My first thought when I saw The Ur-Dragon, of the 2017 Commander set, wasn't: "Wow, this is awesome." It wasn't: "Huh, Eminence is pretty cool," or: "That ability is bonkers," or: "wait this thing is so big that the art doesn't use scale birds but scale dragons?" All those things eventually occurred to me, don't get me wrong. It's a cool card, it's got cool abilities, and yeah, it's really that big.
But the first thought that went through my head was: "What the heck, I thought the Ur-Dragon was a poetic metaphor? It's an actual dragon?"
It's been kind of an odd moment for Magic dragon lore, all around. Not only did the Ur-Dragon come roaring onto the scene, but Squirle of the incredible blog Multiverse In Review also announced that a reader, Johnny F, had uncovered a forgotten source for the mythical Elder Dragon War! That bit of information, though, was also a bit surprising, suggesting that the Elder Dragon War shook out a bit differently than other storyline traditions claim, with more survivors than Nicol Bolas and his other four Elder Dragon Legends.
Dragon avatars showing up in the flesh and lost backstory information from the current storyline's Big Bad popping up unexpectedly? Who knew that big, fire breathing lizards could be so complicated! Turns out, though, that dragons demand not only a constant stream of impressive cards as tribute but increasingly convoluted ancient histories, and as the storyline has shifted from author to author and fans have entered and left the scene, the deep lore of dragons has gotten kind of weird.
Take the Ur-Dragon, for example. The first mention of the Ur-Dragon comes on a series of (not very good) golems from Invasion that were the "attendants" to the set's five Primeval Dragons: Rith, Dromar, Treva, Darigaaz, and Crosis. In line with Invasion block's gold theme, each of these dragons was tri-color, much like Nicol Bolas and his companions. They each had an Attendant, a tri-color land, and a tri-color instant charm. The dragons — all except the reincarnated Darigaaz — are unimaginably ancient, from a time when dragons ruled Dominaria, and, set free during the Phyrexian Invasion, they're a great symbol of the conflict in the story between multicolored Dominarians and the Black and artifact aligned Phyrexians.
Or they would be if they didn't all decide to start killing Coalition forces midway through the war.
Yeah, I guess J Robert King and his editors at the time decided that the climax of the entire Weatherlight and Artifacts Sagas, in which two entire worlds went to war with each other, needed a subplot about 10,000-year-old dragons breaking things. The storyline of the Primevals is this: thousands of years ago, dragons ruled the world. Powerful humans (who end up coming back up again in King's Onslaught trilogy to bewildering effect) locked those dragons away through various means — Crosis was buried in a tar pit, Treva imprisoned magically beneath a library, Dromar trapped in a submerged cave, Rith locked inside a giant treefolk (really), and Darigaaz was buried in stone and then just straight up killed. Except, Darigaaz was reincarnated and ended up becoming leader of the Shivan dragons during the war.
This put him in the perfect position to be manipulated by the planeswalker Tevesh Szat, who was playing double agent for the Phyrexians at the time. Szat convinced Darigaaz to release Rith and from there Rith took charge and, through a bunch of sacrifices of their dragon followers, released the others, culminating in the four free dragons plunging into Crosis's tar pit in order to reawaken him. They then proceed to attack Phyrexia and Coalition alike in an effort to reassert their rule over Dominaria. Eventually, as Darigaaz attacks the Weatherlight, Karn brings him to his senses and he throws himself into a volcano (really) breaking the chain of magic that connects the Primeval Dragons and allowing other forces (including that treefolk (really)) to bring down his siblings.
I'm going to be up front about this: I don't really understand what the rationale for this subplot was. It doesn't square too well with the rest of the story. Squirle, for example, notes in his review of the cycle that it introduces an idea of the danger of making dark bargains for power, even in the face of absolute destruction. This lines up, he notes, with Gerrard and Urza's late story heel turn in the face of Yawgmoth promising them, respectively, the restoration of Gerrard's love Hannah to life, and a chance for Urza to, uh, study some Phyrexians, I guess. But . . . part of Invasion's on-card theme was, as Squirle puts it, "Dominaria banding together to fight of the invaders" and "Loads of cards made reference to strange alliances between old enemies". That's how we got everything from zombie medics to the still bewildering goblin merfolk. The actual thematic throughline there seems more than a little confused.
But regardless of that, we do get a sense that the Primeval Dragons are part of some greater whole. The flavor text on their attendants (which to my recollection never actually show up in the novels, but whatever) describe them each as an aspect of "The Ur-Dragon." That's what's so surprising to me about this new legend, though: "Darigaaz is the breath of the Ur-dragon, burning away the burdens of mortality" is a poetic turn of phrase. It suggests that the Ur-dragon is a kind of metaphorical device, the essence of the Primeval dragons acting in unison.
Apparently, it's actually a real dude though. It's kinda like if Hobbes's Leviathan, the ruler that is a collection of all the people in a nation, was actually just a big dude made out of little dudes after all, a literal king made of a bunch of people Voltron'd together. Moreover, apparently the Ur-Dragon has existed since the dawn of dragonkind, so it's totally possible that those quotes are written with full understanding that the Primevals are being described as parts of a very literal beast. And hey, that's another thing — those quotes are unattributed! Who's describing the dragons this way? The attendants? The dragons themselves? Some other narrator? Maybe the narrator from Rath and Storm? Who knows!
If the Ur-Dragon has been around that long, though, maybe we should ask Nicol Bolas about how literal it is. After all, Bolas claims to be older than Dominaria. Bolas makes all kinds of claims, though. It's not like there's anyone to contradict him. According to Brady Dommermuth, all the other Elder Dragons are dead now.
Or at least I THINK it was Brady that confirmed this fact.
If the weirdness of the Primeval dragons stemmed from King's surprising insertion of mythic history into Dominaria's past and an odd subplot into the climax of the Weatherlight Cycle, the weirdness surrounding Nicol Bolas and the Elder Dragon War stems from the weird oral tradition of Magic's storyline. The Elder Dragon War supposedly was a plane-spanning conflict between a bunch of dragons like Nicol Bolas, a conflict that ultimately saw the losers cast down, both from grace and from the skies, their limbs stripped to transform them into the Elder Land Wurms. It's pretty obvious why this conflict is beloved by storyline fans!
Except . . . the most extensive source we have on the war is Jeff Lee's website. The first thing you'll notice about the website is that it doesn't technically exist anymore. It's archived in the Wayback Machine but no longer live under its original URL. That makes it pretty hard to find from just a google search. It's also a fan website, not something created by a WotC employee. Now, that's not too much of an issue for me. The fact of the matter is that during this period of the fandom there was a lot of contact between storyline folks and the storyline fandom. This is something I've noticed increasingly as I dig into old storyline boards: there's not a lot of linking to sources. That makes sense. If Pete Venters or Scott McGough dropped into a thread to confirm something about the way Planeswalkers work, well, why go through the effort of manually searching for and hyperlinking that post (a frustrating task in 2001)? Everyone knows they said it.
The result of that is a weird sort of oral tradition where the facts about the multiverse were passed around the fandom and preserved in the form of the stories being told and retold. The thing about oral traditions, though, is that they don't necessarily remain stable over time. I'm a maximalist in terms of what I want to preserve of old storyline materials. I think these things have value both as artifacts, and as just really cool concepts. But part of my background is in Art History, so I can't ignore it when it turns out that the histories we've passed down are, well, wrong. Here's Squirle again:
"[T]he site outright states that Piru and Scarzam were Lesser Elders. But this post makes it clear that this was not based on the calendar or WotC inside info, but on discussions within the old storyline forums. Or how about this: it states that Sivitri Scarzam’s attack on Corondor happened during the Dragon War. But if you read the short story The Dragon War . . . you’ll see that this attack actually happened shortly before Geyadrone Dihada came to Corondor.
. . .
I often see the claim that the Elder Dragons had an empire, or that there was some Multiverse-spanning spell that turned all Elder Dragons except the five from Legends into Elder Land Wurms. . . . I am guessing that such stories came into the world because Jeff used words like "civil war" when describing the dragon-on-dragon conflict, and the word "cursed" to describe the wurms. But those are words chosen by Jeff, we don't know if they were the words WotC used."
Like Squirle, I tend to think that Lee's information is reliable, and given the revelation of that lost piece of flavor text I think it's pretty likely that Lee was aware of the intentions of Legends creator Steve Conard, at least as far as the Elder Dragon War's existence and the creation of the Elder Land Wurms is concerned. But Jeff Lee left the fandom a long time ago. Most of the generation that interacted with Lee are gone . . . and for that matter I'm one of the last people from MY generation of storyline fans, the folks that heard about the Elder Dragon War from the folks who heard it from Jeff Lee!
And . . . actually, there's something kind of cool about that. Sure, if there's one thing we've seen in all this strange dragon lore, it's that the history of the storyline has tended to get more than a little snarled over time as subsequent authors redefined things in parallel to a fandom that primarily passed on information by word of mouth (often having no other recourse as primary sources dropped from the fandom and websites fell off the internet entirely). These two parallel strands, redefinition and oral tradition, make for an often confusing background.
But for my part, digging back into archives to find relevant quotes or, even better, actual old stories is a pretty incredible way of connecting to this game's 25 year old history. That's a quarter century of storyline growing organically, building on itself! Sure, you could use that to smugly dismiss all old continuity as hopelessly garbled, but you could just as easily see it as a testament to the enduring allure of Magic's setting, and in particular the power of its dragons to inspire its fans and its creators alike.
Finding another piece of the puzzle of the Elder Dragon War or learning that the Ur-Dragon is, in fact, a real creature and not just a metaphor is exciting. Sometimes it's kind of confusing, but that's part of watching the storyline grow, shift, and reconstitute itself. If that means rethinking my assumptions on just how the Elder Dragon War shook out, or about what exactly an "Ur-Dragon" is anyway, well, that's part of the fun of being in this fandom for so long, and I love that WotC is taking the chance with Commander and similar projects to revisit these materials.
And I mean, with how vague and strange the original lore of the Primevals was, it's not like there's anything to prove that the Ur-Dragon WASN'T a creature but a poetic ideal.