What Would They Play? Temilotzin of Tlatelolco

What Would They Play? • November 2, 2023

Welcome to What Would They Play?

I'm Charlie, I'm a storyteller, creative writer, and author; I handle the historical sections of the articles.

And I'm Dan, a Commander player who is obsessed with building thematic decks. I connect the stories to Magic cards to create decks that reflect the vibrant tales of the past.

We take famous or not-so-famous figures from history and make Commander decks based on their lives, philosophies, and histories.

Our articles are meant to be part history lesson, part deckbuilding guide. We believe that decks can be expressions of personal philosophies, so a fun way to learn about historical figures -- and flavorful brews -- would be to speculate about what sort of Commander deck a given person would play, given their times, opinions, and philosophies.

It's like a history class, only using the medium of Magic: The Gathering.

This is meant to be an accessible glimpse at the people in question, not a rigorous or definitive biography; we do our best to cite our sources throughout the article for that reason.

This is part one of a series focused around the historical inspirations of The Lost Caverns of Ixalan! I've previously written quite a bit about Mesoamerican-coded setting in Magic: The Gathering; you can see some of that work here.

Let us begin!1

Who was Temilotzin of Tlatelolco?

Temilotzin of Tlatelolco was a Mexica warrior, aristocrat, and poet in the last days of the empire. He was notable for his poetry and personal bravery. He is also unique in the annals of Mexica poetry for his one surviving poem being a paean to friendship, already remarkable given the hyper-competitive (individualized) culture of status and warfare.2 In short, Mexica warfare was not exactly a team sport the higher one went up the social ladder: a great deal of prestige could be gathered by capturing high-status enemy warriors alive. Therefore, other nobles weren't necessarily interested in helping a rival capture someone, making Temilotzin's single surviving poem about friendship all the more interesting. The more warriors one captured (in a formal war, that is), the greater the status, as can be seen in the helpful graphic below.


Screen Capture from the annotated Codex Mendoza, showing the various ranks of Mexica nobility and warriors.

Miguel Leon Portilla's groundbreaking work on Nahuatl poetry raises several interesting questions about cultural assumptions re: poetry. For example, it was sung, not spoken, and done so in time with a great drum.

The poems in the Nahua system were represented pictographically, not with a written text until after the Conquest, and the names attached to the poem--the idea of ownership of a poem--is difficult to prove. A song called 'Temilotzin's Song' might be a poem written about Temilotzin (but not BY him) or by him (but not performed by him in court), or done after his lifetime in memoriam. So it is possible that, while we use Portilla's translation of Temilotzin Icuic (Temilotzin's Song), Temilotzin didn't compose or perform this song; rather that it may be a song dedicated to Temilotzin after the Conquest. In any case, regardless, it's a revealing poem regardless of provenance that will help form the background for this article.

As a warrior-poet of the Mexica empire, Temilotzin can be considered (at least in part) the inspiration for Huatli, the warrior-poet of Ixalan's Sun Empire. The new Huatli, Poet of Unity transforms into a Saga, suggestive of how Temilotzin is remembered after his death from his eponymous song. A heavy Saga theme is appropriate for a poet, so we've chosen to have Huatli lead our Temilotzin-inspired deck.

Beginning at the End (1525)

Temilotzin of Tlatelolco watched his childhood friend, Cuauhtemoc, hang and kick from a ceiba tree until he was dead in 1525. He and Ecatzin, some of the last survivors of the Mexica nobility to survive the siege and sack of Tenochtitlan four years earlier, stood and watched as their friend, his mutilated feet scraping the air, the tree-trunk, died. Here, outside Acalcan, the capital of the Chontal Maya, a foreign land, the last Mexica tlatoani--leader elected by the nobility--and Temilotzin's oldest comrade met his end on trumped-up charges of conspiracy. 

Hernan Cortes had given the fatal order to have the eleventh and terminal tlatoani executed. He had been the one to capture Temilotzin, Ecatzin, and Cuauhtemoc after the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521, and had been none too tender then.3

Cortez had overseen their Mexica nobility's imprisonment, fearing to kill them outright for fear of rebellion, but unwilling to let them go, because they might raise a rebellion.4 The Spanish and their Tlaxcallan allies weren't popular, so Cortes hauled what remained of the Mexica nobility around with him as captives, for a long time, while they watched their empire and culture5 disintegrate around them.

Perhaps the only surprise was that it took that Spaniard four years to execute his royal hostage, in a foreign land where the news of the execution, and the outrage that followed, would be delayed.

But in addition to all the many terrible things that Hernan Cortes had done in his short life, he had severed a crucial ligament in the collective memory of the Mexica by executing Cuauhtemoc before his childhood friend.

There is a concept called the burden of memory, most often experienced by the bereaved. A wife mourning a husband, for example, now is sole mental and physical custodian of memories that were only shared by the pair: bickering over dishes, enjoying a Sunday drive, drinking or sleeping together. With half of the pair gone, only the survivor carries those memories; other people--kin, friends, associates--might have similar memories, but not the same ones. Those particular memories have a life expectancy and will perish with the remaining person. It is a heavy weight to bear, and not everyone can.

The graveyard is the realm of memory in Magic, and Sagas are strangely adept are strangely adept at filling the graveyard. The Mending of Dominaria, The Binding of the Titans, and Teachings of the Kirin all mill cards right into the graveyard, as does honorary Saga Vorinclex. The Restoration of Eiganjo, Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, and The Elder Dragon War allow you to discard from hand to graveyard. A full graveyard symbolizes the memories Temilotzin carried from the fallen.

When Cortes hung Cuauhtemoc from a ceiba tree in Maya territory, he hung the last tlatoani, and all knowledge of what it was like to be one. He put the entire burden of memory upon Temilotzin of Tlatelolco and Ecatzin.

Now imagine the Mexica nobility's reaction to this act. They were already nearly obliterated by siege and plague and Cortes and Tlaxcallan policies, already in short supply, it must have seemed that their world was gone, never to be recovered. As their great city went, its festivals, its people and rhythms, so they went. These great monumental buildings, ways of seeing the world, the irrigation projects, gods, languages, ways of dress--these things must have seemed indestructible once. And now they were gone, or in the process of being erased.6

Temilotzin, warrior and poet, must have been close to giving up hope.

Sometimes, the most unlikely things survive history's sweeps, tides, and purges. Sometimes, words spoken in rhythm to a great drum outlast bricks, bloodlines, and battles. Sometimes a story will outlast a city, since it can be repeated and retold as long as there is one who remembers. With spells like Replenish and Resurgent Belief, Temilotzin's Sagas can be retold, while Yenna, Redtooth Regent and Ondu Spiritdancer can copy them to share them with the world. Those last two, combined with Three Blind Mice, ensure that the stories never truly reach their end.

The Siege of Tenochtitlan (1521)

Temilotzin of Tlatelolco in 1525 had seen the uprooting of everything he'd grown up with and striven to protect: his home city of Tlatelolco, the great city of Tenochtitlan. He watched the extinction of the Eagle Warriors and the Jaguar Knights, the great market of Tlatelolco, temples to the gods pulled down to build a new city, priests thrown to feed the beasts of the Black House or mauled by those great dogs the Spaniards were so fond of.

It was a siege that was composed of equal parts vicious street-by-street-fighting, aquatic battles between canoes and brigantines, and starvation. Bodies clogged the formerly pristine streets of Tenochtitlan, or floated heavy and inert in the stained waters of Lake Texcoco. The people who remained inside the city were gaunt, hollow-eyed, nearly walking corpses. The stench from the city must have been simply incredible.

Before the siege even, before the invading armies re-appeared and start cutting Tenochtitlan off from the world, the capital was in a bad way. Even conservative estimates put the death toll from the accidental Spanish introduction of smallpox in Tenochtitlan at 25%, one in four people, beginning in 1520. Smallpox killed the most recent high-speaker, Cuahtlihuac; nobody was safe. Tezcoco, the city on the other side of the lake, had joined the Spanish/Tlaxcalan allies and given them a place of easy resupply.

Temilotzin and tlatoani Cuauhtemoc had done all that could have possibly be done to save their city up to that point. Temilotzin is mentioned in both native accounts and Spanish chronicles as consistently being on the front line of the defense of his city. The Florentine Codex and Cantares Mexicanos both place Temilotzin in the thick of things, surviving multiple battles.

According to ANALES DE TLATELOLCO, Temilotzin had this to say about his conduct during the war when pressed by Malintzin, a key member of Cortez's party, a Nahua woman translator without whom the Conquest, as we understand it, would not have been possible. She's asking him this well after Tenochtitlan fell, somewhat mockingly, according to Miguel Leon-Portilla's Nahuatl Poets.

Malintzin: You Temilotzin, confess the truth. How many lords did you kill during the war?

Temilotzin: Listen, Malintzin, it is just as Ecatzin has told you. How could I bother to count them? I fought, I wounded, I finished off many, without giving attention to it."

Truly a boast on the level of the warriors of Kaldheim. Some of Temilotzin's fellow boasters made their way into his deck; the token production of Fearless Liberator, Usher of the Fallen, and Dragonkin Berserker recalls Temilotzin's unusual willingness to make friends in battle. After going wide with tokens, Battershield Warrior can pump them all up. Hagi Mob can clear out chump blockers, and has another synergy in this deck we'll discuss in a bit.

While thinking about the ruin that was Tenochtitlan, it's hard not to recall the first stanza of Temilotzin's poem:

Temilotzin Icuic

(Temilotzin's Song/Poem)

I have come, o my friends,

With necklaces I entwine

With plumage of the tzinitzcan bird I bind

With feathers of the macaw I gird

I paint with colors of gold

With trembling quetzal feathers I enfold

The totality of my friends.

Fall of Tenochtitlan and Capture of the Mexica Nobility

Tenochtitlan fell. It would never rise again. The center of the Mexica empire was a gutted, pitted, unrecognizable hulk of a city. Cortes wasted little time in tearing apart the Mexica capital, the pyramids and temples to Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc, Huitzilopochtli, Mayahuel. The canals filled in with stone and earth. Pyramids were torn apart to build churches; the Spanish filled in the causeways and began to build what is now known as Mexico City on the corpse of Tenochtitlan.

Cortez kept the Cuauhtemoc and Temilotzin and other nobles alive for four years after Tenochtitlan fell. More out of political expediency than sadism, but the line between the two is nebulous at best when looking at the Conquest. He was terrified that killing them would martyr them and stiffen native resolve, but while they remained alive they would serve as a possible rallying point for further rebellions against Spanish hegemony.

This feared martyrdom, this growing in strength through the harm inflicted by the enemy, is represented in the deck with the enrage mechanic, which also conveniently brings in some Dinosaurs to be tutored by Song of the Fifth People. Overgrown Armasaur, Polyraptor, and Bellowing Aegisaur support the general plan of going wide and pumping the team. Trapjaw Tyrant and Apex Altisaur offer some spot removal, and Frilled Deathspitter and Sun-Crowned Hunters can finish off an opponent. Urban Daggertooth's proliferate can help speed-read through the Sagas. As for triggering Enrage abilities, Hagi Mob, as teased above, can trigger one each turn, and The First Eruption gets them all at once. The fights on Fall of Gil-galad and The Triumph of Anax can set them off as well.

Cortes kept Cuauhtemoc and Temilotzin in captivity while he consolidated Spain's grip on the New World. That means that they very likely saw what became of their beloved city with their own eyes.

Imagine your hometown, or look at the nearest city skyline to you. Seems immutable, unchangeable as a range of mountains or the course of river, right? But what we forget, at our peril, is that nothing is permanent, and sometimes intangible things, like the spoken word, survive stone and mud and steel, no matter how strongly they are piled.

All Cuauhtemoc and Temilotzin and the other Mexica nobles had left was each other. Soon the Spanish and Tlaxcalans would take that from them too. The second stanza of Temilotzin's poem springs to mind, considering the sight of their city falling and the loss of the world they knew:

With songs I encircle the community

I will bring it into the palace

There will we all be

Until we have gone to the region of the dead

Thus we have been loaned to one another.

Mesoamerican scholar Miguel Leon-Portilla summarizes what happened after the fall of Tenochtitlan:

"Temilotzin shared the fate of the vanquished Cuautemoc when Tenochtitlan fell, and it was his also his destiny to accompany the last lord of the Mexica to the very end. In 1524 when Cortes undertook a long journey to the Hibueras in Central America to punish one of his captains who had disregarded his orders, Cuauhtemoc and other princes warriors, Temilotzin, were obliged to join the expedition. At a place named Hueymolan Acalan, in the present-day state of Tabasco, Cuauhtemoc and Tetlepanquetzanitzin--ruler of Tlacopan and also a composer of songs--was executed, hung from a ceiba tree. From the Anales de Tlatelolco, it is known that Temilotzin and another noble, Ecatzin, witnessed Cuauhtemoc's death."

This must have been the final, hideous blow to Temilotzin's legendary resolve. He'd endured countless battles, plague, duplicity, starvation and captivity with fortitude and bravery.

And here, in a foreign land, he'd just watched the only reason he had to keep living hung by the neck until he was dead. It's easy, in the flow of historical facts, to miss that the two men had been by each other's sides more or less since they were children. Inga Clendinnen in her essay The Cost Of Courage in Aztec Society mentions that Mexica youths were not encouraged to develop friendships on the battlefield, to coordinate their captures of enemies. Every other warrior on the battlefield was potential competition or an enemy. Since war was one of the few social bonding experiences available to males of all ages of the Mexica empire, this sociability is unique. Temilotzin was evidently more social than the average Mexica noble--or, at least, that is the legacy he passed down through sung poetry.

Attempted Escape and Death (1525)

Shortly after Cuauhtemoc was executed, Temilotzin was caught trying to escape Spanish custody along with another noble, Ecatzin. They were brought before Cortez and Malintzin, his translator, in chains aboard a ship. The best source we have for this is the ANALES DE TLALTELOCO, a post-Conquest document.

Malintzin tells the Mexica noblemen that they will be taken across the ocean to Castile after some preliminary needling. Temilotzin seems unimpressed by this statement. The ship goes further and further away from shore, and as he realizes that he will likely never see his home again, Temilotzin becomes distraught. It's a linguistic characteristic of Nahuatl to state the obvious when speaking to another, so the ANALES DE TLATELOLCO records the final spoken words of Temilotzin as:

"...Temilotzin spoke for the last time to Ecatzin, his companion and friend: "O, Ecatzin, where are we going? Where are we? Let us go to our house!"


"Temilotzin would not listen nor would he be restrained [by the Spaniards]. They saw how he threw himself into the water, he swam in the water towards the Sun. Malintzin called him and said "Where are you going, Temilotzin? Come back, come here!" he did not listen, he went away, he disappeared. No one knows if he was able to reach the shore, if a serpent devoured him, if a crocodile did away with him, or if the big fish finished Temilotzin...in this manner he did away with himself, no one killed him."

It is perhaps worth mentioning that according to Mesoamerican religion, certainly the Mexica religion, the manner of your death was the heaviest factor in determining where you spent your afterlife. The drowned, it's worth noting, were transported to Tlalocan, the green, peaceful, and verdant domain of Tlaloc, the storm-god. In his own religious system, perhaps Temilotzin found some measure of peace in the afterlife after a lifetime of trauma and war.

The last stanza of Temilotzin's work comes to mind, imagining the nobleman's doomed, final swim towards the sun.

Now I have come,

I am standing,

I will compose songs

Make the songs burst forth

For you, my friends.

I am sent from God,

I have flowers,

I am Temilotzin,

I have come to make friends here.

Temilotzin of Tlatelolco's full Commander decklist is below!

Temilotzin of Tlatelolco's commander deck

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Commander (1)
Creatures (28)
Enchantments (30)
Artifacts (1)
Sorceries (3)
Planeswalkers (1)
Lands (37)

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  1. We don't have any surviving images of Temilotzin of Tlatelolco, so I instead elected to use a picture of high-ranking Mexica nobles from one of their codices. Bummer.
  2. For more on this, I recommend Inga Clenndinnen's excellent essay The Costs of Courage in Aztec Society.
  3. Cortes, like many Spaniards, had a lust for gold. At the start of the siege of Tenochtitlan six months earlier, the Mexica had a great deal of gold, which they threatened to throw in the lake if the Spaniards and allies continued with the siege. The Spanish and their native allies were undeterred, and by all conjecture, the Mexica hurled the gold into lake Texcoco. After all, you cannot eat gold. When Cortes captured Cuauhtemoc, he asked him over and over where the gold was, and badly burned the ruler's feet with hot irons before keeping him as a hostage for four years.
  4. This is called a Morton's Fork, or more colloquially, a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" type situation.
  5. Nahua culture still survives today--as a language and culture, and we have a true translation of the Florentine Codex--widely considered the first work of anthropology ever--in Nahuatl and Spanish. Many Mexican holidays predate the Conquest, and the frescoes at Ixmiquilpan showing Jaguar and Eagle warriors inside the walls of a church, with European Renaissance influence show more cohesion between the cultures than previously credited.
  6. The siege and sack of Tenochtitlan is one of the more brutal sieges in world history. The Spanish and Tlaxcallan (and Tezcocoan et. al) numbered in the hundreds of thousands; the Mexica fought as hard as they could, but the plague the Spanish brought quartered their numbers and they had no source of resupply. It was a close-fought thing--with Cortes almost being captured and killed at one point--but in the end the Spanish and allies took Tenochtitlan and committed horrible crimes and looting in the corpse of the great city. Modern Mexico City is built on the corpse of Tenochtitlan, and the great aqueducts that the Mexica built and Cortes smashed have never been repaired, leading to several problems. For more on this subject, I recommend reading of Carrasco, Clendinnen, Portilla, and the Florentine Codex.

What Would They Play? is a collaboration between author Charlie Allison and game designer Dan Sibley. The series is part history lesson, part deck-building journal and aims to bring historical figures back to life through the lens of Magic: The Gathering. You can find Dan on Twitter at @VedalkenSamurai and Charlie on the web at www.charlie-allison.com and https://blog.pmpress.org/authors-artists-comrades/charlie-allison/.