Half graphs and their variants, such as ladders, semi-ladders and co-matchings, are combinatorial objects that encode total orders in graphs. Works by Adler and Adler (Eur. J. Comb.; 2014) and Fabia\'nski et al. (STACS; 2019) prove that in the powers of sparse graphs, one cannot find arbitrarily large objects of this kind. However, these proofs either are non-constructive, or provide only loose upper bounds on the orders of half graphs and semi-ladders. In this work we provide nearly tight asymptotic lower and upper bounds on the maximum order of half graphs, parameterized on the distance, in the following classes of sparse graphs: planar graphs, graphs with bounded maximum degree, graphs with bounded pathwidth or treewidth, and graphs excluding a fixed clique as a minor. The most significant part of our work is the upper bound for planar graphs. Here, we employ techniques of structural graph theory to analyze semi-ladders in planar graphs through the notion of cages, which expose a topological structure in semi-ladders. As an essential building block of this proof, we also state and prove a new structural result, yielding a fully polynomial bound on the neighborhood complexity in the class of planar graphs.