THE MANA DORK – Native Planeswalkers and Legendary Creatures

Native Planeswalkers and Legendary Creatures

Well, that’s a wrap! Pro Tour Amonkhet is in the books, and surprising absolutely nobody, Mono-Black Zombies won the whole wait whaaaaaaaaaat

It’s true, though. Gerry Thompson, rocking his sweet Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 sleeves and deckbox, piloted this list to his first-ever Pro Tour win. No Gideons, no planeswalkers at all in the mainboard — and speaking of which, his entire mainboard consisted of cards that were $6 or less per copy when Amonkhet released! He cruised through much more expensive decks, the sheer consistency of his zombs swarming over Temurworks Marvel and Mardu Vehicles lists with ease.

It was refreshing to see. Pricy, greedy combo decks have been running the tables in Standard play for the last few months (though thankfully we still saw a LOT of creative homebrews at the store!), so having a traditional, inexpensive aggro list take Pro Tour Amonkhet says a lot, I think, about the viability of new brews, and how you can win an event without reducing your wallet to weeping openly and listening to “Hide and Seek” on repeat.

I mean, like, it’s a great song. But I’ve definitely heard Imogen Heap singing in the back of my head when I looked at the price on some of those four-colour Saheeli combos and older Mardu Vehicles lists.
Mmm, what’d you say?
Mmm, that you only meant well
Well, of course you did
Mmm, what’d you say?
Mmm, that it’s all for the best…
Anyway.
– – –
So, I have a question. Why do so many players want to see “native planeswalkers” in each new Magic set?
 

It puzzles me. “Native planeswalker” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. If you’re going to define a character by their ability to hop dimensions and bend the fabric of space-time, why stick them at home? We should see them when they’re out exploring the Multiverse. We should see weird characters we don’t understand yet, faces and abilities that are a gateway to more mystery.
But lately, what we’ve seen — and here’s the part that I don’t understand, what I see people asking for — are a series of homebodies.
Beginning from the Magic Origins reboot and ignoring planeswalkers who existed previously, we’ve met Arlinn Kord on Innistrad, and Saheeli Rai and Dovin Baan on Kaladesh. “Native planeswalkers”… who could have done their jobs just as well if they were legendary creatures.
(Notably, neither Arlinn nor Saheeli leave their planes at all during the course of their stories. They are “planeswalkers” who do not planeswalk even once! Heck, Rashmi did more planeswalking than Saheeli did, inside the Planar Bridge!)
Now, I love their design as characters. Arlinn is a powerful and bad-ass older woman, Saheeli is a charming and daring inventor, and my feelings about Dovin Baan have been mentioned previously. I am glad they are here, and I am happy to see what they have brought to Magic’s stories.
But to be honest, though, they could have been legendary creatures and done largely the same thing. And we could have had more space for weird and fascinating planeswalkers from other worlds, walking previews of Magic’s future with a face and name.
Like Ashiok.

Ashiok is a perfect example of what I’m talking about, perhaps the most recent perfect example. Ashiok doesn’t even have a face. It’s just smoke, and horns, and nightmares, and what happened to my library oh Ugin no no NONONO —

Ashiok is mystery. And terror, in this case. Ashiok saw play in many Standard lists of its era. Ashiok is a perfect hook for a future world (“What do we know about this place? … Ashiok is from here? Welp, I’m scared now…”). Ashiok simply existing is exciting, because it represents so much that we do not know about the wide, wide Multiverse.

Ashiok is exactly what I think a planeswalker should be.

I’m not just concerned about planeswalkers, though. I’m also concerned about what the desire for “native planeswalkers” has meant for legendary creatures.

Starting again from the Origins reboot and skipping the Eldrazi Titans for now, most of the legendary creatures we’ve seen have been side characters, also-rans, and supporting cast members. The “mentor” cycle in Origins, Zada and Jori En and Noyan Dar on Zendikar, Thalia and Odric and the twins on Innistrad, and so on. The only legendary creatures here who I think got an appropriate story treatment are Rashmi and Baral, both on Kaladesh.

It used to be that legendary creatures were the pushed, center-stage, face-on-the-poster chase cards everybody got excited about. The cards that changed the game. Back in the day, I saw people get hyped for Kamahl, and Phage, and Bladewing the Risen the way they now get hyped for non-Origins-5 planeswalkers.

(Quick note: “pushed” is slang for “a card Wizards has deliberately made very strong for its mana cost in order to help ensure it sees play in high-level tournaments”. Taken from “pushing the envelope”.)

These days, legendary creatures largely exist as nods to us Commander players, and hooks for the occasional short story. Rarely do they break into the Top 8 of Pro Tours.

Why has this changed? Why did it have to?

Look at Ulamog up there. Perfect example of what I think legendary creatures should be doing in Magic. Perhaps a divisive example, as not everybody is a fan of the Eldrazi Titans, but nevertheless perfect for this discussion.

In Ulamog we see a very pushed legendary creature present in many top-level lists as a game-ending all-star. The Temurworks Marvel lists from Pro Tour Amonkhet often used Ulamog to finish games. You are scared when Ulamog comes down, as so very little in Standard can answer it.

And critically, people opened Battle for Zendikar boosters looking for Ulamog. Others bought and will buy Ulamog as a single — which is much more profitable for the LGSes that keep the game alive. Ulamog drives sales and thus makes the game healthier as a whole. And it does so without having loyalty abilities.

Ulamog is exactly what I think a legendary creature should be — or, perhaps more clearly, Ulamog is performing the mechanical and marketing functions I think a legendary creature should perform. (Maybe we don’t need 10/10 indestructibles for 10 with two removal spells as a cast trigger all the time. But you get what I’m saying.)

This is getting lengthy, so I’ll cut to the chase cards.

I think those mystifying calls for “native” planeswalkers are the result of two things: Wizards putting an enormous spotlight on planeswalkers, and players subconsciously treating ‘walkers the same way they used to treat legends because of that spotlight.

I think this is compounded by the regular presence of pushed Gatewatch planeswalkers in Standard. People will naturally want to see characters from new planes mixing it up with Chandra, Jace, and the rest. As a result, we have players calling for “native planeswalkers” that could just as well be legendary creatures, simply because planeswalkers are the most pushed card type and people want new things.

I think this is why we’ve been seeing so many Standard environments where Gerry Thompson’s ‘walker-less maindeck is a notable aberration, rather than a regular sight.

I think the game would be improved if we used some mechanical strength and some marketing muscle on legends more often. Legends can serve as the face of a set just as well as planeswalkers, they can carry just as much of the story and key-art load on their shoulders, they have the same uniqueness drawback — and importantly, they can free up space for more interesting and creative planeswalker designs, since the ‘walkers no longer have to do as much work selling the set.

… and for the sake of maintaining my credibility throughout the above arguments, we shall ignore the amount of time I’ve spent in previous columns gushing about Commander, because I’m not biased at all. Never. Nope. Nuh-uh. Pure, unbiased journalism and punditry right here, folks. The Mana Dork — Your Trusted Source For Reasonable Magic Opinions.

Please?


OKAY FINE, MAYBE I AM BIASED, BUT AT LEAST YOU HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO HUMBLE ME FOR IT AT THE FOLLOWING STORE EVENTS

On the Magic side of things, Amonkhet Game Day is this weekend! We’ll have events on both Saturday and Sunday, with registration at 11 AM, gameplay at noon, and prizes for participation, Top 8, and winning the whole thing. Come on down!

As well, the GPT Farewell Tour is coming to a close, with just three events left — GPT Vegas Limited on Friday May 26, GPT Vegas Modern on Sunday May 28, and a final GPT Vegas Limited on Friday June 2. These will be your last chances to earn byes for GPT Vegas and win our sweet GPT Farewell Tour playmat, so make sure you sign up!

Outside of Magic, we’ve got the Netrunner Regional Championships on Saturday June 10, the Star Wars 40th Anniversary X-Wing Tournament on Sunday June 11, and a special Father’s Day Ticket to Ride Tournament on Sunday June 18!

There’s tons of stuff happening at the store — we’d love to see you there!

Jesse Mackenzie is a regular contributor to A Muse N Games. He’s actually super-biased, don’t believe what he wrote up there. Tune in every two weeks for The Mana Dork, his column about all things Magic!