Magic’s 25th Anniversary is right around the corner, and with it the release of Dominaria, the first full set located on Magic’s original plane in a decade. Magic's original setting has fifteen years of history under its belt, and that can be daunting for anyone, not just newbies to Dominaria. I'll be honest, even I don't have a full grasp on all of it, and have focused primarily on stories relating to characters or themes that are relevant to the post-Mending era. So if you’re just getting started, how the heck are you supposed to catch up?
What is Dominaria?
Let's first briefly explain what Dominaria is. While Magic's story has spent most of the last decade jumping from plane to plane with occasional ‘return’ blocks, that wasn't always the case. For the first decade or so of Magic's life, most of the action took place on one very large plane, named Dominaria. Where recent sets have moved around between continent or country-sized slices of planes, Dominaria kept cramming more and more continents and locales into it’s one setting, sometimes to ludicrous extremes. While your mileage may vary on the individual results of most approaches (and opinion is largely split between which approach you started with), it does mean there's a lot of potential history for a single set to explore.
My first recommendation would be to peruse Dominaria's Plane Profile (archived here). The recent art books have included information from this profile, and it's probably a good indicator of some of the places and things Wizards of the Coast considers important about the plane. Locales like Shiv, Jamuraa, Urborg, Keld, Llanowar, and Tolaria are all places worth focusing on. We know that Dominaria will have a history theme, so knowing the various eras of Dominaria's story will be important.
Tolaria West has steadily grown over time, and likely rivals its namesake in the present day.
Academy At Tolaria West by James Paick
A (Very) Brief History of Dominaria
In Dominaria's ancient past, elder dragons like Nicol Bolas warred for supremacy, but only the five from Legends survived. Bolas is the only one of those five to survivor into the modern day. That conflict is known as (the aptly named) Dragon War, or Elder Dragon War. Millennia later, the Thran would dominate the plane. The Thran were masters of artifice (not unlike the people of Kaladesh) who created powerstones that acted as both power source and CPU for their artifacts. Many of the people of the Thran fell prey to Yawgmoth, a cruel eugenicist who sold them a lie about manifest destiny but only delivered the hell of Phyrexia. The Thran wiped themselves out in a civil war between those loyal to Yawgmoth and a coalition of rebel Thran and the other races of Dominaria. Yawgmoth's forces, called Phyrexians, were pushed back to his 'paradise' of Phyrexia through a planar gateway that was then sealed . . . just before Yawgmoth's ultimate weapon annihilated the survivors. The gateway would be sealed for millennia before the arrival of the brothers Urza and Mishra.
Urza and Mishra were orphans who were sent to live with a legendary archeologist in Terisiare’s desert. They were both adept at restoring old Thran technology, but their sibling rivalry took a bitter turn when each brother claimed half of a powerful powerstone artifact for themselves, the Mightstone and Weakstone. After a tense confrontation, Mishra fled into the desert and was taken captive by a desert tribe, while Urza took up residence in a neighboring country. Unbeknownst to the brothers, the stones they wielded were all that was keeping the gateway to Phyrexia closed. Over the course of years, each brother would rise to positions of power among their newly adopted people, but old tensions and new betrayals led their nations to war. Eventually, the brothers each found themselves at the helm of vast war machines, made worse by their skills at artifice. Their conflict, known as the Brothers’ War, would decimate their home continent of Terisiare.
Depleted of resources, the brothers’ turned their attention to the forested isle of Argoth, where their conflict would come to an end. Urza would discover that Phyrexian agents had been corrupting Mishra over the decades of their war, and in the final battle the Phyrexians seized control of the war machines on both sides of the conflict. Left with little choice, Urza turned to the Golgothian Sylex, a magical artifact that was rumored to be the only way to end the war. When Urza channeled mana into the artifact, it created a massive blast that wiped out everything left on the isle and caused a dramatic climate shift. Urza himself ascended as a Planeswalker, but the ramifications of his actions ushered in an Ice Age for the plane.
The Ice Age didn’t come all at once, and The Dark and Fallen Empires tell of the decline into the Ice Age. A descendant of the brothers, Jodah, would be born in this time and put an end to Mairsil, the Pretender (or so he thought). Jodah would go on to become Archmage Eternal of the School of the Unseen, his life prolonged by a chance encounter with the Fountain of Youth. Thousands of years later (yes, again), the Ice Age would reach its peak. Over the millennia, it became clear that a barrier, called the Shard of Twelve Worlds, had trapped any Planeswalker on Dominaria or a handful of other planes inside the Shard. And those Planeswalkers wanted out.
Enter Lim-Dul, the Necromancer. Lim-Dul was a Kjeldoran deserter who found great magical power when he stumbled upon Mairsil’s keep. Mairsil’s Ruby Ring contained the wizard’s essence, and, as one, they set about conquering the continent. Lim-Dul kidnapped and drugged Jodah in an attempt to find a way off the plane for his master, the Planeswalker Leshrac. Jodah would escape with the help of his friend Jaya Ballard, and together they united the Kingdom and Kjeldor and the Balduvian Barbarians against Lim-Dul’s threat. When Leshrac discovered Lim-Dul had squandered the undead army he had built on a petty feud, the Planeswalker cut off the Necromancer’s hand and (painfully) Planeswalked with him to Shandalar, a rogue plane, to escape the Shard.
Jodah and Jaya’s victory didn’t come without help from a Planeswalker patron of their own, Freyalise. In exchange for her aid, she demanded knowledge from Jodah’s archives and set about casting the World Spell, which ended the Ice Age. The thaw of milliennia of ice wreaked havoc of its own as encroaching shorelines and plagues devastated cities. Mairsil would rise again after Jaya found their severed hand and was slowly possessed by the being, but his influence was purged after Jodah helped ignite Jaya’s Planeswalker spark. After over two and a half millennia, Urza was able to return to the plane of his birth . . . and so were the Phyrexians.
What followed was a millennia-long cold war between Urza and Phyrexia. Urza built Karn, Silver Golem in an attempt to make a time travel machine, but the experiment backfired during a Phyrexian Incursion and the entire isle of Tolaria was ravaged by pockets of fast and slow time. Jhoira, an artificer prodigy, discovered the secret of life-extending slow time water which allowed the mortals of Tolaria more time to prepare against Phyrexia’s threat. The young mage Teferi was trapped for years in a slow time bubble as a fire slowly consumed him, and although Karn would save him, unknown to all involved, the young man’s Planeswalker spark ignited. While Urza continued to build his defenses against Phyrexia, the world continued to turn.
Nicol Bolas was killed by his Champion, Tetsuo Umezawa, after Umezawa tricked Bolas into abandoning his body to follow him into the Meditation Realm. Umezawa had cast a spell to destroy the shrine that anchored Bolas to the plane and Bolas’ body, and which allowed him to defeat the elder dragon’s spirit. Bolas didn’t quite die, however. Elsewhere, on Jamuraa, Teferi accidently phased out his home island, igniting the Mirage War as 3 powerful wizards came looking for his secrets. The conflict was ended with the help of a returned Teferi and Urza’s Skyship, the Weatherlight.
Ultimately Urza's preparations against Phyrexia were proven insufficient as Phyrexia's full invasion began. Two of Urza’s former students, Teferi and his friend, the artificer Jhoira, phased sections of their homelands in Jamuraa and Shiv away rather than be embroiled in the conflict. The final battle with Phyrexia cost most known characters up until that point their lives. The conflict was finally ended when Urza’s hail mary play, assembled from artifacts he had built over millennia (including Karn and the Weatherlight), called the Legacy. The ignition of the Legacy Weapon killed Yawgmoth, who had become a god-like being, and shattered Phyrexia. The Legacy fused with the golem Karn, and he ascended as an artificial Planeswalker.
Urza’s war against Phyrexia was lost before the victory at Urborg, thanks to the Glistening Oil.
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth by John Avon
A hundred years later Karn sent back a probe called the Mirari to see if the devastated Dominaria could be returned to, but the probe malfunctioned and leaked power. Conflict sprung up around it on the continent of Otaria, culminating in the young warrior Jeska, who had been turned into the villainous Phage the Untouchable, being again transformed into Karona, False God. As Karona, she absorbed the entire plane's supply of mana. When Jeska was finally separated from Karona, her Planeswalker spark ignited. Karn took her as an apprentice, but Karona's birth and death caused catastrophic damage to the plane. While Karn and Jeska returned the Mirari to Karn's plane of Mirrodin, the Time Spiral Crisis was brewing. Decades later, Liliana Vess would be manipulated by the Raven Man into turning her brother Josu into a Lich of some sort.
Two hundred years later, Teferi and Jhoira returned to Dominaria to find a network of rifts draining the world of mana. Each rift was caused by world-shattering magics, and the addition of the Otarian rift caused them all to being draining the plane of its mana. Teferi phased Shiv back in while sealing the rift he caused there, but Zhalfir would be lost. Together with the first of the new breed of Planeswalkers, Venser, Shaper Savant and Radha, Heir to Keld, they would seal most of the rifts but lose almost all of the old guard of Planeswalkers in the process. Oh yeah, and Nicol Bolas was returned to life, as his essence lingered beyond the Madaran Rift after his 'death'. It would be Jeska who finally ended the crisis, and in so doing triggered the Mending, which turned Planeswalkers from near gods into what we see today.
It’s likely that a fair number of characters from these stories remain. Jodah and Jhoira are ageless, while Teferi and Radha would have only aged sixty years. We’ve already seen artwork that heavily implies Jaya Ballard will be back, having aged in the meantime. The Weatherlight cabin boy Squee, Goblin Nabob was made immortal by Yawgmoth, and Liliana’s brother Josu is already undead. Nicol Bolas and Karn are both Dominaria natives that we know for a fact are still kicking. I’ll examine who might still be around in a future piece, but expect plenty of nostalgia.
What To Read
Returning to Dominaria may make you want to go out and find every novel you can get your hands on, but four months isn't a lot of time and honestly, not all the novels are worth reading. Digital versions of the Dominaria-focused novels disappeared sometime in 2015, so hunting down used copies will be time consuming and in some cases expensive. If you're okay with waiting, seeing what Dominaria offers and then chasing down the history of what interests you might be a good tactic. But let's be honest. If you're reading this article, you want to learn more about Dominaria now.
Time Spiral is our most recent glimpse at characters and locales on Dominaria
There are dozens of novels that take place on Dominaria, and for everyone’s sanity I’m not going through them all here. What I am going to do is address the best stories to get a sense of the different potential returning characters or locales. For clarity’s sake, I’m going to tackle novel recommendations in chronological order here.
First up, I would highly recommend The Eternal Ice. While the second novel in the Ice Age cycle by Jeff Grubb, it’s disconnected from the first (The Gathering Dark) by two and a half millennia. The Eternal Ice introduces Jaya Ballard and Lim-Dul, both of whom (depending on how you feel about my Raven Man and Jaya Ballard theories) have a potentially major impact on the story of Dominaria. It also includes my favorite character, Jodah, the Archmage Eternal, who loves calling Planeswalkers out on their bullshit. The sequel, The Shattered Alliance, is much more rare and probably not as essential, I've described the events there at length in several articles.
I would also recommend Time Streams from the Artifacts cycle, as it gives you a great look at Teferi, Jhoira, and Karn's origins, which dates a few hundred years after the Ice Age, but still a millennium before the Phyrexian Invasion. The other novels in the Artifacts cycle aren’t quite as essential, although The Brother’s War and Planeswalker are quite good, they’re much more limited in scope and don’t involve any still-living characters.
The Invasion cycle (Invasion, Planeshift, and Apocalypse) jumps us ahead a bunch of stories, but I’m skipping over Rath and Storm, Mercadian Masques, and Nemesis because they don’t really take place on Dominaria. Prophecy is widely panned, so let’s leave that out, too. In any case, the Invasion cycle is about the full-scale Phyrexian Invasion of Dominaria, and spans most of the known plane. The last time we see many places from Dominaria was during those stories. If you really wanted to know more about Dominaria, these novels would be a good place to do it, just keep in mind that it’s been about 360 years since the Phyrexian Invasion, which is longer by a third than the history of the United States since it was founded. Squee might still be around, as could some other characters, but a lot of things can happen and change in that time.
The most important stories to read would probably be from the Time Spiral cycle, comprised of Time Spiral, Planar Chaos, and Future Sight. Those stories are both a lot of fun, and will cover most things you might want to know about modern Dominaria. It's also the most recent look at many of Dominaria's locales, and because it's the previous Dominaria nostalgia block, it does a great job covering the history of the plane. It's also the most practical to find and read before April’s release of Dominaria. Pretty much every character who might still be around for Dominaria appears or is mentioned in these novels, too: Teferi, Jhoira, Radha, Jodah, Karn, and Nicol Bolas are all players. Jaya Ballard even gets a mention. It’s even one of the featured items in Vorthos Mike’s Vorthos Holiday Gift Guide 2017. These should be your first priority if you’re interested.
“But Jay,” You might be thinking. “You left out the fantastic
Yes, yes I did. Remember, with only four months to go before Dominaria, we’re prioritizing characters that might still be around and locations that might still be important. Most people don’t read all that fast, so limiting yourself to just the Time Spiral cycle is the most efficient way to catch up with modern Dominaria. There will be plenty of time for retrospectives after we know the actual content of the block.
Articles and Comics
If tracking down long out-of-print novels doesn't seem like your thing, that's okay. There are plenty of free online stories you can check out to get a sense of Dominaria before the new set comes out. The most important story to read is Liliana's Origin: The Fourth Pact. When Magic Origins came out in 2015, each origin story was designed with an eye toward where Magic's story was going. Chandra's proved essential to the plot of Kaladesh, and Nissa's was definitely entangled with her ongoing influences from Emrakul. Gideon's and Jace's have already been at least thematically important, and so it stands to reason that Liliana's story will matter as well. Given that most of it takes place on Dominaria, it's a window into where the story is likely to go. Whatever happened to Josu? What did the Raven Man want from Liliana? We're likely to get at least some answers in April.
Art by Chris Rahn
Loran's Smile stars a supporting character from The Brothers' War, Feldon of the Third Path. It explores the nature of magic in Magic, and was taken from Colors of Magic, an old anthology. It’s also a bit of a tearjerker, so be forewarned.
If you want to learn more about the Ice Age, check out Coming in from the Cold and Lore from Terisiare. The latter is from the old Coldsnap Mini-site, but all the links still work. We lost a lot of resources when the old Wizards website archive was shut down, and the Coldsnap materials were definitely the biggest. You'll find some side stories from Coldsnap's plot, along with a download link to the old Ice Age comic books (which have been retconned somewhat with The Eternal Ice). Jodah and Jaya are notably absent from the comics, but there’s a lot of shenanigans going on that are entertaining to read.
If you want to explore modern Dominaria, check out these three stories.
- Preparation will tell you basically all you need to know about Jhoira, a character very likely to make a return in Dominaria. Next to Jodah she’s the character I’m most excited for in a return, so I can’t recommend this small glimpse into her life enough.
- Gathering Forces is a glimpse into the modern version of Urborg, where Wingrace's Acolytes still prowl for signs of Phyrexia's return. It was a prelude to Scars of Mirrodin, but Urborg is a key location on Dominaria that we’re likely to see again. It’s one of the key Black locations from Dominaria.
- The Prodigal Sorcerers is a high seas adventure that doesn't relate too much world building, but it gives you a sense of Tolaria West, an academy inspired by Urza's destroyed island. Tolaria West has popped up a number of times over the years, and is likely to be one of the major Blue locations on the plane.
If you're reading this, you already have one great (in my opinion, at least) unofficial resource. Although I’ve recently started at Gathering Magic, I keep a handy index of all my old published articles in the Archive Trap: A Vorthos Guide to MTG thread. There will be more coming between now and Dominaria, so check back here every other week through April. I also run a blog over on Tumblr, where I post a lot of short form content and answer questions.
The Gamepedia Wiki is another great resources, with a very strong caution that the information is only as good as the people who are contributing. There can be inaccuracies in the wiki, especially when dealing with early lore or rare sources.
If you’re interested in a deep dive into Dominaria, I highly recommend Multiverse in Review. Berend Boer has done a lot of great work over the years as a historian and archivist of Magic lore materials, and has managed to pull out the most obscure lore sources that even members of the creative team didn’t know existed.
That about does it for today, but I’ll be covering a lot more of Dominaria as time goes on. The different eras that might be referenced, the characters who might still be around, and what we might expect from the different locales. In the meantime, get reading!