Planeswalkers represent the most exciting card type in Magic: the Gathering. Not only are they the newest card type, introduced in the Lorwyn block, but they can be extremely powerful. When a new set hits the shelves, the planeswalkers generally lead the charge by giving a recognizable face and personality to that set. Recently, we have seen the dominance of planeswalkers in Standard. Innistrad stormed the scene, led by Liliana of the Veil, the summer passed with the banning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and all-star appearances by Elspeth, Venser, Gideon, and Koth flank many of Standard’s most powerful strategies.
The planeswalkers’ prominence in Commander has been equally impressive. Not only are the ’walkers great in sixty-card Constructed decks, they have also found a sweet home in hundred-card Highlander decks over the last four years. In fact, some of the planeswalkers that have never really found a home in Standard, Modern, or Legacy have settled in nicely alongside a hefty brew of singleton cards.
Over the next few weeks, this column will embark on a deep exploration of the planeswalkers and their power and relevance in Commander, and it will conclude with a polished Commander archetype called Planeswalker Party. This journey will highlight all of the planeswalker options in deck construction, flavor, and fun, building up to a zenith deck list that has secured nearly fifty Commander-league pod victories!
As of the Innistrad set release, there have been fifteen different planeswalkers introduced to paper Magic. Many of this initial fifteen have seen multiple printings, and an elite group has seen multiple versions. Let’s walk through a quick overview of our planeswalker personalities and their various incarnations.
Ajani is one bad cat. His original version popped up in the Lorwyn block. He was among the first five planeswalkers printed. If you are newer to Magic, you might note that the original, monocolored planeswalker cycle predated the introduction of the mythic card rarity. Therefore, the first planeswalkers could be found sporting little golden leaves in the Lorwyn packs.
By the time Ajani Vengeant hit print, Wizards had bumped the planeswalkers to the new mythic-rarity status, and these cards have been rocking the burnt-orange, chase-rarity symbol ever since. To date, Ajani Vengeant has been the only planeswalker to appear on a prerelease promotional card (October 3, 2008). Both versions of Ajani work well in Commander.
Ajani Goldmane is best suited in mono-White decks, and it’s amazing for pumping up token armies with his −1 ability. He also fits neatly alongside a life-gain subtheme. His +1 gains a couple of life and might lead to an eventual −6 ultimate, plopping a 44/44 flying Avatar onto the battlefield. For a converted mana cost of only 4, Ajani Goldmane can be a bargain. However, he has a few downsides. This version does not really have an early ability enabling self-protection. Therefore, you have to take some time to set him up if you want him to stick around. He also has built into his mana cost, giving him a slight push into mono- or dual-colored decks.
Ajani Vengeant, in contrast, only taxes players for a single and . If you are already building with these colors, Ajani can be a valuable member of your squad. His +1 ability is really great in Commander and works well in midrange and later-game control decks. His “doesn’t-untap” ability can be used to neutralize fast-mana-producing artifacts, to lock down troublesome lands, or simply to strap down an opposing creature. As you advance this version of Ajani, you march toward a brutal −7 ultimate, in which you access a one-sided Armageddon pointed at your greatest foe. I typically shy away from land-destruction as a personal preference, but somehow I feel justified using Ajani’s ultimate because of the skill required to pull it off. Further, Ajani Vengeant’s −2 ability can deal 3 points of clutch damage to a troublesome creature while netting you a little life-gain. If you have a way to keep building Ajani’s loyalty counters, the Lightning Helix on a cat can really pay dividends over a longer game.
Both versions of Ajani can make a splash in Commander. You basically pick which version suites your deck style, and run with it. I tend to play more games with Ajani Vengeant sleeved up, but my wife almost always runs Goldmane in her mono-White builds alongside tribal Cats, Soldiers, and Commander Ghosts.
As one of the original five planeswalkers, Chandra has seen her share of versions printed in Lorwyn, the core sets M10 and M11, Zendikar, and her newest incarnation in M12. To date, Chandra has been reserved for red mages. Her initial version, Chandra Nalaar, is not that exciting to me. Her +1 ability allows you to deal a single point of burn to a player. There are corner cases in which this might be relevant, but, outside of Bloodthirst, it is nothing to write home about. The −X ability enables a bit of spot removal for creatures, but dealing a couple points of damage to remove one, or even two, creatures is not all that relevant in Commander. The format is filled with efficient spot removal and board wipes. Once you have accumulated 8 or more loyalty counters, you have the option to −8 her ultimate ability and sock a target opposing player and his creatures for 10 damage. This is fairly sweet, but might be a little awkward in multiplayer, and it can be achieved for less work.
Chandra’s second version—Zendikar’s Chandra Ablaze—is considerably more interesting in Commander. Red mages can discard Red spells to deal 4 damage to players or creatures. While the +1 does “cost” you a card from hand, it seems way more relevant than dealing a player 1 point of damage. If you play Squee, Goblin Nabob, that Red card loss can be minimized. Further, if you build your deck to synergize with the ability, you can go about the business of popping Chandra’s −7 ultimate ability. Imagine filling up you graveyard with a mix of spicy instant and sorcery spells in order to play all of those spells without paying their mana costs. This final ability synergizes well with the newly printed Past in Flames, and it might give Red players a chance to revive the devastating effects that cards like Insurrection can have on a Commander game.
While the two early versions of Chandra taxed deck-builders with in its casting cost, her newest version, Chandra, the Firebrand, only requires a the dedication of a single Mountain. Commander players should be thrilled at the value and playability of the Firebrand. Not only are we seeing the most inexpensive version of Chandra, but the kind folks at Wizards felt it was time to give the fiery planeswalker some tempting lower loyalty abilities. While her +1 is still not that interesting, we do see diversity in where we can point the burn. This time, she hits other players or creatures. Chandra’s −2 is quite fetching. I like to pair this ability with decks. It is perfectly suited next to Tezzeret’s Gambit. Not only can you cast the spell twice and draw 4 cards, but you can also proliferate two times for a net loss of 0 loyalty counters. I have seen players use the −2 ability to take a couple of extra turns (read: four) with Time Stretch, to make some sick extra copies with Cackling Counterpart, and to otherwise generating a great deal of value from the great spells that we have available in our beloved format. Some folks have taken a kinder route and noted that “you may choose new targets” for the copied spells, and they’ve politically allowed aligned players in large multiplayer games to benefit from certain crafty abilities. I have given a choice player extra turns to catch up on lands, and I’ve stabilized the board in the face of a great threat.
The versions of Chandra became consistently better over time. We started with Chandra Nalaar, which does not really impress Commander players, but Chandra progressed to two versions that can certainly find a home in many Red decks. The newest version seems to have it all. She has an interesting −2 ability and a cost-effective −6, while being costed in a way that she might fit into many types of decks.
While the various versions of Chandra never really do much to protect themselves, Elspeth usually contributes to building up your defenses and does a nice job of holding off opposing forces as you build toward her ultimate abilities. Elspeth did not make an appearance as one of the original five planeswalkers, but is certainly one of the most popular planeswalkers among both competitive and casual players. Elspeth, Knight-Errant first appeared in Shards of Alara. She was a magical combination of a 4-mana planeswalker that protected herself with a +1 Soldier-generating ability, another +1 ability that allowed your creatures to nab Flying for the turn with a +3/+3 boost, and the ability to quietly assemble loyalty counters that could be cashed in for one of the best ultimate abilities of all time. Once you use her −8 ultimate, you gain an emblem that makes your artifacts, creatures, enchantments, and lands Indestructible. I have rarely seen a player lose a game once he’s earned Elspeth’s emblem.
Her applications in Commander are vast. She pumps tokens out for tokens decks, gives control builds a board presence while they fend off attackers, and can offer your ground-bound Commanders a chance to fly over opposing forces to punch through some Commander damage. While I typically try to play “protect the queen” until she can earn the emblem, her diverse abilities give Commander players some cool tricks, and she should fit into most decks that can support payments.
Elspeth Tirel could be considered a dialed-back version of the original. She will cost players an additional mana to hit the board. She has a +2 allowing you to gain a life for each creature you control. Therefore, she plays pretty well once you have a board presence. If you are running a token deck and trading punches with your opponents, this planeswalker can give you legs for the long game. She will keep you at a healthy life total while you go about the business of pumping out tokens and other creatures. If you run out of cards or your other creature-making engines stall, Elspeth does double duty. Her −2 ability will drop three Soldiers onto your battlefield.
She protects herself, and, like Knight-Errant, she can march toward a sweet ultimate ability. Tirel’s ultimate ability might be her best characteristic. She comes into play with 4 loyalty counters, and after gaining a little life or after proliferating, she is ready to destroy all other permanents except for lands and tokens. She can completely wipe out opposing planeswalkers, artifacts, beefy creatures, and troublesome enchantments. If played “correctly,” she can stick around to repeat this process multiple times over the course of the game, until an opposing player finds and answer.
While both versions of Elspeth sport in the mana cost, greedy multicolored decks will almost always want access to the supplement of troops and flashy ultimate abilities offered on each card. Elspeth, in either incarnation, should work very well in Commander decks. She is among the best picks for Commander, and players might want to consider adding her to the ranks if she has been previously overlooked.
Next Week’s Walkers
Today’s article covered three of the possible planeswalkers Commander players might want to drop into their decks. We talked about the strengths of Ajani, Chandra, and Elspeth. We have twelve planeswalkers left to review and about twenty more individual cards. Each of the following articles will tackle new ’walkers and will build toward the revelation of a really sweet Planeswalker Party deck list, which is guaranteed to impress.
Planeswalkers are the most exciting cards in Magic, and they fit perfectly into Commander decks. Which one has been your favorite to play? Did we cover it in today’s article, or will it pop up in Part 2 or Part 3? Thanks for reading and leaving your comments. See you next week for a fresh look at more great Magic cards that you really want to be playing in your Commander decks.