As of yesterday morning, all three Battle for Zendikar planeswalkers were spoiled! Planeswalkers are among the most exciting designs, since they tell the story of Magic’s main characters and are the rarest card type. Are these new planeswalkers well designed? Do they properly convey the characters and story? Let’s take a look.

Kiora Master of the Depths

I love this card. Kiora’s one of my favorite planeswalkers, so I’m a tad biased, but I love the design. She hits the usual sweet spot of planeswalkers, costing 4 mana and starting with 4 loyalty.

+1: Untap up to one target creature and up to one target land.

Mechanically, this +1 is worse than Kiora, the Crashing Wave‘s +1. While there are cool tricks to be done by untapping creatures and ramping mana, neither action is particularly effective at protecting Kiora, Master of the Depths. Yes, you can untap a creature to block or untap a land to hold up a (likely off-color) removal spell, but that’s not the planeswalker protecting herself. Yes, with 5 loyalty she can probably take a hit, but her +1 doesn’t provide lasting advantage.

Granted, I prefer Planeswalker pluses that are card advantage neutral (like Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver, Ral Zarek, Xenagos, the Reveler, and Kiora, the Crashing Wave). They require the planeswalker to fit the deck (rather than just be included because of their raw power and color requirements) and make it so resolving a planeswalker doesn’t automatically tilt the game heavily in one player’s favor. Kiora in particular encourages you to play creatures (unlike Domri Rade, she’ll work in a creature-light deck, but she’ll obviously be better in a creature-heavy deck), so she can’t be thrown into a planeswalker control deck… although with the Origins walkers, she can find other planeswalkers.

In terms of flavor, the +1 hearkens back to Kiora’s Follower from Born of the Gods. It’s not entirely clear flavorwise what untapping something entails (it’s refreshed somehow), but I feel that the +1’s more limited flavor is more than made up for by Kiora’s other two abilities.

-2: Reveal the top four cards of your library. You may put a creature card and/or a land card from among them into your hand. Put the rest into your graveyard.

It’s Gift of the Gargantuan from Shards of Alara! It’s not a particularly strong card (it’s a Divination with a small amount of selection, but the possibility of not drawing two cards and the inability to draw noncreature, nonland cards), but it’s card advantage (even if you only hit a land). Getting the most out of this ability requires good deckbuilding, which is good design; Kiora won’t go into every GU deck.

The flavor hits home here. When we were introduced to Kiora on Theros (excluding our brief meeting in Duels 2012), she was searching for giant monsters to combat the Eldrazi. She’s continuing her Beast Hunt to this day, resolving to Scout the Borders of every plane to Gather the Pack she’ll need to save her world. Er, Lair Delve. This ability continues the story of Kiora where last we saw her.

-8: You get an emblem with “Whenever a creature enters the battlefield under your control, you may have it fight target creature.” Then put three 8/8 blue Octopus creature tokens onto the battlefield.

Holy calamari, Batman! An ultimate is supposed to swing the game heavily, if not outright win it, and Kiora’s certainly applies. Yes, most of her ultimate can be undone by a wrath, but a permanent Gruul Ragebeast is no slouch, and adding 24 power to the board while eating up to three creatures hits the textbook definition of huge (at least, it hits the definition in Sarpadian Empires, Vol. VII, which is certainly a textbook somewhere on Dominaria). Mechanically, planeswalkers shouldn’t be judged heavily by their ultimates, and while Kiora’s can win the game, she won’t be doing much other than ramp if you choose to plus her up to her ultimate.

Flavorwise, this is a grand slam. Kiora’s ultimate is the moment she dramatically planeswalks home and drops several hundred tons worth of invertebrates onto an army of Eldrazi horrors. I love every bit of this ultimate and how it sells Kiora’s story and successful journey.

Bident of Thassa

As a whole, while I quite like the new Kiora, I feel like there are two minor things worth nitpicking. First and foremost, the Bident of Thassa in Kiora’s hand. Followers of the story know that Kiora’s failed quest to acquire Arixmethes instead provided her with a god’s weapon. However, that equipment isn’t reflected in any of the new Kiora’s abilities. Sure, the Bident probably has powers beyond Siren’s Call, drawing cards, and a saboteur abilities, but those are the powers we know.

Secondly, Kiora is a wordy planeswalker. This isn’t a fatal flaw or anything, but two of her abilities are quite long, putting her text in small print. Plenty of planeswalkers suffer from small-text syndrome, but not…

Ob Nixilis Reignited

Damn! (ed. Literally! Hah!) Look at that clean text box.  Ob Nixilis Reignited is straightforward: he’s here to draw cards, destroy creatures, and chew bubble gum… and he’s all out of emblems. Ob Nixilis costs five, which is a bit above the curve for Constructed-playable planeswalkers, but certainly not out of bounds. He starts with a hearty five loyalty, enough to soak a hit or two from a small creature.

+1: You draw a card and you lose 1 life.

Card advantage is a good thing. Five mana planeswalkers are allowed to (but don’t always) have such plus abilities. As draw engines go, black has better, faster options than Ob Nixilis (Night’s Whisper, Phyrexian Arena, Underworld Connections, Read the Bones, Abzan Charm), but no black planeswalker has comparable card drawing.

The flavor’s definitely a hit for me; I don’t know exactly what kind of demon Ob is become (neither of his demon forms drew cards and his human planeswalker card needed to ultimate and sacrifice creatures in order to draw cards), but I know a Bloodgift Demon when I see one. Sure, he lacks Bloodgifty’s body, but Mr. Nixilis makes up for it with his minus.

-3: Destroy target creature.

Boom. Dead. Sure, it’s less powerful than Vraska, the Unseen‘s very comparable minus, but Ob Nixilis Reignited will literally Murder your enemies. Now that I think about it, it’s not even strictly worse than Vraska’s -3, because he can destroy Awakened lands. This is the textbook definition of a planeswalker protecting himself (see Sarpadian Empires, Vol. VII, chapter 19, “Leshrac vs. United Icatian States”).

I love how clean this ability is. With three words (and the art), you know what this ability is and that this is a horrifying demon planeswalker not afraid of getting his hands dirty (or aflame). I’d love to see more planeswalkers with single line abilities.

-8: Target opponent gets an emblem with “Whenever a player draws a card, you lose 2 life.”

Hrm. Super Underworld Dreams. Losing 2 life is perhaps the least exciting thing ever written at the bottom of a planeswalker card. However… Ob Nixilis consigns an opponent to an unstoppable death by Sulfuric Vortex. It lacks the gravitas of Chandra, Roaring Flame‘s very similar ability, but scales up in multiplayer and synergizes with Nixilis’ plus ability. It feels cruel and demonic, which hits Ob’s flavor precisely.

Did I mention enough how much I love how clean Ob Nixilis’ text boxes are? THE DESIGN IS BEAUTIFUL.

Gideon Ally of Zendikar

It wouldn’t be a fight to the death with Ulamog without Magic’s very own superhero, Gideon. He’s a bit different than the three previous incarnations we’ve seen.

+1: Until end of turn, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar becomes a 5/5 Human Soldier Ally creature with indestructible that’s still a planeswalker. Prevent all damage that would be dealt to him this turn.

He’s a bit smaller than when last Gideon Jura was on Zendikar, but he no longer dies to Doom Blade. Some version of this ability needs to exist on every Gideon, otherwise it just won’t feel like Magic’s Wolverine/Superman. Gideon is now an Ally, which seems to just be trinket text, (since BFZ’s allies buff all your creatures instead of just your allies), but is decent flavor. Just note that Gideon is never entering the battlefield when you +1 him, so he’ll never trigger Rally.

This is Gideon’s first time animating as a plus instead of as a 0, which is different and also makes Gideon one of the only planeswalkers whose plus does nothing the turn they ETB. Fortunately, he has a 0 to work with (which is also something common to all four Gideons—consistent planeswalker design can be very good planeswalker design).

0: Put a 2/2 white Knight Ally creature token onto the battlefield.

Gideon makes creature tokens, for the first time ever. Pumping out a steady stream of 2/2s was good enough for Garruk Relentless and Xenagos, the Reveler, and it’s good enough for Gideon and the forces he’ll Rally. This is a strong ability which provides card advantage, though it has tension with Gideon’s +1; each turn, you can commit permanent power to the board or smash for five damage.

I’m not sure if I like this addition to Gideon’s power suite. Sure, it’s mechanically sound, but Gideon is always presented as a one-man army.  Granted, we did just see Gideon’s Phalanx, so perhaps that sets enough of a precedent for Gideon to be able to summon an army.

Gideon’s tokens, 2/2 Knight Allies are distinct from Elspeth’s 1/1 soldiers, though if Gideon becomes associated with 2/2’s, future white token-making planeswalkers will need to find different tokens to work with (then again, Nahiri, the Lithomancer makes 1/1 white Kor Soldiers, so there’s wiggle room with creature types, and we haven’t yet seen a white planeswalker make 2/1’s).

-4: You get an emblem with “Creatures you control get +1/+1.”

Gideon continues his trend of not having an ultimate (ignoring Gideon, Champion of Justice, ’cause that card was all sorts of meh), but his minus is big enough to bring the big guy down. Glorious Anthem is a staple white effect, and for one mana more, Gideon will give it to you forever. It’s not terribly strong, but as we know from Sorin, Lord of Innistrad making a cheap emblem can be quite good, and +1/+1 is quite different than +1/+0; Sorin made his tokens into 2/1s, but Gideon’s tokens become 3/3s.

Glorious Anthem is completely new territory for Gideon; Gideon was always about controlling the board, directing opposing forces at himself, and smashing in himself as a giant creature. This ability is all about empowering other creatures… which is Ajani’s power suite (and yes, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion plays in this space, too). Perhaps this card is a sign that Gideon the character is changing from the meat-tank-carry-soldier into an army commander.  Or perhaps it’s a flavor bend that mechanically synergizes with his token making and enables an aggressive white deck in Standard. I don’t know, but Gideon is definitely my least favorite of the BFZ walkers.

…even if I’m totally putting him in my cube.

Venser, the Sojourner There you have it—a design review of all three Battle for Zendikar planeswalkers. I hope you’ve enjoyed this, ’cause I sure have. Let me know in the comments if you’d like to see more (or less) of these, if you agreed or disagreed with any of this, or if you’d just like to say hello. I appreciate your time, your opinions, and your attention. And as always, thanks for reading.

—Zachary Barash

Zachary Barash has been playing Magic on and off since 1994. He loves Limited and drafts every available format (including several that aren’t entirely meant to be drafted). He’s a proud Cube owner, improviser, and game designer. He has an obsession with Indian food that borders on being unhealthy.

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