How Wizards of the Coast created a new plane for Strixhaven: School of Mages

Magic's most recent set used a bottom-up design to build the setting.

Image via WotC

Education is at the core of many fantasy stories. With the prevalence of coming-of-age narratives in the genre, it’s natural that schools would be an integral part of that journey.

Mage schools are a common fantasy trope and often appear in popular fiction, from Harry Potter to the College of Winterhold in Skyrim. Magic: The Gathering brought its own interpretation on this decades-long trope in its latest set Strixhaven: School of Mages.

Early into the design of Strixhaven, Wizards of the Coast knew it wanted to design a set centered around enemy color pairs and Instants and Sorceries. This tasked the world-building team, led by principal game designer Doug Beyer, to create a world that breathes life into the mechanics.

“It was later that we landed on the magical university idea,” Beyer said. “That direction brought all the elements together for us—it let us highlight spells, mage factions, and that sense of rivalry all in one concept.”

Image via WotC

Strixhaven’s design is in direct contrast to the game’s last set Kaldheim, which took a top-down approach that started with an interpretation of Norse mythology and fit game systems around that theme. Strixhaven uses a bottom-up model that puts gameplay at the forefront and crafts a world around the set’s mechanics. When facing a set that centers around spells, Beyer and his team gravitated to the magical school trope, a setting that fits well into the fantasy world of Magic.

The plane of Arcavios and its prestigious university Strixhaven were created from scratch by the world-building team. A challenge for the team was setting it apart from Ravnica, the most well-known plane in Magic that is also centered on color pairs. The team made substantial efforts to make the colleges of Strixhaven feel distinct from their Ravnican counterparts.

This was accomplished by leaning into the tension between each color pair, leading to conflicts between and within colleges.

Finding the right college

Students enter Strixhaven University with a typical freshman path as mage students experiencing what each college has to offer. These first-year students will then go into a particular focus. Prismari, Lorehold, Quandrix, Silverquill, and Witherbloom are the five colleges at Strixhaven.

Within each college are two separate philosophies that students can align with.

“The identities of the colleges ended up feeling very much ‘this color and also that color,’ rather than the result of merging the two colors,” Beyer said. “Even when you choose a college at Strixhaven, you’re still not really done self-identifying—you can still specialize in one of the two halves of the college.” 

The team created a magic system that applies specific forms of spellcasting and philosophies to each college. Beyer said the team wanted Strixhaven’s magic to “show us the coolest spellcasting we’ve ever seen.”

Witherbloom, the Black and Green-aligned college, uses magic that is component-based with potions and various concoctions. Prismari, the Red and Blue performance college, casts spells in a dancelike and wildly expressive manner.

The Red and White-aligned Lorehold College focuses on history and discovery, using magic to capture the past. Quandrix College feels similar to its Green and Blue Ravnican counterpart in terms of gameplay and centers around mathematical quandaries and the wielding of Fractals as a physical representation of its magic.

The Black and White-aligned Silverquill College approaches its magic through the power of language. They use the spoken word to “bring to life the literal black and white of the page.” This brought a unique challenge to the world-building team: how to depict spoken word. According to Beyer, Magic generally strays away from showing writing within the game’s art. Verbal speech is difficult to depict because without a strong visual component, it ends up being just a person with their mouth open.

Image via WotC

Silverquill’s magic specializes in the manipulation of light and ink, which are linked to the creation of Inklings. Beyer said the art direction for Silverquill magic uses “poses and movements inspired by orators, dramatic performers, and spoken-word artists” that brings a twist to classic incantation-based spellcasting.

How characters represent the color pie conflict

Conflict is central to how Wizards crafted Strixhaven. Returning characters Will and Rowan Kenrith from Eldraine are embodiments of this dichotomy within the storyline. Both mages are Prismari students but align with different colors within the college. Rowan aligns with the Red side, which puts an emphasis on expression and performance. Will finds himself on the Blue side that focuses on the mastery of the technical aspects of performance.

Strixhaven alum Liliana Vess, who returns to the college under the name Professor Onyx, attended Witherbloom College but aligned more heavily with Black during her studies.

These conflicts are at the core of Strixhaven’s design and gave the team a strong baseline idea to build the world around.

Each college has two deans that are aligned with one color. From a gameplay standpoint, this is represented in a cycle of modal double-faced cards that supports each color pair’s strategy. These characters are physical manifestations of the conflicting ideals within each college that gives another dimension to worldbuilding.

Managing expectations

When Strixhaven was first announced, many fans speculated the set would be derivative of the Harry Potter universe. The announcement of Strixhaven came off the back of Secret Lair: The Walking Dead and the announcement of Kaldheim, a Norse mythology set.

Strixhaven subverted these expectations by creating a world that was all Magic, with little to no references to other popular media. This was a conscious decision by the team, Beyer said.

“We spent some time making sure Strixhaven had certain details to differentiate it from existing pop-culture mage schools, but most of the work was on building Strixhaven according to its own internal structure and needs,” Beyer said.

Magic’s summer set, Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, is a crossover set with Wizards’ other key property. While the crossover is the first in Magic history, Dungeons & Dragons is an established universe. The two winter sets will be set in Innistrad and will mark the third and fourth visits to the plane.

Strixhaven is the last set of the year that visits a completely new plane. With the work Beyer and the team did to create a new plane for the release of Strixhaven, Arcavios now has the foundation laid to become one of the many Magic sets Wizards can return to and expand upon.