If you’ve read a one or two of my deck revision columns, you’ve probably noticed a fair number of trends. I love synergistic builds over individually powerful cards, have a longstanding fondness of artifact decks, and prefer aggro and combo to control. Those are normal enough, but there’s one particular bias I have that’s pretty controversial. I take every opportunity to cut planeswalkers from almost every deck that I tackle. Given that planeswalkers are beloved by most Commander writers, I thought it was time to dive into exactly why I don’t like planeswalkers in this format.

There are two major factors at play here. How planeswalkers interact with the rest of the game, and how the game itself deals with planeswalkers.

Let’s start with the mechanics of the card type. Most planeswalkers have three abilities, all tied to the number of loyalty counters they have at a given moment. Once per turn, at sorcery speed, you can activate one of those abilities by adding or removing the requisite number of loyalty counters. Damage dealt to a ‘walker causes its loyalty to drop, and if a ‘walker runs out of loyalty counters you’re forced to sacrifice it.

There’s a lot of stuff there, and obviously the power of any particular card is going to depend on a ton of factors. But for my purposes the important words there are “once per turn, at sorcery speed.” Planeswalkers are subject to some pretty tight restrictions as to when they can be used, and while The Chain Veil and Teferi, Temporal Archmage’s ultimate can loosen those restrictions a little, planeswalkers are still fundamentally designed to be engines that accrue value turn after turn.

This is a problem because of how most commander decks tend to play. At least in my experience, it’s extremely rare to find Commander decks trying to do anything approaching ‘fair’ Magic. Most games are less about slowly outmaneuvering your opponents and are more about exploding out of nowhere to deal huge chunks of damage and sometimes even one-shot players. And given how ramp-heavy the format is, value engines that require a mana input rather than a loyalty one (and can thus scale ridiculously into the late game with multiple activations per turn) are most often superior to planeswalkers.

There’s a couple counterarguments to that. Planeswalkers are inherently versatile due to their multiple abilities, and in most cases a planeswalker’s ultimate is so powerful that it makes up for any timing restrictions. I’ll concede the versatility argument, at least in most cases. The ultimate however comes with its own host of problems, and that brings us to my next point.

Planeswalkers are vulnerable. For all of their splashiness and impact, planeswalkers might just be the most fragile permanent type in the game. One of the reasons that I favor artifacts and enchantments so much in my builds is that the only way to get rid of them is for an opponent to play a card that specifically removes that card type, and for them to chose to go after your permanents instead of those belonging to another player. (The same goes for lands, although they provide a different kind of value.) Creatures are a little different, because not only are there kill spells and wraths that get rid of them, but creatures can also die in combat and do so frequently. (Additionally, the fact that creatures are inherently designed to kill your opponents mean that people play more ways to answer them.)

That brings us to planeswalkers. Because they’re a card type introduced more than halfway through the game’s history and they only show up at high rarities, there are very few cards that directly interact with planeswalkers. Instead planeswalkers revolve around combat much like creatures, which makes sense given the flavor. What makes them different is that you attack planeswalkers directly. Without a Lure effect it’s impossible to force a creature to block, instead it’s up to the creature’s controller whether they want to put a particular creature at risk. If you’re willing to lose some life points you can keep all of your dudes out of danger whenever you want.

That’s not an option with planeswalkers. With them, the attacking player can choose to single out any ‘walker they want to, directly targeting your value engine with everything from Avacyn to Zombie tokens. And the looming threat of building up to that ultimate will almost always ensure that everyone does so.

Now that’s not all bad. It encourages people to get into combat instead of turtling up until they have a decapitation strike ready. But it’s a simple fact that games of Commander involve much bigger threats than games of Standard. (Logical, given that you’re facing down 120 life from your opponents instead of a mere 20.) Given that the vast majority of decks have threats that are evasive, straight-up unblockable or even function at instant speed outside of combat (Bosh, Iron Golem, Brion Stoutarm, and many, many more) in most cases any player that wants to can chose to one-shot any planeswalker they wish, often without warning.

Within the context of Commander, planeswalkers aren’t the centerpiece of a back-and- fourth resource war. They’re target practice.

Now, everything I’ve said here has been addressing Planeswalkers as a whole. There are some individual cards powerful enough to justify playing despite those weaknesses, and there are some decks that want planeswalkers that otherwise wouldn’t be worth it. Let’s look at those.

The Commanders

Freyalise, Llanowar’s Fury, Teferi, Temporal Archmage, Daretti, Scrap Savant, Nahiri, the Lithomancer, and Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath

Most planeswalkers are balanced with standard in mind. These five were made for Commander, and the numbers on them match that. More importantly, the fact that you can use these can be used as your Commander means that you can build your deck to maximize their potential, and the fact that you get multiple uses out of them adds a ton of power to the cards. To a lesser extent to Origins Five flip walkers also fit into this category, although I’ve yet to see something really special done with any of them.

The One-Turn Wonders

Garruk, Primal Hunter, Tezzeret the Seeker, Karn Liberated, and Sorin Markov

A big part of my reson for disliking planeswalkers is how much value you lose out on when they’re inevitably killed. Some planeswalkers have a big enough impact in one turn that you can happily use them as sorceries with potential upside. There are plenty of decks that want Garruk, Primal Hunter as a second copy of Soul’s Majesty. Colorless decks are happy to run Scour from Existance and Spine of Ish Sah, and Karn Liberated can pretty safely be viewed as a superior version of those cards. Tezzeret the Seeker is a fantastic toolbox, combo engine and/or ramp spell in the right deck. And Sorin Markov is perfectly happy to knock any player down to a mere ten life before dying in a stiff breeze. These are far from the only examples out there, but the basic premise of this category is simple: if that planeswalker were a sorcery, would you still be happy to play it?

The Innocuous

Jace Beleren

It’s rare, but there are some planeswalkers that are either weak enough or friendly enough that nobody really cares enough to remove them. Having an ultimate that nobody really fears is crucial here. For example, targeting an opponent with ‘Party Jace’ is likely to only fuel whatever strategy they’re up to. For some reason Garruk Wildspeaker also seems to fall into this category, probably because everyone accepts he’s there as a mana rock and not as a threat in the traditional sense.

The Powerhouses

Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon

This pretty much only refers to the two Elder Dragons, but man are these cards backbreakers. Both of these cards have enough loyalty to take a hit or two, and with the possible exception of Ugin’s +2, every ability they have scales well to the massive games of Commander.

The Superfriends

Doubling Season, The Chain Veil

There’s an exception to every rule, and when it coems to planeswalkers this is it. Like any other theme it’s possible to build a phenomenally powerful deck around planeswalkers that minimizes their many weaknesses and amplifies their strengths.

Doubling Season is simultaneously the holy grail and the poster child of superfriends lists because it lets you ultimate about 90% of the planeswalkers out there the turn they enter play, but anything that either directly enhances your ‘walkers or helps you defend them is gold here. The problem is that defending a stable of planeswalkers takes a lot more effort than most people realize, which is why I consider a dedicated superfriends deck to be viable and a lot of fun but am more than happy to rip planeswalkers out of most other decks.

In the end that’s where the distinction lies for me. Most people simply cram planeswalkers into every deck and expect results. It’s not that planeswalkers are bad per se, merely that they require support that most players don’t give them in order to really shine.

Levi Byrne has been with the game since Worldwake and has a rabid love for fantasy writing that goes back decades. Despite some forays into Legacy he plays Commander almost exclusively, and has a love for the crazy plays and huge games that make Magic what it is. He was been the go-to advisor of his playgroup on deck construction for more than more than five years before joining Dear Azami. 

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