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By: stsung, Jaroslav Stefanek
Jul 23 2019 12:00pm
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Hello everyone,

it's been a long time since you could read something written by me (if I omit the Modern Horizons preview card). I spent a rather long time at the hospital. I was cut off from both the online and real world. That means I was unable to play Magic or follow what was going on. Coming back was quite a shock.

During my stay at the hospital I asked for a special leave for the War of the Spark prerelease. I was allowed to go there and participate. Apart from being afraid of totally screwing up each game I was also very afraid that I wouldn't like the set because it featured over 30 Planeswalkers - a dreaded card type for me. The WAR prerelease experience wasn't as bad as I expected but it seriously made me think about quitting Magic and in this article I'd like to talk about what triggered that.

I've been playing Magic since The Dark which means I've been playing over two decades. During all that time Magic underwent many changes but it always offered something I liked that kept me playing or made me return after unsuccessful sets. I started seeing some kind of trends and I knew that there was a certain limit where the magic would simply dissipate and I wouldn't be able to enjoy the game anymore.

I am a reactive player who likes to keep information hidden and Magic is becoming more and more proactive and relying on board presence. This is strengthened by a power creep of certain cards and the more abundant number of Planeswalkers.

Power creep is something that happens in CCGs/TCGs and it is one of the reasons some games didn't survive to today. All card games need to provide us with new sets with cards that are interesting and also make us want to play with them. This can be done by creating new designs but also by making some cards stronger (also by creating formats etc.). There has to be a certain balance in order to keep things under control and Wizards of the Coast has been doing a great job. The game started with a really powerful spells and had to undergo some power 'leak' (think the Power Nine versus cards today) but since then the overall power of certain type of cards go up. The reason why I think we finally reached the time when there was a considerate power creep is because when I look at the cards in my binders I feel that they are obsolete. There are better versions of the cards that were in my binders for years. My collection is huge and stayed relatively the same through the years. I often just had to dig some cards in boxes full of 'crap' to find the new staples. During the past few years I had to buy new and expensive cards in order to keep my collection of staples up to date, the cards that used to be staples for years, even a decade suddenly started becoming obsolete.

This article will talk about one aspect of what adds to power creep in Magic. Wizards of the Coast came with something very powerful that changed the game forever - Planeswalkers.

I started to feel that something very odd was happening during Shards of Alara block. The reason was the inception of decks utilizing Planeswalkers in a way that they became an integral part of the deck and often the decks were built around them. The Planeswalker card type was introduced to us in Lorwyn where the original five Planeswalkers were printed and I have to applaud Wizards of the Coast for not ruining the game back then. They managed to design a totally new card type that was unique in the game of Magic. Doing something like this to keep the game balanced is not easy and I believe it was handled well. Unfortunately things got a bit out of hand later. In following sets we got more and more walkers but the numbers were rather still limited. A new deck type emerged, called Superfriends, and it showed us the real power of the cards. We found out that getting rid of them is way more difficult than we'd like - it forced us to play creatures or the same Planeswalkers. There wasn't any kind of Planeswalker dedicated removal and that made things even worse. Even though we got cards like that later it didn't help things much. Decks were revolving around potent Planeswalkers and there wasn't time to cast such spells. Lately, we get more and more planeswalkers and they are changing the game even more. Lately War of the Spark, a set containing over 30 planeswalkers, was printed and it shook all formats.

During the WAR prerelease my sealed pool was full of Planeswalkers and contained a very low number of unplayable cards. It felt more like playing a Masters set rather than a regular one. My deck was powerful compared to previous sets though it was not powerful in its own limited environment as I soon found out. I always felt like I wasn't fighting my opponent, but rather their Planeswalkers. It was a battle of Planeswalkers because they dominated on both sides of the table and I didn't like that kind of Magic. It reminded me of the first Superfriends time.

 

Why are Planeswalkers so good? I think we could easily say: 'Because they are unique'. Then we could add: 'Because there aren't enough answers to them'. Planeswalkers were designed to be something unique, something that would make us feel like we summoned an ally like us (we are taking on a role of a Planeswalker in the game of Magic). In the game this would primarily mean we would have a permanent in play that wouldn't need us to pay mana to activate their abilities and wouldn't be target-able by creature removal. Since they are permanents they stay in play until they get destroyed. The turn we cast a Planeswalker we can use one of its abilities at sorcery speed and next turn we can activate another ability again. It doesn't cost us cards or mana that turn. The resource it costs is the Planeswalker's loyalty (which can in most cases) go up or down. Planeswalkers are also not that easy to get rid of if we don't have creatures around that could attack them (another of the unique things about them). Wizards is printing more cards that can deal with them but still there is not enough of them to keep them in check.

If we go back to Planeswalker abilities we can see that they allow us to choose what we want to do with them. They give us choice to use different abilities and not automatically use one or the other in certain succession. This makes those cards versatile, makes them also more fun to play. The abilities often work well together so we can set up the game for either ability. The ultimate abilities used to be very powerful and even now they often are. We have Planeswalker abilities which we can't simply get rid of. They usually create an emblem that sits in a command zone with which we can't interact (or anything inside it).

You may think that only good Planeswalkers are a problem but I feel that even the not so good are problematic. Even if you land a bad Planeswalker it usually creates a very strong impact on the board. This is something that can be clearly seen in certain games of EDH and I hoped that it would be the only place I'd see that happening. When I played War of the Spark limited I felt the same though. Even the less potent Planeswalkers were turning the games around and it certainly made me upset because there was oftentimes nothing I could do unless I drew one of my own. The thing is, even a bad Planeswalker is difficult to get rid of, it often takes time, and that can result in us falling behind. After the fiasco with Jace, the Mind Sculptor being 'better than all' Wizards of the Coast tried printing Planeswalkers that would be more build around cards or support cards in a deck (for example Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas). Even as support cards they proved to be very strong. Slowly we started getting new Planeswalkers that were more and more powerful and with War of the Spark and Modern Horizons we got a batch of walkers that are so powerful that they showed in all formats where they are legal.

 

 

The other day I was taking Jace, the Mind Sculptor out of my Vintage deck replacing it with Narset, Parter of Veils. I felt extremely bad but reminded myself that I felt similarly bad when Jace, the Mind Sculptor was pretty much one of the worse top decks I could get when playing UW Control in Modern. I started wondering if we didn't get stronger walkers than JTMS already. They might not be stronger but they certainly shaped a metagame or are more fit for the current (sped up) metagame. It all started with Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, that dominated Standard for a long time. Later on, the card showed in other formats where it was played alongside Jace, the Mind Sculptor or it even replaced Jace. The following walkers that I see running around on Magic Online in all formats are Teferi, Time Raveler, Narset, Parter of Veils, Karn, the Great Creator and Wrenn and Six.

Since I am a Vintage player I wondered what changed in the world of Vintage while I was at the hospital. Narset and Karn seemed to me to be too good to be true for Vintage but since I wasn't around I didn't know what they changed. Narset and Karn shaped a totally new Vintage metagame which is something I totally didn't expect. Vintage metagame was about a trio of decks Xerox, Ravager Shops and Paradoxical Outcome. It is two of the decks that were considered as the 'final state' of the format. That would be the fight between a Xerox deck and a Prison deck (in this case Ravager Shops). It is a tendency that lately Modern was taking and that is why there was a lot of talk about either format and its future. None of us though expected two things happening - more potent Planeswalkers and Modern Horizons.

The format turned into a fight between Narset decks and Karn decks.

In War of the Spark we got Planeswalkers at three different rarity slots. Uncommon Planeswalkers have one static ability and one activated ability. Rare ones, have a static ability and 2 activated abilities, mythic rare ones have a static ability and 3 activated abilities. The first mentioned Planeswalker was Narset and she was printed as an uncommon. Her static ability says that opponents can't draw more than one card a turn. The activated ability is pretty much an Impulse even though it looks only for noncreature and nonland spells. She found home in various blue decks. Dreadhorde Control, a UR Xerox deck build around Dreadhorde Arcanist, uses Narset to fight opposing blue decks. Since this deck also runs Dack Fayden, vintage all star since it's printing, it can also make life more miserable to an opponent when both Dack and Narset are in play. Next deck that plays Narset in higher numbers than Dreadhorde Control is Paradoxical Outcome. Similarly it uses Narset to dig deeper and also as protection from other blue decks. Narset found home also in BUG Midrange where I felt the deck really needed some more universal and easily cast-able artifact removal (Force of Vigor) and one more cantrip. Narset is a great midrange card and with Leovold, Emissary of Trest they can be a hell of a nightmare for blue decks, especially Storm (and Dredge). Narset is so potent that when I played with Dreadhorde Control fearing opposing Narset I considered running 4 copies of Pyroblast. I also always wanted a Force of Will back up just to deal with her. I wondered then how I'd deal with Karn, the Great Creator. It was no longer Ravager Shops worrying me but these new two Planeswalkers.

Karn, the Great Creator is another card that I thought would be busted in Vintage. I wasn't really sure what decks would play Karn. I expected the card to be played in Stax and Eldrazi but then I realized that it is an easy auto-include in Paradoxical Outcome as well (I wasn't wrong). I didn't play with the card myself yet, but facing the card was really bad experience. The card can make any heavy artifact decks cry and since Karn can look for an artifact card from outside the game/exile it can also find a win condition or an answer just like that by casting this 4 mana Planeswalker. This is very unique and very powerful ability since these kind of decks don't really have a good draw engine or a way how to tutor cards (easily). Karn has made a really big impact in Vintage and allowed new deck archetypes to appear and be competitive.

It is not just these two new Planeswalkers that shaped the metagame, other cards that entered Vintage helped that. Modern Horizons is a set that brought many playable cards to eternal formats. I'll name just a few because they all go into one archetype that is on the rise now. Force of Vigor is one of the very potent cards that made it into Vintage and gave decks the power to fight Shops (a bit sad that it doesn't help with getting rid of Mycosynth Lattice). Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis is a nice addition to Dredge (I am not persuaded that the card is a must play in Dredge but I have to admit it killed me way too often) and since it is green it can also help cast Force of Vigor. Force of Negation is another 'Force of Will' for Dredge trying to fight graveyard hate. All these cards made Dredge the most played deck in Vintage right now. This may also be partly due to London Mulligan that was introduced.

Now the metagame consists of Dredge, BUG Midrange, Karn Stax, Dreadhorde Control and PO. Other decks are viable and some that weren't when Mentor and Shops were at the top can be played now as well.

The cards from the last few sets helped Vintage change and take on a different direction. Many people are unhappy with it but none of us can deny that the changed happened and brought diversity. It dethroned the two decks that were sitting at the top! Unfortunately the cards that changed the metagame are so strong that it also makes certain of us feel very bad. We panic while trying to find ways how to deal with the cards (not decks) and that is not something I consider healthy.

Wizards of the Coast will continue printing Planeswalkers and as we can see even the limits they set themselves for a set can be broken and we get even more of them. We might also get Planeswalkers that fit into more deck types. Wrenn and Six is a Planeswalker that should be a warning for us. It's mana cost is so low that aggressive decks can play it and can profit from its abilities. It seems that this Planeswalker is good anywhere we can fit red and green mana producing lands. Where will this end? Will Magic slowly turn into 'Planeswaker: The Gathering'? While the number of Planeswalkers in Standard is limited and won't probably get higher (with some exceptions like WAR or Chandras from M20) the number of playable Planeswalkers in the realm of eternal Magic and Modern will just grow. When thinking about this it makes me feel bad because slowly all I loved is changing. The game is more about something I always tried to avoid and that is why I sometimes think about quitting. On the other hand, I'm still here happily slinging some spells on Magic Online.

Thank you for reading,
S'Tsung