This might be one of the more controversial articles I've ever written.
Not because I'm going to be putting out anything crazy (in my opinion), but anyone who follows sports and the power rankings that inevitably come with sports coverage knows that any ranking will be torn to shreds and disagreed with.
I understand it completely; people all have different experiences with different cards. While I've never spent a ton of time working on Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas decks, there are bound to be people who love the card and think that it never got its due (and deserves to be #1). If this is how you feel, there will be a chance later in the article to rate all the planeswalkers yourself. I hope you'll participate.
This article actually began as my feedback and predictions regarding Kiora, the Crashing Wave. I soon realized that I was essentially ranking and rating planeswalkers based on how "good" I thought they were in order to test the "general rules of planeswalker viability," so I decided to just bite the bullet and go ahead and rate and rank all 41 planeswalkers.
Ranking All 41 Planeswalkers
So that's what I did; I tried to make my ratings/rankings as objective as possible while fully understanding that I can never remove all subjectivity from a rating system. I gauged how each planeswalker has performed in each format in addition to each planeswalker's ability to protect itself. Note that I didn't include anything about how much a planeswalker costs, as this is something I want to get into in depth.
How important is the cost of a planeswalker? We've all seen the basic "rules" for a planeswalker (costs four or less, can protect itself, does something on an empty board, etc.), and up until now even I've never really questioned why those are the "rules." I get the need to protect oneself, and I see how doing something on an empty board is relevant. We'll discuss Kiora in these aspects later in the article.
However, why do we insist on our walkers costing four or less? I have a feeling that it's Lilliana and Chandra's fault.
No, not Veil and Pyromaster.
Vess and Nalaar.
The initial crop of planeswalkers in Lorwyn introduced us not only to the card type itself but also the namesake planeswalker from each color. Look at the ones that were good and then look at their costs. They cost three, four, and four (Jace Beleren, Garruk Wildspeaker, and Ajani Goldmane, respectively).
People are apt to buy into the hive mind, so in this case when people started noticing that the dividing line of good planeswalkers and mediocre ones was four and lower the "must be lower than four" line got started.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor costing four didn't help that cause either.
However, imagine for a second that Garruk, Primal Hunter and Gideon Jura were printed in that first run. The stigma of "four-mana planeswalker or bust" wouldn't have gotten the initial legs needed to turn into a "rule" when Jace, the Ungodly was printed.
Basically, what I'm trying to get at is we can stop saying "well it passes/doesn't pass the four-mana rule" when new planeswalkers are printed. Planeswalkers can be good without costing the requisite four mana or less. Look at Elspeth, Sun's Champion and Garruk, Caller of Beasts. In the right decks those cards are outrageous and overpowered. We know that now, but it took some time for people to realize that Elspeth and Garruk were good because of the cost and how dismissive people were when they saw six-mana requirement.
It's all about context.
That's why Ral Zarek doesn't see much play (despite seemingly fitting the "rules"). That's why Sorin, Lord of Innistrad isn't considered on the same level as Elspeth, Knight-Errant. That's why Jace, Architect of Thought was worth less than $10 when Thundermaw Hellkite, Thragtusk, and Restoration Angel roamed the battlefield but is really good now.
So instead of talking about how Kiora, the Crashing Wave costs four, why don't we discuss the card in context of the format and what we might expect it to do for us?
That's what I'm going to do after this whole "ranking thing."
So let's get to those rankings then!
With these ratings and rankings, I'm looking purely at tournament play; in other words, which cards have produced in Constructed tournaments in addition to some that might have a bit more potential that just hasn't been reached yet. This should be kept in mind as you're looking through this list and when you see something you may not completely agree with.
(If you're super interested in my methodology for producing the rating, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. It's really not that groundbreaking, but I'll share.)
We can see that Jace, the Mind Sculptor has his own level above everything else, which is to be expected (no, Jace isn't a perfect 10, as there are ways he could be even better). Liliana of the Veil is on the second tier by herself, which is again to be expected. Elspeth is also a clear third, meaning our Top 3 planeswalkers of all time is a pretty clear 1-2-3.
The bottom two is also very well defined—Chandra Ablaze and Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded are both easily the worst two planeswalkers of all time. I'm actually slightly surprised that Tibalt couldn't even beat out Chandra, but I wanted to stick by my methodology and not skew the numbers and kept them as they were.
The main reason I started doing these numbers actually was that I wanted to point out that the line about "planeswalkers need to cost four or less" isn't as relevant as some make it out to be.
Even if you disagree with a couple of choices here and there, I think this is a decent starting point for determining how relevant the line about "four mana or less" is. So what I'm going to do is look at the "rank ranges," or the Top 10, 11-20, 21-30, and 30-41.
The first thing we notice is that up to this point if a planeswalker card has a desire to be one of the elite top planeswalkers it needs to cost four or less. The only planeswalker in the Top 10 that costs more than four, Karn Liberated, is there because it's as easy to cast as a seven-mana card can be and has an extreme impact on the board when it sticks (and has Tron to thank for its tournament pedigree). Other than that it is in fact no more than four or bust.
However, once we get past the "best of the best" we see that there really is no difference when it comes to casting cost and how viable a planeswalker is. In fact, in the bottom eleven there are actually more planeswalkers that cost four or less than ones that cost more.
So the takeaways we can gain are that you need to be cheap to be one of the best of all time (something that should surprise no one really) and that after the elite planeswalkers it doesn't seem to matter much in terms of cost versus viability.
Alright, enough with the history lesson and grandstanding. Let's get down to brass taxes here.
The new planeswalker reminds me quite a bit of my favorite card of all time.
Hint: It's in the RUG Ramp deck that ran Lotus Cobra.
And since we're discussing a new blue four-mana planeswalker, I think we all know what I'm referring to here.
So yeah, without further ado, I present my favorite card:
Obviously . . .
I can't explain it, but this card is just so perfectly designed to me. The cost is just right, and the effect seems small but pushes your game to the next level while replacing itself. I'm sure if I got to cast the actual card Time Walk more that it would be my favorite, but Explore does a great impersonation.
I'm not saying I consider it the best card of all time, just my favorite. Casting Explore just rustles my jimmies every time.
That's why I'm excited for Kiora, the Crashing Wave.
The reason I'm not excited about Kiora, the Crashing Wave?
The fact that it's probably just a worse Solemn Simulacrum.
But it might not be. That's what I want to explore. No pun intended.
Let's take a look at those abilities.
The "plus" ability, the ability to shut off a permanent of your choice, is both as good and worse than the ability to put a token into play. With tokens, you're hoping to stop one source from doing damage by blocking. There's no guarantee that it'll work, but it's somewhat reliable.
With Kiora, you're hoping to shut down a source as well, though Kiora's method of shutting a permanent down is more reliable. You will shut down that Thassa, God of the Sea's ability to do damage regardless of how much they activate the "can't block" ability.
However, haste creatures are a problem for Kiora, whereas tokens can still present a roadblock. Also, you can shut down one creature, but something like Ghor-Clan Rampager still presents problems (though honestly Rampager would still be a problem).
I'd rank this ability slightly lower than making a token of any size simply because you can't apply any pressure with this ability. I'd be much more excited if this shut down Aetherling, but one blink invalidates this ability.
Yes, it does shut down Mutavault and Burning Earth. You know what else would shut down Mutavault? Making a token. You know what's good against Burning Earth? Making tokens with a planeswalker (and not having to spend mana to do so). So it's decent against those cards, but I'd still rather make tokens as a plus ability.
The only thing that I'd give this ability over making tokens is the ability to invalidate monstrosity from cards like Polukranos, World Eater and Stormbreath Dragon, which is actually kind of nice.
The ultimate is nice provided you can get there. You don't have to keep Kiora in play to get a token every turn, meaning that for the rest of the game you're going to continue putting pressure on your opponent without needing to actually do anything. The problem? You have to plus Kiora three times (getting nothing of note from the ability other than the hope that Kiora lives) and hope the opponent can't find a way to stop you.
I'm not holding my breath though.
The ability that most people have talked about is the minus ability, the "cast an Explore" ability. Minus one, draw a card, play an extra land.
How good is this ability?
Well, for one this covers the "does something on an empty board" requirement for a good planeswalker. While ticking Kiora up with nothing going on is frustrating, the best part is that you don't have to. You can draw a card and push your game plan forward by playing an extra land.
We all know how good drawing a card is, so let's discuss the context of playing an extra land in this format.
How good is it?
First we have to address when we'll play the ability. With a blue and green deck, we can be reasonably certain that we're going to be playing green mana ramp, so we can realistically expect to play this card on turn 3. So now we have Kiora on turn 3 and minus it, drawing a card and playing another land.
I think this is going to be the crucial point that's going to determine how good Kiora will be. How much can we take advantage of that extra land?
Basically, if we can play Kiora on turn 3, draw a card, play a land, and then play a relevant spell with that land, I fully believe Kiora will be a format-defining card at that point. If we play Kiora and play an unused land, I think Kiora will see very little play, as playing blue and green for a slightly worse Solemn Simulacrum isn't worth it when you can simply play more Pack Rats or Master of Waves.
So what cards might we want to play with Kiora's extra land?
1. Scry lands
2. Thoughtseize, Duress
4. Elvish Mystic
5. Elixir of Immortality, Pithing Needle
7. Rapid Hybridization, Sensory Deprivation
8. Swan Song, Dispel
9. Tear (from Wear // Tear)
10. Viper's Kiss, Wring Flesh, Illness In The Ranks
Plus obviously whatever one-mana cards Born of the Gods gives us. This is the list that will define Kiora more than her casting cost; can we do something with that land that will allow us to still disrupt what our opponent is doing? Simply paying four mana for a planeswalker that just casts one Explore and then dies isn't worth the investment at all.
Solemn Simulacrum at least trades with a creature.
Looking at that list, we can see the possibilities for each three-color combination that Kiora can be involved in. My initial reaction to her spoiling was a resurgence of my favorite color combination of all time, RUG, but after looking at that list I'm just as excited about BUG.
Think about casting a turn 3 Kiora off of a Sylvan Caryatid and putting an additional land into play before playing a Thoughtseize. You may say "Magical Christmasland," but those three are cards we'd feasibly play four of and it only requires us to have three specific cards (and lands) within the top ten or eleven cards of our deck.
Against Pack Rat? We can play Viper's Kiss or Wring Flesh off of our turn 3 Kiora (provided we're on the play of course). We could play Illness In The Ranks too, but unfortunately it doesn't work as well as we'd want it to.
Basically, the question we should ask ourselves is "can we make sure we don't fall behind or lose Kiora using that one land?" If the answer is yes, then I think we have a winner.
We need to be able to use the extra mana we're building toward as well.
What might a deck look like with Kiora? While I can't predict what's coming in the new set, the contents of Born of the Gods isn't going to completely warp everything to the point that we can't look at some possibilities.
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 2 Progenitor Mimic
- 3 Prophet of Kruphix
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 2 Sylvan Primordial
- 4 Polukranos, World Eater
- 3 Prime Speaker Zegana
I've wanted to play with Prime Speaker Zegana since it was released, buying my copies when they were much more expensive than they are right now. I'd love to have the opportunity to play with the Prime Speaker again, and Kiora gives us the opportunity to try.
The thing with Prime Speaker Zegana is that you need to get to six mana without being really far behind and you need something large on the table to take advantage of its ability. In this deck Rapid Hybridization is great because we can use it immediately after activating Kiora in addition to invalidating the token with our large creatures. We can also cash in one of our Elvish Mystics or Sylvan Caryatids for a bigger creature to draw more cards with Prime Speaker.
This is just a sketch; we can explore other options.
What about RUG?
We get access to both Shock and Turn // Burn, which between the two of them answer the two biggest threats in Standard in Pack Rat and Master of Waves. We also get access to Anger of the Gods; Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius; Mizzium Mortars; Xenagos, the Reveler; and Ral Zarek. Added bonus? Counterflux for control decks and Izzet Staticaster for aggro decks.
If you've read my articles for any amount of time, you know I love me some RUG, so of course I'm going to try.
Niv-Mizzet is a card that has to be good but is in a guild that doesn't see much play. Maybe we can change that here? Each of our four planeswalkers gives us the ability to play one of our one-mana plays on four mana, giving us plenty of redundancy. I want to run Elvish Mystic to give us even more "rampability," but the green mana sucks when you have an active Niv-Mizzet.
These aren't the only directions we can take Kiora.
With BUG, we get Thoughtseize and the other one-mana black removal spells. We also get great Golgari spells Abrupt Decay and Golgari Charm. Bant gives us the obvious Sphinx's Revelation as a payoff, making Bant Control a thing again. I'm sure this is the direction most will take Kiora, so I'll leave that up to them since casting Sphinx's Revelation has never really been my thing.
Then there's Maze's End, which may finally see some play after this. I'm not saying I think it will, but Kiora is something that would definitely go into the deck seeing as you get to play Fog immediately after playing Kiora. It's the same play you could make with Urban Evolution, but redundancy is always a good thing when it's an effect you're looking for.
You know where I think Kiora might make the most impact?
Why, you ask? Remember what I said about the most important context for Kiora—the need to be able to do something with one mana to protect the planeswalker? Modern has a ton of one-mana plays, the most important being Lightning Bolt (I'd say Path to Exile, but I hate the thought of playing a planeswalker, ramping, and then casting a spell to ramp my opponent as well).
This might actually be the thing that makes my Magical Christmasland dream come true: Modern Lotus Cobra RUG. We don't have Jace to work with in Modern so I've never even tried, but Kiora actually gets me excited since with Lotus Cobra active if we have double fetch land and Kiora we can play a turn 3 Kiora into any other four-mana card. (Garruk? Ral Zarek? Snapcaster your turn 2 Explore for even more shenanigans? Or even just playing a Tarmogoyf and Deathrite Shaman after playing a planeswalker.)
Yes, I know the "Cobra has to live in a format with Lightning Bolt" argument. Guess what? Every deck in Standard back in those days other than Caw-Blade played Lightning Bolt (and Caw-Blade played Oust and Mortarpod), and Cobra still carried me to plenty of wins by itself.
There's a decent chance I may look into something along these lines to test for Grand Prix Richmond. Yes, I'm excited about Kiora so much I'm already considering jumping into a Modern Grand Prix with the Simic planeswalker in tow.
With that I'm going to close up shop for the week. Disagree with any of my planeswalker rankings? Good! I want to hear your voice. Here's a link to your opportunity to rate the planeswalkers yourself. There are 42 options, as I've included Kiora to see where everyone puts the new planeswalker in the pantheon of all-time greats. I'm excited about getting your results, and I'm going to include your feedback in next week's article.
Leave your feedback in the comments as well since I love a healthy debate. Think Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas is too low? Chandra Ablaze too high? Jace, the Mind Sculptor too low (I know, I think this too)? Tell me! I want to see what you all have to say.
Also, if you have any thoughts on Kiora, give me that as well. While I'm hesitantly excited about the Crashing Wave, I'm also very open to other opinions.
There's a decent chance I may not be writing as much in the future as I do now. This has nothing to do with me or Cedric or SCG at all but rather my schedule. As of today, I'm going to start attending college full-time in addition to my full-time job, four children, and two or three hours spent in traffic a day. I've not given any indication to Cedric that I want to write less yet, but I'm aware that I may not be able to keep all of this going.