The Kitchen Table #320 – Planeswalkers and Multiplayer

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Wednesday, January 13th – Today I want to talk about the use and value of Planeswalkers in multiplayer. Are they any good? Do they change the game? Which ones are the best? Let’s look at these twelve cards and how they are treated at the multiplayer table.

Bonjour mes amis! Welcome to another edition of the column that loves to explore a variety of Magic-ness for your casual needs.

Today I want to talk about the use and value of Planeswalkers in multiplayer. Are they any good? Do they change the game? Which ones are the best? Let’s look at these twelve cards and how they are treated at the multiplayer table.

Because most casual games allow players to play any card they own, virtually, there are a lot of fun things that people will rock from Zendikar all the way back through Alpha/Beta. Due to this, it is usually pretty easy to tell what casual impact a card may or may not have. Of course, any card can and will be used by casual players, however, some are going to be stronger than others. When Coat of Arms first saw print, you knew that every tribal deck would want some, so you knew it would be popular and good with casual players.

Sometimes a card is released, and you just aren’t sure. It is so unusual and different and interesting, that it takes playtesting to decide if Time Stop or Mindslaver were good enough to really impact the board or not.

When equipment debuted, we needed to play around with it a lot to get a handle on it. Was it worth playing, or not? How do you handle it?

That question was asked of Planeswalkers more than any other card to debut since Legends. No one knew what to do. Some players would auto-kill them as soon as they saw play, because they expected them to be awesome, while others would allow Planeswalkers to sit in play forever, unless it immediately looked like it would win the game.

The problem is that Planeswalkers not only had new rules, but they did something different in multiplayer. Creatures, for example, are both your defense and offense. Wall of Swords and Silklash Spider can keep off the attackers while Lord of Extinction and Avatar of Fury are your winning conditions. You have creatures large and small, defensive and offensive. We have creatures that serve only to give you a tap ability, once a turn, but we always remember that we can attack or block with that Llanowar Elves or Merfolk Looter.

While creatures did a lot, they were also the most fragile. Every color has answers to creatures, although some (White, Black, Red) are better than others. On the other hand, artifacts and enchantments had abilities that were always in play, or could tap like creatures but without the ability to block and such. We knew the value of a permanent that sits in play and has an ability, like Propaganda. Using that, we could evaluate Windborn Muse when it was released, as well as Ghostly Prison or Web of Inertia.

Finally we have lands, which are harder to destroy, but often have abilities like Bazaar of Baghdad, Kor Haven, Academy Ruins, Glacial Chasm or Karakas. Sure, the lands, artifacts and enchantments are harder to kill off, but we know their measure.

Planeswalkers were something new. Only cards that destroyed a permanent took them out, leaving them killable only in the hands of things like Vindicate, Desert Twister, Rootgrapple, and such. They died to direct burn, damage that was dealt, and Desert Twisters. That’s stronger than a creature, and both more and less fragile than artifacts and enchantments. Only one color reliably dealt damage (although Black could rock stuff like Consume Spirit and Blue Psionic Blast and Green Unyaro Bee Sting, etc).

Anybody could attack, though. Most players wanted to attack anyway, so they either had powerful creatures to pound through defenses (Silvos), or sneak through defenses(Covert Operative), or have a lesser evasive ability (Air Elemental) or outnumbered their foe (Cloudgoat Ranger). Other players relied on creatures to get through via spells like the Chaos half of Order/Chaos or by killing them with removal, or using something like Goblin War Drums. Therefore, since most decks sought victory through a creature attack anyway, they had answers to Planeswalkers.

A Black deck will never have an answer to a problematic artifact except by Phyrexian Tribute, Gate to Phyrexia, or turning to artifacts (Nevinyrral’s Disk) or another color for help. That means Black cannot answer Mindslaver + Academy Ruins for the win, nor can it handle enchantments. On the other hand, every color can handle a Planeswalker. If they don’t have a Vindicate, or a Blaze, they can always just attack.

On the other hand, a deck with a Planeswalker that wants to prepare for attacks and have a nice defense may require a second method to kill the ‘Walker, and barring burn or that Vindicate, it’s not happening any time soon. A deck that needs a Planeswalker can get one down and use it multiple times, no question. A simple Ivory Mask effect prevents burn from killing the Planeswalker, leaving just the lesser used stuff like Vindicate, Vampire Hexmage, or Faith’s Fetters.

With both a more fragile and less fragile nature, the Planeswalker was hard to initially assess. Compounding that was the fact that not everyone knew how to play them. In tournaments, people quickly discovered the power of some of them, like Garruk Wildspeaker, and how to play them. But in multiplayer, that was not so easy.

Remember, a lot of traditional theories, such as card advantage, are much different in multiplayer than in duels. Plus, with a lot more enemies, some cards got worse, while others got better. Sometimes politics had a part in it, as well.

Let’s remember that even today there are just twelve of these cards, since their debut in Lorwyn. It’s not like we’ve had 50 or 60 to play around with and get a feel for. Then, add to the fact that these had a higher financial tag attached to them, and it has taken a while for casual players to play with and against them enough to get a feel for them in multiplayer. Now players simply don’t auto-kill any Planeswalker as soon as it hits the board, or let one lie there and dominate the board either. People know these cards, their value, and what they can and cannot be relied upon to do. We know their impact on the board, which, frankly, in many cases is more limited than in duels.

Today I want to overview the dozen Planeswalkers, and how they act in games with 3 or more players. I’ll even give you a short view on what my take is on Jace, the Mind Sculptor for multiplayer.

Ajani Goldmane — There is now question that of the first batch of five Planeswalkers, Ajani the First was looked down upon. Gaining two life in a duel? Great, it’s a double Braidwood Cup. The other abilities seemed minor and temporary. You play Ajani and gain two. Now I swing with actual creatures and hit you for a lot more than two, and/or kill Ajani. Whoop-de-doo. Later, aggro decks got a hold of him and really showed the power of the second ability when combined with creatures that were already at the top of their curve. It was a lot more than Elven Rite. It had some power. In multiplayer, Ajani is more threatening, because he is more than just a Glorious Anthem for your creatures. First of all, getting vigilance, even for one turn, is a lot better because having your creatures untapped and ready to block multiple opponents looking for somewhere to swing is just candy. Secondly, gaining life is no longer crap, because you probably are not getting attacked every round. This allows you to get closer to approaching Ajani’s ultimate ability, which you would rarely do in a duel. When you decide to ultimate Ajani, remember that you get a creature that’s probably in the 20s, making a real threat for you at Lord of Extinction levels. You can get this off, but when he gets close, sometimes you see the Lightning Bolts come his way, and sometimes you don’t. Frankly, there are a lot of players and cards that don’t fear a ground based, non-trampling big creature, because they have Cho-Manno or Commander Eesha or Darksteel Gargoyle or even a Black Knight. Thus, you can get it out at times. Ajani is therefore much better in multiplayer.

Ajani Vengeant — On the other hand, Ajani Vengeant just gets you or it killed in multiplayer with all due haste. I was playing EDH in a multiplayer game, and someone used Jhoira of the Ghitu to suspend Obliterate. Within one turn he was dead. Some permanents will upset enough people that they will kill you to prevent it from going off. That is Ajani Vengeant. No one likes Armageddon at a multiplayer table unless they built their deck around it, but many will suffer it because others are in the same bad shape. No one wants to be the only person ‘Geddoned at a table. They will see Ajani Vengeant hit the board, and then he will get killed before you can say “Lightning Helix.” Many times he will be killed by killing you. The first ability is minor in multiplayer, and the second rocks, but you can’t use it that much to kill off things.

Chandra Ablaze — This is a little combo-rific Planeswalker, and because she is limited in ability, she usually packs a significant power. The best generic ability of Chandra Ablaze is the second one. Forcing a Windfall for three on everyone a couple of times is very powerful. It can disrupt others while helping you. Burning Bridge loves it. You have prepared to blow your hand, while your foes are not as prepared. It can catch combo and control decks way off guard, and it can give you some power. Use the first one with madness cards, stuff like Shard Phoenix or Punishing Fire, or put cards with flashback into the ‘Yard. Despite these various ideas, Chandra Ablaze fits in just a few decks. First of all, she demands a mono-Red deck which really limits her. Secondly, between her first and third ability, she virtually always accompanies a burn-based deck, with things like Violent Eruption and Fiery Temper in the deck. Then she becomes a destructive force of pure Red Rage. Typically in someone’s face. Because of her utter lethality in combination with these forces, Chandra Ablaze is usually an auto-kill because of the deck that plays her, not because of her abilities by themselves. She is also often auto-kill by control and combo for her second ability. She rarely sticks on the board, and usually only lasts one or two activations before she is killed.

Chandra Nalaar — In duels, she’s expensive for a Kyren Sniper. Because her ability to ting someone for one is so minor, she is rarely killed immediately. She can easily stay in play for a few activations. Even her second ability is hardly threatening, killing a creature but at some cost in counters. Because of this, Chandra Nalaar is the Planeswalker Most Likely to Stay in Play for at Least One Turn (Ajani Goldmane is #3). The only problem is that her ultimate can screw someone up, but even it is nothing compared to the other ultimates. In fact, her ultimate, while still game changing, is arguably the second weakest of the twelve. (I’d say it’s fourth weakest though, behind Jace, Sorin and Garruk). As such, I’ve seen it resolve many times, although like many of them, she will regularly get killed just after getting that 8th counter. If you don’t want to risk it, just keep her as creature removal and pinging with between 4-6 counters and you’ll be fine for a while, getting a lot of value out of her. Because she can get her ultimate off regularly, and she can be out for a while, she’s pretty solid. Understand that this is because she is, arguably, the weakest Planeswalker of the group. However, there is no question she is better at the multiplayer table than with a duel.

Elspeth, Knight-Errant — She is one of the strongest Planeswalkers in duels, if not the best, because of her ability to spit out a token on every one of your turns while growing, and then she can Giant Growth + Jump a creature for some extra damage. She costs just 4 mana, so she slides into a duel deck with ease. She is way out of burn range with 5 loyalty counters as soon as you play her and drop a dude. She brings immediate card advantage with that token, and more as time passes. Her ultimate is nothing to sneeze at, although you often see Elspeths with 9 or 10 tokens or more on them without getting popped because the first two abilities are so hot. In multiplayer, however, her first two abilities diminish in value. The Angelic Blessing ability is the worst. Sure, you can get in a hit you might not be able to do, but now you pissed off someone, have less defense, and so forth. Plus, the kinds of decks that Elspeth naturally rocks in, weenies, are of much less power in multiplayer. The making of a dude is good, it gets you extra creatures, and that’s always valuable. However, you need a lot more creatures to reach critical mass in multiplayer, and since your opponent’s have a lot more turns than you do, one 1/1 soldier at Luminous Angel proportions and length is not going to be as powerful. What redeems Elspeth is that her ultimate is amazing in multiplayer. That is the Holy Grail of ultimate abilities. Forget making dragons or taking an extra turn or Overrun, that is the powerful one. You may not ever get to see Nicol Bolas or Nissa or Liliana go off, but you will see Elspeth go off, because it doesn’t “hurt” anyone. It’s my second favorite ultimate in multiplayer as a result. However, because she still has a lesser set of powers than in duels where she rules, she is worse when playing multiplayer.

Garruk Wildspeaker — Ah Garruk: a power in duels. His untapping of two lands to allow you to keep going while also adding a counter was a force in tournaments. Drop him on turn three with a mana creature, untap two lands and you can still play a beater. The next turn you could play something with an obscene mana cost, make a 3/3 beast, or even Overrun with a mana creature, and a pair of two drops out. Garruk is really strong in duels. Note the emphasis on duels. His first ability certainly translates well in multiplayer, and that’s always a good sign. You can accelerate into some seriously powerful stuff with anything from big creatures to big spells. You can also reuse lands, so Maze of Ith and such love Garruk. He also can, occasionally, add a 3/3 beast token to your force. He can’t do it as much as Elspeth, but the creature has more size. That gives you some power. Finally his ultimate is a known quantity with Overrun. Here is what Overrun does in multiplayer — you might kill a player with an alpha strike. You leave yourself open to many counter attacks. You die. Overrun is not that good in multiplayer. It doesn’t suck, but it doesn’t keep you alive. It’s like a Green Soulblast. One giant kill, and then you are taken out mercifully by others. Garruk’s abilities in multiplayer are probably better served making 3/3 dorks, or untapping lands than Overrunning. You know who is good with Garruk? Ajani Goldmane. Give them a +1/+1 counter and vigilance, and then use Garruk’s ability. That’s a ticket to victory. Garruk is less powerful in multiplayer than in duels.

Jace Beleren — When I said, as part of Chandra Nalaar’s evaluation that she is “Arguably” the weakest Planeswalker in multiplayer, even though she is better there than at duels, I meant in the argument, because Jace wins my award for Worst Planeswalker in Multiplayer. Ajani Vengeant is so powerful he gets auto-killed, but if you can protect him, and stay alive, you are going to be rewarded. There is something there. Jace just sucks. In duels his first ability is card equilibrium, but in multiplayer it is card disadvantage. Make your foes draw four and you one? That’s hardly a winning strategy. Secondly, his “Draw One” ability is a minus ability that you cannot use every turn and it is just okay. Even with the “Use the first, use the second, use the second” cycle that keeps him at 3 loyalty, you are losing on cards in most circumstances. With four enemies, you draw three extra cards, and they four extra — still not good math. With three foes, its 3:3. You have to be playing four or three people to a game in order for Jace to actually draw you cards, and then it’s a 3:2 ratio in all but the smallest multiplayer game. This is not powerful. Then if you continue to use Jace as a Howling Mine and give out cards to your foes like candy on Halloween night, then you can use his ultimate which, does absolutely nothing against many players. EDH says, okay, and moves on. Five Color laughs at you. Even a 60 card deck is decked of 20, drawn a few extra cards, and probably kicking your butt. People fear an Ajani Vengeant because it makes the game less fun. This just adds some cards to the graveyard, and you aren’t even likely to be targeted. Jace can stick in play and cause you to lose the game, so he is #2 on my Planeswalker Most Likely to Stay in Play for at Least One Turn, because there are a few players that fear the decking because some multiplayer games go one for a while, where is becomes more deadly, and Jace is more feared at those tables. Because of that, Chandra Nalaar scores #1, Jace #2 and Ajani the Nice #3.

Liliana Vess — The final of the Lorwyn Five to make my list (because it’s alphabetical), Liliana is the one that everybody hoped would be amazing in duels, and yet wasn’t. She is just okay. Her first ability certainly warrants attention in duels. It can force a control player to start playing spells, and hit a combo player too. It doesn’t usually get you more than one or two cards, but it changes the way your opponent plays, which is nice. The tutor ability is what she normally gets played for, because you can get what you want for next turn. She is great for a discard or two, and then slide into mad tutoring. Between the two abilities, you can kill someone just with her and whatever you search up. Her ultimate is rarely used, because it takes a while to get there with discards, and usually people have played out their cards and you are getting no benefit, or because the tutoring is so needed that you screw the ultimate and just start trying to win. In multiplayer the first ability will almost always get you a card, tutoring is amazing, and the ultimate is mega-powerful but rarely seen because Liliana or you will get offed before you get to it, often faster than Ajani Vengeant. She is more card advantage than Jace Beleren, that’s for sure. Liliana is way better in multiplayer, but beware that you don’t force someone to kill her by targeting them again and again with the discard.

Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker — He flat out destroys other Planeswalkers (Chandra both Forms, Ajani Vengeant, Sorin Markhov will also deal damage and perhaps kill one), he destroys artifacts, enchantments and lands with impunity, his ultimate will be worse than Ajani Vengeant in some ways (and yet better in others), he permanently entices other creatures to his side. He costs eight mana and three colors, so you don’t see him that often, but when he does, he can Control Magic or Rootgrapple something immediately, so he immediately impacts the board. Every turn he is out something major happens. It’s like all of his abilities are ultimates. There goes your Mind’s Eye, look, I now have your Teferi, whoops, did I destroy your Volrath’s Stronghold or Future Sight? How did this Baneslayer Angel join me? Forget Nicol Bolas for duels, the game is won or lost long before you drop this on someone a vast majority of times, and other eight mana cards will win sooner. Nicol Bolas is meant for the multiplayer table, where he has a chance to defeat multiple foes for you. He defends himself, grabs allies to defend him, and then nukes a board. He is mega expensive, and limited by his colors, but his power is awesome, and because of that, you need to understand that he will get killed a lot very quickly. However, on those few times when he is not…

Nissa Revane — Nissa makes creatures better and faster than any of the other ‘Walkers that do so, but there is a limitation. You can make up to four, and that’s it, although she can make more as they die. In duels, by the fifth turn a Planeswalker has been in play, the game has usually already been decided. In Multiplayer, that is not the case. Actually, in multiplayer, the ability to get actual creatures out instead of tokens may be an advantage in situations where you use dice, coins, etc to represent tokens. I’ve talked before about how the physical appearance of untapped creatures will keep people from attacking, and that may not always happen when someone has a die in front of them, so Nissa’s creature making ability, although limited in scope, may be better for the first few turns, that any other. Her double Wellwisher ability will get you and her killed quickly, but it pumps your life and her loyalty, getting her closer to that ultimate. This ultimate, unlike some others, will win games easily. The combination of these means Nissa dies quickly. The problem is that the Elf deck at the table has already been annoying to a lot of people for a while, and at multiplayer there is usually someone who is not about to let a free Nissa get Elf.dec a win. Nissa is also limited by her abilities, much like Chandra Ablaze. They almost require an Elf deck, so you see Nissa is the same sorts of decks with the same sorts of cards. Boring. She’s better in some ways in multiplayer and worse in others, so I’d say she’s about the same.

Sarkhan Vol — The Fires of Yavimaya + a little extra has been long talked about as a great feature and power of Vol. While growing Vol’s loyalty, you can hit for a little extra damage and get an early hit in with the haste. Sarkhan Vol, Ajani Goldmane and Garruk Wildspeaker all have an Overrun style ability, but only Vol gets it as positive loyalty. If you attack with three creatures, plus a hasted fourth creature, you deal an extra 4 damage + that hasted creatures power, which can be a lot. People have to consider haste creature(s) when doing combat math, and some creatures like Nefashu or Butcher Orgg can do even more havoc on a haste attack. This ability is flat out better than the second one in multiplayer. Sure, Threaten on a creature is great, and there are times when you have to use it (Guiltfeeder, Phage the Untouchable), but usually you are just going to lose loyalty counters in order to deal 4-8 damage from a creature. Even if you Threaten a Shadowmage Infiltrator for a card, that’s not worth the loss of two loyalty in most circumstances. Sarkhan’s ultimate is my favorite of the dozen for multiplayer. It is the most powerful ultimate that you have a chance at seeing go off. Nissa, Chandra Ablaze, Liliana, Ajani Vengeant and Nicol Bolas are killed too soon. Sorin Markhov, Ajani Goldmane, Garruk, Chandra the First, Tezzeret and Jace are weaker. Elspeth’s is next powerful, but she is too close to the first group for my taste. Sakhan Vol will often give you a bunch of dragons for your time and trouble. Use his ultimate, then follow by playing Karrthus, and then laugh your way to victory. Sarkhan is just as good in multiplayer as he is in duels, where is still great.

Sorin Markhov — With his six mana and three Black casting cost, Sorin is generally going to see play in Mono-Black decks, but unlike Chandra Ablaze, you don’t have to see him there, so he could get played in U/B Control or W/B Cleric Aggro or something. His first ability to Vicious Hunger a creature or player while adding two loyalty is what makes him awesome. Sure, in duels, by the time you drop him you may not have many useful creature targets of merit, but in multiplayer there will still be tons of juicy targets ready to serve as a morsel for his bite. Sorin gains loyalty quickly, allowing you to use both of the other abilities with speed. The second ability feels like an ultimate in multiplayer, but perhaps not in a duel where your opponent should have lower life after six turns. It’s way better to cut someone down to 10 in multiplayer than mill 20 cards, especially immediately. From the first two abilities, Sorin is better in multiplayer, but what about the third? Mindslavering someone is useful, no doubt. It can put them in a very precarious position, but frankly, the 10 life thing is more deadly against a lot of players than a Mindslaver. A Mindslaver in multiplayer is rarely game over like it can be in duels. People will often leave you alone afterwards and go for better targets, or someone Wraths two turns later before you could be killed. We’ve also seen tons of Mindslavers that do very little, and having an ultimate that may do nothing much at all is not that great. As such, Sorin’s ultimate is one of the worst in multiplayer. Therefore, he is better in multiplayer than in duels, because of the power of the first two abilities.

Tezzeret, the Seeker — This should be called Tezzeret the combo maker. Tezzeret and Chandra Ablaze are the only ones that suggest being played with Combo decks. That’s not to say that ones like Liliana Vess or Nissa might not be good for combo decks, but simply that Tezz and Chandra Ablaze suggest it. Tezz, specifically, wants some combo lovin’. He wants to untap artifacts, put them into play, and make them into creatures. That is uber-combo-ness there. Tezz has a history of liking Painter’s Servant and Grindstone but he has many other uses, from getting mana artifacts to playing a Prison style deck to running a Myr tribal deck and to assembling combo pieces to something very different, to fueling a Krark-Clan Ironworks. Untapping two artifacts can make you more mana than Garruk Wildspeaker, and with artifact lands, it will at least make you as much as him. It can also allow you to rat-a-tat-tat your artifacts, like Unbender Tine, Icy Manipulator or Distorting Lens. You can untap your artifact creatures in order to use them again, or block after an attack. The tutor can get you the key combo pieces, or even something like Steel Walls for defense in multiplayer. You can also get 0 artifacts for no loss of loyalty like Tormod’s Crypt or Shield Sphere. Now, his ultimate can alpha strike someone, but like Garruk’s Overrun, it’s not that great in multiplayer, and it can get some of your best artifacts killed by making them creatures. I’d stay away from popping it quickly. Because it can get creatures just as fast as Nissa, but smaller like Phyrexian Walker, it can make mana, use cards, untap creatures, and tutor for combo pieces or cards like Skullclamp and Sensei’s Diving Top with little loyalty loss, Tezzeret is still powerful in multiplayer. Because of the diminished value of the ultimate, he is not as useful, but as long as you are getting fun things instead of “I Kill You” things, he may stay in play for a while.

Super Special — Jace, the Mind Sculptor — Jace the second is a newest hot card from Worldwake, and I want to talk about my expectations for Jace2. The first ability is solid, and in multiplayer will largely be ignored. If you were just going to play Jace TMS and use the first ability over and over again, no one would kill it. Frankly, if you were just going to use one and two constantly, I don’t think many would mind too much. Drawing one extra card per turn is good, but it’s really just a fancy Honden of Seeing Winds in terms of card numbers. It may be better because of how it digs, and how it works with things like Fetch lands and such, but it’s still just one extra card. Now the Unsummon ability is where you start to annoy others, but a sorcery speed Unsummon is not the most threatening ability ever, so Jace II is not super threatening right now, even with the extra ability. You are usually able to get away with Unsummons that make sense at the table, like bouncing that creature of yours that was stolen, or enchanted with Lignify. It’s when you go about being annoying with a repeatable bounce effect that others look to stop it. Where the new guy on the block does have something to recommend it is that ultimate which is virtually game over for an opponent. They have no hand and a deck size of about 2-4 on average. I suspect that, just like some of the other ultimates, Jace the Younger will be killed as soon as he approaches the nuke-ness, but as long as you aren’t being too annoying with the bounce, he could stay out for a while just with the non-ultimate abilities. That’s because, like Chandra Nalaar, he’s not mega powerful in multiplayer. Even with El Brainstorm, you are being outdrawn, plus there are a lot of players with creatures, so bouncing one has a smaller effect on the board, and Wand of Denial on someone isn’t exactly game. End result, Jace Jr. is solid, but his low loyalty, inability to get off his ultimate, and weaker abilities in multiplayer keeps him from being super powerful, and turns him into just good.

And that is our article for today. At over 5000 words, I hope that you enjoyed today’s word on Planeswalkers. See you next week!

Until later…

Abe Sargent