This is going to be a bit different from most articles that look at Magic’s story. Instead of examining a piece or a trend from an in-world perspective or critiquing it as a reader, I’ll be looking at the Eldrazi from the perspective of the authors that wrote them. What challenges come with writing extradimensional beings, and what can writers learn from the year-long obsession Magic had with its tentacle monstrosities?

Let’s start simple: What are the Eldrazi? Their bio on the WotC site has this to say: “Unspeaking creatures of the Blind Eternities, The Eldrazi’s existence is marked only by their constant consumption of all energy and matter around them.”

So the Eldrazi are big, monstrous entities that exist to consume everything and are apparently incapable of communication. They’re also at least partially inspired by Cthulhu, which makes them Magic’s take on Lovecraftian horror. As the story progresses we learn more about them: the non-legendary Eldrazi aren’t really separate beings but are instead extensions of the three titans, connected to their “masters” in ways that no one really comprehends. In addition, the Eldrazi that we see represented on creature cards aren’t their true form, but rather pieces of massive beings reaching into the plane from the Blind Eternities.

Beyond that they’re defined by “the unknown.” Weird senses, impossible biology, paradoxical powers, inscrutable motives. You name it, and the Eldrazi have a version of it that doesn’t make sense. The whole point of them is that they exist in a way that is beyond mortal understanding—and beyond most immortal understanding, for that matter. They are not meant to be relatable, understandable, or redeemable. They simply are.

This is a fascinating concept—as evidenced by the fact that Lovecraft’s works of cosmic horror are still alive and well almost a century after being written—but it poses a number of problems for anyone who wants to write Eldrazi or similar cosmic beings. The problem is twofold.

Problem One

First is the physical and descriptive side. I’ve mentioned this before, but the Eldrazi have weird and often impossible biology. On cardboard that’s relatively easy to portray through artwork, but on the page it’s infinitely harder. By definition the appearance, movements and actions of the Eldrazi all fall outside of what our language can easily describe. So if you want to adequately capture and Eldrazi on the page it requires painstaking description of even the smallest detail because there are no single words to describe them. They do not “walk” or “run” or “punch” because those words exist to describe what the Eldrazi fundamentally aren’t.

When executed poorly you wind up with a story like The Liberation of Sea Gate, where even the greatest Eldrazi threat is reduced to vague, difficult to picture masses of tentacles that kill or die more or less without impact on the story. Factually we understand the loss they caused, but I can’t truthfully say they’re horrifying. Any force of nature or zombie horde would fill their role in the story just as well. When dealing with a force like the Eldrazi, that means that something isn’t right. They should be iconic.

If you want to see a good example of how the otherworldly threat needs to be written, look no further than Kozilek’s reveal in The Rise of Kozilek:

The alien shape that rose above the landscape was horribly familiar. A crown of jet-black blades rested upon the nothing that ought to be the thing’s head—impossibly flat, impossibly black, like holes in space. A mantle of shining carapace spread out beneath them. His enormous hands reached out, grasping, two swords of obsidian reaching back from his forearms.


With one lurch he was in the water, sending a wave surging across the bay. Another and he stood before Sea Gate. He raised one enormous arm and swung, and the gleaming white stone of the sea wall seemed to stretch beneath it, to melt, to flow out and around in spiraling squares the color of oil on water. Kiora watched helplessly as the Halimar Sea, its water level held high above the ocean by Sea Gate itself, began to pour through the gap, cascading around Cosi’s arm in impossible geometries.

Everything about this scene exists to impart the reality of Kozilek—its scale, its grandeur, its impossibility.

Later on, when Kiora finally realizes what she’s up against, we get one of the best lines concerning the Eldrazi: “Thassa had hated her. Cosi couldn’t even see her.” Nothing conveys the insignificance of trying to fight the Eldrazi like that line. And that word is key. Insignificance. Lovecraftian Horror, the genus that inspired the Eldrazi, is ultimately about the fear that everything we accomplish as individuals or as a species (or multiple species, in Magic’s case) is meaningless in the face of a vast and uncaring (multi)verse. Cthulhu, Azathoth, Emrakul. Ultimately these beings aren’t characters so much as they’re forces, not of nature, but of something far beyond our comprehension.

Problem Two

And this brings us to the second problem: the narrative. Even more difficult than describing the monsters of Cosmic Horror is giving them a narrative role in a story without undermining their essence. Like most creatures of cosmic horror the Eldrazi can’t speak, so they have to convey a sense of purpose through their actions alone. At the same time it’s crucial that their motivations are never understood—that they are never understood. The Eldrazi are not supposed to be relatable or even comprehendible, and that is a hard feat to pull off.

For example, Ulamog relied too heavily on hunger and consumption to really come across as alien. He was eating a whole world instead of anything we would consider normal, but hunger and food are still things that we understand and the fact that Ulamog’s brood are shown to simply follow the largest concentrations of life makes them seem more like ravenous animals than otherworldly threats. This problem is further cemented by Ulamog’s portrayal in Aligned Hedron Network. The titan walking blindly into the trap Jace sets could be written off because it was beneath his notice, much like Kozilek overlooked Kiora later on. (It also helps that the hedrons are basically a plot device, barely understood by the characters and far beyond their ability to recreate if they need to.)

What isn’t excusable is how Gideon takes two direct strikes (tentacle slaps?) from Ulamog without getting hurt and then is very briefly able to hold the titan at bay. Yes, Gideon is both a planeswalker and invincible, so he’s far from a normal character. But the whole point of a cosmic threat is that they’re above such petty things as magic and technology. This is not because compelling and/or consistent reasons cannot be written for such powers to affect the Eldrazi, but because having a cosmic threat succumb and/or be thwarted by anything cuts away at their narrative function.

Which brings us to Zendikar’s Last Stand, and ho boy do I have problems with this story. To clarify, I actually think this story is well written—I enjoyed reading it, it’s logically consistent, and I think Doug Beyer did a great job given the story points he had to hit. The problem, however, is the story points themselves—the very concept behind this story and by extension the whole BfZ block.

To summarize very briefly: Nissa uses her grasp of the leylines to pull Ulamog and Kozilek from the Blind Eternities and anchors them in Zendikar. Doing so puts a horrendous strain of the plane and nearly destroys it, and at the last minute Chandra uses the leylines Nissa was channeling to create a massive explosion and kill both Eldrazi titans. Cue a huge field of gore and a celebration as the Zendikari realize that the threat is gone and they’ve really won.

Remember that word I said would be so crucial? Insignificance. Cosmic Horror is about the fear that our lives and choices don’t matter. Killing waves and waves of spawn didn’t do much to hurt that theme because they’re just tools for the real Eldrazi, but our heroes just killed two cosmic entities. It doesn’t really matter how or why. The simple fact that it can be done at all utterly destroys everything that the Eldrazi represent.

From a narrative standpoint, the Gatewatch needed to win, sure. It was the block where the group first formed, and I can understand the brand team wanting a team of conquering heroes to push as the face of the company. By the time they decided on the Gatewatch storyline Zendikar and therefore the Eldrazi would’ve been locked in already. I might not like it, but they were never going to sacrifice a world as popular as Zendikar. Even so, there are ways for the Gatewatch to come out on top without undermining the Eldrazi as future villains.

Ironically enough, while the ending of Oath of the Gatewatch murdered the story momentum of the very next block; Shadows over Innistrad block did a near-perfect job of maintaining (perhaps restoring?) the credibility of the Eldrazi for what seems to be a point in the distant future. While Ulamog and Kozilek’s deaths are final, the end of Emrakul is anything but. Instead of the titan dying, it’s imprisoned in Innistrad’s moon, which both leaves Innistrad to be ravaged by a new version of the Roil (although we don’t see that happen) and sets up the inevitability that Emrakul will one day escape, even if the seal hold for millennia like it originally did on Zendikar.

What’s more, Tamiyo reveals that Emrakul manipulated her into casting the sealing spell instead of simply destroying Innistrad like she planned. This completely takes away the planeswalkers’ agency and turns them into little more than tools for the Eldrazi to use and dispose of. What we thought was a great if costly victory turned out to be exactly what the villain wanted. It’s one of the darker endings in Magic’s recent history, and it perfectly fits the themes that the Eldrazi were built around.

And that is the crux of the whole issue. Short term-term victories for humanity can fit into the narrative of Cosmic Horror. People have made fun of Cthulhu because all it takes is getting rammed by a boat to send him back below the waves, but he’s still there, a threat for some later generation that will never really be defeated. It is only when such beings are killed or permanently destroyed that their threat, and therefore their identity is perverted beyond recognition.

To be fair, Wizards is aware of some of the mistakes the made. I’ll leave you with this quote, from one of Mark Rosewater’s Podcasts:

The Eldrazi are interesting story characters, but they’re interesting in small doses. They’re a great threat, like kinda what you want is if the heroes don’t save the day the threat is the Eldrazi, but the Eldrazi aren’t the problems to solve.

Levi Byrne has been with the game since Worldwake and has a rabid love for fantasy writing that goes back decades. Despite some forays into Legacy he plays Commander almost exclusively, and has a love for the crazy plays and huge games that make Magic what it is. He was the go-to advisor of his playgroup on deck construction for more than five years before joining Dear Azami. 

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