Friday, November 28, 2014

Wizards of the Coasts' Monsters I Want to Fight - Thallids (part 1)

Fallen Empires is one of my favorite Magic: the Gathering sets, and the thallids are probably my favorite monsters from the set.  Fallen Empires is set on an island, Sarpadia, which is undergoing a period of cooling that's being caused by an apocalyptic foreign war.

Figure 1 - "Thallid" by Ron Spencer
Figure 2 - "Thallid Devourer" by Ron Spencer

The cooling period that Sarpadia is undergoing is similar to Europe's Little Ice Age, circa 1550-1850, when crop yields fell, some northern areas became uninhabitable, and sea ice became a navigational challenge.  Unbeknownst to anyone on Sarpadia, their cooling period doesn't have any natural cause - it's the aftermath of the Brothers' War depicted in the Antiquities set.  The Brother's War was a WWI analog, featuring very large scale combat using magical and mechanical superweapons, and involving massive environmental despoilation due to resource extraction, manufacturing pollution, and the after-effects of the fighting.

Figure 3 - "Night Soil" by Sandra Everingham

In the Fallen Empires set, shorter summers, longer winters, and lower crop yields have forced the Sarpadian elves to find a new food source (supplementing what was presumably a diet of game, berries, edible shoots, and other arborial fodder.)  The elves have started cultivating edible fungus, but their experiments have gotten away from them, giving rise to a new lifeform, the thallids.

Figure 4 - "Night Soil" by Drew Tucker

The thallids are motile fungi of at least animal intelligence.  They have escaped the elves' attempts to domesticate them, started competing with the elves for their traditional food sources, and become a danger to travelers and villagers alike within the forest.  (The closest analogy I can think of is if, in response to global warming, we bred modern cattle into something like hippopotami, who then escaped their pens and began rampaging across the countryside.)

Figure 5 - "Feral Thallid" by Rob Alexander

Thallids seem to possess a collective intelligence, similar to ants and other social insects, which seems appropriate for fungal lifeforms, considering that the mushrooms we see are sometimes only the most visible tips of mile-long underground organisms.  Also like ants, or at least like leaf-cutter ants, thallids appear to collect fodder to compost and let rot, with the fungal growth from the rot piles serving as both a food source and a reproductive medium.  Different thallids specialize in different tasks, and a number of them appear to be specialized for combat.  As represented in the cards, thallids also reproduce by budding off smaller undifferentiated versions of themselves, called saprolings.

Figure 6 - "Night Soil" by Heather Hudson
Figure 7 - "Thorn Thallid" by Heather Hudson

I love the idea of thallids.  They're a bit like Christopher Priest's triffids, but their fungal, rather than vegetal, origin makes them seem even more insidious and menacing.  In response to climate change, the elves tried to create a new food source, and ended up creating their likely successors.  They bred an enemy that was utterly independent of them, indifferent to them, and able to outlast them in the coming winter.  Not only could the elves probably not defeat the thallids, (and for the thallids, anything less than a total defeat is tantamount to a victory), but their war against the thallids made all their problems caused by climate change worse.  They still needed more food and a long-term plan for survival, but now they also faced a serious competitor for land, living space, and whatever fresh greenery remained.

Figure 8 - "Thallid" by Daniel Gelon
Figure 9 - "Thorn Thallid" by Daniel Gelon

The appearance of the first thallids seems to have been decided by the individual artists.  Ron Spencer's "Thallid" and "Thallid Devourer" (figures 1 & 2) and Sandra Everingham's "Night Soil" (figure 3) have a very ropy, knit-together quality that makes the thallid body appear to be just an appendage of a much larger organism.  Spencer's depictions are, I think, my favorite representations of the thallids, and they strongly shape how I think of them.

Figure 10 - "Thorn Thallid" by Mark Tedin

Drew Tucker's "Night Soil" (figure 4), Rob Alexander's "Feral Thallid" (figure 5), and Heather Hudson's "Night Soil" and "Thorn Thallid" (figures 6 & 7) combine both an insectoid and reptilian feel.  Tucker's saproling, in particular, looks almost frog-like, while Alexander's thallid has a feline quality.  I especially like the animal quality of these images, because they make the thallids feel potentially cunning, like they might be smarter than us without being sentient, at least about the things they know best.

Figure 11 - "Fungal Bloom" by Daniel Gelon

In contrast, Daniel Gelon's "Thallid" and "Thorn Thallid" (figures 8 & 9) and Mark Tedin's "Thorn Thallid (figure 10) have an otherworldly, alien appearance, almost like octopi, but with entirely un-animal-like eyes.

Figure 12 - "Spore Flower" by Margaret Organ Kean

Gelon is the only artist to envision the thallids as stationary, both in his depiction of the thorn thallid and in his "Fungal Bloom," (figure 11) although Margaret Organ-Kean's "Spore Flower" (figure 12) makes the thallids an invisible, but menacing presence, and suggests the possibility of them escaping the forest.

Figure 13 - "Thallid" by Edward Beard Jr

The only early depictions of the thallids that I don't especially care for are Edward Beard Jr's "Thallid" (figure 13) and Jesper Myrfors' "Thallid" and "Thorn Thallid" (figures 14 & 15).  Beard's hairy-looking thallid might be intended to evoke something plant- or moss-like, but it's never really looked fungal to me.  Myrfors' thallids do look like fungus, but they seem tiny and smurf-like to me, and both seem somehow too humanoid, not animalistic enough for my tastes.

Figure 14 - "Thallid" by Jesper Myrfors
Figure 15 - "Thorn Thallid" by Jesper Myrfors

If either Beard's or Myrfors' visions had dominated or become the house style, I doubt I would have liked the thallids as much as I do.  Myrfors offers us another vision of mushroom-headed humanoids, akin to Jeff Vandermeer's graycaps, and a half-dozen similar beasts, including DCC's Shrooman (DCC 426).  Beard gives us a hairy green cyclops, something like a yeti or Looney Tunes' Gossamer.  His vision seems more suited to a single, unique monster than to a whole race.  If Beard's monster reproduces, it seems like it should be at sword-point, when the misfortune of being sliced in half turns into the fortune asexual reproduction.  I might like to fight one of Beard's monsters, but I wouldn't want it to be the template for the other thallids.

Figure 16 - "Fungusaur" by Daniel Gelon

As a bonus I've also included Daniel Gelon's and Heather Hudson's "Fungusaur" images (figures 16 & 17).  These depict a different fungal monster.  Unlike the thallids, the fungusaur is decidedly not part of an ecosystem or community.  It appears to be a unique monster, and one that grows itself, rather than growing offspring, as part of its life-cycle.  The fungusaur is a direction not taken.  While the thallids are not meant to be perfectly human-like in appearance or intelligence, neither are they intended to be mindless brutes, or to single-mindedly pursue their hunger.  What makes thallids frightening is that they might be smarter than they seem, and they already seem unnervingly smart for things that were only ever bred to be eaten.  The fungusaur is a landmark, it is unmissably huge.  The thallids are human-scale, and they are camouflaged.  An individual thallid might be hidden behind the next tree, and an entire forest of them might be hidden just beyond.  Collectively, the thallids are much, much bigger than the fungusaur, but their size is distributed, spread out across an entire countryside.  And while the fungusaur might escape its cave and grow big as a mountain, the thallids have already escaped, and they might grow as big as the whole island, and there might not be enough room for you both.

Figure 17 - "Fungusaur" by Heather Hudson

All images used here are copyright Wizards of the Coast, and used without permission, for fair use purposes.


  1. Since I played it somewhere between 17 years ago, Magic: the Gathering has always been sort of a funny thing for me: I never felt drawn in by the strategic or competitive game play (which I suck at), but the monsters, artifacts and other fantastic elements I have to admit are cool, and often like the little snips of flavor text.

    Back in the day I remember thinking the skyships of Urza's saga were kinda awesome in a way that most of the Spelljammer ones seemed to lack.

  2. Anyway: Sentient fungi I've also always found kinda fascinating. Though maybe not enough so to risk being infected by my own light source.

    1. Somehow the Fallen Empires and Ice Age sets always captured my imagination more than any other set.

      I have decided to avoid the risk, however small, of being infected by spores from my phosphorescent gas spore.

      I also clearly need to check my comment section more often!

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