Planeswalker Potpourri

Posted in Savor The Flavor on May 19, 2010

There are a few questions that have been buzzing around my head lately. Questions about planeswalkers and the cards that embody them. Questions that have come up not so much from your letters (click the email link at the bottom of the page!), but from discussions around Magic Ramp;D. Questions that inspire me to write in sentence fragments, apparently. Ready? The first question has to do with a planeswalker's mana cost—what delicious bits of flavor-fond can we deglaze from it?

    What's the flavor of a Planeswalker's mana cost?

Even when they become enshrined on a card, planeswalkers are not marble idols, frozen in time, gathering dust on their immutable magely shoulders. They're living people, able to grow, learn, and change, able to appear in different forms on different cards. Each card is a snapshot of a time in their lives, a portrait of their personal attitudes and magical aptitudes during some pivotal moment.

Four planeswalkers have had two versions so far: Ajani, Jace, Chandra, and Sarkhan. Eyebrow-archingly, all of their second versions had different mana costs from their first versions. Hmm.

  • Jace: Remained mono-blue in his second version; added +1 converted mana cost
  • Chandra: Remained mono-red in her second version; added +1 converted mana cost
  • Ajani: Added red in his second version; remained the same converted mana cost
  • Sarkhan: Remained red, but swapped out green for black in his second version; added +1 converted mana cost

What's the meaning of all this? Last week we were discussing leveling up—are these mana costs supposed to reveal these planeswalker characters' wizardly development?

I will give you the favorite answer of dads and leather-elbow-patch professor-types everywhere: "yes and no."

Yes, there is interesting flavor-pith to be extracted from a planeswalker's mana cost. But no, the converted mana cost is not a simple "level." The color or colors of a planeswalker card represent important flavor-icious developments in his or her life. Ajani's swap from mono-white to red-white signified a shift in philosophy, a newfound comfort with revenge, and the addition of some fiery, world-shaking magic. On the other hand, the fact that Jace has remained mono-blue signifies that he's still a mind-mage first and foremost, still walking the trembling path between darkness and light, and still relying on his wits and shrewdness to out-think his opponents. A given set's design and development teams work with us on the creative team to determine what planeswalkers should show up and when, and in what number, and in what combinations of colors.

A planeswalker card's converted mana cost, though, tends to be up to design and (especially) development. That's not to say it's a flavorless number, but it does mean that that part of a planeswalker's cost has more to do with the card's intended power, how it interacts with other cards and strategies in the environment, what decks it might fit into, and a multiverse of other factors. At the risk of coming across as a creative type whose pretty little head doesn't need to be worried about such things, a planeswalker's converted mana cost goes into the development machine and comes out the other end developed. As far as our input on that process, we just bite our fingertips and bat our eyelashes, pretty much.

But the important thing about planeswalker CMC, from our perspective, is that it's not a strict indication of power level. It's tempting to look at that number as a guide to how far the character has progressed in the spell-hurling biz; it only makes sense that the more powerful the planeswalker, the more mana it takes to summon that planeswalker to your side, and therefore the chronologically later Jace must be more powerful than his previous version. Certainly Jace has learned some new tricks since we first met him, but we don't consider his converted mana cost to be important in reflecting that. In fact, one of these days I expect we'll see a planeswalker's new version with a lower converted mana cost than its previous version, without it meaning that the planeswalker has "lost power," or forgotten where he left his grimoire, or something. Up till now planeswalker CMCs have only stayed the same or gone up, but that's not intended to be seen as a trend or rule.

That's partly because, if we continued the logical trend of continuously developing planeswalker characters, converted mana costs would swell past the point of fun and playability. The lofty costs of Eldrazi aside, many games of Magic end before seven- or eight-mana spells start happening. So what good would a (hypothetical) twelve-mana Chandra be to anyone, however accurately it may (again hypothetically) represent her (both hypo and thetical) future progress as a fire mage?

But mainly, it's just a quantity that's (appropriately) out of creative's hands. Developers need the tool of converted mana cost to keep planeswalker cards powerful-yet-not-game-breaking. So we try not to make demands like, "Jace needs to have a converted mana cost of exactly four" on top of our usual requests like, "Jace needs to remain mono-blue and have abilities that reflect his formidable and often deceptive mental powers."

And that's ... that's more than I ever thought I could say about a mana cost.

    Do planeswalkers make locals irrelevant?

Magic moves from world to world each year, and planeswalkers are the bridge that spans them. They're the stable of protagonists that show up on the scene, figure heavily in the plots of the year's stories, and run the show. That repeated exposure to world after world gives planeswalkers importance—you see them year in and year out, so you know they're significant parts of Magic–but it also gives them perspective.

Planeswalkers have access to way more information than the local denizens of the worlds to which they travel. They can collect lore and magic and mana bonds from every plane they visit, and compare the lessons of one world to those of another in a way that Joe Sparkless can't. In a story context, that makes planeswalkers naturally suited to be the movers and shakers of the plot, naturally suited to be instrumental in the highest-stakes conflicts in the story (which is, of course, what we want to happen). But it has other effects.

Planeswalkers can tend to outshine minor conflicts and minor characters. There are innumerable non-planeswalkers in the Multiverse, and they just kind of get the short shrift in many Magic stories as planeswalkers zip around and handle the Big Bad. We mitigate that through the style guide and the cards—each card is a window on hundreds or thousands of lives from that setting, from the nameless Vithian holdouts on Grixis, to the expeditions lost to the wake of the Kozilek lineage, to the brave souls caught in whatever drama unfolds next year. Plus, we weave important non-planeswalker characters—the Rafiqs and Ob Nixilises of the world—to give their own depth to the story, even if we sadly leave them behind when we move on.

The plane-spanning stature of planeswalkers has another effect. As planeswalkers aren't connected to any one world, they have less investment in what's happening there. If we aren't vigilant, that can make planeswalkers remote, uncaring, and unrelatable. That's part of why Elspeth has such a fierce instinct to protect the peoples of Bant. That's part of why Jace has an all-consuming curiosity. That's part of why Liliana's ambition levels are through the roof. These characters have an intrinsic ability to escape whatever problem they're dropped into, so it's crucial that their motivations connect them firmly to the conflict at hand. There probably are planeswalkers out there who skim the surface of planar plots, never forming deep attachments to any particular person or place, planeswalking away when things get hard, uncomfortable, or dangerous. Nothing's really stopping that from happening; the whole point is that planeswalkers get to go where they will. But we don't hear about those unmotivated, risk-averse guys, and the reason is that because they're boring jerks.

    BONUS QUESTION! What's it take to be a professional fantasy illustrator?

This is not a question about planeswalkers, but it's a question that makes its way into my inbox often. I wanted to direct you to the blog of Damp;D art director Jon Schindehette, a fantastic resource for would-be artists. If you are an artist who is at all interested in the ins and outs of the professional fantasy illustrator biz, you should not "check out" his blog—you should insert it directly into your neural pathways, fusing it with the very matter of your art-brain. He tells it to you straight with no BS, and uses real examples right from his job (and the advice is applicable to Magic illustration, too). Here are some posts of his that I find especially good for starters.

What I look for in a portfolio, part 1
What I look for in a portfolio, part 2

Here's a two-part series on what Jon looks for in an artist portfolio. It covers how to make your portfolio look professional, how to be taken seriously, what mistakes to avoid—in short, how not to waste an art director's time. It's how you get noticed—which leads to getting paid.

Is the art drop inbox just a black hole for art?

And this one concerns the "artdrop" email address at Wizards. Emailing samples of your artwork to has always been the right first move for getting considered for illustrating Wizards' games like Damp;D and Magic. But what goes on in that mysterious inbox? What can you do to stand out and, again, not waste an art director's precious time? Check out this post, and may it guide you well.

    Letter of the Week

Two quickies today.

Dear Doug Beyer,
I am emailing you on account of the Worldwake ally "Graypelt Hunter". I know this may be a bit late to bring up but I was wondering what the race of the ally was. It is stated on the card that the creature is a human warrior, but he obviously sports the chin barbels that are exclusively seen on the Kor race. I was hoping that you would be able to clear up this misunderstanding for me.

Yours truly, Evan

I can see where you're coming from, Evan. At card size, this Onduan big game hunter does seem to have the classic Kor chin barbels, plus his washed-out skin resembles the traditionally pale complexion of the Kor. But I think you'll see in the high-res art that the "barbels" are actually just the braids in his grizzled beard. And I guess he spends so much time in the dense forests of Turntimber that he doesn't get much sun. Thanks for your question!

Graypelt Hunter | Art by Svetlin Velinov

Dear Doug Beyer,
Do Eldrazi in any form (spawn, drones, regular, or progenitor) have a gender or are they all neuter?
I ask because I run a deck with Emrakul in it, and I like to refer to Emmy with female pronouns. (I personally see Emrakul as female and Ulamog and Kozilek as male.) Is this correct? Does it even matter? Please enlighten me as I wish to be flavorfully correct.

Great question. Although Zendikar's merfolk and kor ascribed gender to their "deities" that were inspired by memories of Emrakul, Ulamog, and Kozilek, Eldrazi are very much genderless "its." And it does matter, because their asexual reproduction lets us not try to imagine what it might be like for Eldrazi to *ahem* intertwine their knuckly tentacles and go on long strolls by Sea Gate together. For them it's more of an Athena, forehead-of-Zeus kind of situation, the very otherworldly wrongness of the progenitors' predatory presence causing the brood lineages to spring into existence. I like the idea that the humanoids of Zendikar would continue to use gendered pronouns, though, as you have—that memories of the goddess Emeria or the sea-god Ula still linger and mingle within their thinking about the Eldrazi titans. I get the feeling that Emmy, in her/its destructive, world-parasitic, inscrutable way, would approve.

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