Historically Speaking - The Mardu vs. The Temur

(Mardu Heart-Piercer | Art by Karl Kopinski)

Who Would Win in a Fight...?

Welcome to Historically Speaking, where we examine the real-world influences that led to some of Magic's most inventive designs. In today's article, we're going to examine what a sustained conflict between Khans of Tarkir's Mardu and Temur clans might have looked like, based on the history of their historical models, the Mongol empire and the southern Siberian tribes.

According to the Planeswalker’s Guide to Tarkir none of the five clans can completely eradicate, conquer or assimilate any other. They are all well adapted to their particular niche and way of life. Additionally, the factions of Tarkir are too scattered to launch the sort of campaign required to take and hold the territory of a rival. Raid? Sure! Harass? Absolutely. But total wars of conquest? Not on your life.

Tarkir map by Dominian Dracologist

Because of this, we are going to make some assumptions through this series. For example, assuming political and logistical conditions in Tarkir that would allow for a total war of conquest. This will be an exercise in alternate fantasy history, with cards and planeswalker’s guides as primary sources. To do this properly, we must by nature make assumptions about the timeline of Tarkir. Lets have a look at our actors on the world stage.

The Mardu

The Mardu Horde is famous for its prowess in horseback riding, archery, and raiding. They’ve employed these talents in search of glory, economic rewards, and settling old debts with enemies. Due to their high speed and frequent advantage of surprise, they can raid rival factions more or less at will.

However, if you don’t have any allies, and you attack targets of opportunity rather than following a coherent political or strategic plan, you’re going to spread yourself too thin. Additionally, the Mardu are fractious and fight amongst themselves. They are uninterested in ruling or developing any territory they take; for them, the raid is its own reward. Despite their central position and high population of warriors, the Mardu are unlikely to form a true threat to any of the other clans. 

But we're interested in the hypothetical. What if their leadership stabilized and Zurgo Helmsmasher (or who ever was the pre-eminent khan) decided to consolidate power and focus the Mardu’s formidable power on conquest, one clan at a time, rather than sporadic and far-spread raiding?

Then the picture becomes different. How will they fare if they pick a fight trying to grab hold of a territory in the north, such as Qal Sisma, controlled by the Temur?

The Temur

Well, first, who are the Temur? The Temur are a diverse and hardy bunch, living far to the north in mountainous holdfasts. They are forged by the extremities of weather that forms their world, and their shamans can see into the past. They are determined fighters who have a deep bond with nature, including the half-ton bears that occasionally join them in battle.

More importantly, their aforementioned shamans share in something called the Wide Whisper, which allows distant clans to communicate with each other. According to the Planeswalker’s Guide to Tarkir, it also allows the pooling of shamanic resources to call up huge Elementals or attempt other such great tasks.

The Temur are also nomadic, though they have no organized cavalry corps. The Temur, like the Sultai to the south, prefer to mold the land to give them an advantage in battle, and also enlist Elementals, the spirit of the lands themselves, in combat or in meditation. The Temur will fight and raid for food and territory, but battle for battle’s sake doesn’t appeal to them, as opposed to the Mardu, who believe wholeheartedly in the glory of battle.

Battling Politics

To know how the Temur would fare against the Mardu, it's important to remember that, according to the Planeswalker's Guide to Tarkir, there is division inside the Temur Clans. A pair of Ainok named Kharkel and Baihir Torn-of-Ear wish to see the khan of the Temur, Surrak Dragonclaw, deposed. You know, the man who's famous for punching bears. 

Importantly, Kharkel was raised by the Mardu, and though he is now Temur, he still maintains a degree of alignment with his former clan. In other words, if Kharkel splits the Temur into factions by overthrowing the sitting khan, that could be the opening Zurgo needs. The Mardu horde may not even need to kill Surrak to annex and conquer the territory. They just need the Temur divided against the Temur. Zurgo could even potentially conscript divided Temur youths; why freeze in the mountains when you could live free?

However, even with all these advantages the Mardu possess against the Temur—higher mobility, political unity, incentives and rewards for new conscripts, increased trade routes—I find it unlikely that the Temur could be totally eradicated. Diminished, certainly, but not done away with.

As mentioned before, each clan is well-suited to its environment, too well-suited to be overcome by brute force. Even if the Mardu committed all of their forces to fighting the Temur to the knife (which would mean ceasing raids on other clans, and thus losing out on profit and glory) the Temur would likely fight in small bands, retreating as they went. It isn’t in the fledgling Mardu’s interest or methodology to pursue. The Mardu wouldn't be fighting just the Temur, or even Elementals, but simply against the elements.

Empires are often sustained by memories and reputation, especially for victories in the recent past. Defeats of a certain scale and magnitude can shatter coalitions and overthrow empires. Fighting the Temur in their home territory, where Mardu spellcraft, cavalry and arrows would be worse than useless, facing attrition against the climate itself... the casualties might be catastrophic, even with Temur politics or infighting.

However, before we make our final analysis, let's see what real-life history can tell us about how this type of scenario might play out.

Lessons from the Real Life

Let us examine the cultures the Mardu and Temur were based upon. The Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan (r.1206-1227) expanded slowly at first. Genghis Khan united the people of the steppe under his banner after years upon years of civil war, and was poised to invade northern China (the Jin empire). However, being him, he decided it would secure his northern border against possible trouble be sending troops to the ‘forest peoples’ of northern Mongolia and southern Siberia (the Kirghiz, Oyirad, Buriyat, Tumed, Tuvans and Barqut). 

To do this, he sent his oldest son, Jochi, with some troops to settle the matter of tribute, troops and incorporation into the empire. Jochi’s mission was swift and helped add additional troops to the Mongol army eager to press against Jin China. This secured Genghis Khan’s northern border, leaving him free to attack on Northern China without fear of rebellion or a Mongol civil war boosted or inspired by the defiance of the northern tribes. This arrangement worked out for about a decade.

Then it all went to hell.

Image result for mtg aggravated assault

A reminder, folks: empires deal in blood, and the human cost of them is high. This isn’t a ‘Mongols are uniquely bad’ story, this is a ‘empires are uniformly bad based on their foundations’ story.

The spark that sets the whole thing aflame is that the southern Siberians do not pay tribute, refusing to give Genghis's top adjutants, Korchi of the Ba'arin, "thirty of their most beautiful women" to have to wife. The Tumed tribe rebel and take Korchi captive. Genghis Khan, unwilling to fight two wars unless it was absolutely necessary, sends an Oirat chieftain to negotiate with the forest people. This might have worked... but the forest people decide to capture him as well.

The fullest extent of the Mongol empire. Note the northwards boundaries stop just after Lake Baikal in Siberia.

Forgiveness is not one of Genghis Khan's traits, so he sends a major force north to bring the Siberians in line and rescue Korchi. He sends one of his ‘four steeds,’ Boroqul, to get the job done quickly.

The Tumed were expecting this.

The Mongols were splendidly adapted to the steppe, but cavalry in the thick pine forests of Siberia deprives it of the key advantage of mobility. The trees hem riders in, cut off their escape, prevent horsemen from picking up speed. A man on horseback that is forced to ride in single file through a canyon or a forest path is easiest target in the world. The forest people of Siberia laid countless traps and ambushes; boulders, deadfalls, arrows, and spears rain down on the Mongols throughout their advance. The Mongols had no chance to respond.

The Tumed soundly trounce the first Mongol retrieval force, and Boroqul is killed by Tumed scouts. It can scarcely be called a fight. Worse for the Mongols, with the death of Boroqul, the rebellion against them looked like it was going to spread.

Genghis, after receiving word of this defeat, sends another army and another commander. 

This commander does manage to outfox the Tumed; he pretends to be laying his own ambush against the Tumed, in such a way the Tumed will certainly see, then branches off around, above and to the rear of the Tumed, and fell on them while they were feasting. His surprise attack wreaks quick revenge. Southern Siberia is once again made a semi-willing partner of the Mongol empire.

Applying History to Hypothesis

So what's the lesson for our Mardu-Temur analysis? Does this precedent of Mongolian victory mean that the Mongolian-influenced Mardu would be able to conquer the Temur after all?

No, not exactly. However successful and brilliant the Mongols were in empire-building, they didn’t push further north during the heyday of their conquests. They pushed in every other direction, but not north. According to historian John Mann, the Mongols later heard about the arctic oceans from their trading contacts with the Finns, and immediately dubbed the far north ‘the sea of darkness’. 

Therefore, the Mardu horde could reasonably expect to assimilate elements of the Temur clans if they consolidated their leadership. However, full conquest of the Temur is unlikely, even if most of their able-bodied members supported the Mardu empire in one way or another. The Temur would slowly become tributaries/junior partners to the Mardu Empire, over generations, with the more hardcore traditional Temur being squeezed further north, into the ice-sheets and glaciers and most inhospitable mountains on the plane.

The Mardu, meanwhile, ensure they no longer have to deal with Temur raids at their northern border. The Mardu swell their ranks by recruiting the younger and stronger members of the Temur into the horde. Shamanism becomes integrated into the Horde culture, to allow for faster communications and coordinating campaigns as well as using new types of Elementals in combat. 

In summary, the Temur frontier as described in the Planeswalker’s Guide to Tarkir is politically unstable, divided into distant clans, and vulnerable to partial annexation by a foreign power such as the Mardu horde. While the Mardu absolutely lack the political will and sophisticated infrastructure to fully conquer the deeply hostile Temur lands in their entirety, they are likely to succeed in other ways. Conscriptions from the southern Temur youth, along with tribute of supplies, furs and other essentials from Qal Sisma, would likely swell the Mardu coffers and give them an edge in their expansions elsewhere on Tarkir. Having done this, it is likely this new Mardu empire will turn its sights across the steppe - to the Abzan.

Thank you for reading! If you would like to talk more about the historical influences behind Khans of Tarkir, or you would like to discuss who might win in a fight between any of the other clans, hit me up in the comments below!


The Mongol Conquest of Siberia, 1207 (Historynomics, May 2019): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLLJJSQi3Tg

McLynn, Frank - "Genghis Khan: His Life, Conquests and Legacy." De Capo Press, 2015

Naumov, Igor V. "The History of Siberia." Routledge Studies in the History of Russia and Eastern Europe. Translated by Collins, David Norman.

The Mongol Conquest of Siberia and First Battle with the Khwarezmians, 1216-1219 (The Jackmeister: Mongol History, Aug, 2018): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FJTnCCBcsE

Fan Map of Tarkir, 2015, courtesy of Dominian Dracologist: https://dominian-dracologist.tumblr.com/post/125512414745/a-mockup-of-the-map-of-tarkir-im-making-aka-me

The Planeswalker's Guide to Tarkir 2: https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/planeswalkers-guide-khans-tarkir-part-2-2014-09-10

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.

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