We don’t know much about War of the Spark, the set scheduled for just after Ravnica: Allegiance. What we do know so far is that it will be set on Ravnica but won’t focus on the guilds. Based on the storyline, we can expect to see the final showdown between Nicol Bolas and the Gatewatch, but what does that mean mechanically?
I have a theory that War of the Spark might be the first ever “Planeswalkers Matter” set.
What Does That Mean?
Sets frequently have a mechanical theme to tie it all together: Kaladesh was “artifacts matter”, Theros was “enchantments matter”, Dominaria was “legendary creatures matter”, and so on. In each instance we saw several cards that cared about controlling these permanent types or interacted favourably with them. Additionally, we saw a higher number of these card types in their respective sets: Theros had enchantment creatures to boost its enchantment count, while Dominaria not only had a cycle of uncommon legendary creatures (which is rare to see), but even had a slot in each booster pack that was reserved for a legendary card.
A set that focuses on planeswalkers might not go so far as to include a planeswalker in every pack, but it’s conceivable that we might see planeswalker cards at rarities other than Mythic Rare. Normal Rares would be likely, and we could even see them as low as Uncommon.
It might sound crazy, but there has been a push over the last few years to make planeswalkers easier for players to understand and to use. Between the recent rules changes and the shift to Planeswalker Decks that are designed to introduce players to Magic, planeswalkers have become less complex overall, and have become a part of regular gameplay for most players.
The major barrier to a card being printed at lower rarities like Uncommon is complexity. Seeing the efforts made to make planeswalkers more approachable to new players, seeing a cycle of them at Uncommon does not seem to be out of the realm of possibility. A style similar to the Planeswalker Deck cards are likely the sort of design we could expect at that rarity, though there was a suggestion that we may see more static abilities on planeswalkers in the future. If that’s the case, we may see planeswalkers with fewer loyalty abilities, but with a static ability to compensate. Two, or even only one loyalty ability might be a way to keep complexity, as well as power level, under control. Fewer loyalty abilities could also mean there would be room on the cards for reminder text, if R&D thought it was necessary.
Depending on the nature of those static abilities, these planeswalkers could fill the role of enchantments in the set. This might even make for better Limited game play, which is interesting; Draft and Sealed decks rarely include dedicated enchantment removal, but creatures can always attack a planeswalker to get rid of it. Facing off against a card like Dawn of Hope can be very frustrating, especially if you’re playing a red or black deck (which don’t get ways of interacting with enchantments). If those abilities were tied to a planeswalker instead, any deck could answer it with an attacker or two and a bit of luck.
Where’s the Proof?
Rules changes are usually a clue that something big is coming up. In the Ixalan block we saw planeswalkers change into legendary permanents, just before Dominaria’s legendary theme. Then, not long after, we saw the damage and targeting rules change to allow damage spells to target planeswalkers specifically. This suggests that R&D has been looking more closely at planeswalkers recently and are trying to clean things up. This could just be a long-overdue change, but the question becomes: why now? If it was because of the 25th anniversary of the game we could have expected this change to correspond with a special set like Masters 25, but it didn’t.
Historically, large rules changes like these have corresponded with the mechanics and themes in upcoming sets. The most notable instance of this might be when the rules for legendary creatures changed with Champions of Kamigawa. This was done at the same time the set released, which probably caused a bit of confusion at the time. R&D has learned a lot of lessons since then, and rolling out a rules change a little bit before it is the main mechanical focus of a set is one such lesson they have clearly adopted. We can see how changing the rules a few sets earlier made a big difference and smoothed out the release of Dominaria significantly; by the time the set came out everyone was used to the idea of planeswalkers as legendary permanents and the focus was on the new mechanics and cards of the set rather than on the new rule.
A couple of years ago it would be almost unheard of to reference the planeswalker card type at lower rarities, and yet recently we’ve seen an increase in uncommon cards that can specifically damage them. The Defeat cycle from Hour of Devastation picks them out specifically to be destroyed, and each Planeswalker deck has multiple cards at lower rarities that care about casting or controlling planeswalkers.
What is perhaps the most telling is the card Settle the Score. It is the first time we’ve seen an uncommon card that specifically adds loyalty counters to a planeswalker. This, to me, is a clear sign that Wizards is making planeswalkers more integrated with regular gameplay than ever before. They are already the marquee cards in any given product, and Wizard’s marketing seems to assume that if you want to get players excited you dangle the promise of a good planeswalker in front of them. To be fair, they’re usually right.
Exploring narrower planeswalker designs allows for more variety, too. With a few exceptions, like Teferi, many of the planeswalkers to come out recently have very specific utility. The roster of planeswalkers is getting very crowded these days, and with most planeswalkers seeing multiple versions it’s vital that each character has a clear identity. This is especially important in sets with a higher than average number of planeswalker cards. Like the legendary creatures of Dominaria, each planeswalker should support a unique play style while still complimenting each other in some way. We’ve seen as many as six planeswalkers in a single set (in Core 2015), but for the card type to really resonate as a theme a set would need significantly more than that. For reference, Dominaria included fourty-two legendary creatures, as well as a handful of other legendary cards. That many planeswalkers in one set might not be viable, but R&D has successfully executed ambitious ideas like it in the past.
The biggest indication that we are setting up for a planeswalkers-matter set is the lore. Anyone who has been following the Magic storyline for the last few years knows that Nicol Bolas is planning a major invasion of Ravnica with his agents, and the Gatewatch has been gathering allies to stop him. We can expect to see Bolas’ Eternals from Amonkhet arriving via the Planar Bridge from Kaladesh. Bolas also intends to use the Immortal Sun from Ixalan to keep anyone from leaving the plane.
The story is setting up for a massive battle between the Gatewatch and Bolas’ agents, and we know that a large quantity of planeswalkers, from both sides, are arriving on Ravnica. Even before we learned the name of the set, the story heavily suggested we would be focusing on planeswalkers, and with a set name like “War of the Spark” it only helps to reinforce this idea. The fact that this is also design space that hasn’t been explored before, it would serve as a mechanical capstone for the set that will conclude several years worth of story.
Sagas and Afflict
The story has been gradually leading up to this finale, and I feel that the mechanics over the last few years have also been preparing us for the set. It may be a bit of a stretch, but I feel the inclusion of Sagas and Afflict (in Dominaria and Hour of Devastation respectively) helped lay the groundwork for what we might see in War of the Spark.
Regarding Sagas, they play out like miniature planeswalkers, providing incremental gains over the course of several turns. Moreover, they follow a similar play pattern, with chapter three being reminiscent of a planeswalker’s “ultimate” ability. If R&D was considering making a planeswalker-centric set, the success of Sagas during the testing of Dominaria would likely have influenced their decision.
As for Afflict, it’s a bit of a stranger case. Story-wise, the Eternals apparently have some sort of disease that they spread, but this was never really explored in detail. Looking at the rest of the block, the inclusion of this mechanic felt out of place in what was otherwise a tight, thematic design.
Blocking in Amonkhet and Hour of Devastation was already difficult, so to include a mechanic that specifically disincentivises blocking seemed especially perplexing. Sure, Afflict helped to show how powerful and unrelenting the Eternals were, but in the end it ended up playing a bit like Trample. You’d be taking damage either way, so if you couldn’t destroy the attacker you just wouldn’t bother blocking.
Afflict looks a lot more interesting, however, if we consider that its presence in Hour of Devastation might actually be because they wanted it to show up again when the Eternals returned in War of the Spark.
In the context of a planeswalker-heavy set, Afflict makes a lot more sense than it did in Hour of Devastation. When creatures can be expected to be attacking planeswalkers frequently, the decision whether to let the planeswalker take the damage or to lose life from a blocked Afflict creature is much more interesting than it was in Hour of Devastation. In the Amonkhet block it was usually a case of minimizing damage, but in the context of defending a planeswalker card, suddenly there is a lot more to consider. Afflict could even be a key part of keeping games from stagnating, since slow, defensive playstyles would be a lot more common in a planeswalker-heavy format. More aggressive decks would probably need an effect like Afflict so that they could attack opposing planeswalkers while still whittling down their opponent’s life total.
It Adds Up
It’s not just one thing that leads me to my conclusion, but when all of these little details are taken together, they paint a picture that suggests we’ll see a planeswalker-themed set coming up this year. According to Mark Rosewater it’s going to be “its own unique thing and it’s mega-cool.” Time will tell, I suppose; we won’t know how accurate my prediction is until the War of the Spark spoiler season starts, later this year.
What do you think of my theory? Am I way off base, or am I actually on to something? Let me know in the comments, and if you have any theories of your own to share, I’d be happy to hear them.
We still have a long way to go before we see any more details about War of the Spark, but at least we’ve got Ravnica: Allegiance to tide us over until then!