was cursed with the form of a Dragon Whelp, learns of what happened to his cousin and begins a plot to free her. Once free, she resumes her rampage, killing Vaevictis when he turns on her. Chromium is forced to kill his sister for the sake of humanity.
Chromium was one of the main characters of the 1996-1997 Armada Comics series.
Chromium, the Mutable by Chase Stone
We wouldn't catch up with Chromium again until the end of the Ice Age, in 2934 AR, where he attends a gathering of planeswalkers (although not one himself) at the Summit of the Null Moon. Chromium is enraged to find out the planeswalker Leshrac is there. Leshrac had forcibly summoned his brother a century earlier in a duel which led to his brother's death. When the Summit turns into a free-for-all, Chromium is killed by the planeswalker Tevesh Szat, and his body later turned into a interplanar war barge for the mad planeswalker Ravidel.
Arcades Sabboth is the originator of the title 'Dragonlord'.
Arcades, the Strategist by Even Amundsen
We wouldn't know which brother was being referenced in that story until the Legends II cycle of novels, where it's revealed that Nicol Bolas was alive and a planeswalker after the Ice Age. That left only Arcades, the Strategist, meaning the eldest elder dragon was killed off-screen and we only found out through the process of elimination.
The Planeswalker's Pivotal Events
Ajani's Last Stand is not, in fact, depicting the imminent death of Ajani. Instead, this is the moment from the end of the novel Alara Unbroken where Nicol Bolas is seemingly triumphant, having consumed the Maelstrom and is intending to test his power by destroying the plane. Ajani faces down Nicol Bolas alone, but realizes a sliver of power is left from the Maelstrom. He uses that power to create a soul avatar of Nicol Bolas, which matches the elder dragon perfectly. Bolas flees. The soul avatar was a reflection of the original Ajani Goldmane card's ultimate ability, and this card pairs perfectly with Nicol Bolas, the Ravager, creating a 4/4 avatar to match the 4/4 Nicol Bolas. It even triggers to Bolas's discard effect.
After the events of Alara Unbroken, Sarkhan Vol finds himself working for Nicol Bolas but quickly realizes he's indentured himself to cruel master. Sarkhan's Unsealing represents one of his missions, where he was stationed at the Eye of Ugin to await other planeswalkers, and eventually unseal the Eldrazi prison.
Nexus of Fate takes place sometime later, during Khans of Tarkir where the voice of Ugin urges him home to Tarkir and eventually leads him to pass through Ugin's Nexus. The result is Fate Reforged, where Sarkhan's intervention saves Ugin's life after Bolas leaves him for dead.
Tezzeret's acquisition of the planar bridge gave him a vision of power.
One with the Machine by Chase Stone
One with the Machine is an alternate look at the Planar Bridge, finally confirming on the cards that Tezzeret grafted the bridge onto his Etherium parts, becoming the bridge himself. That's not going to end badly at all.
Liliana's Contract is another depiction of the deals that made her who she is today, transforming her from the elderly woman before the contract to the youthful woman we've know this past decade. Behind her are the silhouettes of her demons, from left to right: Griselbrand, Kothophed, Soul Hoarder, Razaketh, the Foulblooded, and Demonlord Belzenlok.
The Grand Planar Tour
Core sets are sometimes deliberately vague when it comes to where certain cards take place, but Core 2019 has a lot of tells for figuring out where cards belong. I'm going to talk about those cards now and explain why I think they belong on certain planes. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive list! Just a fun one. It also doesn't mean all of these placements are going to be correct.
Sigiled Sword of Valeron references the Valeron nation, which is located in Bant on Alara. Valiant Knight is also from Bant, given the presence of the Leotau mount. Tezzeret, Cruel Machinist shows Alara in the background as well, this time with an Esper Panorama behind Tezzy. Leonin Vanguard is pretty clearly a Nayan Nacatl, like Ajani.
Apex of Power, Fraying Omnipotence and Patient Rebuilding seem to represent Bolas destroying and then rebuilding Amonkhet from the ground up for his own schemes. The Aven Wind Mage is an ibis-style Aven, and along with the Egyptian style clothes that places it on Amonkhet as well.
Viashino Pyromancer references the Ghitu, the human tribe of Shiv who the Viashino live and work alongside. A number of creatures in this set would appear to be generic at first, but have defining hallmarks of the Dominarian breeds. Salvager of Secrets, for instance, is a tailed merfolk, something that simply doesn't exist elsewhere in the Multiverse for world building and flavor reasons. Merfolk were briefly replaced by Vedalken as a blue humanoid who could walk on land, but eventually WotC figured out you could just give merfolk legs, and every Merfolk since has just had legs.
That head shape is distinctive to the Moggs.
Goblin Motivator by Johann Bodin
Goblin Instigator, Goblin Motivator and Volley Veteran all have Mogg head crests, a distinctive feature we first saw in Dominaria representing years of interbreeding between native Dominarian goblins and the Mogg. Arisen Gorgon has segmented head tentacles consistent with other Dominarian gorgons like Gorgon Recluse. Resplendent Angel and Serra's Guardian both show Serra's Realm-like floating buildings in the background, although it's not clear if these are actually on Dominaria or Serra's Realm.
Epicure of Blood has distinctly Innitradi architecture behind him, like those of the Markov Estate in Foreboding Ruins. Remorseful Cleric features an Avacynian collar marking a gravestone. Two-Headed Zombie and Sticher's Supplier both reference Stitchers, a type of science necromancer exclusive (so far) to Innistrad.
Vampire Sovereign and Regal Bloodlord feature vampires floating in a black mist, a staple of Ixalan's vampires. Sovereign's Bite features what I believe to be Lian, the same figure from Vampire Sovereign. The Bloodlord is even awakening from its crypt like Deathless Ancient.
What's cool is that Daybreak Chaplain seems to be from early Ixalan, despite being a human cleric. Compare her to, say, Inspiring Cleric, and the clothing and hairpieces are very similar, but what is more telling are the symbols in the art, reminiscent of the Sun Empire's Threefold Sun and the Dusk Legion's Black Rose, both of which are stylized versions of The Immortal Sun.
Ixalan returns for some more tribal support this set.
Mistcaller by Ryan Yee
Mistcaller and Departed Deckhand could be any plane with ships and pirates, but given the number of Ixalan cards and Pirate tribal still being around, Ixalan feels the most appropriate. Scapeshift shows a distinctly tropical environment complete with the 'animal cannons' common to Ixalan's Pirates.
Runic Armasaur is a straight-up Sun Empire reference, and Colossal Majesty features a dinosaur stomping and scattering Ixalan's distinctive monkey goblins. All of these cards seem to take place at some point in Ixalan's past. Suncleanser is Sun Empire through and through.
Gearsmith Prodigy and Gearsmith Guardian form a vertical diptych, with the Prodigy having the Guardian's legs in the picture. Sai, Master Thoperist is making paisley thopters, a pattern from India that was embraced in Kaladesh's worldbuilding. His card is also the first time we see Kaladeshi butterflies, which the thopters on Kaladesh are based on.
Ghastbark Twins are likely from the combined Lorwyn/Shadowmoor we've yet to see in detail. The only other reference to Ghastbark is Old Ghastbark, a treefolk from Shadowmoor. Thorn Lieutenant has the distinctive horns of a Lorwyn elf.
Isolate is a group of Selesynans condemning a criminal.
Onakke Ogre is the first living example we've seen of the ogres native to Shandalar that created The Chain Veil! Uncomfortable Chill features the same kinds of goblins as Goblin Diplomats, from Magic 2014, in which new cards were from Shandalar (for the most part).
Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma is a mighty bear from Tarkir, Qal Sisma being the mountain range the Temur/Atarka call home. Sparktongue Dragon is very clearly a dragon of the Kolaghan brood, and even the flavor text references flavor text about lightning storms and the dragons. The shirtless orc in Abnormal Endurance feels very Kolaghan clan, too.
The dead Meletians give away the setting.
Hungering Hydra by Daarken
Hostile Minotaur holds a staff with an Akroan helmet, giving himself away as from Theros. Hungering Hydra has the distinctive head crests and beaks of Therosi hydras, like Heroes' Bane. Also it's eating some Meletian Soldiers... so there's that. Satyr Enchanter is pretty obvious, with greek-style buildings in a forest behind him, probably Setessa. What's interesting about the Satyr is that his horns curl like Bolas's, complete with a bright light in the middle like the Gem of Becoming.
Infernal Reckoning shows a Zendikari demon (NOT Ob-Nixilis) grasping an Eldrazi. Many of the angels on Zendikar are gargantuan (see: Iona, Shield of Emeria) so why not some of the demons, too? The Goblin Dark-Dwellers appeared after the release of the Eldrazi, and Dark-Dweller Oracle shows they have a culture! I'm curious to learn more, and I love that the Zendikari goblins have branched off into two distinct breeds.
Cleansing Nova has a mysterious figure in white destroying with her grace, feels very Serran to me. Supreme Phantom feels like a Final Fantasy boss. Open the Graves has a guy hiding behind a headstone from the undead, armed with only a frying pan!