“Give them something to want.
Give them something to hide.
Give them something to fear.
Give them something to obsess over.
Then hurt them.” - Catherynne M. “Cat” Valente
There are only two people who could've penned those words: a mass-murdering psychopath or an author describing how to create complex and fascinating characters. Fortunately for the world, Cat Valente is a marvelously talented author whose commentary on writing (the lines above come from her “Operating Narrative Machinery” essay series) has made me a better fiction creator.
Recently I had reason to go back to the Valente System (not an official name as far as I know, though it totally sounds as if it should be) for a personal project, but my mind kept drifting back toward Magic: The Gathering and the Planeswalkers in particular. While not every successful Planeswalker ticks each box, the Valente System can suggest a “why” when a character feels lacking.
There have been 23 Planeswalker subtypes to see print in Magic thus far and a 24th, Dack (as in Fayden), has been spoiled fully. Some of these characters have been great successes, while others have vanished almost without trace. In this article I'll use Valente's system as a jumping-off point for brief biographies of all of them and analysis of what makes them tick (or not).
As a flavor geek I'm quite fond of the MTG Salvation wiki, and for this article touching on every Planeswalker I referenced it more than usual, so I owe a special thanks to Barinellos, Hunter61, and the rest of the wiki editors active on Planeswalker character pages.
The young Ajani ticks all the Valente boxes. He wants to be accepted by his leonin pride, but his white fur--an aberration on the Naya shard of Alara and a disadvantage for a predator--makes his entire person something to hide. He fears losing his brother Jazal, the pride leader and the only reason Ajani is tolerated within the pride, and obsesses over losing his status. Then Ajani gets hurt, big-time. Jazal falls at an assassin's hands, Ajani's Planeswalker spark ignites, and an Ajani Vengeant is unleashed on the Multiverse.
Ajani might be the first Planeswalker character to complete a story arc in cards; he's gone from the rampaging Ajani Vengeant to the more chilled-out Ajani, Mentor of Heroes. He's blocked Nicol Bolas from an evil plan and mentored leonin communities across the Multiverse. In the storyline of Journey into Nyx, he's helping longtime friend Elspeth take down Xenagos...but where would he go from there?
Ashiok's most interesting attribute is that “Ashiok is Ashiok,” answering neither to “he” nor “she.” (This hasn't stopped others from assuming Ashiok is male, including Dack Fayden in the Theros comics, but canonically Ashiok has no specific gender identity.) Aside from that, there...really isn't all that much to Ashiok's character. Ashiok wants to create the ultimate nighmares of the Multiverse, but what fears would a cultivator of fear have? Ashiok hides Ashiok when it suits Ashiok and the nightmare thing is kind of obsessive, but there's no real hurt written into Ashiok's character; the “spark event” is hand-waved in the official biography. To the extent that Magic's creators want a remote and malevolent force, Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver fills the bill, but as a character Ashiok still leaves something to be desired.
A genius plotter, millennia old, and one of the few “early-story” characters still standing, Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker has had plenty of time to develop. One of the “big bads” of the current story era as well, he's lived long enough to hit all the Valente boxes. The Mending hurt him big-time, stripping him of a great deal of his power. Now he wants his power back, hides his weakness as much as he can, fears aging and death, and obsesses over reclaiming his “rightful” place in the Multiverse. Unlike the Phyrexians and Eldrazi, “programmed” villains that have all the personality of prostate cancer, Nicol Bolas is a three-dimensional nemesis capable of both planar calamities and petty cruelties. I'd say to watch your back around him, but it probably wouldn't do any good...
There's a lot more going on with Chandra than her simple Wizards biography would suggest. According to her Planeswalker novel, The Purifying Fire, she lost her entire family when her prodigious talents were mistaken for a village's worth of rebellious fire mages and a law-and-order squad destroyed them to a soul. Her persistent theme is the desire for freedom. She fears being locked down under others' rules and losing her power. Once she hid her talents from her parents, practicing in secret. Her obsession, if she has one, is the same as her want and her fear.
Someone who only knows Chandra from her card appearances may just think of her as “redheaded stuff-go-boom chick.” Yet she knows loss, and for all her wildness and impulsiveness she has an unwavering core to her conscience. Chandra isn't a pragmatic snarker like Jaya Ballard, which is part of why her quips fall flat. I'd rather see the passionate, idealistic Chandra I know emerge in flavor text.
Official Wizards biography does not exist as of this writing.
Ah, Dack Fayden, designated jerk of the Multiverse. What does he want? All the artifacts. When does he want them? As soon as he can steal them. (In flavor terms, stealing an artifact should be a plus ability for Dack, not a minus, though gameplay must prevail.) He has a rather physical sign of his thieving nature to hide: a permanently red-stained right hand, part of his punishment from an early effort at multiplanar heisting. He doesn't exactly fear getting caught, but for much of his story arc he's obsessed with finding the Planeswalker who massacred his hometown and his lady-love.
As a comics-based character (up to Conspiracy), Dack has been on a rather accelerated storyline development schedule. He's checked “ roaring rampage of revenge” off his list and is (mostly) off on a tour of the treasure-houses and prisons of the Multiverse. I'm eager to see where he winds up next.
The pierced and tatted Domri Rade is physically the least imposing of the Planeswalkers, even the blue-aligned eggheads such as Jace and Tamiyo. A beast-summoner rather than being a brawler himself, he nonetheless had enough magical strength to impress the Gruul Clans on his home plane of Ravnica. An orphan with hurt in his heart and a chip on his shoulder, he wants a home and family, but he also doesn't want the rules that go along with them. His fear of being seen as weak turns into an obsession with proving strength over and over, turning him into a potentially villainous force if innocent people get wounded or killed.
Poor Elspeth. All she wants is a safe place to call home. Unfortunately, everywhere she goes she finds violence and a home unlasting, her worst fears coming true. She was born to a plane ruled by Phyrexians, and only her spark let her escape. The Bant shard of Alara? Nicol Bolas wrecked that dream. Mirrodin? Turned into New Phyrexia. Sunny Theros? Not only does she have to fight, but then she gets blamed by one god for causing trouble and has to go kill another.
Unfortunately for Elspeth, there may be friends in the Multiverse but there are no therapists. She'll hurt and keep on hurting until the end of her days; she's seen too much to do anything else. I've heard some folks criticize Elspeth as one-dimensional, and indeed her wants and fears and hurt all stem from the same source. That said, she is a multilayered character who grows from setting to setting, and if the card Deicide is any indication, she'll finally taste victory.
Muscle-man Garruk, like Domri and Elspeth and a disturbing number of other characters, is an orphan. (As for how he lost his father and gained a hatred for civilization, The Wild Son is your source.) He has a lot of hurt going with the family he lost, not to mention certain involuntary alterations made to him by one Liliana Vess. By the looks of theDuels of the Planeswalkers 2015 trailer, Garruk's gone from hunting big game to “ The Most Dangerous Game,” but he's no cardboard villain. We know how he got to where he did.
How many orphans does one game need? Gideon more-or-less fits the bill. Raised by a single mother (he never knew his dad), he lost her as an adolescent and joined a gang. Yes, Gideon was a gang member--a Robin Hood-style gang, but a gang nonetheless. When prison didn't do a good job of keeping Gideon on lockdown, the authorities went the rehab route, hooking him up with a master of justice-and-order magic. As one might expect from his mono-white personality, the lessons took.
Gideon's driving need is to protect, which has entangled him in the affairs of Zendikar and Ravnica. He's drawn far more to justice than order, as shown by his willingness to question his superiors and allies. Neither particularly fearful nor obsessive, he's also rather stoic, not revealing how much hurt he feels. Nonetheless, I find him rather compelling as a character, and he's an excellent counterexample to the idea that a character has to tick all the boxes to be interesting.
Jace, Jace, Jace. He's been up and he's been down, a prodigy too book-smart and people-dumb for his own good. Those traits have connected him with a large part of Magic's audience--indeed, I see more of myself in him than I care to think about--but as a character he's a bit wobbly. It doesn't help that various novels have contradicted one another about his actions and whereabouts, but I find myself unable to grasp him. What does he want? To know secrets? Then why does he repeatedly perform mental surgery on himself to forget things he's learned? The pattern of forgetting is also one of his ways of dealing with guilt and hurt. His romances with Liliana Vess and Emmara Tandris haven't amounted to much, and even with the responsibility of being Ravnica's Living Guildpact, he still gallivants off to other planes. He's slippery and I can't get a hook in him. Frustrating.
The centuries-old silver golem is an artificial Planeswalker who inherited his spark from longtime Magic protagonist Urza. He's been through some weird stuff, like being tortured in what amounted to a giant rock tumbler stuffed with goblins. (He'd made a pacifist vow, y'see, and he couldn't help but fall on the goblins, thereby taking lives.)
Karn's done a lot of things. He's formed part of the Legacy Weapon that offed original Phyrexian big bad Yawgmoth, created his own artificial plane of Mirrodin, and healed a massive time rift. He's also spread Phyrexian corruption over a great deal of the Multiverse because he was made with a Phyrexian part, his heartstone, that was corrupted with Phyrexian glistening oil. Imagine being a pacifist and suddenly realizing that you're responsible for introducing Phyrexia to any number of planes. After you have your heroic breakdown (which Karn did, on the plane of Mirrodin as it was turning into New Phyrexia), you go around and try to clean up your mess, as Karn Liberated has tasked himself. He has a mission, he has drive, and he has a lot on his conscience. That's a lot to put on even Karn's silver shoulders.
The first known merfolk Planeswalker of the post-Time Spiral era, Kiora is a refugee from Zendikar searching for titanic sea beasties she can use to fight the Eldrazi mauling her home plane. It's a source of both hurt and drive; the more she knows, Kiora thinks, the better she can protect her beautiful ocean home.
So far her most interesting attributes are her merfolk psychology (as explored in the Uncharted Realms story “ Kiora's Followers” and her trickster side that has her pretending to be a deity on Theros. She has lots to hide, a restored home to want, and lots of hurt related to her home. Even so, there's something...missing with Kiora. I just don't know her that well. Maybe all I need is time; she is, after all, one of the newest members of the Planeswalker crew.
Personally, I'm sad Magic's story didn't linger too much on Koth of the Hammer. He's a side of the red mage seen seldom: passionate but not inherently destructive, wise but decisive. His methods could be extreme, particularly when he used his geomancy on Planeswalkers, but he was fighting for an entire plane. Even though he fell short of his goals and met who-knows-what ghastly fate, he was a believer in Mirrodin Pure, and purging his home of the Phyrexian taint was his need and his obsession and the hole in his metaphorical heart.
What does Liliana love? Herself. What has she done for herself? Oh, she's gone shopping for some accessories (the Chain Veil), made deals with some demons, secured eternal youth and beauty...the usual for a century-old necromancer looking out for Number One.
All those deals with demons have had their downsides, though, and Liliana wants to make sure they never collect. To that end, she's offed two of the four demons who have a claim on her, and presumably she's after the other two. She's driven to wipe out her debts, and she has no limits on what she'll do to get what she wants. She even took hostages at the Helvault on Innistrad. While her family trauma isn't as extreme as some other Planeswalkers'--she was merely cast out for inadvertently driving her brother insane--she's still lacking for family. Does it still bother her? If so, she's not letting on.
As of this writing, Nissa Revane is a nature-mage laid low by her own pride. Cast out from her tribe for her Multiverse exploration, she took to another, forsaking many of the joys of Zendikar and other worlds simply to have a place to belong. A believer in elvish superiority, she found the attitudes of Lorwyn's elves amenable. She also really, really, really hates vampires, which should've been instant humor or drama fuel when she was stuck traveling with Sorin Markov.
Instead, it turned into a moment of catastrophic stupidity. Instead of going along with the millennia-old vampire's plan to lock down the Eldrazi for a few more elvish lifetimes...she let the Eldrazi out. She thought they'd go somewhere else. Somewhere else. Instead the hungry Eldrazi started munching on Zendikar and Sorin basically said, “Your world is doomed, you're too dumb to live, and I'm out of here.”
Unlike her fellow elves, Nissa can actually get out of her situation, and she's been going around the Multiverse trying to find help. She's messed up, she knows it, and now she has a need to try to make things right...if that's even possible. It might not be, but she has to try. Now that she's dropped the “elvish superiority” shtick in favor of more pressing concerns, she's a better-rounded character. It'll be interesting to see what (if anything) Wizards does with her in the future.
Ral has a wicked smile and a keen mind, but there's really not much more to the Izzet-aligned Planeswalker. He's a narcissist through and through, craving recognition for his brilliance but forced to keep his ego and his talents concealed from his boss, Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius. His whole story arc through Return to Ravnica block is that he's oh-so-bright and oh-so-put down because his guild chose Melek, Izzet Paragon to run the maze instead of the obvious best person for the job, whose name starts with “R” and ends with “al Zarek.”
Maybe Ral will get more interesting if he's revisited after the events of Return to Ravnica block, but he was pretty one-note in his first appearance. I hope he adds some more dimensions.
Sarkhan Vol never has been the most stable personality. A fighter and then a shaman, he rose to general, but in his first battle he connected with a dragon spirit and annihilating the entire battlefield--his warriors as well as the enemy's. He landed on the Jund shard of Alara, where he could link up with all the dragons he could want, but he managed to meet up with the biggest and baddest of all, Nicol Bolas, who soon made Sarkhan his minion. After Nicol's defeat on Alara, the elder dragon shipped Sarkhan off to Zendikar, where Sarkhan went really, really, really out of touch with reality.
If Sarkhan reappears in the lore, there's no way to predict what he'll be like after Bolas is done with him. Before his ascension he was obsessed with dragons. After Bolas's defeat his mind clearly was hurting. He fears Bolas, and possibly his own delusions. Part of Sarkhan's problem is that he never was a central character but a vehicle for others' stories: Jace, Chandra, Bolas, Ajani. Will he ever get a chance to come into his own?
What happens when you cross an ancient vampire with an ecologist? Sorin Markov. As one of the eldest vampires on Innistrad--it was his grandfather, Edgar Markov, who started the vampiric lineages and caused Sorin's spark to flare when he applied the vampiric magic to his grandson--Sorin is among the few with enough perspective to realize that vampires could make humanity go extinct from overhunting. He thus created Avacyn, Angel of Hope to even the odds between humans and vampires. Few humans, if any, knew the truth about Avacyn's creation; the vampires did, though, and they didn't like Sorin for it.
The Euro-styled Sorin Markov has aged past most of his fears, though the Eldrazi (which he helped contain as a younger Planeswalker) might still get to him. He feels entitled to whatever he wants and will take it, particularly the blood of others. He's an interesting contradiction as a vampire with a sense of duty, and I hope Wizards revisits him sooner rather than later.
Tamiyo, the Moon Sage is as close as Magic will get to acknowledging that Kamigawa is a plane, now or in the future. She's also the rare happy Planeswalker; the official canon on her records no trauma, no deep issues, no angst. The Multiverse opens up to her and she's as thrilled as a pig in slop. On Innistrad, where entire species are locked in a life-or-death struggle, she chills at a tower and studies the moon.
There isn't a whole lot to Tamiyo yet, but simply by being happy she's exceptional. I hope to see her curious self in another setting of the Multiverse.
Another too-smart-for-his-own-good prodigy in a field already made crowded by Jace, Tezzeret tried to distinguish himself with his artifact focus and artificial arm but never really stood out. Another youthful gang member (and another Planeswalker who lost a parent early, this time his mother), Tezzeret is vicious, a mage-thug, and “The Seeker's Fall” says most of what needs to be said about him.
Tezzeret's another case of obsessive want, craving knowledge and status, but in the end he goes from guttersnipe to Bolas's pawn, not necessarily an upgrade. He has cause to fear Bolas, of course, and he's always trying to hide his plans, usually with little success. He may not be the biggest bad in the Multiverse, but he's definitely one of the most unpleasant. I'd like to stay as far away from his light brown dreadlocks as possible.
Ah, Tibalt, he of the “worst Planeswalker card ever” status and candidacy for “worst Planeswalker story ever.” Remember Ashiok and how Ashiok is basically a nightmare artist? Well, Tibalt's basically a torture artist. He sucked at stitching corpses together, so he switched to torture. He got good at it, but people talked and he got caught and had to cast a great big pain spell to get away.
That's his story. That's all of it.
I don't think there are many people at Wizards who would mind if Tibalt just disappeared without a trace.
Venser was the first of the “new-style” Planeswalkers to emerge from The Mending during Time Spiral block, which was followed by Lorwyn and the debut of Planeswalker cards. Yet another orphan (mother unremembered, father lost young), Venser scrapped Phyrexian parts from the Urborg swamps and did tinkering with them. He thought he was showing off a cool new toy when he showed one of his altered Phyrexian designs to Mirrodin native Koth of the Hammer; instead, Venser got his head stuck in a stone mask and couldn't get it removed until after he planeswalked to Mirrodin.
Venser had known Karn from the events of Time Spiral block and he joined the quest to rescue Karn from the interior of Mirrodin. Karn did get rescued--but at the cost of Venser's life and Planeswalker spark, which soon would've been forfeited to Phyrexian illness, but it was still a nice thing to do.
Despite being a key character in two novels, Venser never really distinguished himself. Magic's history is littered with sad young artificers, and his only obvious characterstic is that he's unequivocally dead--something that can't be said for any other character to appear on a Planeswalker card.
The only gorgon planeswalker known, Vraska is a minimal-fuss death-dealer with a penchant for poetic justice, at least as it pertains to the wrongs done to her. Her spark ignited while she was being brutalized by a guard during a prison riot, and after a trip away from Ravnica saved her, she came back obsessed with revenge and plotting meticulously to get it, the black side of her Golgari personality. Once she had her revenge, she maintained her usual habits of taking occasional assassination jobs until Jace became the Living Guildpact--an outsider suddenly with control over her home plane.
Vraska's attempt to bring Jace under her control failed, but she still has a long game to play. What that is, exactly, remains to be seen, but wherever somebody wants someone else dead, she might show up.
Xenagos is a bad, bad satyr. Even as a wee one he did terrible things. As a sort of master-of-revels for the satyrs of Theros, he served as a ringleader of raunch, and that's how he would have lived out his days had he not had a Planeswalker spark and ascended to see the rest of the Multiverse. Finding out that the gods of Theros meant nothing on other planes really sent him off-course, and soon enough he was hatching plans to become a god himself.
Anhedonia might not be a fate worse than death to a satyr, but it's pretty close and definitely qualifies as “hurt.” That hurt spiraled into obsession and desire, and Xenagos developed--surprisingly organically--into a red-green villain. He's comprehensible and multidimensional, one of my favorites in recent memory. It'll be interesting to see if the death of Xenagos the god also means the end of Xenagos, the Reveler.
Whew! Lots of words this time around. Can you think of a worse Planeswalker character than Tibalt? Either way, I'll see you in two weeks!