Planeswalkers are among the most powerful cards in Magic. They’re also some of the most difficult cards to play with or against. Every turn, the player who controls a planeswalker has anywhere from one to four options as to how to utilize it, while the opposing player now has three options for each attacking creature rather than two. When you start adding more planeswalkers to the battlefield, the raw complexity of the game multiplies out of control.
War of the Spark seems to be heading towards a world where games of that level of complexity are commonplace. Aggro, control, and midrange decks alike continue to incorporate more powerful planeswalkers from the latest set, and we’ve even seen a return of the SuperFriends archetype, layering various static effects from new planeswalkers to create a prison of sorts, stymying the opponent’s ability to function while your material advantage snowballs turn after turn.
In this new planeswalker-dominated Standard world, it’s increasingly important to know how to evaluate the complex battlefields planeswalkers generate and efficiently dispose of them. To do this, there are some common heuristics that successful players use which you should take to heart and incorporate into your deckbuilding choices and play patterns over the next three months.
There are four distinct ways to answer a planeswalker: counterspells, planeswalker removal spells, direct damage spells, and the combat step. The first three all involve trading a specific card or cards for the planeswalker, but it’s the ability to interact with them during combat that makes planeswalkers so unique, so let’s start there.
The Combat Step
For any deck with more than a handful of creatures, the combat step should be the preferred avenue for dealing with planeswalkers. That’s because combat steps are the most renewable resource you have as a player. Every card you save by using a combat step instead is one more card you can use to clear away another threat, eventually attacking them to death. A player with no resources is trivial to kill, even if it takes a while.
There are two corollaries to this axiom to keep in mind. The first is that if you’re playing a matchup where planeswalkers are important, you should be mindful of maintaining an advantage on the battlefield. If a planeswalker will immediately die, you minimize the value they gain and often your opponent will be hesitant to even cast one, hoping to find a better position in which to cast it later in the game.
If that means sacrificing a card or two to maintain that advantage, you should be more willing to do so, because your own planeswalkers will make up for that sacrifice and then some later on. Think of the resources you put into gaining a battlefield advantage as an investment.
You’ll also want to be mindful of how mana-efficient your plays are in the early-game. Getting some extra damage in isn’t as valuable as casting an extra card on Turn 4 to make sure your opponent’s Ral, Storm Conduit or Teferi, Hero of Dominaria can’t be easily protected. There are times when I think players are too anxious to use all their mana each turn and make suboptimal plays to do so, but in a world dominated by planeswalkers, deploying your cards quickly is all the more important.
The second corollary is that creatures with evasion, and in particular haste, are more valuable. Esper Midrange can clog the battlefield with 1/1 Human tokens from Hero of Precinct One, while Bant Midrange has God-Eternal Oketra making a pile of 4/4 Zombies alongside a host of other creatures with which to block. You’re not going to have a decisive advantage on the battlefield in every game, so ignoring those blockers with a flying creature or trampler is valuable. We saw Carnage Tyrant take over the Golgari Midrange mirror last fall when the early lists were heavy on planeswalkers because it was nigh impossible to keep the big Dinosaur from lumbering over and munching on those planeswalkers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The same deck, Izzet Phoenix, has won both MCQs on Magic Online this season, despite seeing no significant play in paper tournaments, but Arclight Phoenix is really good at attacking planeswalkers, checking two of our keyword boxes with both flying and haste. Narset, Parter of Veils can be a problem, but you have burn spells here to help take it down along with the option of hardcasting a Phoenix or Crackling Drake.
Those Legion Warbosses in the sideboard are also great at pressuring planeswalkers, and I suspect they will become a larger part of Mono-Red Aggro decks in the future, since they have enough card advantage to compete against midrange decks in a longer game.
There was a small contingent of players who gravitated to this deck for Mythic Championship Cleveland because the metagame was short on efficient ways to answer Goblin Electromancer, and outside of Mono-Red Aggro, I think that’s still true. Combined with how effective Arclight Phoenix is at attacking planeswalkers, this deck is likely being overlooked right now.
I noted above how the burn spells in Izzet Phoenix can help it contain Narset, Parter of Veils, and that point in their favor generalizes to all of Standard for now. Since the return of Lightning Strike, we’ve almost exclusively seen it in aggressive decks, while Shock has had stiff competition from Shivan Fire. I expect that to change because of the added value of targeting planeswalkers, especially those that are designed to stick around on one loyalty with a valuable static ability.
Izzet Phoenix can play longer games that will still be interested in burn, but we can go further than that. I lost to the following list in the semifinals of an IQ last weekend at the Star City Game Center:
With me on Bant Midrange, I was initially quite happy to be paired against a control deck, but as the match played out, Jeskai proved significantly more difficult than Esper. I was never sure how to best utilize Teferi, Time Raveler or Vivien, Champion of the Wild, since getting a card out of them exposed them to Shock and Lightning Strike, and endlessly ticking them up to ensure I could leverage their static abilities left me overexposed to bigger effects like Star of Extinction, Explosion, and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria while also allowing my opponent more time to find and set up those effects to resolve through my disruption.
Going back to red leaves you weak in the control mirror where they have discard and you don’t, and you’re assuredly weaker to Simic Nexus without discard and Thief of Sanity, but if you’re primarily concerned with beating aggro and midrange decks, this is a great place to start.
In general, putting burn spells in more reactive decks means that more creatures slip through the cracks. For example, this deck’s removal suite does a poor job of handling Rekindling Phoenix, but that card is at an all-time low right now with Mono-Red Aggro incorporating Chandra, Fire Artisan, as is the threat of creatures in the graveyard coming back with Find. So I don’t see the upside in playing Lava Coil in your control or midrange decks right now.
On the other hand, Shock is about as good as it’s ever been. It handles mana creatures and Frilled Mystic out of Bant Midrange and Hero of Precinct One and Thief of Sanity out of Esper Midrange, and is the single best removal spell for beating the aggressive decks. I’m actively looking to put Shock in my midrange decks right now.
We can also look outside of the color red for burn, towards Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord and Oath of Kaya. Both of these cards are great at answering the small planeswalkers from War of the Spark while containing others or teaming up with a combat step to take them down. They also have great functionality outside of that, making them perfect in Esper Midrange. Unsurprisingly, Gerry Thompson was ahead of me on this, featuring three copies of the planeswalker in his Esper Midrange list yesterday, with Oath of Kaya making the sideboard.
The dual function of answering planeswalkers has never been more important, and should shape the way removal suites are built for as long as War of the Spark remains in Standard. The influx of cheaper planeswalkers that start on lower loyalty or don’t have a loyalty-increasing ability has also made it easier than ever to burn a planeswalker to zero loyalty, so it’s time to embrace our inner Patrick Sullivan – even if for some of us that means reliving a nightmare.
In this section, I’m referring to cards that directly take a planeswalker off the battlefield, regardless of its loyalty, so think Vraska’s Contempt. These have been the bread and butter for creature-light decks since the days of Hero’s Downfall, but I actually think Vraska’s Contempt gets significantly worse in this format than it has been, and not just because the exile clause is less relevant.
Cards that directly remove a planeswalker are quite powerful, because planeswalkers are themselves powerful. As a result, they need to carry a cost that reflects that power. For months, Vraska’s Contempt has been targeting planeswalkers with converted mana cost four or higher, an even or positive exchange on mana, but with the price of planeswalkers coming down, that exchange is likely to be negative quite often. Also, the opponent has more time to accrue value from their cheaper planeswalkers, making the exchange more negative on material as well.
A Turn 2 Vivien, Champion of the Wilds, when cast on the play, can be activated three times before Vraska’s Contempt is cast, leaving you behind two cards and a mana spent. That’s the worst-case scenario of course, but it wasn’t even possible last month.
There’s also the question of just how many of these cards you can put in your deck. Three or four copies of Vraska’s Contempt was enough to cover the Teferi, Hero of Dominarias and Vivien Reids of yesteryear, but now it seems lacking, even with the addition of Despark. This axis no longer stands on its own, and should be used to supplement other avenues of attacking planeswalkers in the current metagame.
You may be tempted to put Teferi, Hero of Dominaria in this group, since it’s a spell that removes a planeswalker from the battlefield regardless of its loyalty, but since Teferi leaves a permanent around, it functions more like a haste creature. It’s much more tempo-positive since you have a permanent on the battlefield after the exchange that will continue to accrue value. Unlike Vraska’s Contempt, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria gets even better in this metagame.
With so many planeswalkers popping up, The Elderspell is getting some hype. In the vast majority of metagames it would be completely unplayable, since planeswalkers aren’t so common that the upside of destroying multiples will be more relevant than the downside of the card’s narrow applications. But this is not a typical metagame, and I’m on the bandwagon.
That said, the card is still quite narrow, which is why we’re seeing it pop up in sideboards and not maindecks. Mono-Red Aggro, Azorius Aggro, and Simic Nexus are all popular decks with few, if any, planeswalkers, and all decks that will punish you for having a dead card in your hand on the first four turns of the game. The rise of The Elderspell from junk rare to sideboard staple is emblematic of just how weak cards that solely answer planeswalkers are.
Counterspells are in one sense the best way to answer planeswalkers, and in another sense the worst. On the one hand, they can trade with a planeswalker before it can be activated for value, but on the other they do nothing against one already on the battlefield. This is the same issue that counterspells have in answering any threat, but planeswalkers are particularly punishing because of how they run away with a game over time.
Much like with a removal spell, counterspells get weaker as planeswalkers get cheaper, since it’s easier to cast one underneath the counter wall. To solve this issue, you should be pairing those counterspells with direct removal or burn so you can cover a planeswalker that slips through the cracks. This is what control decks have been doing for years now.
However, with both styles of card getting worse as planeswalkers get cheaper, I’m not enthralled with playing them together in a control shell. Esper Control is a powerful deck, but as a carryover from last season, it has less room to grow, and I expect its stature to decline as the format moves forward.
Wrapping up, I want to discuss two situations that are often difficult to assess, both of which will be quite common in War of the Spark Standard: when to ignore a planeswalker, and how to prioritize planeswalkers when there are multiples on the battlefield.
When to Ignore a Planeswalker
There’s no hard and fast rule to follow here, but a simple heuristic will handle most situations. Planeswalkers, by their nature, accrue value turn after turn, so your job is to evaluate how quickly the game is going to end and how valuable the planeswalker will be in that time. Then compare that value with how much you have to give up in order to answer it. The closer you are to winning the game, the less threatening the planeswalker is.
For example, if you have five power on the battlefield and are staring down a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria at five loyalty and an opponent at ten life, you’re giving up a full turn of your clock to answer the planeswalker, but that Teferi is providing a card per turn, so that extra turn only represents some extra mana. When you factor in the ability for Teferi to use its -3 to buy even more time, it’s pretty clear that you should kill the Teferi.
However, if they’re at eight life and you just drew a Lightning Strike, attacking them could end the game, and you have to make a judgement as to whether they have an answer in their hand. In a burn-heavy deck like Mono-Red Aggro I’m more inclined to go for the win, since the fail case still leaves you live to topdeck a lethal burn spell, though in a sideboard game with a bunch of copies of Experimental Frenzy and Chandra, Fire Artisan, it might be better to play it safer. These small decisions are something you get better at with practice, but the most important thing is that you’re able to think of and consider all the variables, so talking them out with your friends and teammates is quite valuable here.
Note that the default answer here should always be to kill the planeswalker, especially in a non-aggro deck. You can make the judgement to leave a card like Narset, Parter of Veils at one loyalty, but keep in mind that you may get punished by The Elderspell or Karn’s Bastion. It’s likely that you can spare the point of damage to play around these.
The primary deviation from this default is if you’re already far behind in the game. Spending a turn to answer a planeswalker is great when your opponent is hellbent, but much less exciting when you’re hellbent against a full hand of cards. You should be more aggressive when behind in general, and part of that is ignoring planeswalkers and going for the win.
This is especially true when it’s a planeswalker that primarily draws cards and does not affect the battlefield, since in a game where they have time to deploy their current hand of cards, you’re likely to lose anyway, and extra cards are unlikely to make your situation much worse.
Answering Multiple Planeswalkers
This is not a situation you want to find yourself in, since multiple planeswalkers compound each other’s advantage, but with so many around I think it’s inevitable, so here are my heuristics for attacking them.
The priority should be to get them off the battlefield, or in the case of planeswalkers with only loyalty-decreasing abilities like Narset, Parter of Veils, get them to the point where they can’t activate. If your opponent has no way to affect combat, then this is as easy as lining up your creatures efficiently, but it gets much harder against a blocker or two, since the defending player gets to react to how you attack.
I will typically make a hierarchy of how important each planeswalker is and then ensure I kill the most important one I can, or stop any game-winning ultimates. This can leave you falling behind to an upticking Teferi, Hero of Dominaria or Liliana, Dreadhorde General that you can’t immediately answer, but you won’t fall as far behind with another planeswalker gone.
This is also a time where you should take risks. Your situation isn’t improving with inaction, so playing cautiously because they might have Settle the Wreckage isn’t going to help you. Deploy your creatures and attack with impunity, before the planeswalkers bury you. Of course, if you’re far enough behind you can take the advice from last section and ignore the planeswalkers, but that’s a truly desperate play, because most planeswalkers don’t need much time to take over a game. If you can potentially get to a spot where drawing a burn spell or two can steal the game, getting aggressive is likely worth it, even if it won’t pay off very often.
These are general rules that can be applied to a wide range of situations, but planeswalkers are notoriously difficult to play against, and that only gets harder with the added static abilities many of them have. The best course of action is always to synthesize the theory with practice: find out when to deviate from the heuristics, and how specific planeswalkers change them.
War of the Spark Standard is set to become the most complex, challenging Standard format of all time, so I hope you’re all prepared for a wild ride.