Magic thrives when it’s elegant, and it’s never been more elegant than when it decided on five colors, each representing a philosophy of power. From certain angles, though, elegance can look overly simplified.

Back in 2006, for example, when Wizards introduced Planeswalkers, they planted a serious flag on color pie territory. By giving each color a splashy new card type, they were tacitly saying, “This is the primary identifying characteristic of this color.” Thus, we got White (Ajani Goldmane) benefiting creatures, Blue (Jace Beleren) drawing cards, Black (Liliana Vess) disrupting and reanimating, Red (Chanda Nalaar) as burning, and Green (Garruk Wildspeaker) as ramping and overrunning.

As a trial for the card type, these were meant to be the figureheads, not just of archetypes, but of the color as a whole—the philosophy of a color in three abilities. In the intervening twelve years, Planeswalkers have become more strategy-based, rather than color-based—you have your token/ramp walker in Xenagos, the Reveler, your splashy Dragon   walker in Sarkhan, the Unbroken, etc.—but as the face cards of the game, they’re often the first way that players engage with color philosophy. What this means, of course, is that any style of magic must be retroconverted to a specific color or combination of colors that fits into the somewhat rigid boundaries of Magic.

For comparison, Dungeons & Dragons’ magic model features eight schools of magic: Abjuration (protection magic), Conjuration (summoning from nothing), Divination (scrying and predictive magic), Enchantment (entrancing magic), Evocation (elemental magic), Illusion (deceptive magic), Necromancy (death magic), and Transmutation (changing forms and composition). There’s some give-and-take in there with what practitioners can do, some overlap between the disciplines, but generally, what you can do is dictated by the field of study you’ve chosen early on in the game. In that respect, it’s similar to Magic: if you built a black-red deck, you’re going to have issues with enchantments, or difficulty with card advantage if you built a green-red Stompy deck. In contrast, the philosophy of magic in Magic is dictated by a less defined identity: magic as outlook, not as discipline. It’s the difference between “having a high IQ” and “being well educated.”

There are a hundred and seven Planeswalkers as of the release of Rivals of Ixalan. Here’s how I’d break them down into schools of magic, as well as the schools into which I’d parcel them.

School: Definition: In Magic Terms: Planeswalkers:
Eschatomancy Apocalyptic magic, disruptive magic on a global scale Board wipes, destruction-based card advantage, theft Karn Liberated, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, Urza (flavor)
Beastcalling Summoning of and power over wild animals Making dudes, tutoring/scrying for creatures Garruk Wildspeaker, Garruk, Primal Hunter, and Garruk, Caller of Beasts, Domri Rade, Huatli, Radiant Champion, Kiora, the Crashing Wave, Arlinn Kord (mechanics)
Lithomancy Controlling stone and inanimate matter, creation of golems Creating equipment and creatures, “lands matter” Koth of the Hammer, Nahiri, the Lithomancer, Nissa, Worldwaker, Nissa, Voice of Zendikar
Necromancy Exploitation of dead things Reanimation Liliana, Death’s Majesty, Liliana, Death Wielder, Liliana, the Last Hope
Thanatomancy Creation of dead things Murder Liliana of the Veil
Oneiromancy Control of dreams, “incepting” Card theft, discard Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
Pyromancy Shaping or creating flames and fire Damage, creating temporary effects (e.g., tokens and exiling cards) Chandra (all versions)
Bureaucramancy Preventing harm by constricting options, regulatory checkpoints -N/-0 effects, preventing damage, changing combat options Jace, Architect of Thought, Dovin Baan, Kaya, Ghost Assassin, Gideon Jura
Illusion Creating temporary creatures or items, distraction techniques Blinking, temporary token making Venser, the Sojourner, Jace, Cunning Castaway
Artifice Magically smelting, crafting, and controlling mechanical objects Tutoring, creating, and buffing artifacts Saheeli Rai, Tezzeret (all), Daretti, Scrap Savant, Daretti, Ingenious Iconoclast
Spite Magic Causing pain, deploying toxins, long-distance psychic torture Discard, direct damage, rules-resetting Sorin Markov, Nicol Bolas (all), Ajani Vengeant, Angrath, the Flame-Chained, Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded
Divination Seeing the future or the past through magical means Card draw, card selection, scrying Tamiyo, the Moon SageTamiyo, Field Researcher, Narset Transcendent
Temporal Magic Manipulating the flow of time Card selection, tapping/untapping cards, taking extra turns Ral Zarek, Teferi, Temporal Archmage
Inspiratory Magic Martial magic, magic based on instilling faith Token creation, creature buffs All Ajanis but Vengeant, Elspeth Tirel, Gideon of the Trials
Tribal Magic Shamanic reliance on totemic animals, kinship with nature Buffing specific creature types, searching for specific creatures Huatli, Warrior-Poet, Huatli, Dinosaur Knight, Angrath, Minotaur Pirate, Nissa Revane, Sarkhan Unbroken, Sarkhan the Mad, Arlinn Kord (flavor), Sorin (Lord and Visitor)

(A quick note about Tribal here—I’m including Planeswalkers whose flavor is tribal, e.g., Vraska the Unseen, whose entire flavor is “death-dealing gaze and toxic aura,” that is, she’s a Gorgon. She’s also lumped under the death magic categories. Her green appears to come exclusively from a hatred of unnatural technology, as represented by her ability to destroy non creature permanents. I’m also surprised by the number of Tribal planeswalkers—it seems restrictive to tie such an important part of your marketing to something so narrow, but maybe that’s why I failed the Great Designer Search so handily.)

Obviously, there’s a ton of overlap possible—Koth is both a lithomancer and a worldshaper, Liliana is both thanatomantic and necromantic, Vraska creates tokens but always has an ultimate that one-shots an opponent—and there’s also a lot of nebulousness in there, too. Is Nissa making 0/1 Plant tokens an act of lithomancy, beastcalling, or simple gardening? Arlinn Kord’s wolves, for example, may not represent a magical connection, but a primal/social connection with her pack. Jace can create illusions, can skim a huge swathe of your opponent’s memory out of their brain, can untap things or benevolently share knowledge, and it’s apparently random what school of magic he chooses to dip into based on his current point on his character arc.

Other takeaways:

  1. More oneiromancy! So much of Magic is dictated by what you draw and what you have in your hand. If Thoughtseize represents the theft of dreams, and Ashiok represents thieving concepts from your opponent’s mind, I’d love to see that built upon.
  2. The keenest loss to me, at least—especially on the heels of a “Warrior-Poet” Planeswalker—is a storyteller, a poet, a bard. Huatli errs (understandably—it’s hard to depict narrative talent in a card) on the side of “Warrior,” and I want to see less martial Planeswalkers and more conceptual ones. Power isn’t just on the battlefield, but in strategy, even for the more belligerent colors.
  3. The most coherent characters are, unsurprisingly, the ones that have been around the longest and become the archetypal representative for their color in the Gatewatch: Jace will draw or select cards, Gideon will animate and prevent damage, Nissa will animate lands, Liliana will force discard and mill.
  4. Wizards is surprisingly likely to print tribal-based Planeswalkers, especially in the Planeswalker Deck line of products—suggesting they have data that shows less-enfranchised players skew tribal.

To sum up, old-school Magic was closer to D&D, where you could sculpt a battlestyle based around abstract concepts; newer Magic is more Harry Potter, where regimented abstractions become concrete through a sense of “belonging,” through a marketable kind of self-definition. It’s the difference between choosing a major and writing a textbook. I get that Wizards of the Coast wants to stay away from a purely academic setting for Magic—they’ve come down strong on the issue of empowerment fantasies in the game, and the primacy they need to be afforded—but I’m searching for intellectual fulfillment in my games. I would love a more abstract, creativity-based look at the colors, something that pushes a philosophy over a fighting style: something that’s more about classes than, well, class.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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