Retrospective Reviews: Garruk Wildspeaker

Ciel Collins • December 18, 2023

(Return of the Wildspeaker | Art by Chris Rallis)

There's no time like the present to dig up the past, so it's time for another Retrospective Review! In this article series, I look back at various Magic: The Gathering products and try to give a proper analysis. So far I've reviewed the first nine years of Commander releases and also a host of defunct products.

Love of Lore

As you can tell by the title, I'm doing a little pivot for this entry: lore! Wizards of the Coast has thirty years of story that's gone alongside the card game, and I think it's also worth analyzing as a product.

Let me preface this before anyone gets the wrong idea and cancels my 50-follower Twitter X account: I am a dedicated Vorthos. I love Magic Story. I've followed the online story since Khans of Tarkir. I own and have read several of the novels. I channeled my disappointment over Theros: Beyond Death's story cancellation in a very "healthy" way by writing a 50k-word novella based on the available details and wild speculation. I love Magic Story.

I still think it's worth analyzing as a product, and not in some cynical sense of "does this make more money than it takes to craft," or what have you. Magic Story is a product worth making: it promotes the Magic brand and generates good will. There's an advertising element to it, to be certain. Players may collect cards with their favorite character or plane as readily as they collect cards of a certain creature type. If Magic Story can be considered a product, then it can be measured in ways it has succeeded or failed, and there are lessons to be learned either way.

Characters are a primary example of this. In this entry, I'd like to talk about Garruk Wildspeaker as a character and as a product. My goal here is to examine his conception and the way his story advanced, making sure to analyze the mistakes to determine why they happened. Understanding that better helps us to not just understand how the game and lore are related, but maybe even how to feel about it.

Garruk's Story

The extremely shortened, popular version of Garruk's arc is that he was a wild hunter who fought with Liliana, got cursed, became a mass murderer, then fell into a cauldron and came out okay.

This doesn't do a proper service to Garruk's story. I'm not going to go into all the details, but I would like to provide enough additional context to drive home what his story (delivered over ten years' time) was about. Almost all of the story is freely available on the Magic website, but is most easily searchable via MTG Lore, an incredibly useful fan project. 

There are three distinct moments of Garruk's story: the three web comics which came out in 2008 and 2009, a few short stories which released online in 2012 and 2014 alongside the Duels 2015 game, and the Throne of Eldraine novella.

Web Comic Era: Garruk Wildspeaker

Garruk's very first story outing clearly establishes him as a loner and a monster hunter, but one who also bonds with his monsters. Favorite quote: "I am not a monster. I am a thousand of them."

The conflict starts when Liliana kills one of Garruk's beasts with her first test of The Chain Veil. He seeks her out to exact revenge, but she curses him and gets away. The next story involves a conflict between Garruk and Jace as he tries to learn what Jace knows about Liliana's whereabouts. Jace tells him, and Garruk gives Jace a bit of help in return.

The final story released this way tells us Garruk's origin. He was a farm boy whose father was murdered while saving him from being taken into the king's army. Garruk grew up out in the wilds because of this and took feral revenge on his father's killer.

The web comic ends with Garruk finding out about Liliana's journey to see Kothophed, one of her four demons, but the comics stopped abruptly and Garruk was left in the lurch.

Web Fiction: Apex Predator

From 2010 to 2014, there is a small gap in the lore as presented. Wizards of the Coast ceased production of the comics and they tried to launch the planeswalker novels, which lasted for two books. The third was going to be The Curse of the Chain Veil, which was apparently done so poorly that they couldn't bring themselves to publish it. Hm. 

Innistrad didn't get much in the way of online fiction, mostly just a story summary implying what happened. Based on the cards, we get the idea that Garruk and Liliana fought, but Vess won out. When he wakes up, he actually witnesses Avacyn's light and feels it stripping away his curse. However, Garruk makes the choice to abandon the light in order to pursue Liliana because he feels that he's hunted the necromancer so long that he can't live any other way.

This is the center point of the Duels 2015 game and the Magic 2015 set. Garruk has descended into the curse and is willing to kill anyone between him and his prey. This only ends when the curse is put under partial control by a hedron from Zendikar. Jace puts out a bounty on Garruk to try and get the hunter's attention, which just ensures several planeswalkers end up dead. Garruk eventually does find Jace and the two make a truce. Jace wants to help, but Garruk wants to be left alone.

Garruk would get mentioned one more time in 2015, but would not be featured in Magic Story again until...

Throne of Eldraine: The Cursed Huntsman

Garruk has tried to keep to himself, and it kept him out of the way of the War of the Spark, but it leaves him in the path of Oko. The fae trickster manages to snare Garruk with mind magic, turning him into a servant. Over the course of Oko's schemes, he puts Garruk into the path of Will and Rowan. Rowan is busy being hot-headed, but Will takes the time to understand Garruk and realizes that he is enthralled. 

Towards the end of the adventure, Garruk's curse kicks up in a way that would have proven fatal if Will didn't reach out in a moment of wanting to save someone else and bring forth The Cauldron of Eternity. The life-giving artifact is able to break the curse on Garruk, which leaves him free and able to help the twins for a time.

He hasn't had an actual story appearance since this, only a card appearance in Core Set 2021 to show him having reverted back to mono-green and a reference to his role in the original Eldraine in Wilds of Eldraine.

What Does the Story Say?

What's integral to Garruk's character arc? When I went back and reviewed Garruk's story, I expected there to be some time between his first appearance and getting cursed. I didn't expect it to be the very first story! I think this was intended to be a case of starting with a bang: have two of the primary planeswalkers fighting and resolve it quickly. That... didn't happen, which meant that Garruk was put under for years.

The popular perception of Garruk is that of a maddened beast. A planeswalker-hunting planeswalker. Mark Rosewater stated that Nicol Bolas probably had some scheme to keep Garruk off of Ravnica during War of the Spark specifically, because the dragon didn't want planeswalkers getting killed except by his spark-harvesters. This isn't supported by any released lore, but is part of the perception of Garruk as a cursed serial killer. This misconception is kind of like how Harley Quinn was only known as the Joker's girlfriend and not as a character in her own full right for years. There's an inertia to parts of the brand that are hard to control. 

The truth was more complicated and interesting: Garruk is a lone hunter; he gets cursed by Liliana and enthralled by Oko because he insists on going it alone. He spent that time under the curse unable to keep up the bonds with his animals and suffered more because of it. He represents the perils of being alone and the need for community. Garruk is saved from Oko and the curse not by his brute strength, rugged individualism, or hunting prowess, but by the sincere kindness of another person. Hell, it's even by a prince, representing the upper class which murdered his father and tried to force him into battle at the age of ten. 

Garruk continued to help the twins after finding them, even escorting them part way to Strixhaven. He cares about them, but he's still the same Garruk: the huntsman wouldn't go near the city. 

This is... hard to convey to the public at large. Garruk's story is available across disparate web comics, a few short stories tied into various products, and an eBook, with multi-year gaps between certain installments. As expected, only the parts that made it to cards really stick with the public. Garruk became a planeswalker hunter very briefly, but it was splashed all over M15 marketing. The diminishing of the curse and his resolve to stay alone went un-carded, and so didn't stick.

Then there's the fact that Garruk's curse had various ways it was intended to be cured, but just... kept getting put off. The planeswalker novel Curse of the Chain Veil was meant to release February 2010, a mere two months after the final Garruk web comic release. The summary specifically calls out Garruk as being part of it, and so the narrative was likely intended to end right there. It would explain why Garruk then dropped off until the hunter storyline in M15. With their original big plan for his plotline denouement re-routed, the then-limited story team had to figure out a different route. 

This wasn't the only instance of this. Dominaria (2018) was originally set to be a two-set block before they tried to bring back core sets again. In the original idea for the second set, Garruk would have featured as an antagonist with whom Liliana had to reconcile. I'll be honest, I'm glad this didn't pan out. Garruk finding salvation in an actual friend feels like the better option. Nonetheless, that meant punting Garruk's lore appearance off for another 18 months. 

Has Garruk Been a Successful Character?

Garruk seems to be well-liked, but I don't think he was a successful shot from Wizards. The original Lorwyn Five were designed with the intention of representing their core color. Jace, Chandra, and Liliana each went on to be smashing successes and still hold their mantles. Ajani and Garruk didn't manage the same level. I don't think every character can truly hold that kind of position in the pantheon, but Magic needs a representative for green and white that they can readily go to for merch purposes and brand identity. 

What went wrong with Garruk? In my opinion, the company wasn't serious enough about story, and they also just had a weird idea to start off with. Having the green planeswalker succumb to a curse is cool in theory, but bad for branding. He was locked into a story that needed to be dealt with or resolved in some way any time he showed up. The novel getting cancelled kept him there for an indeterminate amount of time.

There was also a controversy. In Avacyn Restored there's a mirrored pair of cards which show Garruk and Liliana at different points of their duel. Triumph of Cruelty focuses on Liliana, while Triumph of Ferocity shows Garruk in a winning position. The Triumph of Ferocity art swerved too close to real-life experiences of domestic violence and made many fans uncomfortable. Some argue this is why Garruk was dropped from the narrative, but I disagree. 

The Gatewatch was a much bigger factor in Garruk's sidelining. The pace of story picked up, and it picked up fast. The new era of storytelling spent from 2015 until this year trying to close up all the random plot threads thrown at the wall in the decade prior, but a lot of those were multi-planar threats (Eldrazi, Nicol Bolas, Phyrexians) or plane-wide status quos being broken (Zendikar being ruined by Eldrazi, Innistrad having the horror theme weakened by Avacyn). 

All that is to say: Garruk got lost in the churn for four years. He was a square peg looking at a row of round holes. When they finally got around to time available for Garruk, they were also dealing with Gatewatch backlash and a desire to have a set that didn't immediately feel like it was part of a big plotline. His connections to Jace and Liliana were tossed out in favor of closing things out with the new generation of up-and-coming characters Will and Rowan.

I believe the story team was doing the best they could. There's a lot that can only be determined in retrospect; Magic Story spent a lot of time being built as they drove it, and there's something to be said about how hard it is to maintain continuity. It was scattered for a while, across a variety of media. Intentions placed delicately by one author who leaves six months later aren't guaranteed to get picked up by the author tasked to continue the story two years later. 

For the record, I believe the story team is vastly improving this, but slip-ups happen. Their move to stories taking three years' time or less means that the payoff is a lot easier to manage expectations for. When I said I believed the company wasn't serious enough about story, I meant the higher-ups who make the financial decisions, not the creative team themselves. Magic's story deserves a lot more investment than it receives, but it always feels, from the audience's perspective, balanced against how much money it can make. This puts the story in this perpetual cycle of not being afforded as much space as it needs to be great, and then getting dismissed as not worth giving any more space. 

So too with Garruk.

What's the Future For Garruk?

Garruk got replaced as the green representative by Vivien. She does a lot of the same stuff as Garruk, but in a more focused, brand-oriented way. She shores up some of the problems with demographic representation (the original Lorwyn Five featured four white planeswalkers... and a white lion-man... oof). She's also more likely to work with others, which makes her easier to actually plop into ongoing stories. Garruk may very well be happier left alone, and that could be a solid end to his story. 

But I hope to see some of his connections remain. On our next trip to Eldraine, I hope Garruk could be there for Rowan. Her confrontation with Will escalated because she believed she was in too deep, and she decided to go off alone because of it. I think Garruk could be the perfect mentor for her in this moment as someone who continually suffered due to his individualism and thinking there was only one way out. 

For that matter, Liliana has an interest in the twins due to Strixhaven and could finally try to achieve some closure with the hunter through a shared desire to save the twins from struggling and fighting the way they did.

Will that happen? I don't know. The story team has a very clear plan for the next two and a half years, and I would be surprised to see Garruk in that time. 


Garruk will always suffer from having been initially put forward as main character material but getting stuffed into a secondary character treatment, but I think secondary character is where his concept would shine best. Not every character is main character material anyways. He's a hunter who has suffered plenty and deserves rest, but occasionally has to put the boots on while grumbling about being too old for this. 

So, what do you all think? If Garruk's curse had been resolved back in 2010 instead of 2019, would he have been allowed to shine?  

Would you like more character analyses in this fashion? Let me know in the comments!

Further Reading:

Playing With Planeswalkers In cEDH

Myth Realized - What if Any Planeswalker Could Be Your Commander? (Green)

Retrospective Reviews: Duel Decks

Ciel got into Magic as a way to flirt with a girl in college and into Commander at their bachelor party. They’re a Vorthos and Timmy who is still waiting for an official Theros Beyond Death story release. In the meantime, Ciel obsesses over Commander precons, deck biomes, and deckbuilding practices. Naya forever.