Robert & Jeanna

The Art of Magic: the Gathering – Zendikar & Plane Shift: Zendikar – Review

Hey there, everyone. Sorry we have been radio silent of late, though if you haven’t heard, we have had two new additions to the Forgot My Dice family! Yes, a lot of our time is being eaten up with newborn twins, but we’re still here, making content when we can. That being said, let’s get to this months review!

The Multiverse of Magic: The Gathering

Most of the fluff for Magic: The Gathering revolves around planeswalkers, which are normal mortals who have a “spark” that allows them to travel from plane to plane. Planeswalkers aren’t much more powerful than a normal mortal, but they are typically gifted at learning magic, and they have the ability to easily learn spells and magical traditions from a wide variety of sources. Any sentient being can erupt as a planeswalker, and current planeswalkers in the lore include Humans, Dragons, a Vampire, a Golem, a Ghost, Merfolk, an Elf, and many more. Because of this Magic: The Gathering has a multiverse of several different worlds, of which Zendikar is one of many. Other planes include Ravnica, Shandalar, Kaladesh, and Innistrad, just to name a few. While planeswalkers are very cool, however, keep in mind the role-playing supplement focuses on Zendikar as the main game setting and not for planeswalker player characters or campaigns that involve traveling between planes.

In addition to planeswalkers, there is a race of unfathomable beings known as the Eldrazi Titans that can that can travel “the blind eternities” that exist between the planes. Nobody knows what the Eldrazi are nor how they were born or made. They only know that they consume planes, leaving nothing but barren rocks unfit for life. In the distant past, a trio of Planeswalkers, the spirit dragon Ugin, the Vampire Sorin, and the Kor Nahiri, trapped the three known Eldrazi on the plane of Zendikar, and the multiverse has been free from their hunger ever since. In short, the Eldrazi are the Magic: The Gathering version of the Great Old Ones (e.g. Cthulhu). They mutate living beings, warp the world around them, create horrific monsters, cause madness, etc. Everything that a Great Old One needs.

The Art of Magic: The Gathering – Zendikar

The plane of Zendikar was introduced in the 2009 Magic: The Gathering card set called Zendikar. These sets were followed by Worldwake, Rise of the Eldrazi, and a few years later Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch. This book covers art and lore from all five sets. Organized into 8 chapters, the first gives you a rundown of the Magic: The Gathering multiverse and the Planeswalkers that have had a key role in the Zendikar storyline. The second chapter is a broad overview of the world of Zendikar. Chapter 3 is about the Eldrazi and how they came to be imprisoned on Zendikar. Chapter 4 details the six races native to Zendikar: Humans, Elves, Merfolk, Vampires, Kor, and Goblins. Chapter 5 drills down into specific areas of Zendikar, such as the few cities that exist and other notable areas. Chapter 6 explains how the Eldrazi eventually escaped the prison they were in. Chapter 7 is a bestiary of creatures native to Zendikar, as well as the Eldrazi horrors that were spawned by their presence. Finally, the short final chapter discusses how they captured the feel of Zendikar in the Magic: the Gathering cards.

As a D&D campaign setting, this book is an engaging read. The awesome stories and art provide a giant springboard for adventure ideas. There are a lot of detail on the world before the Eldrazi escaped their prison, and what changes their escape made to it. Personally, the most interesting part was that since the Eldrazi were imprisoned so long ago, what they were has faded into myth. They’re remembered not as the consuming titans that they are, but instead as a trio of gods that are worshiped by some of the natives of Zendikar, mostly the Merfolk, whose religion has then spread to others. The existential crisis that Zendikar natives must have surely felt when their gods revealed themselves to be horrific madness-inducing monsters is great role-playing fodder. Before the Eldrazi escaped, most people thought the ruins scattered around Zendikar were made by a lost ancient race, which they called the Eldrazi, a word that to them that is akin to our concept of the Atlanteans. They didn’t realize the ruins were the cities of the humans, Merfolk, Elves, etc, before the Eldrazi were imprisoned on their world.

The world of Zendikar is also quite a departure from a normal D&D setting. Because the Eldrazi are imprisoned within the planet, the world itself is trying to purge or kill them, and the landscape of Zendikar is always shifting and changing. Earthquakes are common, as are mountains that rise up overnight, volcanos, fast-growing forests, and floating islands. These changes sweep the lands as elemental storms, natives call “the roil.” There are very few “cities” on Zendikar, and while they are big by native standards, they are quite small compared to other settings. This gives the world a very primal, “lost world” feeling. There are plenty of unexplored areas in Zendikar, and even a previously explored area could change radically as the years pass. Also, floating around Zendikar are gigantic hedrons, which are stones that were obviously artificially constructed and are filled with magic. Some are dead and dormant on the ground, but many are still floating. In reality, these are the bars of the cage that holds the Eldrazi at bay, and every year that cage slowly grows weaker.

The setting also features interesting lore of the various races. I particularly liked the mix of standard high fantasy races (Humans, Goblins, and Elves) with non-standard races (the Kor, Merfolk, and Vampires). Humans of Zendikar are basically the standard-issue humans; they are the main city builders, but some also live in the wilderness in tribes. Elves fall into the “Wood Elf” variety that live in trees and practice nature magic. Goblins, however, are a departure from standard D&D. For instance, they eat rocks, but since the Eldrazi have corrupted the earth, the Goblins have taken to eating the magic-infused hedrons instead, which have hardened their skin and infused them with strange energies.

Merfolk are a race of aquatic humanoids, though unlike traditional Mermaids, they do not have fish tails. Instead, they have fins on their arms and legs and webbed feet which allow them to swim. The myths about the gods are mostly created by the Merfolk, and their culture is split into tribes that take on different aspects of the gods. Vampires were humans that were corrupted by the Eldrazi Ulamog. Because of this, a large portion of the Vampire population joined the Eldrazi when they escaped from their prison. However, about a quarter of them did not, and they joined forces with the people they traditionally hunted and ate. There are three types of Vampires: the Bloodchiefs, normal Vampires, and the Vampire Nulls. The twelve Bloodchiefs, which are the original people that were infected by the Eldrazi, have the ability to turn mortals into vampires. The vast majority of Vampire characters are those directly turned by the Bloodchiefs. If a normal Vampire attempts to make another Vampire, their victim turns into a deformed, murderous, eyeless thrall known as a Vampire Null. Lastly, the Kor are a race of climbers and explorers that tend to live in the mountains. Their skin is paper white, and the men have tentacles instead of beards. Nahiri the Planeswalker is a Kor.

Where the book fails as a D&D setting is that while there are a ton of awesome images and detailed location descriptions, Zendikar has no official map, so where these things are in relation to each other is unknown. What little is said about the land is that there are seven continents (though by the end of the series there were only five, due to two of them being eaten by the Eldrazi during their escape). There are plenty of fan-made maps on the Internet, but it’s still annoying if you’re trying to setup a D&D campaign in that setting. Also, the book focuses on the big story arc that took place over the five Zendikar Magic card sets. So the big, named heroes get a lot of attention on what they were doing during their battles with the Eldrazi, but the little people, such as adventurers, get very little coverage. So figuring out your adventuring party’s role in a Zendikar-based campaign is a bit of a challenge.

Basically, as a role-playing campaign setting, Zendikar’s scale is way off. It focuses on the big names, the big events, and the big picture, whereas most other settings focus on the smaller scale stuff that normal player characters can get involved in, at least in early levels. Plus, all the lore for this setting as well as the events of the Eldrazi’s escape has been written out and is “set in stone.” There aren’t any spots in the story that can easily fit in the player characters, while keeping the canon intact. While none of this is unexpected as the book was not written to be a campaign setting, the Dungeon Master will have to do some work to get the players involved in the main storyline. By inventing a place for them to join the main characters, or just dumping the “canon” story and forcing the players to figure out how to deal with the Eldrazi.

Plane Shift: Zendikar

Plane Shift: Zendikar is a 38-page PDF supplement that is intended to be combined with the art book to create a D&D setting. It is broken into 3 parts: the World of Zendikar, the Races of Zendikar, and a Zendikar Bestiary.

The World of Zendikar is a condensed version of what’s in the art book, though there’s greater focus on the types of ruins that players may explore. The Magic: The Gathering card set Zendikar originally had a focus on “questing” and this part of the PDF attempts to put that back in the spotlight. Characters in Zendikar are sponsored by powerful people or groups to explore the ancient ruins, looking for monsters, artifacts, and knowledge about what led to the cataclysm that made Zendikar the way it is. The PDF breaks up the ruins players will investigate into three basic ages: Pre-Eldrazi, when the world was more of a standard D&D high fantasy world; Eldrazi-Era, from the brief period of time that Sorin, Ugin, and Nahiri converted the world into a prison of the Eldraz; and lastly Post-Eldrazi Ruins, which are cities and places that were destroyed by the shifting landscape of Zendikar. This is a great chapter to help setup player adventures, since I’ve mentioned that is the main problem with the setting.

Races of Zendikar gives you D&D stats for all the races from the art book. The art book is required reading for all these races, because while they do give you a little fluff, it’s not a lot. Humans are standard humans from the PHB, and the Kor are basically tall halflings that get proficiency in the athletics skill. However, the Merfolk stats nail the themes from the art book perfectly in that they reflect the three Merfolk sub-races based on each of their three gods. Keep in mind, the gods of the Merfolk are based off the stories of the Eldrazi themselves, so when they come back, there is gonna be some existential crises in Merfolk society. The Vampires are also setup to reflect the fluff of Zendikar. My only problem with them is that the PDF and art book specifically mention that Vampires can create Vampire Nulls, but there are no rules on if or how a Vampire Null can be controlled, if a player character Vampire chooses to create one. In addition, if your game is set before the Eldrazi escape from their prison, there is no reason for a Vampire to hang out with the other races as they are just food to them at this point. As for the other races, the Zendikar Goblins have three sub-races based on the tribe they come from, and unlike the Monster Manual goblins, they have taken on a stony nature after eating Hedrons for generations. Lastly, the Zendikar Elves also have three sub-races based on which Elven city they came from, though stats-wise they are similar to standard D&D Elves.

Last but certainly not least is the section titled Zendikar Bestiary. This has a mix of re-skinning existing monsters from the Monster Manual as well as brand new monsters. The new monsters are the Archon of Redemption, the Felidar, and the Zendikar Kraken. The rest of the monster entries are just re-skinned versions of Monster Manual creatures, most of the instructions for using them was “use the stats for this, but show a picture out of the art book.” While I found that a little annoying, there really isn’t a reason to redesign the wheel and the monster choices for each creature was appropriate. Plus, for any Dungeon Master that has never done so before, it’s a great way to practice creating “new” monsters that use an existing monster’s stats but giving a different description to the players.

The biggest weakness of this PDF is that there is little to no mention of classes. The closest they get to it is when they mention that Druids are just casters of green mana. I was rather annoyed with this oversight since the way mana colors work in Magic: The Gathering is somewhat different from the normal D&D Arcane and Divine magic system. And some explanation of how the various class options would have worked in this setting would have been helpful. Because there are no “real gods” in Zendikar (since the gods the humans and Merfolk worship are based on misremembered stories of the Eldrazi), how do Clerics actually get spells from gods? Or are they just tapping into white mana, kind of like a White Mage (Do you want to know more)? Also, the fluff mentions that Nahiri is a Lithomancer, or a wizard who taps into the energies of stones. That would make an awesome Sorcerer or Wizard path, but alas that’s not covered. And finally, some thoughts on how to convert backgrounds to fit into the Zendikar setting would have been helpful.

In short, while it’s a very good starting point, Plane Shift: Zendikar is a little incomplete. Now given, converting the vast fluff of Magic: The Gathering fit into D&D would’ve been a Herculean task, but offering some guidelines on how to convert it yourself (or at least hand wave away the differences) would have been handy. This packet left me wanting more. My hope is that they open up Zendikar on the DM’s Guild so we can get some fan-made content out there to fill some of the holes.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, I consider this experiment to merge D&D and Magic: The Gathering a success. While, as I have pointed out, there are some rough spots in each product, a dedicated Dungeon Master should be able to smooth them out to run a successful campaign set in Zendikar. The world is uniquely different, the images inspire ideas and adventures, and the “meta-plot” of Zendikar has a lot of inspiring twists and turns. Plus by making it a D&D setting Zendikar becomes your world, so you can keep or drop as much of the canon storyline as you want. What I’ve enjoyed most while exploring the world of Zendikar is just how different it is than any other D&D setting. It’s got a primal, savage feel — a bit like classic Dark Sun though Zendikar’s apocalypse is not about the death of nature but instead is about nature run amok.

The big weakness in using Zendikar as a setting is that the awesome secret of the setting, that the gods are actually monstrous horrors that eat planets, is already known. It’s such an awesome twist, but because Magic is so popular it’s going to be hard to find a group that doesn’t know that already. The Plane Shift: Zendikar packet doesn’t even try to hide it, neither did I in this review. Nevertheless, the art book is a great book, and it’s got a ton of fun ideas. The D&D rules PDF is solid and gives you new variations of Goblins, Elves, and Vampires for your home-brew setting. I highly recommend giving the PDF a read, and if you like it, I encourage you to check out the art book. Even if you don’t like playing Magic: The Gathering, there are tons of ideas from the fluff that you can steal — er… grab inspiration from. So next time, get some Magic in your D&D, no deck required!

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