Strixhaven previews begin in earnest on Thursday, but that hasn’t stopped Wizards from dropping a cycle of five commands and two planeswalkers on us already. The latest of which is a familiar character in a way we’ve never seen her.

Liliana’s back, in disguise, and the third monoblack Planeswalker with four abilities after Liliana, Dreadhorde General and Tevesh Szat, Doom of Fools. All Planeswalkers are difficult to evaluate—four ability ones especially so—but Professor Onyx‘s design has quite a lot of breadth. So, let’s go step by step and see just how this new Liliana’s design works, where it came from, and what it tells us about Strixhaven as a set and the state of Magic’s story.

A Real Drain

Magecraft — Whenever you cast or copy an instant or sorcery spell, each opponent loses 2 life and you gain 2 life.

Professor Onyx sports a new ability word, Magecraft. Presumably, Magecraft provides a variable effect on permanents which triggers whenever you cast or copy an instant or sorcery spell. Strixhaven looks likely to have more than the usual number of instants and sorceries (perhaps on MDFCs) and may perhaps sport a fair bit of copying (perhaps even a copying mechanic akin to Conspire). Magecraft could be either a single house’s ability or spread across all five—I’d bet on the latter, since it’s a flexible mechanic that will require a ton of structural support and because neither white-black nor black-green copy spells as well or frequently as does blue-red.

Setting aside conjecture about Strixhaven the set, this static ability is a strange one on Liliana. Her power set is necromancy. She raises zombies, uses death magic to kill creatures, and can force both discard and life loss. She’s dabbled in self-mill (in conjunction with raising the dead), mass permanent sacrifice (in ultimates), and in her first incarnation, top-of-deck tutoring. Sure, black has access to drain and Liliana’s forced life loss before, but none of her previous 12 Planeswalkers cards have gained life (and of the 20 non-planeswalker cards to bear her name or reference her, only Desiccated Naga drains life). I understand that this card demonstrates how Liliana is lying low in the wake of the War of the Spark and hiding her necromancy, but the combination of a spells-matter mechanic and lifedraining reads weirdly. It’s not as egregious as Liliana of the Dark Realms, the card which made Wizards recognize that Planeswalkers needed mechanical throughlines, but we’re starting at a strange place.

Drawing cards is always good, right?

+1: You lose 1 life. Look at the top three cards of your library. Put one of them into your hand and the rest into your graveyard.

Professor Onyx‘s plus might be most recognizable as Strategic Planning, but this exact ability (okay, without the life loss) has actually been been as many black cards (Ransack the Lab, Firja, Judge of Valor, and Underrealm Lich) as blue cards (Glimpse the Future, Strategic Planning, and the also-black Taigam, Sidisi’s Hand). Repeatable card selection and advantage is a powerful effect, even on a six mana Planeswalker.

Yet again, this is an unprecedented ability on Liliana. She’s been able to provide card advantage and selection plenty of times, but it’s always been linked to the graveyard or skillful use of discard. Straight up drawing cards and losing life has only been used on Ob Nixilis Reignited. It’s reminiscent of Liliana Vess‘ ability to cast Vampiric Tutor, but distinct. This is more a nitpick than criticism—Liliana of the Dark Realms was a mechanically coherent monoblack Planeswalker that had absolutely nothing to do with Liliana’s powerset, while this is Liliana employing pretty bog-standard black magic. But we’re 0 for 2 on slam-dunk Liliana abilities, which is worth keeping an eye on.

Today’s Lesson? DOOOOOOOM!

−3: Each opponent sacrifices a creature with the greatest power among creatures that player controls.

Crackling Doom is a relatively new innovation (the three cards with its text are from 2014, 2019, and 2020), but we’re seeing more Diabolic Edict effects like Soul Shatter that work well even on crowded battlefields. This also looks very much like a Liliana ability, since she’s been forcing players to sacrifice creatures since 2011’s Liliana of the Veil. Rather than an indiscriminate slaughter, as Liliana, Dreadhorde General participated in, Professor Onyx is a bit more specific in her murdering. This works, both as a Liliana ability and a method of protecting herself against a variety of midrange threats. It leaves her weak to swarms of creatures, which is also a good thing—it’s best if expensive Planeswalkers provide enough oomph to justify playing them but don’t so effortlessly protect themselves (see: Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, Karn Liberated, Oko, Thief of Crowns) that they solve all problems.

Wait… that’s Bolas’ theme music!

−8: Each opponent may discard a card. If they don’t, they lose 3 life. Repeat this process six more times.

Planeswalker ultimates are the most exciting and least important aspect of the card. They’ll rarely happen, they usually win the game in a cool, over-top-fashion (but provide just enough possibility of your opponent coming back, especially if they can prepare for it). This one’s no exception—by the time Professor Onyx has hit eight loyalty, your opponent is likely low on cards and smacking them for 15 or 18 should be lights out unless you’ve been doing nothing but durdle for the entire game (and don’t have instants or sorceries). I appreciate that this gives your opponent a means of softening the blow by saving up cards, but allowing yourself to be Mind Twisted or allowing your opponent to just keep drawing cards while you stock up a hand aren’t winning moves.

Thematically speaking, this is an interesting choice for Liliana. It’s a modified version of the unkeyworded torment ability from Amonkhet. On the Bolas-warped plane, cards like Torment of Scarabs gave you three choices: discard, lose 3 life, or sacrifice a nonland permanent (the nonland part was a smart bit of design, since it both strengthened the ability and made it harder for players to mana screw themselves). It’s an ability that Liliana has never employed directly, though she has used each constituent component: life loss, discard, and painful choices. As a Bolas-associated ability, it makes sense for Liliana to make use of it (since she witnessed it on Amonkhet and was forced to work for Bolas on Ravnica), plus Bolas is desparked for the moment and not able to use it. While Professor Onyx‘s static and plus abilities seem out of place, I like the little bit of story this tells.

Putting it all together

Professor Onyx is a mechanically unfocused Planeswalker, which is unusual for a character as well-established as Liliana. Liliana, Dreadhorde General, Liliana, Death’s Majesty, and Liliana, Waker of the Dead had clear synergy between their abilities. Liliana, Untouched by Death was solely focused on zombies. Liliana of the Veil was always making your opponent lose something. Professor Onyx is more reminiscent of Liliana, the Last Hope (who had three all-good abilities that didn’t interact at all), but she also strays fairly far from what most Lilianas do.

Most contemporary Planeswalkers encourage some kind of strategy, require some deckbuilding concessions, or at least function in unusual ways. Professor Onyx feels like one of the more generic all-upside Planeswalkers we’ve seen in a while. She draws cards (rather than provides a more indirect sort of card advantage), destroys creatures (granted, in an unusual way), and has an ultimate that will probably win the game. Her static ability is the most unusual of all (and deals infinite damage with Chain of Smog) and could be a major threat on its own. And perhaps she just is intended to be a flexible, easy-to-use win condition for black-based control decks; it’s not often that a 6+ mana Planeswalker is good in Standard.

Strixhaven is the set of the year I’m most excited for. I loved the New X-Men, can’t wait to see Magic’s take on a magic school, and am especially excited to see Liliana laying low in an incredibly conspicuous manner (which feels entirely in character) as Professor OnyX. While it’s more than a bit bittersweet that I still won’t be attending a prerelease for Strixhaven, I’m starting to believe that before the set’s time in the sun is over, I’ll be able to safely meet with at least a couple friends in person and jam some games. And that would be truly amazing.

And, as always, thanks for reading.

Zachary Barash is a New York City-based game designer and the commissioner of Team Draft League. He designs for Kingdom Death: Monster, has a Game Design MFA from the NYU Game Center, and does freelance game design. When the stars align, he streams Magic (but the stars align way less often than he’d like).

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