Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Can Planeswalkers Be Signposts?

Please enjoy this guest post from Larcent. —Jay Treat

War of the Spark is going to be bringing Magic players a flood of planeswalker cards, all at the same time. The final set in this latest trip to Ravnica will feature 36 planeswalkers, and each pack is guaranteed to have at least one.

There is going to be a lot to learn about planeswalker design after War of the Spark comes out and we see it all in action. The power levels are going to likely be lower, many of them designed to be rares or uncommons.

Because the set revolves around them, many of these individual planeswalkers will likely be designed as build-around "signpost" cards showing how they intend colors to play together. Consider the legends of Dominaria. Uncommon legends like Raff Capashen, Ship's Mage, and Slimefoot, the Stowaway, helped present the themes of their color combinations. If you got those cards, they sent you strong signals of what other cards you wanted in your pool to make those decks work.

Since there are 36 planeswalkers in this single set, there's going to be multiple planeswalkers of the same color combinations. So, what does a designer do here? Should Teferi fit in one kind of deck, while Dovin fit in a completely different one? That's how the two versions of them currently play in standard. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, is a control-focused planeswalker. Dovin, Grand Arbiter, is meant for aggressive, evasive, creature-oriented blue-white decks.

Logically, you want them to have different styles, otherwise why have them both in a set? But we only have so many cards. These new incarnations of Dovin and Teferi will be drawing from the same pool of cards in limited play. Do you have enough design space for two completely different planeswalkers in the same colors? Can you do that for 36 different planeswalkers?

So to challenge myself, I picked out one of the color combinations that will clearly have multiple planeswalkers represented. I chose red and green, a color pairing I sometimes struggle with in design. Three of the planeswalkers appearing in the set have in the past been historically presented as red and green: Domri Rade, Arlinn Kord, and Samut, the Tested.

I challenged myself to think about how these planeswalkers might be presented as uncommon "signpost" cards. Can I make a planeswalker that feels like it's pushing you into choosing certain cards for your deck, but isn't so parasitic that it demands too much space in a set's design?

Here's what I decided. First, each planeswalker I made would have a plus skill and a minus skill, and absolutely no emblems or uber-powered ultimates (though this might be the set where they introduce ways to kill off emblems).

Second, I decided on no zero-loyalty skills or static abilities either. I want to make sure that planeswalkers mechanically felt distinct from enchantments or artifacts, even at lower rarities. I wanted to capture a dynamic of building power and some sort of payoff for doing so. I wanted an ebb and flow, a sense of risk and reward that planeswalkers need to feel impactful to players. This is a war. They do not get to just sit there passively.

Domri is currently the ambassador for Gruul to players, and he has a very strong identity that everybody understands. Domri smashes! He prefers power over finesse and has all the patience of a hornet's nest. His identity is about red and green's desire to ramp up into big beasts that crush the opposition.
So my version of Domri at uncommon signals that you want your creatures to be growing bigger and smashing faces. His plus is sort of a riot combo, possibly too strong, but that's why he has the highest casting cost of the three. He gives a creature haste. If it damages an opponent it gets a +1/+1 counter. So he encourages creatures to attack and grow. His minus gives big creatures trample and forces single blocks. He sends very strong signals about what you want. As far as build-arounds go, he's very, very easy to accommodate.

Arlinn Kord, however, proved to be a huge challenge. She's a werewolf from a tribe-themed plane. The mechanics that fit her identity aren't in Ravnica. She runs with wolves, which there have not been a lot of here. Ravnica has had two wolves across all of its sets. There are no wolves in the current block (though they show up in the art as mounts for the Selesnya Conclave).There might be a simple green wolf at common to connect thematically with Arlinn's presence, but I wouldn't expect more.
So after fiddling around with her, I realized that to be true to Arlinn, she can't actually be a build-around signpost planeswalker in Ravnica, and she had to make her own wolves. Making multiple wolf tokens over time seemed like it could potentially be very dangerous at uncommon. So I made it a minus ability with a mini-convoke demand. And then I made her plus power only work on wolves. She's a pretty self-contained planeswalker that only needs you to be playing other creatures.

There's lots of knobs to adjust here. I originally required tapping two creatures, but then I wondered if that was too demanding. I thought about her using the fight mechanic with the wolves, but that seemed way too strong. It might be worth making her rare in order to make the possibility of multiple token creatures less scary and preserve her identity. Or, we could have her make a legendary wolf token, so there could only be one out at a time.

Finally, we have Samut, who is an unusual planeswalker in Gruul colors, storywise. Had she been born in Ravnica, she would have been a hardcore, devoted member of the Boros Legion. But in the storyline of Amonkhet, her discovery of how Nicol Bolas had corrupted the laws and natural order of her home plane pushed her toward green instead of white.

She is nevertheless a warrior into speed, skill, and finesse. And so, unlike Domri and Arlinn, she's really not connected to either the beast identity or the rampaging berserker concepts of red and green. It actually wouldn't surprise me if she showed up as a red and white.

Let's assume she remains red and green for this exercise. In Ravnica Allegiance, they gave green greater access to haste. This works well for Samut, because speed is part of her identity. So I moved over the red-white "caring about combat skills" batching concept from Ixalan into red and green. The four mechanics that matter—first strike, double strike, haste, and vigilance—are all available in those colors.
Creatures with these skills build Samut's loyalty. And then she shares that strength back by hugely boosting one creature with those skills. Of the three, she has the most demanding build-around pattern, but it's still not terribly taxing. A red and green player is going to have access to multiple creatures with those mechanics at common, and it also means that she's very splashable with white.

Note that while each of these planeswalkers all have their own identity, they do also play together as well. If Arlinn makes a wolf, Domri can give it haste so it can immediately attack. And if Domri gives the wolf haste, then it qualifies for Samut's +X/+X growth ability. So each of them feels different to play, and they each have a different mechanical identity, but they're not so different that they cannot all fit into the same set.


  1. You know, after the fact, I think I actually took the easy way out with this one. Gruul is actually easier to design for at lower rarities. It's the high-end flashy stuff that can be challenging because it tends to be such a straightforward color pairing.

    Making an uncommon Teferi, though. That's probably a bit harder.

  2. I think Wizards has gotten a lot of good practice making these from the Planeswalker decks. I assume most Planeswalkers at that power level would be acceptable for Limited. Here's the list:

    The main pattern they've used here though is just making them cost 5+ mana. They also still have ultimates, but not all of the ultimates win you the game and they take several turns to reach.

    1. I take it back. All of them cast some "big sorcery" type effect, most of which should win the game. All take at least 2 turns of upticking before they can activate though.

    2. I suspect some of the planeswalkers are going to have high costs, but I don't think they can do that with all of them, or at least not in all colors. Otherwise it's going to be awkward to try to be the first to play a planeswalker when the opponent has already developed a board.

      I am curious about what the speed of the limited format will be. It's fascinating to me to notice the massive difference in the speed of Guilds of Ravnica vs. Ravnica Allegiance and how that impacts play styles. I think War of the Spark by necessity has to be slower precisely so the planeswalkers can be played. But I'm curious as to how slow it will be.

  3. While this seems like a good exercise, in a real set the fix is easy. Just don't make more than one uncommon planeswalker with the same color pairing. That way only the uncommon one needs to be a signpost, the others can be much looser.

    1. I can definitely imagine that happening here. Domri seems like a good choice for an uncommon (it's his home after all). Arlinn as a rare so she can be a token-making bomb without being too powerful. Then maybe Samut as a Mythic or even another rare.

      Something I had to cut out of the piece for space is that there's likely going to be quite a few three-color planeswalkers as well. And I suspect three- or even four-color decks are going to be the norm in limited. Players are going to want to splash planeswalkers. (That suggests to me the likelihood of a slow playstyle in this set, but I guess we'll see.)

      And after I wrote this MaRo said on Blogatog that there's some color shifting among the planeswalkers, but all of them still have a color that they've always had. So Samut could be shifted to RW for War of the Spark or she could even been Naya. You could simply add an anthem-esque emblem as an ultimate on the card I created and add white to her casting cost and it would totally be on point for her.

    2. Oh, also, I bet they could go interesting places with Dovin if they shifted him into Esper colors.

  4. LOL, I was wrong about everything. [Shrugs]