Walkership Down

Posted in Beyond the Basics on January 26, 2017

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

Planeswalkers are one of the cornerstones of Magic in the modern era. One of the biggest changes to the game since its inception and a card type that's nearly ten years old now, they're here to stay.

Planeswalkers can be powerful game-changers. Once one hits the board, it commands attention and focus. Playing with them properly can be the difference between a win and a loss.

But just as important as how you play with them is how you play against them.

Whether you play with them or not, you're going to encounter planeswalkers a lot—and as the only card type in all of Magic you can directly attack, knowing when to go after them and when to ignore them and pummel your opponent's face can be the difference between winning and losing.

So, what's the strategy? When should you do either?

Let's take a look today.

The Weight of a 'Walker

Planeswalkers are incremental advantage machines.

Yes, I know, that doesn't quite have the same ring to it as "entities that travel across worlds and deploy incredible feats of magic," but it's the boiled-down truth. A planeswalker card on the table is going to generate an advantage of some kind every single turn. And even if those advantages are small, eventually they will bury you.

Take the newest Tezzeret from Aether Revolt as an example:

Sure, making an Etherium Cell every turn may not sound all that threatening. An artifact that you sacrifice to make one mana is about as incremental as it gets.

But over time, if you don't mess with Tezzeret, if you just ignore those Cells and let them build up, you are going to lose to them—either by route of having all of your creatures removed, or quite literally in the form of several living 5/5 Cells coming over to say hello.

Even tiny advantages can become deadly ones.

The "ultimate" ability that most planeswalkers have adds a wrinkle to the plot. In addition to being incremental advantage machines, all of those slow advantages also eventually lead into a huge burst of power. If untouched, planeswalkers can be like a buy two, get one bam your opponent is dead free sale.

As such, taking all of this into account, the basic premise of playing against planeswalkers is this: if the game is going to go on for a while, you should be attacking the planeswalker. If you are trying to make the game end soon and you don't think your opponent's planeswalker will impede that (by making tokens or otherwise), then you should go after your opponent.

Of course, it's a tad more nuanced than that. But it's a good rule to help guide you as you make decisions.

Looking into the Future

Thinking ahead is always important in Magic—and especially so when there's a planeswalker in the mix.

When your opponent has a planeswalker, you should be trying to think a few turns in advance to consider what kinds of effects it is going to generate and how you're going to stop it.

Let's say your opponent has a Chandra, Torch of Defiance sitting at 6 loyalty.

Another activation of that +1 might not be immediately threatening. Maybe you aren't worried about that card or the damage.

But surely, you're going to have a high level of concern about that emblem—and you need to be thinking this turn about how you're going to stop it.

If you think ahead to the next turn, your opponent is very likely going to +1 unless you give them a strong reason not to. That means that the turn after that, they can ultimate. And if, say, you opt to not play your creature this turn, that means it can't attack next turn when you really need to tick down Chandra the most.

Even if you have a creature on the board already that you can attack with, I'd still send it at Chandra this turn. (Presuming it can get through.) You'd rather have the sure thing to tick her loyalty down here rather than your opponent having a fistful of removal spells or a board sweeper they can use next turn to set up for the ultimate to go off.

Even if you just tick her down by a few loyalty, you have to start making progress toward removing her somewhere—and an attack to keep her off that ultimate is crucial.

That is, unless, you think you can make it not matter.

Imagine your opponent is at 4 life, has that Chandra with 6 loyalty, and neither of you have any cards in hand. You draw and play a Brazen Scourge.

What's the attack here?

If you attack Chandra, that sends her plunging down to 3. If you attack your opponent, that sends them plunging down to just 1 life.

Well, let's think ahead a bit.

If you attack Chandra, that puts her to 3 and your opponent will likely either trade her with the Gremlin next turn by using the -3 or plus her to get a card and force you to spend two more turns attacking Chandra. This is a fine outcome because it still means you get to remove the worry of Chandra's ultimate while providing pressure.

If you attack your opponent, then things get interesting. Your opponent can just -3 next turn, taking the same 3 loyalty you would have attacked and offing your Scourge. And while you did still get rid of that 3 loyalty, now you're down your creature and have to deal with the Chandra. In general, the other route looks much better. Unless...

Well, you see, in this situation, you're a red deck. It's likely you have an array of burn spells and haste creatures. (We've already seen one of them!) If you think putting your opponent to 1 life gives you the best odds of winning on a subsequent draw step because of your density of outs, then it may be right to take it. Some of that depends on your own life total, some of that depends on your deck composition.

But either way, it's crucial to think ahead. Where you send that Brazen Scourge here could very likely decide the game—and you want to make sure you push it toward the right place.

A Planeswalk to Remember

I've given a few heuristics, rationales, and premises for playing against planeswalkers so far. But now I'll leave you with a pithy, easy-to-remember one:

When in doubt, attack the planeswalker.

I've seen far more games lost because someone didn't attack a planeswalker than because somebody did. It's easy to get confident and think that a planeswalker won't matter, that attacking your opponent down to 5 rather than trying to deal with the huge loyalty on, say, Ajani is the right play...and then one board sweeper later overcoming that Ajani begins to look impossible. It would have been a much more traversable game state with your opponent at 11 and that Ajani off the board.

With all of that said, have a plan. Understand your plan—and what the consequences are. It can be right to accept that if your opponent topdecks a board sweeper, you are going to lose, so just go straight for the face. Just know ahead of time what you're trying to accomplish in the first place.

Which, really, is good advice for any situation.

Hopefully you found this look at attacking planeswalkers useful and enlightening! If you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. You can always reach out by sending me a tweet, asking me a question on my Tumblr, or firing off an e-mail (in English, please) to BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com. It's great to hear from you, and I'd love to take a look at whatever you're thinking!

I'll talk with you again next week. Until then, may all of your opponents' planeswalkers perish!

Gavin
@Gavinverhey
GavInsight

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