Standard Issue Planeswalkers

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There are 14 Planeswalkers currently legal in Standard. Planeswalkers are some of the most powerful, multifunctional, card-advantageous cards ever printed. Why is it then, with 14 to choose from, I only see one or two of them in decklists? Let's go through them, and see if we can find the problem:

Ajani Goldmane - A one time role player in the tokens deck of Standard past, Ajani hasn't seen much play lately. Well, what can he offer us? A little bit of lifegain? What ever happened to that lifegain special we saw at US Nationals? Well, if you just want to gain life I recommend Lone Missionary. Second, some +1/+1 counters for our creatures. If you have a bunch of creatures that you need to be slightly bigger, Ajani's your cat. I like to designate cards that do things like this "win more" cards. If you're already winning the game, as you likely are if you have a bunch of creatures in play, the card helps you win more. What win more cards don't help you do, is stop losing, or even start winning. Ajani's ultimate at least offers something: If your opponent isn't killing you, Ajani will eventually provide a really big, albeit rather defenseless token.

Overall it's pretty clear why Ajani doesn't see much play, he's just not that good. He doesn't solve problems, and the path to victory he provides is easily solved by most removal spells.

Chandra Ablaze - This is a card? Has anyone ever played it? It looks like a reject rare. What? You say that I helped Aaron Forsythe and Dave Guskin design it at the last minute? I guess I do remember being there... Why does it cost so much? Oh, right, last minute... and to be sure it was safe you leave the cost high enough that you're not worried about it. It does let you cast spells for free, after all. Well, still, what does it do. It deals 4 to something in exchange for a red card from your hand. That's not bad, considering it sticks around. The second ability seems like it could be really good against some decks, like control. If they tap out you can at least destroy their hand while refilling yours... if this is your last card... and if the threat they just played won't kill Chandra immediately and then you. It works with her ultimate... but at -2 it's less likely you'll be able to use it and get her back up to full. Maybe? Her ultimate sure could be game ending. You just have to get a big pile of game-ending red cards into your graveyard.

This newer Chandra can more or less defender herself with her +1, and change the board state... the problem is that this takes a red card from your hand... so what other red card are you playing that couldn't do that job? It's hard to imagine a deck where your 6-drop shouldn't be Inferno Titan instead of Chandra Ablaze.

Chandra Nalaar is next up (alphabetically) - Her first ability doesn't do much. 1 damage to a player? The best it can do is feebly peck away at another planeswalker. She does have a solid board-affecting ability though. She can kill most threats, and many without dying herself. Unfortunately, the most likely problems in Standard these days are 5/5s and 6/6s. Her ultimate is certainly game-ending in most cases, but not by itself. Players start with 20 life, not 10. Chandra Classic's main problem is that she can't solve a bit threat by herself, and she isn't enough against multiple small creatures. You have to have plenty of defense already to get her ultimate off, or if the opponent has no creatures her ultimate isn't really that devastating. She basically doesn't work the way she seems to want to work.

Elspeth Tirel - One of the three newest additions to the Planeswalker family. I'm sure you recall Elspeth, Knight Errant being a powerhouse in constructed. Even so, I would say the first Elspeth was underplayed in standard. She's extremely powerful, offering immediate board presence in the form of a defensive token, a powerful win condition in giving a creature both size and evasion, oh and also she had an ultimate. This new Elspeth... not so much. She gains life, which I've already discussed as being a rather weak ability for a Planeswalker. She makes tokens, which is excellent, but for 5 mana you could make twice as many tokens with Conquerer's Pledge. Well, in two turns Elspeth can make all 6 tokens; it's a good ability, and if she lives, from there you can gain life twice and use her ultimate. This is a powerful ultimate, destroying all non-token and non-lands in play. I think there is a home for this card in standard, but it really needs some good token makers at 2, 3, and 4 mana you can play before it. Roc Egg anyone?

Garruk Wildspeaker is a solid planeswalker that should have a place in decks. He can provide a 3/3 token creature for immediate board presence, defending himself or giving you some way of winning, however small. Untapping two lands is great for casting a second card, giving you another reasonable plan on the same turn. A turn later he turns 4 mana into 6, and most of the game-winning cards seem to cost 6 mana these days. His ultimate is a legitimate threat as long as you have a few creatures, even if they are just Lotus Cobras. So why aren't we seeing more of him? In part, I think it's because Valakut, the mana-ramping deck, needs to put lands into play, not simple cast 6-drops, and therefore don't want him. Control decks simply draw and play their mana slowly, also not needing a jump from 4 to 6 or 7. But where is the aggressive green deck that uses Garruk as a threat-generator, accelerator, and finisher? I have seen some Elves decks around, but they can use Elzuri, Renegade Leader to very much the same effect.

Garruk is certainly worthy of Standard, and I bet there are decks, either current or undiscovered, that would benefit from his inclusion.

Gideon Jura is next up. He's certainly seen standard play. Most hilarious for me was the crazy flip-flopping everyone seemed to do when they first heard about him. "He's awful, he's amazing, he's terrible, he's pretty good" - nobody was sure what to make of him. Probably a lot of that was because his first ability doesn't protect him. Quite the opposite, it invites his destruction. What many didn't realize, or were not able to calculate without playing with him, was that at 8 loyalty counters he's out of reach a typical turn-5 board state in many a Standard game. Obviously, destroying a tapped creature is an excellent defensive ability, quite savage considering it will leave him with more loyalty than any other Planeswalker that tries to rid the board of a creature on the same turn it is cast.

The ultimate is where Gideon truly shines, as it is free, and gives you a 6/6 attacker. If there were simply a 3WW 6/6 that read "prevent all damage to me" it might have a place in standard, and while that's clearly a very different card, it gives you and idea of how powerful Gideon is. We'd probably see more of him if there were more white-based decks being built. You can obviously have confidence putting him into a deck.

Jace Beleren - Oh little Jace, you have never disappointed. But wait, little Jace has very little effect on the board, often gives a symmetrical card draw to both players, and has an ultimate that barely does anything at all. By the metrics you would use to decide if it's a good Planeswalker Jace fails in many ways. Why has it been a solid card in many decks? It can't defend itself at all, often reading as a reboundless Survival Cache. The reason he's so good? He only costs 3 mana! In a control game he comes down long before any threats and gives you a lot of card advantage - which is how those games are won. Playing for control against aggro he can distract your opponent and help you dig for a way out. Many blue decks succeed with late game cards, and casting Jace Beleren forces the game to go longer.

Also, there's the matter of him having the same "legendary" type as another card of interest...

Jace, the Mind Sculptor is certainly one of the most powerful cards printed in recent years. Why, after the near total dominance of Cryptic Command, would WotC print another obnoxiously powerful blue card like this? There are several reasons. Jace is the main character of Magic. He has to shine, and I'm sure the creative team put some pressure on R&D to make him strong, not that they needed to. The first Jace was a powerful presence in Standard, and everyone wanted to be sure the new one would be too. Somehow it was decided that Jace would have four abilities, the second of many twists on the expected shape of Planeswalkers. (Double + abilities, 0-cost abilities, no way to gain loyalty being others we've seen.) Four abilities has proven to be significantly better than three.

I worry that R&D consistently underestimates the sway control strategies can have over standard. I think one of two things is happening. Either R&D undertests control decks, or the top players favor control even if a non-control strategy might be stronger. I think control decks take more work to perfect, as they are reactive, and they have to pay closer attention to the metagame. In FFL testing, it's easier to see if an aggro deck is very strong, and if they don't give control decks more time, they can be underestimated. It only takes a small underestimation to have a big effect on Standard. If the top players favor control decks, they'll build and play more of them, and everyone else looks to the top players for what to play - both in terms of deckbuilding and in terms of results. I certainly noticed this past season that websites talked a lot about control and combo decks, even while Vampires were winning many events. The articles would ooh and ahh at the newest UW or UB decks, and then almost in passing say "oh yes and there's also vampires." I don't think they were being dismissive, just that aggro decks tend to have narrower form, and less innovation can take place once the deck is found out... or so you might think. That's a whole other article though. Even if R&D gets control and aggro balanced, pros favoring control will lead to more and stronger decks. I worry about these things, but I don't think it's really either of them. I think it's just one or two very powerful cards that get through, and somehow those cards are very frequently blue. Cryptic Command, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. They are enough to imbalance Standard in favor of control, when there might otherwise be a more open field. How many of the current top decks run Jace 2.0? And it's $90 on the secondary market? That just doesn't seem healthy.

The "Brainstorm" ability is at the core of the card's power. It has tremendous synergy with current standard. Fetchlands, Preordain, Sea Gate Oracle, Summoning Trap, Oracle of Mul Daya, the list goes on. All in addition to being an enormously powerful card advantage and selection engine. If I could go back in time, I'd argue strongly that it should cost -1 loyalty, not 0. This Planeswalker can also defend itself (and you) with the "Command of Unsummoning" ability. If those two aren't enough to win you the game (they usually are), you can win any game in which you resolve his ultimate. More than almost any other planeswalker, the Mind Sculptor's ultimate ends the game in your favor almost immediately. I shouldn't need to tell you that this card belongs in every blue deck you make for current Standard.

Koth of the Hammer is next. There was a lot of excitement around this card at first, and while it is still appearing in sideboards, I don't think the deck in which it stars has been found. Koth has a devastating ultimate, that likely wins you every game in which you get it off. You can come back from behind by shooting down creatures and planeswalkers left and right, not to mention killing the opponent pretty quickly. The problem with this Planeswalker is that the other two abilities don't really do all that much for you. Extra mana can be great, but you need a really sweet card to cast with that mana. If you use it the same turn, you will at best get 4 mana. Have you looked at the 4-drops available to red lately? Koth of the Hammer is the only one to see any real play in constructed. Obsidian Fireheart isn't too shabby looking, but what I'd really like to see is a 2RR 2/2 flier that deals 2 damage to a creature or player when it enters the battlefield. I guess a Murderous Redcap with flying instead of persist is a little too much to ask of the color pie?

Liliana Vess - poor Black, your planeswalkers are so late in the alphabet. Also, they're a little weak. Liliana doesn't do anything to the board until she ultimates. She can't defend herself at all. She can tutor for a card, which can get you out of a tough situation, but she doesn't even put the card into your hand. (I guess it's a combo with Explosive Revelation this way?) Being able to find any card in your deck easily is quite powerful, but also leads to annoying gameplay. Magic isn't much fun when the opponent always has just the card they need to turn the tables on you. This is why we have Diabolic Tutor and Liliana Vess and no longer have Demonic Tutor. Still, I wonder if Liliana couldn't find a place as a finisher in a hand-destruction deck. Megrim was even made cheaper in Liliana's Caress. Are you laughing at that suggestion? Most experienced players probably would laugh, because an enchantment that does nothing on its own, even a cheap one, doesn't have much place in Standard, right? I mean, who ever did anything with cards like Pyromancer's Ascension and Quest for the Holy Relic.

Nissa Revane is a rather underplayed Planeswalker. Like Garruk and Elspeth, she provides a threat / defender the turn you play her. Unlike Garruk, and much like the dominating Elspeth, Knight Errant, she gains loyalty in doing so. Also like Elspeth she has two + abilities. Her other + isn't nearly as strong, but her ultimate is much more game-ending. With multiple elf lords available I'm really surprised more players aren't trying to find a powerful elf deck. This is definitely a card worth putting more effort into and gaining more experience playing with.

Sarkhan the Mad - I'm not sure the usual analysis works on this card. It doesn't really do a lot by itself, except act as a really bad Jace Beleren. Yet is has seen some play in Standard, and I think it could see even a little more. It can't gain loyalty (proliferate?), and the first ability can outright kill Sarkhan depending on what's in your deck. 3BR: cycle is pretty bad! His ultimate looks like it belongs in the Commander format, and the second ability is very odd, turning anything creature unto a 5/5. So it can defend itself if you have a weak creature and need a stronger one. It can, in an emergency, turn an Emrakul the Aeons Torn into a much smaller threat, but I'm not sure that counts as defending itself, or you. Like Gideon Jura (and perhaps many cards in Rise of the Eldrazi) it took people playing with this version of Sarkhan for them to better understand it. If you haven't you should certainly try it out. What happens when you turn a 1/1 into a 5/5 dragon, then attack for 5 in the air and use the ultimate to blast the opponent for 5 more? I recommend having one of these in your Vampires deck, and perhaps a second in the sideboard.

Sorin Markov is the other 6-mana monster Planeswalker. I sometimes wonder if he's really an enchantment in disguise. The first ability does everything he will likely ever do for you - remove small threats and provide a win condition, however slow it might be. His second ability is almost a joke - it turns on all your little vampires that want the opponent at 10 life, get it? Yeah sure, but what kind of deck are you playing in which you have those vampires, but your opponent is above 12 life on turn six? They should be dead by then, or at least facing down one of Sarkhan's pet dragons. Sorin's ultimate? I think you'll have more success trying to perfect the Prototype Portal + Mindslaver combo. It's too bad this card has one of the best pictures in all of Magic, because you're not going to see it on the table very often.

Venser, the Sojourner - our last character on the list is also one of the newest. His abilities are quite interesting, and I very much wanted to build a deck for him. There are several problems with this proposition, however. Blinking a permament you own would be most excellent... if only there were some blue or white cards that cost 4 or less that would be worth blinking. Sure, I can gain a card with Sea Gate Oracle, or I can bounce an opponent's creature (again) with Aether Adept... but Jace, the Mind Sculptor does both of those things by himself, for only 4 mana and without needing white mana. If I look into adding a third color to my deck the possibilities are much better, but I'm still just killing creatures or artifacts using cards that don't see much standard play (though Skinrender is on the rise these days). If we go above 4 mana, there are some truly epic things to be done, but why would you need Venser for that? Titans win games on their own! I think we're stuck waiting for Mirrodin Besieged (or the 3rd set in the block) to give us the tools we need to make a worthwhile combo.

How about the second ability? Making all your creatures unblockable might have some potential, as soon as someone comes up with a blue-white attack deck that gets stuck against the format's dominating midrange deck. Oh wait, there is no dominating midrange deck. It's all control and combo (Valakut) these days. If you find a good blue, white, or blue-white attack deck (Merfolk?) you'd probably be fine without Venser, but perhaps he's a sideboard option? Well, without having the deck it's hard to say.

Venser's ultimate is certainly powerful, and if you can get to it, and cast a couple of spells that turn, you're going to be the favorite to win. Unlike Admonition Angel, Venser can exile lands (Valakut) and none of it ever comes back. I admit I have tried to build a couple of different decks around him, but none of them have panned out. Maybe you'll have more luck?

Well that's all of them. Next time I think I shall try to find a red deck to clean up all this blue mess we've gotten all over our standard format. See you then!

2 thoughts on “Standard Issue Planeswalkers

  1. I personally love Venser; I think he's underestimated.
    It's true that by himself it's not that strong (beside his ultimates) but in a combo deck he could be devastating.

    I use Venser in my 3 colors ally (UWG), combo him with Jaces; it's quite leathal.
    Once his ultimate pops, it's game over (so many cheap allies to cast).

    Here are some examples for him:
    – with Elspeth Tirel, you can put 3 token every turn then exile Elspeth to bring her back to 4! She will provide defense, which are usually good enough to get him to his ultimate (only 2 turn + 1 proliferate and he's there) – also: it can save anything before popping Elspeth ultimate.
    – with Jace 1.0: well it's an easy way to be the only one drawing.
    – with Sun Titan you can make him unblockable and wank freely (I found that Sun Titan doesn't usually last if you attack with it)
    – w/ any titan actually: get there ability trigger twice the turn you play them!!!
    – great way to reuse "Journey to Nowhere" if you find a better target.
    – it's also nice to attack with a baneslayer angel and make sure you will be able to block during your opp's turn
    – quite fun too w/ contagion engine.
    – casting "spreading seas" to screw your opponents color early game and redirect it on Valakut with the bonus of drawing a another card… (or on any other land which give you an advantage) is also useful.

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