MTG War of the Spark vs March of the Machine: A Retrospective


  • War of the Spark and March of the Machine were both large-scale Magic sets that wrapped up years-long storylines, but they each faced their own significant problems.
  • War of the Spark was more character-focused as the Gatewatch assembled on Ravnica to thwart Nicol Bolas, while March of the Machine took a tour of established Magic planes.
  • The tepid response to both these sets has led to the new Omenpath arc, which focuses more on individual planes and establishing a new baseline than it does on an epic, overarching storyline.

Both War of the Spark and March of the Machine were the culmination years years-long Magic the Gathering story arcs with an explosive set featuring multiple worlds and a plethora of new, exciting cards. Both sets were also plagued with some controversy in terms of their storytelling and the cards released in the set.

Now both storylines are over and the Omenpath arc is now in full swing with the releases of Wilds of Eldraine in September and Lost Caverns of Ixalan later this year. With War of the Spark firmly in the rearview mirror and March of the Machine having come out a few months ago, it’s time to look at both these sets and how they wrapped up their respective Magic the Gathering storylines.

Multi-Year Plotlines

blue phyrexians mtg

Both War of the Spark and March of the Machine were not just big sets in and of themselves. Both of them marked the end of years-long arcs in Magic‘s storytelling. War of the Spark was the culmination of Nicol Bolas’ plans to regain his lost divinity, stripped during the mending which reduced all planeswalkers from powerful godlike entities to mere planar-traveling sorcerers. March of the Machine reaches back earlier than that, finally finishing the events set in motion by the Brothers War between Urza and Mishra when the Phyrexians were released onto Dominaria by the explosion of the Mightstone and Weakstone 1994’s Antiquities.

War of the Spark’s story begins with the dragon planeswalker Nicol Bolas. A native of Dominaria, Nicol Bolas awakened to his planeswalker spark and became essentially a living god. However, his spark was weakened considerably by an event known as the Mending, which was a multiversal response to the instability of planeswalkers and their effects on space and time. After the Mending, Bolas sought a way to regain his old power and attain omnipotence once again. He began moving pieces in place to enact his plan. First, he came to the plane of Amonkhet and became their god, setting up a system of trials to produce the finest warriors so he could make an elite army of zombies loyal to himself. Then he had his agent Tezzeret infiltrate Kaladesh in order to get him the Planar bridge, a way of transporting oneself between planes. Finally, he had his other agent Vraska go to Ixalan in order to find the Immortal Sun, an artifact made to trap planeswalkers originally intended to be used to trap Nicol Bolas.

Each of these sets played out with the Gatewatch, an alliance of planeswalkers, trying to stop Nicol Bolas at each turn. But the Dragon God was always one step ahead. Nicol Bolas was himself an incredibly intelligent and powerful planeswalker and so was able to even best the whole Gatewatch in a confrontation. Things looked especially dire for the gatewatch going into War of the Spark as the Gatewatch itself was beginning to fray, with individual members walking away from the planeswalker alliance to either join Bolas or strike out on their own.

March of the Machine was in fact even longer in the making. The biomechanical Phyrexians have long been one of the most existentially terrifying threats in Magic. Phyrexians are strange hybrids of flesh and machine, melded together by a viral process called Phyresis. Even a drop of Phyrexian Oil was said to be virulent enough to potentially overtake an entire plane. Urza had managed to destroy their old homeworld, only for them to re-emerge and turn the world of Mirrodin into New Phyrexia. The difficulty for the Phyrexians was their inability to traverse the planes on their own, as Phyrexian oil was long assumed to be incompatible with a planeswalker’s spark.

In the lead-up to March of the Machine, the Phyrexians, under the lead of Praetor Elesh-Norn, were plotting similar machinations to Nicol Bolas to overcome their inability to transport themselves to other planes. Elesh-Norn sent her Praetors, with the help of Tezzeret’s Planar Bridge, to various planes. Vorinclex went to Kaldheim to grab a seed of the World Tree which bridges the realms of Kaldheim so they could make their own copy. Jin-Gitaxis went to the cyberpunk Kamigawa and developed the ability to “compleat” planeswalkers there. Sheoldred was sent to Dominaria in order to prevent the Phyrexians’ age-old nemesis from halting their plans.

A team of allied planeswalkers that included Jace Beleren, Nahiri, Vraska, and more planned a strike team to stop the Phyrexians from bridging the multiverse with the tree they made, called Realmbreaker. However, this strike team failed in their goal and nearly all its members were compleated. On the eve of March of the Machine, the Phyrexians were ready to invade the entire multiverse and it seemed that no one could stop them from taking over all of reality.

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Culminating Crossover Set

Cover art for War of the Spark: Ravnica

Both sets culminated their storylines with an epic crossover battle. In the case of War of the Spark, Nicol Bolas traps planeswalkers in the city of Ravnica using the Immortal Sun and sets his Lazotep armies on them in order to harvest their sparks. In March of the Machine, Elesh-Norn begins a simultaneous invasion of all the planes in the Multiverse using her Realmbreaker tree that the planeswalkers and planar denizens have to try their best to stop. War of the Spark was a big team-up set against Nicol Bolas that’s very comparable to something like the big Avengers movies that team up several characters, and as a result it was very planeswalker-focused. March of the Machine, on the other hand, was a big set involving almost all the planes we know and love (and some more besides) fighting the Phyrexian invasion tooth and nail.

War of the Spark gave us more planeswalkers than any other set, with several at the previously unheard-of uncommon rarity. It also introduced planeswalkers with static abilities to the game, enhancing the power of the card type and making it much more relevant throughout a game. Mix that with a return to the fan-favorite city of Ravnica where we get to see all the guilds fighting against Nicol Bolas and you have a big set filled with lots of fan-service and crowd-pleasing moments. Incredibly influential and powerful cards like Nissa, Who Shakes the World and Teferi, Time Raveler came out of War of the Spark. There haven’t been any sets like War of the Spark before or since.

Meanwhile, though March of the Machine introduced a new permanent type, its role as a set was more a “greatest hits” compilation. We get to see some of Magic‘s most beloved characters teaming up on cards like Thalia and the Gitrog Monster or Borborygmos and Fblthp. It hasn’t done much to change Magic as we know it permanently in terms of mechanics so far, as Battles aren’t especially relevant as a permanent type yet, but it had the scope and heart to capture all these planes at war with Phyrexia in stunning ways.

Looking to the future, the Omenpath Arc appears to be taking the story in a different sort of direction from the last two. There is no apparent main villain and though we have no concrete information about the big picture of the story, the announcements suggest we’re getting a lot more focused, top-down sets than the previous two arcs. It’s likely the Omenpath arc, as it has done with Wilds of Eldraine, may be about establishing a ‘new normal’ for the various planes of the Multiverse.

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Controversy in Execution

elspeth is attacking elesh norn in mtg

Both War of the Spark and March of the Machine were highly ambitious finales to multi-set plotlines, and in some ways they were destined to have some issues. Both sets have controversies and elements that stand out as black marks against otherwise well-executed sets. The first is from a storyline perspective. Many felt that in both sets not enough named characters died, with only a few notable casualties like Dack Fayden in War of the Spark. This is especially apparent in March of the Machines, where several planeswalkers even had their supposedly permanent Phyresis reversed.

While War of the Spark was conceptually a well-executed set in terms of flavor, many felt that the accompanying fiction really didn’t hold up to the same standard. In the original War of the Spark novelizations, there were several notably odd character decisions like having the frequently queer-coded Chandra awkwardly proclaim that she was straight. This straight-washing would force Wizards to make a public apology and walk back the characterization, as Chandra and Nissa are now together at the end of March of the Machine. For March of the Machine, there were more concerns with the overall story, with some notable plot contrivances being singled out in particular. Most of the Phyrexian forces were rendered inner after the death of Elesh Norn despite the Phyrexians never behaving like a hive-mind in the past.

There were also some issues with the gameplay of the sets themselves. War of the Spark hit far above its weight for a standard set, introducing all-stars like Karn, the Great Creator and Teferi, Time Raveler. The latter has terrorized nearly any format with a control deck, turning nearly any control mirror into “who can get Teferi out first.” Teferi was problematic enough to be hit by a Pioneer Ban. March of the Machine has not had any notable power issues since its release, but the companion March of the Machine Aftermath was a complete disappointment in terms of set size, pack price, and cards released.

Despite issues with long-form storytelling, both sets managed to tie together the previous storylines and make a set that matches the epic scale and scope of the arc it culminates. Both sets feature never-before-seen mechanics in a planar crossover with plenty of fanservice. The comparisons with Avengers: Endgame are applicable in both cases, especially given the ‘wow’ moments of seeing all these planes we’ve been seeing in individual sets come together for a massive sendoff to the previous year’s storyline.

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