Magic History: Onslaught

Magic Untapped takes a look back at the set Onslaught.

Wizards of the Coast's popular and long-standing collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering, has been out since 1993.  That stated, it's nice to look back at older sets to reminisce and see just how much the game has changed over the years.

In this video, we look back at Onslaught, the first set in Magic: The Gathering's Onslaught block.

Check it out:

Video Transcript:

Onslaught, the first set in its namesake block, came out on in October of 2002 and is the first in the final three sets to utilize Magic: The Gathering’s classic card frame.

Thematically, the set focused on tribal strategies and relations.  Story-wise, it kicked off the second half of the story arc of the barbarian-turned-druid, Kamahl.  And while the Mirari, the powerful artifact from the Odyssey block takes a back seat, the Cabal still plays a pivotal role, as do myriad new characters and forces.

Picking up where the previous novel, Judgment, left off, the story of Onslaught can be found in the novel of the same name by J. Robert King and we do suggest you give it a read.  Failing that, here are the novel’s finer points.

Kamahl has just slain Aquatus, the former and fallen ambassador of the Mer Empire, and, through the power of the powerful artifact, Mirari, mounted on the pommel of his sword, the beauties of nature return to the Krosan Forest.  As the forest enjoys a rebirth, so does the barbarian as he mellows from a violent and combat-loving warrior to a more contemplative and at peace druid.

Kamahl makes his way back to the home of Seton, the centaur who was helping in healing the barbarian-turned-druid’s sister, Jeska, from life-threatening wounds.  Seton, however, is unable to save her life and she lies dying.  That’s when Braids, a slightly insane member of the Cabal arrives and tells Jeska that she can prevent her death.  Reluctantly, Jeska agrees.  Seton, on the other hand, opposes Braids’ offer and, in response, Braids murders him.

By the time Kamahl reaches Seaton’s hut, he finds it has been burnt to the ground and his friend, Seton, dead.  Not only this, but his sister is nowhere to be found.  Feeling that this is work of the Cabal, the druid sets off for the city of Aphetto where yet another of his fallen friends, Chainer, had exiled The First, the leader of the Cabal.

In Aphetto’s fighting pits, a street illusionist names Ixidor and a former angelic member of the Order, Nivea, are a formidable duo.  Their love for one another fuels their success as they fight to earn enough money to journey beyond the Cabal’s grasp and set up their own life based on honor and purity.  In fact, they’ve made enough coin (along with some that Ixidor had forged) to place everything they have in a bet on themselves that will pay out more than enough for their dreams to come true.

Their opponent for that next fight is Phage, the Cabal’s newest weapon.

Created by Braids out of Jeska’s dying body, Phage is a fearsome opponent with a putrefying touch.  She easily subdues the two, killing Nivea in the process.

Having lost, Ixidor’s forgeries are soon discovered.  The Cabal knocks him unconscious and confiscates all of his belongings before stranding him in the Otarian desert where he swears revenge upon the one who killed his lover.

By this time, Kahmal reaches Aphetto.  Shortly after his arrival, he is approached by Braids.  She’s looking for a marquee match to bring even bigger crowds to the pits and offers him a chance to challenge Phage in the battle pit.  At the insistence of the Cabal’s higher-ups, Kamahl agrees.

At the pit fight, he recognizes Phage as none other than his missing sister, Jeska, and tries to reason with her.  Phage, however, not only doesn’t recognize the druid, she despises the name “Jeska” and despises Kamahl for his role in making her what she now is.  Feeling rejected, Kamahl stops the match and makes his return to Krosa.

The First follows, intent on killing the druid.  When he gets to Krosa, however, he sees the massive and unnatural growth the forest has undertaken and decides instead to corrupt the entire woodland.  Soon, a dark, massive growth appeared on the spot where the Mirari was laid.  Noticing an evil change, Kamahl communicates with the forest and is able to stop any further corruption.  Afterwards, he begins forming an army with which he can invade Aphetto and rescue his sister. 

Meanwhile in Aphetto, The First puts into motion his plans to greatly expand the Cabal’s business opportunities and influence.  Feeling Aphetto too agrarian, he oversees the construction of a grand coliseum which is to become the center of Otaria’s commerce and culture.  Phage is assigned as the construction project’s overseer, who hires a woman named Zagorka to assist.  Before long, the coliseum is finished and the Cabal sends word across the continent to bring in the crowds.

And out in the desert, the stranded Ixidor discovers that his skills in illusion are nothing short of extraordinary.  He waves his hand and creates a beautiful oasis, living creatures from the mud and sand, and, soon, has constructed his own kingdom, Topos, and provides it with an illusionary population.  The power of creation in his hands, he attempts to fulfill his and his fallen love’s dream of a just and fair nation.

A short while later, one of the Cabal’s envoys reach Topos and he learns of Aphetto’s Grand Coliseum.  One night afterwards, he has a nightmare that Phage has come to his kingdom to kill him, but he is defended by an angel who wears Nivia’s face.  In the dream, the cabalist rips off Ixidor’s arm, which causes the illusionist to awaken.

He finds he is, indeed, now missing an arm but also finds an angel at his side.  This angel explains that she must have been created by Ixidor as he slept.  He presents her with the name Akroma and tasks her with exacting revenge for his fallen Nivea and sends her off to slay Phage.

Back in the Krosan Forest, things have gotten a tad out of control.  The rampant Mirari-induced growth has spiraled out of control, mutating everything in its wake and killing anything that can’t handle it.  The forest’s inhabitants attempt to fight against it, but their efforts are failing.  Kamahl attempts to lend a hand and promises the forest’s centaurs that we would help stop the Mirari’s effects if they help him against the Cabal.  They agree and the druid mutates them into large, powerful beasts.  Their leader, Stonebrow, becomes Kamah’s general and, before long, Kamahl has an army formed, in part, by the Mirari’s twisted power.

Kamahl and company march upon Aphetto’s Grand Coliseum.  Just like before, the druid is met by none other than Braids upon arrival.  And, just like before, she proposes yet another duel between him and Phage.  He gladly accepts and instructs his army to stage for battle in the event that he is betrayed by the Cabal.

Phage and Kamahl meet once again for a marquee fight.  She still resents him and eagerly wants to kill him.  The fight, however, is cut short as an angelic attacker flies into the coliseum.  Suddenly, Kamahl finds himself defending Phage from the attacks of the angel, Akroma.  The angel is driven off, but, as she flees, Kamahl summons roots to shoot up and grasp her by the legs.  She literally tears her own legs off in order to make her escape.

Kamahl and the Cabal call a truce and join forces to combat their new angelic threat.  To help their cause, the two sides forge a new weapon by combining Kamahl’s staff with the axe head of the The First’s personal weapon.  This creates the Soul Reaper, an axe powerful enough to slay an angel.  Phage sets aside her distain for Kamahl for now and the united army begins a march towards Topos.

Back in Topos, Ixidor senses that the Cabal and Kamahl’s troops have forged an alliance against him.  In response, he bolsters his illusionary kingdom’s defenses.  First, he heals Akroma by fusing her with a jaguar, the feline’s hind legs becoming her own.  Then he creates an even greater number of sentries with which to protect himself.

Once the allied army arrives, they’re forced to do battle with shapeshifting mud men and mind-reading will o’ the wisps that force their foes to vomit up beetles that manifest into that person’s worst nightmares.  Kamahl finds himself fighting a copy of his Mirari-mad self.  Phage, however, spews a beetle for every person she’s killed with each beetle becoming a gigantic deathwurm that kills everyone around them.  While most of the wurms rampage against anyone and anything nearby, the one associated with Nivea’s death heads directly for Ixidor and swallows him whole.

Jeska, now free from the corruption that turned her into the cabalist Phage, sees the havoc the wurms are wreaking and realizes that she must somehow absorb them back into herself even if it means becoming Phage again.  Kamahl tries to convince her otherwise, not wanting to lose his sister yet again, but she refuses to allow the monsters to destroy the continent.

With help from Akroma who lures the deathwurms towards Jeska, the barbarian absorbs them all back into her body.  Once again taking the form of Phage, her disdain for Kamahl returns.

The battle over and Ixidor assumed deceased, the Cabal return to Aphetto with Phage returning to the city’s Grand Coliseum.  Kamahl, swearing that he will yet save his sister, returns to Krosa.  Akroma assumes control of Topos.

All parties will meet again as they bring the fight to the next chapter in the story, Legions.

As for Onslaught (the set, not the Tempest card), there’s still more to tell.

The large set of the Onslaught Block, the set Onslaught contains 350 cards and features an expansion symbol that is a stylized version of a morphed creature.  Morph, by the way, is one the key mechanics in the block.

It’s a static ability on specific cards that allow its controller to cast it face down for three generic mana as a 2/2 creature with no text, name, subtypes, or anything like that.   For their stated morph cost, its controller can then flip the card over to reveal what it really is.

((Maro DTW: Morph/Onslaught – XX:XX “”))

Onslaught also featured a good number of other mechanics such as:
•    Fear, a keyworded ability based upon the O.G. Magic card of the same name;
•    Gustcloak, a non-keyword trigger ability that allows the controller of a blocked, attacking creature to remove it from combat;
•    Tribal lords, which are an assortment of creatures whose ability cost includes the tapping of a creature that shares a creature type with the lord such as Ancestor’s Prophet with clerics and Voice of the Woods for elves;
•    Saboteurs, which are creatures with “whenever this creature deals combat damage to a player” abilities;
•    Self recruiters, which are cards with enter-the-battlefield triggered abilities that allow its controller to search for and snag same-name cards from within their deck, and;
•    Cycling, which was originally conceived as a mechanic for Tempest, but was pushed back to Urza’s Saga.

((Cycling DTW quote))

Of course, tribal and creature type themes were quite prominent in the entire Onslaught block.  In fact, numerous cards were given not only a creature type, but a class type as well – a practice still in wide use today when creating creature cards.  Retroactively, cards that lacked any type of race denotation, such as Witch Hunter from The Dark (for example), were updated to fit the “race-class” mold.

Onslaught also brought with it a whopping 13 card cycles:
•    Avatars, which have power and toughness-defining abilities;
•    Chain spells, which may be copied and bounced from target to target;
•    A new series of charms,
•    Crowns, which are auras that have a sacrifice ability;
•    Couriers, uncommon 2/1 creatures that provide buffs to other creatures that share their type;
•    Cycling non-basic lands;
•    Cycling spells that, when cycled, produce a similar (but weaker) version of their primary effect;
•    Tribal lands, which may be tapped for one colorless or for a tribe-specific ability, and;
•    Words, which are enchantments that allow players to trade their card draws for a specific effect.

Onslaught also featured a cycle of legendary creatures meant to represent each color’s most legendary pit fighter from the Grand Coliseum: Jareth, Leonine Titan, Arcanis the Omnipotent, Visara the Dreadful, Rorix Bladewing, and Silvos, Rogue Elemental.

Furthermore, and probably most importantly, Onslaught introduced the modern allied-colored fetch lands.  While fetch lands like this have been around since the “slow” fetch lands in Mirage, these were different as (in exchange for one life), the lands they fetch come into play untapped.  Let’s just say that they went over very well.

((Maro DTW?))

Beyond the fetch lands, Onslaught had a great number of notable cards that made sizable impacts on the game.

The card Astral Slide is one as it was key in the surprisingly powerful red-white Astral Slide deck that ran off simple tricks using the enchantment along with abusing fellow the cycling matters enchantment, Lightning Rift, or (failing that) using Exalted Angel as the deck’s secondary finisher.

In fact, in 2004, a white-green variant of the deck would win that year’s Magic World Championship with Julien Nuijten, the youngest Magic World Champion to date, piloting the deck to a sweeping victory and beating out three extremely powerful Mirrodin-based decks.

Other cards of note include Blistering Firecat, the previously-mentioned Exalted Angel, Goblin Piledriver, Goblin Sharpshooter, Patriarch’s Bidding, Ravenous Baloth, Nantuko Husk, and Wellwisher, as well as the aforementioned legendary pit fighters Visara the Dreadful and Rorix Bladewing.

Furthermore, Onslaught featured the card Kamahl, Fist of Krosa, which is a storyline-progressed version of the original Kamahl card from Odyssey, Kamahl, Pit Fighter.

The set also featured the card Voidmage Prodigy, which is Kai Budde’s card for winning the 2001-02 Magic Invitational tournament.

The set also included a number of reprints, and while cards like Shock and Taunting Elf are fun and all, the inclusion of Clone, a card that hadn’t seen print since Revised, stole the reprint sideshow.

The set’s prerelease card, Silent Specter, was kind of a dud as it never really saw much play.  It is worth noting, though, that it’s the first prerelease promo since Prophecy to be in English as the six sets in between each featured a prerelease card in a language in which the game of Magic: The Gathering had never before been printed.

Is Onslaught amongst your favorite Magic: The Gathering sets?  If so, let us know in the comment section below.

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Barry White

Barry White is a longtime Magic: The Gathering player, having started in 1994 shortly before the release of 'Fallen Empires.' After graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno, he went on to a 15-year journalism career as a writer, reporter, and videographer for three different ABC affiliate newsrooms.