With the end of the year in sight, I found myself looking back at 2023, trying to grapple with any topics I never got to fully flesh out, when one huge one presented itself. March of the Machine was this pivotal moment in the year, but the rapid passage of time meant that I never got around to looking at a huge aftermath of the event, because I didn’t want to just cover with my immediate gun reactions. That being the fundamental change to how Planeswalker sparks work, to the extent that many of the characters that we know and love have now lost their ability to planeswalk, circumvented by the use of omenpaths in the Magic multiverse.

As I was reflecting on what has happened, I wanted to chalk this all up to the Depowered trope getting cast with a very wide net, but I might only really give that distinction to what happened to Nicol Bolas in 2019. Because for the time being, I don’t foresee all these characters going on character arcs processing the five stages of grief over the loss of their interplanar powers before regaining them after determining that they were never defined solely by those abilities. This isn’t really Thor no longer being worthy enough to lift his hammer, until he is.This is Hey Arnold’s Pigeon Man relenting, “Of course [the birds] will come back, they’re birds. I trust them, I understand them. It’s people I don’t understand.” On some level, the portrayal of these characters is not authentic until at least one expresses the crushing feeling of being a misunderstood loner, longing for that piece that is missing.

But that is not the commentary that I want to get wrapped up in this week, instead choosing to look at the different eras of several of these characters who no longer seemingly have access to their spark and discuss the mechanical continuity of their planeswalker counterpart versus the now-legendary creature. Planeswalker design is something that I have a lot of interest in but also realize that every time I feel as if I have really taken a deep dive into the design space, I realized that I’ve only scratched the surface. So please be kind if I overlook some nuance that you have identified.

Huatli, Poet of Unity

I always had a soft spot for Huatli, Warrior Poet back in the day. Sure, she was never an active player in any of my Commander decks, but how can you not love someone with an epithet like “warrior poet”. I think we can all agree that people who are huge fans of dinosaurs are awesome, which is what really drew me to the character and made her relatable to me.

If there’s one thing that they were known for right off the bat it was dinosaurs and while the dinosaur kindred themes can be uncovered in future interactions, the connection is a little too loose for me. Problem as I see it is that Huatli, Radiant Champion or Huatli, the Sun’s Heart are just generically alright Selesnyna planeswalkers.

There is enough of loss of resonance that Huatli, Poet of Unity feels like an extension of Huatli, Warrior Poet, but not so much Radiant Champion or Sun’s Heart, beyond the name recognition. As a two-sided card, Huatli, Poet of Unity may be a little more ambiguous when you look at Huatli as a Borderland Ranger, but that ramping is going to be beneficial to a dinosaur deck in the long run. And through Roar of the Fifth People the theming is really doubled down on, creating dinosaur tokens and ramping you for the following three turns. I see what Wizards is trying to do with these connections, even if they leave me wanting more.

Karn, Legacy Reforged

Karn is an interesting subject matter, because we got to see the progression of this character from a legendary creature into a planeswalker a decade and a half later, only to see them return to a legendary creature that is not dissimilar, but functions differently. The first time we see Karn, Silver Golem they are designed to embody their pacifist nature, while also having the ability to animate artifacts. Coming out of Urza’s Saga, this is prior to the events of Invasion block, where Karn received a spark. And as the planeswalker card type would not exist for another seven years, the chances that we would see Karn on a card were very slim.

Well I don’t believe this was the intention, Karn Liberated feels like they retain a lot of their “old walker” power retroactively. They can remove things from existence by two different methods and if you gain enough loyalty, they can remake the world, akin to creating Mirrodin. As moved through Karn, the Great Creator and Karn, Living Legacy, Karn became a lot more tied to artifacts again, animating artifacts and later creating a lot of Powerstone tokens. So when we transitioned into Karn, Legacy Reforged, the friendliness with artifacts was very easy to see as a throughline. What I can appreciate about the despart version of the character is that we have a design that wouldn’t easily work as a planeswalker and feels like an extension of the character that we saw in 1998.

Nissa, Resurgent Animist

As a mostly mono-green character, I will readily admit that I’ve never had much of a connection with Nissa. But I think her time in the Gatewatch allowed Wizards to very strategically massage what her mechanical identity to such a degree that Nissa, Resurgent Animist really feels like a natural evolution of Nissa, Vastwood Seer, through all of her planeswalker iterations, to this desparked state.

When we were first introduced to Nissa Revane, she was selling herself as solely about elves – which was paid off when we learned that her first planeswalk was from Zendikar to Lorwyn, where they have “harsh” standards for perfection. Seeing as Revane was during the third wave of planeswalkers, the need for more niche designs seems very practical. But this may have been too much of an overcorrection, resulting in low popularity during Zendikar Standard and a limited design space.

The rebranding as Nissa, Worldwaker laid the tracks for the look back at Nissa, Vastwood Seer/Nissa, Sage Animist in Magic Origins. Since that time Nissa has maintained a very strong relationship with Elementals and land, which makes her current design feel like a natural extension. Additionally, adding in the elf clause to her landfall ability does help to tie all of her iterations together, into something that feels cohesive. Overall, Nissa proves that there are no bad characters, just a need for creative people to do something with them.

Ob Nixilis, Captive Kingpin

Ob Nixilis has really seen the full gambit. Born into a pre-Mending world as a fully powered planeswalker, Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath. Neutralized by Nahiri and left on Zendikar as Ob Nixilis, the Fallen, before regaining his planeswalker abilities as Ob Nixilis Reignited and carrying on into a few more incarnations. Only to be left sparkless once again, this time on New Capenna, as Ob Nixilis, Captive Kingpin. With all that in mind, I would consider Ob Nixilis to be an example of weaker continuity between the different iterations of a character.

As somebody who was introduced to Planeswalkers through the lens of Zendikar, even as a card type that I could not completely comprehend at the time, the implication that one of our legendary creatures was a former planeswalker created so much mystery and lore I wanted to try to explore. And while this would eventually pay off, in reflection, I would say that Ob’s design space has been a tad bit all over the place. I can make the through lines needed to feel continuity with this character, but as creatures, there is a lot of mental gymnastics to connect Ob Nixilis, the Fallen to Ob Nixilis, Captive Kingpin.

Sarkhan, Soul Aflame

I want to wrap up this discussion by talking about Sarkhan, someone I can totally relate to. Who among us is not obsessed with dragons, wants to live their best lives with dragons, and may have altered time so badly that created a haven for dragon overlords? To all the haters of that last point, I don’t necessarily see how there’s a problem there. Mostly, I just think Sakhan needs more press.

This character has always had his niche. From the moments he first emerged, depending on your view of time, as Sarkhan Vol or Sarkhan Unbroken, we have bore witness to someone who is just a big fan of dragons and wants to make them as popular as they can. He also wants to be a dragon and for his friends to also be dragons, and even once he has lost his spark, he continues to support dragons and to become a dragon whenever he can as Sarkhan, Soul Aflame. Knowing that this bias comes from being so ingrained into Commander, I love the idea of a niche commander that minimizes the color identity, making Sarkhan even more impactful for me. I’m not sure why this character isn’t more popular, every new player enters the game probably loving dragons.

At the onset of this change I thought that desparked Planeswalkers would be just a gimmick for March of the Machine: Aftermath. But thus far we have had at least one encounter with these legendary creatures in each following set, within universe. From a lore perspective, that commitment helps to illustrate how these characters can be followed going forward. From a gameplay perspective, I think that there were a lot of people who wanted to use some of these characters as their commanders and as the format became more and more popular and that was not the case, a change like this allows that to actually manifest.

Overall, I think that some of the designs have been a little too loose, but that’s partially because I think planeswalkers have a lot more thematic design space than they can let on. While I am sad to see planeswalkers become more rare in their usage, I’m happy with the compromise that Wizards came to earlier this year. Stay safe out there, I’ll see you next time.

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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