More than ever before in the history of the game we’re seeing planeswalkers utterly dominate the Standard format. There’s no doubt that the cards have always had an important role to play—typically as top-end finishers in control decks, or value-oriented engine cards in midrange lists—but never before have we seen planeswalkers played in such numbers or to such great effect.
It’s not unusual to see top-tier Standard decks playing between ten and fifteen planeswalkers, with some lists such as Jeskai Superfriends going as high as twenty! These deckbuilding choices are having a huge impact on the texture of Standard game play, obviously, but it goes further than that. In a format full of scissors, you want to play rock, and so with so many people jamming so many planeswalkers, it’s time to revisit the way you’re putting your decks together.
Planeswalkers Are The New Creatures
Examine any half-decent control deck from the last five years and their similarities will become abundantly clear. They all have high-impact, slow win conditions, reliable sources of card advantage, and plenty of removal. This makes sense: they aim to keep the board clear, and the best way to do that has always been via creature removal.
In a similar vein, if you examine the sideboard of decks that traditionally struggle against control in game 1, you’ll see that they often include a diverse portfolio of threats in their sideboards. In particular, planeswalkers. This also makes sense, as it makes the control player’s task that much harder when they’re having to deal with two different types of threats.
Well, how does that scale up to a format where these diverse threats are extremely commonplace in all your game 1s? You can play Mono-Red one round, forcing you to contest twenty creatures, then Jeskai Superfriends the next, forcing you to beat twenty planeswalkers! Nevermind that there are decks like Esper Midrange, with a near-even split of both. All of a sudden, it’s not a question of sideboarding, it’s a question of correctly reconfiguring your entire 75.
Simply put, it’s not enough to rely cards like Lava Coil or Kaya’s Wrath anymore. Those cards will be dead in an unacceptably high proportion of matchups. Instead, it’s time to go back to some fundamentals of deckbuilding, to question the orthodox logic of splitting cards between your main deck and sideboard, and to fill your deck with flexible answers that can deal with an incredibly wide range of threats.
Revisiting Default Card Choices
The good news is that we have the tools at our disposal to respond effectively to this shift in threat types and densities. War of the Spark contains plenty of powerful planeswalkers, sure, but it also includes plenty of effective ways to deal with them. Let’s run down the list, and discuss the best and worst ways to combat this planeswalker-heavy metagame.
Lightning Strike and Shock
It used to be that Lava Coil was the red removal spell of choice. Mono-Red still preferred its Lightning Strikes and Shocks as they could go upstairs, but generally speaking, exiling Arclight Phoenix or Rekindling Phoenix was enough of a priority to trade away not only instant-speed casting but also the ability to go for planeswalkers. That time is over. Arclight Phoenix is enjoying a small resurgence thanks to Finale of Promise, sure, but Lightning Strike and Shock are critical pieces of technology when it comes to contesting planeswalkers.
7 Forest 9 Mountain 1 Gruul Guildgate 4 Rootbound Crag 4 Stomping Ground 4 Gruul Spellbreaker 3 Living Twister 4 Llanowar Elves 4 Rekindling Phoenix 4 Skarrgan Hellkite 4 Thorn Lieutenant 4 Thrashing Brontodon 4 Legion Warboss 3 Domri, Anarch of Bolas 4 Lightning Strike 3 Sarkhan the Masterless 2 Shock 4 Lava Coil 3 Tibalt, Rakish Instigator
Killing a ticked-down Teferi, Narset, or Tamiyo is essential in ensuring opponents don’t pull too far ahead, and both Lightning Strike and Shock do it very neatly. You can also combine these burn spells with pressure from creatures to take down high-loyalty planeswalkers, something that Lava Coil can’t hope to do. If you’re unsure which red removal spells to play, make sure you give Lightning Strike and Shock due consideration.
Deputy of Detention
Deputy of Detention is a weird one. It’s flexible, sure—marvelously so in that it can take out more or less anything your opponent cares to play—but it’s fragile to the point of unplayability. While Detention Sphere was an important weapon in the arsenal of control decks years ago, the fact that Deputy of Detention dies to a slight gust of wind means it’s not cut out to go up against planeswalkers. Especially as it can reset low-loyalty planeswalkers when removed!
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking Deputy of Detention is a good way to contest planeswalkers. Not only will it never snag more than one of them (Jace, Cunning Castaway notwithstanding), it will eventually die and return its booty to your opponent. Deputy of Detention is much more at home in a more tempo-oriented strategy that can a kill a little quicker, like Esper Midrange.
1 Swamp 4 Glacial Fortress 4 Drowned Catacomb 4 Godless Shrine 4 Hallowed Fountain 4 Watery Grave 4 Isolated Chapel 1 Basilica Bell-Haunt 4 Deputy of Detention 4 Hero of Precinct One 4 Thief of Sanity 1 Despark 2 Duress 1 Mortify 2 Oath of Kaya 4 Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord 3 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria 3 Teferi, Time Raveler 4 Thought Erasure 2 Tyrant's Scorn Sideboard 1 Basilica Bell-Haunt 2 Cry of the Carnarium 1 Despark 2 Dovin's Veto 2 Enter the God-Eternals 2 Hostage Taker 2 Narset, Parter of Veils 1 Search for Azcanta/Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin 2 The Elderspell
Angrath’s Rampage and Bedevil
Grixis decks are putting in the work, and in some cases have come up with the goods. The decks are usually straightforward blue-black control decks splashing for Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God, but recently the red splash has become even more important to maximize both Bedevil and Angrath’s Rampage.
4 Watery Grave 4 Blood Crypt 4 Dragonskull Summit 4 Drowned Catacomb 4 Steam Vents 3 Swamp 3 Sulfur Falls 2 God-Eternal Kefnet 2 Angrath's Rampage 2 Bedeck/Bedazzle 4 Bedevil 2 Cry of the Carnarium 2 Enter the God-Eternals 2 Narset, Parter of Veils 4 Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God 4 Nicol Bolas, the Ravager/Nicol Bolas, the Arisen 2 Ritual of Soot 2 Search for Azcanta/Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin 4 Thought Erasure 2 Vraska's Contempt Sideboard 1 Cry of the Carnarium 3 Duress 1 Enter the God-Eternals 3 Legion Warboss 3 Moment of Craving 2 The Elderspell 2 Unmoored Ego
Both Angrath’s Rampage and Bedevil are perfect examples of powerful, flexible cards that will rarely be dead, even in a format as divergent as this one. Equally effective against creature-based aggro and slower planeswalker-based decks, these black-red removal spells do a lot of work in keeping your main deck relevant, no matter the matchup. Play these cards!
Spell Pierce and Absorb
Countermagic kind of sucks. Teferi, Time Raveler has made playing cards like Absorb and even Dovin’s Veto a huge liability, as they do stone-cold nothing once little Teferi is on the board. As a result, we’re seeing decks cut down on their copies of Absorb, Sinister Sabotage, Dovin’s Veto, and the rest.
There’s one counterspell, however, that is definitely worth playing—in the main deck, in my view—and it’s Spell Pierce. With such a wide breadth of the format playing obscenely powerful noncreature spells, Spell Pierce is the perfect answer. It’s cheap and effective, either forcing your opponent to play at glacial speed or walk right into your trap. And even better, it’s not dead against the rest of the format! Mono-Red plays Experimental Frenzy and Chandra, while Mono-White plays Conclave Tribunal and History of Benalia.
1 Clifftop Retreat 3 Glacial Fortress 4 Interplanar Beacon 2 Mobilized District 3 Sulfur Falls 4 Hallowed Fountain 4 Steam Vents 4 Sacred Foundry 4 Opt 3 Deafening Clarion 2 Karn, Scion of Urza 1 Lightning Strike 2 Mox Amber 4 Narset, Parter of Veils 3 Saheeli, Sublime Artificer 4 Sarkhan the Masterless 4 Shock 3 Spell Pierce 1 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria 4 Teferi, Time Raveler Sideboard 1 Deafening Clarion 3 Dovin's Veto 2 Lava Coil 4 Legion Warboss 2 Lyra Dawnbringer 3 Prison Realm
Spell Pierce might be a bad topdeck in the late game, but you’ll feel very intelligent indeed when you lead with two taplands and still counter their Teferi.
Perhaps the most obvious answer to a planeswalker-flooded metagame is The Elderspell, a card that really doesn’t have much in the way of subtlety. This has all the surgical finesse of a sledgehammer when dealing with planeswalkers, while providing you with potentially game-winning upside when you have a planeswalker of your own.
There’s a reason, however, why we’re only seeing it in the sideboards of the decks that play it. It’s way, way too much of a liability to draw this card in a matchup where it’s dead. With Mono-Red among the most-played decks in Standard, you can’t afford to have it in your main deck. Like Deputy of Detention, this card is something of a trap.
1 Forest 1 Breeding Pool 4 Hinterland Harbor 4 Overgrown Tomb 4 Woodland Cemetery 3 Watery Grave 4 Interplanar Beacon 4 Temple Garden 1 Hostage Taker 4 Jadelight Ranger 2 Massacre Girl 4 Merfolk Branchwalker 3 Paradise Druid 4 Wildgrowth Walker 3 Command the Dreadhorde 1 Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord 3 Tamiyo, Collector of Tales 2 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria 4 Teferi, Time Raveler 1 Ugin, the Ineffable 3 Vraska, Golgari Queen Sideboard 2 Assassin's Trophy 3 Duress 3 Kraul Harpooner 2 Negate 2 The Elderspell 2 Tyrant's Scorn 1 Unmoored Ego
Adapting To An Unusual Metagame
Like it or not, we’re in for a period of planeswalker-dominated Standard. Complaining about it is, of course, a very powerful line to take, but doesn’t do much in contesting the battlefield. No matter your opinion on planeswalkers—in general, in Standard—you need to have a plan to beat them.
But this can’t come at the cost of losing to other decks. The challenge here is to find the balance required to contest both creatures and planeswalkers concurrently, while still enacting a powerful game plan of your own. Some of the cards discussed today are a good starting point for this kind of thinking and of course, this list is anything but exhaustive.
Thought Erasure and Duress are excellent tools, Despark is useful in removing both top-end planeswalkers and other threats like Experimental Frenzy, and we might even come to a point where Prison Realm is called up to the big leagues! Any way you slice it, however, it’s essential you’re equally ready to fend off both Fanatical Firebrand and Teferi, Time Raveler.