Disposable Characters

As Magic’s storyline becomes more and more important to the creative minds behind the game, a trend emerges: Some characters are never truly in danger. If Magic needs Jace and his friends, are the stakes ever really high? JDB studies the superhero problem in contemporary Magic storytelling.

The world of Innistrad is a marvelous mess right now. Nahiri, the Harbinger (harbinger of what?) is plotting to wreck Sorin’s existence and has put her plots in motion with all the fury of a 1980s Metallica song. Cultists are gathering in distant fields and in the holiest halls of the Church of Avacyn. Teenage twin terrors Gisa and Geralf are waging necromantic war and befriending malicious planeswalkers.

And hovering above it all is an Eldritch Moon, mysterious and doom-laden.

There’s only one character guaranteed to make it out of Shadows over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon relatively okay: Jace Beleren.

He’s part of the Gatewatch, you see. He’s the “Mickey Mouse of Magic.” He’s got plot armor. He may walk the planes, but he’s not going anywhere.

And that’s terrible news for just about everyone else on the plane, because their odds of perishing just went up.

How did we get here, and which planeswalker’s chance of dying (more or less permanently) is greatest?

The “Superhero Problem”

With the announcement of the Gatewatch, Wizards has codified what players have long suspected: certain characters (currently Chandra, Gideon, Jace, and Nissa) are effectively untouchable, and all others are disposable. That’s not to say the Core Four can’t be hurt — as of the last Chandra sighting, she can’t walk after her massive burn spell to take out Ulamog and Kozilek — but until one of the Core Four goes the way of Ned Stark and it sticks, any peril they get into amounts to “How will they get out of it?” or “Which friends/loved ones are going to die to hurt these characters?” rather than “Will they survive?”

And if Jace and Tamiyo are running around on one of the most perilous planes in the Multiverse, and Jace can’t die, well, I wouldn’t want to be in Tamiyo’s gorgeous Kamigawan footwear. As a “rule for thriller writing” I read somewhere a long time ago (and I wish I could remember whose it was) says, “If the action’s bogging down, just kill someone.”

Of course, it’s not all bad news for the seemingly doomed satellite crew, either. As Magic’s storytelling moves toward the “Justice League” model, so too will its treatment of death, at least among planeswalker characters who can be monetized in the future. (Non-planeswalker characters limited to one world are far more likely to remain stuffed in the proverbial refrigerator.)

Dead parents.

Since the creation of the planeswalker creature type and its introduction in Lorwyn, four planeswalker characters (out of 32 and counting, as of Shadows over Innistrad) can be said to have died while planeswalkers in one form or another. (This excludes Narset, who died as a legendary creature in the Khans of Tarkir timeline but has her spark ignite in the Dragons of Tarkir timeline.)

Schroedinger’s Narset, based on whether a player who was around for Khans of Tarkir also was around for Dragons of Tarkir.

Working backwards in set-release time:

Ugin, the Spirit Dragon perished in mortal combat with Nicol Bolas during the events of Fate Reforged. In the Khans of Tarkir timeline, Ugin was dead; after Fate Reforged, in which Sarkhan Vol saved Ugin and encased him in protective hedrons, Ugin remained alive for Sorin Markov to discover.

Xenagos, the Reveler went from introduction to apparent death in just one block. The snarky Satyr, having discovered other planes and how the gods of his home plane possessed no influence over them, plotted his own rise to godhood in Theros. In Born of the Gods, he completed his deification, joining the pantheon as Xenagos, God of Revels. In Journey into Nyx, he was the victim of literal Deicide, taking an Elspeth Tirel spear to the chest.

The article “Checking in on the Planeswalkers (2015)” suggests Xenagos is dead-dead, but Theros is a Greek mythology-inspired plane with a prominent Underworld led by Erebos, God of the Dead, so one can’t count him out just yet. And speaking of the Underworld…

Elspeth Tirel is in that Underworld, having received a “shank you very much” from Heliod, God of the Sun after her destruction of Xenagos. Elspeth’s life was one trauma after another: being born on a Phyrexian-dominated plane, seeing her storybook adopted home of Bant subsumed into the greater Alara, being unable to save Mirrodin from turning into New Phyrexia, finding and losing Daxos of Meletis, and finally becoming Elspeth, Sun’s Champion before getting killed as a “reward” for fulfilling her task.

Just as Daxos came back from the Underworld, though, Elspeth has a chance to do the same. How she will do so, if she ever does, remains a mystery, but with her presence in the Underworld highlighted so many times and specified (compared to the fate of Xenagos), it seems only a matter of time before Wizards Creative busts her out of Death Jail.

Venser was the first post-Time Spiral block planeswalker to bite the dust. Originally introduced as a legendary creature in Future Sight, the artist formerly known as Venser, Shaper Savant was a tinkerer and teleportation genius whose work with Phyrexian technology drew the attention (and anger) of Mirrodin-born planeswalker Koth of the Hammer. While on a quest with Koth and Elspeth Tirel to rescue Karn and save Mirrodin from the Phyrexians, Venser became increasingly sick. Venser sacrificed his life and planeswalker spark, a last gift to Karn from a dying man.

Out of four post-Time Spiral planeswalkers with canon, “on-stage” deaths…

Ugin was revived by altering time.

Elspeth is in an Underworld that’s almost as porous as Arkham Asylum, walking around with everything but a neon sign blinking “I’m coming back!”

Xenagos is apparently dead, but nobody else has been a Theran god and a planeswalker simultaneously before, so nobody really knows what he could’ve survived (or how); perhaps a cult still worships him in secret and dreams of him at night, creating an opportunity for a divine return.

Venser is quite thoroughly dead, but if Karn goes to some weird place where “whatever’s in your subconscious is made real” or some comic book-style workaround, who knows.

All this is to say that, should one or more planeswalkers die during the events of Eldritch Moon, it wouldn’t surprise me, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to stick, either.

The “Other Planeswalkers” of Eldritch Moon

Besides Jace, several other planeswalkers are hanging out on Innistrad:

Arlinn Kord is the spark-ignited Werewolf who can change forms at will.

Liliana Vess is the centuries-old planeswalker whose first planeswalk was to Innistrad and whose history includes a business-and-pleasure relationship with Jace.

Nahiri is the Lithomancer become the Harbinger, a Kor of Zendikar who sacrificed her plane to seal away the Eldrazi and went looking for her past partners when they didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.

Sorin Markov is Innistrad’s privileged outcast Vampire, creator of Archangel Avacyn as protector of the plane’s Humans (aka the Vampires’ food source). One of the aforementioned “past partners” of Nahiri.

Tamiyo is the Moon Sage of Kamigawa, a scholar studying the effects of Innistrad’s silver moon…and the new one that has appeared in her calculations.

If we take Jace out of the death pool, which planeswalkers stand the best (worst?) chance of dying?

Arlinn Kord: While planeswalkers with red and green in their color identities aren’t known for staying that way and staying in the storyline (Sarkhan Vol changed colors a lot, Domri Rade disappeared from the storyline after Return to Ravnica, and Xenagos has been a one-block wonder so far), I don’t think Arlinn Kord is going to perish. She’s played only a small part in the storyline so far, and as one of the few planeswalkers to be middle-aged and show it, she fills an important demographic niche. Offing her now would have little resonance in-story and way too much outside it. Chance of dying: low.

Liliana Vess: As an ex-lover of Jace and his hostess on one of his early nights on Innistrad, Liliana Vess would be a prime candidate to get “stuffed in the fridge” in most other stories. On the other hand, Liliana has been built up so much, particularly with the mysteries of The Chain Veil and the Raven Man, that her death would be a pointless waste. Chance of dying: low.

Nahiri: Now I’m getting worried. Shadows over Innistrad brought us a Nahiri bent on revenge. We still don’t have a full story from her point of view, but even when told through Sorin’s eyes, it’s probable that Nahiri was stuck in the Helvault for hundreds of years, and after she got out, she went back to Zendikar to find it overrun by the hated Eldrazi. That’d make almost anyone thirst for revenge.

Suppose she gets her revenge, though. What would she do next? Go try to find Ugin and ask of him a reckoning, when it ended so badly when she tried that on Sorin? And if she fails, will she simply retreat to another plane with friendlier soil, wrap herself in stone, and meditate on another plan? One way or another, Nahiri’s main story is nearing its end, and “Jace shows Nahiri Zendikar is okay again and Nahiri and Nissa become Nature’s Buddy Cops” is about the only happy ending I can find. Chance of dying: moderate.

Sorin Markov: If Nahiri is in danger, Sorin Markov is pretty well screwed. For all his long life, he’s shown mostly as a taker, getting whatever he can out of various planes. He has only two “achievements” highlighted in the story: imprisoning the Eldrazi and creating the Avacyn / Helvault system to protect Innistrad and its denizens from outside forces (and each other). The Helvault is no more, and as for Avacyn…


All of Sorin Markov’s accomplishments will be undone. If he makes something new, that might well be his final gesture. Chance of dying: high.

Tamiyo: Oh dear. Tamiyo is not only a character from an unpopular plane (though Kamigawa is apparently no longer “plane non grata“), but she’s also competition with Jace for the mono-blue planeswalker spot. She’s been seen in Jace’s company on the Magic Game Day playmat, yet she’s not well-developed as a character aside from her “aloof investigator” personality. Put it all together, and one of them’s about to go. Since it sure as heck won’t be Jace… Chance of dying: I just got back from the wake.

Those are my predictions. I’m not necessarily happy with them, especially since I like what little I’ve seen of Tamiyo, but I have to follow the evidence and I don’t think Avacyn will be the only notable character to perish this go-round.

Do you agree with my assessment? Whom do you think will make it off Innistrad alive?