We are in a period of planeswalker fatigue.
War of the Spark dumped the biggest load of planeswalkers on us we've ever seen, and while it was fun at first we are really starting to feel the after effects. While War of the Spark tried to scale the power of planeswalkers by depositing them up and down the rarities and adding in passive effects in lieu of loyalty abilities, they clearly missed the mark on some of them.
Teferi, Time Raveler and Narset, Parter of Veils were the worst offenders, offering a high power level to start with their loyalty abilities for only three mana. Furthermore, they both got stapled with two of the most obnoxious passive abilities in the whole set. Playing at instant speed and drawing cards are two of the things that make Magic, well Magic. Both cards not only constrict the game and drain out those fun elements, but are also so easy to forget that "passive punked!" is a common saying on my stream.
Thankfully, Wizards of the Coast recognized they went a bit too far in War of the Spark and decided to take it easy on the busted three mana planeswalkers.
Oh come on Wizards!
Oko, Thief of Crowns is just the latest in a long line of obnoxious and cheap planeswalkers that serve to invalidate whole handfuls of cards. Even more annoying is how hard it is to actually interact with Oko. Why it's middle ability is +1 loyalty and not -1 loyalty is behind me, but it's not uncommon to see an Oko in play with double digit loyalty which just gets insufferable.
I'm not here to argue that Oko, Teferi, or Narset aren't design mistakes (and we didn't even mention Wrenn and Six). However, I think they are endemic of a much bigger problem:
Planeswalkers Are Too Hard To Interact With
When it comes down to it, there just aren't that many good ways to interact with planeswalkers. There are essentially three main paths, beyond just ignoring them or very narrow answers like Sorcerous Spyglass.
You can kill them directly with cards like Hero's Downfall or Banishing Light, or counter them with cards like Negate, but these options are often very limited to the cards actually legal in the format and usually concentrated in Black and White. You also almost always end up down on the exchange as they've usually gained some sort of card advantage already.
You can burn them with direct damage spells, but this of course is only available to Red and carries not only the problem of being down on the exchange but often not being able to actually kill them if their loyalty is too high.
The last method, just attacking them, is usually the most effective as it never leaves you down on material. Quite the contrary, it's often that you can put your opponent down a card if you get to keep your attacker. However, creatures without haste often have trouble accomplishing this task if your opponent can play their planeswalker onto an empty board.
Barring a few odd exceptions like Vampire Hexmage, that's basically it. This is a problem, and, frankly, a flaw in how Magic is designed as a whole.
There isn't enough counter play available when it comes to planeswalkers, which leads to that dreadful feeling of snowballing advantage when one starts to go unchecked. This also encourages players to try and avoid the planeswalker battle by going way over the top with effects like Nexus of Fate or Field of the Dead, or go way under with hyper aggressive aggro decks, which can lead to miserable, polarized formats.
So what's the solution?
Get More Creative With Regards To Interacting With Planeswalkers
If you think about how we interact with creatures, we can do basically anything we can think of to them. We can:
- Kill them outright
- Deal them damage
- Increase/decrease their power or toughness or both
- Make them lose abilities
- Bounce them back to their owner's hand
- Remove their ability to attack/block or both
- Limit their ability to attack or block
- Add some sort of condition to attacking, blocking, or using abilities
- Steal them
- Make good/bad things happen when they enter the battlefield
- Copy them
- Make good/bad things happen when they leave the battlefield
And so on. This sort of flexibility is not afforded to planeswalkers. Sure, we can do some of the things listed here to them, but for the most part it's kill them or attack them (typically with a creature with haste).
So what if we printed more cards that interacted with planeswalkers in interesting and unique ways? Why not be able to mess with loyalty abilities, loyalty counters, limiting how often planeswalkers can be used, taxing them in some way, or creating other conditions that makes planeswalkers less simple than slamming down on an empty board and using every turn? When planeswalkers were first printed they were hesitant to even put the word "planeswalker" on a card, relying on cards like Vindicate or backdoor answers like Vampire Hexmage to deal with them rather than just printing "destroy target planeswalker." We obviously now live in a world of Murderous Rider and Bedevil, but we've gotta keep swinging the pendulum even harder towards interaction.
This one is a bit heavy handed, but putting this sort of effect on an easy to kill creature at least creates counter play. While I think this is a very reasonable card to print, this is a bit too nuclear for exactly what I'm talking about. The problem with interacting with planeswalkers is that it's too black and white; either the planeswalker dies or it goes on unchecked, I'm looking for more small ball answers that are playable in maindecks rather than full on sideboard monsters.
This is a bit more like it, providing a creature that is reasonable to play even if your opponent isn't playing planeswalkers. Annoying Goblin doesn't completely wreck your opponent's ability to play with planeswalkers, but it certainly can throw a wrench in their plans. A turn two Annoying Goblin makes playing Narset or Oko on turn three a much less exciting proposition and also creates interesting choices on the Annoying Goblin player's side; do you play Annoying Goblin on turn two? Or do you maybe wait until the turn before their important planeswalker would be cast?
Giving players the ability to "poke" planeswalkers feels very important. Right now only red can do that, and it creates a wider berth between just killing a planeswalker or not being able to touch it. Something like Spark Sucker is already a reasonably playable card as a 1 mana 2/1 with a reasonable creature type, but giving it this extra ability increases its value later in the game while making planeswalkers a bit of a liability.
Similar idea. Make a creature that is decent on its own that can mess around with planeswalkers. Make life a little more difficult for the planeswalker player without making it feel awful. Brain Drainer also plays great against Narset, Parter of Veils and other planeswalkers that can't or don't want to plus loyalty.
I posted on Twitter about this a few days ago to crowdsource and there were some great ideas, let's go over a few of those now.
From Emma Handy@Em_TeeGee):
I love this design. It doesn't stop your opponent from using their planeswalkers or benefiting from their effects, but it does make them have to think twice about what abilities they want to use and if they even want to use them at all. I'm a little worried that the creature isn't good enough for maindecks but the tension the ability creates is top notch.
From Rob Cucunato@Rob_Cucunato):
Another very clever one, where the difficulty in casting it scales proportionally with the difficulty your opponent has in playing their planeswalker. It's not hard to turn off Wrenn and Six or Narset, Parter of Veils with (no name), but stopping something like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria or Nicol Bolas, Dragon God is going to be much more of a challenge. And while not exciting, the rate you're getting for the creature is still reasonable.
From Ali Aintrazi@AliEldrazi):
While the details of this card are probably off, I love the idea of somehow being able to turn planeswalkers back into normal creatures. Again this creates a much more interesting game state than just killing them, and whether it's an enter the battlefield effect or a static effect at least your opponent is getting something out of their card. Let me take a shot at it:
Flavorful and effective, with a body that is still reasonable to play in a maindeck.
From Philip Rybak@PhilRyPolishGuy):
Again we're seeing a theme here - make it less easy for players to use planeswalkers! Create some sort of hoop that players need to jump through so they have to make tough decisions. Hateful Bear falls into the same problem that Null Rod Bear does in that it is probably only a sideboard card, but the design is in the right place.
Cut more from the Vampire Hexmage cloth of being great against planeswalkers without explicitly mentioning them, (no name) has more of the same effect we're asking for: make activating planeswalkers into a more interesting question than just "do this every turn."
There Are Other Ways
First off big thanks to everyone who interacted with my tweets and brainstormed some great ideas. I'm not surprised we had so many responses as this feeling of planeswalker fatigue has been lingering for a while now.
Planeswalkers are good for Magic. They are the face of the game in many ways, essential to the story, a great face to sell packs. However, there needs to be checks and balances. We are way too far on the side of planeswalkers feeling oppressive and obnoxious and that balance needs to shift. This can be done with good, clever design that makes interacting with planeswalkers an interesting part of game play rather than just a chore.
What do you think? What kind of card or mechanic would you design to make interacting with planeswalkers more fun?