Historically Speaking - The Mardu vs. The Abzan

(Abzan Ascendancy | Art by Mark Winters)

Backstory, Please!

Last time on Historically Speaking, we examined the hypothetical battle that might take place if the Mardu decided to attempt to take over the territory that belongs to their rival clans, using real-world historical precedent to examine how these battles might play out. Today, we're revisiting this idea by following the Mardu in their next target: the Abzan.

First, let's revisit the events and conclusions we reached in the previous article, where the Mardu fought the Temur.

The Mardu Empire under Zurgo Helmsmasher has seized the Temur territory of Qal-Sisma. The Temur are the least organized of Tarkir’s five clans—hardy, fierce, unflinching, but also chaotic, and, without their khan, at best only able to mount a guerrilla campaign against the Mardu. The Mardu Horde have swollen their numbers with Temur recruits and conscripts, having been promised glory in the new Mardu Empire. Surrak Dragonclaw is dead or fled to the northern glaciers with the last Temur holdouts: the shamans, hardliners, and those who are too young to hold a spear.

The acquisition of Qal Sisma increases the Mardu potential resource base—wood for bows and carts, grazing lands for horses. It has also added more mouths to feed on his campaign, and thus urgency. The Mardu couldn’t conquer all the Temur lands—why would they need to? The Temur that march with them are hungry, either for the glory of battle, to see distant lands, or simply follow the strongest. Some are there unwillingly, for all that that matters.

Zurgo Helmsmasher is building an empire, and the next building block is the Abzan Houses of the desert. He’s already seized a few trade caravans—proof of concept that his empire is working. The Abzan are specialists in deflecting Mardu and Sultai raids; the Temur auxiliaries and their unfamiliar magics of ice and colossal beasts scatter the Abzan caravans, imbuing the newly strengthened horde with confidence and booty.

Where We Are Now

The Mardu horde, newly reinforced by Temur auxiliaries, comes closer and closer to core Abzan territory. Ainok archers and shamans march side-by-side with bear-cavalry, who rub elbows with orcs, goblins, and humans atop horseback. Ogres cast long shadows as they trudge across the steppes. The horse-mounted archers and heavy cavalry are the core of the Mardu, the secret to their culture’s survival. Without their speed, or the courage of their riders, there would be no Mardu Horde.

The strengthened horde moves from the steppes to the desert. Full Abzan territory. They have enough supplies for some time... but do they have enough supplies to last a siege?

The Horde comes upon the Sandsteppe Gateway. The Planeswalker’s Guide to Tarkir describes the Sandsteppe Gateway as follows:

“Close to the border of Mardu territory, where the desert gives way to the rolling steppe, sits the great Sandsteppe Gateway. It is a fortress bridge spanning the gap between two mountains that are divided by a river, which flows out from Abzan lands.”

The Mardu stop well outside the Gateway. Scouts on horseback are sent out for reconnaissance. Time passes, and the Horde waits.

The scouts return before evening falls and report. No sign of reinforcements or ambushes. The citadel has geared up to repel invaders. The next day, the siege will begin.

Zurgo Helmsmasher means to do what no Mardu Khan has ever done before and take an Abzan city by force. Instead of rushing the walls with ladders or building siege engines, Zurgo has a more audacious plan: diverting the river to undermine the twin fortresses. He has more than enough strong backs to drown this proud Abzan stronghold—the first of many to fall to his new empire.

Who are the Abzan?

The Abzan Houses are a coalition of families that live in Tarkir’s deserts. Like the Temur, they also have some ainok members, as well as krumar—children from other clans whose parents died fighting the Abzan but are raised as full members of the clan. This is how the majority of orcs originally entered the Abzan Houses.

The Abzan Houses are led by Anafenza. Unlike Zurgo, Anafenza doesn’t rule through fear or intimidation, but through acclaim. She has managed to rule the Abzan capably. She protects the trade routes that are the lifeblood of the Abzan way of life from attacks from the Mardu and Sultai, according to the Planeswalker’s Guide to Tarkir.

 We will be examining the Abzan’s primary strengths. The principle advantages of the Abzan Houses under Anafenza are threefold:

  1. Political unity and social cohesion. The Abzan houses are ordered along the principle of family. Treason or betrayal are known to happen, of course, but they are the exception rather than the norm. The Abzan are a unified, organized front, in contrast to the Mardu or the Temur.
  2. Fortified positions (and knowing how to use them efficiently). Even when the Abzan go to war, they take the high ground with them. To use a few tropes—the Abzan are the mighty glacier of Tarkir’s factions, and the Mardu are glass cannons. One is made for survivability above all else, and the other one prioritizes a devastating first strike and neglects its own defenses as a result. On their home turf, the Abzan are difficult at best to confront.
  3. And lastly, what their clan is renowned for, the thing they took as inspiration from the Elder Dragons and made it their own: endurance. The Abzan will wait as long as is necessary to wear down their opponents. Before committing to battle, the Abzan will ensure that they are better supplied, better armed, and better prepared than their foes.

History, History

Wizards of the Coast has claimed that the Abzan are based on the Ottoman Empire, and that may be so. For our purposes, however, we will be examining the Abzan Houses through the context of the early Mongol Empire. For our purposes, they will be analogous to the Western Xia and Northern Jin empires of northern China, and the first settled societies that Genghis Khan’s newborn Mongol empire attacks. Like the Jin and the Western Xia, the Abzan Houses are technologically advanced, have intricately walled cities and advanced agriculture. Against walled cities, in the early years, the Mongols had no recourse, since they had no siege engines.

The Mongols under Genghis Khan won by defeating the Tangut and Jin armies in the field. The first campaign against the Tanguts of the Western Xia dynasty ended in a draw—the Mongols could beat the Tanguts in pitched battles, but were hopeless at sieges. To quote historian John Man:

“Now [the Mongols] faced a problem. Yinchuan was a well defended city, and the Mongols were fast moving nomadic cavalrymen. They had never tried to take a city before. They had no siege bows, catapults, incendiary bombs or flamethrowers. A remedy lay to hand: Yinchuan’s ancient canal system, which led water from the Yellow River to Irrigate Western Xia’s fields. The Mongols broke the dykes and tried to flood the city into surrender. This was not a good idea. Yinchuan’s surrounding agricultural land is as flat as Holland. Flood waters spread far, but remained shallow. Buildings stand clear of shallow floods. But horses and tents do not. The Mongols flooded themselves out and were forced back to higher ground.”

The Mongols declared victory and struck an unsatisfactory trade deal with the Tanguts—Genghis Khan never forgave the Tanguts for refusing to strengthen the Mongol war-machine by providing auxiliaries. They retreated back to the steppes for the moment.

But how the Mongols defeated the Jin is a complicated picture. Genghis Khan was a leader who absolutely did everything possible—diplomatic, economic, what would now be called espionage—to give himself an edge over his opponents. That wasn’t necessary yet for the Jin—they weren’t having a good 13th century. Even still, according to Frank McLynn, Genghis took no chances:

“Even with all the considerable advantages the Khitan revolt and internal turmoil in the Jin empire handed him, he waited until the famine of 1210-11 had bitten deeply before he crossed the Chinese front.”

The Jin, in short, were riven by internal divisions that made them vulnerable. Their military was demoralized by a sketchy recent record. The Jin couldn’t be more ripe for invasion if the branch holding the dynasty was bent like a bow. All of this is made worse by the fact that the Mongols made a strong showing against the Jin on the battlefield, prompting several of their most experienced and capable generals to defect (with their armies, siege equipment, and knowledge of how to make said siege equipment) to the Mongols.

The Mongols would be fighting in North China—Jin China—for the next two decades. It would be long and brutal. But the Jin ultimately fell before the Mongols.

Back at the Sandsteppe Citadel

The Mardu may be the faction based on the Mongols, but they clearly are not the Mongols. A quote from the ever-quippy HG Wells seems appropriate here that applies to the Mardu in this context:

“The career of conquest of Genghis Khan and his immediate successors astounded the world and probably astounded no one more than these Mongol Khans themselves…” 

Zurgo Helmsmasher is not Genghis Khan. Even if we swapped their places, I doubt Genghis leading the Mardu could have defeated the unified Abzan Houses. The Mongols never had ogres to light on fire or suicidal goblin charges, for starters.

For all their advantages—the Temur recruits, the newly found political cohesion, the focus on a larger goal—the fact is that the Mardu can’t win an effective war of conquest against the Abzan Houses. The Mongols were both skilled at creating and exploiting political discord in their enemies before launching assaults. The Mardu were effectively handed a freebie with the Temur. Even with the Temur auxiliaries' undoubted battle prowess, I don't believe they would be enough to turn the tide of a siege into the Mardu's favor. Open battle, maybe, but the Abzan are practiced at not committing to open battle till victory is certain.

The Abzan also have no political divisions for the Mardu to exploit, unlike the Temur. The Abzan political system is stable, their whole clan being based around the idea of family, found or otherwise. The Abzan would likely be more than content to wait and outwit the Mardu, where even at their best the Mardu prefer a lightning strike and dislike a long campaign.

To summarize: the Abzan's greater military sophistication, patience, and political unity gave them insuperable advantages over the Mardu attempted siege of the Sandsteppe Citadel. They had no real weaknesses for the Mardu to exploit, unlike what the Mongols had with the Northern Jin: no defecting armies, no quislings willing to roll the dice to see if life as part of the Mardu Empire would be any more profitable than Anafenza's reign.

Zurgo's forces dug for days at the river by Sandsteppe Citadel. There was no sign of Abzan reinforcements to relieve the outpost. Slowly the river altered course, and it seemed as if this mad plan would work after all, that it would undermine the Abzan's defenses. But the Mardu awoke one morning to find their entire camp flooded. The river they had worked so hard to divert had turned on them. Whether it had been a miscalculation on their part or whether the masterful Abzan siege engineers had re-routed the river made no difference; the majority of the plundered supplies taken from the Abzan caravans were now useless.

Zurgo was of course furious at this setback, but realized his whole enterprise was in danger of falling apart. A defeat like this could spell the end of his imperial ambitions. So he would most likely do what any good leader would do with a horde of sodden, mutinous troops: declare victory and attack another, apparently more vulnerable target.

Like, for example, the Sultai Brood.

To be continued....


The Planeswalker’s Guide to Tarkir 1: https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/planeswalkers-guide-khans-tarkir-part-1-2014-09-03

Man, John. The Mongol Empire: Genghis Khan, his Heirs and the Founding of Modern China. Corgi Books. 2014.

McLynn, Frank. Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy. Da Capo Press. 2015.

Ratchnevsky, Paul Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy, Blackwell Publishers, New York 1991.

Wells, HG. The Outline of History. Doubleday Press 1970.

I'm from just north of hell, I was schooled in a blossoming backwater, and currently am the worst living bureaucrat since Franz Kafka breathed his last, tremulous breath. I’ve been playing Magic: The Gathering since middle school, and Commander in particular since college, putting about a decade of experience brewing, scheming and fuming over historical travesties under my belt. I get dizzy walking in straight lines. 
I recently received my MFA from Arcadia University's creative writing program. My work has previously appeared in Podcastle, Stonecoast Review, Devilfish Review and Bride of Chaos.