Last Monday, I was watching the eclipse from the blood-warm shallow end of a swimming pool and yelling epithets at the looming thunderheads that were piling up to the east. At two o’clock, as the moon first scooped out a sliver of the sun, my friend floated by and told me about the eclipse that may have saved Christopher Columbus’ life.

Here’s the thumbnail, which should take about the same amount of time to read as it took for Monday’s moment of totality to pass: on an expedition to the Caribbean in 1504, Christopher Columbus was forced to beach his worm-riddled ships on the coast of what we now know as Jamaica. He wrote back to Spain for assistance, but, being 1504, knew he’d have to settle in for a long wait. Initially, there was comity between the sailors and the native Arawak people; eventually, though, the indigenous people got tired of these ill-prepared sailors soaking up resources and of trading away their vital stores of food for “tin whistles” and trinkets. Columbus, fearing famine and slaughter, had something in his back pocket: the astronomical writings of Regiomontanus, which predicted a lunar eclipses on the night of Thursday, Feb. 29, 1504. Columbus warned the Arawak chieftain that, if his sailors were not provided sustenance, he would blot out the moon in a few days time—would, with divine fury, rain down upon the people of Jamaica with blood and darkness. True to his word, three nights later, all non-basic lands became Mountains and the terrified Arawak ceded to his demands. (Mark Twain, that literary magpie, would later pilfer this legend in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court).

History doesn’t preserve how many Arawak died from Columbus’ dalliance on the island, for whatever reason, or how the next winter went, with grain stores depleted and cold winds blowing through the open channels of pennywhistles. These are the rough edges of exploration—not just the clash of cultures, but the clashes of understanding, the base advantages and applied leverage that conquer the less-informed.

It looks, from the very vague glimpses we’ve seen so far, that Ixalan will be partially about the costs of colonization, which is a truly interesting direction for a Magic set to take. The apparent casting of conquistadores-style and white-aligned vampires as literally-blood-sucking colonial forces is as unsubtle as it is appealing—and of course it’s hard to resist dinosaurs. That’s a smart design choice, by the way—travelogues have, for centuries, described the monsters of the New World (whichever N.W. that may be), from William Dampier’s two-headed snakes to Mandeville’s wandering manticores. Fusing that old exploratory idea with the kind of Pellucidarean Golden Age connotation that dinosaurs embody is a smart way to add a more modern take on exploration. Part of our hopes for exploration is a recovery of the past that never fully left us; ironically, there’s a kind of cultural nostalgia tied up in the search for something new.

The central issue of Magic development is that enormous, enormous amounts of creative design go into establishing a more-or-less coherent world of cultures, creatures, and castes that then have to be reduced to a Tweet-length elevator pitch. “Adventure world.” “Horror-story world.” “Mesoamerican dinosaur world.” Zendikar was so successful, though, because it allowed the audience to experience the world as the natives did: through exploration and failure. Traps may have been silly cards, but even now, eight years and some ten blocks on, I haven’t forgotten how it felt to turn two Baloth Cage Trap my opponent off their “mise-well” Blazing Torch. I’m looking forward to Ixalan capturing that sense of fraught exploration again, and casting a more critical eye on the interaction of societies that have never before had contact with each other.

One of my personal hobbyhorses is people misinterpreting Shakespeare’s “brave new world” as sincere, to talk about the wonder of the world. In The Tempest, Miranda—a child raised having never seen a person, save her sorcerer father and his deranged minions—meets Alonso and Ferdinand and blurts out:

“Oh, wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,

That has such people in ’t!”

Thing is, dudes are idiots, and her dad immediately undercuts it with “’Tis new to thee.” She’s just never seen another human before, and mistakenly swoons into wonder, assuming they’re creatures of stature and intelligence. That “brave new world” quote has been sassily deployed by writers for years, from Aldous Huxley to John Darnielle, and it’s an excellent way to underline the fact that perceptions, arising from initial contact with the unfamiliar, are more bound up in the perceiver than in the intrinsic worth of the relationship. I wonder what Wizards of the Coast will do with the concept of first cultural contact, whether they’ll avoid the a “noble savage” pitfall or a “pacifist nature-connected society wrecked by technologically-advanced culture” (looking at you, Avatar) moment.

Magic is at its best when it’s not about warfare, but about wonder. Those are the moments we remember and the ones we seek to replicate when we explore. Take this week, for example: on Monday, about three minutes before totality, a massive thunderhead skimmed over the sun. We stood there, water lapping up to our waists, sun-pink faces turned upward, as the light drained out of the sky. It was a strange and anagogic moment—confused starlings boiling out of the trees, crickets creakily tuning up in the bushes, Venus flicking on in the North like a lens through which the universe could watch our moment of rapture—and I felt a kind of diffuse commonality with the people who once had done the same, endless generations ago.

We may know what causes an eclipse; we may know that there’s no meaning in it. Still, there’s an autonomic response, a giddy reverence that rises up within you. As the sun reemerged—no jaguars spilling out from a cracked earth, no gibbering dead rising in the streets, no crops withering on the vine—I said the only words I have, the words of my people, the words of explorers and colonists and functionaries, the words we speak when we see the scope of uncharted shores, when we see the way the fresh winds ripple the hem of the treeline: “Goddamn,” I said, hushed. “That’s beautiful.”

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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