Monday, January 19, 2015

kill reviews addendum: planeswalkers

The best way to think about Planeswalkers is that they’re aliens. While they might be printed with the set whose icon adorns them, they are not of the set. They are from elsewhere, and everything about them, from their mechanics to their name and aesthetic highlights their other-ness.

Their debut in Lorwyn certainly stunned the playerbase like a visit from extraterrestrials: a combination of “what the fuck?” to “where do we go from here,” then a lot more thinking, then back to “what the fuck?”

They weren’t the first new card type recently (that would be Tribal), and we had come to expect a certain amount of foreign-ness and new-ness from current releases; they were, after all, new. But Planeswalkers were different. The thing that struck me the most, more than any other aspect, was that no one can figure out how they work just by reading the card. This is unlike any new cards released since Alpha.

This is different from, “the rulebook explains some of the corner cases,” or “it has a new mechanic that doesn’t have reminder text, because that wouldn’t fit on the card.” There is no reminder text anywhere for Planeswalkers, because it would take up an entire card by itself. (In fact, three of the “tips and tricks” inserts in Lorwyn were dedicated toward explaining different aspects.)

They aren’t just alien visitors to the plane, or the set, they are alien visitors to our game. They look and feel like something from a completely unrelated TCG that happens to have had its rules text translated to work in Magic.

My favorite part about Planeswalkers used to be that it was never mentioned in rules text. As visitors to Lorwyn, of course Lorwyn wouldn’t have the spells available that say DESTROY TARGET PLANESWALKER. They had no idea what those things were! Instead, Lorwyn gets sneaky and gives us things like Gaddock Teeg, Primal Command, or even Rootgrapple. These are the tools left lying around that are converted into makeshift weapons against the newfound enemy. Maybe I’m just being sentimental about something that was a cool little touch, but I felt like we really lost a bit of the alien vibe once New Phyrexia went and used the word “Planeswalker” in rules text. It would be like Wizards acknowledging the secondary market.

Unlike normal cards, which have all their design decisions baked into the cards themselves, every rule relating to Planeswalkers is, itself, part of the design. If they could, for example, be activated at instant speed (which people were initially clamoring for), they’d play in a totally different way. The seven years since Lorwyn’s printing have shown the design to be… rock-solid, really. The “can attack them as though they’re players” bit provides for a lot of interesting gameplay decisions, and leads to a lot of activations of loyalty abilities that need to be planned several turns in advance. Planeswalkers were slated for a debut in Future Sight, but got pushed back because they weren’t quite ready; that extra bit of prep time, that ability to say “this isn’t finished yet,” really proved itself worth it in the time since the debut.

Any discussion of the original Planeswalkers has to mention how beautiful they are. The creative department did a fantastic job of conceiving them, then handing them off to Aleksi Briclot, one of the game’s most inspiring artists. Just look at his Liliana compared to anyone else’s; the level of evil from it isn’t even close to the newer portrayals. It wasn’t just him, though. The graphic designers did great work, too, making it seem like they were literally bursting out of the cards at us. The subtle half-full-art style, with the background faintly on top of the art, gives an impression that these cards aren’t capable of containing their power.

The basic pattern of Planeswalker abilities has held on most of them since the beginning: plus ability, minus ability, ultimate. The best of the Planeswalker designs are the ones that are the densest: that is, they build so much strategy and gameplay into the fewest number of words. The original Lorwyn walkers mostly did a good job of making all three abilities relevant in the majority of games; other Planeswalkers haven’t been as successful. My least favorite thing that some of them do (Jace the Mind Sculptor is especially guilty of this) is have a basically-unattainable ultimate with a buttload of text that reads “you win the game barring a weird corner case.” You basically don’t have to read the text until you activate it. I much prefer the style of Garruk Wildspeaker, where the ultimate is always in view, and can deal the killing blow, but not win the game by itself.

I have to wonder if the Lorwyn walkers were so successful just by blind chance, or whether they were subjected to ten times as much testing as the ones that came later. Ajani, Jace, and Garruk hold up well compared to newer designs; Chandra feels a bit clunky with its five-mana cost for an insignificant +1, and Liliana Vess has always suffered from not being able to defend herself.

Over time, as the developers learned more about what makes Planeswalkers tick, the design formula shifted from “plus minus ultimate” to something that’s generally useful but doesn’t defend the Planeswalker, a defensive ability, and an ultimate. Planeswalkers live and die by the defensive one (or mostly just die if they lack it). Back when Shards came out, people got extremely excited about Sarkhan Vol. He didn’t work out for exactly this reason.

It was about two and a half years from the introduction of Planeswalkers until the first real fuck-up of a Planeswalker got printed. Jace, the Mind Sculptor: he was the poster child for Worldwake, and when everyone had their jaws hanging open at his debut, I was still skeptical. I reasoned to myself: he’s being used to sell the set! Of course he’s going to look way better than he really is!

Obviously, I was wrong. He really was just that powerful, and had gotten shipped out in the current form due to a time crunch and last-minute changes (also the story behind Skullclamp, Umezawa’s Jitte, and other busted cards). What else can be said about him? He’s a four-mana spell that’s good enough for Vintage decks. Even in a powered cube draft, he’ll get taken over any other spell that actually Does Stuff.

But even with Planeswalkers at the most absurdly powerful they’ll ever be, their core design shines through. In a recent Legacy cube draft, I picked him first in the opening pack and was delighted. Then, when I got him in play… I remembered that I had no earthly idea how to use him to win the game. Was I… supposed to plus him until ultimate? Was I supposed to Brainstorm? I remembered seeing a lot of better players using the Brainstorm, so I did that.

The reason I can feel that Planeswalkers are a success is that non-Planeswalkers can be described as whether they act “like a Planeswalker” once they’re in play, and people know what I mean. Master of the Wild Hunt definitely acts like a Planeswalker, while Thrun, the Last Troll doesn’t. A Planeswalker card is an implicit promise to the player: “let me do my thing, and I’ll win the game by myself.” There aren’t many other cards in Magic (especially ones of those mana costs) that can reliably make the same promise.

I’ve mentioned before how I’ve mostly moved to League of Legends as my game of choice, and there are some obvious comparisons to be made between Planeswalkers and the champions of that game. Each of them has a limited number of abilities, including (usually) an ultimate. They even get released at roughly similar paces. The best-designed Planeswalkers, like the best-designed champions, have abilities that tie together, both thematically and mechanically. It’s not enough to simply read them; you have to play with them, over and over, to grasp how things really work, and even then you might miss a crucial interaction that makes you hit yourself on the head and go “oh!” when it finally manifests itself.

This ideal hasn’t been accomplished often with Planeswalkers, though I still have hope.

From time to time, some old-time player mad at current Magic sees me as an easy target to talk at me about their various complaints with current Magic. When they get around to insulting Planeswalkers is when they need to get the hell off my lawn. They’ve added more strategic depth per-card than anything else is capable of adding, and new Planeswalkers are always going to be exciting (regardless of the rest of the set). Part of what’s so exciting about them is that it takes so much playing with them to determine whether they’re good or not, and that really speaks to their strategic density.

I have a personal hope for future updates of the rules. With the march toward making in-game terminology feel more magical (“casting” spells, “exile,” the “battlefield”), combined with marketing material that states plainly “YOU ARE A PLANESWALKER,” I want “player” to be replaced with “Planeswalker” on every card. Lightning Bolt would deal three damage to target creature or Planeswalker, and its caster could choose whether it goes to a Planeswalker card or the Planeswalker sitting across the table. It would work, damn it, and if we’re going to use the word “Planeswalker” in rules text, go all the way.

Finally, some quick hits on the Planeswalker designs I like the most and the least:

Holy hell, is the templating on this card bad. I wasn’t mad at it until a friend pointed out how the first ability has “target land,” the second “four target Forests,” and the third “basic land cards.” Every time it’s in play, one person or the other has to re-read it at least once to see what they can animate and untap, and what they can’t. The idea behind the ultimate is to do the +1 ability on your whole deck, which is cool… but it searches up fewer things than the +1 can animate! This might seem nit-picky, but it’s the Magical equivalent of hearing a squeaky drum pedal in a song for the first time.

This is a wonderful Planeswalker to play with, and one that a lot of people seem to underrate in Cube. I play it at every possible opportunity… despite the fact that the ultimate has no text. Unless you specifically craft a deck around just the ultimate, it only ever gets used for two abilities. I don’t like that it could have half as much text and play exactly the same.

Maybe one of the most miserable cards to play against ever printed. Usually, when super-casual players would tell me that some card or another is “soooo dumb,” I can retain my smug superiority that I know why it’s awful. When they bring up this one, though, all I can say is “yep.” Printing limited bombs is one thing, but printing a card that, for five mana, instantly ends the game in any 40-card format… eugh. One of the few cards that’s powerful enough for Vintage Cube, but shouldn’t go in because it’s less fun than Armageddon.

There are no strategic choices here. The loyalty doesn’t even change. You just mill them until they don’t have a deck left; there are no other ways of playing the card. It’s not even the
interesting kind of mill card that needs to be built-around as a strategy. You just slap it down for five mana and bam, you have a mill plan. When a Planeswalker effectively has one ability, and you don’t need to interact with a single other thing to win, that is bad design.

He never got any respect in constructed, but in Cube I’m rather fond of Captain Nipplerubs. He’s a four-mana card with abilities that scale really well depending on the format you’re playing: untapping a creature is fine, but how cool is untapping a Grim Monolith? Plus, if you flip all tails you get to draw a skull on the card.

See above, but even moreso. The fact that he’s so artifact-centric, and how his second ability combos so well with his other ones, means that he’s laser-focused to go in specific decks where no other Planeswalker would work. As with any tutor ability, it's fantastically open-ended. Top to bottom, he might be my favorite Planeswalker design.

Wait, no, it’s this one. I even ghostwrote articles by him, he’d kick my ass if I chose anything else.


Unknown said...

Commenting before I even read beyond the intro, because THANK GOD someone else thinks like this besides me: "They aren’t just alien visitors to the plane, or the set, they are alien visitors to our game."

The first time I saw a planeswalker card as a new player (hilariously given the context, I started just after the JTMS banning), I had that exact reaction. I tried to no avail to find someone who agreed with me, but inevitably, all I got was, "You're just new; planeswalkers are awesome and you'll like them once you get used to them. I mean, yeah, Standard made tons of players leave because of JTMS, so I could understand if that was what you're upset about. But just *not liking* them as a card type? That's crazy-talk!"

I even played a BG Planeswalkers Tier 2 deck in ISD/RTR Standard for awhile because my friend was willing to loan it to me while he played a Tier 1 deck. (I find Standard prohibitively costly otherwise.) I *still* didn't like planeswalkers even when they were "mine" for the duration of the games. It felt a bit like (hypothetically) being a parent and simply not liking one of my kids--how could I not like my babies?? But I didn't and I don't.

Unknown said...

Predictably, having to re-comment, but who cares; there's no one else in here but me anyway.

I misinterpreted your intro as being anti-planeswalker rather than pro-. I agree about the strategy being interesting, but I think if the game needs to invent these to make strategy interesting, something has gone horribly wrong. No matter *what* the flavor justification, a TCG should not be adding something about which even someone *in favor of the addition* could say, "They look and feel like something from a completely unrelated TCG that happens to have had its rules text translated to work in [this TCG]."

My final verdict has been issued. ;-)

Matthias said...

My personal misgiving is that Planeswalkers are chase rares, and therefore make Constructed more expensive. Sure are a lot less bothersome in that role than efficient beaters or utility spells, though.

Anonymous said...

Is there any ultimate that is more hilarious than Ajani, Mentor of Heroes? I am amused by the simplicity of this ability. Four words that basically mean, if not "I win", then at least "I don't lose."

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