Planeswalkers have dominated Magic: The Gathering since their original printing in Lorwyn, after their original hinting in Future Sight. That was 12 years ago, around the time when I first started playing Magic. Planeswalkers have been an integral part of the game for nearly my entire Magic experience, and I have come to love and embrace this card type along the way.
Frankly, I love planeswalkers. I think they are fun to play with, not very fun to play against, but did I mention fun to play with? I believe I did. Not very fun to play against? Let's just pretend I didn't say that. I enjoy playing with cards that require you to set up a board state and then maximize their usage on that board for them to be good. Planeswalkers require finding the right time to deploy them so that you can keep them in play for as long as possible, and that style of gameplay both involves skill and is a fun puzzle to solve.
While I generally enjoy the card type, I recognize the danger in planeswalkers and a lot of Magic players are vocal about how they greatly detest planeswalkers and their impact on the game. Extremely powerful planeswalkers like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and Elspeth, Sun's Champion can be miserable to play against and have dominated their formats—and in some cases, ruined them. The danger of planeswalkers is that when they are too good, they have the unique capability to homogenize and ruin the formats they are involved in, since they are unique cards that are often difficult to interact with.
It's for that reason that I'm now interested in planeswalkers being replaced by a new card type, planesTALKERS. HEAR me out on this one. Instead of these legendary lifeforms being able to traverse between worlds and planes, instead they are now able to merely talk between planes. When it comes to new ideas for Magic, nothing SOUNDS better than this. If you ever feel like your life needs one thing, and one thing only—to hear Ajani Goldmane-splain your problems to you through the cosmos—then petition your local R&D member and lets get the ball rolling on the multiverse's largest game of telephone.
War of the Spark, the next set coming out in the beginning of May is pushing planeswalkers to the extreme. Yes, that is planeswalkers, not planestalkers, as my brilliant idea hasn't caught on yet. Also why is WotC ignoring all my phone calls and why did I just get an email saying I've been removed from the MPL? I can't figure it out. Maybe someone can make sense of this travesty, because it seems completely unwarranted. They haven't even heard my E.T. The Extra Terramorphic land cycle idea yet. Their loss.
War of the Spark contains a whopping 36 planeswalkers in the set and there will be one copy in each pack. This is the furthest they've ever gone with planeswalkers and there's a big chance it could be a disaster, but there's also a big chance it could be awesome. I may not run these streets, but it's time I walked these planes.
I actually have a high level of faith that the 36 planeswalker experiment is going to be pretty awesome, at least this first go around, although I can't imagine a second set containing 36 planeswalkers will work nearly as well in the future. They'd have to amp it up to 37 before I could sign off on that. That's just how it goes with things like this.
For all that we as Magic players complain about change, we do tend to actually like new things a lot. The Innistrad flip cards were a massive success, as were the Sagas, legendary sorceries, and other flavor from Dominaria. The truth of the matter is that seeing more and more of the same old fare when it comes to Magic cards gets repetitive and dare I say, boring, after a while, and sets that contain new and interesting takes on Magic tend to be pretty popular.
The "one in every pack" model also has been pretty successful so far. Dominaria had one legendary creature in each pack, all of the Innistrad sets contained a transform card in each pack, and even Guilds of Ravnica and Ravnica Allegiance got in on the fun by having a guildgate in each pack.
I firmly believe this "one in every pack" model enhances Limited gameplay and improves the actual drafting experience. It helps to understand what the person passing to you chose to take or not take, making it easier for people to settle into non-competing colors, creating more a more cohesive and fun draft. Cards like guildgates, or legendary creatures in Dominaria being omnipresent also helped improve the consistency of gameplay and other mechanics in the set.
I imagine that Limited with 36 planeswalkers will actually be pretty good, because I trust that they will test the set enough to make sure that the power level of planeswalkers as well as the ways to interact with them will be balanced.
I firmly expect that with a planeswalker in each pack, we will finally see our very first rare and uncommon planeswalkers. That could be exactly the...spark...that Magic needs to reduce the power level of planeswalkers enough to make them less of the terrifying "will this ruin Magic?" question mark that comes with each set and each associated undercosted Mythic planeswalker.
I think the success of the Sagas from Dominaria is a pretty good historical precedent to suggest that they will be able to take interesting, unique effects and be able to power them down to rare and uncommon levels, and I think this is exactly what could help usher in a new age of planeswalkers being a more normalized card type in Magic, and one that we don't have to fear or expect to always command $40 price tags out of the gate(watch).
With that being said, while I expect that War of the Spark will be a fun set precisely because it does something different and has the chance to create a wildly different Limited and Constructed format than what we are used to with the influx of planeswalkers, I don't believe it will be something that they can just do all the time. I imagine if they did a redux of Dominaria with a lot of new Sagas, they would be less impressive and fun the second time around, especially if any pushed the limits on power level too far. Likewise, I'm pretty sure another heavily planeswalker-infused set wouldn't be worth doing for quite a long time after War of the Spark.
The fun is in this being something unique, different, and potentially fun via diverse and unexplored gameplay and game design space. It's a good one-off idea, not something to beat us over the head with till we hate it. Once it becomes commonplace, it loses a lot of its luster and has a big chance to turn something awesome into another ruined thing we can look back on with sad nostalgia.
One of the things that I am most excited for from War of the Spark is that printing 36 new planeswalkers is a pretty good indicator that we can also expect them to print better answers to planeswalkers as well. While cards like Sorcerous Spyglass, The Immortal Sun, Vraska's Contempt, Ixalan's Binding, Bedevil and the like are already pretty solid existing answers to planeswalkers, you can really never have too many, and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is still a dominating force in the format despite these cards.
Having more universal answers to planeswalkers is a good thing. One of the major reason that planeswalkers have been such a big problem in the past is that there haven't been good enough universal solutions. While a card like Pithing Needle, or in this case Sorcerous Spyglass, is a great answer to planeswalkers, sometimes even these cards aren't enough, because they are a tough sell to maindeck in formats like Standard where a lot of decks will render them ineffective.
I'd love to see more cards like Bedevil: playable removal spells that also slay planeswalkers, as well as creatures that more effectively threaten and take out planeswalkers. Goblin Chainwhirler is a great example of a creature that also incidentally puts pressure on planeswalkers, and I'd love to see more along those lines.
An example of a card style that I would love to see way more of is something that mirrors the effect of the card Baffling End. For example, I'd love to see them print a white creature that when it enters the battlefield exiles a creature or planeswalker, and when it dies they don't get the original card back, but rather something like a 3/3 Beast Token instead. The problem with these Deputy of Detention-style cards is that they are traditionally weak answers to planeswalkers, because your opponent can often control when they die, which means they get their planeswalker back with full starting loyalty at a time that's convenient for them. That can make them more of a liability than an answer. A more...baffling...design style a-la Baffling End would circumvent this and make it more appealing to play cards that can interact with planeswalkers instead of just hoping they don't blow up your Deputy of Detention and then tick Vivien Reid or Teferi, Hero of Dominaria up to 5 or 6.
Designing more cards that effectively deal with planeswalkers without being too narrow to maindeck would be great for the game, and even great for people like myself who love planeswalkers. Because planeswalkers are usually so hard to interact with, WotC has to water down the power level of the cards or risk them dominating a format—which means that the vast majority of planeswalkers we get are really weak, with the occasional Teferi, Hero of Dominaria dominating the format. If they improve the playable maindeck answers to planeswalkers, then they won't have to water down planeswalkers as much, making planeswalkers more fun to play with and against.
I think emblems are one of the best things about planeswalkers. They're unique—the only game mechanic that can't be interacted with. Emblems add a level of flavor and power to these mythical beings that truly evokes the experience of summoning something from outside this world, beyond what others are capable of dealing with or even seeing. I think they're a massive boon to gameplay, and genuinely cool. Making an emblem with a planeswalker always puts a smile on my face, and it's an experience that I firmly believe is worth having in Magic. However, emblems that are too easy to achieve and too unbeatable once achieved, like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria's, are a massive problem, because they are immediately game-ending and cannot be interacted with.
Would Magic be a better game if you could interact with emblems? In the case of a card like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, I would argue yes. In general, I would argue no. I hope they don't print ways to interact with emblems, but I do hope they considered the effect of emblems and how backbreaking and ruinous they can be to gameplay if they are too strong.
With 36 new planeswalkers on the way, I'm genuinely hoping we see cards with emblems like Sorin, Lord of Innistrad. Sorin was a planeswalker with a repeat, easy to achieve, spammable emblem. The emblem was also of a completely reasonable power level, making this a fun planeswalker that was never dominant. Sorin, Lord of Innistrad is one of my favorite planeswalkers of all time, enabling all my shenanigan token decks, but otherwise just being a relatively mediocre card. That's what emblems, and planeswalkers in general, should look like.
I'm hoping some of the rare and uncommon planeswalkers, if they will even exist, will follow suit. I'd love to see cheap planeswalkers that can emblem to kill themselves immediately, like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar could, but with emblems that are far less powerful than a Glorious Anthem that can't be interacted with. For example, I think it would be cool to see a planeswalker with an emblem that could mimic a card like Curse of the Pierced Heart or even Ill-Gotten Inheritance. A ticking time bomb emblem seems sweet to me, especially if low power enough to not dominate the format, but still be game-breaking in the right spot or matchup.
Garruk Relentless was, in my opinion, the best planeswalker they've ever printed. Poor Garruk. May he hopefully come back sometime in the future so that we can play with one of the greatest of all planeswalkers again. Old G Relentless was a balanced planeswalker with unique, but not overpowered abilities, that could take over games given enough time, but that didn't demand an immediate answer or the game was just over in the majority of games.
New planeswalkers, like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, Ral, Izzet Viceroy, Ob Nixilis Reignited, and the like all follow the same cookie-cutter experience of upticking for card advantage, down ticking to kill something, and an ultimate that wins the game through an emblem. Even Angrath, the Flame-Chained follows the same model, but just isn't powerful enough at it to be annoying. Instead, we love Angrath and his no fire, no steel mentality.
The Teferi model is extremely boring, and I think a poor way to design planeswalkers. Generating straight card advantage is an easy way to make a planeswalker too powerful. An extra card in hand will always be relevant, but more niche forms of advantage will only be relevant in some board states or if you've built your deck to utilize them effectively.
Instead, I think planeswalkers should generate card advantage through either gradual board presence or through more specialized uses. Garruk Relentless making 2/2 wolves was not too powerful to overcome, even if left unchecked for a few turns, and if Garruk's 3 damage was enough to kill a creature, it often died in the process as well. Garruk was versatile, but no mode was particularly overpowered, unless you hit the backside of the walker, but that took a lot of effort to achieve.
Jace, Cunning Castaway is a great example of a well-designed planeswalker. Jace creates card advantage over enough time, through duplication or free 2/2 creatures, but the creatures are easy to interact with, and while looting from the +1 improves hand quality, it doesn't actually generate an advantage that is too significant to overcome. Jace, Cunning Castaway might be a little too weak, but this is still a good model of a planeswalker with interesting abilities and a niche power level.
I hope they avoid the trap of +1 Draw a Card in the new batch and stick to designing planeswalkers that create advantages through board presence or non-traditional means instead of just raw card advantage. Let's make planeswalkers less universally applicable and more of a deckbuilding constraint. Less "good all the time" Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and more "good some of the time" Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants.
While I think War of the Spark is going to be an awesome set, I hope that they take a break from planeswalkers for a while after this. The Gatewatch storyline has been played out and I'd like to see them explore worlds where the same planeswalkers from the last world aren't the focal point of the storyline yet again. I'd love to focus on one plane by itself without an intergalactic threat looming over everything, or outside forces meddling in it.
I don't think they need to stop printing planeswalkers entirely, but I hope they take more of a backseat in the storyline, and in the set design and power level as well. I'd love to see them focus on a world unmarred by outside forces, and show us the flavor and stories from that world. Ixalan was somewhat along those lines, although I found myself not the target audience for Dinosaurs/Pirates/Merfolk/Vampires, and Jace and Vraska were still there anyway.
What I'm trying to say is pretty clear. I can't wait for more Lorwyn. It's where this saga of planeswalkers began, and maybe it can be where it also steps back a bit and lets us focus again on an awesome world without Nasty Bolasty meddling in everything. Let's go back to faeries, kithkin, and giants, and when I say giants, I don't mean Karn Liberated.
I'm excited for War of the Spark, but like any fictional war, I'm just as excited for the idyllic calm that follows.