Occasionally, however, even the most desolate locale served a useful purpose... that of neutral ground.
In the center of the chamber, three figures waited around a stone table. Each a master of the arcane, their auras shimmered visibly against the drab light of the dead world. After a few minutes, the last empty spot was filled when a fiery elementalist (lacking any sense of propriety—or time, for that matter) strode into existence on a carpet of crimson smoke.
"You're late," grunted a husky rhox in gold chainmail. "Let's get started."
Within moments, social niceties were forgotten as each of the planeswalkers focused on the table. Above the stone surface, glowing representations of far-away planes appeared in microcosmic detail: territories to be claimed in the upcoming battle.
When it comes to fights over planar territory, nothing captures the feel of a good interdimensional turf war like Planechase cards. Adding planes to a game of Magic ups the ante in terms of variety, thinking, humor, and (when done right) strategy. In fact, given a few tweaks Planechase can present some of the most interesting and strategic games of Magic you'll ever play.
Playing with planes does require a little preparation, though. They're arguably at their best when each player builds a deck of planes in advance, but most groups simplify the logistics by using one copy of every plane, in a single pile. As I've discussed before, this approach suffers however, because flipping a random new plane off the top of the pile is extremely unpredictable. Some degree of control is an important part of the Planechase strategy: spending the time and mana to 'walk should (usually) improve your situation.
To mitigate the perceived randomness of games using planechase stack, players should modify the rules a bit. The Eternities Map was one solution, which solved the randomness problems by giving you more information and a choice when you planeswalk. It's great fun, but comes with a big caveat: it requires a fair bit of table space for the map.
Planar Skirmish and Planar Siege are a different approach with a number of added benefits. At its essence, the format revolves around dividing up the available territory between players in a way that that gives everyone equitable access to the resources they want. There are different ways to do this, but one of the best harkens back to the Winchester or Rochester draft formats.
Planar Skirmish Rules
Before you start, choose a format that everyone likes to play. Standard, Commander, Modern, Rainbow Stairwell—anything will do. Then shuffle one of each plane (even the ones you don't like... you'll have a chance to exclude them later!) into a big pile.
Step one: Seat everyone randomly around a table. Give one person a marker to indicate they're picking first. Choose randomly, or let the least experienced player go first if you want to give them a small advantage.
Step two: Deal out, face up in the middle of the table, two planes for each player (i.e. if you've got three players taking part, deal out six planes. For four players, eight planes, and so on).
Step three: The player with the marker chooses a plane and puts it face down in front of him or her. Proceed clockwise around the table until each player has chosen a single plane. Half of the planes should remain.
Step four: Shuffle the remaining, unpicked planes back into the pile. If you don't have sleeves for your planes and want to minimize shuffling, just set them aside and then shuffle once when you get to the bottom of the pile.
Step five: Pass the marker to the left. Then return to step two... continue until each player has chosen nine planes.
Step six: Once everyone has nine planes, each player chooses at least six of them in secret to form his or her planar deck. Then each player picks a regular Magic deck (or draft one using regular boosters) and you're ready to play!
We've found this setup works pretty well, but there are many possible variations: changing directions after each "circuit," team draft, secret picks, etc. If you're curious, check the forums or ask one of your local competitive booster drafters for some suggestions. Maybe they'll be intrigued enough to come over from the dark side!
One of the nice things about the Planar Skirmish setup is that it doesn't require a lot of planning, but you can definitely benefit from a little if you're so inclined. It's easy to pick cards off the top and assemble a decent planar deck, but it's also possible to plan and analyze, so you might want to keep some basic strategies in mind.
Planes that help you are better than planes that don't: When drafting regular cards, you only want to choose cards which actively help you, but planes are a bit different because at worst every plane can replace an opponent's. (Older readers may reminisce about the feel of world enchantments.) You should assume that your opponent's planes will (usually) help them more than you, so locations like the Panopticon, which help everyone equally, are usually a good choice.
Planes that you want to play are better than planes you don't: Again, picking planes differs from picking regular cards because there's only one of each plane in the stack. That makes it more legitimate to hate-draft a plane you never want to see... but it's still usually worse than a plane that helps you.
Be flexible in what you pick, but have a general theme in mind: Whether you have a single deck you really want to play or a box of decks to choose from, it helps to build a coherent list of planes that work together to support a strategy.A sample three-player Planar Draft. This player is about to make the second pick in the fourth round, and has a nice theme going already.
Since decks vary greatly, it's worth considering some general categories of decks and planes, as well as planes that might be worth denying your opponents.
Not really a specific deck archetype, the color specific planes can be some of the most one-sided and should always be a taken early. In the worst case, these are some of the best cards to take defensively, so your opponents can't abuse them.
If color-specific territories are some of the best for a deck in the right colors, cards that help fix your colors can be just as clutch when you're stretching your mana base for extra power.
Counterpicks: Cliffside Market
Planechase can give aggressive, tempo-based decks a critical power boost in multiplayer environments. They often don't have extra mana to spend on the planar die in the early game, but benefit hugely from the extra gas late game. Aggressive decks vary in their approach and can be divided into more specific archetypes, but they all share certain favorite planes... in particular, planes that let them refill their hand after playing a battery of cheap threats should be prioritized.
Weenie aggro decks benefit from creature pump and planes that give them "reach" to finish off opponents.
Burn Aggro decks that rely on red or black finishing spells that go directly to the face can leverage some of the same planes, but should put higher priority on planes that enable their burn spells:
Ramp and Big Creature Decks
Aggressive decks in multiplayer often use extra time and ramp spells to play a stream of large beaters rather than hordes of small creatures. The right selection of planes can accelerate these monsters onto the battlefield, buy the necessary time, or return them to the battlefield after they go down.
One plane that often seems great for big-spell decks but can sometimes backfire is The Maelstrom. If your deck plays a lot of instants and sorceries in order to ramp up, you'll often whiff on the free permanent.
Bah, who cares... this is a casual format.
Like aggro decks, control decks come in many varieties but share a common focus of first securing their own safety before threatening opponents'. Depending on whether they focus on spells or permanents to protect themselves dictates which planes they should call home. Either way, they both benefit from creature sweepers, accelerants, and other interdictors...
Control decks also like to plan more than aggressive decks, so planes that completely turn the game on its head, like Pools of Becoming, should be defensively drafted and left on the sidelines whenever possible. In the same vein, be careful of the Eloren Wilds. It may be a great accelerator, but it will often lock you out just long enough to get run down.
Regardless of whether you prefer to think of your decks in terms of play style (rattlesnake), threat style (milling), or engine (reanimator), there's always fun to be had in figuring out what planes go well together.
Personally, I greatly enjoy league play, because continuity between games encourages a number of good behaviors in players. In multiplayer leagues, awarding points based on first/second/third place in each game greatly cuts down on king-making behavior, and helps everyone identify threats. If you love long-running battles and want to take the Skirmish rules to the next level, the turf-war metaphor can be extended even further to what we call Planar Siege:
1) Whenever you eliminate another player from the game, you claim ("conquer") the top card from their plane deck for the remainder of that league. Put it on the bottom of your planar deck. If the battle is currently taking place in their territory (i.e., if one of their planes is face up), conquer that plane instead. It remains active until someone planeswalks away, at which point it goes to the bottom of your deck.
2) Whenever you roll the planeswalk symbol on the die, you may choose to reveal a plane from an opponent's plane deck, instead of your own. Sometimes it's worth delaying victory to try and steal some choice real estate... but beware of giving an opponent extra time!
3) Between games, players who have conquered each others' planes may exchange them back if they wish. Planes may only be traded on a one-for-one basis though, and only conquered territories may be exchanged—you may never trade away a plane you originally drafted.
4) Before each game, choose up to three planes from all the ones you've drafted or conquered to exclude from your deck. The rest must be played in your planar deck... so your deck will get larger each time you eliminate a player, and smaller each time you lose.
5) If you concede, the player who forces you to do so (or the active player or most recent active player if it's not obvious) conquers one of your planes. If your plane is face up when someone decides to reveal your next plane instead of their own, you may concede before looking at the next card and they conquer the currently active location.
6) If a player has no planes left, they're eliminated from the league. It's harder than it looks!
When the league is over, whoever has the most planes wins... unless someone manages to claim total domination of the Multiverse! Congratulate them, maybe buy them a drink, then shuffle up all the planes and start again.
Whatever kind of Magic you like to play, Planechase can provide a variety of strategic elements that make for great games. By divvying up the planes according to player's desires, the Planar War formats give everyone favorable home turf from which to battle.