As you may or may not be aware, every year magicthegathering.com features two Best Of Weeks showcasing what we feel are the best articles we ran all year. The weekly authors each pick what to run in their slots, but picking the feature articles—along with Ask Wizards, Card of the Day, and Arcana—falls to me.
For the first slot, I chose this article from the Planeswalkers Minisite. It's a preview article and it never ran in the feature slot on the main page, either of which would ordinarily be reason enough to pass on running it again. But this article is such a good bridge between flavor and mechanics, such a good insight into the mind of a planeswalker (and Chandra Nalaar in particular), and above all such an awesome piece of writing that it cleared those hurdles. I don't think we could rightly call this a Best Of Week without it.
If you're looking for more holiday reading, there are plenty of other articles that made my "short" list: the design articles The Color Purple, Magic: Now With G5-27 Attachment, and Working for Peanuts, the superlative comic Chandra's Ultimate, and the meaty Minisite piece You Are a Planeswalker leap to mind, as well as, of course, the others I chose to rerun.
And yes, that's "others," plural. We'll be running two feature articles during each Best Of Week—one on Monday and one on Wednesday—rather than the usual one because, well, why the heck not?
–Kelly Digges, editor of magicthegathering.com
This article originally ran on September 10, 2007
Here on this minisite, you've read about the history and flavor of being a planeswalker, and you've learned how the cards work. Today is all about merging the two. Planeswalkers are the perfect way to bridge the gap between flavor and mechanics; they're the players of Magic as a trading card game and the stars of the storyline of Magic, in the saga of powerful dueling mages.
Now that planeswalker is a card type, you can summon one of these all-stars of the Magic universe to sling spells alongside you. My main job here is to unveil Chandra Nalaar, a fiery planeswalker you'll definitely want to meet. But she's too important to just walk onto an empty stage. I want you to get in the headspace of what being a planeswalker means to Chandra, so before I introduce her, let's run a little thought experiment.
The first part of our thought experiment seeks to answer the question, "What's the value of being able to walk the planes?"
Have Will, Will Travel
Imagine for a moment that you were able, with some amount of careful concentration, to teleport to several other habitable planets in the universe, far outside of our own solar system. For the sake of argument, this power is not effortless, so you can't do it every moment—but it works. You get this stern look on your face, a little vein pops out in your temple, and later you're standing on the surface of another planet a hundred million light-years away, a little out of breath but perfectly intact. You have a repertoire of a handful of worlds to which you can travel in this way. For the purposes of this thought experiment, that's your only superhuman ability; everything else about you is the same. You're a traveler, and that's your whole power.
Even then, however, you would have a strong claim to being the most powerful person in history. Just in virtue of being able to think, observe, and learn while on your intergalactic travels, you'd grow to know more than any human being in history ever has. You'd see wonders of other worlds, meet denizens of inconceivable civilizations, learn secrets of our universe unknown to any other scientist, philosopher, or theologian of your entire race. You'd be the most important human being in Earth's history, and we haven't even started talking about other powers yet.
Imagine the kind of perspective you'd have. Physicists wouldn't have to guess and theorize about how the other side of the universe behaved—they'd just ask you what it looked like when you went there. World leaders wouldn't consult their committees and advisors for guidance—they'd ask you to share the cautionary tales of other intelligent civilizations that you observed directly. You would be an incredible resource to humanity, perhaps even its hero. You'd probably be worshipped by some and feared by others—some would probably even try to control you and the power you possess.
You might, in fact, choose to keep your ability a secret. Keep a low profile. Try to do the best you could with the power you wield, or just reserve your abilities for your own edification. It would pain you, day in and day out, to watch your ignorant homeworld make so many mistakes, mistakes you could have prevented with the knowledge you possessed. But that's better than being a slave or weapon for petty powermongers, or whatever other kind of tool you'd be used as.
The more you realize what a disaster revealing your secret would cause, the more distanced you feel from your own community. You begin to feel like an alien on your own planet, a stranger in an all-too-familiar land. You might teleport away from home more and more, or you might stay in some secluded corner of Earth while your sanity slowly frays, knowing what's possible but unable to handle the fullness of it. Either way, you might begin to wonder whether your birth on Earth was not your preordained destiny, but rather a cosmic happenstance that could easily have gone otherwise. You begin to wonder where, exactly, you belong in the universe, and whether your gift of travel is a sign that your true purpose is to find that mysterious place where your soul can finally rest.
Whoa. This planeswalker stuff is not for the faint of heart. But we're just getting started.
Power at your Fingertips
Okay, back up a bit. New thought experiment. Re-ravel your hypothetical sanity and rewind back to the point where you first learned you can planeswalk—er, planet-teleport. Now imagine that, in addition to your teleporting ability, you had the ability to wield magic. (Start rubbing your hands together, folks, because now it's getting good.)
The first spell you know, let's say, allows you to shoot a small bolt of flame at a nearby person. It's not enough to kill anyone you'd fire it at, but it's flashy, and it's extremely easy for you. You can basically do it as much as you want—given enough time, you could destroy anyone who stood in your way just with this little, repeated jab of flame. Zot. Zot. Zot. No sweat. You get the point.
The second of your spells takes a bit more out of you, but it's much more powerful. You can instantly destroy just about any living thing by, say, causing a mote of plasma-hot stellar matter to appear inside of it, at the cost of a huge investment of personal will and concentration, and immense fatigue afterward. But just think—almost everyone you see, even the bizarre monsters you meet on your interplanetary journeys, is potentially ash in your eyes. If you're willing to take on the migraine it would cause, you could burn just about anyone from the inside, no matter how important or powerful. Got a little power rush going on? Good—you're starting to get it. Moving on.
Your third spell is something special—and something frightening. You've never cast it, so you're only intuitively aware that it's even an option to you. You can cause everything around you, from horizon to horizon, to erupt in a blast of flame that will engulf everything, including probably yourself, in a cataclysmic moment of omni-destructive rage. This inferno smolders inside of you at all times, threatening to come to the surface when you have the most access to mystical energy. At times when you're at your most powerful, you feel this spell begging to be cast, and you barely have the willpower to keep it in. Hot.
That's your list of spells. You carry these powers wherever you go, on Earth and on any planet you visit. You're a loaded gun of magical potential, combined with the knowledge and perspective gained through of all your intergalactic travels. You were a shoo-in for the title of "most powerful and important human being in history" even before you were some sort of pyrokinetic wunderkind, but now you're a dead lock.
You're also probably a tremendous, swaggering ass.
Which leads us to the third and final part of our thought experiment.
Peer to Peer
Now suppose that, during all your travels chasing secrets across the stars, you run into someone else who can do the things you can. You meet another person, not necessarily human, who also has the power to world-teleport and to cast a few signature spells.
Holy crap. This changes everything.
You'd probably have mixed feelings. On the one hand, this person might be someone you could reach out to, literally one of the only people in the universe who could truly understand your experiences and your potential. This person could temper your growing sense of isolation, and perhaps ward off the insanity that you knew was gnawing at the edges of your mind. This person could be a beacon of hope for you and your strange life, a kindred spirit set against a backdrop of a scale that no one of either of your homeworlds could ever imagine.
But on the other hand, this person could represent a unique threat. You're no longer the only one with your powers. The existence of this other world-teleporter jeopardizes your position of importance in the universe—and for the first time, you face real competition. What if he or she is better at it than you? You may have gotten a bit lazy after so many years of being hardly challenged—you've always had all the answers, and whenever your vast perspective wasn't enough to figure out a problem, you could always burn it away. But this person can do everything you can do—and possibly more. What if he decides to use your own powers against you, or do something you've never seen before? What if he's been using his powers for longer, or has access to more far-flung worlds—and their wealth of secret knowledge—than you? This other person is the unknown, the X factor, in a universe that you thought you had almost figured out.
You're a whirlwind of hope, jealousy, confusion, self-doubt, and rage. One moment you resolve to form a peaceful alliance with this other universe-traveler, and exchange life stories to forge a sense of trust and openness with him. The next moment you resolve to unleash your ultimate inferno and burn him to a charcoal briquet. Then you decide to do the logical thing, which is to form an alliance with him, and then burn him to charcoal once his guard is down, and on and on. Through it all, you wonder what his existence means for you, your gifts, and your own purpose in the scheme of things—and it kind of makes you want to burn something down.
Now you know the mindset of
Like a Moth To... Well, You Know
As you can see, Chandra is a fiery force to be reckoned with. She's got high loyalty, a loyalty-increasing ability you'll never mind activating, a variable second power with an immediate, Flametongue Kavu-like impact on the board, and of course a face-blistering third ability that tends to end the game all at once. Like Garruk Wildspeaker, she's also good at protecting herself from your opponent's forces. She doesn't make 3/3 Beasts to get in the way of marauding attackers; that's way too green a solution. Chandra is red through and through; she solves problems by setting things on fire.
Chandra's spark erupted into the ability to planeswalk early in her life. She was drawn to the power of fire because of events we can't reveal just yet. But I'm excited that we're getting to witness the birth of these planeswalker characters. We'll see their earliest struggles, ride shotgun along with them as they face both triumph and disillusionment during their formative years, and cheer them on as they come into their own—or wither and die—because of the choices they make. Wherever Chandra Nalaar's life as a planeswalker will lead her, it's clear that she'll forge her own path, because like flame, she's intense, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. Chandra may one day face dangers that she can't solve with the power of flame, but we know that no other force in the multiverse will control her destiny.
So what's it like to play a planeswalker card? You've read a lot of rules about them, and you've seen three of the cards. But how do they play?
Satisfyingly enough, they do. There is no question that playing a planeswalker is an important and powerful event in a game of Magic. These things hit the board like a ton of bricks—once they appear to fight alongside you, the game has suddenly entered a new phase. You summon one, and suddenly your opponent's attentions are divided between you and it. Think about it—planeswalkers are player analogues. You're already a spell-throwing walker of the planes, armed with a library full of nasty critters and magic designed to make your enemies fall over dead. So the only thing scarier to face across a mystical battlefield than a planeswalker... is two planeswalkers!
In chess, it would be the equivalent of saying, "Okay, you took my pawn with your bishop? Nice move. I guess I'll just bring this other player into the game on my side, complete with his own pieces, which he'll add to the table... now. Oh, and he gets to take a move this turn. Hey, why are you complaining? The rules say you can attack him, too!"
And yet, they're balanced enough that the game isn't over just for them showing up. You add a planeswalker to your side and they start casting whatever spells in their repertoire that would help you out most, but your opponent has ways to deal with them as permanents, or knock down their loyalty so that they trundle off to your graveyard. In flavor terms, Chandra says, "Forget this, man—when you called on me, the deal was that I'd blow up some of your troubles as long as you protected me from the worst of it," and walks away from the fight. It's remarkably like summoning a hotheaded young fellow planeswalker, with her own agenda, strategies, and spells at her disposal, to help you in the fight against your enemies.
Coming Soon to a Plane Near You
Once Lorwyn releases, that's exactly what you'll be able to do: Call on the power of these planeswalkers for yourself. Build decks with four copies of Chandra Nalaar (or two Chandra and three Garruk, or four Lilianas and singletons of all the rest, or whatever you want—planeswalker cards are just Magic cards in terms of the deck construction rules).
It's an exciting time in Magic's history, and I say that both as a player and as a member of Magic's creative team. We're witnessing the birth of something special here, and this year we'll just be scratching the surface of the impact planeswalkers will have on the game and beyond. From where you sit right now, their purpose may be mysterious; you might be frustrated by the lack of details about them so far. But planeswalkers like Chandra Nalaar have big plans for the future—and it's about time. After almost fifteen years of Richard Garfield's vision, it's only right that they finally take center stage. After all, they're the prime movers of the Multiverse, just like you.