Magic: The Gathering fans are fascinated by fungus. The inclusion of Slimefoot, the Stowaway in Dominaria and its feature story in the set's narrative have rekindled the community's love for thallids. But what exactly are these fungusfolk and how did they come to exist? Today's article will explore the dark origins of these Dominarian people and the mysterious events that eventually brought Slimefoot into our hearts.
First thing first: what the heck even is a thallid?
Not quite two centuries after Urza detonated the Golgothian Sylex, Dominaria began sinking into an ice age. The rapid shift in climate devastated the farms of the Havenwood elves on the continent of Sarpadia. Desperate to save his people, a druid named Thelon created a resilient fungal species for them to eat. He called them thallids (from the mycological jargon thallus, meaning the body of a fungus). Much of this story can be found in flavor text from Fallen Empires, including some chilling techniques Thelon and his followers used to propagate the thallids:
"As the climate worsened, some Thelonites turned to fertilizing with fresh blood in an attempt to keep Havenwood alive and growing." —Sarpadian Empires, vol. III
The thallids were essentially fungal livestock that were easy to feed and easy to eat. But like many desperate experiments, things started to go a little bit differently than the elves anticipated. Thallids, as it turns out, were getting smarter.
The Elves gathered huge piles of rot to grow fungus. Out of imitation or forethought, the Thallids did the same.
Their capability to learn and evolve was far greater than Thelon could have ever imagined, and soon thallids had formed an entire civilization in revolt against their farmers. Thallids had many natural adaptations for combat, but also learned how to craft weapons.
One of the most remarkable traits that appeared in the thallids was their ability to spawn fungal creatures called saprolings. The tiny saprobes were cultivated and eaten by the thallids in a similar way to how the elves had cultivated and eaten them. It's not known if this trait was invented independently or yet another mimic of their progenitors.
Despite their superficial similarities, thallids and saprolings are not the same kind of organism. While Fallen Empires had homarids and their babies, camarids, as two unique creature types, thallids (funguses) and saprolings don't seem to share that link. This was confirmed by R&D member Ethan Fleischer on Twitter.
Despite all the clear signs of personhood, many of the Havenwood elves continued to kill and eat them. A schism grew within elvish society, however, as Thelon's own son began speaking out on behalf of the thallids. He argued that the thallids were sapient people worthy of their own rights. His opponents not only continued to eat the thallids, but also argued that rights were not an issue so long as the thallids attacked elves. We learn about Loren's sympathy in the old Armada comics, where another scout named Morgan doubts Loren's loyalty to Havenwood:
Forgive me, your majesty, but with due respect, I beg you—reconsider your decision to send Loren. He shames his own father—a noble elf, and creator of the thallids—in betraying sympathy for those creatures.
Fractioned and weak, the Havenwood elves were unable to quell the thallid rebellion. Like the other four empires on Sarpadia, elvish civilization crumbled into the dusty realm of history. The thallids thrived, establishing their own culture on Sarpadia. We know almost nothing about what happened on the continent after, as no one was around to record the heartbeats of history.
But that's not where the thallids' story ends. We know they eventually left Sarpadia and ended up on the island of Yavimaya on the continent of Terisiare. But how did they get there? Despite being a sapient race, thallids don't build vehicles. Dominaria is very large, and Sarpadia is very remote. So how did thallids gets to Terisiare? I have a theory.
Real-world fungus can reproduce with spores, but the environment isn't always the right temperature and humidity for those spores to grow. In these situations, funguses can produce dormant spores with protective cell walls. Spore dormancy ends once environmental conditions are optimal again. Fungal spores can remain dormant for decades before reawakening.
With Dominaria descending into a cold, dry ice age, I think it would be likely that thallids would start producing dormant spores in order to outlast the ice age. As magical beings, I'm comfortable assuming that dormant thallid spores could even survive for thousands of years before sprouting.
While wind or some natural mechanism could have carried these dormant spores across the oceans, I believe that the best theory for their transport off Sarpadia lies in the actions of the Havenwood elves. The remnants of their civilization fled Sarpadia and immigrated to Terisiare. Later, some elves would settle in Corondor as the Quirion nation. We learn about this transcontinental culture in the video game Battlemage:
Founded by elf clans fleeing drowning Terisiare, the Quirion have faced many challenges in their long history, and carry with them the memory of the revolt of the Thallids.
Since we know the Havenwood elves traveled all over Dominaria, they could have easily involuntarily carried dormant thallid spores with them. These spores wouldn't have sprouted new thallid societies until at least the end of the ice age, nearly three-thousand years later.
It's also possible that another one of Sarpadia's civilizations carries thallid spores to Terisiare. The Icatian humans immigrated to eastern Terisiare, and their descendants eventually helped found the kingdom of Kjeldor. Terisiare also fell under attack by the homarids, who had marched north from Sarpadia via a tectonic canyon beneath the ocean. It's unlikely that spores would have survived such a journey, but I would be remiss if I did not mention them.
Even after Freyalise cast the World Spell to end the ice age, thallids did not appear in Magic. The story's focus moved away from Terisiare in favor of the continents of Jamuraa and Aerona, so it's possible the thallids were rebuilding their society off-camera during these centuries.
The story returns to Yavimaya during the Phyrexian invasion, however. We don't see any thallids, but saprolings do play a minor role in the defense of Dominaria. Here's the problem: they aren't Sarpadian saprolings. Multiani, the maro-sorcerer of Yavimaya, calls upon to goddess Gaea to grant him weapons to fight Phyrexia. Gaea obliges, and those botanical weapons include saprolings:
You have countless defenders here in Yavimaya. They have won the peace the land now enjoys. But other lands languish. They need the giant spiders and elf warriors, the woodmen and Kavu, the saprolings and treefolk. They need them now.
Even weirder, these saprolings aren't the little fungal food sources we saw in Fallen Empires. Instead, they are massive fungal worms with gnashing teeth. They travel with Multani in the assault on the Stronghold in Urborg, but ultimately fall to Crovax's undead forces.
One hundred years later, we see no thallid activity on the continent of Otaria. Where could our fungal friends be?
After Karona shredded space-time and Dominaria's mana started draining away, the plane entered its most dire time. Luckily for the thallids, this meant there was a lot of dead food to eat. The tribe made its triumphant return in Time Spiral, though we got almost no details about them. We don't even know if the thallid cards in the block are on Sarpadia, Terisiare, or another continent. They don't appear in the block's novels, and the only saprolings mentioned are Rathi specimens transplanted with the Skyshroud Forest.
What can we learn from the cards themselves? First and foremost, the thallids have learned to use other colors of mana. With mana limited on the plane, they have tapped into both white and black magic to create new adaptations. The card Mycologist also shows that some of Dominaria's peoples have replicated Thelon's original techniques for harvesting edible funguses. This makes sense given the lack of plants during this apocalyptic time.
A period where time is broken yields some interesting results, however. Future Sight gave us what might be a potential future of thallids on Dominaria with Sporoloth Ancient. Not only is this fungus huge, but it can create saprolings at a more efficient rate than other thallids. Is this a future where Dominaria has recovered and thallids have evolved into one of the dominant cultures on the plane? Or is this the potential future from a whole other plane where saproling-spawning funguses also developed? We'll probably never know for sure, but it's interesting to think about.
Thankfully for the thallids (and everyone else), the sacrifices of many Planeswalkers resulted in the Great Mending to end the rift crisis.
Sixty years later, thallids are thriving. They have migrated to most continents on Dominaria, though they are most prevalent in Yavimaya. Multani is in a semi-sentient state, recovering from his near-destruction when sealing the time rift above his home. His fury manifests throughout the forest, which is just awful for everyone...
As the irrepressible power of a dormant Multani courses through Yavimaya, the forest passes judgment on travelers and natives alike. Only the fungus prospers.
...except the thallids. They're doing just fine, emigrating from Yavimaya as their population explodes on a renewed Dominaria. They're looking far more similar to the Havenwood elves that created them, herding saprolings in massive swarms before consuming them.
One big adaptation gained during the rift crisis remained: the thallids' proclivity for black mana. Many black-aligned thallids have taken up residence in Urborg, a hub of black mana on the plane. They act as parasitic forces that help cull the burgeoning saproling production of their culture. Don't want your livestock to grow populous enough to revolt like your people did, right?
What I find fascinating is that old thallid habits die hard. Mimicry is part of their makeup, and we get a great example of them borrowing humanoid actions just like on Sarpadia:
Some of the thallids that escaped into the fens of Urborg began emulating the Cabal's bloodsoaked rituals in their own peculiar way.
And that brings us to Slimefoot, the spongiest member of the Weatherlight crew. The wooden components of the skyship are grown from weatherseed, a magical timber gifted by the maro-sorcerers of Dominaria. Molimo provides Jhoira with new seeds from Yavimaya while Multani is out of commission, and those seeds grow into the new Weatherlight.
Thallid spores were attached to the weatherseeds, however, and began sprouting on the ship's hull as it grew. Slimefoot was developed enough to just barely escape the attempt to remove him from the hull, but fell into the bowls of the ship when a phoenix attacked. It found its way to a small storage closet near the ship's engine, its growth accelerated thanks to its proximity to the engine's powerstone.
Slimefoot ended up siring ten saprolings before being discovered by Arvad, Tiana, and Raff. It sprouted arms and legs and wandered the Weatherlight to observe the crew and learn about its new habitat. We don't know if Slimefoot will be helpful during the impending assault on the Cabal Stronghold in Urborg, but I'm hoping he has at least one cheer-worthy Groot moment.
And that's the relatively humble history of Dominaria's thallids. They're artificial people created to feed the Havenwood elves as Dominaria faced a climate change crisis, but their inexorable will to survive drove their revolt and eventual freedom. They were dormant for thousands of years before reemerging across the entire plane. Now they're a relatively benign society, sticking to the forests where they raise and eat their saproling spawn.
Thallids have also appeared on Alara, but they're totally unrelated to the ones on Dominaria. Other than being fungal organisms that generate saprolings, we don't even know how similar they actually are. They might not even be sentient! We know even less about Ghave, Guru of Spores, who is a fungal person from an unknown plane. Is he even a thallid? We may never know.
What we do know is that Slimefoot is fantastic and lovable and humorous and cute and fun and an all-around wonderful person. The Magic community's adoration for the character is a testament to the lasting popularity of thallids. I have no doubt in my mind that these fungal fellows will make many returns in Magic's future.