Ahoy! I’ve got to say, I’m psyched out of my mind that we’re getting another Un-set. When I was still a kid—about twelve years old, fond of Magic, and playing with a little kitchen table group—I bought many a pack of Unglued. Never mind that I didn’t play with them a ton; I was absolutely enchanted by the set’s sense of humor and the ways in which it pushed at the borders of the game I so enjoyed. Some of it was the art, like the broken frame on Growth Spurt. Some of it was the exploration of design space, such as interacting with past or future games of Magic (as with Gus or Double Cross) or letting you play magic with your full deck (Mine, Mine, Mine!). A lot of it was just that the cards made me laugh.

So, of course I’ve enjoyed watching Wizards roll out their Unstable previews with keen interest. I’m looking forward to trying to win one of the contraption posters. And I’m enjoying what I’m seeing: there’s fun new design space in play, including a second deck (contraptions) and a nifty cousin of Meld (Augment). There are fun science fiction tropes, like super-villains, super-spies, and mad scientists. There is the return of squirrels! (My little brother used to destroy me with Squirrel Wrangler growing up—suffice to say, I have naught but respect for the fierce little ankle-biters.) I am excited as all get out for the set, and once I’ve had time to chew it over I’m looking forward to giving it a fuller set review treatment in Scry Five.

But, for now, I’d like to just take a look at why I think the plane of Bablovia’s most famous inhabitant makes my Vorthos heart so happy. Because I would argue that Urza, Academy Headmaster is probably the most flavorful representation of a pre-mending planeswalker that we will ever see.

Let me explain.

The gameplay flavor on planeswalker cards is that you, as a planeswalker, can call upon friends of yours who are also planeswalkers to aid you in your battle against your opponent. The original Archenemy set captured this nicely:

Whether your planeswalker is an old friend, a new ally, or just someone who owes you a favor, they can come to your aid in your battle, and they are willing to cast their spells at your direction to help you defeat your adversary.

There’s a deep personality divide, however, between the younger planeswalkers at the core of Magic’s story and their more ancient brethren. The Gatewatch—our protagonists, the characters with whom we are supposed to connect the most—first came together over the conviction that, as planeswalkers, they have a duty to protect the denizens of the multiverse’s many planes from interplanar threats such as the Eldrazi and Bolas. This puts them at odds with the several millennia-old planeswalkers they’ve brushed up against along the way. Ugin is quite content to sacrifice an entire plane to protect the integrity of the multiverse; Nahiri is willing to feed an entire plane to Emrakul to get her revenge on Sorin; Sorin does nothing to protect his beloved Innistrad, choosing instead to try killing Nahiri.

So, honest question: do you think any of these beings (or Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh) are going to listen to you, Spike? So, that brings us to Urza.

Urza was, for the better part of a decade, the ultimate mastermind on the good guys’ side in Magic’s story. He also did some crazy and questionably moral things, including orchestrating the Bloodlines project, a eugenicist project designed to breed the perfect hero to save Dominaria from the Phyrexians—which turned out to be Gerrard Capashen, who later, in a plan hailed by Rich Stein as “one last crazy plan that actually worked out but made zero sense,” cut off Urza’s head in the Phyrexian Arena and then teamed up with Karn and Urza’s severed head to kill Yawgmoth, saving Dominaria from the Phyrexian invasion.

Point being, Urza’s the sort of person who made plans that involved making close allies (like Barrin, Master Wizard and Rayne, Academy Chancellor) have children together and getting himself decapitated. Do you really think he’s going to listen to you if he shows up in the middle of your battle with Timmy, Tammy?

Creating an online randomizer that lets Urza make his own choices about the spells he casts is a clever way of capturing this (if a little awkward in paper Magic for folks who, like myself, have been reluctant to join the smart phone generation). Your goal is to defeat your opponent, but what is Urza’s goal? Will he think you need to tutor for a basic land when you want to deal three damage to an opposing creature, so that he can draw upon its power when he comes back to the place of your defeat in fifteen years? Who knows what’s going on in that crazy head of his?

Giving planeswalkers their own agency (via an online random number generator) opens up some really cool opportunities for how we interact with these characters. And, while I don’t expect this sort of design to return to paper Magic, if MtG Arena really takes off, couldn’t you see them developing an experimental digital-only set where one part of the set might be exploring the design space of letting the planeswalkers on cards “make decisions” among several options for each ability slot on each activation? Who knows what the future holds.

Beck Holden is a Ph.D. student in theater who lives in the greater Boston area. He enjoys drafting, brewing for standard, and playing 8-Rack in modern. He also writes intermittently about actually playing Magic at beholdplaneswalker.wordpress.com.

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