I thought "Magic 2016" would be the last core set.
I was wrong. It's Magic Origins instead.
As the corporate press release makes clear , Magic Origins is considered a "core set" internally, the last of its kind. On the other hand, it's also the single most story-driven core set ever, focusing on five particular Planeswalkers:
Gideon Jura for White
Jace Beleren for Blue
Liliana Vess for Black
Chandra Nalaar for Red
Nissa Revane for Green
(Note that those specific cards might not appear in Magic Origins; I have no insider information, and frankly, I don't want it! I'm just listing their family names as well as their given names.)
This lineup is notable for several reasons:
More women than men. It's a three-two split between the Jund women and the Azorius men.
These five Planeswalkers will be core to the stories Magic tells for at least two years (four blocks) going forward. As mentioned in the announcement at Pro Tour Fate Reforged, Magic Origins is a set-up set for what's to come.
These five Planeswalkers all have multiple card versions and never have appeared in two-color form. Nissa's dabbled in black magic in the past, but not enough for it to count in her casting cost or her abilities whenever she gives an assist.
These five Planeswalkers contain most of the actual or plausible romantic entanglements seen so far in the post-Future Sight era. Both were set up in the now-defunct Planeswalker novels. Agents of Artifice saw Jace and Liliana get romantically involved, and somehow it wasn't entirely a seduction game on Liliana's end. In The Purifying Fire, the straitlaced order-mage Gideon and the freewheeling fire mage Chandra have some interesting interactions over the course of the novel, including saving each other at least once; while it's not canon that there's a romance between the two, it wouldn't take much for those opposites to attract.
Four of the five have interacted with at least one of the others. In addition to the Liliana-Jace and Chandra-Gideon links, a Jace-Chandra confrontation was at the heart of the webcomic Fuel for the Fire. Only Nissa is isolated, as she interacted mostly with Sorin Markov on Zendikar; on the other hand, both she and Gideon Jura are searching for a solution to the Multiverse's great big Eldrazi problem.
The same five Planeswalkers are represented in the upcoming Magic board game. Now named Arena of the Planeswalkers (echoes of Duels of the Planeswalkers to my ears), the board game recently had its media info updated to include the Gideon/Jace/Liliana/Chandra/Nissa characters. This would be good planning anyway (play the board game, meet the characters' origin stories in the card game), but I suspect there's something more behind it.
The great big X-factor in all of the recent Magic moves is the prospect of Magic: The Gathering: The Film. The project was announced way back in January 2014 and even Mark Rosewater is refusing to give any clues about it, no matter how obscure. Turning Magic into a movie franchise would be a tremendous boon to Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro in general, and when seen through the triple-F prism of "future film franchise," suddenly certain moves take on a whole new meaning.
Five Planeswalkers being at the core of sets' stories for years to come? That means plenty of time to get to know the characters...and friendly faces to greet crossover players.
Characters sharply defined by a single color? Tentpole movies don't have time for complicated characters. Even Sorin Markov's too nuanced for a popcorn movie. Just put the hunky order-justice mage on the run with the cute chaos-indulging fire mage and let the money roll in.
While we're on the topic of love, one confirmed romantic attachment and a major case of belligerent sexual tension? Every summer blockbuster needs its love subplot(s)! I can just see a Gideon-Nissa pairing being shoehorned into the script as they bond over their mutual Eldrazi problems. One moment they're talking tactics, and the next her kiss wakes his world!
Four humans and one elf of human-like proportions? Because the Lord of the Rings films proved that elf prosthetics could work, whereas modeling Ajani would take up too much of a CGI budget that must be devoted to magical fireworks above all else. Millions for explosions, not one cent for cat fur!
Speaking of proportions, there's a distinct absence of characters who'd be hard to cast. The most bulked-up dude is Gideon, who's basically "military fit" rather than having the muscles upon muscles of Garruk Wildspeaker -- a Vin Diesel type, if you will. Jace is slender. Liliana, Chandra, and Nissa are all statuesque with nothing Amazonian about them.
And as for Magic Origins...what do property-based movies like better than an origin story?
I could be completely off, of course, but to me it would be more surprising if Magic weren't bending itself around the film adaptation.
About Those Origins...
Back to Magic Origins, the storyline aspects. What do we know so far about the origins of the five?
Step one is to know that things can and will change from what's established in canon not directly linked to cards or DailyMTG.com. While I wouldn't expect Gideon's father to be a big part of his life, for example, it wouldn't shock me if some small details of this or that character's early years, mentioned once in a book few read, would get fudged.
As is usual for articles making a deep-dive into character biographies (such as last year's quick-hits-of-all-the-Planeswalkers version), I'm indebted to the MTGSalvation Wiki.
Nissa: Of the five, Nissa's pre-spark existence is the shortest relative to the average lifetime for her species. With her inquiring mind, she was a misfit among her people, the Joraga elves of Bala Ged on Zendikar. (Hers is the only home plane known in canon.) Much of her pre-Eldrazi time, both before and after her Planeswalker spark ignited, was spent trying to suppress her curiosity and just "going with the flow" of the traditional Joraga ways, particularly after her first Joraga tribe exiled her.
Of the five Planeswalkers in Magic Origins, I see Nissa as the most likely to get a new card. She's an elf of a certain age in her first card appearance, and older and wiser still when she became Nissa, Worldwaker. A just-after-sparking Nissa would be interesting to see.
Chandra: Chandra Nalaar just can't catch a break in her life. She manifested fire magic on an unknown plane where there's also a really powerful order that hates fire magic. Her parents tried several ways to cure her, finally deciding to marry her off in an attempt to "settle" her. Her response was to set part of her village on fire and run away -- not the most mature decision, but partly understandable. Unfortunately for Chandra, her big boom brought the attention of the fire-haters, who saw the level of destruction and concluded that it wasn't the work of one upset mage, but a whole village of fire practitioners.
The fire-haters rounded up all of Chandra's village and burned them alive, which Chandra didn't take kindly to, either. She couldn't rescue anyone, and when the last person she loved was dead, she surrendered, and only her spark's ignition saved her from death. The card Chandra Nalaar could represent her after her time spent at a certain monastery founded by devotees of Jaya Ballard.
Liliana: The list of troubled pasts continues with Liliana Vess. On an unknown plane, she once was a young healer, a spoiled ruler's daughter who liked boys and didn't care much about her reputation. As shown in the Magic webcomic The Raven's Eye, she tried to save her brother but wound up harming him irreparably, leading to her exile. What happened between that and her spark igniting is a mystery, but somewhere along the way she got really good at making corpses do what she wanted.
A truly young Liliana -- not young-seeming as she is now, but chronologically in her twenties or so -- might be Liliana Vess or someone less experienced. Either way, she'll still be seductive and dangerous.
Jace: It's impossible to keep a secret from some kids, and the telepathic Jace certainly qualified. To get him out of the household, Jace's parents made him apprentice to a mage who trained him. Everything seemed to be going well until, in the grand tradition of the upcoming generation testing itself against the established, Jace tried his telepathy act on the mage and discovered he was a Planeswalker -- and had been for a year. The mage had lied to Jace about the Blind Eternities Jace had seen.
After a few days of emo-ing over this knowledge, Jace Mind Sculpted his teacher and fled. Later, he Mind Sculpted himself to cut his guilt out of his psyche -- the first of many such self-inflicted mental surgeries. Will we see Eager Jace? Guilty Jace? Both?
Gideon: I've covered Gideon in the past (Ctrl-F for "Gideon" in this link). The short version: raised by single mom, joined rob-from-rich-and-give-to-poor gang after her death, got busted, learned order-magic from his one-on-one jailer who notably did not lie to Gideon about Gideon's spark ignition (cough cough, Jace's mentor), quest to bring order to the Multiverse.
Also as I mentioned, "order" is a graft onto Gideon's true personality, which is centered around justice. As much as I'd like to see Gang Leader Gideon in Magic, I expect we'll get his "learning to use order magic and a whip" phase instead.
With its concentrated storyline emphasis unlike anything seen before in a past core set, Magic Origins is shaping up to look like a Vorthos win. What do you want to see from Magic Origins in your Vorthosian heart-of-hearts?