The Trouble with Planeswalkers

by Chris McGinty (According To Whim .com)

This is about Magic: The Gathering, so if you have no interest in Magic, or CCGs, or whiny writers, please read some of our other blogs. I will try to make this mildly funny for those of you who are mildly interested. Why did the chicken cross the road? Well, I mean, when the Godfather is offering you protection and steady work that doesn’t involve batter and a frying pan, and all you have to do is rat out a road that never did nothing but create road kill. Nevermind, I’m not going to try to be funny.

Recently they had to make a couple of card bannings in Standard. This wouldn’t have caught my attention at all, except that one of the banned cards was a Planeswalker. To be honest, this wouldn’t have caught my attention either, if not for the first time I saw it, when I thought, “Oh, that’s a mistake.”

Before I go on, I want to explain what kind of player I am. I’m the type of player who enjoys thinking about what I can do and what I should do. I’m the type of player who likes to play against people with a similar outlook. Unfortunately, I play on Magic Online most of the time, so I rarely play games of that nature.

When I play Magic, I build a deck where I get to do as much as I can. I don’t understand players who build decks that do nothing but look for the win combo. It’s like circling a Monopoly board and doing nothing, except hope you land on both Boardwalk and Park Place; and then when someone else buys one of those two properties, you announce that you’re going to go watch TV instead.

If I could do something in absolutely every phase of the game, on my turn and on my opponents turn, I would. The only time I skip through my turn is if it’s very early game, or if it’s more of a disadvantage than an advantage to do anything, or if I have a bad hand. Even if I don’t attack, I at least think about whether I should. I would hate playing a game of Magic where I skipped through my turn for half of the game waiting to draw a specific card or cards.

I play with cards that give me card advantage, not to get through my deck to my combo faster, but so that I can do more. I play with cards that are useful, but more powerful when there is a condition met (Cruel Revival is a great example). I use cards that, once on the battlefield, give me options for unused mana, and for reactionary play. I like it when the board reaches a game state where I can do something with my deck that 98% of the time I would never pull off, but I notice it, I do it, and I put myself at an advantage.

I want to deal with why Planeswalker is the one card type I really don’t like. I want you to keep in mind that I’m the type of person who would like to, over time, use all of the cards printed in Magic in at least one deck, even if I have to do some proxy decks. I doubt this will ever happen, but if I could I would. I look at a card and I don’t think about whether the card is good or not. I think about what can be done with it, whether to good effect or not.

An example of this is that I like the Onslaught Cycling lands. Having a land card that can be easily cycled for another card in late game is great. It sucks in early game though when you have to play them to have mana. Then I got hold of a copy of Hallowed Ground. It’s an enchantment that allows you to return a non snow covered land to your hand for two white mana. The idea of tapping the Cycling land for its own mana, and paying two white mana to return it to your hand and cycle it, once you have enough land out, is great to me. It’s not very powerful at all. I just like that fact that it works.

So for me not to like a card, it takes a lot. Here are some flaws about Planeswalkers.

They’re Enchantments with Life Totals – Yes, I said it. They are not even that interesting of a card type. They are powerful, and if you like power cards, then that makes them interesting to you. In function though, they get put on the board and sit there like an artifact or an enchantment. The big difference being that Magic R&D made a strange decision a long time back. They would not print a card that read “Destroy target Planeswalker.” They would create cards that said that in a roundabout way, but not exactly. Terror, Shatter, Naturalize. These are all highly effective cards that help keep cards from being banned. Instead, what will destroy some Planeswalkers is having a Lava Axe handy on your first turn after a Planeswalker comes into play. Not a Shock. Not a Lightning Bolt. And Lava Axe isn’t effective against all Planeswalkers. Call me a spoil sport, but if I build a burn deck around killing my opponent with a Lava Axe, which I do like to do, I want to use it on my opponent. Karn Liberated effectively reads: 7 generic mana allows you to gain 6 life, unless your opponent chooses to ignore this card, then you may gain 4 more life and your opponent exiles a card from his or her hand, and if he or she happens to be running ten lands on the board and two Lava Axes, you better hope he or she has to exile one of those. Now, I realize that there are those out there who might say “Just run Vampire Hexmage.” The problem is that when every deck has to run the same answer, the game suffers. I have only ever won two games where my opponent played a Planeswalker, and one is only because I drew, and played, Confiscate.

They Circumvent Mana – It seems like every time they ban a card it’s the same culprits. It either has an alternate casting cost, or it was too efficient at splashing into parts of the colour pie that it shouldn’t (usually artifacts). While Planeswalkers require mana to be cast, they have abilities that have no cost. They’re activated abilities that might as well be triggered abilities, because who would choose not to play them, and who would choose not to use the add ability, at least until you can use the big ability? If you had to pay mana you would consider your options at least. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t think of too many cards that have ongoing advantage that don’t have a cost of some sort. Even Bushido requires blocking or being blocked. Even Hollow Dogs requires that you attack.

Rarity Is a Minor Factor Except in Draft – Another way to circumvent mana is to cost a card lower based on the fact that it will come up less in limited play. If I could foresee Jace being banned as a casual observer, then maybe Magic R&D should have seen it. To be fair, I look at most of the Planeswalkers and think they’ll be banned, so maybe it’s not that I specifically predicted Jace, but that I at least predicted a Planeswalker would be. Jace was just the one where I looked at it and thought, “It costs that much to draw a card, and this guy does a lot, lot more than draw a card.” Being a “mythic rare” does not mean, “cost this card about three or four mana lower than it should have been.”

Control Decks – Any card that can win more or less on its own as long as it’s in a heavy control deck should be very suspect. Planeswalkers are designed with that in mind. Look! Here’s a card that as long as you can counter all of your opponents spells that would get rid of it, you can win in about two to three turns after you have it out. Even if you don’t win your opponent will be so crippled that they won’t recover. And look! Here’s one that is severely undercosted in blue, where you get all those handy dandy counter spells.

Power Level – I worry sometimes that what has happened in Magic is that there were sets in the past that allowed turn one wins in a Standard environment. I think that most players don’t want that, but I wonder sometimes if R&D is afraid of not selling cards if they slow down the game even more than they have since then. And if the players on Magic Online are any indication, they should be afraid. These are people who will concede before turn one if they can’t mulligan the cards they want into their hand.

Lack of a Way to Deal with Them – I discussed this above, but I felt it could be revisited briefly. The company that brought you the “can’t be countered” hoser cards has twice in the last few years said, we’re going to create cards that can’t be hosed. There will be ways to deal with Planeswalkers, but they will be largely ineffective, and won’t be worded to be an obvious hoser. Then they said there will be no way to deal with Poison. Bret Michaels won’t go away, so neither should our precious counters. At least if poison just did two damage rather than giving you a counter, you could gain life to avoid losing. Let me also state for the record that encouraging players to play counter spell decks just because it’s almost the only way to effectively deal with two recent strategies, is pretty regressive.

With all of this said, I have been pretty happy overall with the game of Magic. Sometimes I see cards that I don’t want to have to face when I’m using my lower powered decks, but I recognize that they are interesting cards. My issue with Planeswalkers is that I see them as poorly designed overpowered cards. I find a couple of the actual abilities to be interesting, but not the card type in general. I bagged on Infect above (in a roundabout way, like Planeswalker kill cards are written), but at least when I saw the mechanic I thought it was a pretty brilliant idea. I just feel that you should be able to hose it. I guess it makes damage prevention more powerful than it was before. If nothing else.

1 thought on “The Trouble with Planeswalkers

  1. I am a recent returning player to the game, and I've been feeling EVERYTHING you've written here. Usually with hyper powerful cards there was some kind extra cost, or extra mana cost involved to activate an ability, where as with the planeswalker card type often the ability to make them work up to an ultimate ability is highly beneficial to the game on the side of the owner of the planeswalker. So you're not alone, I would like to just see them evaporate into the mists of the game known only as a failed experiment, unbalancing the game the point of sacrificing core game-play.

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