What Went Wrong With Planeswalkers, The So-Called Faces of Magic?

Ciel Collins • January 15, 2024

Ah, planeswalkers. Once Magic's most exciting card type and exclusively found in the mythic rare slot, now relegated to a single card per set. I remember opening Xenagos, the Reveler in late 2013 and building an entire deck around it just to make the most of my lucky find. I spent most of 2014 pining after Elspeth, Sun's Champion, hoping against hope that I'd find it in the back of a booster pack, but alas.

Planeswalkers run the gamut between unbelievably powerful like Jace, the Mind Sculptor to the genuinely unplayable like Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded, but they're nothing if not interesting. They're laden with much more text than a typical Magic card, they introduce fascinating (or frustrating) decision layers, and they've depicted the biggest characters in the game since Lorwyn all the way back in 2007.

So what happened?

An Initial Lack of Representation and Diversity

In the year 2013 (over a decade ago, egads), there were a grand total of 41 planeswalker cards, depicting 22 distinct characters. Of those characters, 14 were men and only 6 were women (Karn and Ashiok both exist outside the binary, though the terms weren't fully developed). This would be brought to Wizards of the Coast's attention in due time. I dug around some old forum posts and saw... timely discussions of the matter that wouldn't be worth the mental hazard to bring up, but there were posts from Mark Rosewater that I remembered from the era.

Two in particular are of interest, linked here and here and show below. Just bear in mind that these are relics of an older design philosophy, and Rosewater has since noted this line of reasoning was erroneous. 




Obviously, this didn't last forever! The gender balance of the roster was pretty solid before the desparking; time will tell on how it shakes out, but I suspect WotC has learned their lesson on that. Other areas of diversity have been steadily improving as the roster of LGBTQ+ identities grows with the likes of Niko Aris and Chandra Nalaar, but I'm among many who want more.

Unclear Mechanical Identities

In the early years, Wizards didn't introduce very many planeswalkers. There was the initial boom, but it did slow considerably until they began to plan for War of the Spark. What this meant was that planeswalker designs were nebulous for a time: the same character could end up doing wildly different things.

Certain planeswalker characters were incredibly popular, which led to them getting more cards, some of which had trouble re-treading the same mechanical space while feeling distinct. It's hard to make the fifth mill-control Jace feel different, y'know? And thus, WotC stumbled into the Liliana of the Dark Realms problem.

At the time, the Lorwyn Five had kind of just been the representative of their color. The problem is that each slice of the color pie is pretty big, so a planeswalker showing off the entire slice makes them feel less cohesive and interesting. Liliana could tutor, she could force discards, she could make the opponent sacrifice creatures, and now she cares about Swamps? It was too much. The first two cards had been two dots that made a line, and Dark Realms deviated pretty hard from that, which upset players. 

They then tried to carve up the character design space a little better. Just because it's in the color pie doesn't mean it's in Garruk's wheelhouse, after all. Liliana would get more graveyard-focused overall, though she'd keep some discard and sacrifice. Davriel, Rogue Shadowmage would end up being more of the discard planeswalker, not that he's done much since. We haven't gotten a Swamps-matter planeswalker since Liliana of the Dark Realms, but hold out hope! It's a known fact that planeswalker design space is small, so it'll happen eventually.

Familiarity Bred Contempt

Way back in 2014, WotC tried to rejuvenate the Standard format by changing up rotation. Back then, it involved shortening the time that cards were in the format; it would take them nearly 9 years to try the reverse. As part of the incoming two-set block format, the Standard format would end up with three blocks, with one of them rotating out every six months. 

People hated it.

The company back-pedaled and switched back to a yearly rotation, but this had an unintended consequence: Standard would be larger and certain sets that hadn't been playtested together would be in the same competitive environment.

It also had a very unintended consequence: for a brief, glorious time, there were three Gideon planeswalkers legal in Standard!

As part of the push for the Gatewatch, WotC wanted to have most of their main cast represented consistently in Standard. This meant that the designers started squeezing out room for other characters in favor of the same ones. Gideon of the Trials explicitly gives out an emblem mentioning Gideon planeswalkers, incentivizing players to run it alongside the incredibly domineering Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, which ran the format for a year. This side-by-side comparison irked players, who registered that WotC was pushing the characters as part of their brand identity. 

Compare that to Koth of the Hammer, whose appearance on a random copy of Phyrexian Arena in its Conspiracy 2 printing caused a ripple in the fandom of mass excitement. Koth lived! He won't be relevant for another five years, but at least he got a mention. 

Lesson learned: we can't miss them if they're never gone. Planeswalker character appearances would get spaced out more and more after that. Gideon himself wouldn't appear again for a little over a year, at the arc's culmination in War of the Spark.

Planeswalkers That Didn't Do Much Plane Walking 

What do these three planeswalkers have in common? That's right! Outside of War of the Spark, they never actually left their home plane. 

There was a lengthy time period where Wizards of the Coast wanted a planeswalker who originated from the set's plane, but this went against the very thing that made planeswalkers interesting: the ability to planewalk. When Avacyn Restored released, Tamiyo, the Moon Sage brought waves of speculation. A brand new character, originating from Kamigawa but first seen on Innistrad? It was exciting. 

I believe that there are powerful moments when planeswalkers choose to stay, even when they have the option to flee, but I also think that the real joy of planeswalkers is how they are truly alien to their environments. Ixalan doesn't have a single elephant, so an elephant person is absolutely bonkers to the people there! Quintorius Kand was obviously a strange person in a strange land, big and splashy with his odd presence. 

I'll talk about this more in the final point, but I do believe the team is more cognizant of this. All of the planeswalkers in the post-Aftermath multiverse have been not of the plane's origin (as far as we know; Ashiok could have been from Eldraine...), so I'm hopeful that this will continue.

Too Many Main Characters, Not Enough Story

Look, I love Magic Story. We get approximately 200,000 words of it a year, for free, and I'm grateful for that. On the other hand, the game has something like 78 distinct planeswalker types. Discounting the Dungeons & Dragons planeswalkers still only drops us to 70! Since introducing the card type, only about 20 of the 70-ish planeswalker characters given a card have actually died, many of them due to being pre-Mending. That leaves 50 of them running around. Before the Great Rupture, Wizards of the Coast tended to have a rule about only printing 10 planeswalker cards per year. 

If the company printed them in a continuous cycle without introducing new characters, characters would have four years between printings. This isn't the reality of it. Wizards has an actual central cast that get a new card every year or two, and an even tighter focus on who gets story time. Sarkhan and Narset got passing mentions once or twice but haven't had so much as a side story since 2015. Estrid, Aminatou, Grist, and Basri Ket have gotten no official story appearances in current Magic lore. Jiang Yanggu and Mu Yanling got a brief cameo in War of the Spark and nothing else. Calix, Destiny's Hand's debut novel was cancelled and he hasn't appeared anywhere since.

Just like every Magic card is someone's favorite, every planeswalker is someone's favorite. Knowing that your favorite character can show up again at any time but won't due to story factors is frustrating! 

They had a solution.

The reception to that solution was... mixed.

The Spark Rupture set a new status quo in the multiverse, turning at least ten planeswalkers into legendary creatures outright and confirming that many more had also lost their spark. More planeswalkers are being confirmed desparked as time goes on. 

I didn't like it at first! But I adjusted. The planeswalkers we get feel more... special, somehow? They feel more mysterious and unique at their current rate. The characters I love can still show up in odd places due to omenpaths, but the expectation is set more reasonably. 

There are far more slots for legendary creatures, so all those characters have a much higher chance of being seen again now, and I can make peace with that.

Problem of the Card Type

Magic is an endless conversation between the game and the story. Choices made by one constantly impact the other, and this is evident in card types. Planeswalkers have always been a considerably limited resource. Each card normally wants three activated abilities of differing levels of splashiness and the ability to be costed about 3-6 mana. 

With the exception of Chandra in 2019, there haven't been four planeswalkers of a single type printed in the same year. There are far too few planeswalker slots per set to try something like that. Legendary creatures, on the other hand... 

Well, Kellan, the Fae-Blooded just got a new version in Kellan, Daring Traveler and is about to get another in Murders at Karlov Manor and Outlaws of Thunder Junction. The Omenpath Arc gets to have a consistent throughline in Kellan thanks to the fact that his presence isn't going to be disruptive to the environment or take away a critical slot. His card type lets him show up for a continuous year and get a tight-knit story. 

That's great! But it doesn't bode as well for planeswalkers. They don't get that kind of flexibility. It wasn't until around Eldritch Moon that planeswalkers would appear on non-planeswalker cards in the set without having gotten a full card of their own, but even this tool was used sparingly. There certainly hasn't been a set branded with a planeswalker's image without that planeswalker having an actual, full card in the set. It mismanages expectations.

Because of this, planeswalkers have difficulty building a brand. If you're reading this article, you're almost certainly one of the super-enfranchised. It's important to remember the following:

  • Most Magic players don't know what a format is.
  • Most Magic players don't know who Mark Rosewater is.
  • Most Magic players don't know what a planeswalker is.

These are little adages that come out of Magic surveys. Wizards of the Coast pushed planeswalkers as hard as they could. Kaladesh brought us Planeswalker Decks as the new introductory product. Commander 2018 started a trend of planeswalkers being included in commander decks with regularity. War of the Spark saw uncommon planeswalkers for the first time.

There's a small minority that argue that players are inundated in planeswalker advertising, that you can't sling a spell without giving a nearby planeswalker a paper cut, and still... Still the vast audience is unaware of the term and card type. 

What do we expect? The card is, with very little exception, locked to 1-2 cards per set and only at mythic rare. Art on booster pack ranges from incredibly significant planeswalkers to a cool-looking uncommon. New players don't know what to look for. It takes a while to hook in, and there's plenty in this great game to latch onto first.

Don't Trip!

Planeswalkers were originally meant to debut in Future Sight, as a strange new possibility. Instead, Mark Rosewater and the other designers decided to refine them more. I'm glad they took their time: planeswalkers aren't the core of the game, but they are an incredibly interesting facet. 

The history of their branding has been a rocky one, but we're in the middle of a major reset. They are still the faces that show up in cross-brand deals, be it IHOP or Hot Pockets or t-shirts. Kellan may be the flagship character of the year, but planeswalkers will still be here. Wizards has cleaned up the roster, but I think they have big things planned for the characters in the coming future. Wizards as a company has shown a willingness to correct mistakes, such as with planeswalker diversity or frequency.

I'm hopeful that they can work on how they present these characters and cards going forward. 

But in the meantime, what do you think? How would you have pushed planeswalkers differently? What do you think of as the face of Magic? Let me know in the comments below!

Happy planeswalking!

Categories: Opinion

More From Ciel Collins

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.