Dominaria preview season is in full swing, and I am extremely pleased to have the opportunity to write a Vorthos deep dive on Magic's main character. In the 25 years of Magic: the Gathering, no character has appeared in as many stories as the golem planeswalker Karn. The card itself is probably familiar to you, and you probably meant to click on Jeff Hoogland's article if you wanted someone talking about Karn from a Constructed angle. If you just want to see the card, feel free to scroll down. It won't hurt my feelings any. But if you're here for story and lore content, read on.
Karn and the pieces of the Legacy Weapon he fused with to become a planeswalker.
Legacy Weapon by Terese Nielson
I did a short piece last month about the Living Legends of Dominaria, of which Karn was one. If you want to learn more about him, he's appeared in more novels that any other character: Time Streams, Bloodlines, Rath and Storm, Mercadian Masques, Invasion, Planeshift, Apocalypse, Scourge, The Moons of Mirrodin, The Fifth Dawn, Planar Chaos, and The Quest for Karn. He was named as a nod to the word Cairn (as Mark Rosewater has answered many times), which is a pile of stones built as a memorial, which is very appropriate for the character. Karn stands as a memorial to people and times long gone, as despite having only been created about 1,250 years ago, he's the product of a legacy stretching back nine millennia.
Fall of the Thran (Around -4,500 AR)
The first part of that legacy was the Thran artificer Glacian, who was stabbed with a powerstone by the untouchable Gix. He exhibited a mysteries wasting illness and the Thran's healers could find no cure. The exiled eugenicist Yawgmoth was recalled to the capital of Halcyon to take over Glacian's care.
If you've heard the name Yawgmoth, I'm sure you can figure out how this story ends.
Yawgmoth slowly usurps authority under the guise of a public health response to an overblown Phthisis outbreak (the name for the wasting disease). In reality, he's playing the untouchables, who have been condemned to live in the Caves of Koilos below Halcyon, against the arrogant people of the city. During his slow ascent, he pretends to never find a cure for Glacian, although in truth he has been experimenting on the artificer and stealing Glacian's work for himself. Yawgmoth creates the first Heartstone in Glacian, implanting a cracked powerstone which holds open the Gate to Phyrexia. The powerstone slowly drains Glacian's essence, leaving the artificer weak and demented.
The Thran made marvels but their hubris led to their downfall.
Ancestral Vision by John Avon
When the Thran planeswalker Dyfed shows Yawgmoth a paradise of pure artifice, he names it Phyrexia, and a gate is constructed in Koilos to ferry victims of Phthisis to this new land to recuperate. In reality, he was turning them into monsters. As the world began to grow wise to Yawgmoth's scheming, the Thran Alliance, made up of rebel Thran and the other peoples of Dominaria, rose up against his forces. Rebbec, a Thran edificer and Glacian's wife helped sabotage Yawgmoth's doomsday weapon, forcing the survivors of the final battle on both sides to flee through the Gate to Phyrexia. Rebbec sealed the gate behind them, reuniting the powerstones Yawgmoth planted in her husband and sealing away Phyrexia.
The Antiquities War (Around 20-63 AR)
Urza might be considered a villain if not for his long crusade against Phyrexia.
Urza's Ruinous Blast by Noah Bradley
Millennia later the brothers Urza and Mishra discovered the Caves of Koilos and the powerstone holding the Gate to Phyrexia closed. They split the powerstone again by accident, each claiming half. Urza dubs his the Mightstone and Mishra's the Weakstone. The Brothers have a falling out over ownership of the two stones, with Mishra coveting his brother's. They part, but each finds their way to the head of rival civilizations on the brink of war. Decades of war follow between the two rival artificers, subtly manipulated by the now-Phyrexian Gix and his machine priests.
Their rivalry culminates on Argoth, a lush island rich in natural resources that both brothers need to continue their war, having strip mined the continent. In their final battle, Urza realizes his brother has been turned into a machine by the Brotherhood of Gix. Gix himself arrives and takes control of the artifacts on both sides of the conflict. Cornered, Urza turns to Magic for the first time, activating the Golgothian Sylex and unleashing Urza's Ruinous Blast, shattering the island and ushering in the Ice Age. The Mightstone and Weakstone fuse with Urza, becoming his powerstone eyes when he ascends as a planeswalker.
Planeswalker (From 65 AR to ~3210 AR)
As a planeswalker, Urza is gripped by madness for millennia, developing an all-consuming vendetta against Phyrexia for what they had done to his brother. He rescues a Phyrexian newt named Xantcha, created to be a sleeper agent by Gix, but who possessed something anathema to Phyrexia and was cast aside: individuality. Xantcha is Urza's constant companion for millennia as he launches an ill-fated assault of Phyrexia and recovers in Serra's Realm. When Urza is finally able to return to Dominaria after the Ice Age he had ushered in, Xantcha sacrifices herself to give him the edge he needs to destroy Gix once and for all.
Time Streams: The Birth of Karn (From 3307 AR to 3360 AR)
Karn is truly Urza's scion, responsible for as much bad as good.
Karn's Temporal Sundering by Noah Bradley
The loss of Xantcha spurs Urza to seek out new allies, which he finds in Barrin, Master Wizard. Together they found the Tolarian Academy, carefully recruiting children from across Dominaria to their school (Phyrexia can't create sleeper agents that look like children). Tolaria serves as a research and development site for Urza's cold war against Phyrexia, and his primary project is a time machine. Urza discovers that silver is the material that best holds up against the rigors of time travel, but can't seem to push it much farther than a few hours at a time. His probes all prove useless, unable to do the critical thinking to operate independently in the past. Thus, he modifies his silver golem with Xantcha's Phyrexian heartstone, which he calls a cognitive-affective matrix. He places his Brand on it, the symbol of Urza. He then promptly handed on his newly sentient creation to a student named Jhoira of the Ghitu. Jhoira sees Karn, Silver Golem's burgeoning humanity and becomes his first and closest friend, naming him Karn after the Thran word for 'mighty'. A young wizard apprentice named Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir takes a disliking to Karn, nicknaming him "arty shovelhead" and in general making Karn's life miserable.
Despite all of their precautions, a Phyrexian incursion kills many faculty and staff on Tolaria, and Karn is unable to save Jhoira. The loss of his best friend inspires him to use Urza's time machine in an effort to prevent Jhoira's death. He saves Jhoira from the incursion but breaks time in the process, Karn's Temporal Sundering sends cascading time ripples across the island that devastates it worse than the original assault, trapping the Phyrexians in a bubble of fast time, Teferi in a bubble of slow time, and marooning Jhoira on the island as Urza evacuates as many survivors as he can. When they return to Tolaria years later, they find Jhoira has mapped the time distortions and has become ageless thanks to her consumption of water from slow-time bubbles. Movement through the time fields is impossible for all but Urza and Karn, who don't have biological bodies. To save Teferi, Jhoira seizes on the idea of using mist created from fast time water to counteract the slow time, and together with Urza, Karn breaches the time bubble and saves the young wizard.
This is one of my favorite pieces that never made it to a card.
Karn's Rescue by Mark Zug
The Tolarian's assaults on the fast-time Phyrexians fail one after the other, as the Phyrexians always have plenty of time to prepare (they see the attacks coming in slow motion). Karn is forced to save Urza from an ill-fated direct encounter inside the fast-time bubble. Urza realizes he needs better materials to build his war machines, and follows a clue from Jhoira to the Mana Rig on Shiv. In order to secure rights to the Thran metal there, Urza promises Karn to the Viashino that control the rig. Jhoira and Teferi attempt to put off completion of the deal for years, but when they've finally accomplished their goal, they're forced to turn him over. As the fast-time Phyrexians figure out how to leave their time bubble, a pitched battle begins on Tolaria. Karn acquits himself well in the battle, and the Viashino free him from their debt, acknowledging that he is a noble soul and not a thing to be owned.
After the fast-time Phyrexians are defeated with the help of Urza's new ally, Multani, Yavimaya's Avatar he reveals the final purpose of their Thran metal experiments: Skyship Weatherlight, a ship pairing the living wood of Yavimaya from the Weatherseed with the nearly indestructible (and perpetually growing) Thran metal. The Weatherlight's first mission is to Serra's Realm, which has been infiltrated by Phyrexia and is slowly collapsing without its creator (see The Song of Serra for more on her). Jhoira is appointed the ship's captain and along with Karn, they fill the ship with refugees from Serra's Realm before Urza initiates a Planar Collapse. Urza uses the collapse to charge a massive powerstone with the energy of the realm, and installs it in the Weatherlight's planeshifting engines.
The Weatherlight is the centerpiece of Urza's plan, and along with Karn they are both part of the Legacy, a collection of artifacts Urza plans to use against Phyrexia in the coming war.
Bloodlines (From 3385 AR to 4179 AR)
As the decades pass and Karn's friends Teferi and Jhoira move on in their own lives, he begins to grow reserved and forlorn. Urza once again gives Karn a way to get what he wants, this time to secure a contentious political marriage for the benefit of his bloodlines project (a eugenics project to create heroes for the coming war). In an attempt to help the golem, Barrin and Urza install a memory limiter on his Phyrexian heartstone, restricting his memory to ten years. In order to remember his friend Jhoira, Karn repeats a mantra about her to himself every night.
Although he was gifted to the Capashen clan, Urza reveals his real purpose is to defend them from Phyrexian assault. Every time a Capashen heir comes of age, Karn takes them to the village where the Serran refugees were resettled. As the Phyrexians begin to hunt down Urza's bloodlines, Karn is forced to escape with the baby Gerrard Capashen and pieces of the Legacy. Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa takes them in.
The Weatherlight Saga (From 4204 AR to 4205 AR)
Squee had to save everyone's butts, like, all the time.
Mercadian Masques Intro Comic by Kev Walker
Years later, Kondo's son Vuel has grown bitter with his adopted brother Gerrard for interfering in his rite of passage. Vuel steals the Legacy and Karn gives chase, but during their fight to reclaim it, Vuel tricks Karn into killing an innocent man, then freezes Karn with the Touchstone. Karn would reawaken when Gerrard was brought aboard the Weatherlight, and together they'd follow Vuel's trail to Rath, although Karn vows an oath of pacifism for his complicity in the murder. Karn is put in charge of the Weatherlight's engines, which he excels at. Vuel has become the villainous Phyrexian shapeshifter Volrath the Fallen, and when the Weatherlight is ambushed upon entering the plane Karn is captured and tortured. His body is used to murder moggs endlessly in a diabolic centrifuge. He's rescued by Gerrard and goes to recover his responsibility: the Legacy, which was entrusted to the Sliver Queen by Volrath. Karn convinces the Sliver Queen that, like her slivers are a part of her, the Legacy is a part of him, and she returns them. Using pieces of the Legacy, the Weatherlight is upgraded to outrun Predator, Flagship, and the crew escapes through the Erratic Portal, having suffered heavy losses on Rath.
Following their escape from Rath, the crew of the Weatherlight are trapped on the strange plane of Mercadia. The crew discovers Phyrexia embedded behind the scenes on the plane, and that Volrath is disguised among their crew. They're gifted the powerstones of Ramos, Dragon Engine, end up helping a revolt, and escape back to Dominaria. Volrath returns to Rath only to find Crovax the Cursed as a rival for power. Volrath dies and Crovax becomes the Ascendant Evincar. The Weatherlight Crew return to Dominaria just in time for Phyrexian's opening salvo in their Invasion. Karn's old friend Teferi, along with Jhoira, phase out Zhalfir and part of Shiv rather than fighting.
The war goes poorly as Phyrexia targets the strongest sources of opposition first, and although the Weatherlight crew is able to save Llanowar, Benalia's capital is a complete loss. When Barrin learns Urza kept the knowledge of his daughter's death from him, he Obliterates Tolaria in a rage and all the Phyrexians who overtook it. The Phyrexian Tsabo Tavoc, empowered by her victory over Benalia, claims Koilos and the permanent Phyrexian gateway. Initial attempts to storm the caves fail. Gerrard and the crew of the Weatherlight crew lead an assault on the caves, but it quickly becomes clear that without Karn's aid they'll all die. Karn forsakes his vow of pacifism (at least as far as Phyrexians are concerned) and slaughters his way through the entire Phyrexian army to save Gerrard and shut the gateway. During the fight, Karn's memory limiter breaks and a millennia of memories begin pouring back in.
This minor victory turns out to be moot as Rath itself is overlaid on Dominaria, instantly landing a plane's worth of Phyrexian monsters everywhere at once. The battle turns to Urborg and Volrath's Stronghold, which has overlaid there with its new master, Crovax. Karn begins to understand the Thran Tome, and uses it to bring about Weatherlight's final transformation into a living, intelligent being. When Yawgmoth himself manifests on Dominaria, the crew attempt to destroy the god of Phyrexia by tapping into the power of the Null Moon, an ancient Thran artifact, but to no avail (and Weatherlight's sentience is killed, leaving it just a ship once more). In their final moments, Gerrard and Karn agree to Urza's final plan: fusing all the elements of the Legacy to create a blast to rival the one Urza devastated the plane with once before. Gerrard removes Urza's powerstone eyes, killing the planeswalker, and plants them in Karn, recombining them and creating a blast that fells Yawgmoth once and for all. In the aftermath, the Weatherlight explodes and falls into the ocean, while Karn ascends as an artificial planeswalker.
After ascending, Karn created the mathematically perfect metal world of Argentum.
Precursor Golem by Chippy
The Mirari Conjecture (From 4305 AR to 4306 AR)
A century later, Karn dispatched a probe, the Mirari, to Dominaria, but the probe begins to malfunction, wreaking havoc on the continent of Otaria when it comes into the possession of the Cabal. When Karona, False God visited Karn on his perfect metal plane of Argentum, he returned to Dominaria in the guise of Lord Macht to investigate. Karn recovered the Mirari and gained a planeswalker apprentice in Jeska, Warrior Adept, who had once been part of Karona (it's a long story).
Mirrodin (Between 4306 and 4406 AR)
He transformed the Mirari into a golem, and left it to stand watch over his artificial world. Karn didn't realize, however, that he had tainted the world with glistening oil, leaking from his heartstone, and that New Phyrexia was slowly taking root on his metal plane. The golem, Memnarch, began an obsessive quest to acquire a spark after being tainted by the oil. Karn was unable to return to Mirrodin until Glissa Sunseeker and her allies defeated Memnarch, but almost all of Mirrodin had died in the conflict, leaving behind only Slobad, Goblin Tinkerer with Glissa's borrowed spark and a plane's worth of souls trapped inside him from Memnarch's ascension web. Karn offers to train Slobad like he had Jeska, but the goblin instead opts to return everyone to life, sending those souls that were stolen by Memnarch back home. Memnarch is turned back into the Mirari, but promptly disappears from the story.
Planar Chaos (Around 4500 AR)
Urza's true legacy is the destruction and rebirth of Phyrexia.
Distant Memories by Karl Kopinski
Over a century later, Karn would begin receiving an odd signal from Dominaria. Upon investigation it would turn out that Jhoira had been attempting to contact him through the teleporting ambulator of Venser, Shaper Savant. The beacon led Karn to return and find Dominaria in the midst of a new crisis. Time rifts from powerful magics unleashed on the plane have begun draining the plane of mana following the death of Karona. Teferi and Jhoira returned to phase their homelands back in, but Teferi had lost his spark returning Shiv to its rightful place and sealing the rift he caused by phasing it out in the first place.
Consulting with his old friends, and making a new one in Venser, Karn helps convince the planeswalker Lord Windgrace to seal the rift above Urborg before going to seal the Tolaria rift himself. Karn had created the rift when he broke time on the island, but Barrin's final spell had ripped the rift open beyond any hope of repair. With Venser's aid, they concoct a plan to return Karn to moments before Barrin's spell (by thinking really hard . . . ) so that the rift can be repaired. As Karn is weakened by expending his power to seal the rift, the taint he'd be tracking through the multiverse begins to take control. With a cryptic message not to follow him, Karn returns to Mirrodin.
The Quest for Karn (Around 4557 AR)
It's not clear what Venser did to transfer his immunity to Karn.
New Phyrexia Key Art by Jason Chan
We learned that, decades later, he was captured by New Phyrexia and made their new father of machines (one of Yawgmoth's titles on the original Phyrexia). The taint took years to take hold on Karn, and like Glacian and Urza before him he began to experience madness as his mind was split between moments of lucidity and corruption. He languished in the core of what was once Mirrodin, used by the New Phyrexians, until he gave the signal to invade the surface by accident in Corrupted Conscience. His Phyrexian taint was only purged when Venser, the Sojourner, who had fought his way to Karn with new allies Koth of the Hammer, Melira, Sylvok Outcast, and Elspeth Tirel, sacrificed his life to pass Karn his Melira-granted immunity to the oil. Now Karn Liberated, he fought with the Mirran resistance for a time, until departing the plane for reasons unknown.
Dominaria (Around 4560 AR)
This is going to be one of those must-buy playmats.
Karn, Scion of Urza by Chase Stone
Glacian. Xantcha. Urza. Gerrard. Weatherlight. Venser. Karn is the legacy of all of their sacrifices, and all that they are. His new card, Karn, Scion of Urza, reflects Karn having embraced his role as the heir to Urza and what that entails. Like Urza before him, he too inadvertently brought Phyrexia back. His art depicts him at Tolaria West, the Tolarian Academy created in honor of the fallen island school where he was created. Behind him, a stained glass mural of Urza resides, and Karn's hand rests on a globe of Dominaria, the fate of the world literally in his hand. You can see other scholars in the background, wearing mantles and robes similar to those from the original Tolaria.
Karn's abilities reflect his powers. Karn has changed the past for a better future twice, and his +1 gives you the ability to choose the timeline you want. His -1 is harder to wax poetic about, but it's definitely a reference to Karn Liberated returning things from exile. His -2 reflects his skill as an artificer, as while he may no longer have the power to shape a world of metal, he can still create Constructs of no small skill. They look like Karn simulacrums, and appear to be excavating. I wonder if Karn has returned to Dominaria to unearth Thran or Phyrexian technology that might help them against the threat of New Phyrexia? As a big Commander player, I love Karn. He's a great addition to any artifact deck, but I would recommend keeping it flavorful and playing him alongside Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain.