Art by Chris Rahn
Eight years ago, Magic: the Gathering's story was relaunched with a new focus. An event called the Mending fundamentally changed the multiverse as we knew it, mutating the planeswalker spark. In its wake, planeswalkers who once commanded god-like power were reduced to mere mortals, struggling to regain what they have lost. One such planeswalker is Liliana Vess, who as a young woman encountered the mysterious Raven Man and was manipulated into damning her brother's soul to the Void. The identity of this Raven Man has been one of the biggest mysteries in Magic, and speculation has run rampant to this day, but I think I've figured it out and I've got a mountain of evidence to support my claim. Special Thanks to Andrew Weisel and Cary Barkett for their contributions to this article.
What we know about the Raven Man is limited. It is possible that he is a new character, but if so it seems weird for the story to have hid his true identity for so long. If he is not a new character, what we know of his power set narrows down the list of suspects significantly. Other evidence almost certainly pins the character down. In this examination, I hope to identify the prime candidates for the Raven Man, and highlight my suspicions for the one character I believe to truly be the Raven Man. But first, let's discuss what we know.
Panel from The Raven's Eye Part I, Illustrated by Dan Brereton
Liliana and the Raven Man
The Raven Man's first appearance came during July 2010, in the online webcomic The Raven's Eye Part 1. While worth checking out, five years later this story was retold in greater detail for Liliana's Origin: The Fourth Pact. For the purposes of this article, I'll be focusing on The Fourth Pact over The Raven's Eye. We first encounter the Raven Man when Liliana, a young noble woman, has headed into the nearby Caligo Forest in order to find esis root to cure her brother, Josu. A battle is raging in the forest, and so Liliana is on guard. As she goes to throw a stone at a raven that has been following her, a man appears in the bird's place.
He was tall and had a noble air, dressed in a suit of black and gold that showed no signs of his passage through the trees and brambles. White hair crowned his head, tousled by his hood, but the hair at his temples was black and swept back over his ears. His eyes—strangely gold, like the embroidery on his clothing—seized and held her gaze.
He arrives seemingly from nowhere, knowing her name. He warns her that the enemy skin-witches have burned the esis grove, the only source of the root that would save her brother. He somehow knows that she has been dabbling in the dark arts, and is already a powerful mage (but how did she learn this dark magic?). When she confronts him on how he knows so much, he responds simply.
"I suppose both of us are more than we seem," he said.
Liliana had always known it: she was more, so much more than anyone had ever seen in her before. And now she would prove it. She felt something inside her break free, like a dark flower blossoming in a deep swamp. Spells came to her mind, weaving together into a desperate, terrifying plan.
"Yes," the man said. "You see it now. Esis root is a powerful cure, but it was the safe course. You know a mightier one."
She did, she realized with surprise. Stretching out her senses, she felt the power that brewed in all the rot and decay of the nearby bog. She drew the mana into herself with a grim smile, only vaguely aware that the strange man had vanished again.
Odd that the Raven Man knows exactly when Liliana has her internal epiphany, isn't it? And why would she only be vaguely aware the Raven Man was gone? A creepy man popping in and out of nowhere seems like the kind of thing you would take close notice of, wouldn't you? In any case, a seemingly minor tweak between the stories is that rather than accepting a potion from the Raven Man, Liliana instead makes it herself by reviving the dead esis root. But when she gives the potion to her brother, it turns him into a monstrosity. She pleads that she was only trying to help him.
"Help me?" His voice was a growling whisper in her face. "I am lost to the Void, Lili. Lost! So why do I linger here?"
All her necromancy only serves to strengthen him, and so instead she sets the zombies of her dead servants after Josu. In the heat of the moment her spark ignites and she planeswalks away. We don't know much about what happened afterwards, but it's implied that she later returned and bested the Raven Man, although it's not clear how.
"But why should that bother you," the dragon said, "after all that you have already done? You have studied with the greatest necromancers on all the planes. You slaughtered angels. And you bested the one who started you on this path. What did you call him? The Raven Man?"
Decades later, the Mending occurs and she is suddenly faced with mortality - and her brother's promise of spending eternity in the Void. So she makes a bargain with Nicol Bolas. Bolas, you should note, already knows of the existence of the Raven Man, which also seems like a minor thing at first. In any case, the Elder Dragon brokers four demonic pacts that would restore a portion of her power and youth. Of course, Liliana believed she could get out of them somehow, and immediately sought a means to do so. She tried to use Bolas again, but her plan to gift Bolas with the return of the Infinite Consortium failed, and eventually her debts came due. Kothophed, her fourth master, instructed her to retrieve the Chain Veil from Shandalar.
If you're reading this, you probably know what happens next. She retrieves the Veil and curses Garruk Wildspeaker in the process. The Veil grants her great power, but at a cost. In The Raven's Eye Part 3, she seeks to learn more from a dead cleric on Shandalar who knows about the Onakke - the supposed creators of the Veil. She finds more than she bargained for when she realizes the corpse she reanimated is actually the Raven Man in disguise. He talks to her about the Veil.
The Onakke were brilliant creatures, slaughtered into nothingness. You should've seen the sky on the night it happened. The stars were so angry, they burned scars in the firmament.
The Raven Man heals her wounds, berating her for being injured by commoners (who didn't take kindly to her stealing a corpse), and hinting at his true connection to the Veil. Notice how he talks about the death of the Onakke as if he were there? That's a critical clue. Once healed, Liliana stabs the Raven Man, and the corpse promptly goes slack, empty and lifeless. The Raven Man had escaped her again.
Coward! Where did you go? Why inhabit a dead man? Have you been infesting my mind all along?
Another important clue.
Art by Victor Adame Minguez
We wouldn't see the Raven Man again for four years, real time. The cancellation of the novels and absence of a focused story during the Innistrad block meant we had to wait for a Liliana-centric plot to come around. We finally got one with The Veil of Deceit. Liliana returns to the Onakke catacombs looking for answers, and encounters an angel outside. The Seraph gives her a cryptic warning about the veil.
"You...the vessel...holding them...freeing them..."
Inside, she's treated to a curious vision. It's of the Onakke civilization while it still stood, and of the sudden death that swept over it. Notably, it does not appear that the Onakke intended for this to happen, and more like this was something done to them.
The sun had made way for a field of gleaming stars, but even they seemed restless amid the chaos of the market. A cascade of meteors streaked across the sky as the Onakke were utterly obliterated before her eyes.
A bird croaked nearby, a raven, perched on a ledge of a nearby building overlooking the killing field. It cocked its head toward her, the first creature here to notice or acknowledge her presence.
The implication here being that either the Raven Man was present for the destruction of the Onakke - something already implied by the way he speaks about the sky the night it happened - or that the Raven Man is watching the vision with her. Or both. My suspicion that the devastation is something that was done to them rather than by them seems reinforced by their anger when Liliana admires the spell that killed them. She tries to get rid of the Veil, but finds herself unable. One of the many Onakke skeletons appears as a spirit before her, and they have an interesting conversation.
"We are beyond the reach of your magic," the Onakke said. "Even though you wear our veil."
"The veil of deceit is of no use to us, vessel. Not yet."
"The root has not yet come to full flower in you, vessel."
"The root that was planted in you so many years ago, when you killed your brother."
So the veil is 'theirs', but is that because they made it, or because it contains their souls? The root of evil that keeps being referenced - was it a deliberate action on the Raven Man's part? He's the one who pushed her into the action that killed her brother.
We learn yet more in Unkindness of Ravens. Liliana makes the offhand comment that while the Onakke's voices are always present, they're usually just background noise outside of Shandalar. When she is rebuffed by Jace for help with the Veil (help she didn't actually ask for, mind you), she is found by the Raven Man once more. Interestingly, she describes his features but makes a partially telling comment.
The intervening century had left no greater mark on him than it had on her own features.
That's certainly an odd way to phrase it. It could be nothing, but it could be an implication that the Raven Man is merely part of Liliana. Whether or not the Raven Man is real or something Liliana has imagined (or something lurking in her mind) is a big subject of debate. It's implied that he's physically present, with Liliana actually touching him at points. But is she just imagining it? It's really important to note that with a seemingly minor change I mentioned earlier (Liliana making the potion rather than it being handed to her), Liliana is the only thing the Raven Man ever physically interacts with.
She planted a hand on his chest and pushed him two steps back.
This could easily be her imagining pushing him. When Liliana finally confronts the Raven Man, he quickly deflects her.
She wheeled around to face him again. "Who are you?" she demanded. "You're a Planeswalker—I met you on Dominaria, on Shandalar, and now here. You're a shapeshifter, obviously. And you spoke to me with the mouth of a corpse on Shandalar. Who—what are you?"
His lip curled into a smile more cruel than amused, but he said nothing.
"You spoke of the Chain Veil as though the whole thing were your idea—you cultivated the root of evil, the Veil of deceit, the vessel of destruction." As she said the words, the Onakke spirits echoed them in her mind, with hissing whispers that resounded like the inside of a mausoleum. "But Kothophed sent me to fetch the Chain Veil for him."
"Yet you did not return it to him."
"I run errands for no one. Did you somehow give the demon the idea of sending me after it? You certainly planted the seed of his destruction if you did."
"You are the vessel for a much greater destruction than that."
The Raven Man reminds Liliana that she has no choice. She is beset by enemies on all sides, and her remaining two demons are far more powerful than the ones she has already slain. But in the process, Liliana discovers something that could later be important: The Raven Man can read minds, or at least her mind.
She opened her mouth to retort—then closed it again, furrowing her brow. "Oh, so shall we add mind mage to your list of accomplishments?" she said. "Get out of my head, Raven Man. There's no room for one more."
Art by Victor Adame Minguez
She grows frustrated with the Raven Man, and lashes out. She kills many of his ravens, and turns them against the rest. The Raven Man ends up leaving, but it's unclear if he is retreating or just annoyed with her. Afterwards, she departs for Innistrad. A raven mocks her as she leaves.
We don't see the Raven Man again until Liliana's Indignation. Liliana has spent her time with geistmages on Innistrad trying to uncurse the veil, or at least remove the Onakke's influence. Jace, driven mad by Emrakul, forces the Raven Man to take direct action.
"I didn't say anything," said the Raven Man.
She turned. There he was beside her, with his white hair, golden eyes, and elegant black and gold robes belonging to a very different time and place. He was...well, she wasn't sure quite what he was, an ignorance she tolerated only because she had no choice. He had appeared to her in her youth, taunted her, taught her. He had set her on the path that brought her here, and appeared now and then to keep her on it.
A very different time and place, eh? That's interesting. We'll talk about that in a minute, but for now keep that line in mind. Liliana notices that with Jace there, the Raven Man actually seems worried and not wryly or cruelly amused as he usually does. The Raven Man keeps Jace out of Liliana's head, but he urges her to action because he can't hold off the telepath forever. It's unclear how much the Raven Man is in her head, because she even parrots him.
"I certainly hope this display is frightening you," said the Raven Man. "This isn't like him."
"Yes," said Liliana, to Jace. "This isn't like you. I'm not convinced this is you."
During the fight, the Raven Man mentions that he has too much invested in Liliana, revealing that he is, in fact, a separate entity and not just a figment of her imagination. This is made even more clear when Jace breaks through the Raven Man's defenses and actually sees him.
"He's getting through your defenses," hissed the Raven Man. "Do something!"
One of the images of Jace snapped his head toward the Raven Man, eyes wide.
So you can see him!
The Raven Man urges Liliana to stop fighting and start killing Jace. Liliana refuses, and he disappears in disgust. Jace gains a measure of lucidity, and tells Liliana not to experiment with the Veil, he's glimpsed something and worries she will unleash something she doesn't intend. She, of course, experiments anyway. But when Emrakul finally breaks through onto the plane, Liliana goes to help the Gatewatch, resurrecting the dead from their graves for a massive zombie army. She arrives just in time to save the rest of the Gatewatch from the eldrazi spawn. Against Emrakul herself, however, she fares poorly. In The Promised End, both the Onakke voices and the Raven Man urge her to flee. Her zombie army begins chanting the Onakke's words. She persists, using her will to overpower the Veil and draw more power from it than she's ever done. The Raven Man warns her she can not hope to contain it, and when it becomes clear she is starting to lose, he says this to her.
If you're lucky, Liliana, your death is now the best possible outcome of today. You have doomed us both. The Raven Man spoke without contempt, without hatred or fear. He sounded...resigned. For the first time since rescuing the Gatewatch, Liliana was afraid.
So their fates are intertwined. Note how the Raven Man alternates from 'physical speech' to mental speech. When it seems like he's talking to her like he's there, they're almost always alone together. When she's around others, it's just the mental voice. Is he going somewhere, or is he being careful about how much influence he exerts over her at any given time? Especially since Jace might be able to see him, it seems likely he retreats around others. We meet the Raven Man again, in Servants, when he reveals that he saved Liliana from a Sand Wurm when the Gatewatch first ventured to Amonkhet.
... Didn't I take command of the Chain Veil to blast you out of that wurm's belly when you arrived here?"
That seems really important. Especially because when Liliana is later controlled in Feast by Razaketh, her third demon, he says this.
A voice creaked through her mind: "You can only survive this if you kill him."
The Raven Man.
Liliana screamed. Get out! Not now! I do not want to hear from you!
"You are only free if you kill each of your demons, Liliana. Only then will I leave you be."
The Raven Man is obviously not telling the truth. Why would he start now? But he clearly wants her to defeat her demons. We learn later that even Jace has significant trouble breaking Razaketh's hold on Liliana. It's possible that the Raven Man is being careful asserting direct control, for fear of one of the demons noticing.
Yes, use us. Unleash your full power, whispered the Chain Veil hanging at her side.
You have never been such a fool as to think you can win this battle, Liliana, whispered the Raven Man.
What's even more interesting is that in Hour of Devastation, it becomes clear that the Onakke Spirits in the Chain Veil and the Raven Man are working at cross purposes.
He lies! screamed the Onakke in her head. Interloper! We will crush him!
You know he speaks truth, Liliana. He can help you. The Raven Man.
The Onakke call for her to fight, but the Raven Man wants her to work with Nicol Bolas. Not just run, but get his help. Why would he do that? And why do the Onakke call him Interloper? That's a pretty specific word, meaning Bolas has gotten himself tangled up in their plot somehow. Could it be that Bolas has offered the Raven Man a better deal?
Before we move on, let us look at the Veil itself for a moment, as it might offer more clues.
The Chain Veil by Volkan Baga
Curse of the Chain Veil
In Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015, Jace talks about the history of the Chain Veil.
The Onakke created the Veil, not merely to destroy, but to create destroyers. Of course most are too weak to survive its curse. But there are always more who are lured by its promise of power. Some have been twisted and ruined by its dark magic. But Garruk? If his curse is not removed, he will be a threat to us all.
Two planeswalkers in the story have been cursed by the Chain Veil. In both cases, it turned them into demonic beings. The first we know of is Ob Nixilis, who has completely turned into a demon.
He sought to seize the power of the legendary Chain Veil for himself, but instead suffered its curse, which stripped him of his humanity, transforming him into a monstrous demon.
He went to Zendikar to use the abundant mana to remove his curse. Instead, he recounts in Dreams of the Damned how he met Nahiri, and she implanted a hedron in his forehead that sealed his power. This would have happened more than a thousand years ago, mainly because Nahiri was later sealed in the Helvault. The Hedron had a convenient side effect:
My curse was stopped. The call of that faraway place just vanished. But all my power vanished with it.
That Hedron was removed and used to stop the second cursed planeswalker, Garruk. While Garruk was prevented from being turned fully into a demon, it doesn't seem to have stopped Garruk's planeswalking… yet. So in both cases we know of, a curse from the Chain Veil turns a being into a demon. Fascinating, but without more information it's just a puzzle piece that doesn't quite fit with anything else yet, but I have an idea. We'll return to this later.
Let's recap what we know of the Raven Man so far:
- He has white hair, a small beard, and golden eyes.
- He wears a gold and dark-colored outfit.
- His clothing is out-of-date, from 'another time and place'.
- He was there when the Onakke Civilization was destroyed.
- He has appeared on Dominaria, Shandalar, Ravnica, and Innistrad.
- He has telepathic abilities, but can not match Jace.
- He can appear and disappear into an unkindness of ravens.
- He has illusion, shapeshifting, and/or possession powers.
- His fate is tied to Liliana's, and he likely knew she was a planeswalker before she sparked.
- He pressures Liliana into using the Veil.
- He can control the Veil (and possibly Liliana) directly.
- He wants Liliana to work with Nicol Bolas.
That gives us quite a bit to go by, and narrows down our candidates significantly. I think it's fair to say that appearing and disappearing into a murder of ravens is an illusion, or that Liliana imagines their duels. Given that Liliana is the only person to ever 'physically' interact with the Raven Man, we might chalk that up to her thinking she's physically interacting with him when he's all in her head. Of course, Jace turning his head to look at the Raven Man once he got through Liliana's mental defenses is suspect. Jace wasn't in his right mind at the time, and he might have just been looking at the Raven Man's mental projection.
Some candidates are stronger than others. Here I'll be examining each character in turn for their relative merits. Please note, while there are an embarrassment of potential characters that have been brought up as being the Raven Man, I'm restricting this to the most common or the mostly likely suspects. Technically possible characters like Marit Lage or Ashiok with zero other connections are left off. Most dead characters I'm also ignoring (like The Weaver King), with two important exceptions (to establish story details). Let's start with a silly one, because I want to make a couple points, not because I think in any way this is a viable candidate.
Urza's Rage by Jim Murray
Urza Planeswalker certainly has some similarities to the Raven Man. He has white hair, a small beard, and wears clothes with those big circular buckles/buttons. But Urza is dead-dead. There's no chance he (or Yawgmoth) are getting resurrected by the Creative Team, and especially not with a weird connection to ravens he never had before. Urza's Dominarian clothing certainly shares some similarities with the Raven Man's, however, and this tells us that the Raven Man is probably Dominarian in origin. Those big buckles are a Dominarian staple (the 90's, man). It's also worth noting that Urza is from Terisiare, the continent featured in the Ice Age.
With Urza out of the way, there are really only three 'real' potential candidates here. I'm talking about three characters that have existing ties to the story of the Raven Man and the backstory of Shandalar (and by extension, the Chain Veil). That Shandalar connection is key, because knowledge about the Chain Veil isn't exactly common. My suspects are all characters who are capable of the feats we've seen performed by the Raven Man: Nicol Bolas, Leshrac, Marisil and Lim-Dûl. Hint: I'm saving the best for last.
Wit's End by Chris Rahn
Nicol Bolas is the first and most obvious candidate for the Raven Man. If you've speculated about the Raven Man at all, you've probably thought about Bolas at some point. He fits all the criteria for the Raven Man, except for one thing: he would have been sort-of-dead when Liliana ascended. He was killed by his Champion, Tetsuo Umezawa, and lingered beyond the Madaran Rift. Of course, Bolas later appears to Venser as Sensei Ryu, and tricks the young wizard into freeing him from the rift beyond the Talon Gates. Sensei Ryu is only a disembodied voice, however, and not a vision or physical presence. Still, it doesn't entirely disqualify him, especially with what we know happens later. He might have appeared to Liliana in a similar way.
Following the Mending, Bolas brokers Liliana's four demonic deals. It is important to mention that this was an added detail from Magic Origins, which means it was added for a purpose. Most importantly, we are never told why Bolas helps her. And Bolas notes the existence of the Raven Man, too. No price is discussed with Bolas during The Fourth Pact, so what does he get out of it? And we later learn that one of her demons, Razaketh, resides on Bolas' personal plane of Amonkhet! That seems… suspicious. Bolas' unwillingness to help Liliana out of her deals, despite getting what he wants during Agents of Artifice, could just be an evil planeswalker doing evil planeswalker things. Or, he might want her desperate enough that the Chain Veil seems like a good option.
A Panel from The Veil's Curse Part II, Illustrated by Scott Hampton
Not to mention that it is the fourth of her demons, Kothophed, that sends her after the Chain Veil in the first place. Except Kothophed isn't on Shandalar or he could have just gotten it himself. So how did Kothophed find out about the Veil? Given the Bolas connection, could the Elder Dragon have tipped him off? It seems likely, given that in The Veil's Curse Part II, Sarkhan Vol was sent to follow her, and reported back to Bolas that Liliana took the Veil with her. And this was BEFORE she killed Kothophed. And then there's the ending of Hour of Devastation I discussed earlier, when the Raven Man was telling Liliana to side with Nicol Bolas.
Of course, none of this means that Bolas is the Raven Man himself. The description of the cancelled novel Curse of the Chain Veil implies the power of the Veil has attracted Bolas. He's always been willing to use agents (or mind implants like the dubiously canonical Doctor Jest), and it's possible that his intentions for the Chain Veil are different than the Raven Man's. They might just be allied, for now. Which leads me to the fact that Bolas is very intertwined with another candidate here: Leshrac.
Panel from Shandalar #1 by Bo Hampton
Leshrac is a name most modern story fans probably don't know much about. Leshrac first appeared in the old Ice Age comics, later in the novel The Eternal Ice, as an ancient evil planeswalker scheming to escape the Shard (a barrier between a cluster of planes including Dominaria, and the rest of the Multiverse). His escape route was the rogue plane Shandalar, which could move in and out of the Shard freely. Once he leaves, he wants an army to help with his conquest, and so he becomes the patron of the Necromancer Lim-Dûl. Lim-Dûl builds a huge undead army, but squanders it in his feud with the nation of Kjeldor. The archmage Jodah helps unite the people of Terisiare against Lim-Dûl, defeating him. When Jodah's battle with Lim-Dûl in The Eternal Ice moves to the mindscape, he encounters Leshrac's connection to his servant:
In one room, he found a great statue of Leshrac carved in what seemed to be obsidian. Here was a place of power, something more than just a mere casting. Jodah moved to rip it from Lim-Dûl's memory, to break this particular link of his chain of power.
Then the statue opened its eyes and looked down on Jodah.
There was hatred within Leshrac's yellow orbs. Jodah felt himself flung from the necromancer's mind, and he stumbled backward in his physical form. He rolled upon land and pulled himself up, his muscles complaining as he did so.
Here is where things get interesting. On Shandalar (as told in the Shandalar Comics), he brings along Lim-Dûl and Tevesh Szat. Lim-Dûl turns on his former master and engineers a conflict between Leshrac and Szat, and the two planeswalkers eventually flee the plane. Thousands of years later, however, we learn that he left a mark. A slimy city named Lesh is said to be named after an ancient evil god. There can be only one real candidate there: Leshrac.
Now, I'll talk more about the timeline of what goes down on Shandalar with my final and favorite candidate. But the implication here is that either Leshrac returns, or Leshrac's time on Shandalar went down differently than we currently understand it. The real question is, could Leshrac be the Raven Man? At some point he was imprisoned in Phyrexia, but he would have been released with more than enough time to appear to Liliana. He was an active participant in the events surrounding the Mending. And he certainly has the power set, given he manipulates everyone the way the Raven Man manipulates Liliana. Observe his interaction with the planeswalker Jeska in the novel Future Sight:
"You were in my head just now, and I didn't notice. You're obviously better at that sort of thing than I am."
Leshrac smiled sharply. "Quite good at it, actually. Famous for it."
Jeska felt her anger welling up, but she controlled herself.
"How long have you been in my head without my noticing?"
"Not very long, or very often. Just enough to keep track and make sure you weren't making things more difficult for me."
"Much better. You do realize I could have done this at any time? It's amazing to me how someone so powerful can be so unaware. I've had my hooks in you since before we met, and if you hadn't been so malleable, you might have noticed. You might have even cared. As it is… you are mine."
This scene sounds like it could have taken place between Liliana and the Raven Man, does it not? The wrinkle here is that later in the novel, Nicol Bolas and Leshrac duel for supremacy (being the last two known super-powerful evil planeswalkers). Bolas wins and traps Leshrac in the Mask of Night's Reach. Leshrac's spark is used to seal the Madaran rift, and the implication is that he dies. In fact, Brady would later confirm it in You Are a Planeswalker (See The Vorthos Library's Piece on the Great Mending for more).
If Leshrac had launched a bid for Liliana before the Mending, and Bolas captured the planeswalker, Bolas might know about Leshrac's plan. It would explain Bolas' involvement with the Chain Veil. The problem with this theory is that dead is dead in Magic: the Gathering (for the most part). But the prominence of a city bearing his name, founded just a few centuries ago (according to the Shandalar plane profile)? Even if Leshrac is dead, his involvement in Shandalar isn't fully revealed. The problem is that there is no way Leshrac would work with Nicol Bolas willingly, which leads us to our last, best options.
Mairsil the Pretender by Izzy
Mairsil the Pretender
On the Dominarian continent of Terisiare, before the Ice Age proper, there was The Dark. A powerful wizard named Mairsil usurped control of the Conclave of Mages, and was only defeated because the young mage Jodah freed Mairsil's old master, Ith. Mairsil was burnt to cinders, but not before transferring his soul into a ruby ring. Why does this matter? Well, take a look at how Mairsil is described in The Gathering Dark:
The figure in the painting wore a dark silk shirt and dark pants. He was festooned with a gold brocade vest, over the shirt, which bore large, crystalline buttons. He held in one hand a hat, wide-brimmed with a golden feather, and his other hand rested on the hilt of a rapier.
He wore a jeweled cuff in the right ear, the left being hidden in the portrait and a huge ruby-stoned ring on his right index finger.
The portrait's eyes were particularly striking --- they seemed to look to the bottom of one's soul.
Sounds an awful lot like the same broody look we see on the Raven Man, doesn't it? Not to mention ravens and other corvids love hanging around the conclave of mages. Granted, his card (released after the original writing of this post), looks nothing like the Raven Man. The man who picks up Mairsil's ring is a Kjeldoran deserter named Lim-Dûl. Mairsil and Lim-Dûl become intwined to the point where it is hard to tell where one starts and the other begins. Lim-Dûl has an affinity for black magic, and so the great Necromancer is born.
Lim-Dûl becomes a servant of Leshrac, but he earns his master's displeasure when he squanders his undead army in a petty feud with Kjeldor. Leshrac curses him, and the Necromancer begins growing horns out of his forehead (you can just barely see them in his card art). Jodah, whose aging was slowed to a crawl by the fountain of youth, wages a magical duel with Lim-Dûl. During their battle, the necromancer's magic is described as such (from The Eternal Ice):
Lim-Dûl made the first move with a blizzard of spells that arched toward Jodah on raven-winged trajectories.
Raven-winged, eh? That's an odd turn of phrase. While not overt, Mairsil/Lim-Dûl definitely has a connection to ravens, more so than any other candidate, at least. Anyway, Leshrac arrives and abducts Lim-Dûl before Jodah can finish him off. The Necromancer's hand (and ring) are severed from the rest of the body. The hand with the ruby ring stays behind, and leads to the story of The Shattered Alliance, while the rest of Lim-Dûl's body goes to Shandalar with Leshrac. I briefly questioned earlier how Liliana learned Necromancy. Could it have been through a tome of the great Necromancer himself? It would explain how he marked Liliana. It certainly fills in the gaps for how and why Liliana was chosen. And where exactly Liliana is from on Dominaria has been left deliberately vague. Maybe she hails from Terisiare, where the Necromancer's influence was greatest. And given Marisil comes from Terisiare only a short time after Urza's day, the style similarities make more sense.
I'll get back to Lim-Dûl's story in just a second. Mairsil (still called Lim-Dûl because no one but Jodah remembers Mairsil) is left in quandary. Separated from his host, he's once again helpless until his ring is found. In a turn of luck, Jaya Ballard finds the hand and ring following the battle, and Mairsil worms his way into Jaya's mind over the next few decades, and launches another bid for power. Jodah is able to stop Mairsil by using the power invested in his magic mirror to cause Jaya to ascend, and once she does she's able to expunge Mairsil's dark influence for good.
So while Mairsil has all the makings for a great Raven Man (mind control, living as a spirit in an artifact, association with Ravens, etc.) he can pretty safely be filed into the 'dead dead' camp as well. But Mairsil's story brings us to our final, and best candidate. A candidate who has showed up in the stories of both Leshrac and Mairsil.
Lim-Dûl's Vault by Wayne England
On Shandalar, I've already recounted how Lim-Dûl turned Leshrac and Tevesh Szat against one another. He lurks in nearby Catacombs, the place of power of Shandalar's Guardian planeswalker, Kenan Sahrmal. He impersonates Sahrmal and instigates the duel, but when Leshrac and Tevesh Szat have fled, Sahrmal confronts the Necromancer. Lim-Dûl casts his soul into Sahrmal's body and disappears, leaving his old body behind to get decapitated by one of Sahrmal's champions (who believe the Necromancer dead). This whole battle, both Leshrac versus Tevesh Szat fighting and Sahrmal versus Lim-Dûl, takes place along the Eastern Sea. This will be important in a moment.
Lim-Dûl tries to return to the people of Shandalar in his stolen body as their hero to take over, but it doesn't go as he intends. So Lim-Dûl goes to build his power, and twelve years later arrives with a massive zombie horde at his back, conquering all but one city on the plane: Ardestan. Sahrmal, meanwhile, was not killed but had been severely weakened by Lim-Dûl's trick. Rather than confront the Necromancer directly, he trains up two apprentices. One of which, Azaar, gets impatient and steals the spell that Sahrmal intended to use to stop Lim-Dûl. The spell would trap Lim-Dûl's spirit and use it to power a barrier over Shandalar to keep meddling planeswalkers out. He attempts to use it on Lim-Dûl, but the necromancer uses his spirit swapping powers on the reckless young mage like he did Kenan Sahrmal. Azaar's spell targeted Lim-Dûl's spirit, so as the two spells took effect, Lim-Dûl becomes trapped in Azaar's body alongside Azaar's spirit. An accidental side effect of the two spirits being in the same body is that the barrier created from the spell is almost impenetrable. Sahrmal buries his apprentice in a secret grave in order to protect this Great Barrier.
Eventually, Lim-Dûl's spirit wins out over Azaar's and the Necromancer is able to assert control over their shared body. He gets ready to rampage across Shandalar again, but finds that Sahrmal's other apprentice (known only as the Guardian) has prepared for this day by creating five guilds to help protect the plane (one for each color). Lim-Dûl is quickly defeated by the Guardian and the five Guild Lords. The Guardian removes Lim-Dûl's spirit from Azaar's body, but when the Great Barrier weakens as a result, he quickly imprisons it in an artifact to maintain the barrier. An evil demon planeswalker named Arzakon senses the power from these battles, and tries to enter Shandalar himself. Arzakon is rebuffed by the Great Barrier and the Guardian. So instead, he seeps some of his essence through, and promises the Guild Lords great power through the Spell of Dominion.
Arzakon and the Guild Lords from Microprose's Magic: The Gathering
They're lured by his promises, and turn on the Guardian. The spell, of course, is a fake, designed only to seek out the artifact powering the Great Barrier and destroy it. The artifact is never described, but in the old Microprose game, an Old Wise Man has this to say about it (thanks to Berend Boer's Multiverse in Review for the transcription):
I am far older than I seem, young mage.
I myself saw the spirit of Lim-Dûl imprisoned.
The artifact in which it is trapped is hidden well, and I would be a fool to even describe it to you.
However, I can tell you one thing certain, that the artifact powers the Great Barrier.
Without it, Shandalar would be open to attack, and to the ruthless predation of planeswalkers.
This so-called Spell of Dominion that the guild lords seek the power to cast can only mean the destruction of the artifact and the freeing of the necromancer's spirit.
Arzakon fails, stopped by the player character (an amateur spellcaster chosen by the Guardian's spirit), but the Barrier falls eventually anyway (it seems likely that the meteor shower mentioned earlier symbolized its fall). We know this because Liliana and Garruk are both able to enter the plane in modern times. So here's the real question: When did the Barrier fall? And if the Barrier is down, does that mean Lim-Dûl was freed?
Let's connect this to what we know of the Raven Man. We know he was present on Shandalar when the Onakke were wiped out. Lim-Dûl has been there for almost 2,000 years. He was imprisoned in a soul-powered artifact, which is an interesting coincidence. Maybe Lim-Dûl didn't escape the artifact, but is still trapped inside, having learned to project himself out for a limited time. Where would that artifact have been hidden? Kenan Sahrmal's place of power was a network of Catacombs in the area of Ardestan and the Eastern Sea. We learn in Prisoner of the Skep and The Bard and the Biologist that the Sliver Hive is along the Eastern Sea (and that Hastric was employed by Ardestan, implying that city is in the area too), and that in modern times that region has become the Kalonian Wilds. We also know that the Onakke Ruins are in the Kalonian Wilds, too. Except, they're not just called ruins - They're called Catacombs. Just like Kenan Sahrmal's place of power! Where better to hide Lim-Dûl's vessel? And where does Liliana Vess find the Chain Veil?
Onakke Catacomb by Nic Klein
In the Onakke Catacombs! You might say the creative team 'just happened' to place all those geographic features in the same area, but that's an awful big coincidence. The Raven Man fits Lim-Dûl's Modus Operandi. Mairsil's spirit infiltrated Lim-Dûl to the point where the two were indistinguishable, by slowly worming his way into the other's mind. Back on Dominaria, he does the same to Jaya Ballard. Over the course of twenty years, he wormed his way into her mind, taking control at key points but otherwise leaving her unaware of his presence until he completely usurped her. Lim-Dûl plays at being an ally to Sahrmal's champions to get rid of Leshrac and Tevesh Szat. He pretends to be Sahrmal on multiple occasions, actually. And who would he naturally have the most affinity for? Another necromancer, like Liliana Vess. She's the perfect host.
Looking at our list, Lim-Dûl checks off most of the boxes. The description matches' up with depictions of both Mairsil and Lim-Dûl, both for clothing style and physical appearance. Lim-Dûl's sense of style would definitely be out-of-date in modern times. Differences can easily be accounted for by Lim-Dûl being in a newer body, or projecting his ideal form (Note: His characteristic horns are lost on Shandalar when he begins shapeshifting and body-swapping). He could have been on Shandalar when the Onakke were destroyed. In fact, the destruction of the Onakke might have been the result of someone casting the Spell of Dominion. He has telepathic abilities, but nothing that would rival Jace. He's been known to appear and disappear at will, just never with a raven flourish - although he's been associated with ravens from the start. He uses illusions, shapeshifting, and possession powers. He's possessed the bodies of planeswalkers before and has extensive knowledge of them. And the power of the Veil? Lim-Dûl nearly conquered the plane and was strong enough to overcome a planeswalker before the Mending. If two souls could power the Great Barrier, imagine the power millions of Onakke souls would provide. The Veil's power is certainly representative of an artifact that could block an entire plane from beings as powerful as pre-mending planeswalkers (not unlike Avacyn keeping out Emrakul). And he is definitely willing to work for a greater power to get what he wants.
Looking at the theory like this, it feels less and less like a new character's story and more and more like a continuation of Lim-Dûl's - only done in such a way that no one HAS to know the real background. There are definitely pieces missing. Why does he want Liliana to use the Veil? Why does a curse from the Veil turn someone demonic? Why did the Onakke get wiped out? How does Lim-Dûl move between planes?
Following the death of the Guardian and the fall of the Guild Lords, there would have been no one to keep Lim-Dûl's spirit in check. Perhaps as the Great Barrier weakened, Lim-Dûl was able to free himself. Maybe some hapless fool discovered the Veil - the protagonist of the Microprose game, even, and let Lim- Dûl loose. Or maybe someone finally cast the Spell of Dominion. The Spell might have wiped out the Onakke as a side effect. Or maybe Lim-Dûl's first move was to eliminate the Onakke and trap them in the Veil, essentially swapping souls like he's done so many times before.
Even without a planeswalker's spark, Lim-Dûl powered an artifact of massive power that interacted with the Blind Eternities. Perhaps he found another planeswalker patron. Perhaps he hitched a ride on a previous bearer of the Veil, or one of those cursed (like Ob Nixilis). In either case, he found a way home to Dominaria, where a budding young Necromancer made a fantastic new vessel. The Raven Man's ability to control the Veil while Liliana was unconscious makes this seem incredibly likely, regardless of his actual identity. And wanting her free of her demon deals seems to indicate he wants her freed from her other entanglements, for whatever reason, before asserting control.
But what is Bolas' involvement with the Chain Veil? Might Lim-Dûl have traded one planeswalker patron for another? It would be no surprise that Lim-Dûl hitched his wagon to Bolas after Leshrac was killed. And why would Bolas even want Lim-Dûl? Because as I mentioned before, Lim-Dûl has experience controlling entire armies of the undead... and it just so happens that Bolas has made a whole new undead army in the form of the Eternals.
Oh, and did I forget to mention he's in the Chain Veil artwork? Take a look at the pedestal the Veil is placed on in Volkan Baga's art. Angular face, gaunt cheeks, horns, and a goatee. Well then. Good work everyone, we have a Raven Man. Case Closed. I kind of buried the lede on that one, huh?
Wait, the article isn't over? Oh, you mean there's someone else on the Chain Veil artwork, too?
Arzakon, the Onakke, and the Veil
Regardless of who the Raven Man really is (it's Lim-Dûl), we know for a fact that Arzakon is involved somehow with the Chain Veil. How? Take a look at the full art, there's a figure in relief directly above the Veil itself. The skull face with curved horns? That's exactly how Arzakon is depicted in the Microprose game. The promo In Garruk's Wake, with a head looking very skull-like while cast in shadow and glowing purple eyes? Arzakon is referenced again here, as in the Microprose game you see the skull of the Arzakon statue with glowing purple eye sockets. Garruk's helmet works nicely to create the skull silhouette, and intriguingly also gives the impression of the Onakke with the tusks/fangs hanging off to either side.
We know Arzakon created the Spell of Dominion to detroy the source of the Great Barrier. We know that, in the Microprose Game, he was trying to get into Shandalar, but it's not entirely clear why. The abundant mana was a draw, but perhaps it was the Veil he was after. My original thought on the Veil's creation was that perhaps the Guardian turned to the Onakke to create it, or recognized its value to help power the barrier. The artifact is explicitly never described in the Microprose game, and it is well hidden, but it seems likely we wouldn't have two different soul-powered and massively magical artifacts hidden away on the same relatively minor plane.
Here's my theory. The Onakke created the Veil, yes, but it's always struck me as odd that they would purposefully imprison themselves in it. Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 seems to indicate many of them tried to use it, and perhaps it's those souls who lay inside the Veil, but the mass extinction of the Onakke did seem to catch them off-guard. I really think it was done to them, and now they just want to be free. As for why the Veil's curse turns one demonic, perhaps it's because the Spell of Dominion was created by Arzakon, a demon planeswalker, and his curse still lingers upon it. Maybe the reason the Veil creates a destroyer is because the magic is trying to resurrect Arzakon. Or maybe I've got my timing wrong, and Arzakon was himself cursed by the Veil. Without more information, it's impossible to say. So much about the Chain Veil remains shrouded in mystery.
But there is one more thing to consider, having to do with the real-life development behind the plot.
I don't believe Arzakon is himself the Raven Man, mostly because an Arzakon reveal would be met with a unanimous "Who?" by the fanbase... but Lim-Dûl would be met with cheers.
The last connection here is to Brady Dommermuth, former head of Magic's creative team. When the Lorwyn Five were mapped out, Brady had a huge hand in crafting their backstories. He is so tied to the planeswalkers post-mending that for years they were referred to as 'Bradywalkers'. Liliana's origin story webcomic was co-written by Brady. What's interesting about the period between Time Spiral and Post-Mending story is how many former Ice Age characters were referenced, Brady obviously had a fondness for them. Of the four major Ice Age figures that could conceivably still be alive by the Time Spiral crisis, Leshrac, Jodah, and Jaya are all referenced again and their stories largely ended. Lim-Dûl's, however, was not. And yet, Lim-Dûl got a Legendary Creature card in Time Spiral? And not only that, Aaron Forsythe mentions in Time Spiral's Wizards that this was a decision made by the creative team:
When we were making lists of all the old characters we wanted to bring to life in Time Spiral, Lim-Dûl was not the design team's necromancer of choice; we wanted to make Nevinyrral, he of Disk fame. But our creative guys put the kibosh on that idea quickly, as "Nevinyrral" is "Larry Niven" – one of Richard Garfield's favorite sci-fi authors, I imagine – backwards. And while that is a nifty little Easter egg, it is a dumb name for a character in an intellectual property that tries to take itself at least somewhat seriously. Okay, I can buy that. We had Lim-Dûl in reserve, so it was all good.
That's interesting because Jaya Ballard (who also got a card in Time Spiral) was mentioned as being dead in Future Sight (2007) and is also referenced as the founder of Keral Keep's philosophies in The Purifying Fire (2009). Leshrac was defeated by Bolas. Jodah and Jhoira get a happy ending together (leaving out whether or not it's the 'real' Jodah thanks to the parallel timeline shenanigans of Planar Chaos). And yet, we go to Shandalar in The Hunter and the Veil in 2008 and not a single mention of Lim-Dûl? Yet, for some reason two months later, the official Magic: the Gathering Youtube uploads this video of the defeat of Arzakon from the Microprose game?
In fact, there hasn't been a peep about the Necromancer despite over a dozen stories taking place on the plane. Lovisa Coldeyes' bio from her recent Duel Deck appearance name checks the Necromancer twice is the span of a single paragraph. And yet, he's never been mentioned in the main story? That's really, really suspicious... unless there were already plans for Lim-Dûl, and they just took a while to come to fruition. Like I mentioned before, the creative team has enough knowledge of Shandalar that they placed almost everything of importance on the plane the match up perfectly for Lim-Dûl. And given the city of Lesh... there's a history there that hasn't been revealed to us yet.
The cancelled novel might be the reason we haven't gotten an answer yet. Maybe we were supposed to back in 2010, when Liliana's "A Planeswalker Novel" was set to come out. But when The Curse of the Chain Veil was cancelled, along with anything more than an overall summary for Innistrad, it stretched the Chain Veil plot so far that we've only just hit the plot points from the novel's product description, namely Liliana turning to Jace for help. Interestingly, months after Liliana's feature novel was set for release, we got The Raven's Eye, explaining her backstory. With Brady long gone now, and Liliana's story thrown into such disarray, it's not clear how much of what was originally intended for her story arc is still intact. Given all the geographical clues in the more recent Shandalar stories, I do still think I'm onto something.
And let's be real: some of the evidence I've found is just going to be coincidence. Volkan Baga loves adding skulls and horns to art, but the Chain Veil art is just too perfect with everything else. Still, I'm sure some of the things I've mentioned here are just coincidences, but the amount of clues pointing toward the Great Necromancer is incredibly suspicious.
So the Raven Man, one of the most enigmatic figures in Magic's recent history, is tied to a number of characters and places that we know about. Is he, as I believe, the continuation of Lim-Dûl's story? Was he originally, but plans have shifted in the mean time? It's fun to speculate, but honestly, there really isn't a character who fits better than Lim-Dûl. I'd been theorizing Lim-Dûl for a long while, but it wasn't until I got my hands on the manual for the 1990s Microprose game that I realized just how perfectly he slides into place. So my only real question here is: when will we get the reveal? With Magic looking to return to Dominaria for its 25th Anniversary, could we see Liliana's story finally turn a page and reveal the Raven Man?
Frequently Asked Questions
I know that this theory is a lot to take in, and there are a lot of mysterious unsolved. I'm collecting the most commonly asked question from those who read this theory in advance, and hopefully providing satisfactory answers.
Why would Nicol Bolas and the Raven Man work together?
Now that we know Nicol Bolas has been planning for the Eternals for the last sixty years, he would want a servant capable of controlling and directing such an army without his direct intervention. Who better than Lim-Dûl, who nearly conquered Dominaria and Shandalar with huge undead armies at his back?
How are there two Lim-Dûls?
Lim-Dûl the Necromancer was originally a Kjeldoran deserter who stumbled across Mairsil the Pretender's ring. Mairsil fused with Lim-Dûl's personality, to the point where they were indistinguishable. When Leshrac leaves Mairsil's ring behind, he essentially splits the Necromancer in two. We don't know how much of Mairsil is left in the Lim-Dûl that goes to Shandalar, but everything that Lim-Dûl was is also stored in the ring. For all intents and purposes, the spirit in Mairsil's ring and the person who went to Shandalar were both Lim-Dûl.
How and when did Lim-Dûl return to Dominaria?
Once the Great Barrier fell, there was no shortage of planeswalkers coming to Shandalar. We know Ob Nixilis was there, and Lim-Dûl might have hitched a ride when Ob took the Veil. It's also possible that Leshrac returned and took his former minion home. Arzakon is yet another possibility. It's also possible that somehow Mairsil survived his encounter with Jaya Ballard after she ascended. After reviewing The Shattered Alliance a few times, his ring is never accounted for.
How did Lim-Dûl discover Liliana?
When we meet Liliana, she's already learned a significant amount of Necromancy from an unknown source. Lim-Dûl had an extensive library, some of which likely survived the flood age. It's possible that Liliana discovered one of these tomes, and it led him to her. Oath of Lim-Dûl pictures what might just be such a tome, and it's especially entertaining given him hitching a ride on a member of the Gatewatch.
Why didn't Lim-Dûl just take direct control of Liliana?
When the other Lim-Dûl (Mairsil's spirit) took direct control of Jaya Ballard, it was after twenty years of carefully infiltrating her mind. When Liliana first meets the Raven Man in the Calligo forest, she couldn't have been more than in her early twenties, and it's likely he simply didn't have enough time before she became a planeswalker. Afterwards, she would have been too powerful for him to call attention to himself. So he likely waited for an opportunity. Unfortunately, the Mending struck first.
What exactly is the Chain Veil?
My best guess is that the Chain Veil was created either to house Lim-Dûl's soul and power the Great Barrier, or it was something that already existed and simply used for that purpose. Given the Arzakon connection, it's possible that the Chain Veil was what he was after all along.
Who is in the Chain Veil?
Given that the Raven Man has appeared to Liliana many times before she acquired the Veil, it's clear that he's no longer residing in it. It's the spirits of the fallen Onakke Civilization who populate the Veil, now.
What is the Chain Veil's purpose?
It's not clear what the whole 'Vessel of Destruction' thing means, yet. Both the Onakke and the Raven Man call Liliana this, but since they're not working together it's unclear what they both mean by it. Personally, I believe it's how the Raven Man believes he's going to take full control of Liliana. Or perhaps he's reuniting both pieces of himself? The Onakke might believe it's how they'll come back to life.
Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments or on the forum, and we will address it in future updates. Have a suggestion for something you want to see? Let us know, and we may address it in a future column. You can also follow me on twitter @Jay13x or @VorthosJay on Tumblr.