Planeswalkers' Signature Spells

Posted in Savor The Flavor on July 14, 2010

When you take a houseplant home from the garden center—bear with me here—you don't just plop it in the ground straight away. The first thing you do is hurt it a little by gently breaking up its roots. You intentionally disturb the in-grown root patterns caused by the shape of its plastic container—destructively, but with love—to prepare the plant for new growth.

There's a lesson here. When you leave something to develop exactly the way it formed before, it can stagnate and settle into stiff, infertile patterns. Over time, tradition can begin to leech out of itself the very nutrients that made it valuable; precedent can become parasitism. So sometimes the best thing to do when faced with an established pattern is to gently break it up.

Keep that in mind for a moment—let's talk planeswalkers and their Magic 2011 "signature spells."

Jace's Erasure | Art by Jason Chan

    Planeswalkers in the Cardlight

Magic 2011 features a double cycle of cards that tie to the five core planeswalker characters, and each one mentions the planeswalker in its card name. But planeswalkers showed up in card art and card names long before Magic 2011, of course. Urza had Glasses and Sunglasses as far back as Alpha, before there was even a storyline to give meaning to this Urza person. Back then, in Magic's infancy, few people had any clue who Urza was or what he did, but we knew his name, and that meant he was important. In time, Urza went on to have Towers and Mines and Power Plants, a Chalice and some Blueprints, a Bauble and some Armor, some Guilt and some Rage, and even a Hot Tub. The effect is that today, even those who haven't read a Magic novel or a line of flavor text know this guy was once a heavy-hitter. Mentioning a storyline character in card names has power.

Planeswalkers showing up in card art has power, too, but a different kind of power. It's not as effective as name-dropping card names, in terms of penetrating the mind-circuits of casual flavor fans. Instead it builds a slow visual narrative, a snapshot-by-snapshot highlight reel of what the character is about and what he's up to. The imagery lasts and builds deeper connections than you might suspect. You may not think you know what Teferi's staff or headdress look like, for example, but it seeps in over time. That makes it a good tool in our repertoire for building up the planeswalker characters.

It's possible to overdo this, though. Did the art of Broken Fall really need to be concepted around Gerrard's plunge from the deck of the Weatherlight, the attempted aid of Selenia, and the broken branches of Skyshroud Forest? Did we really need to name so many cards after storyline characters that the underwhelming, flavor-questionable Tahngarth's Glare came to be? So we need to be judicious with using planeswalkers in card art and card names, so as not to blunt the impact when we do it.

    Signature Spells, Signature Creatures

The idea for the planeswalker signature spells—cards that would tie to the planeswalker characters in flavor and mechanics—had been floating around since the premiere of the planeswalker card type in Lorwyn. Urza had his Glasses, so why shouldn't Garruk have his Beast? Why shouldn't Chandra have her burn spell? This would serve not only to build up the personalities of the planeswalker characters, but also to give newer players a better shot at becoming acquainted with the characters by showcasing them at rarities lower than mythic. In the Magic 2011 design team, we set out to construct them.

Liliana's Specter | Art by Vance Kovacs

At first, it made sense to us for the planeswalkers' cards to precisely replicate some of the planeswalkers' abilities. We could reconcept Blaze as a simple spell with "Chandra" in the name, to make a card out of her –X ability, or reconcept Centaur Courser as a simple 3/3 Beast and call it Garruk's Companion. That's the most literal sense of a planeswalker's spell—a card that would allow you to cast exactly the "spell" the planeswalker cards are "casting." We could even do a cycle that let you cast the planeswalker's ultimate abilities—certainly fun in Chandra's case.

But in many cases, those cards already existed. Indeed, many of the abilities of the original Lorwyn planeswalkers were chosen because they mimicked existing cards, such as Liliana's Vampiric Tutor-like ability and Garruk's "Overrun." And the planeswalkers themselves were already in M11—we decided it would be more fun, and more effective at building up the characters, to carve out some new space.

So we soldiered on, making cards that were inspired by the feel of the characters and by the gist of their abilities rather than dull transliterations of them. We made creatures and enchantments that triggered off of the planeswalkers' abilities, fun to build around yet simple enough to reside at common and uncommon in the core set.

Eventually we settled on a pattern: each planeswalker's signature common and uncommon would work together. The common would provide a simple effect, and the uncommon would be the "engine" card that would combo off of the effect provided by the common. And then both cards would be powered up even more (especially the uncommon) if you could actually get the planeswalker card on the battlefield all at the same time. They form a pleasing puzzle, none of the pieces of which are bad on their own, that's fun to build around and rewarding to combine.


Ajani's Pridemate was one of the first "signature creatures" to come together in design. It's one of Ajani's fellow Cat Soldiers, a member of his pride who thrives at Ajani's side. We originally had a simple Angel's Mercy-type life-gain card to combo with it, but the way Ajani's Pridemate is worded, it makes you want repeated small life-gain events more than a dramatic swing in life total. So we made Ajani's Mantra, an appealing little card that has surprisingly never existed in that simple form. Certainly Ajani Goldmane's +2 ability isn't always the one players tend to activate, but the Pridemate plays well and is enjoyable for many players to build around. Plus we liked how it combos with the "Lightning Helix" ability of Ajani's other form, Ajani Vengeant, as well.


Jace is a mind mage—as blue as you can get. It didn't take us long to theme Jace's signature cards around drawing cards and "milling." Jace's Ingenuity represents a burst of Jace's considerable mental power, and Jace's Erasure represents how he turns that mind magic to erode the memories of his foe. In this case, the common Jace's Erasure provides the "engine" that's fueled by the uncommon Jace's Ingenuity , which allowed development to give the draw spell a little more juice. We knew about the abilities of Jace, the Mind Sculptor ahead of the release of Worldwake, and we knew his "Brainstorm" ability would trigger the heck out of his Erasure. The story had another twist—more about Jace in a moment.


Liliana specializes in magics of the undead and the deadly. Her repeated discard ability can set up a massive reanimation "spell" that grants her an army of the "differently animated" (thanks to reader Shane for that undeadlicious piece of political correctness). Designers had wanted to update Megrim for a while; black's slice of the color pie is supposed to be templated as -X/-X and life loss, to contrast with red's direct damage. So Liliana's update of Megrim got the "loses life" version. And once we decided on the three-mana Liliana's Specter to combo with it, Liliana's Caress got a one-mana discount for her troubles! No longer must you decide whether to spend your turn three on a discard spell or on Megrim—by the time you're at Mind Rot mana, Liliana's Caress will already have shown up to the party. I was happy to give Liliana an undead minion, a Specter, to build up the necromantic themes of her magic.


The impulsive fire mage Chandra has always wanted a fire elemental to summon. We were already planning a classic earth/air/fire/water Elemental "cycle" including Fire Servant, so Chandra's Elemental became a flyer, similar to the flame creature she summons in Fuel for the Fire Part III. Her Chandra Nalaar card and her Chandra Ablaze card are both good at throwing damage at the face, so having her uncommon, Chandra's Spitfire, trigger on burn spells (or on pings from Chandra herself) seemed a natural fit. During one of our design meetings, I presented an idea for her signature burn spell that took inspiration from Char, a burn spell with a classic, impulsive, damn-the-consequences, red-mage feel to it. But there was a twist: When Chandra Chars you, I explained, you take the damage. It powers up Chandra's Spitfire, of course—believe me, if you're on the receiving end of an Outrage + Spitfire turn, she'll have you reaching for the aloe—but it also just has the right feel for Chandra. The fiery yet crafty Chandra's Outrage was born.


The hunter and beastmaster Garruk is a one-man menagerie. Armies of beasts find their way to his side—they are at once his hunting companions and his arsenal. Garruk's Packleader and Garruk's Companion retained the same spirit as the way we turned them over from design—but they just kept getting better and better during development. Garruk's Packleader went from a 3/4 to a 4/4. Garruk's Companion began as an efficient 3/3 for and ended as a downright sleek 3/2 trampler for . Now it's much easier to crash in with the beastly beatdown of a green-based creature deck, or to cast multiple Garruk's Companions on the same turn while drawing free cards off of Garruk's Packleader. Garruk now gets to take advantage of the recent proliferation of both mean, green fatties (such as Leatherback Baloth or Timbermaw Larva) and Nayan gargantuans (such as Spellbreaker Behemoth, Woolly Thoctar, or even Godsire)—a collection of wildlife Garruk can easily be proud of.

    Patterns and Planeswalkers

As we were designing cards for the planeswalkers' signature spells, we initially made a lot of creatures for them; at one point there were eight creatures and two enchantments between them. I pushed for them to have more noncreature spells, in part because that felt more natural as those characters' trademark magic, but also for art reasons. I was looking ahead to when I would be concepting the new art for the set, and I anticipated some problems with the planeswalker-themed creatures. It's a natural thing to feature a planeswalker in the art of a spell card, such as this Counterspell from Jace vs. Chandra:

Counterspell | Art by Jason Chan

But it can be harder to jam a planeswalker character into the art of a creature. The most effective creature art focuses on the beastie itself—showing a second figure in the art can detract from its impact at card size. We have some tricks, but they can be overly subtle. Did you know that Elspeth is depicted in the art of Dauntless Escort? Check out his shield.

Dauntless Escort | Art by Volkan Baga

So then we hit upon a mathematically pleasing pattern of one creature, one noncreature for each planeswalker. Each planeswalker would have a minion, which may or may not show the planeswalker in it, and a spell, which definitely would—and part of me fell in love with this scheme. Maybe, I thought, we could even make it an uncommon creature and a common spell—a design of abstract beauty that made happy little blips in the aesthetic algebra of my brain.

But as I looked at the chart of the five planeswalkers, each armed with its assigned spell and its standard-issue creature, I thought of the dried-out, rootbound plants from the garden center. It was a pattern carried too far, eating itself, unable to grow. I felt strangely protective of that design in the abstract, but it wasn't healthy for the cards or for gameplay, and it was threatening the very purpose of doing the planeswalker-themed cards in the first place. With the rigid structure in place, the cards didn't express the individuality of the characters. Why should they all wield the same kinds of magic? Did they all call each other up and agree to show up all matchy-matchy to some costume ball? No. They're individuals. They do their own thing. That's the point.

So we wrecked it. We broke up the pattern. We crushed up the ingrown roots of the cycles and rearranged. Now Ajani has a creature and an enchantment, and so does Liliana, but at different rarities. But Jace, appropriate for his own mystical methods, has two spells. Garruk, logically, has two creatures. And Chandra has a creature and a characteristic burn spell. It lost much of the pattern, but it was able to grow into a group of cards that felt right. After our design team, the development team, and Creative were all finished with them, the planeswalker signature spells became one of my favorite features of M11.

What's the future of the signature spells? Will there be more cards like these in future sets? I don't know yet. I do know that I'll be on the lookout for patterns to smash.

    Letter of the Week

Today's letter comes from Arvid.

Hi Doug,
After reading Brian David-Marshall's preview article, two flavor questions formed in my mind that totally aren't related but I'll ask them both anyway.

1. I remember from M10 that you replaced Nantuko Husk with Vampire Aristocrat because everybody knows Vampires but nobody who never played Magic knows Nantuko. This seems to make sense, but then I can't help but wonder how Nantuko Shade ended up in M11? Why didn't you reprint it with a new name and creature type? Are there more Nantuko in the set?

2. In one of the deck lists in that article I noticed Graveborn Muse and its creature types of Zombie Spirit. I really wonder how that makes sense flavor-wise. The Spirit of a Zombie? That feels strange. And it leads to the more fundamental question (which might have been answered before): What decides if an undead becomes a spirit, zombie, skeleton or whatever?

Thanks for reading and hoping for answers,

It's true that we reconcepted Nantuko Husk into Vampire Aristocrat—and yet we left Nantuko Shade as-is for M11. Nantuko Shade has a very strange concept to non-Magic players; it's not just one of a race of mantis people—it's the shadowy ghost of a mantis person—definitely not resonant fantasy. But we try to limit the number of rares that we reconcept just for flavor reasons; it can be annoying to collect another few copies of a card that's only slightly different than one you already own. The main reason, though, was that Nantuko Shade was there to bring back a splashy tournament card. We could have given it new art and called it Soulsurge Vampire or something, but that would have blunted the splash value of bringing back that famous card.

Graveborn Muse was before my time in Ramp;D, but I can imagine the reason—and it's pretty mechanical. Graveborn Muse was tugged in two different directions, creature type-wise. It was part of a Muse cycle that included cards like Seedborn Muse and Dreamborn Muse, each of which was a Spirit, so it was a Spirit for that reason. But it has a Zombie tribal mechanic and was also part of the tribal-heavy Onslaught Block, so there was pressure for it to play nice as a Zombie as well. The result is a strange creature, flavor-wise—sort of like Bloodghast, it's a non-corporeal spirit entity, but it retains some characteristics of another type of undead creature. It's certainly not your typical undead—not the result of run-of-the-mill Zombie reanimation or an immaterial ghost that survived the death of the body. We have a lot of conventions for determining undead creature types (see this earlier Letter of the Week for more on that), but for some cards, the mixture of the card's design goals results in a creature type that doesn't fit well in any single category.

Hope you're enjoying Magic 2011. Store any phylactery counters yet? Open any Titans? Pull off any combos with the planeswalker signature spells? You'll get another shot—plus the chance to do other good stuff—at the M11 Launch Party this weekend! See you in seven.

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