The Planeswalker damage rule change sucks.
Many of you haven’t heard about it. It hasn’t been widely discussed in an
open format. In fact, they dropped it on us on a random Tuesday like a
month ago in the middle of Dominaria preview season. And in case
you missed it, there’s a PDF document hidden somewhere on the Magic home
site that lists all the cards throughout Magic’s history that recently
underwent an erratum.
You heard me correctly. Thousands of cards recently received an erratum,
all in the name of simplifying the “damage to Planeswalker” rules.
Thousands. Of. Cards. Errata’d. To make things easier.
Before we go full on Walking Ballista on this new rules change, let’s take
a look at the old rules, how they functioned, and why they were built that
way in the first place.
The Old Rule
In layman’s terms, the old Planeswalker rule was cobbled together as a way
for direct damage spells and abilities to be able to interact with a new
card type. Planeswalkers were an interesting new card type designed to play
as your allies. I won’t get into the specifics, but for the most part the
Any damage you deal to an opponent can be redirected to their
This rule left a little to be desired, but it worked. It was a band-aid on
a much larger problem, and we all expected them to change how cards worked
at some point. After all, if Planeswalkers were to be a regularly printed
card type, it only made sense that they’d be more specific in how the cards
interacted with them.
What we didn’t expect was for Planeswalkers to become evergreen and the
rules to stay stagnant. For a new player, expecting them to understand that
a Lightning Bolt can’t directly target a Planeswalker is ludicrous. You
must target your opponent first, and then use the rule of redirection to
deal the damage. In fact, in teaching some of my friends to play the game,
it was a nightmare to tell them that you can Lightning Bolt a Planeswalker,
but not really, but you also can’t kill them with stuff like Terror, even
though Lightning Bolt says “creature or player,” and Planeswalkers aren’t
technically players, but they also aren’t creatures, and yet Lightning Bolt
can still deal damage to them.
So yeah, the old rules weren’t ideal, but we’ve gotten used to them. And if
you’ve played a reasonable amount of Magic in the last decade, you
understand that any spell or ability that deals damage to a player can be
redirected. Cards have been designed, over time, with that very specific
use in mind.
For example, in the previous Standard format, and for the last year and
change, Chandra, Torch of Defiance has been a natural foil to an opponent’s
Chandra, Torch of Defiance. Under the old rules, using Chandra to finish
off an opposing Planeswalker was one of her better uses. Cards like
Unlicensed Disintegration were very good at helping to take down Gideon,
Ally of Zendikar. Even the discard ability on Hazoret the Fervent was
useful in killing an opposing Planeswalker.
These cards deal damage to players, right? So why did they not get in on
the massive errata so that they could deal damage to Planeswalkers?
An Opponent VS Any Target
If you look at the Alpha version of Lightning Bolt, you’ll see a clear
picture of how Wizards of the Coast wants the new Planeswalker damage rule
Any target means any target. Planeswalkers are on the battlefield, and they
can be dealt damage just like a creature or player, right? Well, what if I
want my Lightning Bolt to target their vehicle that isn’t crewed yet? It
has a toughness box, so why can’t I deal enough damage to it to kill it?
The big change that really aggravates me is that any source of damage that
references “an opponent” or “all opponents” can’t directly affect a
Planeswalker. There are quite a few cards in Standard whose functionality
has completely changed as a result. And this is my biggest pet peeve with
the rules change: cards losing functionality.
I’m not smart enough to come up with a quick fix. And, if I’m being honest,
I don’t want a quick fix. I just want my cards to work as intended. And
while the horde of keyboard smart-guys will reply, “But didn’t six of the
eight decks at GP Birmingham have Unlicensed Disintegration and Chandra,
Torch of Defiance?” That’s a correct statement. These cards are still good.
They will still see a lot of play. But I can’t be the only person who
believes that they could have figured out a way to include these cards in
their gigantic errata.
The rules of Magic have always been overly specific to a fault. You want
the players who open the cards out of booster packs to know exactly what
they do. Heck, when I was a new player, I thought “regenerate” meant you
could bring it back from the graveyard. After all, that just made sense. A
Skeleton or Zombie creature with regenerate should be able to come back
from the dead. They’re relentless and death has no meaning for them.
Core sets were always great for new players because the cards were
relatively easy to understand, so long as you had a basic understanding of
the rules. They also weren’t shy about putting reminder text on cards from
the Core Set so that less experienced players understood exactly what was
going on. Hexproof? Sure, your opponents can’t target that creature.
Intimidate? In order to block, your opponent needs a creature that shares a
color with this one or an artifact creature.
Look, I’m not an idiot. I understand what they’re trying to do, and I
applaud them for doing it even though the transition is going to be
insanely difficult. Having new card types means you’re going to have some
growing pains within the rules. And it has been quite a few years since
there was a rule change of this magnitude. The last one I can recall is
“damage on the stack.”
With damage on the stack going the way of the dinosaurs (actual dinosaurs,
not the ones from Ixalan), certain cards lost their initial
function. Creature combat as we knew it had to change in order to make the
game easier to understand for new players. If you tried to explain damage
going on the stack to a newer player, it just wouldn’t make sense. And
while there was a bit of pushback on that rules change, everyone recognizes
that making the game easier to understand for newer players is worthwhile.
I’m not a Magic purist. I’m fine with changing the rules to make things
clearer. But I would prefer, if possible, for there to be very few cards to
be affected by this rule change. The nightmare scenario is when a half
dozen high-value, highly played cards lose their intended functionality.
The Planeswalker Problem
It’s no surprise that some of the best cards in Standard over the last
decade have been Planeswalkers. Most of the time the cards we’re given that
interact with them are clunky, expensive, and/or usually printed at rare or
That gives us two problems.
1) When they print a Planeswalker that is format-defining, like Gideon,
Ally of Zendikar, having very few ways to kill it or contain it means it
will singlehandedly take over games. Cards like Hero’s Downfall or
Banishing Light are welcome tools for Standard mages because it keeps us
from feeling helpless.
2) Only printing ways to interact with Planeswalkers at rare or mythic
makes them harder for new players to acquire, so then newer players are
much more likely to lose to a Planeswalker from the opponent. And once you
lose to a Planeswalker for the first time with Doom Blade and such in your
hand, you begin to realize why they’re mythic rares, with just how good
Those of us who are enfranchised players know just how difficult it can be
to get a Planeswalker off the battlefield. Making it harder with a rule
change, even though it’s meant to simplify things, ends up amplifying an
already-existent problem. I cannot imagine playing a Mardu Vehicles mirror
without Unlicensed Disintegration being able to hit an opposing Gideon. In
many instances, that was your only way to finish off a Gideon. And that
fact was a major contributor to making the Mardu Vehicles matchup
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar was such a game-breaking Planeswalker in a lot of
matchups, and having it go untouched by the likes of Crackling Doom or
whatever else would have drastically changed how certain matchups, games,
and decks played out. Just because Chandra and Unlicensed Disintegration
are both in the most popular deck, and are still very good, does not change
the fact that this format is still new and things can change.
How bad does it feel now to play the second Chandra in the mirror? How bad
does it feel to not be able to finish off a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria with
your Chandra after it tucks your Rekindling Phoenix? How bad does it feel
to hit the Karn, Scion of Urza construct with an Unlicensed Disintegration
and not be able to finish off the Karn with an attack?
With Karn and Teferi being major players in the new Standard format, I can
only assume that having fewer cards be able to interact with them is a
mistake. And if things continue on the same path, we’ll have two or more
Planeswalkers in the next set that will see a lot of play. Planeswalkers
are inherently powerful because of how difficult it is to interact with
them. There’s a reason why “untapping with a Planeswalker” is usually game
over. Getting two or more activations out of a single Planeswalker is
backbreaking, because each tick usually generates the equivalent of one
card. A lot of times, even if you’re able to kill a Planeswalker with a
spell like Vraska’s Contempt, the tick up or down from that Planeswalker
nets you a loss on card advantage.
Even if the change is a good decision in the long run, it’ll make for some
awkward Standard moments in the next six months. And perhaps that’s the
price we need to pay for the popularity of the game. The easier the game is
to understand, the better.
It’s no secret that Magic was designed in a different age. Physical cards
are literally breaking down over time, and something like Legacy or Vintage
can only last for so long before all the physical copies of cards crumble
to dust. I personally own a playset of Wasteland that are only playable in
a double sleeve, with another physical card behind it to hold its weight.
They’ve basically become paper mache.
With the recent success of online card games like Hearthstone, Magic Online
just isn’t cutting it anymore. And with that in mind, Wizards of the Coast
has designed Arena, an updated form of Magic Online for today’s casual
gaming crowd. Instead of being able to trade cards, we get to open as many
booster packs as we can before our loved ones abandon us. I’m sure there’s
some system in place to help you get cards you need to build the decks you
want to play. Regardless, when did this Trading Card Game become…whatever
Arena is supposed to be?
Pushing a digital version of Magic is a solid idea. I’m glad they came up
with it fifteen years ago. I’m just upset that Magic Online never got the
attention it deserved. From a bad user interface, constant bugs, updates
that regularly pushed them from the future into the past (V3 had tabs. V4
has windows, for some reason?), Magic Online has had its fair share of ups
and downs. Cards that were properly coded a decade ago sometimes just stop
working with a new patch.
It’s a program. Stuff like this happens.
Is Arena going to be the future of online Magic? Obviously. I don’t think
anyone is under the impression that Magic Online will still be around in
five years. Arena is flashy. It has sound effects, animations when you cast
powerful legendary creatures, and all the bells and whistles you expect
from this generations online card game.
So why does it feel so empty? Why am I not excited to play it? I have a
Beta key, but I just can’t bring myself to even give it a chance. Maybe I’m
being cynical, but Magic Online has always been the type of interpretation
that I want for a game of Magic. Your cards follow a designed set of rules.
You play against an opponent where you sling spells until one of you loses.
I don’t need sound effects. In fact, I regularly turn off the few random
effects that Magic Online offers.
I like Magic because it’s a complex game. All the moving pieces, absurd
card interactions, and viable competition is what keeps me coming back. If
Arena gives me an option to move toward this style of play, against
competent players, and I’m able to easily acquire the cards I need to build
decks and playtest for tournaments, then and only then will I give it a
Look, I’m a dinosaur in terms of how long I’ve been playing Magic. I don’t
like change. But the times are calling for it, and Wizards of the Coast is
listening. Arena will be shaped how we want it to be shaped because they’re
starting to listen to our feedback. And if we’re constructive about it, the
players and WotC will come to a conclusion that benefits both of us. And
the start of the success of Arena will be in how easy it is to actually
play the game of Magic.
That’s what this rule change to Planeswalkers is all about. Even before
they announced the change in real life, they had cards on Arena that read
differently than what was printed on the actual card. This change is not
something they decided on lightly, and I recognize that a lot of sacrifices
had to be made for this change to happen.
It isn’t that big of a deal. It will good for the game in the long run. And
it will make cards on Arena function in a simpler fashion. It’s a slam
dunk. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be salty about it.
*Rabble rabble rabble*