Pattern Recognition #290 - The Cosmic Titans
20 July 2023
20 July 2023
Good day everyone! My name is berryjon, and I welcome you all to Pattern Recognition, TappedOut's longest running article series. I am something of an Old Fogey and a definite Smart Ass, and I have been around the block quite a few times. My experience is quite broad and deep, and so I use this series to try and bring some of that to you. Be it deck design, card construction, mechanics or in-universe characters and the history of the game. Or whatever happens to catch my attention each week. Which happens far more often than I care to admit. Please, feel free to talk about my subject matter in the comments at the bottom of the page, add suggestions or just plain correct me.
And so, with the release and reveal of the Preconstructed Commander deck focusing on the Eldrazi, I felt that it would be time to jump on the bandwagon and look at these creatures, what they are from an in- and out of-universe perspective, and from there do a bit of analysis and conjectutre. This won't be perfect by any means, but hey, we all have to start somewhere, right?
The Eldrazi started their existence thanks to the art direction of the Zendikar block that was being developed around 2007, with release of the set that named the block in 2009. You see, one of the things that popped up to help create a unifed 'stability' to the larger art that would be shown on the cards when one of the themes of the set was how the land was ever changing thanks to the Roil, were Hedrons. These 8 sided objects were intended to be a small degree of consistency that would show that these cards were all set on Zendikar. A few ideas were bandied about, from the use of Hedrons as ancient Kor markers that survived the Roil, to mysterious boxes that could open up to reveal a great treasure if you just knew how. The latter idea was particularly popular in-universe.
However, as Wizards developed the block, they realized that their initial design goal of creating their own Dungeons and Dragons setting (yes, that was the goal of Zendikar) wouldn't be able to reach out across three sets, so they moved to looking into something for the third set to tie everything together, much how the also-in-development Shards of Alara would wind up using Hybrid mana as its anchor-point. What they wound up doing was turning the Zendikar Block into a 2+1 Block, where the first two were mechanically tied together, but the third set, in this case, Rise of the Eldrazi, had the same setting, but did its own things.
What caused this was the introduction of the Eldrazi themselves. The exact person who came up with this idea isn't something I was able to find or figure out, but the Eldrazi were tied to the Hedrons in the art and helped explain their omnipresence in the setting. You see, the idea was that the Eldrazi were something from outside of Zendikar, and the Hedrons were the only things keeping them out. Or in. Or pinned in place. Or Zendikar pinned in place. They were something... OTHER.
The Eldrazi, as we players came to learn, were existences native to the Blind Eternities, the something-and-nothing that exists between the Planes, and requires either a Planeswalker's Spark, a dedicated portal or a piece of supreme mechanical engineering to cross. Instead, these creatures were at home there. And because of this, the Eldrazi did not have a color to them; as they were not part of any previously known cycle of magic across the multiverse. Which meant that for the first time, we had a proper Colourless aspect inside of a set, rather than something along the lines of Artifacts, as was the case with Mirrordin.
So stepping into game mechanics for a moment, the Eldrazi were expensive cards in the set, with the cheapest being Skittering Invasion, Not of this World and All is Dust at , and going all the way to (15!) with Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. This was a deliberate choice as many cards in the set created colourless Eldrazi Spawn 0/1 C cards; which you could sacrifice to create mana, a precursor of the far-into-the future Gold and Treasure.
From there, we got the real meat of the Eldrazi. You see, they were destroying everything in their path, from the land to the occupants to the very concepts that people held near and dear to them. This was represented in the game both through the aforementioned All is Dust which was a massive permanent wipe, as it didn't destroy anything, but forced the opponent to sacrifice instead. But the real killer, a mechanic that is pretty low on the Storm Scale of ever returning to Standard, was Annihilator.
This mechanic was very simple. When a creature with that ability attacks, the defender sacrifices N permanents, where N is the value of Annihilator. Please note that this was an attack trigger, not a damage trigger, nor a block trigger. You attack with an Eldrazi, and the defending player has to start losing permanents before they can decide how to block. This mechanic was pretty degenerate, as the game became a race to win before someone dropped their Eldrazi and started swinging, or get your Eldrazi out first. Artisan of Kozilek was infamous for cheating out Emrakul, the Aeons Torn or It That Betrays to quickly close out a game.
But it was too good, and players quickly soured on it, as it was a 'feel bad' mechanic, something you couldn't interact with except with a degree of prevention. You had to remove the creatures before they could do anything, but quite a few had built in preventative measures for that. Some just didn't die, some went back to your library after dying. It was difficult to overcome, so you either played the game that way, or you tried to fight against it and come away with a win before it could close out the game.
Now back to the story; The Eldrazi first appeared on Zendikar multiple millennium ago, and quickly began to unmake the Plane. In response, three Old Planeswalkers gathered to defend the Plane for various reasons. Nahiri, the Lithomancer because it was her home, Sorin Markov because he was her teacher, and was willing to help, and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, who had his own ineffible reasons for interceding. What they discovered, thanks to Ugin, was that the Eldrazi were feeding on Zendikar, as they acted like animals that were devouring a corpse more than anything else. But given that Zendikar still had life to it, they decided to try and save the Plane. Option One was to kill them, thanks to Sorin and supported by Nahiri, but that was shot down by Ugin on the grounds that they had no clue what the Eldrazi really were, and killing them could cause long-term damage to the multiverse.
So instead, they came up with the plan to seal the Eldrazi into the firmament of Zendikar. Ugin proposed this plan as it was the least dangerous and disruptive. By securing the filaments of the Eldrazi into containers that were affixed to the Leylines of Zendikar, they could put the larger Eldrazi into a form of torpor that would result in them no longer actively destroying the Plane. It didn't satisfy Nahiri, who wanted a more permanent solution, but Sorin threw his lot in with Ugin as the Spirit Dragon's plan was better than Nahiri's, which would require a lot more effort on his part.
So Nahiri created the Hedrons of Zendikar, Ugin helped bind the Eldrazi to them while Sorin ran interference. And they were successful! Zendikar was saved, though the plane was still in upheaval from the presence of the Eldrazi, a factor now called the Roil.
I'm going to skip petty interpersonal disputes at this point, but at some point, the Hedrons were losing their power, and Nahiri was able to stabilize them without the help of the other two. But this destabilization wasn't unnoticed, and what happened eventually reached the ears of Nicol Bolas.
Bolas investigated through some of his agents, and determined that he could benefit from breaking the Eldrazi out of their prisons, as he was still very interested in returning to his pre-Mending powers, and wanted to learn more about these mysterious creatures that lived in the Blind Eternities in their natural environment. And so thanks to some manipulations of Sarkhan Vol, Nissa Revane , Jace Beleren and with special guest-star Chandra Naalar's liberal application of Ghostfire, the Eye of Ugin was opened, and the linchpin holding the whole mess of Hedrons and Leylines were undone, and the Eldrazi were freed!
Bolas took one look at the things, and decided that they weren't going to advance his plans, and he sure as heck wasn't going to waste time or energy fixing things either. Not his problem!
These are the Eldrazi of Rise of the Eldrazi. However, due to ... interpersonal conflicts, Nahiri wasn't around to realize what was going on, and Sorin Markov was... a bit preoccupied. Yes. I'll go with that. He was otherwise occupied. This left a very rag-tag coalition of Planeswalkers to realize what was going on and try to fix things. Gideon Jura went around looking for allies, Nissa worked to stabilize the Plane while Jace Beleren did as much research as he could to figure things out. Chandra, who helped kick off this problem, went around killing and destroying the smaller Eldrazi as she could.
However, they were losing. The Eldrazi defied their expectations in that no matter how many they destroyed, there were always more coming. And the lands they turned into Wastes weren't able to be reverted back into normal lands. This is where we come back to Zendikar in Battle for Zendikar. In the intervening months, the Planeswalkers were trying to save the plane, and being driven back on all fronts, and they needed even more help to try and fix things.
Into the game itself, the Eldrazi were back, but they were diversifying as time had passed, and were being more aggressive in their attacks on the Plane itself. Gone was Annihilator, to everyone's relief, and in its place was Ingest. This represented less the presence of the massive Titans on the plane, and the growing armies of their Scions and Processors. Instead of destroying large swathes at a time, it was a death of a thousand cuts. To explain, when a creature with Ingest deals combat damage to a player, that player exiles the top card of their library. It was pseudo-mill, with all the ups and down that come with that.
In addition, Eldrazi also gained access to the Devoid mechanic. A card with this keyword was considered to be colourless for all purposes except for colour identity in formats where that matters. Which was annoying to some people as it raised confusion about what was and was not relevant to the colours of the card. In practice, it was mostly for flavor, but it did make the cards in question immune to cards that cared about colour. I can see what they were trying to do, but it didn't really land.
Because of the decompression of the sets, the first set, Battle for Zendikar, focused on Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and its lesser Brood Lineages, those lesser Eldrazi that came from that specific entity. Ulamog, as an Eldrazi, was more optimized for the consumption of the plane, and was the one causing the most terrain damage, and was responsible for the creation of the Wastes that others would use. The second set, Oath of the Gatewatch, the focus shifted to Kozilek, the Great Distortion, a Titan that broke down the laws of reality in its presence, making the Plane easier to undo.
But Ugin returned and basically threw the biggest hissy fit he could. All his work, broken! And these idiot Planeswalkers (Jace Beleren in particular) were planning on killing the Eldrazi! So he took them to task, and they gave him a very simple rebuttal: His Plan Didn't Work. It didn't work the first time as it would break down, and then it broke down again quite easily, so what was the point of trying again? But Ugin refused to relent, and forced his plan down the throats of everyone else.
Ob Nixilus, Reignited had other plans. Thanks to the destruction of the Hedron Network, he freed himself and decided that all these efforts to contain the Eldrazi could be better served for his purposes, and he sabotaged Ugin's attempts to get the Eldrazi recontained. This disruption led the assembled Planeswalkers to default to Plan B. The B standing in for BURN. They repurposed the Aligned Hedron Network into a trap, and instead of just anchoring the Eldrazi back into stasis, they pulled more and more of the Eldrazi into Zendikar, where Chandra would burn them to death.
Which she did! Two Eldrazi dead, and Ugin was beside himself with anger at how these idiots have probably ruined everything.
Except... well.... people couldn't count. Ulamog. Kozilek. Where was Emrakul?
Thanks to ... personal conflicts, Emrakul was no longer on Zendikar, instead being drawn across the Bling Eternities to a different place. Innistrad. There, the Titan began to work on the Plane in its own way, for as the others destroyed with their presence, Emrakul, the Promised End changed the nature of the plane into more of itself.
Mechanically, we got Double-faced cards in this set that represented individuals, groups and locations before and after their Eldrazification, such as with Lone Rider Flip. The Meld mechanic was introduced here as an experiment to show how Emrakul's influence would shape things into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, culminating in Brisela, Voice of Nightmares Meld Meld. However, Emrakul's real mechanic was the Emerge mechanic, which allowed a player to sacrifice a creature in order to cast an Eldrazi for a cost cheaper than its basic cost. This was representative of how Emrakul could spontaneously reshape something before it into something more subservient to the greater Titan.
But, because Innistrad is so heavily aligned with mana, Zombies and other undead were resistant, if not immune to Emrakul's influence. The Gatewatch, in pursuit of the missing Titan, arrived on Innistrad, and set about trying to locate and entrap it, recruiting the aid of Tamiyo, Field Researcher, and later on, Liliana, the Last Hope to combat the Eldrazi Titan.
With Jace's guidance and prep-work done, Tamiyo and Nissa made to reenact the containment spells of Ugin, but without the Leylines and raw power of Zendikar, they needed another place to ensnare and hold the Eldrazi, and it was as Tamiyo's suggestion, that they utilize Innistrad's moon - the Heron Moon. They begin their work, but realize that this might not be enough, and they struggle to finish their work when they receive help from an unexpected source.
Emrakul itself, utilizing a virtual avatar of Emeria, the Sky Goddess of Zendikar, reached out and communicated with the present Planeswalkers. It informed them that what was going on with Innistrad wasn't supposed to happen, and that Emrakul itself was never supposed to be here in the first place. Recognizing that it wasn't time for Innistrad to fall, Emrakul itself assisted Nissa and Tamiyo in sealing itself inside the moon.
The last of the Eldrazi that were known was now no longer a threat.
The Eldrazi represent a curious expansion in the Vorthos and flavor of Magic. Before that set, Magic as a setting drew from a variety of sources to build its own stories and settings, but it shied away from settings and concepts that could remove the magic from Magic. I've talked about technology in the game in the past, but this was something different.
The Eldrazi are the introduction of Cosmic Horror into the game. For those who haven't checked that link, this is a genre of story that was codified and inspired by the works of one H.P. Lovecraft. The man wrote stories which took the conceit that man was supreme and tossed that right out, making humanity into the lowest of the low. That the universe was filled with unknowable things. Thought, concepts, geometry and colors that would break our puny little minds by their presence.
The Eldrazi are these things. We are never meant to understand them. The best source about them that we have, Ugin, has his motivations about interacting with them start and end with "We have no idea what these things really are, and all we have is conjecture, hypothesis and hope. We should not mess with things we do not understand more than we have to" - advice with Jace in his infinite wisdom, tosses right out because he's the poster-boy of the game. Even the communication with Emrakul that we see in the end of Edritch Moon isn't a conversation, it's Jace (again) trying desperately to comprehend what we can only presume is Emrakul dumbing down its thoughts and decision making process to something approaching his level, and he still can barely understand it as just broken speech patterns and ideas. It's even made clear in the text that Emrakul itself seals itself away inside the Heron Moon for the relative safety of Innistrad and the Multiverse - and that which has been done can be undone by the same.
We don't know anything really about them. Not where they are from, what they are really doing when they destroy planes (though Ugin again conjectures that they are feeding on dead and dying planes, to recycle their material and existence, to make room for new Planes to emerge and grow on the cosmic scale of time. We don't know how many there are, where they are, how to find them, or how to avoid them. Killing Kozilek and Ulamog was impossible until the Gatewatch brought them into their conventional reality, and killed them there. They couldn't be harmed as they truly were.
And because of this, the Eldrazi are still in Wizard's back pocket, as something that could come again as a threat in the future, and be so without the stupidity of New Phyrexia or Nicol Bolas. You just create a new Titan and let it arrive somewhere, or pass by a Plane, taste it, and leave.
Or just have a Titan eat the Prison Plane and New Phyrexia and solve all my narrative problems in one stroke!
I liked the Eldrazi, and while there were certain misteps with them, they actually did add neat and interesting things to the game. They proved that true colourless cards worked, introduced to the game, and helped show that problems can spread from Plane to Plane more naturally and without needing acts of plot, like Realmbreaker.
I look forward to seeing the spoiled cards today after I get home from work, so please don't spoil them in the comments below. We have actual spoiler threads for that. Instead, comment about your experiences with the Eldrazi, and where do you think they can go from here?
Join me next week when I talk about something else. What? I don't know yet! I'm always open to suggestions.
Until then please consider donating to my Pattern Recognition Patreon. Yeah, I have a job, but more income is always better. I still have plans to do a audio Pattern Recognition at some point, or perhaps a Twitch stream. And you can bribe your way to the front of the line to have your questions, comments and observations answered!