With the news that five Planeswalkers will be compleat by the end of the Phyrexian storyline, Kristen makes a case as to why Nahiri far better as an anti-hero than a villain.
During the first look at Phyrexia: All Will Be One on the WeeklyMtG stream, Blake & co announced that there would be stylized alternate art treatments of the ten planeswalkers in the set. This art depicts them as Phyrexianized – a “what if” scenario.
They then dropped the news that for five of them (excluding Koth, who is confirmed safe), this would indeed be happening – they would fall to Phyrexia. Naturally, this got the community talking, and minds are currently ablaze trying to theorize who is safe and who’s on the chopping block. While I’d be pretty stoked to see Jace & Vraska as a Phyrexian power-couple, and could understand why Nissa or Tyvar might fall prey to the Phyrexians, there are other walkers I’m not so keen on losing at this juncture.
Magic Has a Trope Problem
When it comes to using tropes in the Magic story, it’s to be expected. Tropes are, at heart, common themes and ideas that have persisted through traditional stories and, nowadays, popular media. The monomyth, the hero’s journey, and Jungian archetypes – they’re all fascinating avenues to explore when it comes to plotting a story. Tropes are the derivative form, or evolution, of these ideas.
In the run up to Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, I wrote about how the set was our on-ramp to Universes Beyond. Much like the set explored the themes of tradition vs modernity, I presented this narrative platform as a tool for Wizards to communicate to Magic players that tradition would indeed be meeting modernity in Magic sets going forward. I expressed how I was anxious that they handle this in a respectful and novel way, so as to not fall into tired trope traps. For the most part, I would say they succeeded here. The “old meets new” story of NEO was enjoyable, relatable, and – crucially for Magic players – believable. It felt right.
While this trope was handled well, there are some tropes that are getting a little old at this point. With the adoption of the Gatewatch storyline, many comic-book narratives and tropes were layered onto the wider narrative arc, and for some? Well, it felt clumsy, and redundant. The wave that Marvel rode on to great heights was already receding, and the characters felt predictable. I, for one, think this narrative choice also did a lot of good for the game, and I think it captured a lot of new fans in the post-Magic Origins era. Those same fans have cooled during narrative low points (think post-Ixalan, War of the Spark onwards) when that same level of investment in the story and the characters dropped off.
We Need a Reason to Go Back
The biggest modern misstep, in my opinion, is that Wizards just loves to kill off or otherwise remove our white-aligned “Paragon” characters. That’s fine, in moderation, but it’s becoming a little tiresome now.
In quick succession, we lost fan-favorite Avacyn during the Shadows Over Innistrad arc. We also lost Bruna and Gisela, cult favorites, which was a double whammy in the same block. After that, we lost Gideon during the events of War of the Spark. At this point, we were still using the trope responsibly, and in a way that resonated with fans. It was a little much to lose so many Angels in one fell swoop, but it could be forgiven.
On our return to Innistrad last year, we also “lost” Odric. He was turned into a vampire, and though he retained his moral compass – effectively becoming a “Blade” like character – it still felt like a betrayal, especially when the card itself was pretty medium in an era where white and Boros cards are expected to be pushing boundaries. For some fans, this was a little much, and I get it.
We need a reason to go back to Innistrad, and right now, our list of recognisable heroes to return to is looking pretty thin. I use the term hero here in relation to traditional concepts of heroes; stoic, just, and classical renditions of relatable, against-the-odds badasses. While bringing Liesa back was cool, there’s only really Thalia left, and I’m sure I’m not the only one panicking seeing her on packaging for March of the Machine.
If Thalia ends up kicking the bucket, the investment in Innistrad as a plane will potentially sink too low to interest people in returning. Without our favorite heroes to catch up with, it’s just another Gothic horror plane.
In the lead up to ONE, we also lost Ajani and Jaya, two older characters that it’s arguably fine to lose, even if their losses are being used ostensibly to motivate Chandra. Even still, that’s another white-aligned hero we’ve lost, and a mentor character. The trope bingo card is getting a little overfilled on these slots.
Nahiri Isn’t a Villain
At least not in the traditional sense – she’s an anti-hero. Anti-heroes are complex and interesting characters with intense backstories. Often, they are much more relatable than traditional evil villains, and for that reason, they’ve become a tired trope in their own way. Modern media has been criticized for humanizing villains that don’t need it. Instead, we need to let villains be villains, because giving every villain a tragic backstory ruins the concept of villainy in the first place… Like having Cruella’s origin being her mother’s murder by a pack of Dalmatians. It just doesn’t work.
One of the most successful villains in recent times is Dedra Meero from Andor. Dedra is calculated and competent. She is deadly, cunning, and you absolutely don’t want to cross her. We are invested in her rise to villainy, and her career, but not so much her motivations. We don’t need to know why she is with the Empire, and our admiration of her cruel efficiency would be marred if we were given a tragic backstory – it would only weaken her villainy.
Nahiri manages to remain popular in spite of the trope because we’ve followed her story from the beginning. We’ve witnessed her apparent betrayal, and felt her justified anger and resentment at her abandonment. Though nuking an entire plane with an Eldrazi doesn’t fall under the definition of “reasonable force”, it is more understandable that she’d resort to such an unhinged response considering she spent thousands of years prior trapped in a prison with the worst of demonkind, only to return to Zendikar to see her home plane devastated. She embodies white and red mana perfectly, with all of its positives and negatives, and though her intentions and strength of character are more admirable than her actions, she remains a flawed character.
Flawed anti-heroes are some of the most relatable characters in fiction. It’s one of the reasons I think Nahiri fits the Tarot card of the Five of Swords so well:
Compleating Nahiri Would Be A Waste
Magic’s rich story works when it gives us a blend of antagonists. Unspeakable Eldritch horror, authoritarian “greater good” regimes, warring clans, and scheming supervillains. They all have their place, and they all help tell different kinds of tales. Anti-heroes are just as vital to a well-seasoned story soup, though, and Nahiri is one of the best ones we currently have.
When we last left off with her, her goals and intentions were, again, relatable: wanting to restore stability to Zendikar and restore her people to the heights of power and prosperity they enjoyed before the rise of the Eldrazi. Despite joining up with Nissa initially, Nissa eventually betrayed her, siding with nature instead; as activating the Lithoform Core to remove the roil would also do irreparable damage to Zendikar’s natural ecosystem. Thwarted by a Jace & Nissa tag team, Nahiri planeswalked away, swearing revenge on Jace.
Having Nahiri compleated in the ONE storyline would be such a huge waste of potential. Magic has built up and invested in a strong, volatile, but relatable anti-hero, and she has more to offer. She could currently go either way, with both redemption and a more single-minded descent into main antagonist on the table.
Wizards have long kept Nicol Bolas in the wings, but we both know he’s more of a saturday morning cartoon style big-bad, and not as interesting or versatile an antagonist as Nahiri could be. Nahiri gives us tension in a way that villains like Bolas can’t. Her motivations are always easier to identify with, even if her methods are not. If she survives the Phyrexian threat, we could see her on a single-minded crusade to eliminate the very possibility of future multiversal threats by searching for a way to eliminate Planeswalkers or Planar travel.
She also anchors us to Zendikar, arguably more than Nissa does right now. The consequences of Nissa using the Lithoform Core have yet to be seen, and Nahiri could make for a compelling protagonist in our next visit to the plane. That’s not to mention her relationship with both Jace and Nissa. With those walkers on the shortlist for compleation too, there’s ample opportunity for Nahiri to get embroiled in the plot. Would she enact revenge in a cowardly and dastardly manner? Would she be motivated and useful as a tool to put down Jace and Nissa for good? Would it be amazing to see her reaction at a desperate attempt to beat the Phyrexians that involved releasing Nicol Bolas or Emrakul? Hell yes!
Kill Off the Rest of the Color Pie
It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a Nahiri fan, so I am probably a little biased here, but she deserves to outlast this current threat to the multiverse. It’s time for some of the main gang to move on, just like Tony Stark and Captain America did. Jace has nowhere left to go in his story. Arguably, neither does Nissa. Let them go, and let Nahiri be happy for you or sorry that happened.
It’s easy to throw Lukka under the bus given his relative lack of popularity, and I can’t say I’m not intrigued to see Jace and Vraska, reunited in villainy. When we look at the rest, I think Kaya is pretty safe. She’s badass, very popular, and has a really cool brand of powers. Do you know who else fits that bill?
The Wandering Emperor.
I’m not afraid to say it, but The Wanderer is one of the coolest characters to join Magic’s cast of Planeswalkers for a long time. Her inability to control her spark made for a novel approach to planeswalking, and I’m only sorry we didn’t see more of her mystery unfold over the three years between War of the Spark and Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty. Like Kaya, she has unique and interesting abilities, and it’s those abilities that give her the potential for more story in the future. Besides which, we’ve only just gotten to know her, relatively speaking.
There is one elephant in the room, though – Elspeth. As much as I’ve complained about us losing our valiant heroes, we did actually get given one back in Elspeth, who rose from the underworld in Theros: Beyond Death. I guess that she’s been in the back of my mind for a number of reasons, not least the lack of multiple sets to tell the story of her return. Elspeth does tick the boxes of the kind of white mana aligned character that Magic needs, and I would be really sad to see her come back to just die again. For the time being at least, she feels safe – like Teferi, she has big main character energy.
And that’s a great point – outside of the classic archetype of Knight Errant, Magic has some excellent heroes. Teferi is one of my favorite characters; Kaya is frickin’ badass, and I’ve always had a soft spot for Narset, too. The mana system in Magic means that one hero’s expression of a color is different to another’s, and different again to a villain like Dovin Baan. I guess unless you’re a green planeswalker, at which point you’re usually an ecoterrorist or himbo.
Time and time again, though, people connect with the sword-wielding, armor-clad warrior. I think it would be a huge mistake to compleat our best anti-hero, Nahiri. It would also be tiresome and disappointing to lose another white-aligned “Paragon” character in The Wandering Emperor, especially given how new she is. It would be like losing Basri Ket before seeing him do more than headline a return to Amonkhet. Take Lukka instead, nobody likes Lukka.
These are my main fears with how the Phyrexia: All Will Be One storyline plays out. Of course, there are in-universe ways to reverse compleation, but if there were no consequences to Magic’s equivalent to Avengers: End Game? Well, that would be pretty lame too.
So who should get Compleated? Who’s safe? Let me know your ideas on Twitter. Just know that if I lose Nahiri and The Wandering Emperor, I might go on an anti-hero arc of my own.
Kristen is Card Kingdom’s Head Writer, and member of the Commander Advisory Group. Formerly a competitive Pokémon TCG grinder, she has been playing Magic since Shadows Over Innistrad, which in her opinion, was a great set to start with. When she’s not taking names with Equipment and Aggro strategies in Commander, she loves to play any form of Limited.