Innovations – Liliana Unveiled!

The new Liliana in Innistrad is only the second three-mana planeswalker on the planet, so how do we evaluate her? Patrick Chapin gives us the breakdown. From the looks of it, she will define Standard for quite some time!

Warning: Spoilers!

What makes a “good” planeswalker?

The short answer is a combination of mana efficiency and contextual relevance. Elaborating:

1) Mana Efficiency: A walker that costs five has to be about “two mana better” than a walker that costs four, since you get to use the four-cost walker for an extra activation, which is sometimes thought of as being worth around a card. The only three-cost walker in Magic so far is excellent, despite having significantly weaker abilities than most walkers, just on account of costing three. In addition to the casting cost, do the abilities generate enough “mana value” to be better than creatures or spells?

2) Contextual Relevance: Do the abilities work well together? Do they do something you want to be doing in the format? Walkers’ baseline drawback is that they can be attacked. Can this walker protect itself in some way?

Black has been starved of good planeswalkers basically forever. For so long, people talked about black’s lack of a good four-cost walker. Zendikar offered plenty of solid threes, with Gatekeeper of Malakir, Vampire Nighthawk, and plenty of other flexible role-players. With no good fours, it seemed obvious that a four-cost walker would bring it all together. New Phyrexia hit, giving us Phyrexian Obliterator, Lashwrithe, and Entomber Exarch. Now black was flooded with great options at four, yet still no walker. Mono-Black started making fringe appearances but was held back by a number of problems, most notably:

1) Not getting to play person-lands.*

2) Not having an over-powered engine (a la Koth, Tez, Pod, Sword of Feast and Famine, Primeval Titan, etc.).

With the introduction of Innistrad, Zendikar rotates out, taking with it Celestial Colonnade, Raging Ravine, and the rest. This isn’t just great for black for not having to face them anymore. It also means black decks don’t need to use Tectonic Edge anymore (yes, I know, it is rotating out) to deal with these lands and Valakuts. Without “needing” to play Tectonic Edge, black decks are more free to embrace cards like Phyrexian Obliterator, if they so choose.

As for the over-powered engine, Innistrad finally delivers; however it is not a four-cost walker at all. Having just given us Phyrexian Obliterator, Lashwrithe, and Entomber Exarch, a four-cost walker would have been slightly wasted. Especially since Gatekeeper of Malakir and Vampire Nighthawk are rotating out. Instead, black gains only the second three-cost walker in all of Magic. Without many comparisons available, we are definitely stepping into new territory, but history suggests that the cheaper a planeswalker is, the more likely it is to be good. How good would she need to be to entice us?

As for contextual relevance, does Liliana do things that are going to be good in the new format? While Mono-Black players have been long awaiting a tournament powerhouse planeswalker, the new Liliana is in no way bound to Mono-Black at all. They greatly appreciate her, to be sure, but there is no reason why she can’t be used in any other combination. Black finally got what they were wishing for, but they are going to have to share her…  

Without further ado, the baddest badass in Innistrad, Liliana of the Veil:

Designed to be a pure Spike card, Liliana of the Veil was preordained as a tournament powerhouse from the gate. Erik Lauer was given a straightforward but challenging goal. Create a three-mana Liliana that is sure to be one of the format’s top cards.

Planeswalkers are among the game’s most complicated cards, as well as most difficult to properly cost and balance. Sometimes WotC hits that sweet spot, pushing the envelope with planeswalkers that help define Constructed without breaking it, such as Gideon Jura, Koth of the Hammer, Ajani Vengeant, Garruk Wildspeaker, and Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas. Sometimes, they hit a little low (Nissa Revane, every Chandra ever). Sometimes they go a little too high (Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Elspeth, Knight-Errant). When they end up a little low, no one gets hurt. When they end up high…

There is no question Liliana was designed for the Jace Beleren/Ajani Vengeant power level. My gut reaction is they hit the mark exactly.

How to evaluate the abilities of the Liliana Remix ? After all, as a three-drop planeswalker, we don’t really have a lot of direct comparisons. Well, let’s start in the middle…

Liliana’s second ability is actually the most obvious starting point for evaluating her. Her top ability is worth less than a card; her bottom ability costs more loyalty than she starts with. This naturally leads us to consider her most “spell-like ability.” Why do we use Jace Beleren? His second ability, not close. While Liliana’s top ability is likely to be the biggest factor in shaping decks that play her, it is her second ability that gives her enough raw power to be assured tournament success.

One starting point I like to use for evaluating loyalty abilities is to compare the loyalty change to a change in mana. For instance, Liliana costs three mana and starts with three loyalty, so it isn’t the biggest leap to think of her as having “three mana stored up” for use on her abilities. Besides, damage/life is often somewhat comparable to mana, though obviously giving your opponent “life” to take away “mana” or “cards” is generally a good deal (since “mana” and “cards” generally give you more ability to improve the game state). This helps illuminate why it is generally the default strategy for most decks to attack most planeswalkers, when given the option.

When you use Liliana’s -2 ability, you are spending two mana to make a Cruel Edict, which is a pretty incredible deal when you consider that it doesn’t cost you a card. That means that you are effectively netting a card’s worth of “value” each time you activate her -2 (in the abstract), though to be fair, Cruel Edict is slightly overcosted. While Cruel Edict at one would be undercosted, at two it is slightly soft.

This ability is incredible, as not even Jace Beleren is that efficient. By comparison, Jace Beleren does give you a card but makes you pay a loyalty/mana for it. Despite the number of cards that have been printed for one mana (and a card) that draw a card, the proper tournament cost for drawing a card is zero mana and a card. This is not to speak ill of Jace Beleren. Far from it, as an artifact that cost 1UU and had 1, T: Draw a card would be absolutely incredible. The only reason Jace Beleren was printable was because of the inherent drawback of planeswalkers, in that they can be attacked.

Okay, so Liliana’s second ability is slightly “stronger” than Jace Beleren’s. Where does this get us? After all, drawing a card is always good, whereas Liliana’s second ability is worthless against opponents without creatures.

Imagine the scenario where you drop Liliana and use her second ability. This is likely to be very common, especially when your opponent has only one creature. In a game state such as this, Liliana most closely resembles Gatekeeper of Malakir or some cantrip Diabolic Edict.

What is generally worth more, a Liliana on one counter, a 2/2 Vampire, or an extra card? Well, a 2/2 Vampire is generally worth a little more than a card (but not that much).  

What is generally worth more, Jace Beleren on one counter or an extra card? The Jace Beleren on one, since you can just use it to draw the card, but you also have the option to use his first ability. What is worth more, Ajani Vengeant on one counter or a card? In fact, Liliana’s second ability is more than a little reminiscent of Ajani Vengeant’s. In general, a good planeswalker on one loyalty is worth more than a card because of the sheer volume of good options they give you. Often, opponents will not be able to deal exactly one damage to it anyway, meaning they either spend a burn spell (a card), hit it with a creature dealing more than one (meaning it prevented three damage, or whatever), or have to attack with multiple creatures (possibly losing one in combat to your guys).

Gatekeeper of Malakir costs triple black and his only “option” is that you can play him as a 2/2 for BB. Despite these limitations (and how unreal bad black was), Gatekeeper of Malakir was a staple his entire life in Standard. In fact, he was often one of the biggest incentives to actually be mono or base black. Liliana has an easier cost and has a second ability that is arguably as strong as the Gatekeeper already. That the Gatekeeper could be reused and had tribal synergies is somewhat balanced by the more difficult mana requirement.

Now we get to Liliana’s first ability, Necrogen Mists. This is the ability that really helps cement the comparison to Jace Beleren. On the surface, both abilities appear to be card neutral, but as the controller of the planeswalker, you have the option to use the ability or not. Additionally, you are gaining loyalty in the process, ensuring you are already ahead on the deal.

First, the bad news. Liliana only gains one loyalty a turn, as opposed to Jace’s two. This helps pay for the over-powered second ability, but is also out of necessity, as Liliana’s first ability is far more abusable than Jace’s.

This brings us to the good news. Liliana appears in the absolute perfect set for her. Each time you use her ability and discard a flashback card, you are getting edge (maybe half a card). Discarding Skaab Ruinator is worth a card. Discarding a fatty to reanimate is worth at least a card, possibly more.

Even if you are just discarding a dead card, or a very weak one, you are getting some value. See, the card you discarded was worth little to nothing to you, whereas the card your opponent is discarding may or may not be a card they need/want. If you can trade that extra land in your hand for a land from theirs, and they are trying to build up to a Titan, you are coming out ahead (not to mention the +1 loyalty). Even if you make them discard a somewhat dead card, that is one fewer card in their hand they can discard to future activation.

Yes, it is possible they will discard flashback or graveyard cards of their own. Some amount of your opponents will have some good cards to discard some of the time; however as the player with Liliana in your deck, hopefully you always have good cards to discard in yours.  

On top of the ability to discard graveyard cards, weak cards, and gaining loyalty, there is also the matter of using Liliana while hellbent. After all, if you can just play out your whole hand, then using Liliana’s top ability is likely to net you +1 card. An additional thought to consider is that using Liliana’s top ability takes away options from your opponent, whereas using Jace Beleren’s top ability gives your opponent more options. We have all seen those games where Jace Beleren sits in play not getting used. Liliana will have turns like that, at times, but they may be less common. This is especially true given how useful her ultimate is (unlike Jace Beleren).  

All of these great ways to abuse her +1 ability suggest that while her second ability is stronger on abstract power, it is her first ability that will end up defining her and the decks that make best use of her. If you aren’t doing anything fancy with her, she is still netting you a “mana” each turn from the loyalty bump. A three-mana artifact that gives you a mana each turn isn’t that strong, but if you can get any extra value out of her, she becomes great in a hurry.

For instance, each time you discard a reasonably costed flashback card, you’re sort of getting a half a card extra on top of the mana. If we consider her just as an enchantment that just Necrogen Mists, we see she is actually pretty solid in a graveyard block. She is sort of a 1BB enchantment that makes each player discard a card each turn, but also threatens to devastate the opponent’s board in three turns(!).

Finally, we come to Liliana’s ultimate. Use her +1 ability just three times, and already you are threatening her ultimate. While it is not nearly as “game over” as many other planeswalker ultimates, it does provide pretty big disruption and card advantage. How much, though?

Well, making your opponent Fact or Fiction their permanents isn’t “Win the Game” like Jace, the Mind Sculptor’s ultimate, but it does provide a massive board advantage, especially when you consider that her discard ability has likely ravaged your opponent’s hand. What would I pay to Fact or Fiction my opponent’s board? Well, Do or Die costs 1B, a card, and was “okay,” but that only hit creatures. Hitting half your opponent’s lands is probably worth at least 2BB, maybe more. The ability to hit artifacts, enchantments, and planeswalkers… We are going to need a new model.

Okay, what if we consider that you don’t actually have to split all their permanent types evenly. You can actually come up with far worse splits for them. For instance, if their board is seven land, two creatures, and a planeswalker, you could actually make the piles lands vs. creatures and walker(!). Now your opponent has to choose between losing all their business and losing their ability to cast spells. As you can see, this is a very powerful effect, but since it doesn’t win the game outright, I do expect there to be plenty of situations where Liliana’s controller chooses not to ultimate her for an extra turn. Taking an extra turn means that she can actually live through it, allowing her controller to continue to build the advantage they have been developing. Even if we just ask ourselves “Would we pay six for this?” In general, the answer is probably yes, meaning that six loyalty is a pretty good deal.

So she’s a better Gatekeeper that has some Necrogen Mists abilities for free and a quick and easy ultimate? The key is that she has all the options. Any two of these abilities and she’d merely be good (Okay, obviously the third ability doesn’t work without the first ability, but maybe if it cost mana or time, etc.). That she has all three means her power level is pushed to a spot that makes her basically a lock for top 5 cards from Innistrad and sure to be a staple for years to come.

Okay, so Liliana has a cost better than we could have hoped to ask for. She has three “good” abilities. She has power that is very impressive for a three-cost walker. She has synergy with Innistrad. She can even protect herself. What’s the catch?

Well, first of all, black has been bad for a while. Interestingly, it was not that long ago that blue was nerfed for over a year. The “Year of Blue Sucking” was finally ended by the printing of another planeswalker designed to be a top Constructed card (admittedly, that one was supposed to be merely the best, but it ended up undoing 12-18 months of hosing blue in a single shot). Liliana is no Mind Sculptor, but she does have a lot more help out the gate, with New Phyrexia offering quite a number of great weapons. Still, one of black’s greatest strengths is supposed to be creature kill, and we are all just living in Dismember’s world, these days (as NON-black as cards come).

Celestial Purge has long been seeing regular play as an anti-red card. That it can exile Koth and other red planeswalkers has been a major selling point. Tezzeret can be Purged, but generally decks that play him don’t have any other targets. Phyrexian Obliterator has always been a good Purge target, but now that there is a legitimately good black walker to hit, it is especially important to remember Celestial Purge as a sideboard option, or possibly even maindeck. After all, Vault Skirge is “black.” Germ tokens are “black.” It isn’t probable, but it is possible and has happened before (Nassif maindecked one in Kyoto).

What about discard hosing cards like Obstinate Baloth? Well, Liliana waited until just the right moment! The day she becomes legal, Obstinate Baloth rotates out, a card that surely would have devastated Liliana. As of right now, there are no discard hosers in Standard, meaning Liliana gets free reign, at least for the moment. A nice feature of this arrangement, though, is that Wizards has an easy out, if they are concerned about Liliana’s power. Making a card that hoses Jace is very tricky to do well. Just about the best one made was Tezzeret. Hosing Liliana? Well…

I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Guerrilla Tactics was in M13! This is pure speculation, but it just seems so perfect. I can scarcely imagine a better safety valve than for WotC to do this popular reprint in M13 (or some other set in the next year or so). If Liliana turns out to be a problem, you have an elegant solution that kills her exactly, uncounterably, without the loss of a card (you were going to discard the card anyway), and for no mana! If Liliana is held in check by other factors in the metagame, than no problem. Guerrilla Tactics is still a popular card that might not see as much play in Standard in that world, but then it isn’t hosing Liliana much. The other great part of a Tactics reprint would be that the card doesn’t outright ruin discard strategies like some discard hosers.

Looking at Liliana’s design, it screams Guerrilla Tactics at me so much, I can’t help but imagine that she was developed with Tactics at least partially in mind. That she would be printed with such an obvious and elegant solution available in a year (after she has had a chance to dominate), it leads me to believe that WotC actually expected her to dominate during this year. My guess is that WotC believes there is actually a good chance she will be so good that nine months from now, people might be hoping for a good answer to her. Then… “Boom goes the dynamite!” Guerrilla Tactics appears to answer our prayers!

So far, Snapcaster Mage and Liliana of the Veil are two of my top five in Innistrad. I will leave it to Ted Knutsons and Jonathan Medina to comment on the dollar values of these cards, as I must admit that $25 for a non-mythic rare in a set that contains numerous good mythics seems a little strange to me. I will say, if we are just talking about how good the cards are, Snapcaster Mage and Liliana of the Veil are definitely going to deliver. Additionally, my preview card Skaab Ruinator is definitely going to be a solid tournament card, one that I am really looking forward to Birthing Pod into play!  

All too often we see planeswalkers overhyped out the gate and driven up in price by the large chunk of players that absolutely must have a playset of every new one. Occasionally, we see walkers that people are unsure of how to best use at first, such as Tezzeret. So often it seems the Spiky walkers are actually slightly underrated at first (Ajani Vengeant, Elspeth, Knight-Errant, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas). I suspect Liliana is more column B (actually good but difficult to know how best to use at first). I suspect Garruk Relentless, while “solid,” is a little bit more column A, but that is a story for another day…

I asked what two cards you guys would like to see discussed today, and Liliana was definitely the number one request. Number two wasn’t Garruk Relentless, however. It was Moorland Haunt:

Moorland Haunt is not nearly as complex a subject as Liliana of the Veil, but it is definitely going to be a tournament card. Evaluating all these “Business Lands” is going to take some time, as we don’t yet know how fast the new format will be or what kind of strategies will define it. That said, Valakut is leaving, taking pressure off of midrange decks. Additionally, Goblin Guide, Lotus Cobra, Steppe Lynx, Vengevine, Lightning Bolt, Searing Blaze, and Splinter Twin are all leaving at the same time. It seems very obvious that at least initially, the new Standard format will be a little slower than the old one.

The slower the format, the more valuable the lands that give you some extra long-term spell-like value become. Additionally, the loss of Tectonic Edge means that most people will no longer have easy low-cost solutions to lands that “do things,” like Moorland Haunt. Ghost Quarter is in Innistrad, but I assure you, Ghost Quarter is miles from Tectonic Edge.

Moorland Haunt has a real cost, since every Haunt you play could have been a Plains or an Island. This means we have to expect to get some value out of it to justify it being worse at making mana than a basic. How good is its ability, anyway?

Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree was a very popular tournament staple, and it is somewhat similar to Moorland Haunt. Comparing the abilities, we see:

WU, T, exile a creature from your graveyard: Get a 1/1 white flying Spirit.

2WG, T: Get a 1/1 green Saproling.

The primary differences are:

1) Moorland Haunt costs two fewer mana, but you have to exile a creature from your graveyard.

2) Moorland Haunt’s token is a flying white Spirit.

3) Moorland Haunt costs blue to use, instead of green.

While having to exile a creature from your yard means that there will be times where Moorland Haunt is “wasted,” unable to activate, in general this is a really good deal. We have to exile the creature, but we are getting two mana from our mandatory delve, instead of one. A flying token is significantly better than a non-flying token, as anyone that has played Bitterblossom can attest to. This is especially true in this world of Swords! Now that Squadron Hawk is gone, blue-white decks are looking for ways to get extra bodies to ensure they always have someone willing and able to carry one.  

Moorland Haunt does require the blue-white deck to have a sufficient number of actual creatures (whether Mirran Crusader, Blade Splicer, Snapcaster Mage, Azure Mage, Invisible Stalker, Phantasmal Image, Sphinx, Sun Titan, Mentor of the Meek, Puresteel Paladin, or any other), but it gives you the ability to produce extra 1/1 fliers without spending any extra cards. That you can do it during your end step (against Day of Judgment, for instance, is absolutely awesome for making sure you can connect with your choice of Sword (most likely Feast and Famine).

That the token is a white Spirit instead of a green Saproling is also important. From the looks of it, Spirit may be a relevant creature type for some tribal synergies, and white always has more “pumps white guys” effects than green has “pumps green guys.” More important than this, however, is the blue activation instead of green. While some players splashed green in their decks to support Vitu-Ghazi in the past, blue is generally such a good color anyway that you are happy to “have to play blue” to support it. Additionally, Vitu-Ghazi did not have such an immediate and obvious home as Moorland Haunt. (Wait, so this land gives us a steady supply of bonus 1/1 fliers without having to spend any cards? I wonder if this Caw-Blade deck could use a card like this…)

Vitu-Ghazi was a tournament success, though it was slightly overrated at times. It did have Glare of Subdual to help improve its position and never had to face Titans going over the top of it, but Sword of Feast and Famine’s natural strength in U/W decks suggest that Moorland Haunt will find at least one immediate home. I also bet a new breed of White Weenie splashing blue will emerge. We have already seen Tempered Steel and Puresteel Paladin decks like this, and it is possible that the new White  Weenie deck will borrow elements from one or both of those decks. That it is a land that enters the battlefield untapped makes it a very enticing option, though there is tension between it and Inkmoth Nexus in such decks.

What if we don’t want to play a lot of creatures? Well, no question Moorland Haunt needs a certain threshold of creatures to be “good,” but there are ways to cheat it, a bit. Looting is one obvious way to “increase” the density of creatures. Another is milling yourself. For instance, Forbidden Alchemy provides a fantastic way to fill your yard with extra bodies.

While I wouldn’t be surprised if Moorland Haunt gets used a little too often (it is sort of slow) by some and in the wrong places (decks without enough guys), it is definitely a hit. Moorland Haunt may end up being more of a two-of or three-of in some decks, as you only have so many creatures to exile and mana to spend; however it does the right sorts of things to ensure that it is going to be a popular tournament card (and besides, some people will want four in their decks, when the opportunity cost is low enough). That there is no Tectonic Edge to get midrange or control decks out from behind Moorland Haunt (or any of the other Business Lands) suggests a world where midrange and control decks are even more incentivized to totally take over the game with 6s (Titans, Consecrated Sphinx, or Wurmcoil), letting them go over the top of the incremental advantage being gained by these lands.

Alright, next week is the last week of previews before Innistrad finally drops. What two cards would you like to see discussed next week? Please be sure to let me know in the responses and thanks for all the feedback, as always! I seek to be the most helpful I can be, and one of the ways I am best able to respond to specific questions is on Facebook. Facebook sadly limits the number of friend requests individual pages can accept; however public figure pages have no such limit, so I recommend my public figure  if you want to reach me there.

Innistrad is super exciting and looks like a ton of fun. Between a set to draft, a brand new Standard, and whatever format changes take place to Modern, Legacy, and Extended today (not to mention Snapcaster Mage shaking up Vintage), this is one of the most dynamic periods in recent years for Magic, especially when you consider that the implications of Planeswalker Points are not fully known. It is a subject beyond the scope of this article, but I have warmed up to Planeswalker Points upon learning more about the system. This is actually a net positive for both professional Magic players and FNM players. I realize it is a bit unsatisfying to just make those claims unsubstantiated, but I will be happy to elaborate in the near future. For the time being, I have received enough questions on the topic that I thought it useful to chime in with my overall position on the matter.

1. This is not corrupting the integrity of Magic as an intellectual pursuit. The old rating system was flawed and rather than do a bad job of accomplishing the goal of measuring the best players (and all players), the new system does a good job of measuring the accomplishments of the most accomplished players (and all players).

2. This is not the end of pros with full-time jobs like Paul Rietzl, Gaudenis Vidugiris, and Josh Utter-Leyton. Planeswalker Points are not the only metric, and just as these guys’ careers as professional Magic players didn’t hinge on their DCI Rating, so too will their careers not hinge on their Planeswalker Points (which they will actually probably do alright on anyway).

3. No ratings invites, no top 50, and no GP invites means PTs will have fewer people. The prize money isn’t going down. The top players will still get invited from being in the top 100 PW Points or from the Pro Player’s Club (or whatever replaces it). Pro Tour slots are going to be worth substantially more and will actually be more prestigious (not to mention these plane tickets that are being paid for by the PTs being private).

4. If and when the Pro Player’s Club is changed, it will be replaced with something else good, not just taken away. These changes aren’t just “good for the game,” they are a part of the expansion of the game as a result of Magic’s success over the past couple of years. Obviously we can’t be sure of anything until all the changes are announced later this year, but not only is the sky not falling, but this is the beginning of us seeing the benefits from Magic being at an all-time high. No one fully understands the implications of Planeswalker Points yet, and there are going to be some kinks in the system at first, but overall, this is a “Good Thing.” Obviously WotC can’t unroll the 2013 plan this early on, as they need to gain more data about the PWPoints system and how to make it work right. Let’s just chill, enjoy some Magic, and judge each announcement on its own merits, instead of jumping to conclusions and paranoia.

So far:

-The mostly meaningless rating system has been replaced with something that incentives people to want to play more Magic. How well it will work is as yet unknown, but it has purpose and doesn’t try to be the best measure of skill (something the old rating system failed at).

-There are a boatload of GPs, meaning more high-level tournament Magic than ever; yet despite this, SCG is upping their Open Series to now be capped with four Invitationals(!). I realize the ten people that were grinding out all the Opens are probably a little disappointed that there is less incentive to get a million points in the Opens, but the four Invitationals amount to an entire Pro Tour worth of money being paid out at events with no entry fee (to say nothing of the byes that one can get for these events).

-WotC is using some of the money from making events private to pay for up to 100 plane tickets to events for people on PWPoints. I went to FNM this past Friday for the first time in a while, as these points can lead to my getting a plane ticket. Many would consider that sort of effect to be an indication of the strengths of this new system.

Who knows what the future holds? But for now, WotC has been unveiling some pretty awesome changes that are overall net positive. Yes, there are costs and downsides, but overall, these changes are pretty good. Man, I wasn’t trying to get into the PWPoints stuff today, especially when there is so much more to say on the topic, and now is the time to be on the cutting edge of Innistrad. Still, it is important stuff, albeit not as time sensitive.

For now, here is Kibler’s take on the subject.

As for next week, as I said, I am definitely looking for two suggestions for cards to examine. Liliana of the Veil, Snapcaster Mage, and Skaab Ruinator are some platinum hits, but there are still a number of awesome cards that we haven’t even touched on yet. Let me know in the “forums,” and I’ll see you next week!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”

*Just doing my part…