It seems as soon as I switched over here to GDC that I have been inundated with real life stuff and have been having trouble finding time to write. I basically spent the whole month of June finding a new apartment, packing up to move to said apartment, and then moving over the course of the last week of June. In short: moving is soul-wrenching. I’m now somewhat settled into my new place but there is still painting, unpacking, and setting up a new internet connection. Hurray adult things!
I’ve been itching to get back to writing and what better way to jump back in then unearthing The Planeswalker Tsar? The Planeswalker Tsar, for those of you unfamiliar with my previous writing, is where I throw on the Cap of Monomakh and review the many planeswalkers of EDH and their application in the format. This whole enterprise stemmed from when I ran a 5-color ‘walker helmed by Progenitus that was one of my signature decks for a long time. I have since retired it, but many of the lessons I learned about planeswalkers still apply to this day and these lessons have helped me to craft a philosophy about which ones are most useful in our format. They may not be the most integral part of the format, but are incredibly popular cards that many players want to use in their builds. Some really take to the format while others glide on a reputation earned in more competitive formats and don’t exactly move the needle in EDH. I’d like to guide players as to which ones are the best.
The last ‘walker I reviewed was Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, so there has been a buildup of 7 new planeswalkers to investigate: Dragons of Tarkir’s Sarkhan Unbroken and Narset Transcendent along with the 5 flipwalkers found in M:tG Origins.
Let’s start with Sarkhan Unbroken. No longer a nomad seeking dragons or tortured pawn of dragonwalkers, the first Temur planeswalker represents Sarkhan at his fully realized potential. He’s embraced his shamanic side and the resulting card is one of the strongest walkers released to date. His +1 ability is pure upside, drawing you a card and adding one mana of any color to your mana pool. I’ve heard this ability described as an Explore without a lasting effect, and that is highly accurate. Ramp and card draw are always sought after in EDH and stapling the two abilities together makes it a very fruitful +1.
Sarkhan’s -2 ability provides protection for the ‘walker in the form of a 4/4 flying dragon. This token is only matched in terms of size by Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath‘s flying demon token as far as ‘walker produced tokens go (not counting ultimate abilities). These dragon tokens will provide ample protection on the EDH field, and even if Sarkhan Unbroken just gets to produce one activation of this ability, it won’t go down as a complete disaster.
As far as his Ultimate goes, it obviously scales well with the amount of dragons in your deck, but even if you’re running 2-3 dragons you’re still getting a great deal. That’s a Tooth and Nail plus, folks.
While some might say that we got a truly broken general in Narset, Enlightened Master, her planeswalker version Narset Transcendent lives in that same space with her. Her +1 ability has been favorably compared to Domri Rade‘s +1 ability since it allows you to draw a card as long as its not a creature or land. I agree with this sentiment, because unless you’ve specifically built a deck tailored around creatures, most EDH decks using Narset’s color combination are going to be running a heavy split on cards that she will draw. You’ll probably have a 50-55% chance of drawing a card off in a standard EDH deck, as opposed to Domri’s 20-25% in the same situation.
The -2 ability is solid, with a favorable comparison to Chandra, the Firebrand. Narset gives you the spell again a turn later, with the unfavorable drawback of having to exile the spell. The staggering ability of that rebound clause creates some nifty situations that Narset can take advantage of – such as with Wrath of God-type effects since you get two uses out of the spell on consecutive turns as opposed to not being able to copy it for value with Chandra’s ability. You may be giving valuable information to your opponents since they will know what spell is coming on the next turn, but you’re generally fine with that since you’ll be getting value out of a free cast.
Though these two abilities don’t outright protect Narset Transcendent, her high loyalty and placement in a defensive color pairing give enough confidence that she can remain around long enough to take advantage of her skillset. And if she gets to her Ultimate ability, prepare to wallow in sadness as it nullifies anything other than creature spells for Narset’s opponents. I fear the day when this is used against me.
While I may fear oppressive Ultimate abilities, I’m totally onboard with the flipwalkers conceptually and in practice. Wizards knocked this out of the park flavor-wise, showing the growth of these individuals into the planeswalkers through the amazing origin stories they have been posting on the Magic.com mothership. This also works extremely well with EDH, as you now have these cards that can act as your general. I know we have already had this happen with the Commander 2014 set, so the concept of a planeswalker as a general isn’t novel – but this iteration makes way more sense in all aspects of the game as opposed to just slapping on the distinction that this card can be a general. This approach is less heavy handed and is way more fluid in my opinion.
As conceptually cool as these cards are, we still have to ask ourselves if these are actually good in EDH in both their capacities: as a creature and as a ‘walker. Let’s start with Kytheon, Hero of Akros. Gideon’s younger visage functions much better as a creature than when he is in his planeswalker form. He starts as a Savannah Lion that has the added bonus of becoming indestructible for 2W. The most apt comparison for this is Isamaru, Hound of Konda, the standard bearer for aggressive white commanders. The hound is usually found helming an equipment-centric deck that looks to race out of the gates and swing for the commander damage kill. Kytheon does this adroitly with the added bonus of adding in indestructibility without any equipment that bestows it, making him a clear upgrade to the hound. Reaching the threshold to flip Kytheon isn’t very difficult, needing basically the same criteria as Windbrisk Heights to reach planeswalker status. The timing of it will be the tough part, as you’ll have to find an opponent to attack who can’t take Kytheon out. This will be easier in the early game but will ramp up in difficulty as the game goes on.
Though it is relatively easy to do so, you’ll probably want to avoid flipping Kytheon into Gideon, Battle-Forged on the EDH table. Gideon has some useful abilities, but they are an escalator to nowhere since his ultimate can be activated for free. His +2 is a scaled down version of his former incarnation Gideon Jura‘s ability, but now just chooses one creature instead of all of an opponent’s forces. It can be situationally useful, diverting a powerful creature to attacking him instead of you…but it feels underpowered.
His +1 is his strongest ability, bestowing indestructible on one of your creatures until your next turn. It is nice to have a repeatable outlet to give indestructible and allows you to change the creature it targets on a turn by turn basis, but it does leave a window of opportunity for your opponents to destroy the creature once it reaches the beginning of your turn again. His “ultimate” is very disappointing, reaching only a 4/4 and barely registering as a threat. I’d only include this card if you’re looking for an upgrade to Isamaru as general and avoid it in the 99.
Due to his small casting cost, it seems that Wizards wanted to curb the power of Gideon to balance it for standard and other constructed formats. It’s a card that will fly in other formats, but it won’t make too much of a dent into EDH. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy falls into this category as well. At 2 CMC, Jace can hit play very early on. With the availability of cheap mill spells, you’ll be able to reach the threshold of five cards in your graveyard fairly easily with spells like Tome Scour or Thought Scour. His ability to loot also gets you there and is a nice little bonus towards filtering through your deck.
Once he flips, Jace,, Telepath Unbound underwhelms. Though his starting loyalty is high at 5, his abilities leave little reward for what they do. His +1 is a scaled down version of Jace, Architect of Thought‘s power mitigation ability for only one creature. Beyond the early part of the game, this ability will be easily thwarted by higher-powered creatures and more threats on the table. His -3 ability allows recursion, but forces an exile of the spell if it is cast and still requires you to pay for the spell’s cost. For -3 loyalty I’d hope that you could at least get a free spell out of the deal.
His ultimate doesn’t really rate with other planeswalkers before him, since it only targets one player at a time and is only really useful with some kind of infinite casting loop which I’d generally frown upon. This version of Jace isn’t very useful for EDH and should be avoided.
Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh is our next in the set. She clock in at 3 CMC and triggers her flip ability when she does three damage to an opponent. She only stands at 2/2, but has a nifty untap ability that triggers when a red spell is cast, allowing her to flip after an attack and a red spell on your second main phase. You’ll have to get through an opponent’s defense first, so it is a little easier said than done but it is manageable.
Once she flips, Chandra, Roaring Flame is all about damage. +1 is two damage to an opponent, -2 is two damage to a creature. She does well on an empty field, but two damage is not usually enough to deal with the creatures that populate an EDH and would need outside protection to have any hope of getting to her ultimate. The ultimate is cool and puts each of your opponents on a clock that cannot be removed, but it takes a long time to reach its goal. She too feels like a strictly constructed planeswalker and won’t have much value in EDH.
Let’s see if Nissa, Vastwood Seer fares any better than the other flipwalkers. Nissa starts off strong by grabbing a basic Forest from your deck to your hand, so she’s immediatelynetting you some kind of card advantage once she hits play. Her spark triggers when you play your seventh land, and EDH is the land of ramp so seven is not a difficult number to achieve. So far, so good!
Nissa, Sage Animist continues the card advantage good times with her +1 ability, which either nets you a free card or a land onto the battlefield. It is the version of Into the Wilds that I actually wanted. Her -2 creates a 4/4 legendary elemental creature. Every planeswalker worth their salt needs some kind of built in protection and Ashaya, the Awoken World does a reasonable job of that. Her ultimate can be viewed 3 ways: either as a type of Overrun that can add a slew of attackers to your field, as a way to animate your opponent’s lands so that they are more susceptible to destruction, or to provide a blocker for them if you’re feeling generous. I’ll give it props for versatility, but each of the modes carry a risk (destruction of your own lands or a horde of 6/6 creatures being turned against you). The overall package that Nissa, Vastwood Seer/Nissa, Sage Animist provides warrants it as a worthy EDH general and a solid inclusion to the 99. There are definitely options that are more powerful (Azusa, Lost but Seeking comes to mind), but Nissa definitely provides a strong option for a mono-green commander.
The flipwalker I’m most excited for is Liliana, Heretical Healer. Coming in at 2/3 with lifelink for three mana in her creature form, Liliana has the largest body of any of the new ‘walkers (not by much, but close enough!) From there, she is able to ignite her spark through another nontoken creature you control hitting the bin. With the amount of creatures that sacrifice themselves, sacrifice others, or just plain sac outlets in general, EDH is not short on ways to get your own creatures to the yard. This makes Lilly’s condition the easiest to achieve in EDH, and she leaves a 2/2 zombie token for protection to boot.
Once she transforms into Liliana, Defiant Necromancer, she becomes a card that thrives on her own synergy. Her +2 ability grows her quickly, moving towards her ultimate ability or adding loyalty so that she might resurrect a higher CMC creature. She’s also allowing you to put a creature into the bin while reducing your opponents hand sizes – It’s a great ability all around.
Her previously mentioned -x ability only targets nonlegendary creatures, but that is hardly a limiting option. You’ll have plenty to choose from even at the initial moment that Liliana hits play at CMC 3 (Big Game Hunter, Fleshbag Marauder, or Liliana’s Specter all come to mind[/card]). However, you’ll want to grow Liliana beyond this point because her ultimate is a doozy. Whenever a creature dies, you get it back under your control at the next end step. It’s basically a Grave Betrayal for all creatures and it can’t be removed from you. You’ll be stocked with creatures for the rest of the game. Just be careful of the creatures with negative EtB triggers!
There it is – the entire suite of new walkers, kit and kaboodle. I’m really stoked to see someone attempt a flipwalker as their general and to see just how well they will actually work on the field. I’d also like to wish my fellow GDC’ers good luck and safe travels on their trip to GenCon coming up at the end of the month. I really wish I was able to join them, but it just wasn’t in the cards. I’ll be keeping tabs on them from afar, and I invite the GDC faithful to the the same.