Welcome to our 2016 52 in 52 series. This year I will be reading 52 Magic: the Gathering novels spanning two decades of Vorthos lore. Each week I’ll share my review of the book along with a synopsis for those of you who are just interested in the core of the story.

52 in 52

Thousands of years before the Ice Age, and before the height of the Fallen Empires, and even before the Brothers War between Urza and Mishra there was The Thran, a mighty civilization that ruled over one of the largest continents of Dominaria. The Thran had mastered the art of channeling mana into power stones and used their abundance of stones to create a marvel of civilization including floating temples, flying ships, and advanced magical capabilities. When their chief engineer became ill with a disease that was only worsened by magical healing, the elders reached out to the exiled scientists of their empire. Among these brutish and archaic healers, with their scalpels and their bodily fluid examinations, was one man who was more knowledgeable than all the others. He was brought to Halcyon, the capital city of the Thran civilization to heal their master engineer. In time this healer would become the ruler of the Thran, and ultimately their destroyer.

His name was Yawgmoth.

The Thran
by J. Robert King

The Thran is unlike all of the other books we’ve read for one very simple reason: our main character is the villain of the story. Yawgmoth is perhaps Magic’s most well-known villain, despite dying on-camera at the end of the expansion Apocalypse, back in the summer of 2001, almost 15 years ago. There’s a good reason for this. For the better part of Magic’s early years, he was the only villain. As the lord and master of Phyrexia and father of the machines, Yawgmoth was the foil to the all-powerful Urza Planeswalker, hero of the multiverse. Their battles ravaged Dominaria and ultimately left it in ruin. But let’s talk about Yawgmoth the healer. Yawgmoth the wise. Yawgmoth before Phyrexia.

Yawgmoth is introduced to us as lean, strong, dark-skinned, dark-haired, tall, and any number of other perfect physical descriptors. He’s observant and he is cautious and above all else he is a huge asshole. He is summoned to Halcyon to tend to Glacian, the chief engineer who was attacked while working in the caves below Halcyon. He was stabbed by a cave-dweller (who we’ll get to shortly) and Glacian contracted a disease which could not be healed by the Thran’s magical healers. So Rebbec, who is Glacian’s wife and the chief architect of Halcyon, summoned Yawgmoth to heal her husband of the disease (which Yawgmoth named phthisis).

The reader should never doubt that Yawgmoth is evil. From the very start he is cold and calculating in every move he makes and every word he says. His goals are absolute power over the people who wrongly exiled him. A recurring theme of Yawgmoth’s existence is exacting revenge on those who have wronged him, and the entire Thran civilization has wronged him by exiling him for his science. Of course, that science involves engineering plagues and then using them to study different species while leveraging his healing to put him in places of power. But he manipulates and deceives so well that you don’t realize it until it’s already too late.

This will be demonstrated time and time again with two key characters. Glacian never buys into Yawgmoth’s lies, constantly demanding that he be left to die rather than be a pawn for Yawgmoth’s manipulations. His wife, Rebbec, however, is blinded by her desire to see her husband healed, then finds herself falling for the young healer who is charming and kind to her while her husband grows cold and cynical. But no one is more manipulated than the underworld rebel who led the raids on the power stone equipment in the caves and attacked Glacian. That man was brought up from the caves by Yawgmoth to be studied alongside Glacian. His name was Gix.

Gix hated Yawgmoth and he hated Glacian and he hated the Thran and pretty much everything in life but there was one thing he feared above all else: death. This fear allowed Yawgmoth to manipulate Gix time and time again, first into helping him learn more about the disease, then into helping him gain control of the cave-dwelling undercity refugees, and finally into turning Gix into the general of his Phyrexian army. Gix always hated Yawgmoth but decided he would rather serve in hell than die and go to who knows where.

So we have our major players. Glacian, the dying engineer. Rebbec, his wife and brilliant architect, object of affection for Yawgmoth. Gix, the charismatic but fearful leader of the underground rebels. And finally, Yawgmoth, the genius but deranged eugenicist, preying on the fears of the Halcyon society to ascend to higher and higher levels of power in a long-term plot to exact revenge for wrongs committed against him. Things are going pretty well for Yawgmoth. He has the entire city under his thumb including Rebbec. No one is listening to Glacian’s pleas. Gix has become the leader of the underground and has turned it over to Yawgmoth.t

And then we meet Dyfed. Dyfed is a planeswalker who was once a Thran and she has discovered that Glacian has the planeswalker spark within him, but the phthisis is preventing him from ascending and Dyfed cannot heal him. Yawgmoth overheard this and demands to be proven that the multiverse exists. Dyfed does so (something modern ‘walkers cannot do) and Yawgmoth’s reality is shattered. He now knows his true destiny in life is to rule not just Dominaria but the whole multiverse.

Dyfed explains, much to Yawgmoth’s dismay, that becoming a planeswalker is something you’re born with, and that Yawgmoth can never become a planeswalker. Yawgmoth files that under “things to deal with later” and asks Dyfed to find him a relatively uninhabited paradise. He wants to bring all of the sick phthisis patients to a new world far away from the power stones in order to heal them properly. Dyfed obliges and finds an artificial plane whose creator recently died. The plane itself is also dying as a result, and Dyfed brings Yawgmoth there to see if it will accept him as its new master. Of course this artificial plane which is mostly a machine world accepts Yawgmoth as its new master and Yawgmoth names the world Phyrexia.

Soon Yawgmoth begins moving more and more patients to be healed in the infirmary on Phyrexia when an alliance of non-human races and some of the fringe human tribes and citiy-states of the Thran decide they’ve had enough of Yawgmoth. They assemble an army with the intent of marching on Halcyon if Yawgmoth does not cease what he’s doing. They claim he has been manufacturing diseases to put himself in places of power within their societies. Here we now have a new group that can see through Yawgmoth’s bullshit but the Halcyte’s don’t care. They are enamored with his science and his promises of glory.

Yawgmoth decides to hold the emissaries from the Thran Alliance hostage and this is when Rebbec starts to mis-trust him. They’re just diplomats after all. Rebbec summons Dyfed and asks her to take the diplomats away from Yawgmoth. She obliges and brings them and their goblin servants to a world called Mercadia (fore-shadowing). Eventually Dyfed discovers the truth about Yawgmoth and confronts him on Phyrexia. Thinking herself immortal, Yawgmoth stabs her in the head with a dagger and scrambles her brains to prevent her from planeswalking. He then uses a machine to keep her alive while his servants dissect her looking for the “planeswalking organ.”

War between Phyrexia and the Thran begins and it is very bloody. It turns out Yawgmoth wasn’t actually healing anyone of phthisis. He was actually creating the first generation of Phyrexian warriors, using science and eugenics to turn dying people (of a disease he probably gave them) into obedient, murdering monsters. Rebbec is stolen away to Phyrexia while Glacian is left in a life-support chamber, dying a little more every day. Yawgmoth is preserving Glacian in case he can’t find the “planeswalking organ” in Dyfed.

Eventually the Thran prove to be a great match for the Phyrexians and Yawgmoth has to leave Phyrexia to command his troops (including Gix) in person. Rebbec takes this opportunity to exert her own will over Phyrexia, allow Dyfed to die in peace, and escape back to Dominaria through a portal Dyfed had created linking the two planes. While examining her husband Rebbec finally learns the awful truth about Yawgmoth. He never intended to heal her husband. Sewn into his temple she finds two large powerstones that Yawgmoth put in there which surely kept him from healing. She removes the stones and discovers that they are the two halves of the key stone to seal Dyfed’s portal.

To wrap things up, Yawgmoth detonates some nuclear devices all over the Thran Alliance and then returns to Phyrexia triumphant before realizing what Rebbec has done. Rebbec reassembles the key stone and discovers that Glacian’s spark now resides in it. He tells her to place the stone on the pedestal and that he will guard over the gate for all eternity. Yawgmoth pleads with her to come back to him but he refuses to step into Dominaria for fear that she will cut him off from his new world. In the end Rebbec closes the portal, sealing Yawgmoth away, and walks out of the caves and into the irradiated wastes of Dominaria.

Overall Rating: 4.5 — What’s not to love about this story? Yawgmoth is a great villain as he manipulates his way to what he believes is perfection. Glacian is the genius foil, trying desperately at every turn to thwart Yawgmoth though no one will hear him out. In the end the people finally realize their folly but it is too late. Still, Rebbec is able to make one last sacrifice and and free the world of Yawgmoth forever, though there isn’t much of a world left once he’s through with it.

From a Vorthos perspective there’s a lot to love in this story but first and foremost this is the story of the birth of Phyrexia and truly this is the prologue for the story of Urza Planeswalker, which for many years and for many fans today is the definitive Magic story. If/when the Magic the Gathering motion picture comes out, and it isn’t about Urza vs. Yawgmoth, there will be disappointed fans (you’ve been warned).

Next Week’s Book—The Brothers War by Jeff Grubb

What’s there to say about this book? This is where it all begins. On a small dig site in Argive, thousands of years after the fall of the Thran civilization, two young brothers will be dumped in the hands of an archaeologist named Tocasia. The brothers would become talented and powerful archaeologists in their own right but one day they would discover a power stone and both Urza and Mishra would end up with half of that power stone and the multiverse would never be the same afterwards.

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52 in 52 is a weekly feature here at Hipsters of the Coast written by former amateur Magic Player Rich Stein, who came really close to making day two of a Grand Prix on several occasions. Each week we will take a look at the past seven days of major events, big news items, and community happenings so that you can keep up-to-date on all the latest and greatest Magic: the Gathering community news.

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