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In Development – Developing Your Planeswalker Algorithm

 

I wasn’t playing Magic while Mirrodin was in Standard. By chance one day a Magic tournament was being held at the same venue as a Mechwarrior event I was competing in, and I stopped by to watch a game. One of the players said, “Affinity, affinity, affinity,” and dropped three cards into play without so much as touching his lands, and then finally tapped two lands to “equip” one card to another card. It was bizarre, and nothing like the Magic I recalled from several years earlier. I shook my head and went on to do battle with some toy giant robots, wondering just how drastically the game had changed in my absence.

After the fact, affinity turned out to just be a (poorly-playtested) alternate costing mechanic, but equipping was something new altogether. Since then, the game has evolved to include not just a couple new subtypes, but a whole new type in the form of planeswalkers. I can only imagine how confusing they must be for players who took a hiatus ahead of Lorwyn and have since returned.

Playing to type

I really like planeswalkers. I appreciate how they’ve expanded the scope of Magic play. They also align well with my normal play aesthetic, which involves doing stuff that happens on or interacts with the battlefield. When I play a control deck, rather than fight over whether or not stuff makes it onto the battlefield at all, I tend to prefer tilting the game state to my benefit or removing problematic cards as they arrive. I’m not arguing that this is a better approach, but it’s the one I tend toward, and it works well with planeswalkers.

Absent any survey data to back this up, my perception is that many current Magic players don’t have enough appreciation for planeswalkers, and as a consequence tend not to put much thought into how to use them, or whether or not to use them at all. Certainly, I can feel like I’m in a minority in that I need to check myself from simply slapping planeswalkers into every deck I make. I was even running Elspeth in one Gifts variation during the last Extended PTQ season.

My distilled understanding of planeswalkers as a concept is “game state advantage.” More than simple card advantage, this is the idea that a single planeswalker, when used properly, alters multiple components of the game state: card advantage, tempo, and board position.

The key here is that dubiously simple phrase “used properly.” How do we make sure we’re doing that?

Your algorithm

Two weeks ago I made offhand mention of my “algorithm” for using Elspeth. For the computer scientists I work with, an algorithm might best be defined as a set of rules that, when followed, will solve a given problem. More broadly, we can think of an algorithm as a specific decision-making process. Using that broad definition, we have all sorts of algorithms that we apply, consciously or otherwise, to how we play our cards in Magic. Do you always play creatures after combat? That’s an algorithm you’re applying – probably too strictly, in that case.

Realistically, this applies to all cards we play, but I think it’s of special utility in thinking about the planeswalkers because they so clearly have multiple distinct options each turn. Usually, we’re picking between the first two abilities. For some planeswalkers, you may end up seeing the third ability as a viable option in short order as well. I’ve seen many players get stuck using only one ability on a planeswalker, rather than pausing to reconsider based on the shifting game state. If you’ve given a little more thought in advance to how and when to apply each ability, you’ll avoid this pitfall.

“¦and you may even be more inclined to play planeswalkers, as you’ll start to see the value of all their abilities.

I’m going to spend the rest of my space today looking at our current pool of planeswalkers in this context. Speaking of context, we should keep in mind that a planeswalker’s utility is context dependent. I’ll talk about the current Standard environment below, but as should be clear from the relative enrichment of Tezzeret in Extended and Vintage, each planeswalker’s value will vary considerably across formats.

Ajani Goldmane

Originally derided and then subsequently elevated to temporary “best” status in B/W Tokens, I think Ajani is back to being undervalued. After adding him to my G/W Walkers deck, I now view Ajani Goldmane as a “better Oran-Rief.” Sure, he actually costs mana, but he also boosts all your dudes, gives them vigilance, and, like all planeswalkers, gives your opponent a second target.

My Ajani algorithm is usually quite simple – pump up my dudes. About the only thing to keep track of with Ajani is proper order of operations. If you have Elspeth out, make a soldier first. If you’re going to cast a creature, probably do that first. Otherwise, my usual goal with Ajani is to use his second ability until he’s down to 1 loyalty, then from that point on bounce between using his first and second abilities. The notable alternate use case is against a Red Deck Wins or burn-heavy Boros deck, where pumping your creatures is not as useful as having a continually growing source of life gain. My caveat here is that I think Ajani is not the best choice for this situation, but if you have nothing in your sideboard to replace him, that’s his best use.

I haven’t mentioned Ajani’s ultimate because I think it should almost never be used, unless your deck has misfired horrendously and you suspect you will not win without a creature on the battlefield right now.

 

Ajani Vengeant 

Ajani Vengeant is a multivalent threat, being effective against both certain breeds of aggro and control in general. In the current metagame, my inclination is to keep him in the sideboard as I don’t like playing him out against Jund.

Against draw-go control or a stalemated midrange-versus-midrange situation, my default action with Ajani is to use his first ability. This can help push an attack through or keep an opposing deck off tempo, but the main point is to threaten them with his ultimate, which I would go ahead and cash him in to use as soon as possible. The exception to this plan is when Ajani can assassinate an opposing planeswalker or kill a key creature (e.g. a [card]Lotus Cobra[/card], or an assisted kill on a Baneslayer).

Against aggro, I want to check in with my life total and the board situation when deciding what to do with Ajani. If I am at desperately low life, I will treat Ajani like a “Lightning Helix plus,” using him to remove an opposing creature and hopefully draw one attack or burn spell away from me. If I have a reasonable life total, then I have to weigh other factors. Do they have N+1 relevant attackers, where N is my number of blockers? By “relevant” I typically mean attackers that can take 3+ loyalty out of Ajani in one swing. In this case, I prefer to use Ajani’s first ability to lock down their best creature. Then, even if they have removal for one of my blockers, Ajani will likely survive a hit and give me time to pull more removal or additional blockers. If the board has developed such that there are more attackers, I will often use Ajani’s second ability to kill one of them and then default to the “just let them die” use case (see below).

I tend to be very cautious about even playing out Ajani when I’m behind on the board against aggro, unless I have no other options. If he has to be a “Helix plus,” so be it, but if I can drop blockers and sling removal instead, I’d prefer to keep him around to be an effective mid- to late-game control element.

Note that when possible, I do want to use Ajani’s ultimate, and I am willing to cash him in to do so. As long as you have a board position that is at least roughly equivalent to your opponent’s, the one-sided [card]Armageddon[/card] is game-ending.

Ajani Vengeant

At the moment, Chandra sees play in some Jund builds and in some RUW control decks. I think she’s a reasonable faux Ajani Vengeant in Jund, and tends to be Ajani copies five and six in those cases where Ajani can be played in the deck. This seems correct to me, as Ajani largely does the same thing as her, but better.

Unless I already have a dominating board position, my preference is to keep Chandra in my hand and treat her as a quirky, five-mana removal spell. As a consequence, my normal use pattern for Chandra is to cast her, kill a creature using her second ability, and then recharge her with her first ability until I need to kill another creature. If her ultimate ability can win the game immediately, I’ll use it. Otherwise, she is far more effective as a rechargeable creature-killing device than as a slow-rolled burn spell.

Chandra Ablaze

I have to admit to having no practical experience with Chandra Ablaze. When she was first unveiled, I thought she could potentially see play in the [card]Arc-Slogger[/card] position in a “Big Red” deck. The ability to toss your otherwise useless red cards for value or to reload with three burn spells might someday be useful. This suggests an algorithm for her, of course. If necessary, use her second ability to reload your hand. If possible, use her first ability to toss red spells for added value and then definitely cash her in for your ultimate. You will kill your opponent that turn.

 

Elspeth, Knight-Errant 

Underappreciated when she first came out, Elspeth is currently the most monetarily expensive planeswalker. I do think she’s that good, and even though I didn’t fully understand her value when I first picked mine up, I still contend that any planeswalker that generates threats while increasing in loyalty has to be good unless they’ve been engineered to be terrible.

As I described last week, my Elspeth algorithm is straightforward. Generally speaking, I check to see if I already have a creature I can hold back as a blocker. If not, I make a soldier. If so, I boost one of my attackers with Elspeth’s second ability. This behavior does change depending on the board position, of course. If I’m being swamped by small attackers, it’s pretty much “make dudes” all day until I’ve regained control. In contrast, if I’m bashing a control deck that doesn’t use sacrifice-based kill spells (e.g. Gatekeeper of Malakir), I don’t bother to make a soldier and proceed directly to “+3/+3 and flying” as long as I have a creature in play. Sometimes you lose a turn’s worth of Elspeth value due to having the creature killed out from under her ability, but an extra three damage per turn, combined with evasion, is worth that risk – especially since Elspeth is growing ever more loyal as you do so.

Although Elspeth’s ultimate ability is dramatic, I think there is almost never a need to use it. Practically speaking, I would only cash her in for her ultimate if I had a very strong board advantage (e.g. multiple creatures) versus my opponent, or it would let me generate a strong board advantage with the aid of a sweeper. Back during Lorwyn Shards of Alara Standard, I once cashed in Elspeth to make my creatures indestructible, then cast Wrath of God to convert a four-on-four into a four-on-none. That’s worth it. That said, if I can move Elspeth to nine loyalty and then use her ultimate, and my opponent has no burn spells, then I would do so.

Garruk Wildspeaker

The first “best” planeswalker, Garruk’s star has dimmed somewhat in a world of Bloodbraids and Blightnings. Indeed, his algorithm has been fairly dramatically altered by the presence of Jund, Boros, and Naya as kings of the metagame hill.

The prevalence of burn in the current metagame has heavily altered how we play Garruk. Previously, it often made sense to cast Garruk, make a beast, and then subsequently use his untap ability to ramp your mana. Now, my preferred method begins with checking to see if I need to use Garruk’s untap ability on this or the following turn. If so, and if I am not in immediate danger from my opponent’s attacking creatures, I will use Garruk’s untap ability. This ensures under most circumstances that I will still have Garruk on the following turn so I can benefit from his untap ability then. If I am in danger, or I don’t have a need for ramping on the following turn, I will make a beast.

Garruk is the planeswalker for whom ultimate use is simultaneously most practical and most plausible. In the mid- to late-game, if my board is reasonable and the loss of any one creature from my side won’t cripple an attack, I will use Garruk to untap two lands and will definitely cash him in for his ultimate on the following turn. However, do be careful to note that “won’t cripple an attack” clause. Don’t go all-in on an attack that requires all your creatures if you’re going to die to the retaliatory strike when you lose one or two of them.

Jace Beleren

Jace is sort of a benchmark for proper planeswalker algorithm development. Intuitively, we want to use his -1 ability until he’s gone, treating him as a slow-motion draw spell. In most cases, however, the proper use is to immediately give both players a card by using his +2 ability. This takes Jace out of burn range and means we get a total of two more cards before he becomes Boltable or Blightningable again.

This is pretty much how I use Jace. If I’m playing against an aggro deck, both players draw and I put him to 5 loyalty. If I’m playing against some variation on draw-go control that doesn’t run Lightning Bolt, I draw for myself twice, then both players draw, and so forth.

Liliana Vess

Liliana is my favorite planeswalker and thus one that I frequently find myself cutting from decks. She does two things I really like: searching for cards and grinding the opponent down with incremental discard. As a consequence, I throw her into builds, then find she’s not necessary and pull her back out.

In my experience, the correct use for Liliana starts by checking my hand to make sure I have a situation-appropriate play for the following turn. Do I need a Day of Judgment, or perhaps a Broodmate? If do not currently have the correct card in hand for the likely following turn, I use Liliana’s -2 ability to search it up. If my hand already has one or more active plays for the following turn, force your opponent to discard.

My biggest error in using Liliana comes from thinking, “Oh, I have time, I can search next turn” and then losing her to a Maelstrom Pulse or Oblivion Ring, having thus simply managed to cast a sad five-mana Cry of Contrition.

Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker

I admit I’m a little bit dubious about Nicol Bolas showing up in Standard. As cool as it was hearing about Gab Nassif no-permanenting someone with Bolas in one of the Standard rounds at this year’s Worlds, Bolas still costs eight mana. In general, I’d prefer to have Cruel Ultimatum instead. As a consequence, I don’t have practice-based suggestions for a Bolas algorithm.

I imagine that you’d prefer to choose the first ability to strip away lands, planeswalkers, and Ascensions whenever possible. In critical cases, such as a Baneslayer that’s about to kill you, you might want to go for the second ability instead. Clearly, the ultimate ability should be used as soon as possible under most conditions.

Nissa Revane

Nissa is usually very straightforward to play – simply use her first ability and tutor up 2/3s. Her second ability is obviously only useful when you have at least one elf out already, and is generally best reserved for critical cases, similar to when one might Helix with Ajani Vengeant, or to when you have three or more elves out and want a solid life bump. In the specific case of the Eldrazi decks, you may already have five or more elves in play when Nissa appears, which is a good case for just taking a ten point life bump right out of the gate before searching up more Chosen. Outside of Eldrazi decks, I don’t think it makes sense to play toward Nissa’s ultimate. My G/W Walkers build doesn’t gain much from having all eight elves in play, and the best elf in the format works much better when you actually cast it instead of searching it out with Nissa.

Although Nissa is quite vulnerable to Blightnings and Bolts, I don’t keep her in hand out of fear that she’ll be hit. Four mana for three life and a 2/3 creature – that is, what you get if you lose her to Blightning – makes her sort of a underpowered Loxodon Hierarch, but the reasonable likelihood that they don’t have either Blightning or Bolt makes it worthwhile, since a second Nissa activation pushes her out of range of both, and you can keep churning out Chosen from then on.

Sarkhan Vol

From overhyped to almost unplayed, Sarkhan Vol has the problem that his +1 ability is kind of mediocre and his -2 ability mirrors several cards that typically show up only conditionally as sideboard cards (e.g. Act of Treason and Slave of Bolas). I don’t think there’s a particularly strong case for playing Vol at all. That said, if you were in R/G and wanted that “Act of Treason“ type of finisher, one more mana for being able to use the effect two turns in a row seems like a solid choice.

That very theoretical understanding suggests that Vol’s entire use case is playing his second ability twice.

Sorin Markov

Sorin is the best planeswalker that’s not currently seeing a lot of Standard play. Unlike prior cases of underuse such as Elspeth, I think Sorin’s lack of use is justified based on the color-intensive nature of his mana cost. Although he would be awesome as a one- or two-of finisher in a Jund build, the peregrinations of mana base redesign this would require are simply too much. This relegates Markov to Vampires, which can be an okay deck, and mono-black control, which probably isn’t.

Sorin’s algorithm is neatly straightforward – use his first ability until you can use his ultimate ability. Then check to see if using a Mindslaver effect on your opponent will win you the game in the next turn or two. If so, use the ultimate (and appreciate the fact that you don’t have to cash Sorin in to do so). The -3 ability is very flavorful and a lovely tie-in to Zendikar’s vampires, but I think you need not consider it unless, like Chandra’s ultimate, it will give you a win this turn.

 

Tezzeret the Seeker 

Tezzeret is very much a special-use buddy in Standard. He searches up elements of your win state in Time Sieve combo. I don’t currently see a significant use for him outside of similar combo decks, such as some forms of Mill. Inasmuch as his use is strongly directed by the combo he’s supporting, I don’t have any general suggestions about using Tezz in Standard.

Cascade screws everything up

One special case to keep in mind when you’re running through your decision-making process with your planeswalker is the power of opposing cascades.

Let’s say we’re playing G/W Walkers and we have one Noble Hierarch and one Nissa’s Chosen on the battlefield. Our opponent is running a G/x midrange deck and has a Steward of Valeron and their own Hierarch. We can safely attack with the Chosen, cast the Nissa we have in hand, and +1 her to search up a second Chosen. Even if the opponent has removal for our new Chosen, we can chump with our Hierarch and keep Nissa intact.

Now imagine the same scenario for us, except the opponent is running Jund and has a very sad Goblin Ruinblaster that didn’t get to kill any lands when it came down. This time around, if we attack, we risk having the opponent cast Bloodbraid, cascade into Terminate or Lightning Bolt, and then swinging with everyone. It’s ugly.

The concise version is that cascade means you may need to alter your decision-making process such that you’re protecting your planeswalkers for one or two more turns than usual prior to turning them toward offense.

Just let them die

The other important use case for your planeswalkers is just letting them die. This can be hard to do. Our intuitive response is to save our board state. Sometimes, however, your opponent lines up four creatures to try and take down your Elspeth, forcing you to make a full set of terrible, uneven blocks that will maybe keep her around, if they don’t also have any removal.

The right play here is to just let them run on by and beat up your pal. It’s okay. She’ll just bug out and come back later when you cast another copy from your hand. In the meantime, your opponent has wasted a whole turn of attacking with multiple cards to take out one card, and you still have your life total and all your creatures.

Re-evaluate, re-evaluate, re-evaluate

Although I’ve paraded a list of my use cases and recommendations for planeswalkers here, my take-home message is simple. Pause, take a breath, and reconsider how you use your planeswalkers. In doing so, I think you’ll end up casting them at the right times, operating them more effectively once they’re on the battlefield, and using them more often and more powerfully during deck design.

Discussion

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