Planeswalkers, I need to start this article by talking about a song. I promise I’m bringing it back to Magic in a few paragraphs, but this is where my journey towards this article began.

A couple months ago, I picked up The Decemberists’ latest album, I’ll Be Your Girl. It’s an album that I have a lot of thoughts and questions about (if anyone really wants to hear them, ask me on Twitter), and one of the songs that has especially stuck with me is “We All Die Young,” a song whose hallucinatory and allusive verses give way to a chorus that repeatedly informs us that, well, we all die young.

It’s a thought that draws its poetic power from its contrast with how we think about age. Young is, after all, the opposite of old in common parlance, and we know plenty of people who grow old. Let’s look to Magic as our point of reference. Can Jaya Ballard die young? Jodah, Archmage Eternal? Niv-Mizzet? Nicol Bolas? And yet, I’ve found that it’s an idea that resonates with me. I think of my great-grandmother, who is now in her mid-eighties. She met her first great-grandson only three years ago. In three weeks, she gets to see my brother married. If she hangs on for a couple more years, will she get to see more great-grandchildren? I also think of my own nature and can’t imagine a world where I have nothing left to look forward to. Even if I end up as an old recluse, there will be books and movies and (hopefully) Magic: the Gathering sets whose stories I will want to consume.

It also made me think about my investment in the lives of fictional characters. The theatrical director Anne Bogart has a directorial concept that she calls violence: that when a director commits to a choice, it kills all the other possible choices that cannot coexist with that choice. I think of Bogart often when I think of character death because it is (usually) the choice that ends all other choices. All of the plot threads that might have tied to that character, all of the ways that character might have continued on through the world around them, are gone for good; only able to exist as fan fantasies that will never enter the canon.

In general, I feel like Magic has been very careful about character death in the planeswalker era. Individual sets have their ups and down; but among recurring planeswalkers, only Venser and Elspeth have been killed off in the last decade (with only Venser’s death looking to be permanent, given that Theros has an accessible underworld). And yet, a storm beckons. The confrontation between the Gatewatch and Bolas on Ravnica looks to be the climax of the Gatewatch’s first major arc, and such events tend to bring about bloodshed, if you look across Magic’s history. The Weatherlight Saga cut a bloody swath through its major characters during Invasion block. Time Spiral flung Magic forward into a new era and saw the deaths of several noteworthy pre-Mending characters.

Such a sacrifice comes at the expense of a resource that I’ve taken to calling story space. Much the way that Mark Rosewater discusses the design space the certain mechanics have—how many cool, new things they could do with the mechanic if they brought it back for a future set—characters have different amounts of dangling plot threads and unresolved connections. At the high end, you might place someone like Jace. He has just recovered his memories (including his home plane of Vryn and his mother), forged a deep friendship (that may lead to more) with Vraska, and reinvented himself with his experiences on Ixalan, forging a new sense of self that he must bring to bear on his duties as Living Guildpact. Even beyond his association with the Gatewatch, these are all stories I’m dying to see. At the other end we might put someone like Arlinn Kord—an intriguing character who I am excited to see again, but someone who seems to have little business on her mind beyond protecting Innistrad and its werewolf communities.

No matter how ancient characters are, however, they are apt to leave unexplored story space. Jaya Ballard is a wizened mentor character fighting alongside Chandra, a younger mirror of herself; storytelling tropes suggest she is at severe risk of an untimely death on Ravnica. Although she has lived for centuries, there are spaces that may be cut off unexplored. Liliana’s Raven Man may be Lim-Dul, a character Jaya clashed with in early novels—are they going to confront each other? Is Jaya going to ever get to catch up with Jodah, her longtime friend and companion who just popped up in the Dominaria story?

Or, to take another example, can both Bolas and Liliana survive Ravnica? Liliana, some two hundred years young, had a character arc on Dominaria that points towards her trying to learn how to risk herself for the greater good—something that Bolas seems confident she will not do at the risk of her life. If Liliana takes such a risk, she will either die as Bolas collects the contract for her soul, or survive because Bolas has been struck down in time to save her. Perhaps Raven Man shenanigans could keep Liliana alive, but this looks to me like a situation where two of Magic’s most popular planeswalkers are going to find themselves in a struggle that will take one of their lives. And if that happens, we will either be deprived of the future schemes of a sarcastic god-dragon or the stories of a free Liliana.

So, as we gaze ahead to Ravnica, pour one out for the characters who will die young, and prepare to have friends who will mourn these deaths. Because whether it be someone around twenty years old like Gideon, centuries old like Jaya, or even so ancient as Bolas; someone’s going to die young.

Beck is a financial aid counselor and theatre history Ph.D. student who lives in the greater Boston area. He believes in playing standard like a Johnny, drafting like a Spike, and only playing modern decks that involve the number eight.

Don't Miss Out!

Sign up for the Hipsters Newsletter for weekly updates.