Custom Card Game Design
After the train wreck that was Battle for Zendikar block, Shadows over Innistrad is shaping up to be a pretty sweet set. While I don’t think it will come anywhere near the original Innistrad, it’s still only a 2 on the normalized Return-to-Ravnica-Disappointment scale (which rates how disappointed you are with a return-to-set after the initial hype of returning to that plane, and on which Return to Ravnica is a 5), while Battle for Zendikar is at least an 8.
I have one problem with the set, though — the planeswalkers. Let me tell you why their designs suck:
It seems like Ob Nixilis wasn’t defeated by the Gatewatch; he merely took over Jace’s body. There seems to be a repeating pattern now that 5+-mana planeswalkers draw cards on their plus ability and remove threats on their minus ability. There is little room for variation left. At least the ultimate is different, but no one cares about that, because planeswalkers are always designed in a way that their ultimate is never activated ever. Why doesn’t Jace summon illusions for once? He does that all the time in the story. This incarnation is just boring.
Oh look, another planeswalker that draws cards on his plus ability, deals with a threat on his minus ability, and has an ultimate that is completely irrelevant. People seem to be hyped about this card, but I don’t know why. He doesn’t strike me as very constructed playable. He’s just mediocre, bland, forgettable, and has bad art.
Oh look, another planeswalker that draws cards on her plus ability, deals with a threat on her minus ability, and has an ultimate that is completely irrelevant. Ok, the ultimate is actually reached very easily, so maybe it could be relevant from time to time.
While Nahiri’s physical appearance inexplicatly didn’t change after centuries of being mortal, her spellbook changed quite a lot. I don’t mind that she got a new slice of abilities to represent her turn to the dark side, but she doesn’t feel like a Nahiri at all. It would have been nice if she had at least something to do with equipments, or artifacts in general.
The white in her also doesn’t really reflect in her abilities. The plus and the ultimate are both mono red, and only the minus ability is red-white. Despite all my criticism, I’m willing to give her a pass because the abilities do convey the story of Shadows over Innistrad very well.
“Hey, but what about Arlinn Kord? She’s pretty unique, right?” you’re saying. No, she’s not! She’s just another spin on a planeswalker template that’s also overdone by now: The four mana planeswalker that spits out 2/2 tokens on a zero-ability. The transform ability is very cool, but she has so much text on her and only so little of that text is relevant. The ultimate would allow you to kill your opponent in a slightly cooler way, but unfortunately your opponent is dead long before you reach it. The two plus abilities are unnecessary in my opinion; either make them identical to reduce the complexity or remove the plus ability of the transformed side altogether.
Yes, Arlinn Kord is very cool, but like with all of these four planeswalkers, there is something obviously flawed about her design, and I cannot understand why these planeswalkers got their stamp of approval the way they are. It really seems to me like the design phase of these cards lasted for about five minutes, and they used the first few abilities they could come up with, while the rest of the time was spent on development to get the numbers right. They may be very well tuned as a result — but their design is so damn flawed!
I thought that we would see new, interesting concepts, like the Magic Origins flipwalkers, more often, but instead Wizards of the Coast seemed to be content here with just iterating upon the templates that have “worked” in the past. Quote unquote because I feel like a flaw with many planeswalkers is that just repeatedly using the minus ability is almost always the right play.
Doing it better
I complain a lot, but I also think that I can do it better. Here are two planeswalkers from my Shandalar set:
Liliana uses the Chain Veil to temporarily boost her power, while the Raven Man is as elusive as he is in the story. He can never be killed in combat, but also doesn’t affect the board except for threatening to ultimate.
It’s entirely possible that these two planeswalkers wouldn’t be able to pass through development, but if not, I’m sure there are similarly wild designs that would.