The Rise of Wishlist Legends (and Fall of Varchild)
Once upon a time, new legendary cards for characters from older storylines, or characters who died in-story, were just a pipe dream. The whole internet swarmed with custom card versions of Serra, Urza, and Feldon. Then Research and Design wised up to the fact that, yes, major story characters should get their own cards. Time Spiral happened, bringing in the ghosts of Dominaria past to a time rift-ravaged present. Next came Commander and its sequels, along with new-card core sets, disregarded the flow of time altogether. These sets shined the spotlight on personalities from long-concluded Magic: The Gathering storylines who never saw the light of cardboard.
Once an unrealistic hope, old-character legends are now a well-established tradition. Lately, Commander releases in particular tend to feature at least one of these characters, and often a few more. With Commander 2019 swiftly approaching, it's time to look at just how R&D puts these kinds of cards together.
Before I begin, it's important to note some "updates" for older legendary versions of beloved characters don't hold up as modern design. These creatures are an entirely different category I intend to cover in a wholly separate article. In other words, making a Gerrard Capashen that's playable, flavorful, and fun is not the same as making a new card for Pivlic, the Orzhov impish restaurateur, from scratch. With that in mind, let's look at an example in-depth.
Varchild, Betrayer of Kjeldor: History and Lore
Varchild has always been a really interesting character to me. She's a pretty despicable villain, basically intent on genocide of the Balduvian nation, but it's easy to see how the circumstances of her life put her on the path to such evil.
Born on the frontier between Kjeldor and Balduvia, Varchild lost multiple close family members in the border skirmishes with the Balduvian tribes. When she moved to Krov to start her career in knighthood, her colleagues treated her with prejudice, believing the frontier Kjeldorans were just as barbarous as the Balduvians. She still managed to have a long and honorable military career that included some genuine heroism, notably saving Darien, King of Kjeldor's life from the Stromgald conspiracy.
The tipping point for Varchild came during Kjeldor's war against Lim-Dûl's undead. King Darien knew in order to stand a chance, Kjeldor needed allies - specifically, Balduvia. Fighting side by side with the tribes that made her childhood a dangerous, violent hell, Varchild snapped.
She raised a militia in defiance of the king she once served so loyally, setting out with the goal of killing every Balduvian man, woman, and child and razing all of their settlements to the ground. Her vile plan ultimately failed when Darien's daughter, Princess Alexandrite, married Balduvian Prince Lothar Lovisason, uniting the two nations into New Argive.
Varchild: Design and Development
Varchild is a tough nut to crack as a card. She has a long story with lots of twists and turns, particularly for a one-block character. She's also pretty definitively evil by the end of it, although she starts out on the side of right and her fall from grace has a clear explanation. Her motives can be understood, even empathized with at times, even if her actions can't be condoned whatsoever. How do you make a tragic villain who is an important secondary character in a twist-filled storyline into a card?
Mark Rosewater's most oft-repeated advice for designing legends is to strip the character down to a small handful of their most salient aspects. The classic example is Superman. Good old Supes has had dozens of different powers during his many decades in the comics. Other character traits include his civilian identity as a leading journalist, his weakness to kryptonite, his home at the Fortress of Solitude, and many others. A sensible approach to adapting him into a Magic card would be giving him abilities representing his most-used or most-useful superpowers. He can fly (flying), he is super-durable (indestructible), he can move at incredible speeds (haste), and he has heat vision (possibly tapping to deal damage). It's not a perfect be-all, end-all translation of who a character is, but playing with such a card should give you a sense of what the character can do.
Using this approach, it's time to consider the flavorful and functional aspects of Varchild's card starting from the top of the card and working downwards.
Name: "Varchild, Betrayer of Kjeldor" is a succinct description of what Varchild becomes by the end of her story. It's also a pretty solidly ironic title for her, given her feverish, nationalistic "love" for Kjeldor. At one point in her past, she helped save her king and country from the Order of Stromgald and Lim-Dûl's plot. Even by the end of her story, she genuinely believes the complete destruction of Balduvia and the Balduvians is the only way to keep Kjeldor safe. But ultimately, she raises a private military force loyal to her, not to Kjeldor. This threatens the peace and unity of the country she professes to love.
Mana Cost/Color: All of Varchild's associated cards (Varchild's Crusader, Varchild's War-Riders, etc.) are red. While you can argue her character has a few white-aligned aspects, I find her motivations and personality to fit in very with mono-red. Despite this, she only has one colored mana requirement at , meaning it's easier to put her in a red-white deck alongside other white, Kjeldoran-themed cards.
Art: We last saw Varchild in Omen of Fire, a classic and moody piece by Pete Venters, even if the overall tone is pretty lurid. She isn't wearing the same suit of armor in her C18 version, but similar motifs decorate it. As she's on horseback in her new card art and standing in Omen, it's possible that even in the same period of her life she had separate "infantry" and "cavalry" armor sets (she could definitely afford it on a general's salary!).
In the C18 art, her attire gains a full-on lion theme, including a very villainous bone-colored lion head helmet with a blood-red fur crest. I've seen complaints that her pose is awkward, but I like how she's decisively leading as a town goes up in flames in the background, assured in her mission. That fire is some of the most viscerally real in Magic art, probably because it's clearly burning down houses; it makes me anxious to look at it for too long. It is also pretty appropriate her eyes are almost entirely in shadow.
Typeline: It's pretty obvious why "Legendary," "Creature," and "Human" are all there. Adding "Knight," in addition to evoking Varchild's original profession, gives the card a decidedly old-school feel. We only occasionally see mono-red Knights these days, but they were a bit more prevalent closer to Ice Age's release (e.g. Márton Stromgald or the Betrayer's very own Varchild's Crusader).
Abilities: Varchild creates scads of Survivor tokens (1/1 red vanillas) for her controller's opponents. This is a clear, flavorful throwback to Alliance's Varchild's War-Riders, which produced the same creatures. She protects her controller from those tokens and makes them entirely unable to block, meaning their only combat use is against players who don't control Varchild. Topping it all off, when Varchild leaves the battlefield, her controller gains control of all of the Survivors.
Varchild precipitates tense multiplayer politics, which is a very good representation of the story of her betrayal. Wherever she attacks, people are forced to become refugees, and wherever those refugees go, their new neighbors refuse to trust them. Her personal crusade begins to foment civil war, until she's out of the way. At that point, all of the displaced people whose homes she destroyed can finally come together under the unified nation of New Argive.
Her leaves-the-battlefield gain-control effect also makes her card feel even more old-school without truly breaking the color pie. Older red cards like Aladdin, Conquer, Hivis of the Scale, and Orcish Squatters cause their controller to gain control of permanents for longer than one turn. Varchild's ability, however, while superficially similar to these cards' abilities that are now out-of-pie for red, is more analogous to Brand and Gruul Charm. After all, if your effect produced the tokens, you have a right to keep them.
Power/Toughness: 3/3 might not be the beefiest statline you can think of, but for a card that represents one human being with no supernatural powers, it's really impressive. Even among Knights, Varchild stands out a head above the traditional 2/2 power and toughness. This signifies she's no joke in direct combat. Far from being a general who plans strategies from behind a desk, she leads from the front. The many hardships of her life clearly made Varchild a tremendous fighter. Having 3 power also means she creates three Survivor tokens for the opponent per hit. Even in Commander, that's a hefty number, particularly in the early game. This makes it extra tempting for the Betrayer's victims to send those tokens to attack and weaken other opponents.
Flavor Note: Varchild's something of a pseudo-mirror to Darien, King of Kjeldor. While Darien creates 1/1 tokens for his controller when they're damaged, Varchild creates 1/1 tokens for her controllers' opponents when she damages them. They also both have the same power and toughness!
Overall, whether you love playing with her or never want to use her in a deck, I think Varchild is great as a representation of a character through harmonious flavor and function. If R&D took the same approach with future "wishlist legends" as with Varchild, I think we'd see satisfying results much more often than not.
Varchild: Lessons for Card Designers
So what lessons can custom card designers take from R&D's current treatment of legendary cards for old, never-carded characters? Here are two that stand out:
Capture a moment: Characters in current storylines ideally need cards that represent them as a unified whole. They need to show who that person is and what they're capable of. They need to show characteristics that would remain the same even as the events of their stories make them grow, change, and suffer setbacks. With characters from old storylines, you have the luxury of a closed book. They don't need to be dynamic or have room for change because their stories are already completely written, and their cards can reflect that. You're free to show older characters at highly specific points in their lives without worrying about locking in the audience's conception of the character via the card. Feel free to have the card's abilities represent just your favorite part of the character's life and nothing else. If their genius tactics decided an important battle, give them abilities that manipulate combat. If they invented a wondrous artifact, let them create that legendary artifact token.
Give it that old-school polish: It's just more satisfying if your new legend feels like it could have come from the set they "should" have been in, even if you're hewing to more modern design principles. Think of Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa's one-off use of flanking, or Varchild's aforementioned use of Survivor tokens and a lasting gain-control effect in red. Little nods like this can firmly set the card in the world the character comes from while still respecting the modern color pie.
That concludes my deep dive on Varchild. I hope you all can use the same methods of analysis to find the deeper stories and patterns in your favorite nostalgic legendary creatures. Until next time, happy rumor-mongering and happy designing!