Amonkhet Story Retrospective
(Note: When I went on hiatus back in April, it was largely to focus on my degree, but it would be dishonest not to admit that some part of me also felt that, as the stories got better and better each week, I was dissatisfied with my recaps. Going forward, I hope consolidating my articles into a block-wide retrospective, rather than individual weekly reviews, will prove more insightful and a more worthwhile read.)
The Architects of Amonkhet’s Demise
Each block’s story is a collaborative effort; it’s one of the things I admire most about Magic. Because we are covering a story by many authors, let’s meet each one.
Michael Yichao—Michael is an author whose robust prose displays an enviable command of metaphor. Writing an Impressive six stories this block is a hell of a way to go out. Yichao recently left Wizards for a job at ArenaNet where I’m sure we will continue to craft excellent tales.
Alison Luhrs– Alison is an absolute powerhouse, having writing four stories in a row (one was a Ravnica interstitial I’ll try to cover at a later date) With her clear, concise yet casual voice and sharp sense of humor, it is unsurprising her stories tend to be fan favorites.
Ken Troop– Ken has a knack for the grim, having penned stories both here and back in Shadows of Innistrad that are basically montages of people dying horribly. Not only is his skill in writing the horrific put to good use here, particularly in Hour of Devastation’s Titular and finale Episode, but a specific seed in particular that he planted in past block seems to be coming to fruition…
Kelly Digges– While a skilled writer overall, where Kelly truly excels is in the internal and introspective: realms he can describe and explore as well as any concrete space. It is unsurprising many of his works feature blue mages.
James Wyatt-A veteran Writer of both Magic and Dungeons and Dragons, Wyatt is well versed in writing about both the grand worldbuilding details and the more personal details of faith and morality. He’s only credited with one story this block, but as always, he uses his ability to use clear, plain yet evocative language to draw the audience into Magic’s vivid worlds.
Doug Beyer– Author of the much-missed Savor the Flavor Column, Doug has always been there to give the fans insight into the creative process of Magic. He helped codify the voice and tone of post-mending Magic with his novel Alara Unbroken, which also followed a plane victim of Bolas’s nefarious plots.
And that’s just the credited authors. A whole team, led by Kimberly Kreines, worked to build the world of this story. I reached out to Kimberly to ask about what it was like creating a world knowing it was doomed. She explained that the opportunity to decide how it was doomed made the process more palatable, like the satisfaction child takes in building and then destroying a sandcastle.
What was Amonkhet About?
A World Built to Fall.
The story of Amonkhet is a story of tragedy. Truly there was no way for the heroes to win. Were they to wait and prepare, Amonkhet would already be razed by the time they arrived. Leaving immediately then was the ‘right’ choice, it at least gave them opportunity, but with two days and no foreknowledge, it is unsurprising that the Gatewatch failed to stop Bolas or save Amonkhet. If there is one thing the story, art flavor text and even mechanics drive home, it’s they never had a chance. In many ways the structure of a tragedy can be applied all the way back to the Gatewatch’s inception. Their first victory was pyrrhic, their second was, from a cosmic perspective, a forfeit, and Kaladesh may have been saved, but Bolas still got what he wanted. They have had very little luck up till now, just enough to get by, but that luck has run out.
Bolas corrupted an ancient Amonkhetu ritual into the Trials, and in doing so raised a generation to believe their actions, the constant steam of deaths, were pious. The right decisions given the information available, but still, defeat. Thorough complete defeat.
The Finale of Amonkhet Block, Hour of Devastation by Ken Troop, crystallizes this hopelessness particularly well and caps off the apocalyptic tale with the chilling tactic of segmenting the story by each Gatewatch member’s defeat, slowly stripping away the last shards of hope, slowly, deliberately, until nothing is left. Then, after everything else, after all out heroes have fled, we are let privy to one final horror, a betrayal. Ral Zarek has been an agent of Bolas this entire time.
The sun guided across the sky by a god; life flourishing thanks to a sole, bountiful river; the world’s treatment of death. The plane’s Egyptian inspiration goes deeper than animal headed gods and pyramids. So too does its destruction have real-world inspiration. It does not take a biblical scholar to note the river of blood, the locusts and the hailfire. Indeed Bolas’ return signaling the death of the Gods, and even more so the local belief this was a trial for the gods, echoes the Christian Bible’s Exodus 12:12. “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord.
Gideon’s spiritual experience on Amonkhet is a great enough part of the story that its beats functioned as the set’s story spotlight cards. First suggested in the Amonkhet Block when he reacts to Hazoret saving the Gatewatch out in the desert, Gideon’s grappling with faith has been a through line since he was Kytheon Iora, a name that Oketra invokes when first they meet.
Gideon’s experience with Oketra and the reblossoming of his faith led many to hope for a positive resolution to this arc. Even Gideon himself wonders if he is Gideon or Kytheon.
“You can call me Gideon. Some find it easier.”
Djeru dropped one arm and leaned in conspiratorially. “But what is the name on your heart?”
I paused. “For a long time now, it has been Gideon.”
The warmth of Oketra radiated beside me, and I frowned. “I am less certain.”
-Brazen by Michael Yichao
We should have known better, I think most of us, in our hearts, did. In the Trial of Ambition, Gideon saw the true nature of the Trials and once again came into conflict with a God of Black Mana.
He survived, but most of the crop of initiates he had joined did not. An echo of the day his spark ignited. This led him on the path to intervening against the divine in the Trial of Zeal, though this is not a full rebuke of Amonkhet’s gods. When Oketra is felled by the scorpion god, Gideon still mourns.
Apart from Gideon, Nissa gets the most focus of the Gatewatch. Her newfound connection to Blue Mana manifesting itself as the drive to unravel the mysteries of Amonkhet (or, rather vice versa). Her discovering the pantheon once held eight gods, her ability to manipulate the leylines that make up a god, her grasping the control magic of the cartouches before Jace, and on a less blue note, her ability to hold her own so well without magic in the Trial of Zeal all add up to a level of competency which borders on “Creator’s Pet” Syndrome.
I can do anything I want. Anything at all. Remember that.”
The angel came closer . . .
Nissa woke with a scream, sweat already cooling on her brow. Emrakul.
The monster had taken over her body back on Innistrad. But those words were not just Emrakul’s. They were Nissa’s as well.
-The Hand That Moves by Ken Troop
However, she is saved from this based on what we discover in Ken Troop’s “The Hand that Moves” there is another force with in Nissa, whispering in her mind, a voice we had last heard in Troop’s previous story “ The Promised End.” Yes, some vestige of Emrakul seems to have hitched a ride with Nissa and the boon of power that grants her will surely come at a price somewhere down the line.
Samut is an interesting case. Hour of Devastation was the first set, and presumably first story, to incorporate the feedback they had received: too much focus on the Gatewatch.
While other Characters such as Hapatra get incredible episodes, Samut and her journey from dissenter to Planeswalker is one the strongest connective tissues of the block. Her relationship with Djeru is a microcosm of many parts of Amonkhet’s tale. Conflict between Samut’s doubt and Djeru’s faith digs at matters of belief that Gideon’s arc only begins to touch on. Samut’s learning the old ways, of how Hazoret was once more than an executioner, echoes Nissa’s discoveries.
Freeing Samut is what brought the Gatewatch together for the mid-block finale and she does much the same thing for their thematic journeys. Leaving her to help the few survivors of Amonkhet is a thread we can only hope leads to something lighter and more hopeful in the future.
It should come as no surprise Bolas subjugated gods as part of his grand plan. It is the sort of self-amused humor that he also applies to the naming of the Hours.
Violence is an act that cannot be taken back or amended halfway through. It is begun, then ended. The dragon’s choices must be the same. No doubt. No hesitation or uncertainty. Merely violence.
-Hour of Revelation by Alison Luhrs
Hour of Devastation was marketed as Bolas’ Endgame, and I feel that there, it falls short. Of Bolas’ previous machinations, only the planar portal from last block feeds into the plan of an interplanar zombie army. Why release the Eldrazi? Why send Tezzeret to New Phyrexia?
Granted, it does manage to pull a nice twist by adding Project Lightning Bug into the mix, but it’s still a bit… small. Granted Bolas himself muses on how many underestimate simpler plans, and surely this is not the only plot Bolas has in motion. More context still would have been nice.
A thought occurred to me as I wrote and organized this retrospective: Perhaps Amonkhet was already dead when we found it. I do not mean this as a metaphor for its being doomed but rather that Amonkhet died when Bolas corrupted it. That the City of Naktamun, past wiped away and twisted into serving as a factory for Bolas’ Eternal army, is no more Amonkhet than the anointed, Eternals or those affected by the Curse of Wandering are their past selves.