Elvish Spirit Guide | Illustration by Julie Baroh
Alliances is a Magic set with lots of history around it. It was the last Magic set to have 12-card booster packs. It printed some iconic cards like Force of Will and followed the Homelands expansion after a staggering eight months, the longest time between expansions in Magic’s history.
Its story also marked a literal end of an era; the Ice Age triggered by the fallout of the Brother’s War finally came to an end. It reintroduced Urza to Dominaria for the first time since his spark ignited.
Today I’m looking at the story of Alliances and some of its most notable cards. Let’s dive right in!
Alliances Basic Information
Force of Will | Illustration by Terese Nielsen
|Number of Cards||144|
|Rarities||55 commons, 43 uncommons, 46 rares|
|Mechanics||Pitch spells, cumulative upkeep|
|Release Date||June 10, 1996|
|Pro Tour Columbus||July 7, 1996|
About the Set: The Story
Contagion | Illustration by Mike Raabe
The story of Alliances was captured in The Shattered Alliance by Jeff Grubb, the third and final book in the Ice Age cycle.
During the Brothers’ War, Urza unleashed a surge of magic using the Golgothian Sylex. The ruinous blast ignited Urza’s spark and ended the war, but also fundamentally altered Dominaria as a plane. It triggered the Ice Age, during which Dominaria became encased in snow and ice.
Before the story of Alliances, the necromancer Lim-Dûl rose to power and was defeated by Jodah, the archmage eternal. In the final battle, it was revealed that Lim-Dûl had a ring bearing the consciousness of Marsil, an old enemy of Jodah’s. After Lim-Dûl’s defeat, the planeswalker Freyalise borrowed Jodah’s magical mirror and used it to help her cast the World Spell, a monumental act of magic that undid much of the damage Urza caused and ended the Time of Ice.
Alliances begins 20 years later. Jodah’s friend Jaya comes to him at the School of the Unseen after she discovers the wizened hand of Lim-Dûl, which is missing the finger with Marsil’s ring on it.
Jodah and Jaya set off to find the missing ring, traveling first to Tresserhorn, where Lim-Dûl’s had his stronghold. Lim-Dûl isn’t at the stronghold; his keeper Chaeska has constructed the Lord of Tresserhorn, a zombie tasked with guarding the keep against those who would usurp it. Jodah and Jaya leave, but not before realizing that the bottomless pit below Tresserhorn has vanished; we learn it’s now beneath the School of the Unseen because of a deal Gerda, the woman Jodah left in charge during his absence, struck with Lim-Dûl twenty years prior.
Jodah and Jaya next return to the final battlefield, where Lim-Dûl was defeated. They’re found by a group of Balduvians who bring them to Lovisa Coldeyes, an ally of Jodah’s and Jaya’s from 20 years prior. The alliance from the previous war between the Balduvians and the Kjeldorans has collapsed as the rising tides drown the Kjeldoran lands, leading them to raid the more fertile Balduvian lands.
Jodah promises to meet with King Darien on the topic of the raids. Jaya also discovers Lim-Dûl’s finger, which a Balduvian shaman keeps as a talisman. Jodah takes the finger to create a reliquary to uncover Lim-Dûl’s influence on the people around him.
Jodah and Jaya have a banquet with Darien, during which they learn that he’s losing control of some parts of Kjeld. Jodah is allowed to access the possessions of the late Gustha Ebbasdotter, a mage who died in the final battle 20 years earlier. Jodah is attacked by a phantasmal fiend sent by Lim-Dûl, and Jaya falls ill shortly after.
Jodah and Jaya return to the Balduvians with Alexandrite, Darien’s daughter, and find a Kjeldoran army laying siege to Lovisa’s town. Jodah agrees to get rid of the Kjeldorans so long as the Balduvians help heal Jaya. Lothar, Lovisa’s son, and Alexandrite go to seek help as Jodah holds the fort against the oncoming army. Lothar and Alexandrite return with two armies; one from King Darien and the other from the Blue Storm clan of Balduvia.
The Kjeldoran army flees, and Jodah learns that their leader is Varchild, another of his old allies who now leads an army independent of Darien’s rule. While Jaya recovers from her illness, Jodah helps broker a new peace between the Balduvians and the Kjelodran that eventually culminates in New Argive, a nation formed by Balduvia and Kjeld merging once and for all.
Once Jaya recovers, she and Jodah go to inspect the rest of Gushta’s items but are again attacked, this time by a Soldevi sentry. The two travel to Soldev and meet with Arcum Dagsson, Soldev’s leader. Arcum reveals a group called the Soldev Adnates who likely stole the sentry and set it on Jodah.
Jaya helps infiltrate the Adnates, and she and Jodah go to meet them. Varchild’s army is discovered nearby, and Arcum unleashes his mechanical steam beasts to try and find the rogue Kjeldoran.
Jodah and Jaya travel deep into Soldev with the Adnates and uncover a dark secret: Phyrexian war beasts from which Arcum modeled his steam beasts. Lim-Dûl reveals himself to have taken over Jaya’s mind and stabs Jodah. He uses Jodah’s blood to activate the war beasts and leaves the archmage for dead.
Jodah discovers that Freyalise has left an enchantment in his mirror that would turn him into a planeswalker as a punishment for his previous criticism of them during the past story events. Jodah also realizes that he can’t have a planeswalker spark because it would have ignited well before now. He uses the energy in the mirror to heal his mortal wound but loses the mirror as a tool since it only contains the energy Freyalise wanted to use to ignite him.
Jodah confronts Lim-Dûl in Jaya’s body. Lim-Dûl sends the Phyrexian war beasts to the School of the Unseen to force Jodah to choose between his school and his friend; Jodah chooses Jaya. As they battle, Jodah realizes that the potential spark Freyalise has sensed must have been latent in Jaya. He uses the mirror to ignite Jaya’s spark, which cleanses her mind of Lim-Dûl’s influence.
After her ascension as a planeswalker, Jaya takes Jodah to the School and helps destroy the war beasts, but not before the School of the Unseen is razed. Gerda chooses to move east to find a new school. Jaya accompanies them, but Jodah chooses not to interfere with the world anymore.
The book concludes with an epilogue 300 years after this battle, where Jodah finds Urza Planeswalker. Urza has gone completely insane and needs somebody to cure his madness, and Jodah begins to tell Urza everything that transpired in the 3,000 years since his spark ignited.
Alliances didn’t introduce any new keyword mechanics, but it brought several mechanics from previous sets back and introduced a new mechanic: pitch spells!
Pitch spells have two casting costs. One is the mana cost we’re familiar with, and the other is an alternate casting cost that allows you to exile a card from your hand that shares a color with the pitched card. The most iconic pitch card is, of course, Force of Will.
This mechanic pops up throughout Magic with a few variations. The most recent examples of this mechanic are the elemental incarnations from Modern Horizons 2, like Endurance and Solitude.
Cards with cumulative upkeep are always permanents, like creatures or enchantments. They each have a unique cumulative upkeep cost. At the beginning of each upkeep, you add an age counter to the permanent with cumulative upkeep, then pay the cost for each age counter it. If you don’t or can’t pay the upkeep cost, you have to sacrifice the permanent.
Gallery and List of Cards
This ape might not look like much, but it was one of the strongest sideboard cards in Pauper for a good time. Often the bane of affinity decks that only ran artifact lands, Gorilla Shaman kept them in check by offering a repeated Strip Mine ability for great tempo.
Elvish Spirit Guide
The precursor to Planar Chaos’s Simian Spirit Guide is Elvish Spirit Guide. It’s an interesting design, giving up card advantage for mana advantage. It’s played today in some variants of Legacy initiative decks that use it in conjunction with other fast mana sources to play Caves of Chaos Adventurer and other initiative cards well ahead of schedule.
Helm of Obedience
Another Legacy all-star from Alliances is Helm of Obedience. This artifact has lots of words that translate to winning the game in some Legacy combo decks.
When paired with cards that exile your opponent’s graveyard, like Leyline of the Void or Rest In Peace, the Helm mills out your opponent’s entire library. Because the cards are exiled, your opponent can’t use any of the typical stopgaps for mill decks like Endurance or an Eldrazi Titan. You just need to pay five mana (four for the Helm, one for the activation) and pass the turn for an easy win.
Balduvian Horde isn’t notable because of its play in Legacy or its multiformat utility. Rather, it’s the absolute lack of those qualities that make it noticeable. This card was hailed as the next big creature as a four-mana 5/5 when Alliances came out. It proved to be wholly mediocre and is now mostly forgotten.
This is simply one of the greatest commanders ever printed. The legendary creature with the name and type Phelddagrif makes for a fascinating commander. It feels like a bit of a joke at times but is iconic in the way only a flying hippo could be.
Force of Will
What else could be the most notable card from Alliances? Force of Will is an obscenely strong counterspell since it doesn’t cost mana. Just a blue card and a single life.
This card is a foundational part of every format it’s legal in as formats with Force tend to contain some of the strongest cards in Magic, like Legacy and Vintage. This is the iconic card from Alliances thanks to its ubiquity and power.
- Lake of the Dead
- Force of Will
- Helm of Obedience
- Soldevi Excavations
- Thawing Glaciers
- Phyrexian Devourer
- Kjeldoran Outpost
- Thought Lash
Alliance was sold in booster packs that contained 12 cards. It was the last expansion set to be sold in boosters with 12 cards instead of 15. You can also get booster boxes that come with 45 Alliances packs.
Each Alliances booster contains:
- 8 commons
- 3 uncommons
- 1 rare
Nature's Chosen | Illustration by Rebecca Guay
Alliances brought a particularly cold era of Magic’s story to a close and ignited the spark of Jaya Ballard, who became one of the game’s most iconic red planeswalkers. It also brought us some of the most iconic Magic cards, like the indomitable Storm Crow.
Its lasting impact in the game can be felt in any format where Force of Will is legal, though other cards have snuck into Legacy and even Pauper. Alliances is a set that will always have a place in Magic as a game and storytelling medium.
What was your favorite card in Alliances? Who was your favorite character? Let me know in the comments below, or over in the Draftsim Discord.
Stay safe, and keep pitching your blue cards!
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