How do we judge the value of a planeswalker?
Card value in Magic is a moving target. It shifts with the metagame, the current game, the other cards in your deck, and your play style—among other factors. Planeswalkers only amplify this problem, as each one is a combination of moving parts, each of those parts shifting in value just like any individual Magic card.
In my day job—biology—we run into this “too many moving parts” problem all the time. We often handle it by focusing on abstractions and ways of sorting the information we’re dealing with. This helps us pay attention to the factors that matter—at least those that matter for the question we’re asking right now.
Today, I’m going to bundle two recent ideas together and ask how, in all their complexity, we can evaluate planeswalkers.
The Pace of the Game and the Value of Your Cards
We’ve all seen those individual cards that are symmetric, such as Smallpox and Armageddon. These cards become good when we break that symmetry, building around them so their effect hits our opponent harder than it hits us.
The game itself is a kind of symmetry-breaking exercise, too. We each sit down with our sixty (or more) cards, and hope that some combination of the strength and pace of our cards outperforms the strength and pace of our opponent’s cards.
And player skill, of course. But that’s a whole different article.
Two of my recent articles play into this idea, and will help us take a look at how we want to evaluate planeswalkers.
Last week I talked about cumulative mana curves. As a quick reminder, this is the idea that it matters when our cards “come online” and how long they “stay online.”
The nice thing about planeswalkers is that they pretty much “stay good” from the first turn you can cast them through the end of the game. As a consequence, we know we can give serious consideration to the continuing impact of a planeswalker at each turn in the game after they’re cast.
When the ‘Walkers Come Online
A second consideration, which I admit that I skipped over in last week’s discussion, is when your cards come online.
Put simply, you can almost always cast a two-mana card on your second turn, and can almost never cast a seven-mana card on your seventh turn.
I wrote about this in detail in The Deadly Four-Mana Mark. The chart above is pulled from that article.
How this Looks in a Planeswalker
So how does this all play out in a planeswalker?
Let’s take a look at Elspeth Tirel:
That set of gray boxes is your game timeline—each box is a turn. With that in mind, we know we’re theoretically able to cast Elspeth on our fifth turn, but when are we likely to be able to cast it?
Yup, turn seven.
As mana costs rise, it gets harder and harder to cast our spells in a timely fashion. Again, I talked about this in The Deadly Four-Mana Mark, but it comes down to the fact that after a while, you’re not drawing a land every turn.
Which is a good thing, really.
In this visualization, those new boxes above and below the line stand in for the planeswalker’s abilities.
Boxes above the line are loyalty-gaining abilities.
Boxes below the line are abilities that cost loyalty.
I’ve colored abilities above the line yellow if they merely have a positive impact, and green if they are “worth a card.” That’s a somewhat subjective judgment, but it helps us understand the power-level of a planeswalker’s abilities.
I was going to color code the loyalty-costing abilities, but they tend to end up being worth a card across the board.
This is a progressive chart that shows a sort of “cumulative use pattern” for Elspeth’s first two abilities across six turns from her likely turn of first casting. As in most cases, you can fire off her loyalty gaining ability every turn, leading to the cumulative impact pattern shown.
Her loyalty-costing ability requires a more measured pace, where you spend some turns building up loyalty before you can use it again. This leads to the kind of staggered pattern you see in the “costs loyalty” abilities.
Finally, of course, most planeswalkers have an “ultimate” ability that has some kind of big impact.
In today’s visualizations, I’ve marked a planeswalker’s “ultimate” with an arrow. I decided not to pass judgment on the relative worth of these ultimates, other than to mark those that generate emblems in purple, and all the others in blue.
The ultimate is tagged on the first possible turn on which you can use it.
With these ideas in mind, let’s take a look at our current crop of planeswalkers, and how they fit into this visualization:
Evaluating the ‘Walkers
We’ll go through the ‘walkers in order of rising mana cost. The visuals have been kept on scale with each other so that you can see the impact of mana costs on when planeswalkers come online and when their abilities impact the game.
Immediately, we’re hit with a curious case.
I haven’t actually seen a Tibalt in play or even in a deck list, so apparently he hasn’t found his niche yet (I strongly suspect his niche is playing bass in a metal band fronted by Sarkhan).
Tibalt is curious because he can’t use either of his loyalty-costing abilities until he’s spent some time building up his loyalty. Tibalt can cash himself in for his second ability starting on turn four, which earns him an “X” on that box. His ultimate hits on turn six, which is actually pretty slow despite his cheap starting price.
In other words, Tibalt is mostly about getting to use his first ability early and often—which may explain why he isn’t seeing play.
Coming in at the three-mana mark, Ajani is a good example of an all-around “decent” card. His first ability likely isn’t worth a full card, but it’s “okay” and is probably a good element of cumulative advantage on a card that’s also building loyalty.
Ajani’s ultimate strikes on turn seven at the soonest, which feels slow—but is pretty nasty if the deck running him is already kicking your teeth in and has you on the back foot.
Liliana of the Veil
Like Ajani, Liliana comes out swinging right away on turn three. Also like Ajani, her “plus” ability does not generate net card advantage. Unlike Ajani, you need to think a little harder about how to profit from this ability, since it doesn’t break symmetry all on its own.
Liliana can use her sacrifice ability more frequently than Ajani gets to give things flying and double strike. Her ultimate also comes in one turn sooner, on turn six rather than turn seven.
This, incidentally, speaks to why Liliana can be such a scary backup play in a deck that is taking the game to the opponent’s face.
At the four-mana mark, things start to slip a little bit.
Chandra and all of our other four-mana planeswalkers reliably come down on turn five rather than turn four. Chandra can start firing off her plus ability, of course, but it still isn’t really worth a whole card. Her doubling ability also has a pretty slow cycle time, so that her overall impact is not amazing.
Chandra’s ultimate is available early from her perspective, which leads to it coming online on turn eight at the soonest.
At the moment, there are probably better things for most decks to be doing at four mana.
Garruk is another weird case. I’ve marked him as having an “ultimate” immediately on hitting play, since using his “fight” ability almost always flips him, resulting in no more Garruk Relentless.
In the meantime, he generates 2/2 Wolves, an ability that is worth a card.
On the flipside, Garruk Veil-Cursed is once again generating card-quality content with his positive ability. In this case starting on turn six, which is the soonest you’ll have an active, flipped Garruk.
It’s a little hard to actually figure out the immediate use rate of Garruk’s minus abilities, as we won’t know his exact loyalty when he flips. If you’re using the tutoring ability and cycling between it and the wolf-generating ability, you’ll settle into the use cycle shown on the current visualization.
What we do see here is that from turn five onward, Garruk Relentless generates clear card advantage, which puts him a step above many of his planeswalker competitors.
I think it would be reasonable to debate whether Koth’s positive ability is worth a card or not. I settled on not, but I’m unsure of this decision.
Koth also gives you access to his minus ability right away, although that’s not necessarily a good use of your mana on a turn in which you just cast Koth. Notably, Koth’s ultimate is available very quickly, which translates into hitting his emblem on turn seven. Notice how that’s the same turn Ajani’s ultimate hits. This puts an intriguing spin on the question of which planeswalker(s) are best fits for your aggro needs. If the early incremental gains from Ajani are worth it, he’s a clear winner—but if the ultimate is the goal, then they’re a wash in terms of timing, meaning you can compare their relative values instead.
Liliana of the Dark Realms
If you’re at all nonplussed by a planeswalker that reliably draws you more lands, I encourage you to look at how hard it is to get the costlier planeswalkers on this list into play in a timely fashion—and then imagine if you could guarantee your land drops and actually cast Karn on turn seven or Bolas on turn eight.
Liliana is actually pretty sweet in that she builds loyalty while drawing a very specific category of cards. Six turns, six lands. Pretty straightforward.
Lily can also cash herself in for her creature kill ability—or run a pretty slow back-and-forth cycle starting on turn six and repeating the kill every three turns or so after that. Overall, I’m not a fan of this ability, and don’t see doing it too often.
Her ultimate hits on turn eight, which actually feels fine if the goal is to parlay it into a ridiculous finishing move, or simply having mana advantage in a control mirror.
Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
Little Sorin does some funky stuff. He can reasonably cycle between making vampires and generating emblems, meaning that you could (for example) have a fixed +2/+0 and four vampires by turn 10. His ultimate also hits by turn eight, which is plenty fast given that it’ll hit after Sorin has generated three vampires to clog the ground and threaten your opponent.
I suspect if flyers were less ubiquitous at the moment, we’d see a lot more play from Lord Sorin.
Tezzeret brings the value in both directions. Although he only upconverts a card into a 5/5, this is where context comes into play. Essentially, you’re often converting an artifact that is no longer useful, so it’s effectively adding a card’s worth of value back onto a card that has lost its value.
Elspeth is an example of a planeswalker who is well-positioned to cycle between her positive and negative abilities. That’s kind of important, since her positive ability is on the weak side in most contexts.
As we saw earlier, as a five-mana planeswalker Elspeth is likely to come down on turn seven. The magic number eight comes up again, however, in terms of when Elspeth’s ultimate hits. So she comes down late, but you can hit her ultimate rapidly if you need to.
Garruk, Primal Hunter
The Primal Hunter is a genuinely slow planeswalker—unless you ramp into him, which is pretty much how we’ve seen him used. He’s a slow but powerful burn, giving you solid card advantage turn after turn, or ping-ponging between card advantage and—other card advantage from his minus ability.
An unramped Primal Hunter’s ultimate strikes on the somewhat stately turn 10.
Gideon is kind of fascinating.
He doesn’t have an ultimate as such, and can switch to “attack mode” on any turn after his first on the battlefield. Is that worth a card?
Gideon also has a very regular cycling structure between his positive and negative abilities. You can easily and safely run an “every other turn” cycle between the two, although the more typical use is just to build Gideon’s loyalty while occasionally assassinating key targets.
Jace is another curious case, since he has a plus ability and a “neutral” ability.
It’s actually pretty hard to value that middle ability. Sure, milling 10 cards is an actual card—but it’s not a card that sees use in most competitive contexts. So what is that ability actually worth?
Like the Primal Hunter, Jace’s ultimate also kicks in on turn 10 at the soonest.
Tamiyo offers less upfront card advantage than Jace by quite a bit, although her minus ability is potentially more impactful; and her ultimate is, well, pretty ultimate.
It’s probably appropriate, then, that Tamiyo’s ultimate kicks in on turn 11, which is the slowest we’ve seen so far in our walk up the mana curve.
Like Tamiyo, Venser has a not-quite-a-whole-card impact on the game with his positive ability. That said, you can leverage this ability into card-level advantage by picking the right targets (this was easier when Wall of Omens was in the format).
Venser’s ultimate is brutal but kind of incremental, which is probably why it’s okay that it comes online on turn 10.
Once we hit the six-mana mark, things really slow down. We can expect to be able to play Sorin by turn 10, which is horribly late in the game and about on par with the slowest of the ultimates we’ve seen so far.
Sorin is also not particularly good at ping-ponging between his plus and minus abilities—not that you’d really want to repeatedly set your opponent’s life total to 10.
Sorin’s ultimate hits on turn 12, which is slow, but only a bit slower than Tamiyo’s.
…and slower still.
Costing a nigh-herculean seven mana, Karn is likely to come down on turn 12—the turn that Sorin hits his ultimate.
Karn cycles pretty easily between his positive and negative abilities, as well as threatening his own ultimate by turn 14.
Eight mana! Coming in on: turn 16.
Yeah, that’s right. You’re likely to be able to cast Nicol Bolas on a turn that’s double his casting cost. Note that this assumes a land count lower than any deck that’s ever actually cast Nicol Bolas, where land counts can rise up to nearly half of the deck’s total cards.
Like Karn, Bolas cycles pretty readily between his positive and negative abilities. This is probably a requisite for such expensive planeswalkers.
Bolas can expect to hit his ultimate around turn 18 or so, which pretty much relegates him to the role of “finisher in a dedicated control deck” where you will (1) play many lands and (2) actually get to the late-late game.
Bringing it Together
So at the end of this tour through planeswalkers, what can we say? I have a couple of useful thoughts.
First, we want to pay attention to how soon we can actually play a planeswalker, and then how many turns of benefit we can expect to harvest from them.
Second, we can actually work around the likely turn on which our planeswalkers will hit their ultimates—and most ultimates fire in the fairly narrow range of turns seven through ten.
Overall, I think it’s useful to lean on abstractions and ideas about “what really matters” when we’re trying to evaluate the usefulness of planeswalkers—especially ones we haven’t had a chance to try out for ourselves.
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