Sullivan Library – In With The New: The Planeswalkers

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The Lorwyn Planeswalkers are extremely difficult to evaluate. Sure, they appear to be stupid in Limited… but how will their revolutionary new mechanics fare in the world of 60-card Magic? Will we have to rethink our strategies completely, or are they merely fuel for Tarmogoyfs? Adrian Sullivan attempts to guide us through the theoretical quagmire, breaking down the Planeswalkers into more manageable chunks…

I remember when I first started playing Magic, sometime back in 1873. We were Planeswalkers, powerful wizards battling it out with our “magical spells and fantastic creatures.” At least, that’s what the box said. We were always somewhat teased with the stories of the Planeswalkers, at first from flavor text and the artifacts of Urza and later in the form of cards like Karn or Jaya before they would become Planeswalkers. Tarmogoyf hinted to us that we’d be seeing a new card type soon enough, and now, here it is. The Planeswalkers are an entirely new card type, probably representing the boldest new card type that they’ve ever done. Gold cards, split cards, flip cards, and Legends are all still very much “Magic” cards. These cards really do feel like they came out of an entirely different game, and I think we’ll find that they require an entirely different approach to deal with properly.

The Ecology of the Planeswalker

As with any new mechanic or card type, it’s important to understand the specifics of how they work. Mark Rosewater wrote extensively about the new Planeswalker mechanics, but I’ll recap them for you in a few sentences. Planeswalkers are similar to Legends in that only one particularly named Planeswalker can be in play at a time. They do not have a power or toughness, but instead have a Loyalty score (tracked by counters) that can be raised or lowered by using its abilities (only once per turn, as a sorcery), or by having a player damage you and choose to deal the damage to the Planeswalker. The article above details everything to do with it, so let’s just talk about the ramifications.

Since you can use a Planeswalker’s ability the turn that it comes into play, but as a sorcery, that means that you’re going to (if you’re smart) use a Planeswalker’s ability immediately after it resolves, so that you can dodge any potential for instant damage taking out a Planeswalker before you even get a chance to use it. The Planeswalkers have various Loyalty stats that they officially start out with, but you can determine their essential virtual Loyalty by guess what ability you are likely to start out using. This can vary, of course, from matchup to matchup, but I’d be willing to bet that Garruk is likely to starts as a “2,” Liliana as a “6,” Chandra as either a “7” or a “1” or “2,” Jace as a “5,” and Ajani as a “5.” It’s important to remember that the printed number of Loyalty isn’t the number that you ought to end up with at the end of the first turn that it comes into play.

Another important thing to note is just how powerful these abilities are going to be against decks that struggle to actually deal damage. Take this deck from the most recent Time Spiral Constructed season:

Pretend that you’re playing this Grand Prix winning deck piloted by Luis Scott-Vargas and your opponent drops down a Planeswalker. Other than Void, the only way you’d have to deal with it is by attacking with creatures. You might notice there are scant few creatures in this deck. Any one of the Planeswalkers could make things very hard on you, even the “innocuous” Ajani Goldmane. If you look at some of the most classic, old-school control decks, running Swords to Plowshares, Wrath of God, and (eventually) killing with some old thing or other, it becomes even clearer just how terrible it can be to be running a deck largely incapable of dealing damage versus a Planeswalker. If the Planeswalkers prove themselves fully ready for the big leagues, as I expect they will, control decks are going to have to make some changes.

It is worth mentioning Tarmogoyf in all of this. Tarmogoyf both provides incentives to potentially play the Planeswalkers as well as provides dis-incentives to playing them if you aren’t playing Goyf. Imagine this nightmare scenario. You are facing down a relatively small 2/3 Goyf and a 1/2 Goyf (two creatures in the yard, and a +1/+1 counter on it from Llanowar Reborn), when you drop Garruk Wildspeaker and make a 3/3 beast. Your opponent attacks you with the 2/3 Goyf and Garruk with a 1/2 Goyf. What do you do?

Because of the existence of Tarfire, things can get hairy indeed. A Tarfire at Garruk would give both Goyfs +3/+3 (Instant, Planeswalker, and Tribal). In these pre-Lorwyn days, we could reasonable expect Goyfs to grow to 4/5 or 5/6 with relative ease. Now, it becomes similarly easy to make Goyfs into 5/6 or 7/8, and even, potentially 8/9. The threat of giving your opponent’s Goyfs +1/+1 is definitely real.

Just, keep these things in mind before you decide to auto-include a Planeswalker…

Get a Life

One of the things that is perhaps best against a Planeswalker is an attacker. If you’re playing Planeswalkers yourself, you’re likely going to need to have some way to defend them. Let’s be honest. Planeswalkers are somewhat expensive. If you drop a Liliana Vess on turn 5 and make your opponent discard a card, but then take a smack from creatures to destroy it (at least six), your opponent is only really down the attack phase.

Ask yourself this… is five mana the right amount that I’d expect to spend to gain six life and make my opponent discard one card? In some matchups, this might be exactly what you’re looking for, but in many, many matchups (most, I’d say), this is actually a somewhat pitiful swing.

Properly defended, though, even a late destruction of a Planeswalker can represent a lot of saved life. The threat of nearly any of the Planeswalkers’ large abilities is incredibly potent, and at a certain point, it seems certain that your opponent will have to go after the Planeswalker. Imagine, then, having a single blocker versus three creatures. How many resources does the opponent put towards killing the Planeswalker? All three? Since you get to choose where to put your blockers in regards to defending you or defending a Planeswalker, the amount of damage that a Planeswalker can “soak up” can actually be quite impressive.

Running Them Down

So, without further ado, I’d like to look at each of the Planeswalkers that Wizards has given us thus far, with my own feeling about what kind of place that they have in Constructed. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to name each mode of a Planeswalker’s ability. A Planeswalker’s Bomb ability is its expensive final power. Its Fill ability is its positive Loyalty power that let’s you build it up. Its Siphon ability is the smaller of the two negative Loyalty abilities. Let’s go to it, then, in reverse alphabetical order, just because…

Liliana Vess
Planeswalker — Liliana
[+1]: Target player discards a card.
[-2]: Search your library for a card, then shuffle your library and put that card on top of it.
[-8]: Put all creature cards in all graveyards into play under your control.

Liliana is a very interesting card. Clearly, the Bomb of Liliana can be devastating. At [-8], though, it can take a lot of effort to get there. If you Fill it every turn, this still means that you are looking at activating the Bomb three turns after you cast Liliana, and only then if you mean to drain her completely. Clearly, then, the Bomb portion of Liliana seems very unlikely, especially if the opponent resists you with the occasional burn spell or attack directed at her.

Since that is the case, you can expect that you’ll mostly be using Liliana as a slow discard outlet, and as a means for Vampiric Tutoring (or actually, Imperial Seal-ing.) This is actually somewhat problematic. If you cast Liliana, and immediately Siphon her for an Imperial Seal, you’re starting out with a 3 Loyalty Planeswalker for a card that isn’t even going into your hand. Since Demonic Collusion exists, this seems like a fairly unexciting prospect.

In general, then, you can expect that Liliana will primarily be used for her Fill power of discard, and the threat of her massive Bomb. In general, then, I’d be willing to bet that Liliana’s effect as a kind of one way Bottomless Pit, that will eventually make your opponent take some energy to kill her (lest she do mean things) makes her a very specialized card. Five mana is a lot of mana, and while it is absolutely possible that there will be decks for whom Liliana is suited, it seems more likely that this card will have alternates that do her job far better (Haunting Hymn springs to mind).

Jace Beleren
Planeswalker — Jace
[+2]: Each player draws a card.
[-1]: Target player draws a card.
[-10]: Target player puts the top twenty cards of his or her library into his or her graveyard.

Jace is a far cry from Liliana. Very cheap, Jace can hit the table right from the get-go, though it will most likely start out with its Fill ability being used to effectively Mikokoro both players. One thing that people never seemed to understand about Mikokoro is that you’re not getting a specific advantage or disadvantage, from a card advantage standpoint, when you activate it. You’re getting parity. Jace’s Fill ability is similar in that way, but since Jace could be killed by attackers, it is possible to have it provide a pure card disadvantage.

Whether Jace starts out being Filled to go to 5 Loyalty or Siphoned (to go to 2 Loyalty) largely depends on the matchup. If you are concerned about burn spells knocking it out, most likely you’ll Fill her, and eventually consider Siphoning. If you’re playing against an aggressive deck, it is definitely possible you might Siphon from the get go, if you can’t defend her. 1UU to “cycle” a card and prevent damage from a creature isn’t great, but it isn’t completely terrible. It still seems more likely to me that you’ll Fill her here, though. Early on in a game, this could easily mean Filling her several times before she is killed. If you manage to Fill her three times before she is killed, it is worth noting that you’ve saved yourself at least nine life. That seems like a big deal to me. Against a deck that is incapable of easily dealing damage, Jace threatens to be a nearly disadvantageous-free Phyrexian Arena. That can be pretty damning for many opponents.

In a dedicated milling deck, activating Jace’s Bomb seems pretty incredible. Filling again and again versus other control decks can be a real problem for them. When someone has some kind of card drawing that you don’t have, whether it is Careful Consideration or anything, a Howling Mine-like effect really negates the advantage. Pretend, for example, that your control deck is drawing on average three extra cards every two turns. Over the course of a Jace-free game, you will have drawn five cards to your opponent’s two in that period of time, 250% of the cards that they have drawn. On the other hand, if Jace is working her magic, that same time frame will have you having drawn seven cards to their four, only 175% of the cards that they have drawn. Your advantage has been reduced to 70% of what it was because of an opponent’s Jace. In addition, the Jace player isn’t expending any further mana to reduce your advantage. When that Bomb finally comes up, it can be enough to end the game.

This might be the Planeswalker to really watch.

Garruk Wildspeaker
Planeswalker — Garruk
[+1]: Untap two target lands.
[-1]: Put a 3/3 green Beast creature token into play.
[-4]: Creatures you control get +3/+3 and gain trample until end of turn.

Last week, I brought up how I was underwhelmed by Garruk. I read a lot of responses to that in both e-mails and in the forums, and I have to say, I still feel underwhelmed by Garruk.

The typical comment about Garruk is this: “I think it’s a great deal to get essentially a Call of the Herd token into play and eat up a burn spell. That’s still like getting the card advantage of Call of the Herd!”

I would say that it is far from it. Clearly a Garruk run amok can cause a lot of damage. Every Siphon of Garruk is yet another 3/3, and Filling the Garruk can accelerate you into some scary stuff. But this is a far cry from the reliable Call of the Herd. Call of the Herd’s initial investment is only three mana, which is a sizable amount less than Garruk’s. Against an aggressive deck, I foresee the following: you Siphon the Garruk and create the 3/3 on turn 3, if you’re lucky with mana acceleration. They burn your 3/3, and attack Garruk (and potentially you), causing Garruk to run away, and probably dropping another monster in the meantime. Even the simple scenario of Tarfire on Garruck, while technically a two-for-one, still is slower at effecting the board than Call of the Herd, and threatens an overly powerful Tarmogoyf from an aggressive opponent.

About the only way to keep Garruk safe in most situations is to begin by Filling Garruk, using the untap land ability from the get-go, not the Siphoning Beast ability. This strikes me as an expensive version of Overgrowth, for the most part. There aren’t even Karoos in Standard to make it really explosive. Finally, Garruk’s Bomb seems less exciting if you’ve spent a card wasting your time probably not casting a reasonable creature.

Garruk is great against a deck that isn’t attacking and doesn’t have burn spells. It might even be overwhelming against that particular opponent. However, he seems like a huge liability in those other matchups. Seems like a sideboard card to me.

Chandra Nalaar
Planeswalker — Chandra
[+1]: Chandra Nalaar deals 1 damage to target player.
[-X]: Chandra Nalaar deals X damage to target creature.
[-8]: Chandra Nalaar deals 10 damage to target player and each creature he or she controls.

Chandra! In a lot of ways, I really like Chandra. Filling up to her Bomb ability is completely reasonable, taking only two turns after being cast to make the entire world of your opponent go up in a cloud of smoke. If you tap her out completely to get this done, that’s twelve damage your opponent will have sustained — not bad for five mana.

Of course, the opponent is likely to resist, so it is completely reasonable to expect to see a Chandra dropping down immediately to a 1 or 2 Loyalty when it is Siphoned. If used for that, it is not that exciting a card (five mana for four or five damage to a creature seems pretty unexciting).

More likely, Chandra’s real power will be in the threat of her Bomb. Picture facing down a Chandra if you are running a deck much like Chapin’s Coalition Relic deck from yesterday. If you can stop his Tarmogoyfs, or if they merely show up too late, you can pretty much guarantee a huge explosion all over the deck. That’s actually a pretty threatening thing to put out at someone. Compare this to Garruk, where the Bomb you might build up to requires a ton of other things to be going on in your favor to even matter.

While still potentially a sideboard card, I could easily see this getting a degree of main-deck play in Standard, especially in a deck that helps to support Chandra with a degree of solid creature control, or even an option for an aggro deck with Tarmogoyf as a means to dodge actual creature control from the opponent. Regardless, it still seems very solid.

Ajani Goldmane
Planeswalker — Ajani
[+1]: You gain 2 life.
[-1]: Put a +1/+1 counter on each creature you control. Those creatures gain vigilance until end of turn.
[-6]: Put a white Avatar creature token into play with “This creature’s power and toughness are each equal to your life total.”

Ajani seems a little innocuous at first. Filling Ajani almost seems completely inconsequential. Filling up to Ajani’s Bomb is still relatively quick, possible only two turns after Ajani is first cast. This, by itself, gives a lot of incentives to an opponent to direct their energy, at least some of it, towards killing the Ajani.

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that your opponent is actually successful at killing Ajani. I imagine it might take them two turns to generally do so. In this time, Ajani will have had a total of 6 Loyalty that had to be taken care of, and gained you four life. This means that it is reasonable to think that Ajani will have gained you ten life. Each activation of Ajani, in effect, is a gain of three life.

Ten life, or thirteen life, and especially sixteen life get to the point where it can be positively game destroying for an opposing aggressive deck. If you’re able to actually defend Ajani lightly, with any success, you’re easily getting the life that one might have gotten out of a Gerrard’s Wisdom. Classically, this was always a problematic card for aggressive decks. If you’re very successful at defending Ajani, you could quickly get out a huge Avatar that can easily defend the Ajani still further.

As has been a theme so far, the damage-light control deck is potentially in a lot of trouble if they don’t deal with Ajani quickly. Ajani’s Bomb will go off two turns sooner than the Bomb that a Liliana would, and Ajani’s also has the potential to kill an opponent much more quickly (though very weak to the possibility of Terror-like effects).

I actually think that for certain kinds of control decks, Ajani makes a lot of sense as a potential main-deck card, where some of the more dramatic cards seem more suited, after reflection, as sideboard cards.

Wrap Up

I imagine that this might be largely controversial, but I’m pretty confident that the Planeswalkers can easily be broken down into three classes: sideboard bait, main-deck cards, and conditional cards. I would say that Garruk and Liliana make the most sense as sideboard cards. Ajani and Jace make more sense to me as probable main-deck cards than any of the other Planeswalkers by far. Chandra seems to ride that role-playing zone, where it might make sense in some narrow deck’s main-deck or another deck’s sideboard. Ajani is somewhat interesting in that I think it would most certainly make a better main-deck card than a sideboard card, mostly because I bet you could find more specific, better answers to the threats that you might see from an opponent.

Overall, I do think that each of the Planeswalkers is going to have an impact on Standard, but I’m guessing that my own thinking about their relative worth is far and away different than most people’s idea about these cards. Time will tell, but I remain confident, if only because I’ve had a really great history with predictions about new cards.

When States hits, we’ll get our first taste of what matters.

Until then…

Adrian Sullivan