The Real Story Behind The Dark

Generally, my”Real Story Behind” series deals with the most recent expansion’s storyline and its relation to the flavor texts of the cards. However, there’s no reason not to take advantage of the other books that Wizards of the Coast has released. This first book in the Ice Age Cycle novels takes place during the time between the final battle between Urza and Mishra and the oncoming of the Ice Age – a time dubbed by historians as”The Dark.” It was a time in which the world was becoming colder and darker, yet magic was becoming more understood – and feared.

Generally, my "Real Story Behind" series deals with the most recent expansion’s storyline and its relation to the flavor texts of the cards. However, there’s no reason not to take advantage of the other books that Wizards of the Coast has released. For example, I’ve recently finished reading The Gathering Dark by Jeff Grubb. This first book in the Ice Age Cycle novels takes place during the time between the final battle between Urza and Mishra and the oncoming of the Ice Age – a time dubbed by historians as "The Dark." It was a time in which the world was becoming colder and darker, yet magic was becoming more understood – and feared.

These themes are represented very well in The Gathering Dark, and the story behind some of the cards is brought to life in the novel. Some of the flavor texts are not addressed in the novel, but they fit in well with its themes. For example, many cards can be found with Maeveen O’Donagh’s recollections of war or Vervamon the Elder’s experiences with magic. Although these characters do not appear in Grubb’s novel, the themes of continental war and magical evolution are certainly present, making the book a fine representation of the story developed behind the cards.

(Incidentally, in his forward, Grubb acknowledges that the story he wrote was in fact created long ago, when the cardset of The Dark was first created. Jespor Myfors first generated the story and kept Grubb on track during its writing).

So in keeping with "Real Story Behind" tradition, I will be taking a look at the flavor texts of some of the cards from The Dark (as well as some quote-less cards) with an attempt at tying their importance to the story presented in the novel. In this way you, the reader, can have a tantalizing peek at the world behind the cards without having actually to read the novel.

On we go!


~"After Lacjsi’s speech, the Knights grew determined to crush their ancient enemies clan by clan." –Tivadar of Thorn, History of the Goblin Wars~

Let us begin with a look at the setting of The Dark. Although the entire world is slowly being gripped by ice, The Dark takes place on the continent of Terisiare. As far as I can determine, the main focus of the average person living in this time deals either with ever more difficult farming, fighting goblins, or serving or defying the Church of Tal. Tivadar, briefly a peer of Jodah (our main character), holds a particularly fierce enmity towards the goblins, and goes through a great deal of trouble to eradicate them, as shown by the card Tivadar’s Crusade.

Knights of Thorn

~"With a great cry, the goblin host broke and ran as the first wave of Knights penetrated its ranks." –Tivadar of Thorn, History of the Goblin Wars~

And as can be shown by this card, Tivadar is not wholly unsuccessful. However, the goblins of The Dark appear (to me) to be even more fearsome than those of current Magic times. Therefore, those who battle them have their work cut out for them, and the continuation of the goblin line throughout all of Magic history shows that the goblins’ enemies hardly succeeded in xenocide.

Curse Artifact

~Voska feared the artifact had come too easily.~

The story of The Gathering Dark focuses largely on Jodah the wizard, who is one of the prominent figures of Magic history. The great-great grandson of the mighty Jarsyl, Jodah has great potential to be a formidable wizard. His first mentor in the area of magic is the Voska mentioned here. Voska is a red mage who takes Jodah under his wing as a family favor. Therefore, Voska is not armed with the advanced knowledge of the magic schools available at the time. However, despite Voska’s lack of formal education, his on-hand experience proves valuable to Jodah, and his suggestion of cataloguing one’s spells in a mental structure (Jodah used his old house) stays with Jodah for the rest of his life.

Another of the remnants of Voska that remains with Jodah is the small mirror (depicted in the card Reflecting Mirror) the former presents to the latter. This is the last remnant of Voska that Jodah kept after their capture by the Church of Tal.

Holy Light

~"Bathed in holy light, the infidels looked upon the impurities of their souls and despaired." -The Book of Tal~

One of the great powers of The Dark is the Church of Tal. Similar to the corrupt Catholic Church of our own Dark Ages, the Church of Tal is very powerful but ruled by hypocritical zealots. The main focus of the Church of Tal is the eradication of magic. According to their own (incorrect) histories, Urza and Mishra were mighty sorcerers (not artificers, as was the case) who caused the miserable conditions of The Dark. Therefore, the Church of Tal labels all magic as evil and violently persecutes its users. For example, the card Witch Hunter shows just how ardently the Church opposed magic; this card both deals damage and bounces creatures.


~Many of those entrusted to Primata Delphine’s care tended to express themselves with screams.~

Perhaps the most zealous member of the Church of Tal is Primata Delphine. This formidable woman devotes her life to the search for and destruction of wizards of all kinds. It is she who condemns Voska and Jodah to death. Luckily, Jodah is able to escape her clutches and seek refuge in a nearby town. However, he is kept there for quite some time due to a plague (during which he finds that he can work true magic in making false healing potions actually work), and when he finally escapes to return to find Voska, he finds his tutor already dead. Although Jodah is able to escape with a new friend (Sima, of the City of Shadows), the Church of Tal is hot on their trails, with Primata Delphine in the lead.

Miracle Worker

~"Those blessed hands could bring surcease to even the most tainted soul." -Sister Betje, Miracles of the Saints~

Perhaps the most hypocritical part of the Church is hidden even from Primata Delphine. Sister Betje here expounds upon Church members’ abilities to enact "miracles." Figures like Primata Delphine quote from the scriptures of the Book of Tal and make miracles (such as making a flaming sword appear). Not until the very end of the novel (and Delphine’s life), is the Primata shown the light that her "miracles" are, in fact, magic.

Fountain of Youth

~The fountain had stood in the town square for centuries, but only the pigeons knew its secret.~

As part of his attempt to find Voska early on, Jodah manages to get separated from the military formation of which he is a member (and where he briefly meets Tivadar). He takes shelter in an abandoned village but hears goblins approaching shortly after he arrives. He ducks into the fountain nearby and waits for the goblins to pass. Finally, they leave without noticing him, and Jodah is able to get out of the freezing water. It’s clear that the fountain in which he hid is this Fountain of Youth because once he builds his fire and settles in for the night, he realizes that his wounded leg no longer hurts – in fact, it is no longer even wounded!

Barl’s Cage

~For a dozen years, the cage had held Lord Ith, but as the Pretender Mairsil’s power weakened, so did the bars.~

To continue, we need to take a look at another part of the world apart from Jodah. In fact, this card deals with one of the main points in the story of The Dark: Lord Ith was the chief rector of a school of his own devising, one of several institutions of higher magical learning. His greatest student was Mairsil, whom he trusted nearly as an apprentice of sorts. However, Mairsil betrayed his teacher and took control of the school. He trapped his former master in a cage of the artificer Barl’s design. The cage is designed to sap the power out of Ith and funnel it to Mairsil. Ith and his cage remain suspended above a bottomless pit beneath the school, so that Ith’s attempts at escape can easily be transferred to Mairsil as raw power. Over the years, Ith becomes more and more insane, but he also comes to know what would not allow him to escape. Finally, Ith deduces a way to escape his prison – but he is not able to reach freedom alone.

Rag Man

~"Aw, he’s just as silly, dirty little man. What’s to be afraid of?"~

Although a relatively unimportant card in The Dark, the Rag Man plays a vital role in Ith’s escape. Ith summons this servant to retrieve from the outside world a man who could help him escape. The Rag Man hunts down Jodah, always lurking just out of reach but providing help whenever Jodah needs it most. After rescuing Jodah from a shipwreck, the Rag Man truly reveals himself to Jodah and brings him to a magical alcove (as represented by the card Safe Haven). This small cave transports Jodah to Mairsil’s school of magic (where the unfinished Maze of Ith lies waiting for the true master of the school to return), where Jodah enrolls as a student.

The Rag Man shows the captive Lord Ith to Jodah, but Jodah sees the sorcerer as simply a crazy man. Confronted with the choice between freeing an insane captive (who Jodah suspects is one of The Fallen, creatures formed when a wizard holds too much mana in his mind for too long) and studying at the feet of what appears to be a comfortable master, Jodah makes the easy choice and abandons Lord Ith to his ravings.

Carniverous Plant

~"It had a mouth like that of a great beast, and gnashed its teeth as it strained to reach us. I am thankful it possessed no means of locomotion." -Vervamon the Elder~

Jodah’s tasks at the school are mundane. He spends all his working time in the library copying books under the scrutiny of a harsh librarian who keeps these vicious plants as pets. However, once Mairsil figures out why Jodah’s statement of being the descendent of Jarsyl sounds important, Mairsil makes a special visit to Jodah in the library. It soon becomes clear that Mairsil wants more out of Jodah than simply to copy books.

Stone Calendar

~The Pretender Mairsil ordered a great Calendar drawn up to show when the paths to the Dark Lands were strongest.~

Mairsil knows that he’s heard of the name Jarsyl before, and when he reads one of the last copies of Kayla bin-Kroog’s (Urza’s wife’s) book about Urza, a note in the margin jogs his memory. As it would appear, Jarsyl is the only mage to have found out how to travel to the world of Phyrexia – a place where Mairsil desperately wishes to go. Mairsil has heard that perhaps Urza or Mishra are trapped in Phyrexia, or that it is ruled by a collective of leaders who would be willing to bargain with him. Either way, he hopes to return to Dominaria with a conquering force to be used to dominate the world. This stone calendar is a tool he is using to determine when Phyrexia would be "closest" to Dominaria within the dimensionless eternities between worlds… But he knows that his greatest chance at achieving his goal is to use Jarsyl’s descendant to reach those dark lands.

Fellwar Stone

~"What do you have that I cannot obtain?" -Mairsil, called the Pretender~

This quote from Fellwar Stone shows the dangerous pride that Mairsil wields as perhaps his most potent weapon against Jodah. Aside from the magical power Mairsil is draining from Ith and the magical artifacts of his former master that Mairsil now controls (such as the ring and Wand of Ith), Mairsil’s own magical prowess is very formidable compared to Jodah’s minor powers. However, Jodah has a quick mind and an amazing aptitude for learning, and with Mairsil’s duplicity coercing his every move, Jodah looks to be on the path to great power – in service to the darkest of masters.


~"Any scrap of compassion that still existed in my soul was permanently snuffed out when they cast me into the flames." -Mairsil, called the Pretender~

…And he might have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for that darn kid! During a meeting with Mairsil, Jodah accidentally leaves his parchment and auto-writing quill in Mairsil’s office. When he later goes back to retrieve the items, he learns of a secret conversation between Mairsil and Barl, the artificer second-in-command of Mairsil’s school of magic. Jodah learns that Mairsil’s lust for power far exceeds any facade of friendliness Mairsil showed Jodah. In fact, Mairsil has every intention of simply killing Jodah once Jodah has helped Mairsil open the portal to Phyrexia.

Well, remember how the Rag Man showed Lord Ith to Jodah? Now, Jodah’s ready to accept Ith’s proclamation that he is the true leader of the school and that Mairsil is a sly usurper. Taking the Runesword to protect him, Jodah frees Lord Ith. At the same time, Primata Delphine shows up at the school, having used the Tracker to find it and the Preacher of the local village to rouse the peasants. As she leads a crusade against the wizards, Ith unleashes his personal fury on Mairsil. As is to be expected, Mairsil falls, and the school is all but destroyed.

Ith decides to go abroad and asks Jodah to come with him. However, Jodah declines the offer in order to study more thoroughly at the City of Shadows with his friend Sima. Thus, Jodah, Sima, and the other former students of Ith and Mairsil set out towards the City of Shadows to begin a new life.

And that, in a nutshell, is the summary of The Gathering Dark and the backstory of The Dark. I’ve had to leave out a lot of details because they are not reflected in the cards (just as many of the cards are not reflected in the novel), so if I’ve now piqued your interest, I still believe that you could read this novel (and especially the proceeding two in the series) with retained enjoyment value.

Until next time!

Daniel Crane

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