Nissa, Voice of Zendikar is now confirmed for Oath of the Gatewatch:
A 3-mana planeswalker is a rare treat! In the history of the game, there have only been 6 of them, and all have been playable in Constructed:
Although I felt underwhelmed by Nissa’s abilities at first, that was before I remembered the importance of mana costs. 3-mana planeswalkers have a great track record, and Nissa deserves a closer look.
+1: Put a 0/1 green Plant creature token onto the battlefield.
A steady stream of chump-blockers allows Nissa to protect herself, albeit unreliably. In Standard, the 0/1 Plants happily jump in the way of Anafenza, Tasigur, Nantuko Husk, Abbot of Keral Keep, Monastery Swiftspear, and so on, but they are useless against evasive creatures like Wingmate Roc, Thunderbreak Regent, Siege Rhino, Mantis Rider, or Den Protector. Still, a turn-3 Nissa will usually live for at least one turn.
What else do the 0/1 Plants offer? Well, they guard against Self-Inflicted Wound or Foul-Tongue Invocation, and offer excellent food for sacrifice effects like Nantuko Husk, Bone Splinters, or Evolutionary Leap. They’re great with pump effects such as Gideon’s emblem, Sorin, Retreat to Emeria, or Atarka’s Command. They can trigger raid for Wingmate Roc. And finally, they are perfect for your casual Avenger of Zendikar deck.
-2: Put a +1/+1 counter on each creature you control.
Nissa can pump one of her own Plants, but her global boost effect works best in conjunction with token strategies. Examples of Standard-legal cards that can flood the board with small creatures are Secure the Wastes, Dwynen’s Elite, Hangarback Walker, Hordeling Outburst, Gideon, Retreat to Emeria, and Sorin.
Since her boost only affects creatures currently on the battlefield, it will typically be worse than a Glorious Anthem. But exceptions could arise with cards that care about +1/+1 counters. Standard-legal examples include Hardened Scales, Hangarback Walker, Avatar of the Resolute, Abzan Falconer, Undergrowth Champion, Inspiring Call, and High Sentinels of Arashin. Oath of the Gatewatch also contains several new mechanics that care about +1/+1 counters, so we should pay close attention to those as well.
-7: You gain X life and draw X cards, where X is the number of lands you control.
The ultimate is expensive—you need to tick up unopposed for 4 turns. That’s tough, even with a free chump-blocker every turn. But it’s not impossible, especially if your deck contains a lot of removal for your opponent’s (evasive) creatures. And when you manage to activate the ultimate, it’ll likely be a Sphinx’s Revelation for 6 or 7, which should win the game for any reasonable midrange or control deck.
Where Does She Fit?
The most likely play pattern with Nissa is that, over the course of 3 turns, she provides a 0/1 Plant and a combined +2/+2 boost to your creatures. If you’re ahead, you’ll start with the -2, if you’re behind, you’ll start with the +1. But it will eventually amount to pretty much the same thing.
With that standard sequence in mind, I don’t think Nissa fits in a pure aggro deck because she is slow and her +1 ability doesn’t offer much to such a deck. Likewise, I don’t think she fits in a pure control deck where her -2 ability won’t help much. I also don’t think she fits in a Nantuko Husk deck because most of those decks run Collected Company, which means that all 3-drops should be creatures. A Hardened Scales deck is an option, but I’m a little hesitant because such decks have been underpowered, would have trouble using 0/1 Plants, typically don’t swarm the board with creatures, and already have great cards like Managorger Hydra for the 3-drop slot.
No, I think the perfect spot for Nissa is as a support card in a token deck—a deck that can generate creature swarm cards and a lot of pump effects. This way, you get to exploit both Nissa’s +1 and -2 abilities.
I’ll provide two sample lists to illustrate the direction I have in mind.
Bant Aggro Tokens
This is like a mix between Bant Megamorph and Bant Tokens. There can be blue countermagic in the sideboard, but the predominantly 2-color mana base provides much-needed consistency for the GG and 1GG spells. I think there is enough synergy potential for Nissa, Voice of Zendikar to be better than Deathmist Raptor or Nissa, Vastwood Seer in this deck.
This is like a mix between Abzan Control and Abzan Tokens. With Nissa, it becomes more of a Superfriends-style deck that eventually wins with a boosted token swarm. Although the 3-color mana base is demanding, I like how Nissa offers a unique effect for this deck.
I don’t expect Nissa to see as much play as, say, Domri Rade, but I envision her to be a nice support card for a Standard token strategy with Hangarback Walker, Secure the Wastes, Gideon, and other global boosts. She fills the dual role of token generator and anthem at a low mana cost, and that is a sweet value proposition.
There’s nothing wrong with having a tree as a friend.