Planeswalkers in Commander have suffered a rather violent past. When planeswalkers first showed up in Lorwyn, they were a mostly unknown entity. No one had seen a permanent that could do so many things, and most players were unsure if they were good or bad. In most cases, the default was, “I don’t know, so let’s kill it.”
This attitude has proven to be rather pervasive from one group to the next. Planewalkers tend to draw hate faster than the other players in many games! For many of my early games, planeswalkers quickly became one-shot wonders; I would get to use an ability once, then the planeswalker would be right off the board. It didn’t take long to see that I could get the same effect for far less mana, or at instant-speed, and not include the planeswalker.
The only way to get a second crack at your planeswalker’s ability was a wall of creatures to protect it. Now we are seeing more and more cards that allow you to destroy a permanent generally or a planeswalker specifically, so even the wall of creatures won’t save them anymore!
In the last couple of years, this attitude appears to be changing. Some planeswalkers are getting more space to maneuver, and the volume of planeswalkers available has gone way up. I wanted to take a quick look to determine if the “kill on sight” mentality from the early days of planeswalkers should continue to hold true today, or if players were overestimating the value of planeswalkers.
What do Planeswalkers Offer?
The most obvious and primary offering from planeswalkers are the abilities. Whether we are talking about untapping lands, drawing cards, looting, destroying permanents, creating tokens, creating emblems, or whatever else, the abilities on the card are what drive players to play with planeswalkers. The real key though, is that once you’ve played the planeswalker, the effect is free. Keeping planeswalkers in play for multiple turns means that you are getting multiple effects, all for free!
This is what makes planeswalkers so good, especially in multiplayer games. An artifact that can tap for mana every round is generally seen as solid, as long as it costs two or less. If you change it so that it taps for mana or taps to do something else, or even a third thing, suddenly you start to realize how good a planeswalker can be. The joy lies with the fact that this means planeswalkers can be good in a wide variety of situations! A straightforward +1 ability on a four mana planeswalker is something that can be useful in the early game. If a -1 ability is good in the late game, then suddenly you have a card that is useful for most of the game. We all include cards that are only good in one facet of the game, so including a planeswalker should be a no-brainer!
For multiplayer formats, this is even more important. Getting repeated use from a single card is essential in a format where you have multiple opponents. You often don’t draw enough cards or have enough mana to deal with all of your opponents, so a permanent that can give you something over and over, at no cost, is a great inclusion in most decks.
Planeswalkers also offer something I like to call a “meat wall.” You remember a past game when an opponent was simply mana screwed and could do nothing? Perhaps you were on the back foot and digging through your library for answers, while the aggressor was trying to take you out as quickly as they could. Your mana-screwed opponent was a “meat wall.” The aggressor attacked the meat wall for a few turns to eliminate them. In the end, you got to draw a few cards deeper into your deck.
Planeswalkers offer that same option. Many times they can do something that your aggressor opponent has to deal with before swinging at you. This can buy you a turn or two to dig deeper into your library. This is not the optimal use of a planeswalker to be sure, but it is something to consider. In those situations, you have essentially added to your life total.
Finally, it should be noted that playing a planeswalker can often draw unwanted attention to you. You might not be doing anything particularly special, but playing a planeswalker can be enough to draw attention to you in a way you don’t want. While the most tried and true way to get rid of a planewalker is to attack it, killing you also works.
What Makes a Good Planeswalker
For the longest time, a good planeswalker was one that could protect itself. Some would tap down a creature, some would create token creatures, some would use mass removal to wipe the board. A planeswalker that could protect itself then had another ability that would also be useful. In combination, this meant that your planeswalker would stay on the battlefield and you would get repeated uses.
With multiplayer, you need to look a little more carefully. Tapping down a creature or creating a 1/1 token can stop a specific threat, but with multiple opponents, all it takes is one person to dismantle your defense and the next to hit your planeswalker. Suddenly the ability to protect itself needs to be more. Multiple token creatures, Propaganda-style effects, indestructible creatures or mass removal are viable options but many others just aren’t enough.
The cost of a planeswalker also has a significant effect. If your planeswalker’s focus is getting you mana, but it costs six, just how good is it? If the planeswalker draws a card but that is a -2 effect on a 4 loyalty planeswalker, how much are you willing to pay?
Early planeswalkers were something that you could put in just about any deck that had those colors. A Green planewalker was going to help you ramp. A Blue planeswalker was going to help you draw cards. A Red planeswalkers was going to do direct damage. These are all things those colors tend to do, so you tended to want them in any of your decks that included those colors.
Recently, Wizards has moved away from these open use planeswalkers to ones that are a little more specific. As long as your deck does a particular thing, that planeswalker will be helpful, but otherwise, it offers little. This opens up a lot of space to make more planeswalkers without risking a build that would be far too powerful, or very repetitive.
This tends to mean that you want to be more careful in choosing to add a planeswalker to your build, as it may fall flat.
So do I Destroy it or Not?
The reason for the article is Atraxa. The deck packs multiple planeswalkers and uses Atraxa to increase the loyalty counters on all of them. Any deck that offers multiple ways to get effects that cost nothing will eventually win. I have regularly seen players simply stop targeting the planeswalkers because there doesn’t seem to be a point. Even if there is no defense at all, if three players attack three planeswalkers, Atraxa is often capable of bringing their loyalty counts close to where they were, making the attacks moot. This leads to players simply not attacking the planeswalkers anymore. This in turn allows several of them to get their ultimate abilities to trigger, and that is when things really go downhill.
Given all of this, there is no straightforward answer, and there probably never was. If you always attack a planeswalker, there will be times when you should be swinging elsewhere, or just swinging directly at the opponent. I recently had a game where I ignored a threatening planeswalker because I was confident that the better plan was to take out the player without wasting turns on the ‘walker.
Given that, is there a general rule you can rely on? I tend to look at planeswalkers in the way I described them earlier in the article. If your opponent had an artifact that could tap for mana, or tap to make a token, or tap to destroy an artifact, how highly would you rate it? For me, that artifact would likely be a kill on sight card since it has so much flexibility and likely has something to do every turn. Given that planeswalkers also tend to be able to do something every turn, I lean the same way with planeswalkers. Give me a reason not to swing.
Planeswalkers demand an accurate threat assessment. We have seen them long enough now and should be able to recognize when one is a threat or not. The key is to not be overwhelmed and be prepared to break down not only which opponent is the biggest threat, but which planeswalker is the bigger threat. Between Atraxa builds and the volume of planeswalkers available, you now must be able to accurately assess how dangerous each ‘walker is and act accordingly.