While Ixalan seems a lot like someone’s ultimate fantasy showdown (“Pirates vs Vampires vs Dinosaurs…also Merfolk!”), the story’s characters and plot have been thoughtfully grounded in reality. While the larger story is centered around the tribes’ search to find and claim Orazca, the Golden City, the main characters of Ixalan have each gone through a process of personal discovery, change and exploration. Like a leitmotif, we see the themes of discovery and exploration surface repeatedly within major character arcs, particularly for Vraska and Huatli. In today’s article, we’ll focus on Vraska’s evolution from young convict to seasoned captain as she finds her true purpose on Ixalan.
A Vengeful Prisoner
When we first meet Vraska, she’s a young prisoner of the Azorius guild on Ravnica. Along with her Golgari brethren, she is thrown into a cage, starving, abused and beaten.
“Scariest of all, there was an emaciated gorgon who had been bound, gagged, and blindfolded. Her hair was loose, and those writhing tendrils made Branko’s skin crawl. Even her compatriots shied away from her. She knelt alone near the barricaded door, looking oddly regal despite the grim circumstances.” (“The Shadows of Prahv, Part One”, Jenna Helland)
In the midst of a prison brawl, Vraska’s prison mates manage to free her and try to use her as a weapon against their Azorius captors. As she struggles against the lawmages, the pain and trauma of her fight against a guard causes her to Planeswalk for the first time. When she returns to Ravnica, older and deadlier, she settles in as a ruthless and pragmatic assassin. Her revenge upon the Azorius comes slowly, but surely, as she lures out those responsible.
“Vraska grabbed him by the throat, and he squeezed his eyelids tight. Her face was so close to the side of his head that he could feel her cold lips against his ear. Her voice was a strange guttural growl.
‘Just before your ‘guard’ would have killed me, I was torn from this world. I was cast into a dark tomb with no way out.’
Relov tried to protest. He knew nothing of the raid! Nothing of tombs or anything she was saying. But she was choking the breath out of him and whispering words only he could hear.
‘It felt like lifetimes before I learned how to escape, to slip the confines of a world. But during the eternity I was trapped, I resolved that all should receive the death they deserve.’”(“The Shadows of Prahv, Part Two”, Jenna Helland)
Vraska’s mission of revenge continues as she catches Jace’s eye when she leaves the statues of murdered citizens in prominent places, each with names that are homophones of other planes. The statues, laid out in the Guildpact’s name, force him to seek her out. During their meeting in the shadows of Ravnica, Vraska tries to persuade Jace to join her:
“Probably a bluff,” said Vraska. She strolled in a semicircle, observing Jace, until she was standing behind him. ‘But a sufficient one. It doesn’t matter anyway. What’s really going to happen is that I’m going to threaten many, many things you care about. And then you are going to agree to work for me.’
‘That is not going to happen.’
‘Oh, but I can make things very uncomfortable for you. Just imagine the headlines. ‘The Living Guildpact Unable to Prevent Petrification Murders!’ ‘Ten More Statues Left on Doorstep of Chamber of the Guildpact!’ Not to mention the angry, angry guild representatives I’ll have storming your chambers.”
‘Drop this now. Go back underground. If you make yourself unobtrusive, I can handle quieting down this case. And Lavinia.’
‘Become my assistant, and you won’t have to deal with her again. Every person who crosses me will meet their deserved fate.’” (“The Guildpact and the Gorgon”, Doug Beyer)
A Protective Leader
Through her threats and actions, Vraska shows herself to be someone who believes in a justice of her own making for herself and her people. While she has focused on this mission for years, she also possesses a more compassionate side that is only revealed to those she cares for. When Mazirek, a Golgari member of the insectile Kraul, visits her home, he is taken aback by what he sees.
“Vraska’s chamber was cozy, above all else. It was a curiosity cabinet-turned-flat, with every inch of the walls covered in exquisite trinkets and objects beyond all familiarity…This was a welcoming place, a traveler’s den. […]The effect was calming and captivating; enjoying tea in Vraska’s chamber was like sitting in the vaults of a museum.” (“Pride of the Kraul”, Alison Luhrs)
The description of Vraska’s chamber is surprising, particularly for a professional, dispassionate killer. It reveals a personality whose heart belongs to her home and the people who are invited within. This is something Nicol Bolas picks up on as he reads her mind during their meeting on his Meditation Plane, right before he gives her an assignment on Ixalan:
“ ‘You wish to lead . . .’ he mused, to Vraska’s horror. ‘. . . You crave a better world for those you call your own. You would pay whatever cost to deliver them the respect they deserve.’
“She thought of Mazirek, of the Kraul, of the rest of the Ochran assassins and the malignant Jarad who reigned with casual ruin over the most downtrodden of the downtrodden. She remembered her years of isolation, and the heinous cruelty of the Azorius, and how no group deserved to suffer as much as those who would subjugate her own.
Eliminating that hell was all she ever wanted.” (“The Talented Captain Vraska”, Magic Story)
Nicol Bolas sees in Vraska someone who wants to lead, not purely for the sake of ambition, but also with compassion and for justice. For Vraska, those that are hers are hers to protect and to nurture, but she has never had the opportunity to act upon that desire. Her color identity of Black and Green may seem sinister at first, but here Black’s possessiveness and Green’s desire for community inform Vraska’s need to grow and protect those she sees as her own.
This is why she is surprised to be offered a task from Nicol Bolas that has nothing to do with her identity as an assassin, or even as a gorgon. Her talents lie in bestowing death silently and efficiently, and her ability to turn others into stone made her a monster to others on Ravnica. Instead, she is given the opportunity to retrieve an artifact on Ixalan, with the reward being leadership of the Green-Black guild of the Golgari on Ravnica. Given the chance to bring change to her guild, Vraska accepts Nicol Bolas’s terms. She is subsequently given an instant crash course on sailing and a thaumatic compass that should lead her to the Golden City.
On Ixalan, Vraska blossoms into a confident captain, crewing the pirate ship The Belligerent with her own rag-tag crewmates. Once confined to the shadows and sewers, Vraska walks openly under the sun amongst her shipmates who, unlike most Ravnicans, have no issue with her appearance or abilities.
“The implicit trust between Vraska and her crew had turned what should have been a frightening challenge of her untested skills into the most satisfying period of her life. She had spent the prior months assembling her crew. While initially it had been difficult to convince strangers to join the crew of an unknown captain, Vraska proved herself with fair payments, a truly phenomenal knowledge of sailing technique, and an unparalleled protectiveness of those she saw as her own. The people of this plane were stubborn, prone to swearing, and morally mercurial—and Vraska adored them for it. She secured her own ship through hefty payments and more than a little negotiation and soon sailed to begin her journey.
Gorgons on Ravnica could only ever be one thing. But here? A gorgon could be whatever she damn well pleased. Vraska relished in that newfound freedom and beamed with pride when she thought of how she would lead the Golgari when she returned home.”(“The Talented Captain Vraska”, Magic Story)
When Vraska meets Jace, malnourished and abandoned on an island, she’s immediately aware of how he might perceive her as a monster given their past on Ravnica. Though she’s relieved that he doesn’t remember her at all, she’s still surprised by how much he clearly admires and respects her talents given fresh eyes, even when she turns a vampire into stone mid-combat.
“ [Jace] had scrambled out of the grip of the petrified vampire, and now met her gaze with a look of surprise. Vraska felt tossed off-balance, not because she had let herself be seen for what she was, but because what looked back at her was not a face contorted in horror, but one lit up with awe.
Jace was not afraid. He was amazed.”(“The Talented Captain Vraska”, Magic Story)
The validation that Vraska receives from Jace is invaluable. She’s received respect from her crew and others on Ixalan, but Jace represents someone from her home plane with talents and intelligence that rivals hers. To gain his admiration confirms to her that she has changed into someone who deserves deference and loyalty. He explains this to her during their heart-to-heart conversation on The Belligerent.
“She looked at him with uncertainty. Jace continued. “How we engage with the world is dependent on how we present ourselves to it. We are continuously adjusting to change because if we fail to change, we fail to survive. By nature of you surviving the hell you did, you have changed into someone wiser than before. By nature of you commanding this ship, you’ve transformed yourself into the leader you always knew you could be.” (“Something Else Entirely”, Magic Story)
With this realization, Vraska’s arc from a solitary assassin for hire to inspiring leader is fully realized. Though her skills lie mostly in delivering death to those who deserve it, the Vraska we see now is someone greater than her abilities, and whose compassion and integrity for her own people form the core of her ability to lead. She is also willing to trust others in order to gain a shared victory or enact an important strategy. In the face of Ravnica’s impending destruction by the elder dragon Nicol Bolas, her possessive nature extends from the Golgari through to the entire plane as well. When she realizes the best way to sabotage Nicol Bolas is to have Jace to take her memories (with the intention of restoring them later), she doesn’t doubt Jace’s competency for a second.
“Vraska could tell Jace was beginning to understand. He looked at her reluctantly. ‘You would trust me with your memories?’
‘I trust you absolutely,’ she responded with iron resolution.
How could she not? He was like her. Vraska realized for the first time that this was what a partnership felt like, and her conviction deepened. How strange it was, to have someone to trust and to be trusted in return.” (“Sabotage”, R&D Narrative Team)
Vraska has discovered and proven to herself that she is a fierce, competent leader who is willing to do everything to bring her loved ones the respect and dignity they deserve. Though her time on Ixalan has only been temporary, she’s used the experience to hone her skills. Combined with her ruthlessness and fierce loyalty, these new insights and abilities will make her a force to be reckoned with.
Vraska’s journey to becoming a competent leader who is deeply connected with her community has been a thrill to see unfold, and one that she could not have taken anywhere else in quite the same way. While Ixalan remains a battleground between tribes, the experience of exploration has encouraged our main characters to take risks and challenge themselves in new ways. The nature of discovery gives us new information, which allows us to learn more about ourselves and those around us. As each day passes and we continue to explore our world, we also need to be aware of the decisions we make and how they shape the people we become.
Next time, we’ll take a look at Huatli to see how Ixalan’s native Planewalker deals with her own unexpected discoveries in the midst of new enemies and allies.
Header design: Justin Treadway
Header image: “Vraska, Relic Seeker” by Chris Rahn