Today we're going to take a look at the big twist from the ending of Hour of Devastation and how this plot development might have come about. That means it's time to talk about Ral Zarek. In Hour of Devastation, we learn that Ral is working for Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh, although we don't get any details. That opens up a lot of questions... and answers them, too. It makes perfect sense why Nicol Bolas would want Ral as a minion - but why would Ral want to work for Bolas?
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In hindsight, I really can't believe I didn't put this together sooner. Last October, before we'd even heard the words "Planar Bridge", I theorized that Rashmi, Eternities Crafter's teleporter needed Project Lightning Bug to work. It's kind of embarrassing, as I figured out every other piece of the plan, but it didn't occur to me to revisit this one component. So why is Ral working for Bolas? Before we get started, let's revisit who Ral Zarek is, the history of Ravnica, and Bolas's footprint on the world.
The Guildpact and the Paruns
For those of you who don't know Ravnica's history, Ravnica, Then and Now gives a great summary of the events and politics that led to Return to Ravnica. Here's the basics: About 10,000 years ago, the original leaders of the ten guilds (called paruns) were engaged in a war between the forces of order and chaos. To end the cycle, the mysterious Azorius parun, Azor, brought them together to sign a magical accord called the Guildpact. One of the side effects of the Guildpact was that it eventually blocked planeswalkers from travelling to or from Ravnica. This was likely by design, as Ravnica is a seeded world with much of its population having descended from creatures brought by Planeswalkers. We learned all this in Dissension, when it's revealed the leadership of many guilds knew about Planeswalkers.
During the events of the original Ravnica block, Szadek, Lord of Secrets used a loophole in the Guildpact to cause it to fail. In the sixty plus years that followed, the guilds were thrown into disarray and lost much of their influence over the plane. This environment allowed for a new organization to prosper: The Infinite Consortium.
The Infinite Consortium
When Nicol Bolas was revived shortly before the Mending, he enacted schemes across the Multiverse to regain his lost power. Most players might remember his schemes on Alara, and Amonkhet is certainly still fresh, but he also established The Infinite Consortium, a interplanar cartel with cells established on a number of known planes, including Ravnica and Kamigawa. With the Guildpact gone, and as the guilds fell into disarray, the Consortium quickly became a power in its own right.
The Consortium made its money the way any organized crime syndicate does. Most employees didn't know its true nature, although it trafficked heavily in objects of power from across the Multiverse. The Consortium was interested in recruiting Planeswalkers to keep the network alive, and had several on the payroll and another handful who worked as contractors. The head of the Ravnican network was Tezzeret the Seeker. Eventually, Tezzeret decided he was tired of being an agent of Bolas, led a coup, and killed anyone who knew that the Consortium was connected to Bolas. This kept him relatively safe until during the events of Agents of Artifice, when Liliana Vess conspired with Bolas to return the Consortium to the Elder Dragon. She manipulated Tezzeret and his young protege, Jace Beleren, into an ongoing conflict. Jace eventually won, leaving Tezzeret near death (to be reclaimed by Bolas), but Jace had also discovered Liliana's duplicity and abandoned her. He continued to use the Consortium's resources for a short while, but by Return to Ravnica the Consortium was nothing but a memory. This whole power struggle is the subject of another article of mine, Jace, Tezzeret, and the Infinite Consortium.
The Implicit Maze
A few years later, Jace discovered the secret of the Implicit Maze, a puzzle set forth by Azor as a failsafe in case the original Guildpact failed. The person who solved the mystery and won the maze would become the ultimate arbiter of the plane, the Living Guildpact. Here's where Ral Zarek enters the picture. He was a young, ambitious Izzet mage of no small talent. And he knew it. So did Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind, who assigned Ral to research the Maze.
Not only was Ral Zarek passed over as his guild's maze-runner, it was Jace who became the Guildpact. Jace Beleren, a man who isn't even a native Ravnican. For Ral, who had fought and scraped for an ounce of recognition, this was all too much.
Is Ral a sociopath and a liar, or he is trapped and looking for help?
Blast of Genius by Terese Nielson
Project Lightning Bug
Fast forward a short time later to Project Lightning Bug. Ral had been developing a new system for Niv-Mizzet, codenamed Project Lightning Bug. Ral successfully detects Planeswalkers as they enter and exit the plane, but his success is a problem. Niv-Mizzet takes a greater interest, and Ral worries what the knowledge of Planeswalkers would do to his plane. And what his guild leader would do to him if he knew Ral was a Planeswalker. So he turns to the one person he never thought he would, the only other Planeswalker he knows, Jace Beleren. Jace can't risk knowledge of his forays away from Ravnica becoming public, and so the two rivals agree to work together.
As a side note here, it's highly likely that Niv-Mizzet already knows about Planeswalkers, even if Ral doesn't realize it. Dissension made clear that several guilds already knew about them, and Niv-Mizzet's interest in the project is clearly more than theoretical. Niv-Mizzet is also at least 15,000 years old, and would have been around during the era when Planeswalkers came and went from Ravnica freely.
In any case, despite Ral's best efforts to drag his feet on the project, Niv-Mizzet reassigns the project to Mizzix of the Izmagnus. Jace and Ral end up bonding somewhat as they set about trying to sabotage the results of the project, and so when Jace asks why Ral wouldn't just tell Niv-Mizzet, Ral opens up.
At the time, it seemed very genuine. It's striking how similar Ral and Jace's stories are, perhaps that's part of the reason they couldn't stand each other at first. Now that we know Ral is working for Bolas in some capacity, it casts doubt on all of these interactions. By the end of the story, they've successfully confused the issue and had Niv-Mizzet shut down the project. But not before Ral tried to lead Jace to Gideon Jura! Gideon knew he was being followed and set up a stakeout, so it probably didn't go down as intended, but it's very interesting that a key meeting leading to the Gatewatch's formation occurred thanks to Ral Zarek... who works for Bolas.
The Vraska Clue
We wouldn't see Ral Zarek again until In This Very Arena. There, he and Jace meet and Ral reveals that he never really shut down Project Lightning Bug. He's been keeping it functional for his own use, and tinkering with it. To keep from being overheard, they have a telepathic conversation about some disturbing results Ral found.
So it's from Ral, ultimately, that Jace learns of what we'll come to know as Ixalan and of Vraska's involvement. And more importantly, we learn that Project Lightning Bug isn't just detecting when people planeswalk into or out of Ravnica, but also where they're going. Jace realizes that Ral has been tracking him all this time and questions him.
Ral tries to reassure Jace that he's not going to reveal his secrets, but he clearly disapproves when Liliana shows up with news about Tezzeret on Kaladesh. Only a very short time later, Tezzeret escorts Pia Nalaar out for their Fateful Showdown (and her intended execution). It's... interesting that Tezzeret timed this big distraction this way. In hindsight, it's almost like Tezzeret was tipped off. He seemed prepared for the Gatewatch and was able to fight off six other Planeswalkers before escaping, having completed his goals.
Was alerting Jace an attempt to help? Or part of Bolas's plan?
Prophetic Bolt by Slawomir Maniak
My problem with the reveal that Ral Zarek works for Nicol Bolas is that he's a little too good of an actor to be actively working against Jace, right? I've re-read both stories combing for clues that point to Ral being less than honest, and it just doesn't feel like there are any. So when did Ral sign up? The statement Bolas makes to Tezzeret is pretty unambiguous. Ral is to report to Bolas, meaning he knows exactly who he's working for. Maybe he made the connection through the Consortium back in the day, or maybe he stumbled across Bolas in his travels. Either way, the big question is why.
Ral Zarek isn't a scheming sociopath like Tezzeret. He's not a dragon groupie turned lonely madman like Sarkhan Vol. It just feels out of character for the storm mage. So what gives? Well, when Vraska meets Bolas in The Talented Captain Vraska, he offers her control of the Golgari.
I think this is our big clue. If Bolas is offering the leadership of guilds as a reward for serving him, it would explain Ral's motivation. The quote about his resentment running deep and the short blurb on the Planeswalker Page seem to indicate that's the way things are heading with him.
Project Lightning Bug seems to be just the tip of the Iceberg.
Art by Volta Creation
The most likely scenario I can think of is that either Ral already had contact with Tezzeret and the Infinite Consortium in some capacity or was approached by Tezzeret or another agent of Bolas in the aftermath of the Implicit Maze. Note that outside of Jace, Baltrice, Tezzeret, and Liliana, there were a small number of unnamed Planeswalkers associated with the organization in some capacity. The key here is Project Lightning Bug, which had to have been developed not long after the Implicit Maze. If Tezzeret or Bolas got wind of the project, they might realize it would be a valuable component of the Planar Bridge they wanted to build.
Think about Rashmi's Planar Bridge. So far, it's only managed to teleport items from one place on Kaladesh to another place on Kaladesh. When Rashmi touched the inner workings by accident, she got a quickly rotating vision of other planes. It's entirely possible that without a navigational component, the Bridge is only useful as a local teleporter. If Bolas has his Eternal army assembled and the Planar Bridge at the end of Hour of Devastation, why does he immediately want Ral Zarek to come?
First of all, it's possible Bolas doesn't yet know that Tezzeret was only able to recover the Modular Core and is himself the Planar Bridge. But that's a discussion for another day.
Second, it's pretty clear that Ral is integral to the next step of his plan. Why would that be? Why not immediately begin transporting the Eternals off-world? Maybe because they still need Ral's Project Lightning Bug to guide the Bridge. We know Ral continued to refine the project after Niv-Mizzet shut it down. Not only can it detect where Planeswalkers enter and leave from on Ravnica, but it can trace where they're going. This means it has the exact navigation component the Planar Bridge might need.
So why bring all of this up when we're on Ixalan, of all places? In part, because Vraska's story gave us the most likely motive for Ral to work for Bolas, but also because of a little piece of technology given to Vraska.
The Thaumatic Compass
Five months prior to the current story, Bolas gives Vraska the Thaumatic Compass to guide her to Orazca and the Immortal Sun. It doesn't work as well as intended, occasionally leading her astray (which is how Vraska found Jace). In The Race, Part 1, Jace finally figures out exactly how the compass works.
Bolas has two entirely separate Planeswalker detectors? That seems unlikely.
Thaumatic Compass by Yeong-Hao Han
So the compass points to powerful aetheric signals, which includes the magic used in planeswalking. That's interesting, especially because while Bolas is powerful, he's not an artificer. I sincerely doubt he sat and tinkered and built the compass himself. So where did he get the compass to give to Vraska? The timing of when Vraska and Bolas meet is interesting, because it's placed just a short time prior to when Ral came to Jace during In This Very Arena. We know Ral had already developed Project Lightning Bug at the time, and the compass really seems to be based on that technology. Both the Thaumatic Compass and Project Lightning Bug detect the magic used by planeswalking and locate it on a plane. Heck, the "sensors" that Ral has installed all over Ravnica for Project Lightning Bug might just be versions of the Thaumatic Compass. Project Lightning Bug itself, at least the early versions, might have just been using the same technology as the compass to triangulate where someone planeswalks.
If Ral Zarek has technology critical to both making the Planar Bridge function and locating the Immortal Sun (which I believe he wants to use to power the Bridge), it makes sense why Ral would be important to the Elder Dragon.
But we also learned something else: the compass was malfunctioning. During Something Else Entirely, Jace pulls the compass apart piece by piece and finds something odd.
All of a sudden, the compass works much better than it had before. We're not given any hints that Vraska might have damaged the compass by accident, and by all accounts it has worked the same for her since she arrived on Ixalan. So what gives? Well, what if Ral isn't exactly thrilled to be working for Nicol Bolas? Like Vraska, he might have gotten caught up in a scheme with promise and now wants out. So how would he rebel against Bolas? Maybe the same way he rebelled against Niv-Mizzet and Project Lightning Bug. He might have sabotaged the compass so it appeared to do what it was supposed to, but in reality it would take Vraska months longer to complete her task, if she ever could. He could easily have done something subtle like loosening an essential gear and wouldn't have counted on someone doing a close, detailed inspection like Jace did (Vraska seemed disinclined to damage the compass by mistake).
Another side note: Stop solving puzzles, Jace. Between releasing the Eldrazi, becoming the Living Guildpact, and getting Avacyn killed to allow Emrakul to enter Innistrad, Jace solving a mystery or a puzzle is always a bad thing.
Has this tattoo really been Bolas the whole time?
Ral Zarek (cropped) by Eric Deschamps
The Dragon's Maze
Finally, let's look at some odd clues from Return to Ravnica. Ral's dragon tattoo looks way more like Bolas than Niv-Mizzet, right? It's not perfect, and I'd never thought about it too hard before, but it's way more suspicious in light of what we know now. And the title Dragon's Maze also becomes more suspicious. Is it really a reference to Niv-Mizzet's organizing of the race, or is it a sly reference to Bolas's machinations behind the scenes?
It's difficult to say why exactly Ral defected to Bolas's side, but I feel we'll learn more as time goes on. I don't think it's a coincidence that Project Lightning Bug was the very first story following Magic Origins, and the importance of that story will likely be revealed as time goes on. I'm interested to see where they take this development, and all those Bolas-shaped puzzle pieces will hopefully fit together at the end.
My thought is that Bolas is also attempting to encourage a Ravnican civil war. In Pride of the Kraul, we learned that Vraska (with Bolas as a patron) is working against Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord. The most likely reason for Ral Zarek to be working for Bolas is control of the Izzet. We know from Krenko, Mob Boss that fan favorite angel Feather was deposed by Aurelia, the Warleader. Family Values showed us Teysa's failed plan to depose the Obzedat, Ghost Council herself. Even the current Simic, led by the resurgent merfolk of Ravnica, might still be at odds with their original counterparts. The enemy colored guilds of Ravnica all seem poised for civil war, and their guildpact has been missing for months.