+1: Distribute three +1/+1 counters among one, two, or three target creatures you control
This ability is better than it looks. Normally, investing a spell to pump a creature can get you 2-for-1’d by removal. With a planeswalker uptick, there’s no risk. If they kill your guy, you’re still up a loyalty counter and even on cards.
They say a good planeswalker should be able to defend itself. While the pump ability doesn’t do that directly, it does add to the board presence. A 4/4 Elvish Mystic can hold off a pair of 3/3s just fine.
It’s more versatile than a strictly defensive ability. Manlands like Mutavault retain the counters even after they’ve turned off, letting you keep growing them and attacking, ignoring sweepers until the opponent is good and dead. You can buff a single key threat, like a Boros Reckoner or Ghor-Clan Rampager, or spread it around like a mini Gavony Township activation.
Historically, +1/+1 counters have been used for a variety of things beyond sheer power and toughness, from modular to Triskelion pings to countering out -1/-1 counters on persist creatures. In Standard, Gyre Sage, Experiment One, and the newly spoiled Sage of Hours all use counters for ways beyond power and toughness.
+1: Look at the top four cards of your library. You may reveal an Aura, creature, or planeswalker card from among them and put that card into your hand. Put the rest on the bottom of your library in any order.
This ability reminds me of the impulse on Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas, only less narrow. Come to think of it, both planeswalkers add power to the board as well, though Tezzeret’s -1 as opposed to Ajani’s +1, as well as Ajani requiring less build-around, explains why Tezz costs four and Ajani five.
In current Standard, the only relevant Auras that I can think of are Pacifism and Ethereal Armor. Pacifism might be a reasonable option just to make the uptick more consistent, but most of the time you’ll want Ajani to find win conditions.
Ethereal Armor is a little more interesting because Naya Hexproof has seen a bit of play lately. While pumping up a hexproof creature seems sweet, we already have a cheaper Ajani for that that can also jump our giant dude and give him double strike. I could be wrong, but I don’t see this Ajani being better in the current versions of hexproof. A larger, less compact, less all-in deck with Ethereal Armor and Eidolon of Countless Battles might prefer new Ajani, however.
To figure out how many hits you need for the impulse, you need to consider a few things:
1) How many actual hits are in your deck. This isn’t just the summation of creatures + Auras + other planeswalkers, as not all of those cards are going to be hits after turn five. Finding a mana dork is not the same thing as finding an Elspeth.
2) If we miss on finding a card, is that just fine? If your deck has a low amount of gas, but those cards are especially powerful at closing out the game, looking at four cards toward a finisher becomes quite powerful. At a certain point, cards that aren’t a win condition lessen in value, and even when the ability whiffs you get a sort of scry 4 effect by bottoming non-finishers. Remember, adding a counter to a planeswalker is a small benefit in and of itself.
3) Know the math. The math we use to calculate a % of hitting a card in game is the same math we need to consider when building around Ajani’s Impulse. Let’s say that we’re on the draw and have a turn five Ajani. What’re the odds that we can uptick to find a 4-of Elspeth?
At this point, our opener plus five draws leaves our deck at 48 cards.
44/48 (Chance of not hitting our 4-of on the first card)
So we go: (44*43*42*41)/(48*47*46*45)
Which gives us about .7 or 70%, which we invert to reach a 30% to hit.
Using the same formula, we see that we’re about:
60% to hit a 9-of on turn 5
80% to hit a 15-of on turn 5
90% to hit a 20-of on turn 5
This means that, if we need Ajani to hit most of the time, we want around 20 true hits in our deck since we can expect to draw a few in our first 12 cards. In a control deck that wants to hit a ‘walker every other turn, 10 hits is fine, though it’s hard for the first ability to be relevant in a control shell.
-8: You gain 100 life.
I saw a few people calling this a “worthless ultimate.” I wouldn’t say worthless, but it’s hard to argue with “mostly irrelevant.”
Against fast aggro, the game is probably over before it gets to this point. Against control, the life is more likely to be irrelevant. Ajani’s ultimate is going to be most relevant against slower creature decks that have some form of reach. Most of the time, the other two abilities will close the game.
Despite costing five and not directly defending itself, Ajani is powerful and versatile enough to see Standard play. Its most intuitive home is in a Naya Midrange deck. Between Domri, Stormbreath, and Polukranos there are a lot of hits for the Impulse, and there’ll always be random dorks to pump.
Five mana is a lot in Modern, which is something of a turn four format. One potential home is in the sideboard of Melira Pod to help grind out control decks. I don’t hate this, as Ajani sidesteps the hosers that people bring in against Pod.
I remember trying out Spike Weaver in Nic Fit. The fog ability never came up, but pumping Thrun was surprisingly relevant. As such, I don’t hate the idea of Ajani in a Veteran Explorer deck. While a 7/7 Thrun is enticing, pumping a Veteran Explorer or a Dryad Arbor into a real threat is a fine backup plan. The power of the average Impulse increases dramatically with bombs like Titan and Karn in the deck.
This deck doesn’t have a large number of hits to find with Ajani, but the ones it does have should end the game. Between knowing what you’re getting or scrying dead cards to the bottom, there’s some synergy there with Top, too.
Between Ajani and Rector, I almost want a sweet 1-of Aura in there, like a Pattern of Rebirth or something, but that’s a little too cute even for me.