I’ll take four-cost planeswalkers that draw cards and protect themselves for $500, Alex . . .
Planeswalkers were unveiled six years ago, with Jace Beleren, Garruk Wildspeaker, Ajani Goldmane, Liliana Vess, and Chandra Nalaar all appearing in Lorwyn. Lorwyn block was structured a little different than future blocks would so as to give all five colors a planeswalker out the gate. Future sets would space out the five or six walkers in a block among all of the sets.
Every year since then has begun with a preview of a game-changing planeswalker to headline the second set of the block. Just take a look at the five years since then:
Those are some above-average planeswalkers, and while they have had a range of power levels (from Sorin, who’s maybe a 7, to Jace, who’s maybe a 13), they have all had an impact on Constructed and have all headlined their respective sets.
Fast forward to today. Born of the Gods preview season is just about to jump off, and leading the way sure enough is a brand-new planeswalker. In fact, this new walker is first U/G planeswalker, meaning W/G is now the only color combination to not have one.
W/G – ???
G/R – Sarkhan Vol; Domri Rade; Xenagos, the Reveler
R/B – Sarkhan the Mad
B/U – Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas; Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
U/W – Venser, the Sojourner
W/R – Ajani Vengeant
B/W – Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
G/B – Vraska the Unseen
U/G – Kiora, the Crashing Wave
R/U – Ral Zarek
All the signs are pointing to this new walker being big, right? After all, this is the first U/G planeswalker ever!
Wait, wait, wait. That isn’t how you evaluate planeswalkers. Everybody knows the three-point checklist:
- Does it cost four?
- Does it draw a card or make a token?
- Does it protect itself?
How right you are! Trying to evaluate mana efficiency can be hard. So instead we can just look for some sort of pattern among which planeswalkers have been good, take three characteristics that many of them have in common, and make our predictions based on this overwhelming quantity of data!
Okay, okay, I suppose we should actually look at the new planeswalker before moving all in on her.
Planeswalkers are always tricky to evaluate, as they have so many interlocking pieces and the format they will exist in matters a lot. It is just such a different world if the planeswalker’s normal play pattern is disrupted by the common attacks of the format.
Where to start with Kiora? How about the -1 ability, as it is certainly the ability that has most loudly grabbed the attention of the community? Drawing a card and playing a land? Sounds good to me! I like Exploreing!
So how good is two Explores? Obviously you don’t have to chain the two Explores back-to-back and lose your Kiora, but there will be times where you want to. The most common reason? You just want the mana!
Let’s imagine we’re against Esper Control:
Life sure is grand in Magical Christmasland!
Of course this isn’t exactly the most unlikely of scenarios to unfold. The real point is that when you have just untapped after Exploreing getting to Explore again is actually really powerful and can lead to some pretty awesome openings.
Assuming your one-loyalty planeswalker lives.
And that’s really it, isn’t it? Kiora has three good abilities. She costs four. She draws cards. She makes mana. She defends herself. She does everything except have enough loyalty to be able to look herself in the mirror every day.
How much better than drawing a card is Explore? That really depends on how much you are doing it and when. The more times you Explore, the closer to draw a card it is. However, two is basically exactly the right amount to let you get away with cheating whatever you want into play without completely running out of lands to take advantage of them.
Another way of looking at Kiora is that worse-case scenario you can play her and get a card and an extra land drop; even if they kill her, you come out ahead. Right?
The problem with looking at her this way is that the most common way people will be able to deal with her is by doing literally anything. I mean, they can blow a dandelion in her general direction, and she will fall over. Heaven forbid they have any creatures capable of dealing any damage.
Just compare what happens when you make the same play with Jace, Architect of Thought. You get your choice of the best of your top three cards or a guaranteed two cards. That is better than Explore on average. This exchange leaves Jace with two loyalty rather than one. This isn’t always going to change the outcome of the planeswalker, but it will some of the time. All these percentages, all these factors add up.
So is Exploreing something we even want to be doing? Well, drawing cards is always good, and getting to play an extra land or two in the early turns can actually be a pretty big game. How about a cautious yes; yes, these are things that we generally like to do, but there is still the question of rate. I mean, compare Kiora to Solemn Simulacrum.
Solemn gives you a land out of your deck (even fixing your colors) rather than just playing an extra land. That is already a pretty massive upgrade. Then Solemn has such a good chance of actually trading with something rather than just being a very small damage prevention spell. You can even attack with it! Obviously Solemn Simulacrum isn’t in the format and isn’t a fair bar; my point is just that there are a lot of different costs you can get this effect for and not all of them are equal.
Kiora does in fact draw cards and cost four, but let’s talk about this “protect itself” ability, the +1.
“Until your next turn, prevent all damage that would be dealt to and dealt by target permanent an opponent controls.”
From a high level, this is generally an Icy Manipulator of sorts. It stops one threat a turn. However, it is a bit of an odd duck in its implementation, so odd in fact that it feels like there must be some clue hidden between the lines to suggest why WotC would make it exactly like this.
Why does it prevent all damage that would be dealt to the target, not just damage dealt by it? I mean, walk through the typical use cases.
- You want to stop their big attacker. Either wording does this.
- You want to stop one of their random small attackers because you might as well. Either wording does this.
- You want to negate a powerful blocker that would just eat one of your creatures. Okay, now the wording matters.
You can still use Kiora to make sure their Loxodon Smiter doesn’t eat one of your attacking Shamblesharks, but if the Shambleshark gets up to four power, it’s still just going to bounce. If the +1 ability didn’t grant a shield to your opponent’s creature, the Shambleshark could threaten to eat the Smiter.
Why would WotC add this mild nerf? Were they concerned about the power level of the card? My first instinct is that there is some fairly common interaction that comes up regularly that they felt was just a little too brutal. For instance, a creature that must attack would be devastated by the alternative wording. Bident of Thassa turns every creature into this, so perhaps they thought the combo of Kiora + Bident was just too hopeless.
Of course it is also possible that the ability was conceived in the current form and part of the flavor is that the target is trapped in a bubble separated from the outside world.
Another odd characteristic of the ability is that it targets permanents. What other permanents would it hit? Is it supposed to stop Chandra, Pyromaster from all its poking? This actually works great because Chandra’s abilities are played as sorceries. By contrast, if you had targeted a Prodigal Sorcerer type, it would always get a window to respond to the Kiora activations with the poke. Chandra however has her damage dealing shut down. It almost feels like the prevent damage to clause would come up when targeting a planeswalker; however, you can just attack before using the +1 on it, so it isn’t actually relevant.
What other permanents might we target? The loudest class has got to be the creatures that aren’t creatures during opponent’s main phases. For instance, Mutavault can be stopped, which is a nice feature. Thassa, God of the Sea and Erebos, God of the Dead might not be creatures yet, so making sure a Nightveil Specter doesn’t suddenly turn them on could be huge.
As for artifacts and noncreature enchantments, Burning Earth is basically the only interesting one. That’s right, you can target Burning Earth with the +1 ability and have a free pass for a turn (though so does your opponent). Beyond that there’s basically just Keyrunes, which are like Mutavaults, cards with activated abilities that can respond to Kiora, and a couple cards that are safely outside of Constructed.
How good is this ability? Well, frankly, I think if Kiora succeeds, it will actually be the +1 ability overperforming that makes the difference. Obviously Explore is what gets you in the door, but we just aren’t getting that good of a rate on it. The ability to stop your opponent’s biggest threat every turn is actually quite respectable however. It will be a very common case to play Kiora on turn 4 into a board with exactly one threat. Lock it down and then react to each of your opponent’s next three plays.
If you can stall for just three turns, you can trigger her ultimate:
“You get an emblem with ‘At the beginning of your end step, put a 9/9 blue Kraken creature token onto the battlefield.'”
It has a passable impact on the board now (giving you a 9/9 blocker immediately) and is reliable, continuing to give you a powerful game regardless of what your opponent does to try to get out of it.
Where exactly does Kiora’s ultimate fit on the all-time list? I put together a list of all the planeswalkers that have full-on ultimates, which I have defined as a planeswalker ability that requires more loyalty than the planeswalker enters the battlefield with. The 42nd planeswalker of Dominaria, she definitely fits the bill. My list does not however include Gideon Jura or Sarkhan the Mad.
Planeswalker Ultimate Power Ranking:
1. Karn Liberated
2. Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
3. Jace, the Mind Sculptor
4. Jace, Memory Adept
5. Jace, Architect of Thought
6. Domri Rade
7. Venser, the Sojourner
8. Ajani Vengeant
9. Chandra Nalaar
10. Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
11. Elspeth, Knight-Errant
12. Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
13. Koth of the Hammer
14. Liliana of the Veil
15. Kiora, the Crashing Wave
16. Sorin Markov
17. Garruk Wildspeaker
18. Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas
19. Tezzeret the Seeker
20. Xenagos, the Reveler
21. Ral Zarek
22. Chandra Ablaze
23. Garruk, Caller of Beasts
24. Chandra, the Firebrand
25. Jace Beleren
26. Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
27. Garruk, Primal Hunter
28. Vraska the Unseen
29. Nissa Revane
30. Chandra, Pyromaster
31. Ajani, Caller of the Pride
32. Garruk, the Veil-Cursed
33. Liliana Vess
34. Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
35. Sarkhan Vol
36. Ajani Goldmane
37. Gideon, Champion of Justice
38. Elspeth Tirel
39. Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded
40. Liliana of the Dark Realms
This list is fairly arbitrary but is basically a combination of:
- How often is it deadly when used?
- How often is it useful enough to actually do?
- How much does it ask of you, whether on board or in deckbuilding?
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion has a creature pump ability that would normally be far weaker than most of the ultimates on here; however, it always necessarily follows tons and tons of token making, meaning you usually want to do it when you can and it usually wins.
Garruk, the Veil-Cursed is very rarely activated unless it is threatening lethal, but it is just not what you want to be doing most of the time so it scores poorly. On other hand, Jace, Architect of Thought gets ultimated as soon as possible most of the time and wins the vast majority of the time. It may not be as overwhelming and impressive of a victory as putting 40 power’s worth of creatures on the battlefield, but this is a rating of how effective they are at winning, not the margin.
Looking at this list, one thing is pretty clear.
Jace knows how to put a game away.
There are basically four types of planeswalker ultimates:
- Devastate your opponent’s ability to play the game
- Burn out or overrun your opponent
- Gain an overwhelming amount of resources (usually a lot of power’s worth of creatures)
- Get an emblem that lets you play a completely unfair game for the rest of the game
Kiora is an example of the fourth, but unlike many of the other emblems, hers gives you some influence over the game immediately. You can definitely still lose after Kiora’s ult, but if you weren’t already losing on board, it’s going to take finding your Achilles’ heel. In general, a 9/9 every turn is better than whatever your opponent does, and you still get to draw for the turn.
Why does she not score higher? This is a pretty tough list. The first four prompt concessions and are basically unbeatable. The next nine all have a pretty strong correlation with victory but leave room for counterplay (albeit under highly unfair and unlikely conditions). Sometimes you don’t need lands to win. Sometimes the player with Koth can’t race a Wurmcoil Engine. Sometimes the player with Elspeth can’t get enough ahead despite never losing anything.
Liliana of the Veil and Sorin Markov are pretty good company to be in, though, as we are still talking about walkers you generally want to use fairly often and that have a fairly high correlation of victory. Both are prone to occasionally being ineffective at dealing with the current board state. Kiora has a different sort of ultimate but a similar experience. Sometimes you are locking down a flier and can’t afford to stop. Sometimes you are facing another planeswalker with a much bigger ultimate (like Jace, Architect of Thought) and can’t afford to not dig for an answer (with a disappointing -1 activation).
Even when you trigger her ultimate, your opponent will often have several turns. They might be sitting on some Doom Blades. They might have some token maker to help with chump blocking. They can even take a couple hits. This gives them more than a couple avenues to try to scare up an upset.
Okay, Kiora has a slightly above-average ultimate, and we like Exploreing. Let’s get back to the lockdown ability! That’s where the riddle is. How good is it to lock down a single permanent?
It’s unfortunate to have to be compared to Jace, Architect of Thought, as he is one of the best planeswalkers in Magic’s history; however, he’s legal, at the same cost, and the same color as Kiora. Unfortunately for Kiora, that’s the bar.
It’s a common play pattern for Jace to be facing two two-power creatures. Use his +1 and now you are effectively stopping both. When Kiora is in the same spot, she lives one turn before falling. Obviously she is better at stopping a Desecration Demon, but Jace is better at stopping three, four, five, or more creatures. Jace provides a lot of value in a lot of board states. Kiora? She’s basically all in on your opponent having a number of threats no greater than the number of defensive cards you have.
What happens when things go wrong for Jace? Even an opponent with four 2/2s doesn’t kill Jace outright, and it’s common for Jace to effectively soak up ten or more (much more) damage. He has a lot of loyalty and gains more while effectively stopping most of the counterplay that would tear him down. Even when they have a Lightning Strike, he usually prevents at least seven damage.
Contrast this with Kiora. She stops one creature indefinitely, but if they have anything at all, she falls apart completely. Four 2/2s? She soaks up six damage. What does it take for her to soak up ten damage? Your opponent having two fatties, one of which she locks down, the other smashes her. That’s quite a bit less common in my experience. Yes of course she could just stop a 10/10 Polukranos, but we’re just talking fail states at the moment (and reality).
This is to say nothing of your opponent having a Lightning Strike. In such a spot, she is dead outright, preventing only that three damage and the damage of the one creature she locked down. Jace might eat the Lightning Strike and live if you have a removal spell in combat!
By the way, for reference here is my Planeswalker All-Time list prior to Kiora:
Planeswalker All-Time Ranking:
1. Jace, the Mind Sculptor
2. Elspeth, Knight-Errant
3. Liliana of the Veil
4. Ajani Vengeant
5. Jace, Architect of Thought
6. Jace Beleren
7. Domri Rade
8. Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas
9. Karn Liberated
10. Gideon Jura
11. Koth of the Hammer
12. Garruk, Primal Hunter
13. Chandra, Pyromaster
14. Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
15. Garruk Wildspeaker
16. Garruk Relentless
17. Ajani Goldmane
18. Jace, Memory Adept
19. Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
20. Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
21. Garruk, Caller of Beasts
22. Xenagos, the Reveler
23. Ajani, Caller of the Pride
24. Sorin Markov
25. Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
26. Vraska the Unseen
27. Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
28. Elspeth Tirel
29. Liliana Vess
30. Chandra Nalaar
31. Ral Zarek
32. Venser, the Sojourner
33. Tezzeret the Seeker
34. Nissa Revane
35. Gideon, Champion of Justice
36. Chandra, the Firebrand
37. Sarkhan the Mad
38. Chandra Ablaze
39. Liliana of the Dark Realms
40. Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded
41. Sarkhan Vol
It’s not even clear to me that Jace, Architect of Thought isn’t #4 on the list either. That’s a really good card. To me there are basically five tiers of planeswalkers.
God Tier: #1-5 Format warping
Tier 1: #6-17 Dominating tournament staples
Tier 2: #18-28 Regular tournament play
Tier 3: #29-35 Fringe tournament play
Tier 4: #36-41 Rarely used in tournament play
I am sympathetic to arguments that Jace Beleren and Domri Rade should be God Tier as well, but they just didn’t warp formats quite as much as the other five (but are perhaps both somewhat underappreciated).
Where does Kiora, the Crashing Wave fit in? My guess would be tier 3, maybe tier 2 depending on what kind of support she gets as well as if the format moves to a plane where people regularly have one big threat instead of multiple small ones.
Her loyalty is just so anemic. She is so fragile and while versatile is much easier to counterplay than a lot of the planeswalkers. Additionally, she lives in a format where she is competing with one of the all-time greats (Ral Zarek syndrome). Even if you use her as a fifth walker, we are still talking about a world with Supreme Verdict. There isn’t exactly a gap at the four spot in most U/G/x decks.
In some ways she reminds me of Urban Evolution and Prime Speaker Zegana. These are some great U/G cards that have the unfortunate distinction of sharing a spot on the space-time continuum with Sphinx’s Revelation. Yes, they both see some play. They are great cards. They do not however see anywhere near the play they would if not for Sphinx.
Kiora is up against Jace, at least for the next nine months. She’ll probably see some play, but we’re talking more of a Vraska the Unseen / Ral Zarek kind of a range than a Chandra, Pyromaster / Elspeth, Sun’s Champion range.
Is she playable? Definitely. Even the laughingstocks of the planeswalkers, Tibalt and Sarkhan Vol, saw some play. There are no “bad” planeswalkers compared to the average Magic card. However, compared to the Mind Sculptor and the Knight-Errant . . .
Hell, she doesn’t even deserve to be in the same league as the Memory Adept and the Sun’s Champion.
So what will it take to make Kiora work?
The loudest signal we could detect that it is a good format for her is if people are consistently creating board states with one large threat. That is where she shines and actually looks good. Her starting loyalty is so low that she doesn’t won’t cut it in a format full of small threats.
A point in her favor is how effective she is against Hero’s Downfall and Dreadbore. She scores a card and a land drop right out of the gate, and her low loyalty is not a liability. Hero’s Downfall often sticks it to Jace because people plus it trying to keep it. Kiora’s loyalty is so low that we are often just going to cash it in for an Explore and a few life points.
What deck would want her?
Not surprisingly, the first that comes to mind is some kind of a Bant ramp deck. Here is a possible first draft based on Reid Duke and the Ben Seck’s Bant ramp deck:
- 1 Prime Speaker Zegana
- 2 Aetherling
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Polukranos, World Eater
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 4 Prophet of Kruphix
- 1 Voyaging Satyr
This deck just tries to draw cards and develop its mana, playing more and more big threats. Kiora actually fits in quite nicely, serving as not only an added threat, card advantage engine, and accelerator but also as an answer to troublesome permanents (which this deck is sorely lacking in in general).
Kiora specializes in getting us to seven mana, so another possible angle is to see who can take advantage of us hitting seven by turn 4 (with one cheap accelerator). Angel of Serenity is the first creature that comes to mind, though it’s really not bad to just play an Elspeth and skip the second Explore (plusing instead and keeping your Kiora).
One matchup where Kiora really makes us smile is against any kind of U/W or Esper deck. She can be Detention Sphered no question, but often those decks can’t really punish her for just Exploring out the gate and then ticking up, threatening to win the game. Besides, it sure is nice to Explore, have her Detention Sphered at one loyalty, and then destroy the Detention Sphere, letting you Explore again!
At the end of the day, Kiora is a new kind of planeswalker. All three of her abilities are good, but she does have a very serious drawback. Her starting loyalty makes her very fragile. How serious of a drawback this will prove to be remains to be seen. I am hopeful because she seems like a ton of fun; she just has a really tough road ahead, at least for the next nine months.
Verdict: Fringe Role Player
(With chances of better if things break her way as detailed above.)
What do you think Kiora’s chances are and how should she be used? Where did I miss on the Ultimate Ranking or All-Time Ranking?
Hope you guys are having a happy new year!
See you next week!