I’ve found myself being critical of Wizards and Magic more often than not this year. Obviously, that all comes from a positive, hopeful place; I love Magic. I believe it can be a great experience for millions worldwide, and I want to see it reaching that potential well into the future. But it’s important not to get sucked into a negative mindset and to make sure that credit is given when credit is due. So to that end, I want to use this week’s column to talk about something I believe has improved in 2020: Planeswalker design.
GAMES WITHIN GAMES
Just over a year ago, I wrote up my stance on what was, at the time, a serious blight on the game. My article’s point was to look at the common play patterns or “subgames” each Planeswalker creates as the primary source of overpowering or oppressive gameplay.
By evaluating the subgames of each Planeswalker printed this year, we can see what WotC learned from the mishaps of 2019 and what we can expect from ‘walkers in Kaldheim and beyond. I won’t touch the cards printed for intro decks or Commander products since those aren’t balanced the same way. Anyway, let’s do a quick example evaluation to show how I think about these cards!
ASHIOK, NIGHTMARE MUSE
Ashiok, Nightmare Muse is the closest 2020 design to what I think of as the “default” Planeswalker subgame: CMC 5, uptick for card advantage, downtick to kill a target, big splashy game-winning ultimate.
We can easily imagine how this subgame works based on how much pressure the Ashiok player is under. If you cast Ashiok while you control the board (or you’re roughly even), you can uptick to cement that control and then ultimate a few turns later to hopefully win. This is what makes Planeswalkers “objectives” – unless you can kill Ashiok’s controller, most decks cannot win while leaving such a Planeswalker to do its thing. Your opponent starts looking at all their plays from the angle of “how to kill Ashiok,” and you start looking at how to defend it.
For five mana, though, that game-warping presence isn’t so unfair. Most importantly, by the time you have five mana, your opponent is very likely to have some sort of board state built up that would threaten Ashiok’s safety or punish you for tapping out to play them. In positions where you’re behind, you tend to have to cast Ashiok and then immediately downtick to get rid of their nastiest card. This is an okay floor for the card – you get a 1-for-1, and your opponent still has to at least spend an attacker or two getting rid of Ashiok, so you technically gained some life as well!
The impact such a Planeswalker has on Constructed is well understood by now, so a lot comes down to the exact implementation of the abilities. Ashiok’s tokens are quite a decent size, but their ultimate and downtick are a little easier to play against than, say, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Importantly, they have these tokens instead of drawing cards, which means they sometimes aren’t contributing efficiently to a control deck’s main plan. Often an opposing Ashiok is beatable if you can fend off the illusions and keep them from ultimating! It’s a ton of pressure, but you can race with flyers or stall the 2/3s until you find removal for Ashiok.
I think this is a great first question to ask about Planeswalkers to figure out if they’re well designed – can you imagine a scenario where they’re “just okay?”. Sure, it goes against the original idea of them as additional objectives – but if the only correct play is to remove them at all costs, they’ve just replaced the original objective of the game with one not all decks are well built to handle. Killing them or living with them should be an interesting decision where no one answer is right all the time!
Calix, Destiny’s Hand
Calix is a very narrow and specialist Planeswalker, being pretty useless outside of a heavy enchantment-focused deck. I think it’s cool when a set like Theros: Beyond Death is sufficiently focused to pull these designs off, and it does act as a natural cap on how oppressive the card can be. Aside from costing one mana less than Ashiok, he represents a very similar subgame: uptick to draw enchantments, downtick to exile a permanent (under an enchantment), ultimate to win the game (with your enchantments). Perfectly acceptable, and the kind of card which is even more important in a deck heavily specialized in one card type because it benefits your enchantments without dying to all the same cards as they do.
ELSPETH, SUN’S NEMESIS
I find it pretty amusing that the least-broken mythic rare escape threat is the planeswalker. This is thanks to the very conservative design decision to give Elspeth only downtick abilities, ensuring that no matter how often you bring her back, she will naturally go away again on her own. I wish I could say the same of Uro! Gripes aside, this is a cool card despite the limited use you get per cast. White decks are most likely to run out of cards in the late-game, so having a broadly useful and powerful self-recurring bomb gives the color a huge boost.
Her subgame works very differently since she has no payoff ultimate to work towards – you just convert her loyalty into resources based on what you most need. Her tokens are the baseline, improving your position on board. Once ahead, you can get immediate, efficient damage from the -1. The -1 is so good for racing that the life gain ability becomes less useful. If I could change anything about her, I’d change that; maybe if she could permanently reanimate a small permanent or give one an indestructible counter, she would have seen more play.
Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast
This card was definitely the closest to broken of any 2020 Planeswalker to see Constructed action. Polymorph effects will always encourage players to try degenerate builds, and I don’t think that Lukka really deserves criticism over that. But I am a little sad at how that -2 ability has overshadowed the rest of the card since the all-in polymorph decks have no real use for the other two.
Played “fairly,” Lukka could have been an excellent top-end for red midrange creature decks, mirroring the Vivien from the same set. His downtick is even worded so that you can build to get sizable value while playing tons of creatures; just build a curve that goes up to say, three mana, and then you can guarantee polymorphing a three-drop will give you whatever enormous thing you hid in your deck! This seemed custom-built to pair with Yidaro, a huge haste-beast that can naturally be cycled back into the deck if you accidentally draw it, but that combo just didn’t line up with the punishing pace of Standard. Creature decks can’t afford to go slow and play expensive card-drawing outlets like Lukka anymore, so we only saw him when he could be leveraged as a five-mana sorcery that wins the game. More’s the pity.
NARSET OF THE ANCIENT WAY
Here’s another interesting flex on the default subgame, pushing you towards a specific type of deck. What I like about Narset, as opposed to, say, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, is that, like Ashiok, she does not draw cards on her +1. Instead, Narset’s uptick offers her controller mana and life – still a reward of free resources every turn, but one which you can at least conceive of being “just okay” sometimes. Upticking a ‘walker is already putting you ahead because that -6 emblem should be lights out in most situations, so it really shouldn’t need much additional sweetening!
Narset’s -2 is also a “fix” for the borderline-oppressive Teferi, Hero template. A problem I identified in last year’s article was how little efficient Planeswalker removal exists. Often, the most playable answer to a strong Planeswalker is the downtick of another Planeswalker since they tend to target any permanent type. The weird standoff of waiting to try and be the second player to cast your Teferi in the mirror isn’t much fun. Making Narset’s downtick deal a variable amount of damage is a brilliant move – it means you can get first-mover advantage by playing yours and upticking it out of range!
VIVIEN, MONSTERS’ ADVOCATE
Planeswalkers with static abilities were some of the most egregious problem cards of last year; think Narset, Parter of Veils, Teferi, Time Raveler, or Karn, the Great Creator. But critically, all of those were one-sided restrictive effects that harshly limited your opponents. Something like Vivien just feels better and is less likely to be broken since it doesn’t shut down any of the ways your opponents might be hoping to beat it!
Vivien is the second-most-common Planeswalker design; she has no huge ultimate, just two solid abilities which you interchange as needed. The fact that her static benefits you merely by her being around means you tend to uptick more than downtick; luckily, her uptick is very powerful and versatile, spitting out 3/3s with keywords making it easy to block for her. The downtick is very powerful, but the loyalty equations make all the difference and lead to an intricate subgame. You tend not to use it straight away since it scales with the cost of creature you cast, and you just spent 3GG on Vivien. So you might see a downtick on her second turn, but then what? Sacrifice her for the second downtick straight away? Try to uptick again and hope to keep her alive to use the static? I wish this pattern had been applied to Lukka as well; perhaps then we could have seen him at a lower CMC and less abusable by creature-light combo decks.
Basri is clearly intended as a curve-topping support card for go-wide white creature decks. These decks are focused on all-out attack, often losing some creatures to blocks with every swing, because almost any sweeper or late-game threat will outclass them very quickly. There are a few slots in every weenie deck for non-creature cards like Basri because white has no haste access – so playing a pump spell is your only way to get extra damage right away and speed up your clock by that critical turn!
Unfortunately, Basri’s uptick only adds a single damage to the board. Even though it’s permanent, this means it takes three turns of upticking to add as much damage as just one use of Elspeth, Sun’s Nemesis – in a deck where every extra turn you allow your opponent massively reduces your chance to win. The added indestructibility doesn’t really make sense in this context either, since the trademark of these decks is a willingness to exchange some creatures for speed.
Why am I so sure Basri is intended for weenie decks if he’s so awful in them? Because there’s no other situation where I can imagine his -2 being worthwhile. Having the tokens come in tapped, when you are also forced to swing with your other creatures to make the ability work, means you’re not able to defend the Basri you just downticked. And 1/1 soldiers just aren’t very relevant as attackers unless you’re buffing them as part of a large attack force.
Basri’s ultimate is the only part of him which seems worth the effort, but the idea of having to defend him for three turns in one of Magic’s most aggressive archetypes is a non-starter. Sad to say it, but this is by far the worst Planeswalker of the year.
CHANDRA, HEART OF FIRE
Most recent Chandras have found their role as a way for aggressive red decks to extend their power in the late-game; since so few red cards scale in value over time the way Planeswalkers do, it’s just a natural fit. This one is no different, except that the +1 is comparatively more powerful, giving access to a potential three cards instead of one! Since using this every turn is so powerful, WotC cleverly made it hard to spend that loyalty well; she has a second mediocre uptick instead of a powerful removal downtick. Her ultimate is both expensive and less straightforward most other planeswalkers. A nice way to set her apart from past incarnations.
I can’t help but contrast this Planeswalker design to Basri; they’re one mana apart and from the same set. But Garruk’s uptick offers huge frontloaded damage in a way Basri simply doesn’t, perfect for forcing the issue when you’re ahead on board. The downtick allows you to create creatures, but in a way that’s better when you’re behind – as opposed to Basri’s being less useful if you can’t attack profitably or you’re trying to rebuild. The emblem is about as good, but that’s not really what it’s about – this Garruk can almost always be effective just mixing the first two abilities, and that’s why it’s a great design.
LILIANA, WAKER OF THE DEAD
WotC made a very bold move here by intentionally re-creating the most powerful black planeswalker subgame ever – Liliana of the Veil. But at one extra mana, and with some slight tweaks to loyalty ratios on her removal ability, this card is absolutely fine for Standard. The double-sided discard uptick is such a powerful and unique tool to be able to build around and a great way to squeeze slow control decks without affecting aggro as much. The way her downtick and emblem both ask you to do a little extra work to make them good helps with balance a lot, and getting two downticks is something you have to really work for.
TEFERI, MASTER OF TIME
Master of Time breaks the rules for ‘walkers in such an interesting and powerful way that I think everybody first underestimated, then wildly overestimated his power. In reality, he’s perfectly balanced – because despite being able to use his abilities so much more often, none of them produce a permanent advantage. This means that Teferi alone is never your wincon, and no matter how long he stays alive, he doesn’t compound the lead he gives you unless specifically supported.
In return for this dedicated support role, Teferi offers some incredibly strong situational utility. Constantly looting twice a turn cycle will absolutely improve the quality of your hand and help dig to other win conditions, even if you aren’t playing him with “second-draw” synergy cards like Jolrael, Mwonvuli Recluse (hint: you should). It also means his -3 is charged up way more often, which helps compensate for it not permanently dealing with creatures. But being able to blunt cards like Embercleave for a turn without having to leave up any mana is still terrific. I’m very happily surprised to say a Teferi is my favorite Planeswalker of 2020.
JACE, MIRROR MAGE
WotC realized they were onto something with these blue card-draw Planeswalkers because Zendikar Rising Jace is another finely-tuned and intricate design on the theme. Drawing a card is almost always the best thing to do in Magic if you can’t instantly kill your opponent, so putting an element of variable risk on the draw ability helps to stop this subgame from being very simple and repetitive.
Making the +1 ability a scry instead of something protective means this is an engine you need to actively defend with other cards – essential to stop three-mana walkers turning into Oko. The kicker clause is a real masterstroke to spice up the design; sure, it could have just put more counters on Jace or improved the outcome on your 0 ability some other way, but creating a second Jace opens up so many more possibilities for both players. It would be broken on a planeswalker, which could affect the board in any way, but on a defenseless, low-loyalty draw engine? No worries.
NAHIRI, HEIR OF THE ANCIENTS
This card is very close to being Calix, except obviously for equipment instead of enchantments. Unfortunately, it’s a little harder to find a home for Planeswalkers in such an archetype – they’re still creature aggro decks at heart, and the equipment fills the buff/support slot a planeswalker might normally go in!
Nahiri attempts to compensate for this by creating a token with her +1 ability, but that feels a little impactful for a 4-drop in an aggro deck. At least, she isn’t expecting you to charge up an ultimate, offering two situational downticks to use when you need them. But in most cases, you’ll be making some 1/1s and hoping to save enough mana on equip costs to justify it. I feel Nahiri would have been playable as a three-mana spell, even if you had to reduce her loyalty to justify it.
NISSA OF SHADOWED BOUGHS
The final Planeswalker for the year is another cool experiment – I’m overall very impressed by how out-of-the-box some of these designs have been without creating dangerous or tedious subgames! Nissa’s quirk is the most challenging kind to balance since it makes her loyalty growth extremely unpredictable, but this is balanced out by giving her only a single way to spend that loyalty. And while having a high ceiling, that downtick is itself a little less game-ending than the average ultimate. It’s capped by which creature cards you have access to, AND by the number of lands you have – no Emrakuls are coming out of her hedron anytime soon!
So Nissa becomes less of a combo piece and more of a reliable power/toughness engine in your grindy GBx deck. Her uptick must be useful and flexible since it gives her a high floor even when you can’t pull off the downtick reanimation dream. The fact that the lands she animates do not gain permanent +1/+1 counters or have vigilance is yet another sign that WotC did learn from the worst excesses of 2019 – not being able to switch your brain off and uptick her forever makes all the difference when it comes to producing an engaging subgame for both players.
A HOLIDAY FROM PLANESWALKERS
Planeswalkers printed for Standard play in 2020 hit a great mark for power – and those that missed, at least, missed low. Unfortunately, due to Magic overall hitting new peaks of power, this meant a lot of them simply weren’t played; now we have creatures like Uro, which replicate the worst parts of 2019 ‘walkers instead. However, I hope that these robust heroes will get their time in the sun as other cards are added in or leave the format. And so long as WotC keeps sticking to whatever design rules they adopted this year, we’ll at least have one less balance headache to worry about in the future.
Tom’s fate was sealed in 7th grade when his friend lent him a pile of commons to play Magic. He quickly picked up Boros and Orzhov decks in Ravnica block and has remained a staunch white magician ever since. A fan of all Constructed formats, he enjoys studying the history of the tournament meta. He specializes in midrange decks, especially Death & Taxes and Martyr Proc. One day, he swears he will win an MCQ with Evershrike. Ask him how at @AWanderingBard, or watch him stream Magic at twitch.tv/TheWanderingBard.