Planeswalkers Of Past
"It's a warm summer evening in ancient Greece…" Just kidding but who doesn't like The Big Bang Theory? Anyhow it was a warm summer evening at Frost Valley Family Camp in the Catskills. My father told me that they had spoilers for Lorwyn the new set coming out. I asked him what the card was and he said it was something weird. He was trying to explain to me what the card did but I just didn't understand. The card he was trying to explain? Liliana Vess.
Lorwyn brought to us five different planeswalkers: one of each color. Some of them had fairly clear roles when they first came out.
Garruk Wildspeaker was clearly the best planeswalker. It was insane in the aggressive decks; you have a card that is allowed to be Overrun and a token maker. However Garruk Wildspeaker's +1 ability really helped it shine in its reprints and later years. It gave Garruk Wildspeaker the ability to be played in decks that wanted to ramp up higher. I recall seeing Jund decks that would have three or four Garruk Wildspeaker and play a ton of Broodmate Dragons. In the end it was Garruk Wildspeaker's versatility that made him into one of the better planeswalkers.
Chandra Nalaar received a little bit of press at first but fell out of favor very quickly. Part of the problem was that her ultimate was very hard to pull off. If you were using her +1 ability you were likely just winning the game or expecting her to die soon. Specifically nothing was being done to help your board or control their board. "Hooray I shot them for one now I can go wild with my bloodthirsty cards." Her potential saving grace was her –X ability since if they only had one creature you could keep your Chandra Nalaar around for a turn. However these situations were rare and there were likely just better cards to fill this role.
Liliana Vess was slightly more interesting. People know that Tutors are very strong and playing a card that can make your opponent discard a card can also be very powerful especially against slower decks. The main problem was that against the slower decks your opponent would likely be playing Cryptic Command or some card that makes you playing a huge spell like this bad. Against the aggressive decks you would likely be dying to their Profane Command or burn spells while you tried to hold out to play your shiny new planeswalker to Vampiric Tutor. Five mana seemed to be a killer mana cost. If it didn't break open a matchup or have a significant role it was hard to be better than the other non-creature spells.
Ajani Goldmane always had two roles: making your token team insane and smashing open long drawn-out aggressive mirrors. In my Blue Bird deck (which was a Bant Tokens deck when Zendikar first came out that I had a lot of success with) I would often play one-to-two Ajani Goldmanes to go with my Emeria Angel and Conqueror's Pledge. Ajani Goldmane was good if you treated it like a card that would give your team +1/+1 counters and vigilance and likely wouldn't live to the next turn. I wonder what card resembles this one *cough* Intangible Virtue *cough*. While his applications were narrow it's important to know when it's right to play a planeswalker as a one or two of just to break open a specific or popular matchup.
Jace Beleren. Baby Jace himself. When this card first came out it was pretty much terrible. No one played with it; it was a three-to-four dollar rare. Hard to believe in retrospect right? It took forever to see play in Faeries and it eventually became a mainstay in Caw-Blade. What happened?
The first problem was that no one knew how to play with Jace Beleren at first. In Baltimore Sam Black told me the story of when he played against Yuuya Watanabe in a Faeries mirror match. While Sam had a second turn Bitterblossom Yuuya slammed down Jace Beleren and used his +2 ability. The interesting part? Yuuya would just keep on using the +2 ability every turn. After a while Sam wasn't sure if he should attack Jace Beleren or Yuuya. If he attacked Jace Beleren he would be giving Yuuya more time to draw a Bitterblossom and be able to get back into the game. However if Sam attacked Yuuya Yuuya would be able to just keep on using the -1 ability and get free cards.
The amount of decisions that Jace Beleren makes both players make is why it is so good in certain decks with a proficient pilot. It really depends on your play style after all. The two reasons for Jace Beleren's success were likely the aggro-control metagame that emerged and the time when Jace the Mind Sculptor was in Standard…for obvious reasons.
After Lorwyn Wizards decided to let us have a break from new planeswalkers until Shards of Alara. This set brought us Elspeth Knight-Errant Ajani Vengeant Sarkhan Vol and Tezzeret the Seeker. It was thought for a long time that Elspeth Knight-Errant and Tezzeret the Seeker were the "worst" of the new planeswalkers.
This may be hard to believe since Elspeth Knight-Errant is one of the better planeswalkers that we have seen. First of all she was very underwhelming against Faeries and later on Jund. Faeries could just fly over or ignore Elspeth Knight-Errant for most of the game. Jund was able to just bash through Elspeth's pesky 1/1 Soldier tokens since the only X/1 was Goblin Ruinblaster. However Elspeth Knight-Errant got a lot better when all of the white cards improved.
People started to play her with Noble Hierarch and Knight of the Reliquary. The metagame shifted heavily once Faeries rotated out of Standard. What makes Elspeth shine right now is the fact that she has a lot of loyalty for a four-drop (that always goes up) and she has enough versatility. If you don't have enough creatures or need to stall for a few turns you make a dude. If you want to just sneak in damage Angelic Blessing go! In a way her Soldier making ability is a lot like Ajani Vengeant's +1 ability on a creature since you can stop a creature every turn.
Speaking of Ajani Vengeant: this guy was a house. It has been forever seen Lightning Helix has seen Standard play and adding on two colorless mana for a planeswalker turned out to be a deal that everyone could get behind. If your opponent had one huge guy that was giving you problems you could hold him down with his +1. However the Lightning Helix ability was very interesting. It allowed Ajani Vengeant to be the first "planeswalker slayer" in that he was able to interact with other planeswalkers. (Note: that's a name I just made up and say in my head; no one in their right mind would actually call a planeswalker a "planeswalker slayer.")
The real cement that held Ajani Vengeant together was his ultimate. This put a ton of pressure on control decks since his +1 ability was already good at holding down your opponent's lands. This amount of self-synergy and ability to disrupt your opponent is what makes Ajani Vengeant "the best" Ajani.
Sarkhan Vol is a planeswalker that I just felt bad for. He had a lot of hype and I felt like he was very expensive and trying to be shoved into every deck. However he just didn't do anything productive. His plus ability didn't advance your board and the haste didn't really matter if you played him that turn. His Threaten ability was cute but didn't even protect himself. Sarkhan Vol's inability to do anything productive made him stick to the sidelines. I suppose everyone just had dreams of getting a bunch of 5/5 Dragon tokens.
Tezzeret the Seeker was obviously extremely narrow. It only saw play in Open the Vaults combo decks as a win condition and in Kenny Oberg's Tezzereator deck. The main problem with him was that it was hard to make a deck that could wait until turn 5 and not just do anything better than Tezzeret the Seeker. You really had to be able to utilize all of the abilities on Tezzeret the Seeker to make him good. He had the potential to protect himself but then you weren't able to do exactly what you wanted to do with him (either accelerate or Tutor up a pretty decent artifact).
I always joked about how the best play you could make with Tezzeret the Seeker in triple Shards of Alara was sacrificing it to look for Tower Gargoyle. Tezzeret the Seeker felt that way in Constructed too. It was just an expensive Tutor where you could just play more powerful and cheaper cards. Tezzeret the Seeker was trying to be a combination of Garruk Wildspeaker and Liliana Vess but he didn't really accomplish much.
Conflux brought us the real "planeswalker slayer" in Nicol Bolas Planeswalker. In a nutshell he was Cruel Ultimatum for one extra mana but a lot easier colored mana symbols. In my opinion he didn't do anything more or anything less. It was nice to see Wizards bringing back older cards that were legendary creatures as planeswalkers (like this one and Venser).
Zendikar had the trio of Nissa Revane Chandra Ablaze and Sorin Markov. While Sorin Markov had the honor of being (arguably) the second best black card in Limited (Vampire Nighthawk was pretty good…). As a whole his mana cost held him down. We already determined that five mana was a lot let alone six. With the Core Set Titan cycle being printed the six-drop slot had a ton of competition. Sorin Markov and Chandra Ablaze did not have as much of an impact on the board when they came into play. While they did have a lot of loyalty they were also more or less a waste of time. So remember mana cost matters a lot when evaluating planeswalkers.
Many people compared Nissa Revane to Elspeth Knight-Errant but the fact that Nissa failed the Lightning Bolt test and forced you to play with subpar 2/3s was unbearable. Only in a very dedicated Elf deck could Nissa Revane find a home.
Worldwake only had one planeswalker. The one planeswalker to rule them all. It was…Jace the Mind Sculptor. 'Nuff said.
Jace the Mind Sculptor was powerful in not only being able to make your hand instantly better via a Brainstorm but creating the Jace test which held back cards like Mirran Crusader Blade Splicer and Hero of Bladehold because you would just be virtually Time Walked every turn 4 from Jace's -1. The most broken part of Jace the Mind Sculptor was his +2 in conjunction with his ultimate. You were able to just control your opponent's future draws. Unless if your opponent was fairly lucky he would be unable to draw a relevant card that you didn't see coming a turn in advance.
The feeling of your opponent using the fateseal ability on you was a terrible one especially if they let you keep it. This would be slightly more acceptable if Jace didn't just kill you after a few turns of you being inactive due to his fateseal ability. The only thing that kept Jace in check was Maelstrom Pulse Lightning Bolt Blightning Bloodbraid Elf and Pithing Needle. Even the powerful level of Jace the Mind Sculptor can be affected by the metagame and what cards people have access to. However we lost every single one of these with Standard rotation which led to Jace the Mind Sculptor being overwhelming.
Rise of the Eldrazi brought along two new planeswalkers that had revolutionary layouts. Sarkhan the Mad had no plus abilities while Gideon Jura had no ultimate. It turns out that these two planeswalkers had a fairly big impact on the Standard environment after a while.
Sarkhan the Mad broke open the Jund mirror match. You no longer had to win by using land destruction; you could simply just get to five mana and make your Sprouting Thrinax into a Dragon and a bunch of Saprolings. Drawing cards in the mirror was also very powerful. This card demanded a specific answer in Jund sideboards everywhere (Slave of Bolas) or else you simply could not keep up if your opponent was able to land this game ending threat.
Planeswalkers Of Present
Gideon Jura was underestimated at first except for maybe the first week he was on Magic Online. There used to be a glitch that if you were +2ed by Gideon Jura and you Maelstrom Pulsed Gideon you just weren't able to attack for the turn. All jokes aside Gideon Jura has a few reasons why he's pretty insane. At first Pithing Needle Maelstrom Pulse and to a lesser extent Vampire Hexmage kept Gideon Jura in check. However people began to realize how well Gideon Jura works with other planeswalkers. He's the "planeswalker protector."
Since he was reprinted in M12 he's still legal in Standard. His major selling points are the amount of loyality he begins with (which is often 8) and his ability to protect himself by saying +2 go and kill a bunch of your opponent's creatures with your creatures. In a way he's a 5CC Mindslaver. You get to control an aspect of your opponent's turn. He also has the ability to protect himself in killing a tapped creature like Baneslayer Angel. Lastly his zero ability allows him to just end games with the +2 into zero alpha strike you combo. In general planeswalkers (or cards in general) that allow you to control a vital part of your opponent's turn is likely a good card.
Next up we went to Scars of Mirrodin. Koth of the Hammer wasn't able to protect himself but was very powerful when he came down on turn three. He was able to apply pressure and end games quickly if he came down that early but in general as a four-drop he was less than stellar. It was good that he was able to aid in the fight against other planeswalkers.
Venser the Sojourner had a lot of hype that he simply did not live up to. He was unable to protect himself and was only played in extremely narrow decks such as Bant Birthing Pod alongside Stonehorn Dignitary. If you ever play this guy be sure to utilize all of his abilities and by all I mean remember that his -1 exists. That ability can really break open a stalemate and sometimes win the game on the spot. Venser's emblem is one of those "I win" ultimates but is really hard to pull off since you need to have very specific cards in play for Venser's +2 to be of good use.
Elspeth Tirel is no Elspeth Knight-Errant. She is able to make three tokens every two turns and can gain quite a bit of life. The high mana cost holds her back but she has seen a bit of play in token decks and decks with Gideon Jura. She is in my opinion an average planeswalker. She doesn't do anything too powerful but can take over a game if unanswered. For a long time she spent most of her days getting pecked down by Squadron Hawks. At least these days she's just dying to Invisible Stalkers and Delver of Secrets… It's just not a good time for Elspeth Tirel.
In Mirrodin Besieged Tezzeret Agent of Bolas had a lot of promise. He was a lot like Jace Beleren and Garruk Wildspeaker. I was able to win my local regionals and write my first StarCityGames.com article on the back of this guy. However the problem these days lies in Vapor Snag and hostility against artifacts. He can't confidently protect himself and the most powerful artifacts these days don't want Tezzeret's assistants (see Birthing Pod Batterskull and Swords). There have been times where Tezzeret can shine but that time isn't right now.
Karn Liberated came back in New Phyrexia and he took over Nicol Bolas Planeswalker's slot of the big planeswalker finisher. I'm sure everyone knows how Karn Liberated has the ability to take over the game by himself so I won't have to explain why he is a good planeswalker.
Wizards of the Coast decided to upgrade some of the original Lorwyn planeswalkers in M12. Garruk Primal Hunter sees play in all sorts of mono-green decks since we didn't have any plus abilities create anything better than a 1/1 until him. The ability to have a Soul's Majesty that can double up as a token generator really helps Garruk out here. Diversity with synergy is what we want in planeswalkers.
Jace Memory Adept does not live up to the other Jaces but is more or less a control killer. If you can land him against a slow control deck you can simply just zero them out of the game.
Chandra the Firebrand is a major upgrade to Chandra Nalaar but not a good enough one. The ability to only do one damage isn't really enough to protect her but if the metagame ever calls for a card to shoot down pesky 1/1s Chandra is your planeswalker.
Liliana and Garruk returned in Innistrad. Garruk Relentless is one of the best planeswalkers from a design perspective in my opinion. He is able to make a team of Wolves if left unanswered but can go on Ajani Vengeant duty when the time comes. This type of synergy really pushes Garruk Relentless over the top against decks with smaller threats. Also against control decks he can be the one-man army.
Liliana of the Veil demanded a lot of attention. After we got rid of the Jace test we had to go through the Liliana test. People became really conscience of the creatures that they were playing because they didn't want to get blown out by Liliana. However Liliana only lived up to a part of the hype. She needs to be in a deck that can really utilize her +1 ability and I don't mean Solar Flare. She's good in a deck with flashback cards or a lot of graveyard effects (like Zombies).
Also in my opinion she really shines in a deck that will empty opponents'' hands and get value out of Liliana's plus ability. One thing that she does in common with Jace the Mind Sculptor is that she can lock your opponent out of the game. If they have no cards in their hand they will almost always play the card that they draw so they don't lose it to Liliana of the Veil. This type of perfect information is very vital to Liliana of the Veil's evaluation as a planeswalker. While I don't think she fits in every deck I think Liliana of the Veil is a very quality planeswalker.
Now we get to Dark Ascension. Sorin Lord of Innistrad is very much on Elspeth Knight-Errant duty. They both make 1/1s so that comparison is easy. Sorin is multi-colored which sometimes makes him harder to cast than Elspeth. However the major difference is their second ability. The ability to get an emblem to pump your team is not one to be underestimated. This type of ability has an influence on the rest of the game. Elspeth Knight-Errant allowed you to punch your opponent in the air. I think each of these cards is really good in different situations but in Standard we have to play with the cards we are given.
Planeswalker Of (Near) Future
At last we get to the two new planeswalkers in Avacyn Restored.
Tamiyo the Moon Sage's first ability is a lot like Ajani Vengeant. I suppose it's more like Frost Titan but you catch my drift. That ability is very powerful against decks that need to use all of their mana or rely on a specific threat to take control of the game. If Tamiyo costed four mana she would be an all-star off the bat just like Ajani Vengeant. However at five mana more considerations have to be taken to account.
Her second ability reminds me of Garruk Primal Hunter's -3 ability. At the cost of a specific condition you are able to draw a bunch of cards. In my opinion this ability seems fairly hard to utilize unless you throw her alongside Gideon Jura. I have a feeling that these guys are going to be best friends in the new Standard environment.
Lastly her ultimate is just like Venser's. It's one of those "I win" ultimates. My conclusion is that Tamiyo the Moon Sage could have a time and place where she's good and that exists if people are trying to take over the game with one permanent that can be tapped. She's also really best friends with Gideon Jura.
Tibalt the Fiend-Blooded is a card that I had to stare at for a long long time. This card is so different. We obviously have never had a two-mana Planeswalker before. What are we supposed to make out of this?
First of all the +1 ability is very very good. In the current Standard format you get a lot of value from your deck by seeing a lot of cards. That's why Gitaxian Probe Ponder Thought Scour Forbidden Alchemy and Desperate Ravings are so good. You simply get to look at a large amount of cards for the cost of one. Tibalt is a lot like Desperate Ravings but on a planeswalker.
Lastly his other two abilities are very interesting. While the last one is yet another "I win" ability I wonder how well the -4 can play with cards like Sword of War and Peace. You might be able to generate a very quick clock against opponents that have cards in their hand (which most people do).
It's hard to see what type of archetype this will see play in. I think people will tinker with it for a while and either cast it off to the side or just go crazy with it. Either way I think for the next year and half people will be trying to innovate with this card in Standard.
This card is just really fascinating. Regardless of what it does this is a two-mana planeswalker. It's not one to be underestimated and personally I think I want to invest in these as soon as possible. A two-mana planeswalker… I just can't believe it.
Well…that was quite the run through of all 29 planeswalkers. I hope you are able to use past evaluations to help with future ones!
Thanks for reading!
Jonathan "Watchwolf92" Sukenik