If you haven’t already, after you finish reading this, check out Jules’s, Brandon’s, and Daryl’s articles on planeswalkers earlier this week. Planeswalkers mean a lot of different things to players out there, and each of those authors does a great job of explaining his point of view for our unofficial planeswalker week here on Gathering Magic.
Today, we’re doing what Vorthos does best—we’re looking at planeswalker design with a top-down approach. Planeswalkers receive a lot more attention than your average Magic card because they are a major face for the game. Five years down the road, how have they stood up? Have they improved? Stagnated? Or worse, have they taken a wrong turn?
Today, we’ll categorize existing planeswalkers, show what works and what doesn’t, and then ask you to send your very own planeswalker design. Let’s go!
Most of these have some help from other published sources. Before Dack Fayden, we had a whole host of resources at our disposal when a Vorthos wanted to traipse the multiverse. Planeswalker novels, comics, and the occasional article on the mothership all helped to give the cards character. Sometimes, we knew who the planeswalker was before we ever saw him or her in card form.
Gideon appeared in Purifying Fire alongside Chandra before making it onto the cards, but unlike some with backstories, his card stands on its own. His first and third abilities immediately make things clear, but what makes it so good is how the abilities work together.
We see someone willing to do just about anything to protect a friend or loyal partner—you! He’ll fight monsters, attack an opposing planeswalker (your opponent), and take the brunt of any attack. Heck, he’s so willing to enter the fray that he’ll shrug off punches (combat damage) while doing this.
I started with an easy one; Elspeth, Knight-Errant isn’t so obvious, but I still believe she’s a hit. The key is her third ability. Without it, the rest could be construed in any number of ways. Elspeth cares about her troops (first ability) and trains them (second ability), but ultimately, she just wants to protect those she cares about (final ability).
Compare that to Ajani, Caller of the Pride. The first two abilities are almost identical, though one makes tokens while the other counters, but the final ability changes your perception. Instead of protection as his end goal, he wants to rear his pride.
Ajani and Elspeth fall a little closer to the next category, with their first two abilities fairly generic to the color, but their ultimates bring everything together into a complete and identifiable persona.
Next up is Sarkhan the Mad. Sarkhan brings up an interesting tidbit I passed over when talking about Ajani above: progression. With each new version of a planeswalker, pressure exists for Wizards of the Coast to continue hitting the right notes without copying what was done before. The first two Jaces and all three Chandras fall short with this to varying degrees.
Back to Sarkhan. He’s still obsessed with dragons (second and third abilities)—his first version may not have been spectacular, but his love for dragons came through—but now he’s losing control of his thoughts (first ability). This is a major point of his construction.
Sarkhan the Mad is the only planeswalker without the ability to increase his loyalty. Think about the implications of that for a moment.
With no other planeswalker competing to define this mechanic, we allow Sarkhan to dictate to us what that means. He’s mad? It certainly seems like it.
Lacking Extra Spice
This is the largest group of planeswalkers, and it could be split into multiple subcategories. For sake of time and space, I’ll keep it simple today. Wizards can’t afford to design every single ’walker with top-down methods, and even some that are don’t always hit the nail on the head.
Sometimes, an ability or two disconnects or the overall feel of the card reflects the color(s)’s philosophy without giving the ’walker an identity. The prototypical examples of this are the original Chandra, Liliana, Jace, and Garruk. Whether it’s because of backstories or the actual card’s design, the original Ajani, Ajani Goldmane, avoids this to an extent.
Chandra Nalaar does a great job of showing an explosive attitude, but not much else. Doing damage to things only reveals so much, and a lot of the complaints about Chandra as a personality follow similar one-dimensional lines.
Liliana Vess is obviously a necromancer with her final ability, and her other two hint at mind manipulation, but nothing works together. Even with all of the stories about her—she’s appeared in the comics, novels, and Innistrad block—we still don’t get a definitive sense of who she is from the card. Her abilities just don’t work well together.
I imagine a lot of people will say Jace Beleren belongs in the first category. The trick is that there’s nothing making his card unique. You can slap an entirely new name on there without much trouble. He is the prototypical blue mage—great design, but a conventional and unexciting personality.
Garruk Wildspeaker is more of a candidate for the first category than the other three. What hurts Garruk is his first ability. We know he’s in tune with nature and that he grew up on a farm, but it feels a bit out of place with the other two. I’m not convinced Garruk, Primal Hunter is better overall, but at least all three abilities work alongside each other.
The original ’walkers are great examples for this category because they were designed to represent their colors, but what about newer planeswalkers?
Koth of the Hammer is a card that came ever so close to being a hit. There are a lot of positives in his design, but still needs a bit more oomph to put him into that elite group. He’s certainly an upgrade to Sarkhan Vol, so let’s take a look.
Koth’s theme (Mountains) is obvious and shows in every ability, yet each takes a different approach. His abilities are also fairly unique and unseen on previous Magic cards, allowing us to create judgments a la Sarkhan the Mad rather than be influenced by the past. Everything needed for success is there, but what exactly do Mountains have to do with this guy? Sure, he grew up in Mirrodin’s mountains, but what does that mean to him?
These are the bottom of the barrel for Vorthos. Their abilities have nothing to do with their personalities—they might not even reflect the color(s) all that well—or directly contradict who they are. Melvin’s favorites often fit here as well. Thankfully, there have only been a few, but the ones that are out there are glaringly obvious.
Let’s start with one fresh in all of your minds; Liliana of the Dark Realms. I’m not quite sure where this came from, but I want to believe Creative was unable to stop this. Even the name is fairly ambiguous. Of course she’s from the dark realms. She’s a black mage for crying out loud!
Ranting aside, we’ve never seen anything in her stories or previous iterations to think that she loved swamps and channeling mana more than any other black ’walker. So why now? Why not stick to the discard and death theme that was built on her first two versions? Even her second ability—which makes me think of the art on Killing Wave—has the strange +X/+X bit tacked on.
Sorin, Lord of Innistrad is the other huge flop in my mind. If only we could change Sorin to some other name, and then we’d have a great card. As is, it gives off a wrongness that borders on evil.
I might be able to grimly swallow the idea that Sorin summons vampires against their will, but the second ability is too much. He works alone and has no need nor desire to pump the fighting prowess of allies. The third ability is the only one that comes across as “Sorin.” If any planeswalker is going to just outright destroy, then recruit other bodies and ’walkers, it’s going to be Sorin or Nicol Bolas.
While I’m inclined to trust the card coming directly from Wizards, the novel portrays Nissa as an outsider among the elves. Her second ability, feeding on her allies, is reasonable, but calling elves to her side is sketchy at best. I don’t blame Wizards for this, and I often try to forget that the novel even exists, but I feel it’s worth noting.
Overall, Wizards has done well at churning out planeswalkers with identifiable personas. While there aren’t that many more hits than failures, a lot of those in the middle succeed to varying degrees, and thus, push things in a positive direction. R&D is still learning and experimenting with planeswalkers, and I trust we’ll be seeing more Gideons in the future.
There was a lot to dig into, and a number of lines I didn’t pursue. If you enjoyed this please let me know in the comments, and I’ll take a look at planeswalkers in more depth. Make sure to check out Jules’, Brandon’s, and Daryl’s articles as well. This type of collaboration is something we’d be happy to do again if you guys want it.
Designing a Planeswalker
Jules sent out a call for planeswalker submissions earlier this week. I’m going to take it a step further and ask you to send in not only a well-designed ’walker, but one with flavor, too! I’m just cruel, aren’t I?
Now, you don’t have to appease both of us. Design what you like, whether it be for Vorthos or Melvin (Daryl’s a Melvin in disguise; watch out!). Jules covered actual design, but here are some pointers to remember if you’re shooting for some flavor.
- Have a theme that exemplifies who the planeswalker is. (Garruk: Beasts and hunting; Sarkhan: Dragons; Elspeth: protection) This doesn’t have to be shown in every ability.
- Have the abilities work together as they do on Gideon, not tangentially as on Garruk Wildspeaker.
- Don’t go one-dimensional like Chandra; explain your theme from multiple angles like Gideon or Koth.
- Common abilities of a color are great for giving a general sense and/or support but cannot make a planeswalker unique on its own.
All right, that’s more than enough from me. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading all of these articles, and I look forward to seeing what you guys send in!