Old friends, old spells, and a whole lot of rivalries clash in the halls of Strixhaven.

How Magic: The Gathering's New Wizard School Brings Back Some Familiar Faces (and Spells)

Old friends, old spells, and a whole lot of rivalries clash in the halls of Strixhaven.
Image: Magali Villeneuve/Wizards of the Coast

With the longevity Magic: The Gathering has achieved, so many story beats and classic cards are lost to time—new sets, new stories, new play modes and standards, new narrative progress. The game’s next expansion, and newest setting, is hoping to do much the same...while serving as a chance to pick up on some old threads. Set to be released next month, Strixhaven: School of Mages is Magic’s 87th official expansion.

Yes, 87th! There’s so much Magic history to pull from time after time as Magic rolls out new sets, but Strixhaven will primarily focus on bringing players to a new plane among the many of Magic’s multiverse: Arcavios, home to the titular magical academy. Of course, magical school settings are a dime-a-dozen in fantasy. But Strixhaven wants to balance the kind of tropes we’ve seen in fantastical schools before with a semblance of our own real-life memories of attending college and university, while also trying to make sure it stands out from some of the most famous (and currently controversial) takes on the trope.

“We really wanted to do a world that was focused on Instants and Sorceries for the first time in Magic’s history. We wanted a world that was driven by spells and spell magic,” Doug Beyer, Magic’s principal game designer, told press at a recent briefing about the origins of Strixhaven. “This is a world where spell magic is plentiful and the universe of Strixhaven is here to be the center for more magical learning, where students come from all over the place to level-up their talents in spellcasting.”

Strixhaven itself is a vast magical complex. There are five colleges, each with its own important beliefs about the study of magic itself, divided into amicably-opposing rival schools, centered around a vast library and its “Mystical Archive,” a key part of both the set’s lore and its mechanical underpinnings. The art and storytelling dive into what it’s like to live and study at Strixhaven, from the application of the different forms and schools of magic to the practically mandatory magical sports. Out go the brooms and enchanted balls, in comes what is basically Magic’s answer to pro-bending from Avatar: The Legend of Korra.

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Image: Piotr Dura/Wizards of the Coast

“Magetower is how the five colleges express their team pride—their mage students from the colleges face off in the sport. The goal of the sport is to capture the other team’s mascot and run it back to your own Magetower,” Beyer explained. “But the complication is all spell magic that does not actively harm someone is legal in Magetower. So, there’s all sorts of magical explosions going off and trickery and clever use of magic.”

So far, so very wizard school. But Magic is defined by its colored aspects of magic, from the destructive capabilities of red-mana spells to the manipulative, crowd-control associated with blue cards—and how Strixhaven reflects that thematically is not so much in the school’s study itself, but the colleges that make up its staff and students.

“When you go to Strixhaven you eventually choose a major for one of these five colleges. Each college is a combination of two opposing mana colors and has an academic field of study, and a style of spell casting,” Beyer explained. What this means for Strixhaven is the same sorts of rivalries you might see between styles of decks and color combinations you’ve seen in Magic for years, but it also helps to give each faction at the school a quick, easily read identity for fans who know what to expect from the game’s mana coloration—but also giving some of those preconceived notions a bit of a twist.

The five colleges are: Lorehold (represented by Red and White mana), Prismari (Blue and Red), Quandrix (Green and Blue), Silverquill (White and Black), and Witherbloom (Green and Black). Their presence is felt throughout Strixhaven’s cards and the pre-constructed decks that will launch alongside the set. They’re represented by students, professors in rarer cards, and then rarest of all, the dragons that are actually the founding figureheads of each college.

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Image: Mike Bierek/Wizards of the Coast

Within Strixhaven’s lore, the combinations of mana each college specializes in are to denote specific magical expertise—Lorehold, for example, specializes in magical archivists, who literally bring the past to life in order to embody spirits of history in monuments for study. Silverquill’s students specialize in performance arts, bardic enhancements that rely on the power of spoken and written words. Unorthodox clashes—like Prismari’s mix of the usually controlling Blue mana and chaotic Red mana—come to represent more esoteric, emotional studies in the arts: elemental magics that act as expressions of creativity.

“Each one kind of clashes, really, due to opposing colors. Usually, when we do worlds with factions, it’s two colors that are blended together in harmony. Here, there’s this kind of academic rivalry between the two sides within each college,” Breyer explained of Strixhaven’s combinations. “Each college frames together two opposite forces that are forced to get along.”

The colleges, then, provide a whole lot of opportunities for new characters to enter the fold at Strixhaven. But not every student, nor every professor, is going to be unfamiliar to players. As a hub of both powerful magical knowledge and powerful mages, Strixhaven will attract planeswalkers from across Magic’s recent set, all with different motivations for being there. Some, like War of the Spark’s Kasmina, are there to do what can be diplomatically described as “people watch.”

“Kasmina is on a quest to study and monitor young, fledgling Planeswalkers, so she’s had her eye on a few different people,” Breyer said of her. “She’s concerned that there might be trouble if a young Planeswalker goes awry. So, she’s monitoring a couple others who are here to attend Strixhaven as students.”

Those students under her lens are also familiar heroes: Throne of Eldraine’s Will and Rowan Kenrith, who will feature as a double-sided card to play off the sibling’s expertise in different schools of magic. “They are perfectly suited to the college of Prismari—red and blue—but they’re also getting a chance to express themselves, to kind of go to college and figure out a little more about what their personalities are about, other than being Planeswalking twins,” Breyer added. Not all students are going to have a great time though—take Ikoria’s Lukka, who went through some stuff in his own set.

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Image: Magali Villeneuve/Wizards of the Coast

“At the end of the Ikoria story, Lukka was kind of rudderless. He had lost his companion cat, he had been cast out from the military that had embraced him—so he’s actually here, at Strixhaven, looking for guidance. He wants to find magical direction. So, he’s going to find a new companion animal and fall in with some pretty bad people,” Breyer teased.

And the students aren’t the only potentially rudderless ones at the school. Wizards have already teased the return of one of Magic’s most beloved planeswalkers in Strixhaven, but she’s coming back in a cryptic manner: meet Witherbloom College’s necromancy teacher, Professor Onyx...better known to you and I as the legendary Liliana Vess.

“Liliana, since the War of the Spark, has been distraught about the events of the war and is here to study whether it’s possible to bring back the dead, fully, to life,” Breyer said of Liliana’s new disguise. “So she’s just kind of moonlighting here at Strixhaven, a place she actually attended years ago. She’s come back as a professor here and the students only know her as Professor Onyx.” Players will know what Liliana’s up to of course, because Onyx’s card still has her true name on it, for mechanical reasons. As Strixhaven’s story develops, more people will begin to uncover just why they’re really at the titular college. But it’s not just characters who will have mechanics tied into Strixhaven’s story.

The focus on the act of casting magic itself is driving a huge part of the new set, not just in terms of the fiction, but also new mechanical additions. The biggest new rule is “Magecraft,” meant to reflect the college’s different spellcasting enhancements. “Strixhaven is a set with a nice focus on Instants and Sorceries,” Mike Turian, Magic principal product designer, explained. “We’re really trying to play up that spellcasting feel that these students and the world really look at. So, Magecraft is whenever you cast or copy an Instant or Sorcery, you get a bonus.”

What that bonus is changes depending on the card, of course, but it’s tied into the identity of the school of magic it comes from, allowing players to quickly ramp up what they’re bringing to the field. “Green [cards] of course, +1/+1 counters are a great fit,” Turian added. “With Blue, what are Blue mages always looking to do? Draw more cards. And of course, that’s great with this trigger, because what are you going to draw more of? Instants and sorceries— and maybe some great ways to copy them, as well.”

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Image: Kieran Yanner/Wizards of the Coast

But Strixhaven is a school, magical or otherwise, and that also means you’re here to learn. “One of the things that is great about going to Strixhaven in this sort of university setting is its universal, right? Every Magic player has been to school at different levels. So, when designing the set, one of the things the designers caught onto immediately was, ‘Hey...what does it mean to learn in Magic?’,” Turian added. What it resulted in was two new terms: ‘Lesson’, and ‘Learn’. Cards that learn things are able to pull cards labeled as ‘Lesson’ from a player’s deck, or discard and draw extra cards. “Because typically, in a game of Magic,” Turian noted, “cards equal knowledge.”

That knowledge is represented most of all by Strixhaven’s biggest combination of worldbuilding and actual mechanical impetus: the Mystical Archive, the school’s repository of knowledge that covers every time a spell has ever been cast in Magic’s vast multiverse. “[Students] go to the Biblioplex, which is [Strixhaven’s] library, and it has all these illuminated manuscripts capturing the first time a spell was cast,” Breyer added. “So, here it is, you can go see the first time Lightning Bolt was ever cast in the multiverse—from an execution standpoint we really wanted to embrace that.”

What that means is there aren’t just familiar faces roaming Strixhaven’s halls, but classic spells from across the decades of Magic, from the aforementioned Lightning Bolt to beloved favorites like Time Warp. They’ll be included as special Mystical Archive cards, with new art, and they’re rare cards, meant to be played as moments of surprise rather than just be standard features in the set. This also means the return of such fan-favorite spells doesn’t suddenly mean they’re part of Magic’s repository of current “Legal” cards for standard play.

“If we limited ourselves to only standard legal cards, we’re leaving a lot of Magic’s history off the table. And that just, to us, didn’t feel like ‘Hey...it’s a mystical archive. It has everything.’ We wanted to show a sample from all the eras of Magic. and really bring out the best of the best cards. We didn’t want to limit ourselves,” Turian clarified. “Being in the Mystical Archive, it’s capturing this moment in time. So, it’s not...Lightning Bolt does not become standard legal because it’s on the Mystical Archive sheet. Lightning Bolt is a great card to play in Legacy or Commander, but being on the Mystical Archive sheet does not change its legality in any way.”

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Image: Piotr Dura/Wizards of the Coast

Like the rest of Strixhaven, it’s about celebrating Magic itself within the lore as much as it is in the game’s mechanics—and looking at how the game’s past will influence its future, both in terms of what Strixhaven will shape for the game mechanically and tonally. “Whenever we do a set we’re always looking to come up with awesome, resonant emotions,” Turian concluded. Bringing Godzilla into Ikoria was something—‘Hey, it’s a world about monsters! What’s the biggest monster of them all?’—with Strixhaven and the archive, it’s a university, of course it’s going to have a Bibilioplex in this. We’re only introducing Strixhaven now, but if we come back to it in the future, I’m sure the Mystical Archive will be a part of the consideration.”

“One of the fun things about Strixhaven was taking these colors that have had creative identities before and finding new ways to express that color combination,” Breyer concluded. “So, it was fun to reinterpret the feel of the color palette.”

Whether all of those ideas stick around remains to be seen, but for now, it’s taking the Wizard team going back to school to see the game’s past and present in a new eye. Strixhaven: School of Mages is set to release on April 23.


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DISCUSSION

By
Zippy Zanderhoff

I, for one, am grateful that the art team didn’t include librarian glasses as part of Liliana’s teacher disguise. My body simply wouldn’t have been ready.