Browse > Home / Strategy / Articles / Loreweaving: Gisa and Geralf – The Unauthorized Biography

Loreweaving: Gisa and Geralf – The Unauthorized Biography


Designed as a top-down, gothic-inspired plane, Innistrad offered mechanical translations to most of the classical horror tropes immortalized by literature, movies, and pop-culture, right? Yes, but that was only the beginning, as new characters and narrative arcs were also imagined by the creative team to bring this mechanical "skeleton" to life with a personality of its own. 

Some of the block's flavor appeared in the cards' names, illustrations and flavor texts, but there were also several additional elements scattered among promotional campaigns, articles, trailers, planeswalker guides, convention panels, AMAs, and three literary works: Deathtrap, The Cursed Blade and Mikaeus, the Unhallowed. There was a slight problem, however. When Avacyn Restored was spoiled, it became clear that some of the most anticipated characters from the plane's lore wouldn't be represented as legendary creatures, including two of the most beloved of them all: the necromantic twins Gisa and Geralf.

At first they were just fun flavor-text PoV characters, and Jenna took a shine to them and wrote about them more (and would have written more still if given the chance!). They became more prominent only after the card sets had long been in the can. That’s a weird thing about Magic – fans expect story and character elements to be reflected in card form, and often it doesn’t work that cleanly on our end. It’s more organic than that. 
—Brady Dommermuth (former creative manager)

We mentioned how scattered is the lore of Innistrad, a block that lacked an official novel to offer us a well developed literary reference like its predecessors. In this article I intend to gather and organize what's known about these two remarkable characters, hoping that Shadows over Innistrad's lore will soon bring new chapters to their frenetic biography.

And so it Begins, with Fire

The news of the fire was most unfortunate. The loss of our family's ancestral manor is saddening, but the fact that it was caused by our own kin is disgraceful.
—Mikaeus, Lunarch of Thraben

Born in Thraben, Gisa and Geralf come from a noble family related to figures of prestige such as their cousin Mikaeus Cecani, the former head of the Avacynian church. However, despite their inherited prestige, the twins' known biography starts with their banishment from the holy city, after a fire consumed their family's ancestral manor.

All we know about the incident comes from the letters they sent to the man that expelled them: their own father. In these texts, each sibling offered their own divergent version of how the flames erupted, and, different as these reports may be, they both agree with something: the fire was caused after a zombie was reanimated and let loose inside the building.

Ghoulcaller Gisa, art by Karla Ortiz.

According to Gisa, who signs as her father's “firstborn by an hour,” her brother Geralf is an “insane idiot” whose alchemical experiments should have been forbade long before. She accuses him of stealing a corpse’s arm she kept in the basement to stitch a “second-rate skaab.” This undead supposedly stumbled into the fireplace, while her brother scampered “like a squirrel” around the room without stamping the sparks.

Her tone is firm, sometimes spoiled ("I wanted a baby sister!"), petulant ("you cannot say I did not warn you"), and pinpointed by sadism ("I have warned him many times to listen or I would cut off his ears").

Stitcher Geralf, art by Karla Ortiz.

Geralf’s version, however, tells a completely different story. He blames Gisa for everything, pointing out his sister’s “obsessions of ghoulcalling” as a shame to their family. In his heroic narrative, it all began when he supposedly heard a chilling scream coming from the basement just before Gisa “sprinted up the stairs with a ghoul swiping at her heels.” He claims to have tried to fight the undead as she cowered, but it overcame him and destroyed one of the manor’s rooms, igniting the fire while he carried her to safety in his shoulders.

Geralf’s adulatory writing style reveals his deep respect for their father, his jealousy of his sister ("you always gave her the best in life"), and the desire to be accepted as a worthy and obedient heir of the family’s traditions (he even signs as “Geralf the Third”). In his conclusion, he begs his father to allow him “back into the fold.”

A Strained Relation

I want Father's book. Kill as many of my emissaries as you like. I shall make more until you hand it over. And next time, they will be bringing gifts.
—Gisa, to Geralf

If the twins' relation was already contemptuous at the time these letters were written, their ostracism only made it worse. Exiled to Trostad (a small village near the Gavony-Kessig border), Gisa settled near the graveyards in the west side of the village, while Geralf took residence in a laboratory in the east. Apart from their family and hometown, each one blamed the other for their losses and focused their efforts on the recovery of cherished possessions supposedly taken by the other in their escape. Soon, their attempts to recover these items led them to wage a fratricidal war.

Grimoire of the Dead, art by Steven Belledin.

Geralf accused Gisa of stealing his sextant, but she denied it. On the other hand, she accused him of keeping their father's book, which he really did. By the way, it's probable that the destruction of their family's ancestral manor weighted much more in their banishing than their involvement with necromancy. As the aforementioned book is bound in human skin and written in “crimson symbols”, suggesting that raising the dead could be one of their family's strongest traditions.

Geralf''s Messenger, art by Kev Walker.

Taking advantage of Gavony’s abundance of "grafs" (graveyards), Gisa raised entire armies of ghouls, while Geralf devoted himself to perfect his art and methods, creating skaabs “as tall as three men.” The way the siblings commanded their zombies is as revealing of their personalities as their letters. Gisa sent her “emissaries” and went herself many times to Geralf’s lab without any warning, and she never restrained herself from flanking him, attacking from behind, raising ghouls mid-battle, or using partial corpses as soldiers. Her brother, however, was apparently unable to notice how homicidal his sister’s intentions are, and regards their conflict with a shocking sportsmanship. He even tried to transform their battles into a game he dubbed "NecroWarfare," and hoped his sister would conform to its rules, to no avail.

The Five Six Laws of NecroWarfare

They are fighting each other and they shall not stop! You must make them stop! Why are they fighting here? Our city is almost lost. Please, send cathars. All of them.
—Jolen, Mayor of Trostad

Another sample of Geralf’s systematic personality can be observed in the way he tried to frame Gisa’s attacks in a set of rules of conduct he called the Five Laws of NecroWarfare.

1. No spontaneous awakenings.
2. No luring, killing, and raising of bystanders or livestock.
3. Combatants face off at a predetermined place and time.
4. Combatants must have at least three limbs to play.
5. Headquarters are off limits.

To ensure his unpredictable sister would respect his directives, the necro-alchemist asked her to formally register her agreement to them by signing with her blood.

Sign in Blood, art by Howard Lyon.

It didn't take too long for Geralf to realize he was the only one following his rules, and the twins' correspondence shows how much the stitcher insisted in convincing Gisa to adopt his fair play, but her answers were always frustrating and even mocked the structure of her brother's letters.

1. I shall raise ghouls anytime I wish. You are just mad because you have to run back to your sewing machine while I can just whistle them up from the grave.
2. If a farmer is stupid enough to check out a creepy light, then he deserves to be killed with a shovel and become my servant.
3. A predetermined place and time? What is this, a tea party?
4. Those so-called "meat sacks" are models of efficiency. You cannot even make a skaab walk without giving it 17 different body parts.
5. I didn't take your stupid sextant.

Didn’t we just say she agreed with her brother’s terms, sealing the deal with blood? Well, yes, she did. But Gisa isn't the most trustworthy ghoulcaller out there and eventually confessed it wasn’t even her blood.

Illustration depicting The Bloodletter, from the Innistrad Viral Story campaign.

The balance between both sides was compromised when one of Gisa's ghouls (a Rotting Fensnake) retrieved a magical sword from Raben Amsel, a cathar caught in the middle of their zombie war. This weapon was the infamous and powerful Bloodletter, a cursed blade known for inflicting wounds that bleed forever in the living and for roasting the undead to ashes with a mere cut. Geralf reacted immediately, implementing a new rule to their game.

6. No magical swords.

Gisa's answer couldn't be more frustrating.

I like my sword. When I hold it, I can feel it breathing. It is glorious. And you will never get your dirty little fingers on it.
In fact, I am holding it right now. And it puts me in the mood for a festive new game called Kill the SkaabMob.

Soon after the undead snake took the Bloodletter with its jaws, Raben and Reika Eberhardt (a former cathar now dabbling with darker forces) were rescued from the chaotic battlefield by a kind stranger that easily drove the zombies away. His name: Geralf. The couple was sheltered in the stitcher's lab and was invited to dine with him, but they would never be able to foresee that their proud host would offer them chairs in a table shared by all kinds of skaabs.

The macabre awkwardness of the meal was promptly dissipated by Gisa and other ghastly uninvited guests that bursted through the windows. Ready to strike with the infamous sword, she demanded her father's grimoire and would have received it if it wasn’t for Reika's quick moves. By threatening to drop the book in the fire, she stopped their argument and convinced the ghoulcaller to exchange it for the sword, returning the Bloodletter to Raben. 

In the meantime, after waves and waves of attacks, the village of Trostad was almost completely destroyed by the stitcher's monstrosities, and those who refused to flee succumbed as collateral damage. It was time, of course, to find another distraction. 

The "Necrotic Siegecraft": From Theory to Practice

I plan to raze Thraben to the ground. It will be a glorious city of undead with me as the lunarch.  [...] Despite your past offenses, I extend you an invitation. Let us join together in this charitable venture. I claim the Thraben Cathedral, but the rest of the city is yours.
Oh, I must introduce you to my Skaab General. I named him Grimgrin in honor of your face.
—Geralf, to Gisa

Geralf finally realized he couldn't change Gisa's "lack of adherence to the Rules of NecroWarfare." The best skaabs stitched by him wouldn't be available to their "games" anymore. Instead, he envisaged his most ambitious plan. First, he postulated that the mind state of a Zombie is equivalent to that of the Blessed Sleep, the peaceful death sought by the members of the Avacynian church that don't want to become geists or zombies or have their corpses profaned. With this pseudotheological basis as his inspiration, he began to crave the destruction of their birthplace, where he would assume Thaben Cathedral's ruins as the new lunarch, ruling a horde of undead subjects.

Grimgrin, Corpse-Born, art by Peter Mohrbacher.

In order to achieve his goal, the stitcher applied his typically methodical approach to this plan, dividing it in three previous stages. First, following the basics of military science, he created a general for his skaabs. With twice the size of a man, a humped back, a bear trap for a collar, and a huge blade hanging in a chain that replaced his left forearm, this masterpiece of necro-alchemy was called Grimgrin to mock Gisa's features.

Then Geralf decided to join forces with his rival sister, complementing his war machine with her ghoulish infantry. She was offered the whole city of Thraben (with the exception of its Cathedral) as payment, and the idea seemed good enough for her to accept joining him for only half the city (and half the corpses left in their army's trail).

The third stage was to organize and summarize his extensive studies of necrotic siegecraft and share it with his sister, who would be in charge of the combined zombies while Geralf would perform a “secret mission” — the assassination of Mikaeus. Below you’ll find the “rules of engagement” he provided her (as if she would obey them). 

• Blockade all routes out of the city. If you have any ghouls with tongues, make them the sentries.
• Burn the belfries. But keep the crossbowman's arms if possible. They have good muscle tone.
• Tunnel under the walls. Now who is mocking my four-armed skaabs?
• Shell the city with whatever rock or flesh you have on hand.

 

Zombie Apocalypse, art by Peter Mohrbacher.

The axis formed by Gisa, Geralf, and Grimgrin was already terrible enough, but an unexpected ally joined them: human bureaucracy. When the undead army began its march, Elgaud, one of the Nephalian parishes they crossed, saw its population decrease from 700 to 100 souls. The parish inquisitor alerted a bishop from Gavony, but he required a new census to confirm it and measure the seriousness of the situation before troubling the lunarch.

Instead, the inquisitor wrote again, this time denouncing the extermination of an entire village in the Westvale Road near Thraben. Only then Mikaeus was informed, and his reaction was to call out the bishop for bothering him because “of a single skaab” and to transfer the responsibility to Lothar, Thraben’s guardian.

Without adressing the situation properly, the holy city’s guardians were doomed to see its walls fall for the first time.

A Wheel of Flame

You imbecilic toddler. What did you make your skaabs with? Paper? Paraffin oil? At least my ghouls have a little rot on them so they don't ignite like tinderboxes. This fiasco lies squarely on your diminutive shoulders.
—Gisa, to Geralf

Guise of Fire, art by Dave Kendall.

As the sibling’s army broke into the outer walls, soldiers despaired without higher orders, angels hid in the cathedral’s loft, and Lothar, the city’s guardian, apparently committed suicide. Promoted to his post, the young Thalia came up with a plan. Every soldier should gather all the thatch they could from the city’s roofs and scatter them between the outer walls and the inner ones. She waited until the horde swarmed inside, and a single match sacrificed part of the city to fire, incinerating most of the skaabs and driving away the not-so-flammable ghouls.

 Mikaeus, the Unhallowed, art by Chris Rahn.

Shortly before the fiery fiasco, Geralf had entered the city and, as their army dug under the walls and crashed gates, he was knocking on Mikaeus’ door. Eager for good news, the lunarch answered, only to meet his demise. Using a golden letter-opener, the stitcher killed his distant cousin and extracted his heart, a souvenir he intended to present his sister with.

Trusting in their victory, Geralf opened the cathedral's doors to welcome his sister and accomplice. Instead of finding a triumphant Gisa, however, the stitcher found “a most delightful girl by the name of Lili,” who showed an unusual interest in Mikaeus' corpse.

As we know, Liliana Vess looked for information about Griselbrand's whereabouts with the Skirsdag cult (a demonic sect secretly installed among the clergy of the church of Avacyn), and she ended up after the lunarch itself. Since he was already dead when she arrived, the planeswalker raised him as a sentient zombie and extracted what she needed to know about the demon’s imprisonment in the Helvault, the slice of the silver Moon used by Avacyn to bound the demons she hunted (and where she ended up imprisoned as well).

Aftermath

Even after Hanweir was saved, Gisa's lost ghouls would shamble through, still following the twisted orders of their imprisoned master.
Hunted Ghoul flavor text

It is not clear if Grimgrin survived the fire, but we know Geralf left Thraben apparently unharmed while Gisa was captured when Grete (Odric, Master Tactician’s lieutenant) led an attack against the ghoulcaller’s zombies in Hanweir (in Gavony's moorlands). 

Hunted Ghoul, art by Ryan Pancoast.

Some undead stragglers still roamed the region after her arrest, but their threat was quickly controlled. Odric ordered Grete to transport the prisoner to Thraben with a reinforced escort, and members of the church finally started considering that the heyday of Gisa and Geralf's tyranny was over.

Excerpt of The Cursed Blade.

The twins’ impact on Gavony is now among the darkest pages of the province's history, and their legacy includes a change on how the dead are managed. Cremating the dead often leads to the appearance of aggressive geists, but the people of the moorlands became more willing to deal with them if it kept necromancers from defiling their loved ones. A huge cultural change, indeed. 

Fear and Loathing in Gavony (The Cards)

As I built Gavony, it became populated with characters in my mind. The insane twins, Gisa and Geralf, are among my favorites. Each embodied the characteristics of the black-aligned and blue-aligned zombie tribes, respectively. Gisa is a ghoulcaller and Geralf is an alchemist, and their sibling rivalry has led them to the desolate moors. They engage in necro-warfare, playing twisted war games with hordes of zombies with no ambition but to prove themselves the better twin. 
—Jenna Helland

Now that we know the siblings' biography, let's take a quick look on the cards related to them.

 

Bone Splinters, art by Nils Hamm.

Innistrad, the first set in the block, presented us four cards with quotes by the twins.

Ghoulcaller's Chant [ISD]Grimgrin, Corpse-Born [ISD]Rooftop Storm [ISD]

Skaab Goliath [ISD]Stitched Drake [ISD]Stitcher's Apprentice [ISD]

  • Ghoulcaller's Chant is the card that first presented Gisa as a ghoulcaller, a necromancer specialized in raising the dead from its graves. In Innistrad, zombies animated by this art are known as ghouls or as the unhallowed, a term that reminds us about the aura of profanity that surrounds them. Her quote, however, isn't so different from what we could expect from Liliana Vess or other necromancers. No madness, no spoiled attitude, no recklessness...
  • In Rooftop Storm we see a lab adorned with symbols from Nephalia (its art illustrated comments about Ludevic), and the card's flavor text shows both Geralf's contempt for priests and his excitement towards his own ambitions. Oglor, the Stitcher's Apprentice, is also mentioned.
  • Skaab Goliath, however, introduced Geralf not only as Magic's "Doctor Frankenstein," but did it with a healthy dose of nonsensical humor, despite the gruesome details of his craft. As we know, skaabs are stitched from the parts of different body parts by the skaberen in a rather complex process. The copper plates we see in the zombie's articulations contain special runes and their veins are filled with "viscus vitae," a highly flammabe mixture of lamp oil and drops of dried angel's blood.
  • Stitched Drake offered us a glimpses into Geralf's experiments with non-human zombies (this data will be resignified later with his hybrid creations in Shadows over Innistrad).

Then, between Innistrad and Dark Ascension, The Cursed Blade and Mikaeus, the Unhallowed were published. These two epistolary narratives contained the correspondence between the necromancers and became the main references about both of them, letting us know, among many other things, that Grimgrin, Corpse-Born was also related to Geralf, being one of his creations. In design, the Mythic Zombie wasn't a "big bad guy," it was the horde from Army of the Damned, but development decided the set needed a Mythic legendary zombie.

Farbog Boneflinger [DKA]Geralf's Messenger [DKA]Geralf's Mindcrusher [DKA]

Gravepurge [DKA]Thought Scour [DKA]Zombie Apocalypse [DKA]

  • Farbog Boneflinger captures like no other card the twins' rivalry after their banishment from Thraben and provides their background conflict to those who didn't read their correspondence.
  • Geralf's Messenger was a powerhouse in Standard (specially in the BR Zombies deck) and, despite what its name suggests, it was never clarified if this Black Zombie carrying a geistflame bomb was one of Geralf's creations or if it was of one Gisa's emissaries sending him one of her "gifts".
  • Geralf's Mindcrusher illustrates Geralf's preference for towering individual monstrosities over Gisa's hordes of small ghouls, something that would later be incorporated into their legendary cards. 
  • Gravepurge's flavor text mentions the Blessed Sleep, the consecrated post-mortem rest sought after by the Avacynian church members. Their wards usually ensured their dead would be protected, but Avacyn's temporary disappearance made them useless and turned every graf into a ghoulcaller's playground.
  • Thought Scour reveals a darker side of Geralf's craft. Relying on body parts to sculpt his skaabs, it's not surprising to see him looking for the fresher supplies available, but few would have the guts to follow his twisted logic and conclude that there's no fresher flesh than living flesh.
  • Zombie Apocalypse depicts a pivotal story moment: the first time Thraben's gates were invaded. In the center of its illustration, among Gisa's unhallowed infantry, we can see Grimgrin in its horrifying glory.

Avacyn Restored, the third set in the block, reflected the restoration of balance after the Helvault was destroyed and Avacyn, Archangel of Hope was released. There are three cards related to Gisa and not a single one related to Geralf in this set.

Bone Splinters [AVR]Hunted Ghoul [AVR]Maalfeld Twins [AVR]

  • Bone Splinters showcases Gisa's black magic being used as a direct destructive force, and for the first time she's referred to as "Gisa the Mad." Does this mean something changed after the siege or is it just a coincidence? Its illustration may depict the ghoulcaller, although there's some controversy about it.
  • Hunted Ghoul exemplifies Gisa's creations as aggresively costed smaller ghouls in contrast to Geralf's huge skaabs. Additionally, it's flavor text anticipates the information about her imprisonment by Odric's forces.
  • Maalfeld Twins brings two throwbacks. First, they are siamese zombies at 4/4 with a CMC (Converted Mana Cost) of 6. For reference, Alpha's Scathe Zombies, the game's first specimen of the tribe, was a 2/2 creature with a CMC of 3. The creature's ability, by the way, separates the undead twins and gives you two 2/2 classic zombie tokens. It's flavor text also reflects the siblings' alliance from the time of the siege of Thraben, offering us a taste of Gisa's sarcarm as she presents herself as a supposed guardian of family values. 

In Commander 2014, the twins were printed as legendary creatures by public demand with illustrations by Karla Ortiz! (What better fate could any Magic character hope for?)

Ghoulcaller Gisa [C14]Stitcher Geralf [C14]

  • Just as the necromancer sacrificed creatures to fuel her black magic in Bone Splinters, her legendary representation in Ghoulcaller Gisa shows how fast she can use this same procedure to swarm the board with her unhallowed forces. Ortiz's art, by the way, is something else, having captured her madness in her black shredded dress and even her "grim grin" with perfection. We may also remember that Grimgrin, Corpse-Born could be used as a commander in a deck that uses Gisa and Geralf among the 99. 
  • Stitcher Geralf has the same stats and CMC of her sister, and his necromantic style is also perfectly captured in his top-down designed card. While Gisa swarms with 2/2 ghouls, Geralf needs good graveyard supplies to sculpt his huge crushing machines. Their synergy is epic and their flavor is spot-on. Ortiz's art also deserves the highest praise. Not only did we get to see Geralf, but we got a peek of Grimgrin's creation with Oglor serving as the least practical tool support ever seen in the whole Multiverse. 

Epilogue – Shadows over Innistrad

From the Stitcher's Lab in the Innistrad Map's spoiler galleries and its escape room version at GP Melbourne to the note and the "brain puzzle" from the #SOIkickoff campaign, Geralf's references were seen everywhere in the initial Shadows over Innistrad's marketing. Throughout the entire spoiler season, several cards mentioned him, while only two relate to Gisa.

Geralf's Masterpiece, art by Daarken.

Telling stories through cards (a nonlinear medium) can often led us to misinterpret what’s going on, especially when it come to guessing the right sequence of events. Until we have canonical material to put these bits of information in context, I’ll refrain from trying to connect them as a cohesive story arc. This situation, therefore, takes us back to the mere listing of facts, so here is what we already know.  

Forgotten Creation [SOI]Furtive Homunculus [SOI]Gisa's Bidding [SOI]

  • Forgotten Creation shows us a glimpse from Geralf’s first achievements as a skaberen, offering him an honour (a "origin-related card") commonly reserved to planeswalkers.
  • Furtive Homunculus sheds some light on why Geralf makes use of these creatures as assistants (see Stitcher's Apprentice and Stitcher Geralf for sneak peeks of lab homunculi and Oglor, his “Igor”).
  • Gisa's Bidding art brings us Gisa doing what she does best, and the fact that she’s free may hint about her future story arcs.

Seagraf Skaab [SOI]Prized Amalgam [SOI]Rise from the Tides [SOI]

  • Seagraf Skaab's flavor text indicates that Ludevic, a notorious necro-alchemist and one of the wealthiest men in Nephalia, invited Geralf to collaborate in a project.
  • Prized Amalgam’s art depicts Geralf stitching a skaab in Ludevic’s lab, and its flavor text registers how inspired he feels now that he may access his colleague’s facilities.
  • Rise from the Tides’s flavor text brings back the twins’ correspondence in friendly terms, suggesting there is a lot less noticeable hate between them. It also register how Gisa has also found new mysterious “playmates” (it may not be a coincidence that zombies are being used to build the Drownyard Temple).

Stitchwing Skaab [SOI]Geralf's Masterpiece [SOI]

  • Stitchwing Skaab shows what looks like a new experiment from Geralf: a flying hybrid made of human and Nephalian drake parts (as if parts from a Stitched Drake had been recycled).
  • Finally, Geralf's Masterpiece deserves to bear his name, illustrating Geralf’s deeds as an accomplished necromancer. By the way, it's not a coincidence that the card’s art depicts him in the position of a proud bird seeing his offspring leave the nest in their first flight).

Now we need to wait to see if the Magic Story column will offer us additional elements of Innistrad's most infamous and beloved necromancers. Let's hope!

Known Aliases

Gisa the Mad Stitcher Geralf
Ghoulcaller Gisa Geralf the Third
Gisa, Ghoulcaller of Gavony Geralf, the Skinstitcher
Gisa, Ghoulcaller of the Moors   Geralf, Necromancer of the Moors  

Sources


More on MTGGoldfish ...

innistrad

Loreweaving: Random Facts You May Not Know About Innistrad

budget magic

Budget Magic: $95 (22 tix) Leveler Jace Combo (Modern, Magic Online)

podcast

Podcast 225: Modern Horizons Spoilers and Pauper Bannings

modern horizons

Modern Horizons Spoilers — May 20, 2019 | Basic Fetchland, Snowful Strix


Next Article

Keep in Touch

Sign up to receive email updates from us!

All emails include an unsubscribe link. You may opt-out at any time. See our privacy policy.

Follow Us

  • S
  • S
  • S
  • S
  • S
  • S
  • S

Welcome to MTGGoldfish. We display prices for both ONLINE and PAPER magic. By default, what prices would you like to see?   

Paper Magic Online Magic Arena