Over the last few years, there has been a growing concern about where Magic the Gathering is headed in terms of its representation of women and also how the game is becoming more inclusive for women. The conversation isn’t just limited to the two two genders that we are familiar with, but it goes beyond that into the nuances of non-binary genders and sexual identity and so forth. And all of that is just scratching the surface. In recent months, we’ve seen the game take some big steps forward, whether that be in the story, on the cards, or even as part of the community, which has been rather fantastic to see as a new player. Not to say that there haven’t been any missteps, but on the whole, there is ample positive development.
This column today is all about the women of the upcoming set Shadows Over Innistrad, which little over a week ago and which features two of the game’s most iconic characters, the Archangel Avacyn of Innistrad, and Nahiri the Lithomancer of Zendikar. Unfortunately, they are both also the villains of the story for this block, but if we dig deeper, we find a lot of nuance and subtlety that isn’t on the surface. And these ladies aren’t alone in leading the charge either, because there are mortals and immortals alike who are prominent in the new set. This column will be part lore, part commentary, and I hope you enjoy it.
The Archangel Avacyn is the protector of the entire plane of Innistrad. She was created by the Planeswalker Sorin Markov thousands of years ago to maintain the delicate balance on Innistrad between the humans and the vampires, and also the other denizens of the plane. She took command of the four angelic tribes that already existed on Innistrad, and set out to create a glorious future. She was the symbol of hope for many, and the target of burning hatred by others. At one point, she found herself imprisoned in the Helvault when she sought to banish some powerful demons, the most notable of which was Griselbrand, an ancient demon who had sought to subjugate the entire plane to his will. But in the events of the original Innistrad block, she was eventually freed from her captivity in the Helvault and she resumed her great work once the freed demonic forces were defeated.
Of late however, something disastrous has happened. The famed Angel of Hope has turned into a ruthless killer who has turned on her flock. Leading large armies of angels from two of the angelic tribes who have sworn allegiance to her, she has wiped out entire communities across Innistrad, and she is now on a full-on rampage. The cause for her madness is unexplained as of yet (my commentary follows later), and it is sad to see the symbol of hope turn into the symbol of despair and fear. Whatever madness has gripped her, something intrinsic to Innistrad itself has been corrupted and that spells certain doom for Innistrad.
And this is where the Kor Planeswalker Nahiri of Zendikar comes in. We know from the older lore that she, alongwith the Dragon Planeswalker Ugin and Sorin himself once imprisoned the monstrosities known as the Eldrazi Titans on her home-plane of Zendikar. These were agents of destruction on a multiverse-level and had already destroyed a number of planes by the time these three powerful Planeswalkers finally put a stop to them. But, it was not a final solution, for they were merely contained by the wards and traps fashioned by Ugin and Nahiri, their ultimate fate delayed till Ugin could explore their mysteries further and craft a more appropriate… response.
Thus it was that some hundreds or even thousands of years after their imprisonment, the Eldrazi Titans managed to escape and wreaked havoc on Zendikar once more. Having spend the intervening time first teaching her people to fend for themselves in a brand-new world, and then disappearing in a stone-wrought hibernation, Nahiri awoke and battled the Eldrazi once again. The big difference this time of course was that she had to do all of it on her own for neither Sorin nor Ugin came to her aid when she called to them. Unbeknownst to her, Nicol Bolas had already killed Ugin by that point, and Sorin was… somewhere unreachable, which is explained in last week’s Uncharted Realms story, Promises Old and New. She wasn’t exactly thrilled, as you might expect, and she immediately set out to find out the fate of her friend and mentor, Sorin, because there had been too many troubling indications of his interference on her plane since last she’d seen him.
And this is where we meet the “new” Nahiri. She is a completely different person now and her priorities have undergone a dangerous turnabout that spells disaster for Innistrad. We have little knowledge of what has happened to her in the long period between her solo battle against the Eldrazi ages ago and her formenting rebellion and unrest on Innistrad. What we do know however, is that she is mightily pissed at Sorin for something that he did to her and to Zendikar itself. She has gone from being a protector to a predator, much as Avacyn herself has, though their circumstances are much different. And this is the most intriguing aspect of the situation, for the reasons of Nahiri’s own madness are unknown and wild theories abound.
Olivia Voldaren is one of the most powerful individuals on Innistrad, for she is the progenitor of the Voldaren line. She could have been a match for Sorin himself, but he has the benefit of being a Planeswalker, and a powerful one at that. However, she is one to give even one such as he a pause, and that’s pretty relevant from a story perspective. When we meet Olivia for the first time in Shadows Over Innistrad, she is presented as someone that Sorin must seek help from, for his own Markov line has been decimated and he can’t take on Nahiri’s hordes of rabble and malcontents on his own. And the fate of Innistrad concerns all vampires, not just Sorin, so if he is to save the plane, he needs Olivia and her scions.
I personally love that angle, and it also helps that Olivia has one of the coolest cards in the new set, which I’m very excited to play with, soon as I have all the components of that deck together. From a story perspective, we have this incredible tension not just between two of the most powerful vampires on Innistrad, but also between its symbol of hope and prosperity in Avacyn and decadence and violence in Olivia. Leaving aside the fact that Avacyn has essentially gone rogue, she has also been targeting the vampires’ supply of… food and that puts the vampires in a precarious position. The roles are reversed now. Sorin created Avacyn to safeguard humanity against the vampires, and now it is the vampires who must safeguard humanity against Avacyn. Beautiful conundrum. And the way that Olivia was written into the story last week, I’m excited to see how that goes further, and I would love to get a set-piece action scene between her army of vampires and an army of maddened angels led by perhaps Avacyn herself.
Arlinn Kord is a brand-new character and one that has made a lot of waves already. And the reason for that is that she is the first werewolf Planeswalker we’ve had in the game. Where a lot of players, myself included, were expecting to see a werewolf legendary in Shadows Over Innistrad, it seems that Wizards has given us a werewolf Planeswalker instead, which is no less exciting. We first meet her in Under The Silver Moon, and her debut is mysterious and intriguing, for it shows that she has some inclination of what is affecting Innistrad and that she is doing her bit in making sure that at least the werewolves survive whatever is coming.
As a character, I’m definitely in love with Arlinn Kord, for the precise reason that she is something we haven’t seen before. We’ve been teased with some background on her, and all it has done is make me even more curious about her and what role she will play in the coming apocalypse. New characters are fun because they can often break the mold. We are just coming off three sets where all the major characters, and especially all the Planeswalkers, are someone that we’ve seen before. Some of them twice across those three sets, even! And that can get a little stale. As Wizards did last year with Narset last year, they’ve now given us a new Planeswalker, a woman no less. And even within that there are important things of note, such as the fact that Narset is autistic (IIRC) and Arlinn is a werwolf. And they are both women in position of power. While characters like Kiora and Liliana and others have been very prominent for a while now, seeing all these new female Planeswalkers has been no less important.
Then we have Sigarda, formerly the Host of Herons and now the Heron’s Grace. Given the events of the story A Gaze Blank and Pitiless, she may also be one of the very few angels who are still on the side of the humans in the war resulting from Avacyn’s madness, if not the only one. She is one of my favourite all-time angel characters, and the brief glimpse we saw of her so far in the story did not disappoint. I only wish that we could focus more on the unmentioned civil war between the angelic hosts that has no doubt resulted since Avacyn became a destroyer rather than a protector. Bruna and Gisela, Sigarda’s two sisters, have already sided with Avacyn and it is a little depressing (in a good way) for such a civil war to occur, as the villains establish their hold over the angelic hosts.
To be frank, my appreciation of Sigarda comes from how good her first go-around Sigarda, Host of Herons is good in my Modern deck, rather than from a story perspective, but I’ve been doing some reading on her of late, and I’m definitely curious about her as both an angel and part of the larger… network of angels who protect the good citizens of Innistrad from the plane’s many horrors. There is a lot to delve into here, and I can only hope that the writers recognize that and take steps to explore the same. And finally we have the other big marquee character of the Shadows Over Innistrad block, the black-aligned necromancer Liliana Vess, formerly of Dominaria and currently of Innistrad. Liliana is one of the oldest characters in the game, both from a story and a card perspective. She was part of the “Lorwyn 5”, the first five Planeswalkers we ever got, and she is also an old character who has lived for a really long time and has come across some of the most powerful individuals in the Multiverse, such as Sorin, Jace, Nicol Bolas, Griselbrand and more.
We’ve already seen Liliana in the Shadows Over Innistrad thanks to the Unwelcome story from a few weeks back, and she didn’t disappoint. It is slightly frustrating that such a major character has gotten so little attention thus far, but it is also clear that the focus of the Shadows Over Innistrad set is on Avacyn and Nahiri, and that Liliana will be the big-name character for the succeeding block, Eldritch Moon, which comes out in July later this year. Regardless, we know that she has already had an impact on Jace Beleren, and that her influence over the events happening on Innistrad isn’t restricted to the events of Unwelcome, for we see her in several cards in the set and thus know that a big story confrontation between the two of them is due anytime now (in fact, tomorrow we’ll be getting a story titled Liliana’s Indignation and that should clarify matters further).
Last year with Magic Origins, we saw quite clearly where Liliana is at this point in her life. She is looking for help in the unraveling of the mysteries of the Chain Veil that has cursed her and the vengeance borne to her by the maddened Planeswalker Garruk Wildspeaker for his own corruption via the Chain Veil. She also needs help in killing the last two of the four demons she indebted herself to many years ago in order to stay powerful and young. And as if that wasn’t enough, she is being haunted by the Raven Man, the individual who set her on the path to becoming a Planeswalker all those years ago, the man who is responsible for cursing her with her powers and for the death of someone close to her. There is a lot to unpack here, and Liliana’s first few appearances in Shadows Over Innistrad, and then later on in Eldritch Moon have and will hopefully set her up for that final confrontation.
So that’s a short introduction to six of the most important female characters in the story of Shadows Over Innistrad. That number in itself is pretty important because while we have Sorin and Jace and other male characters around, it is unusual for so many female characters to be given as prominent a role as they have been given, in terms of both their role in the overall story and the promotion of the new block. Within the context of this new expansion itself, the fact that so far the writers have avoided the cliches that dogged the portrayals of Nissa Revane and Chandra Nalaar in the Battle For Zendikar can only be a positive thing. The writers were in a really good place with Kiora, but the overall story failed to do her justice, and with both Nissa and Chandra I was very disappointed. But this group of Avacyn, Nahiri, Olivia, Sigarda, Arlinn and Liliana offer something very different and I’m glad of it.
Now, one of the common threads linking these six female characters together is the disturbing trend of events that has happened on Innistrad, which has turned predators into protectors and protectors into predators. There have been countless theories put forward as to what really is the cause of the madness afflicting Avacyn and her fellow angels, and I feel that none of them really do the story any justice.
We’ve had everything from the Eldrazi Titan Emrakul spreading her influence on the plane to the feared Marit Lage making her presence felt and all sorts of other weird theories. I’m personally not a fan of either of them.
For one, while having Marit Lage on Innistrad might be a cool thing, and fits the story tropes related to the plane, there is a certain dissonance here that cannot be ignored. She is often considered to be a precursor to the development of the Eldrazi themselves, and while there are similarities aplenty, the kind of horror trope that she is an inspiration of doesn’t fit with the dark gothic nature of Innistrad. There are numerous horror tropes present on Innistrad from a flavour and story perspective, but they are also classic gothic horror tropes with an urban fantasy bent. Cosmic dread horrors don’t go well with those themes, in my opinion.
Second, where Emrakul is concerned, that particular theory is the simplest and most boring of them all. We are just coming from a 2-set block that was all about the Eldrazi, and for Wizards to do back-to-back return blocks, while also doing back-to-back continuous stories about the same “villains” is just… ridiculous and lazy. It would have been cool to have Emrakul be the literal shadow over Innistrad, if this story was taking place two or three years from now. It is just too soon for us to go back to having an Eldrazi Titan be the big bad and there’s just no fun in that. Especially when story-wise Ulamog and Kozilek were butchered as much as they were.
My personal theory on this stems from Sigarda’s reflections on how Innistrad changed after Avacyn came into being. Before the arrival of Avacyn, there were four angelic hosts, each of which was led by one (legendary) angel. These were Sigarda, Gisela, Bruna and an unnamed angel, all of whom were sisters. The arrival of Avacyn threw the careful balance between them out of order, and while there was harmony between them all for a while, events took a turn for the worse in the end. The unnamed sister aligned herself with a demon, an act condemned by the other three angels, but for which only Avacyn had a definitive solution: death. She took it upon herself to destroy this unnamed sister and the demon, of which we only have second-hand knowledge, and no real confirmation.
We also know that the Helvault on Innistrad is a prison for demons and other dark forces that threaten Innistrad. Avacyn banished many a demon to the Helvault in her long reign, and she even spent some time there herself when the demon Griselbrand tricked her. If we take Sigarda’s reflections at their word, then Avacyn took her decision to its grim conclusion, and it was a sad day for the angels of the plane. They lost one of their leaders and several of their other sisters and that was a tragedy despite the fact that their sister(s) had been corrupted by the very forces they sought to combat their entire life.
But what if it wasn’t so? What if Avacyn was unable to kill both the demon and the rogue angel? What if she instead banished them to the moon? The card Mad Prophet from Avacyn Restored has the flavour text as such:
“There’s no heron in the moon! It’s a shrew, a five-legged shrew, with a voice like whispering thunder!”
What is the significance of this quote? Lots of people have sought to derive some meaning from this, particularly since the next set is called Eldritch Moon. There is a lot of hints pointing towards the moon in Shadows Over Innistrad, particularly as many of the Moonfolk Planeswalker Tamiyo’s findings into the “madness” afflicting the plane have derived a relation to the moon itself. The recent story The Drownyard Temple makes a number of references to the same. The moon’s orbit has shifted and something is pulling it towards Innistrad. Whatever it is that Nahiri has been doing all across the plane, inciting people to discontent and promoting strange cults and worse, she has a hand in all of this.
My theory can be summed up as such: Nahiri knows of the horror trapped in the moon of Innistrad. And this horror is the demon that turned one of the original angels of the plane to the path of darkness. It could even be that this demon is one who is comparable in power to Griselbrand. Shadows Over Innistrad even has a powerful demon already in the Profane Prince Ormendahl, the benefactor of the Westvale cultists. We could have two powerful demons make their presence felt on Innistrad in the vaccuum left behind with the death of Griselbrand. Nahiri’s ultimate goal is to make Innistrad suffer as Zendikar suffered under the Eldrazi. With Kozilek and Ulamog destroyed, and Emrakul missing, Nahiri has simply sought out another major threat to hold against the plane. And the moon is right there in the heavens above Innistrad. The demon trapped within the moon has been testing its prison over the years of its banishment and has found some chinks in the armour. It has been whispering to random cultists and scholars and demagogues and prophets, but none of that really went anywhere until Nahiri’s manipulation of the plane’s leylines has destabilized the flow of pure mana and brought the moon closer to the plane.
In my opinion, the final battle for Innistrad will occur with the heroes fighting against a resurgent demon and a corrupted angel in the form of the unnamed and supposedly-dead sister. Liliana will be the saviour of Innistrad, something that will royally piss off Sorin, who has always seen himself as the Lord and Protector of Innistrad. Jace and Tamiyo are already caught in the crossfire between Sorin and Nahiri. Nahiri will be redeemed in the end. Avacyn will already be dead by then, as we’ve seen in the art and flavour text of Anguished Unmaking. Sigarda will face off against Bruna and Gisela, performing a grim duty that the sisters all ignored once before, and she will ultimately be the lone guardian angel over the plane, left to carry on her noble purpose in solitude.
Maybe my theory is completely bonkers. It is certainly outlandish to a degree. But I think it is also the most plausible one and it works with what we already know and doesn’t involve any more elements outside of Innistrad as are absolutely necessary.