Ever since they were introduced in Lorwyn, planeswalkers have been some of the most powerful, popular and iconic cards in the game. They have changed the face of the game, redefining constructed formats from casual to competitive.
Such a novel and iconic card type obviously has a huge place in Commander, since so many people love their repeatable effects, swingy ultimates and their sweet art.
One of the first decks many people think of trying in Commander is a five-color deck with a bunch of planeswalkers. In most cases, people abandon the deck due to its inconsistency.
When the deck works, it does some absurdly unfair things and wins very big. However, when it doesn't work you sort of sit around and do nothing.
There are generally three problems with the planeswalker deck. Throughout the article we will attempt to remedy each of these in turn.
First, your mana requirements are quite difficult. You need large quantities of color-specific mana early in the game because most of the cards you're building with are double-colored and cost four mana or more.
Second, you want your planeswalkers to contribute to something bigger, so that you're never "just" using an ability and not getting much value.
Third, you need ways to protect your planeswalkers. This is especially difficult when facing down multiple opponents with gigantic monsters capable of one-shotting your auxiliary teammates.
Let's start with the crux of the deck and see where that leaves us. With twenty eight planeswalkers currently in the game, you're pushing the maximum number that you can play while still having the deck do other things. Space is at an even greater premium when a number of those planeswalkers require that you add additional cards to make them more effective.
I think the sweet spot is somewhere around twenty-five. Looking for what to cut, we can identify the three weakest walkers as Sarkhan Vol, Jace, Memory Adept and Koth of the Hammer. These walkers don't affect the board enough relative to their costs.
Sorin Markov is one planeswalker that I won't run for political reasons. He has two of the most hated abilities in this format, which can lead you to getting destroyed when he stays on the table for very long. That's not something I'm interested in dealing with, especially in a deck that needs time to set itself up.
After those cuts, here's what we're left with:
- Ajani Goldmane
- Ajani Vengeant
- Chandra, the Firebrand
- Chandra Ablaze
- Elspeth, Knight-Errant
- Elspeth Tirel
- Garruk Relentless
- Garruk Wildspeaker
- Garruk, Primal Hunter
- Gideon Jura
- Jace Beleren
- Jace, the Mind Sculptor
- Karn Liberated
- Liliana Vess
- Liliana of the Veil
- Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
- Nissa Revane
- Sarkhan the Mad
- Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
- Tezzeret the Seeker
- Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas
- Venser, the Sojourner
Let's identify a few important things here. Only two of these cards cost three, whereas most of them cost four or five. Seven subtypes are repeated at least once, and there are only fourteen unique planeswalkers.
As more get printed, you can change these numbers to reduce the number of dead draws due to the planeswalker "legend rule." Two of any given planeswalker is probably fine, but three is a little excessive.
With that said, let's start to break these down by function. In general, your planeswalkers do one of three things: protect themselves, generate card advantage, or set up powerful interactions.
The planeswalkers that protect themselves do so either by killing creatures or making tokens. Making tokens is generally better, since the sheer number of opponents and creatures usually means you won't be able to kill all of them and still have enough loyalty to survive an attack.
Tokens are also an important resource in the late-game as you start to lock down the board. The ability to destroy problematic creatures is very important, but the ability to discourage people from attacking you while you set up your shields is even more so.
That said, making tokens isn't quite enough in a format full of evasion, trample, and swarm decks, so you are going to need other ways to protect your planeswalkers.
Generating card advantage is pretty straightforward. If you can protect one of your Jaces and draw a bunch of cards, it becomes easier and easier to slam more planeswalkers or "prisony" pieces and start locking up control of the board. This in turn lets you pull further and further ahead.
The one thing that really does terrify you is board sweepers that hit walkers (such as Oblivion Stone), but ideally you've generated so many cards by that point that it won't matter.
Lastly, you have planeswalkers that set up gamebreaking plays to pull far ahead all of a sudden. The best examples of this are Chandra, the Firebrand and Tezzeret the Seeker, probably the two most powerful planeswalkers for this particular deck.
Doubling up on a Wargate or Genesis Wave into multiple planeswalkers is absolutely backbreaking in most games, and puts you so far ahead that it almost doesn't matter what happens afterward. Similarly, a Tezzeret the Seeker left alone for more than two or three turns single-handedly sets up your best defenses, and makes it very difficult to interact with the rest of your team (More on Tezzeret below.)
Now that we've introduced the team we're working with, let's try to shore up some of the weaknesses, shall we? We'll start with the mana situation created by our excess of double-colored four drops:
Ramping Up to Four
Normally I just lump mana ramp in with the lands, but in this case it's actually of vital importance to the rest of the deck.
As mentioned above, many of your cards cost four mana and require two colors, so we'll need two drop spells that get you whatever color you need at the time. These may not be terribly exciting, but their importance cannot be understated:
- Rampant Growth
- Into the North
- Sakura-Tribe Elder
- Sphere of the Suns
- Coalition Relic
- Fellwar Stone
- Wayfarer's Bauble
- Birds of Paradise
- Green Sun's Zenith
Coalition Relic breaks the trend here, but given that it lets you cast a planeswalker even with no other appropriate mana source, I think it adds more than enough to be worthwhile.
The rest are either green or colorless ways to ensure that you'll be able to cast the appropriate four-drop on your third turn, and will go a long way towards keeping pace with the rest of the decks at the table.
This does mean we need to disproportionately skew our mana base towards green lands, but that's a sacrifice we can happily make for increased speed and consistency.
There are a number of powerful planeswalkers that force you to build around their abilities in order for them to be any good.
Because of the limited number of slots available, you can only maximize the potential of a certain number of those cards. After including cards to protect your planeswalkers and interact favorably with opposing planeswalkers, space starts to run out quickly.
Let's take a look at the packages I chose to run:
Nissa and Friends
It is unfortunate that Eternal Witness isn't an elf, but this package is still pretty reasonable. Nissa may be pretty underwhelming in most cases, but because of that people tend to leave her alone. If you manage to ultimate her, fetching up all of these guys is a pretty big swing in the game, and something that people won't expect out of a non-elf deck.
Viridian Zealot is your standard artifact/enchantment removal that can be tutored up via Green Sun's Zenith. Deranged Hermit makes a billion chump blockers, and can be a very fast clock in the late game. Fierce Empath tutors up your Sun Titan so that you can recur your "lock" pieces.
Lastly, Glissa, the Traitor interacts well with this next sub-theme:
Tinkering with Tezzeret
- Executioner's Capsule
- Mycosynth Wellspring
- Ichor Wellspring
- Throne of Geth
- Sword of the Meek
- Thopter Foundry
- Nim Deathmantle
- Rings of Brighthearth
- Nevinyrral's Disk
All of these cards do some valuable work on their own, but their combined interactions are really what makes them shine.
Executioner's Capsule and Nevinyrral's Disk are great ways to protect your planeswalkers from creatures and other permanent-based threats. Rings of Brighthearth is pretty much a must for any respectable planeswalker deck, and Nim Deathmantle helps protect key creatures and provide late-game inevitability with Sun Titan and Eternal Witness.
There's the obvious Thopter/Sword combo that makes infinite blockers and fodder for Proliferate. You can sacrifice Sword to Throne of Geth, then put some 1/1 tokens into play with Elspeth, Knight-Errant or some such. Or you can just sacrifice the Wellsprings for extra value!
Making Planeswalkers (More) Awesome
With the rest of the deck figured out, we can dedicate the last few slots to choosing a Commander and enhancing our planeswalkers!
Protecting your Newfound Friends
These cards, along with your Thopter/Sword engine, are the best ways you have to protect your team from random creatures. (I've chosen to ignore burn spells because they rarely come up in my games.)
Unfortunately, cards like Ghostly Prison are of little use, so these are the few options that you have. Glare of Subdual is the real gem here, since it makes all of your incidental token generation infinitely more effective.
Getting Bigger, Faster
There are a good number of cards with Proliferate and other "add counters" effects, but these are the only ones I've chosen to run because they require the least amount of work for the most efficient return.
The only other card I really considered was Inexorable Tide. The problem was that at some point you pretty much just stop casting spells and elect to activate your planeswalkers instead.
Bring in the Back Up
- Creeping Renaissance
- Genesis Wave
- Stoneforge Mystic
- Eternal Witness
- Crib Swap
- Horde of Notions (Commander)
Sometimes even the best team needs some back-up. These tools give you a lot of consistency and resiliency, helping find or recur key pieces of the puzzle. Alternately, some are just over-the-top powerful.
As for Horde of Notions, he gives you more ways to grind out cards and control the board. He's a sweet back-up plan when all else fails.
The Mana Base
- Rootbound Crag
- Woodland Cemetery
- Sunpetal Grove
- Hinterland Harbor
- High Market
- Mouth of Ronom
- Prahv, Spires of Order
- Krosan Verge
- Vivid Meadow
- Vivid Marsh
- Vivid Creek
- Vivid Crag
- Vivid Grove
- Reflecting Pool
- Exotic Orchard
- Grand Coliseum
- Command Tower
- Terramorphic Expanse
- Evolving Wilds
- Bojuka Bog
- Flooded Grove
- Fire-Lit Thicket
- Wooded Bastion
- Twilight Mire
- Azorius Chancery
- Orzhov Basilica
- 4 Snow-Covered Forest
- 2 Snow-Covered Mountain
- 2 Snow-Covered Plains
- 2 Snow-Covered Swamp
- 1 Snow-Covered Island
This is a pretty budgety manabase, even if it is a little stressed. The deck wants another land or two, probably a Ravnica bounceland and a basic.
Normally, I'm not a fan of the Karoos from Ravnica, but they are quite good in decks like this with hefty color requirements and a low land count. Too many Karoos is asking to get tempo'd out of the game, but a few to reset lands like Bojuka Bog or to inflate your land count are just fine.
Notice that a majority of the mana-base taps for Green. This is in order to maximize your chances of playing a ramp spell on turn two, and provide easy access to your supporting cast of green cards.
This makes the filter lands from Shadowmoor and Eventide much better than normal, because they effectively give you as much access to their respective color as you need. It's also worth considering the similar cycle of lands from Odyssey, such as Skycloud Expanse.
Prahv, Spires of Order is one of the lands best suited for this deck, because of its ability to prevent any kind of damage. One of the things this deck is most afraid of is burn to the face, and Prahv is an awesome out that doesn't really take up a deck slot. It's usually worse than something like Maze of Ith, but under this particular set of circumstances I think Prahv wins out.
With the manabase settled, here's what the final list looks like:
[deckbox did="a150" size="small" width="560"]
I've had time to play a few games before writing this article, and let me tell you: this deck is sweet!
The games you win, you win big. Even the games you lose are close though, because you have so many incidental interactions that help you protect a few planeswakers long enough to start grinding out advantages.
Make no mistake, this is an incredibly grindy control deck; notwithstanding the potential to "combo off" with Doubling Season, you will have to fight against the table for each point of loyalty.
That said, it is a ton of fun to play with. You get to do so many powerful things, and attack from a lot of different angles. It can be a little daunting to figure out the sequencing of your planeswaker activations, but it's enough fun that it doesn't really matter if mistakes are made.
If you haven't tried building a deck with a theme like planeswalkers, artifacts, enchantments or even lands, I would definitely recommend it. Linear decks bring out some very interesting interactions, and make some corner-case cards incredibly powerful. They are very fun to play to boot.
Next week we'll be trying another thematic deck, albeit one that's a little less linear. I tend to avoid both Green and Black when I'm building my own decks, so we'll talk about some Jund exploration!
@cag5383 on Twitter