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By: RexDart, Chris J. Wynes
Dec 27 2013 11:49am
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A Brief History of Planeswalkers in Competitive Magic

by RexDart

 

Prelude: A Bit of Planeswalker Theory

The introduction of the planeswalker card type was the most significant gameplay development in Magic's second decade.  You can draw many comparisons between them and enchantments or artifacts, and in some ways they are similar, but the manner of removing them is unique.  It is that aspect which changed the game forever.

What does a 'walker do that makes it so powerful?  Most good 'walkers are going to produce about a card's worth of value most turns they sit in play.  Sometimes they can do this naturally, often by producing a modestly-sized creature each turn, or by simply drawing a card per turn outright.  Other times the 'walker needs a deck to be constructed around it to extract one card's worth of value per turn.  Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas, Venser, the Sojourner, and Domri Rade are good examples of this.  

In certain matchups, this incremental card advantage over time will overwhelm the opponent and lead inevitably to victory.  Notice that I say "in certain matchups", because there are definitely many matchups when you don't have enough time to extract value from a planeswalker.  Even at the apex of planeswalker dominance, mono-red aggro never truly cared that much about an opposing Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Elspeth, Knight-Errant.  If the mono-red player was so far from winning at that point that he felt compelled to point his burn spells or creatures at a planeswalker, he wasn't likely to win anyhow.  

On the other hand, planeswalkers are amazing against control.  For one thing, control is least well-equipped to deal with them if they resolve.  The traditional draw-go control deck has little or no board presence with which to attack opposing 'walkers.  Those are also the decks that have traditionally relied on card advantage, exhausting the opponent's threats with a stream of answers.  Control cannot really allow an opposing 'walker to sit in play turn after turn, or the whole plan falls apart.  Creeping Tar Pit found it's way into many control decks for just this reason.  Planeswalkers are the best way for midrange decks to fight control, and an intriguing option for aggro decks to bring in against control post-board.  

So, you must be asking yourself, if planeswalkers are by their very design weak against aggro but great against control, why has the planeswalker era been so kind to control decks??  Part of the reason is that WotC undermined the philosophy of planeswalkers by allowing direct interaction with them, not requiring the combat step.  To see why, and what repercussions that decision has had, let's move on to the meat of this article and take a look at the evolution of 'walkers in the tournament scene, starting from the beginning.

Part One: The Lorwyn Five

As the very first planeswalkers, these five rares from Lorwyn had to set the initial template for what a 'walker did and how it felt to play with and against them.  On the whole, these designs did a very good job of that.  Out of the gate, the initial winner in tournament settings -- and it wasn't even close -- was Garruk Wildspeaker.    In fact, if I were to make a list of the Top 5 best-designed cards in Modern-era Magic, Garruk would undoubtedly be on that list.  His design is a great combination of elegance and power.  His appearance in the R/G ramp deck in Lorwyn Standard was the coming out party for 'walkers, and it's not hard to see why.

 

 

Garruk was a natural fit in R/G ramp strategies, because he does so many things you want in that deck:

1. He ramps you from 4 to 6/7 mana.  This is the role of the high-end ramp spell that has been played by cards like Explosive Vegetation or Skyshroud Claim in the past.  Not every ramp deck uses a ramp spell higher on the curve like this, but many have, and Garruk is more than merely a ramp spell.

2. He defends both you and himself, buying the ramp deck time to reach their endgame.  He can do this in one of two ways.  His -1 ability can spit out 3/3 Beasts, a pretty reasonable body against aggro decks.  Alternatively, his +1 ability can give you two-mana to deploy a small creature for defense -- in this case, a Tarmogoyf -- or use the mana to burn an opposing creature with Skred.

3. The steady stream of beasts can keep a control opponent occupied.  Control players hoping to deal with you on a 1-for-1 basis will have a nightmare with this.  Three power is too big to ignore, especially if there are more where that came from.  Eventually your opponent will have to tap down to deal with Garruk, possibly opening the way for a fattie to resolve.

4.  The threat of using the ultimate to Overrun the opponent is both real and immediate.  Very few 'walkers threaten lethal on their second turn in play.  The more threatening the ultimate is, the more pressure is on the opponent to commit resources against it.  In this deck it is somewhat less likely to threaten a quick kill, however the presence of Siege-Gang Commander makes it a definite possibility.

After Garruk, both Ajani Goldmane and Jace Beleren had some time in the limelight.  Ajani's natural synergy with Spectral Procession was uncovered in Lorwyn Block Constructed.  Although Bitterblossom had been printed in Morningtide, it wasn't until many months later that Ajani was teamed up with that card in Black-White Tokens, one of the most beloved casual-competitive decks of recent years.  Meanwhile, Jace Beleren saw mostly sideboard play in Pickles and Draw-Go variants.  His true time to shine came much later, acting as a pre-emptive trump to Jace, the Mind Sculptor during the late Superfriends era.

One of the reasons we didn't see planeswalkers take over Standard during this era is the dominance of Faeries.  Bitterblossom acted as a pseudo-planeswalker in its own right, and filled the skies with flying armies to mow down opposing 'walkers.  We can also see that two of the 'walkers were costed too highly to have a big impact on the format.  With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that there is a huge difference between four-mana 'walkers and five-mana 'walkers.  Five mana 'walkers are generally featured in tournament decks as singletons, with a few exceptions.  Their abilities have to be very powerful to justify the cost.  The first incarnations of Liliana and Chandra didn't have much impact on the tournament scene, though Liliana did see some play in Goyf-Rock decks.  Overall, a format with good countermagic like Cryptic Command and Rune Snag is not a good environment for expensive 'walkers.

The original Lorwyn Five had a lasting legacy.  The players embraced 'walkers, and the card type became a fixture at the mythic rarity when it was introduced in Alara block a year later.  These five were reprinted multiple times, remaining in Standard until fall of 2011.  Their power level is mostly acceptable even by current principles of planeswalker design, a true testament to the effort put into crafting that first batch.  I believe that any one of them, with the possible exception of Garruk Wildspeaker, could still be re-printed today.

Part Two: The "Superfriends" Era

The printing of Elspeth and Ajani 2.0 in Shards of Alara set a new bar for the power level of planeswalkers.  WotC development hasn't come anywhere close to matching the power of Elspeth, Knight-Errant in either of her subsequent incarnations.  In aggro-midrange decks, her first ability gives resilience and her second gives reach.  The fact that both are +1 abilities is simply astounding.  Ajani Vengeant was similarly amazing.  Any 'walker that has a removal ability which he or she can activate while still retaining one or more loyalty counters has a great chance to see play -- if the Lightning Helix ability was a -3, this Ajani may have quietly disappeared into casual binders, to be joined years later by failed 'walkers such as Liliana of the Dark Realms.  Ajani's ultimate is absolutely, mind-blowingly fantastic against control decks.  Despite the presence of these 'walkers in famous aggro-midrange decks such as Naya Lightsaber, it would be their inclusion in control decks that led the way towards a new era of Standard.

 

Grand Prix Sendai in August of 2010 might mark the high point of power-level in Modern-era Standard.  Subsequent seasons have had dominant decks, but nothing like the overall power level on display in this Top 8, and it was filled to the brim with 'walkers.  UWR Superfriends actually came in 2nd, losing to Brian Kibler's Next Level Bant.  The Top 8 featured one additional Bant deck and three Mythic Conscription decks, all packing multiple copies of Jace, Gideon and Elspeth.  Rounding out the Top 8 were a pair of Jund decks, a deck once considered oppressively dominant in the format.  Even the Jund decks couldn't resist the allure of planeswalkers, as both Garruk Wildspeaker and Sarkhan the Mad made the Jund pilots' 75.  

Though Elspeth and Ajani would rotate out of Standard later that fall, the Superfriends era marched along, thanks to what else rotated out.

Oblivion Ring had been printed in Lorwyn and reprinted in Shards of Alara.  Pithing Needle had been reprinted in both Tenth Edition and M10.  Both cards had been in Standard for the entire existence of planeswalkers up until fall of 2010.  In their absence, there was a period of several months during which there was no good way to interact with a resolved planeswalker except to attack it.  Of course, that is the very idea of planeswalkers, so how bad could that be?  

 

Good luck getting anywhere near that Jace with your creatures.  Squadron Hawk acted as a first line of defense, Day of Judgment punished attempts to flood the board with attackers.  And Gideon Jura was the best friend the other 'walkers ever had, diverting any attempt to take Jace off the board, and usually surviving the assault thanks to his extremely high loyalty.  All so effortless, and this wasn't even a deck designed to beat creature decks!  Before the infamous decision to add Stoneforge Mystic and create the dreaded "Caw-Blade", the big baddies of Standard were Valakut Titan and U/B Control decks.  Kibler's deck had an ample creature-control package, but was at its best disrupting mana and keeping Primeval Titan or opposing Jaces from hitting the board.  

Would this deck and its successor have been as dominating if there had been better ammunition against planeswalkers in the format?  It's hard to know for sure, but one has to assume that cheap answer cards could have helped somewhat.  Pithing Needle in particular would have been quite effective, as early Caw-Blade relied on Celestial Colonnade and Gideon to close out the game quickly.  

The raw power of Jace can't be overlooked, of course.  He continues to see play in Legacy, one of only a very few 'walkers that do.  He was also embraced by Vintage players, his card-draw being even more potent in a format filled with powerful game-winning restricted spells.  Jace was so successful in Vintage that Mishra's Workshop decks were actually playing Slash Panther to deal with it.

Both overall power level and the dearth of answers were cited as concerns, but WotC developers seemed to agree that the availability of answers would have helped.  They openly lamented having removed Oblivion Ring from Standard.  The Superfriends era began to reach its end with the banning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor.  But the twin nails in the coffin were the re-introduction of non-combat answers to planeswalkers and a change in design philosophy.

Part Three: The "Build-Around" Era

Coming off the Superfriends era, each new planeswalker spoiled from an upcoming set created a frenzy.  Players were used to having these mythics as the centerpieces of their decks, and were also afraid to miss out on another 'walker ballooning in price as Jace had.  As a result, we repeatedly saw $50 presale prices for relatively benign 'walkers such as Venser, the Sojourner.  Not until just this past year have players begun to have more realistic expectations about 'walkers.  Planeswalkers are now largely acknowledged as filling a support role, at least in Standard.

The re-calibration of 'walkers began in Scars of Mirrodin block, and has taken two tracks.  The 'walkers with the broadest utility have been reduced in power level, and the most powerful have been pushed over the important mana cost threshold to the five-mana spot.  Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Elspeth, Knight-Errant would have been featured in nearly any deck running blue or white, respectively.  Garruk Relentless and Jace, Architect of Thought are fine cards in their colors, but are far from auto-includes.  You have to seriously weigh them against other options in your colors, and they won't always find a spot.

One way of keeping power high and casting cost low is to narrow the type of deck in which a 'walker would be useful.  Venser asked for enter-the-battlefield effects to re-use, Domri Rade for a very high creature-density, and Sorin, Lord of Innistrad -- though pretty decent in his own right -- was at his best with evasive tokens to make his emblem(s) more powerful.  The poster-boy for this type of "build around me" design is Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas.

Tezzeret spent his early months laboring under the long shadow of Jace.  Upon Jace's exit, and the rotation of the powerful Zendikar block out of Standard, Tezzeret became a solid second-tier contender.  Much like the B/W Tokens decks of yore, Tezzeret decks were far more popular than they were successful, but the deck had its share of fervent devotees who simply wouldn't put it down.  It was always popping up to 4-0 a Daily Event, or to finish barely in the money at a $5K Open.  His restrictive colors tended to land him in U/B control variants, and his "combo" with Inkmoth Nexus was a popular finisher, though maybe a bit "too cute" in all reality.  This decklist is a good example of his use in Standard.  The expected field at PT Dark Ascension was to have featured many Lingering Souls decks, making the four maindeck Ratchet Bomb a legitimate choice, and a legitimate reason to play Tezzeret.

 

Although his time in Standard was somewhat disappointing, this version of Tezzeret would find a new life in the Legacy format.  He occasionally sees play in Affinity, and has gained increasing popularity in the format's U/B Control decks.  With the "Sol Lands", Ancient Tomb and City of Traitors, plus a mana rock such as Talisman of Dominance, Tezz can be powered out as early as Turn 2.  From there, he starts to pay off quickly, searching for powerful artifacts like Ensnaring Bridge to buy time, or getting aggressive by animating those very mana-rocks that powered him out.  The ability to quickly switch gears in that fashion is essential in Legacy, where a combo opponent is often just a topdeck away from victory.  Tezzeret decks in Standard struggled to find a good number of artifacts to play, but the Legacy card pool gives you ample choices, and makes the threat of his ultimate potentially lethal.  Building around this 'walker is a fun challenge, and it's great when a deck like this can be competitive as well.  

Conclusion: The End of Planeswalker Exceptionalism (or, A Fistful of Vindicates)

 

Legacy has kept 'walkers in check despite the relative scarcity of creatures through Vindicate, Red Elemental Blast, general format speed, and tight mana.  It's not typically a format for long, slow build-ups of incremental advantage.  Standard, on the other hand, is often defined by such decks.  Planeswalkers are natural inclusions, but the format is becoming increasingly hostile to them, and in ways that the 'walkers themselves aren't equipped to fight.

We saw how an inability to directly deal with planeswalkers, when they were at their peak of power level to begin with, nearly brought the Standard format to its knees.  Has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction?  We began this discussion today by talking about the impact 'walkers had on the traditional creatureless control decks.  You needed a board presence to deal with them.  Planeswalkers were intended to encourage this, because it leads to more interactive play.  Black control in particular had a big problem with this -- you had Duress, but basically couldn't beat a topdecked planeswalker.  Over the past two years, it has been decided that black would be given the ability to directly destroy planeswalkers.  In addition to Detention Sphere as the current O-Ring variant, there are now two black spells, Hero's Downfall and Dreadbore, that take care of a 'walker without the need for combat.  This shores up a hole in Standard, but I'm not truly convinced it's a hole that should have been filled.  The notion of a planeswalker being able to protect itself with one of its abilities, once a hallmark of the tournament-playable 'walkers, is rendered almost meaningless.  It can't protect itself from direct destruction.

What this change does is to normalize planeswalkers.  It makes them more like any other permanent, not the unique and flavorful exception that they were.  If they were meant to be so easily removed, they could have been made enchantments in the first place and spent the past six years dying harmlessly to Naturalize.  If any of the recent 'walkers had been hugely powerful, this change would be understandable.  But the present crop of 'walkers are cast in supporting roles, not the stars they once were.  Some part of what makes them special is undermined with cards like Hero's Downfall.  And with printings like this in the past two blocks, it's looking like the change is here to stay.