On October 12, 2007, planeswalkers officially took their place as a part of Magic: The Gathering. In that time, they have appeared on 275 unique cards and become an established part of every product that sees print. Because of my love of Magic design, the history of planeswalkers became the topic of discussion in two articles I wrote coinciding with the release of War of the Spark in May 2019. And as we neared this fifteenth anniversary, it felt appropriate to bring their story up-to-date and make the series a trilogy. In fact, maybe go check out parts one and two, as this is meant to be a companion piece to them. And maybe, in October 2027, we can return for part four.

Planeswalkers entered into the game at a time when creatures were finally becoming a viable part of gameplay. They worked to create a narrative through line, while also complementing this focus on creatures. They have been divisive amongst the player base, but as War of the Spark proved, they can be extremely popular regardless. This week I want to shed some light on the  recent innovations of planeswalker design through historical contexts and design precedents as they had occurred.

Serra the Benevolent, Oko, and The Royal Scions. Three planeswalkers of varying levels of notoriety.

Designing for a Modern Age

Similarly to how Commander 2014 allowed Wizards to create planeswalkers that circumvented Standard-legality to allow for a higher power level with multiplayer in mind, Modern Horizons allowed Wizards to create competitive viable Planeswalkers that would enter into competitive Magic through Modern. This is when Serra the Benevolent and Wrenn and Six first see print. Wrenn is the more notable of the two, but Serra creating an emblem of Worship is fun easter egg.

For Core Set 2020, four different Chandra planeswalker cards were featured in the set. At the sets core, Chandra, Acolyte of Flame showed Chandra as a student on Regatha. Chandra, Novice Pyromancer depicted her as she set out to find herself on Ravnica. And Chandra, Awakened Inferno showed Chandra at then-current day, in the heights of her power. Additionally, the Chandra, Flame’s Fury appeared in the starter theme deck, accompanied by Chandra’s Flame Wave. This focus on a specific planeswalker has not returned, but I think is potential set theme that should be considered.

I don’t have a lot of strong opinions about Wizards’ F.I.R.E. design philosophy, but it’s clear that Oko, Thief of Crowns was the biggest growing pain of the first few years of its adoption. In the same way that Skullclamp and Umezawa’s Jitte were errors in the first few years of equipment and Jace, the Mind Sculptor represented Wizards discovering the upper limit of early planeswalkers, Oko felt like an upper limit in an era meant to raise the bar of all cards in Standard. And if you know the history of Throne of Eldraine’s effect on Standard, it succeeded.

Talking about Oko, Mark Rosewater stated in the State of Design 2020, that a challenge of designing planeswalkers card is creating a design that is the exciting and evocative without becoming overbearing, and that Oko failed in this respect. I would be inclined to agree. Due to being unfamiliar with the card after an extended time away from in-person Magic, I had forgotten that turning something into an elk was a loyalty gaining ability. From there it is hard to deny that Oko invalidates most permanents in a way that gave my flashbacks to The Jace Test in Jace, the Mind Sculptor era Standard. But in this case, in a design that’s far more overbearing.

I don’t want to leave Throne of Eldraine behind without highlighting The Royal Scions, the first planeswalker card to capture two planeswalkers on a single face. This was a design space that I remember seeing theorized around the custom Magic design community, but lost any true mechanical value when the planeswalker uniqueness rule was obsoleted and planeswalkers were given the legendary supertype to align them with the legend rule. There is still a lot of design space to explore here and I hope we see more of it.

Teferi, Master of Time and Jeska, Thrice Reborn. A planeswalker able to act at instant-speed and a planeswalker who does not have Triskaphobia.

Everything in Hindsight

When observing the cards released in 2020, it wasn’t immediately apparent what if any innovations developed that year. But I think a few more subtle decisions were made. Elspeth, Sun’s Nemesis took the no-loyalty-gaining design of Planeswalkers first seen with Sarkhan the Mad and later the War of the Spark uncommon planeswalkers, adding the twist of being replayable from the graveyard. This addition can hopefully be expanded upon in the future, when a noncreature spell mechanic overlaps with a thematic character in the set.

While The Chain Veil had previous changed how to plan out the sequence of a planeswalker’s abilities, Teferi, Master of Time changed when those abilities could be used. Without becoming overbearing, the suite of abilities available become far more impactful when they are no longer restricted to sorcery speed. Another sequence breaking innovation was Nissa of Shadowed Boughs. While gaining loyalty outside of ability activation was nothing new, Nissa’s intentional use of landfall allows for bombastic turns where something as small as {mtg_card]Harrow[/mtg_card] or as large as Scapeshift can not only help to protect Nissa, but also allow her minus ability to be used without making her vulnerable.

The last design upgrade of 2020 came in Commander Legends, where the two feature planeswalkers, Jeska, Thrice Reborn and Tevesh Szat, Doom of Fools, expanded the upon planeswalkers as commanders by adding partner. I view this addition as an important step, as planeswalkers outside of the Commander 2018 cycle have not been especially popular and partner allows them to find use in hundreds of new contexts.

The D&D characters Ellwick Tumblestrum and Mordenkainen, now appearing as planeswalkers. Also pictured, a good illusion doggo.

Beyond Paper and Property

2021 took the design of Planeswalkers in a few directions that I suspected would be entirely possible, but I really didn’t think would happen as quickly as Wizards did. As Magic has started to enter into new intellectual properties, the question of how planeswalkers would function outside of Magic canon, if at all, entered into the discussion. We quickly saw just how with Adventures in the Forgotten Realms in the form of notable powerful characters like Ellywick Tumblestrum and Lolth, Spider Queen. This signifier of power level within a given property means that power card type can exist outside of Magic: The Gathering, without breaking the game lore of either property.

From D&D-sign, Part 1:

Planeswalkers are a fundamental part of modern Magic, so we decided we wanted the card type in the set. We did spend a lot of time talking about whether [AFR’s planeswalkers] were supposed to be called something else while treating them like planeswalker cards in the game. In the end, we decided that part of bringing other properties to Magic was still embracing the Magic terminology. Aspects like name and flavor text can capture the essence of the property, but the game terms, for clarity’s sake, should stay the same. Note that this doesn’t mean these characters are flavorfully Planeswalkers but rather function the same as planeswalker cards.

Within the Magic canon, another huge innovation was occurring as well. With the release of the Jumpstart: Historic Horizons, designed-for-digital cards came to make Magic and previous cards seen on cardboard could now see digital revisions. With this, Planeswalkers became game pieces that could be redesigned. And new exclusively digital cards, namely Davriel, Soul Broker, entered the game. While much could be said about the digital-only planeswalkers, Davriel, with his offers and conditions, really feels like the marquee card for what Wizards has been able to do with the design space.

Wandering Emperor and Jared Carthalion. Fun fact: The Wanderer has no planeswalker subtype, because we have not learned their name yet.

Highs and Lows

The Wandering Emperor is, to me, a nearly perfectly designed planeswalker. Her design reminded me a lot of Gideon Jura the first time I saw her. With her static ability and flash, she is able to act a combat trick in several different ways or be an enter of turn change to your clock. Of course, the ability to destroy a tapped creature is always going to score high with me, but when compared to Gideon the difference between Take Vengeance and Swift Response is immense.

2022 also saw the first compleated planeswalkers, Tamiyo, Compleated Sage and Ajani, Sleeper Agent. Ignoring the sinister implication of the mechanic, allowing for modular amounts of loyalty a planeswalker enters the battlefield with initially can allow for more aggressive lines of plays. It’s pretty well telegraphed that we will see more of these designs in the future, I just wonder which will be the Oko-level designs. As the first tournament legal five color planeswalker Jared Carthalion probably is most significant to Oathbreaker and finally means that Coalition Victory needs to be discussed amongst the format’s players.

Ironically, our last discussion point happens to be the first planeswalker I ever became aware of within the narrative canon of the game, The Brothers’ War’s Urza, Planeswalker.In the same mold as Magic Originsfive planeswalkers and Nicol Bolas, the Ravager, Urza becomes the first planeswalker to use the meld mechanic, with Urza, Lord Protector and The Mightstone and Weakstone being the component pieces. This extra real estate means that Urza gets to have a built-in Chain Veil and five abilities, all of which leaves me very excited to play with Urza.

I still maintain that planeswalkers have been a net positive for the game. I do wish the number printed with each set was restricted some, because I believe it does take away from their “specialness”; they remain one of my favorite card types, simply due to all that can be done with them. I’m happy that innovations in their design have not stopped and that the scope of those designs have expanded to allow old characters to appear through supplementary products. Until next time, thanks for reading.

Ryan Sainio (he/him) is a Graphic Designer exploring the Commander format and Magic history on a regular basis. Notable decks that value flavorful and fun gameplay over competitively optimized decks include Shattergang Eldrazi, Doran Soul Sisters, and Chatterfang ProsBloom.

MTG Content Creator Awards 2022 nominee: Format Specialty Writing & Excellence in Writing Overall

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