The Beautiful Struggle – Walk the Line

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At the prerelease, I would be shocked if someone didn’t try to play Garruk, add a counter, play a two-drop, and activate the Overrun ability all in the same turn. Or, alternatively, someone will try to make three Beasts in one turn. Or perhaps someone will try to make a Beast during an opponent’s attack step. Of course, it doesn’t work in any of those ways; you can only use one of the loyalty abilities each turn, you can only use it once, and you can only do it at sorcery speed.

It turns out that I will be thinking about Standard much sooner than I normally would around the time of the release of the new “big set.” I could explain why this is, but then I would be stealing someone else’s thunder. All I can say is that you should keep your eyes on Mike Flores’ column, or on the top8magic.com website, over the next week or two.

Anyway, I thus had really good reason to be looking at Mark Rosewater’s column on Monday, to find out how the Planeswalker mechanic worked. I figured Rosewater would preview the planeswalker mechanic on Monday, because he always features the highest-profile mechanic from the new set in his first preview article.

I was half right. this column on the planeswalker minisite, also credited to Rosewater, on the same day. That second link has all of the rules for playing with planeswalker cards, but let me just add some practical tips.

Take, for example, Rosewater’s preview card from the planeswalker minisite:

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

At the prerelease, I would be shocked if someone didn’t try to play Garruk, add a counter, play a two-drop, and activate the Overrun ability all in the same turn. Or, alternatively, someone will try to make three Beasts in one turn. Or perhaps someone will try to make a Beast during an opponent’s attack step. Of course, it doesn’t work in any of those ways; you can only use one of the loyalty abilities each turn, you can only use it once, and you can only do it at sorcery speed.

However, since planeswalkers are not creatures, they don’t have summoning sickness. Thus you will get at least one activation out of them on the turn played. Once the planeswalker resolves you receive priority again, and not even split-second spells from your opponent can stop you from activating a loyalty ability at that time. That ain’t bad when you’re talking about a two-land untap or a 3/3 Beast from Garruk, but that fact piqued my deckbuilding instincts even more with respect to the first planeswalker we saw:

Liliana Vess
Planeswalker — Liliana
Loyalty 5
+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.

A single discard is nothing to sniff at when it comes on turn 5 or later — you’re pretty likely to get an important card — but the Vampiric Tutor effect is the one I imagine I would want most of the time, and it inspired me to build this:

4 Mind Stone
4 Prismatic Lens
4 Diabolic Tutor
4 Damnation
4 Foresee
3 Gaea’s Blessing
2 Void
1 Consume Spirit
2 Slaughter Pact
1 Strangling Soot
1 Liliana Vess
2 Siege-Gang Commander
1 Beacon of Unrest
1 Beacon of Destruction
4 River of Tears
4 Graven Cairns
4 Terramorphic Expanse
1 Mountain
1 Island
1 Forest
3 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
1 Urza’s Factory
7 Swamp

I’m not saying this deck is necessarily good; in fact, this fellow looks like quite the blowout against it. I give you this deck mainly to illustrate the dumb things Liliana can do if the deck is built around her and she goes unchecked. The deck is built entirely around the following goldfish:

Turn 2: Mana accelerant (this is why there is no Coalition Relic, you want four mana on turn 3 the vast majority of the time).
Turn 3: Diabolic Tutor for Liliana.
Turn 4: Liliana, and make the opponent discard.
Turn 5: You have three Vampiric Tutors at your disposal, enough to start Siege-Gang + Beacon of Unrest, or find Beacon of Destruction three times.

Of course, that nut draw will sometimes be disrupted, by using a Terramorphic Expanse or having a pressing need to tutor for instead of Liliana, but you can see what I’m getting at. The Beacons are an ideal win condition for States, as they are invulnerable to effects like Extirpate and can be repeatedly tutored up with Liliana. Beacon of Destruction and Siege-Gang Commander are especially good in a planeswalker environment, since you can target opposing players and redirect the damage to their own planeswalker — that’s also why Consume Spirit is there instead of Tendrils of Corruption, but Consume is far from ideal.

(By the way, I should specify what I mean when I say that being invulnerable to Extirpate is ideal for States. At the Pro Tour, or in the later rounds of a Grand Prix, people tend to realize that Extirpate is rarely good. It doesn’t affect the board — which is key since most control decks these days focus on board control — and people generally don’t build their decks such that being hit with Extirpate is completely game over. Wafo-Tapa beat Herberholz in game 1 of their Yokohama semifinal despite having his Cancels Extirpated, for example.

On the lower levels of the game, though, you would be a lot more likely to see worse deck design: if we could all build decks like the pros, then the Pro Tour would be better attended than States. So, at States you’ll see decks that might be blown out by Extirpate, and you’re more likely to see someone playing a Black/X deck whose sideboard is “3 or 4 Extirpate, 11 or 12 blanks” because they believe it will be a worthwhile answer to problem spells across the table. Read my States article from two years ago for a similar example: my round 1 opponent was leaning on his three sideboarded copies of Cranial Extraction to get me… and my deck was misbuilt such that if he had drawn all three copies, he probably would have gotten me.)

The Gaea’s Blessings are intended to recycle used cards to the top of your library via Liliana, but it may well be that you don’t need them. I have heard it said that needing Blessings in your Mystical Teachings deck is a sign of bad deck design, the example of good deck design usually being Luis Scott-Vargas’s deck from Grand Prix: San Francisco. My Liliana deck isn’t a Teachings deck, but it works on many of the same principles, so it’s entirely possible that Blessing is bad there as well. My thinking was simply that any planeswalker, especially one that lets me tutor for my win condition at will, is likely to be a target and may need to be retrieved. Getting back Damnation, Foresee, spot removal, etc., is just gravy.

It’s a little harder to determine where planeswalkers fit in an aggressive deck. Planeswalkers are basically legendary*, so you don’t want to draw multiple copies of them. On the other hand an aggressive deck is going to have a lot tougher time putting the planeswalker in hand — remember, they’re not creatures, so your Mono-Green deck can’t Summoner’s Pact for Garruk or anything like that.

However, Garruk’s counter-adding ability is too ridiculous to ignore. Even before we discuss creatures printed in Lorwyn, Time Spiral Block offers plenty of juicy options for two-mana creatures that could be played off a Garruk untap. Not quite coincidentally, many of them found their way into the Top 8 of Grand Prix: Florence last weekend:

The list posted on The Mothership actually has “4 Unknown Card” listed, so I entered Might of Old Krosa as a placeholder, which also happens to work well with Haze of Rage. Generally, people credit this deck to Kenji Tsumura, who played Haze of Rage in San Francisco, but if the deck comes from Magic Online then it may be impossible to trace it to the source.

Anyway, the appeal of Garruk for a deck like this should be obvious. Planeswalkers are spells just like any other permanent, so they pump up your storm count just like any other permanent. Simply going “Garruk, Untap two lands, Haze” is like a Fortify for your team, and we’re not even thinking about what might happen if you have more mana, or some Pacts, saved for this special occasion. Plus, Garruk has four counters on him after that sequence, so if he survives until next turn you can suicide him to Overrun your opponent.

How many Garruk to run for States, though? The deck has but 21 land and its curve tops out at 3. Elves and Birds are available, but the only reason I would run them would be to pump up the storm count and enable turn 2 Gaea’s Anthem, as this deck seems like it could kill much faster if it didn’t even bother with three-drops:

4 Llanowar Elves
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Mogg War Marshal
4 Elvish Warrior
4 Kavu Predator
4 Summoner’s Pact
4 Gaea’s Anthem
4 Haze of Rage
2 Garruk Wildspeaker
2 Horizon Canopy
2 Kher Keep
1 Pendelhaven
4 Terramorphic Expanse
2 Mountain
4 Karplusan Forest
2 Grove of the Burnwillows
5 Forest

This deck probably has too much mana, with 22 land in addition to the eight one-drops. However, it’s only a first impression, so it’s entirely possible that the deck can get by with a 4/1 Elf-Bird split, or even a 4/1 Bird-Elf split (after all, the whole plan is to pump your creatures such that the Bird can attack, and it can fly over a Tarmogoyf or Troll Ascetic). You can see how awkward Garruk makes things here, because I would like to go 21 land as Camilluzzi did, or even down to 20. However, the fewer land you run, the more you are depending upon fighting off manascrew with a bunch of 1/1 and 0/1 creatures in a Mogg Fanatic format. It may well be that Haze of Rage was a Block-only phenomenon, and that the Standard version of the deck is more of a midrange, Troll Ascetic + Loxodon Warhammer style of beatdown.

Finally, this hotheaded young lass has also been spoiled for us:

Chandra Nalaar
Planeswalker — Chandra
Loyalty 6
+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.

Before I talk about Constructed applications, let me just speak on behalf of everyone who sees their opponent resolve this in a Limited game over the next few months: Nice card. Really, that is a nice card. Wait, that third ability isn’t symmetrical? Incredibly nice card, and quite fair as well. Luckbox.

All joking aside, the only problem with this card is the same problem that all planeswalkers will likely have: Riftwing Cloudskate and Venser, Shaper Savant are in the environment. After all, if your opponent plays a 2/2 for GW that stops you from playing Chandra, you can just burn it; you are playing Red, after all. It’s a much rougher beating to expend five mana on any card, only to have it bounced back to your hand. The one thing you can take solace in is that it was pretty hard for the Mono-Blue Cloudskate decks from last season to handle their Mono-Red counterparts, which was not lost on me as I built this:

4 Greater Gargadon
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Mogg War Marshal
4 Keldon Marauders
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Incinerate
4 Rift Bolt
3 Molten Disaster
2 Word of Seizing
2 Chandra Nalaar
1 Pendelhaven
2 Forest
1 Molten Slagheap
4 Fungal Reaches
4 Karplusan Forest
3 Terramorphic Expanse
10 Mountain

Steve Sadin’s deck from U.S. Nationals has been tweaked a little bit to give it the air of inevitability. Between Chandra and Molten Disaster, it’s really difficult for any non-Red opponent to win a long game. Even against other Red opponents, Chandra’s giant behind protects her from most attempts to burn her out (just don’t bring it up while she’s on the table, she’s a little sensitive about her weight), and then all you have to do is hang on for two turns until you can activate her third ability. If that ability goes off during a game and you don’t win, well … maybe you should email me if it happens to you. At least it would make for a good story.

By the way, were you aware that Word of Seizing says target permanent? You guessed it … you can steal opposing planeswalkers. That, as the vapid starlets say, is hot.

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* Actually, two planeswalkers with the same subtype eliminate each other as a state-based effect. The difference doesn’t mean much now, but down the road it could be kind of like being “super-legendary”: if some future set included different planewalkers with subtype “Liliana” or “Garruk,” — similar in flavor to what they’ve done in the past with Kamahl — you couldn’t have both versions in play. The same planeswalker can’t occupy the same space twice: kind of like “Timecop,” but with better acting.