Before they were famous: Looking back at the first appearances of popular ‘Magic’ characters

Magic Untapped is looking back at where some of the most iconic characters in Magic: The Gathering made their debut.

Magic Untapped is looking back at where some of the most iconic characters in Magic: The Gathering made their debut. Each go-around we'll highlight five or so popular characters, looking at where they are now and how Magic players were first introduced to them.

Sound neat?  Great!

And, to kick things off, we're beginning with one of the relatively newer planeswalkers (card-wise) who also happens to be one of Magic's oldest characters:

Jaya Ballard

Most recent printing: Jaya, Venerated Firemage (WSP)
First seen: Meteor Shower (ICE)
First creature printing: Moniker Mage (UNG) // Jaya Ballard, Task Mage (TSP)

Initially a background character from the Ice Age block (she didn’t get her importance to Magic: The Gathering’s story until Jeff Grubb’s Ice Age novels years later), Jaya Ballard was first introduced to Magic players as a task mage (literally, a mage-for-hire).  Her limited role can be seen through short quotes and mentions on a handful of Ice Age and Alliances cards with the first such occurrence on the underwhelming direct damage card Flare.  Players also got their first glimpse (albeit at a distance) of a young Jaya in the artwork (and flavor text) for the Ice Age card Meteor Shower, then that’s it for another twelve years.

Or is it?

There’s a bit of a controversy here amongst Magic players as to what Jaya’s actual first printing really is.  While 2006’s Time Spiral has a pre-spark Jaya in the card Jaya Ballard, Task Mage as her first black-bordered printing, there’s an argument to be made that she actually first saw print as a creature in Unhinged, Mark Rosewater’s second Un-set.  If you look at the art for the creature, you’ll notice that it’s alluded to that the mage in the picture is in fact Jaya Ballard.  The task mage is even quoted in the flavor text for a number of cards in the set.  Vorthos purists, however, will be quick to point out that the card, Moniker Mage, is a blue card (Jaya is decidedly red).  Furthermore, the card’s abilities are strictly un-Jaya.  Even further than that, the lady in the art is a redhead (young Jaya had black hair).  The final nail in the coffin?  Moniker Mage isn’t legendary whereas one would assume that a creature representation of a character such as Jaya would be legendary much like how Blind Seer, a  creature card representation of planeswalker Urza in disguise, is a legendary creature.

Since Dominaria, however, things have become much more clear about Jaya thanks to the first ever planeswalker printing of Jaya Ballard and, more recently in War of the Spark, Jaya, Venerated Firemage where she’s the kick-ass grandma we all wish we had.


Most recent printing: Hanna, Ship’s Navigator (M25)
First seen: Llanowar Druid (WTH)
First creature printing: Hanna, Ship’s Navigator (INV)

Born in Tolaria and part of Urza’s bloodline project, Hanna shunned magic and instead studied artifice at New Argive.  Her mechanical skills would prove useful as she joined the crew of Skyship Weatherlight as the ship’s navigator.  She actually makes her visual debut in the background of the Weatherlight card Llanowar Druid along with two of her crewmates, Gerrard and Tahngarth.  She also makes her flavor text debut in Weatherlight on the card Argivan Restoration, which acts as a nod to her educational background in New Argive.

Despite her heavy involvement across the epic Weatherlight Saga story arc, she doesn’t actually get a creature card until Invasion with the printing of Hanna, Ship’s Navigator.  And, well, that’s it.  Save for a Masters 25 reprint featuring some absolutely amazing artwork courtesy of Terese Nielsen, she’s never gotten an updated card like many of her crewmates from the Weatherlight have by now.  Maybe she never will.  Then again...

...perhaps that’ll change with all of the cool Commander stuff coming out this year.  Perhaps not.  Either way, we’ll see.


Most recent printing: Serra the Benevolent (MH1)
First seen: Serra (Vanguard)
First creature printing: n/a

One of the most recognizable names in the game of Magic, Serra has been around since day one with the original printing of Serra Angel.  While there some confusion in the game’s earliest days as to whether not the angel’s name is Serra as opposed to Serra being a type of angel, the confusion went away once more of Magic’s lore became better fleshed out as the angel, indeed, was a type that was made in its creator’s (Serra’s) image.

That stated, players have never seen Serra as an actual creature.  Of course, that’s not to say that they haven’t been exposed to the old-school planeswalker throughout Magic’s long-standing history.  She was a major player in the backstory to Homelands when she was married to fellow planeswalker Feroz and, like in Dominaria, her followers still worship her as a divine being.  She was also a key (though some would say unwilling) participant in the Urza block, nursing Urza and his sleeper agent friend, Xantcha, back to heath having taken flight to her realm after their unsuccessful invasion of Phyrexia.  Even more recently, she’s made a resurgence thanks to Dominaria and her finally seeing print in planeswalker form with Modern Horizon’s Serra the Benevolent.

While human (that's right: she's no more angel than is Drew Barrymore in the latter half of the movie Ever After), we don’t know much of anything about her pre-planeswalker life.  Due to that, there’s a next-to-zero chance that we’ll ever see a non-planeswalker Serra card.  And we’re fine with that.


Most recent printing: Sengir, the Dark Baron (CMR – Coming in late 2020)
First seen: Baron Sengir (MHL)
First creature printing: Baron Sengir (HML)

Commonly known as Baron Sengir, he’s the big baddie from Homelands who rules over Ulgrotha with a dark iron fist.  As his name implies, he’s the source of the popular and long-standing Sengir Vampire creature that (like Serra Angel) has been around since day one.  And, like Serra, he was a complete unknown as a character until Homelands came to be.  Unlike Serra, however, Sengir actually got a card (even if it’s pretty bad overall thanks to being both overcosted and underwhelming).

In addition to having his own card (and a new one on the way in the upcoming Commander Legends set), he’s quoted on a number of cards.  Most of those, of course, are in Homelands with the color pie breaking An-Zerrin Ruins being the first of the bunch.  He’s also made it onto the flavor text of cards from Fifth Edition and Magic 2014 and has even been shown on a couple of cards in the second Un-set, Unhinged.

With the Baron having a new printing upcoming, it will be interesting to see if Wizards of the Coast does anything with some complementary cards that work with, or share a likeness to, the new Sengir, the Dark Baron card.


Most recent printing: Venser, the Sojourner (SOM)
First seen: Venser, Shaper Savant (FUT)
First creature printing: Venser, Shaper Savant (FUT)

One of the key players in Dominaria’s mending, Venser was an artificer and researcher from Urborg.  Gifted in artifice, Venser invented a device that allowed him to travel to the Blind Eternities (essentially planeswalking) without being a planeswalker himself and assisted Karn in closing one of the many rifts that was destroying Dominaria.  His teleportation talents ignited his spark, turning the creature we were introduced to in Future Sight, Venser, Shaper Savant, (though a card that shares his name, Venser’s Sliver, saw print two sets earlier in Time Spiral) into the planeswalker who was introduced in the Scars of Mirrodin block some three years later.

His stay, however, would be brief.  He gave up his spark and his life while on New Phyrexia to save the life and sanity of none other than fellow planeswalker Karn.

Despite his demise, Venser’s short-lived legacy lives on (most recently) through a Commander 2016 reprint of the Scars of Mirrodin card Venser’s Journal.

If there are other Magic: The Gathering characters you're curious about, let us know in the comments below and keep an eye out for our next edition of "Before They Were Famous."  And don't forget to check out the previous chapter of our "Before They Were Famous" series!

Barry White

Barry White is a longtime Magic: The Gathering player, having started in 1994 shortly before the release of 'Fallen Empires.' After graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno, he went on to a 15-year journalism career as a writer, reporter, and videographer for three different ABC affiliate newsrooms.