Command of Etiquette—Walking the Elder Dragon’s Highlands, Part One

I am a little unsure of the history, but whether Commander came before Planeswalkers or vice versa, Sheldon Menery and the brains behind the format made a great decision to not let you play with a Planeswalker as your general. I mean, can you even imagine it? A mono-black EDH deck that plays Liliana of the Veil turn one, every game, off one ritual effect or another? And that’s not even touching the Jace, the Mind Sculptor decks that could be created in such a bizzaro world. Vendilion Clique/Tunnel Vision is about as degenerate as I like my mono-blue decks to be (which is to say nothing about Erayo decks, that are only played by griefers and sadists).

But every Planeswalker ever printed is legal in Commander, and they pop up from time to time. Personally, I am not a big fan of playing the high-powered ones all that much, and think that a ‘walker should have synergy with a deck to merit inclusion. But they have yet to print a Planeswalker that’s not worth checking out in an appropriately colored EDH deck, and this is the start of a three-part article series devoted to these overpowered permanents. Here’s a rundown of the first 12 of the 35 Planeswalkers that have been printed, organized alphabetically, and my thoughts on their EDH playability.

1) Ajani Goldmane (ID: white, rating: 8)—Ajani is a great place to start things off, because Ajani is a great EDH Planeswalker. He has great synergy with token decks, provides a permanent buff to your team as well as a super-relevant keyword (vigilance is one of the best abilities in Commander, by far). His plus ability might not be the strongest, but he’s one of the Planewalkers that immediately ultimates when you have Doubling Season in play, and his Avatar tokens are a sweet finisher that have a great interaction with one of white’s newest abilities, populate. Plus, on top of all this, he’s not the type of ‘walker to draw a tremendous amount of aggro when you first play him. Since he usually ticks down, and since his ability doesn’t have an immediate effect on your opponents’ board states, he won’t draw too much attention from anyone other than the person your suddenly vigilant army decides to attack.

2) Ajani Vengeant (ID: white and red, rating: 6)—Now, this is an Ajani that draws some attention. His plus ability is a lot more relevant in Commander than it might be elsewhere, since its failure to tap the permanent it pins down is a lot less relevant when you have several opponents providing you with potential targets. His Lightning Helix ability is pretty good removal, even in a format full of bombs, because usually the creatures it can kill are the frustrating utility ones that know better than to tangle into combat. The one major drawback is that his ultimate is crippling in a way that is bound to draw the wrath of the targeted player… and since that wrath is nearly impossible for your opponent to respond to after you’ve nuked their lands, you might find yourself on the wrong side of a preemptive strike if you tick up Ajani Vengeant for more than a few turns.

3) Ajani, Caller of the Pride (ID: white, rating: 5)—The newest Ajani is the one I am most on the fence about. While his Doubling Season shenanigans make Goldmane’s look tame by comparison, since he goes off immediately and leaves you with four times your life total in cat power, his plus ability is weak sauce. Maybe if you could play him in an Experiment Kraj deck, or if you want to get some value out of Kitchen Finks, but as a combat ability it leaves much to be desired. Sure, if you’re going the general damage route, evasion and double strike can end a game quickly, but that ability is a bit too heavily costed to be something you can reliably do more than once.

4) Chandra Ablaze (ID: red, rating: 2)—The Chandras are generally considered to be the weakest of the Planeswalkers, with the potential exceptions of Sarkhan Vol and Tibalt. And Chandra Ablaze is the weakest Chandra they’ve printed, hands down. But! If ever there was a format in which Chandra Ablaze could shine, it’s Commander. I’ve seen mono-red madness decks (usually commanded by Jaya Ballard) that could make great use of her plus-one ability, and she gets two solid uses of her minus-two ability before potentially dying. Now, her minus-two isn’t amazing, but red’s a little light on card draw in general, and if you’re using the graveyard or benefiting from your opponents discarding this ability starts to work a lot better. One of the things I’ve done with her is run her in a Sedris, the Traitor King deck where I’d use Liliana Vess’ minus-two ability to tutor a card to the top of my library and then Chandra’s minus-two ability to draw it and two more cards. And let’s not forget that her ultimate is very synergistic with all the discarding she makes you do, letting you machine-gun out all the red spells in your graveyard without exiling them. So she’s not amazing, but she’s certainly playable.

5) Chandra Nalaar (ID: red, rating: 4)—The original Chandra was playable in certain standard control builds, and she’s a solid cube card as well. While she has the weakest plus ability of literally every Planeswalker, what she’s more likely to do is come down and murder the more irritating creature on the table with toughness six or less. Once that has happened, the weakness of her plus ability becomes a strength, as an opponent is unlikely to break whatever uneasy truce or stall that’s on the table over a single point of damage. Plus, it can be redirected to your opponents’ Planeswalkers, which is usually not enough to kill them, but often will change the way your opponent is using it. Should you ever get her into ultimate range her ability can be devastating, but it’s the type of devastating that Commander players can come back from (after all, it’s basically just an unequal wrath, and Commander is full of those), so it’s less terrifying than, say, Ajani Vengeant going off.

6) Chandra, the Firebrand (ID: red, rating :5)—Chandra 3.0, AKA Lady Chandra, is an interesting reflection of her other two incarnations. Her plus ability isn’t significantly stronger than Nalaar’s, but the ability to point it at creatures makes a huge difference. Her spell-twinning ability is powerful, but you have to have reasonably powerful spells in hand to make it worthwhile. Her ultimate is almost perfect, though: Six damage is usually enough to kill most creatures, and if you don’t have enough targets you can always point it at their face (or use it to kill off almost all Planeswalkers that haven’t gotten completely out of control). I cut her from a lot of the decks I build, but she makes it into the initial stack more often than not when I am in red and running decks in which spells matter.

7) Domri Rade (ID: green and red, rating: 7)—I am not ashamed to admit that I grossly underestimated this card when it was first spoiled. He’s even better in EDH, where you have a bunch of different ways to set up the top card of your library (I am particularly fond of Crystal Ball and Cream of the Crop). Green and red are colors known for big creatures, so the fight ability is usually straight-up removal. And it should be obvious that any creature-based deck is going to love getting his emblem… it’s basically a permanent Titanic Ultimatum, trading off the life gain and power boost for double strike, hexproof, haste, and permanence. Plus he’s a three-drop, a great step on the way to going big.

8) Elspeth Tirel (ID: white, rating: 6)—And now we get to the Elspeths. Elspeth, Knight-Errant is one of the top three Planeswalkers ever printed (her, Jace, and Karn), and her little sister isn’t too shabby as well. Little Sis is more of an army control general. You can pop the ultimate in a pinch, usually fairly quickly, but it’s more likely that you’ll make some tokens, and either use them as part of an army or start gaining large amounts of life. Unlike Goldmane, Little Sis’ life-gain ability is flexible enough to make a huge difference in a stalled game state, and it alone can help dig you out of rough spots.

9) Elspeth, Knight-Errant (ID: white, rating: 9)—So, again, Big Sis is one of the best Planeswalkers ever printed. She’s great at spitting out chump-blockers, has an ultimate that makes it difficult to lose the game without overly threatening your opponents in multiplayer, and has two distinct plus abilities! But it’s her second plus ability that is the most relevant in EDH, because giving your Commander evasion and a power boost can shave a turn or two off your general damage clock. She’s strong in any deck that wants to play powerful cards; with a general like Rafiq of the Many, she can be unstoppable.

10) Garruk Relentless/Garruk, the Veil-Cursed (ID: green and black, rating: 8)—Flipper Garruk is up there in power levels, but is hindered by one of the most arbitrary color identities in the entire game. As a spashable mono-green Planeswalker, Relentless would see play in almost any deck, but the decision to make the flip side black means that it can only see play in decks with one of the 23 green-black generals. (Not counting the five-color generals, but it is counting some of the terrible Legends one, which is basically a wash.) I mean, that might sound like plenty, but there are about 500 unique generals in Magic. A mono-green Garruk could see play in about 140 of them. Anyway, enough with my digression. Flipper Garruk has five abilities, so of course he’s good. He has a removal ability, an aggressive token maker, a defensive token maker, an overrun effect, and, best of all, a creature tutor. It’s like you took all the great green Planeswalker abilities together and blended them into a single four-drop.

11) Garruk Wildspeaker (ID: green, rating: 5)—I think, had it not been for power creep in the Planeswalkers as a whole, that Garruk Prime would have a significantly higher power rating. He’s repeatable ramp, basically costs two mana in the late-game, and comes with an overrun effect you can trigger almost immediately. But compared to his two younger versions, he just can’t cut it any more. I mean, he’s still good, and potentially jumping you from four to seven mana is nothing to sneeze at. But his protection is a minus ability that creates a single token. Garruk 2.0 does that as a plus!

12) Garruk, Primal Hunter (ID: green, rating: 7)—Garruk 2.0 is a mono-green draw engine. In Standard, it’s most commonly seen dropping into play after a Thragtusk and drawing five cards. In EDH it can do even more bonkers things.  It makes tokens as a plus ability, and it immediately goes off if you’re into Doubling Season shenanigans, making a large number of 6/6 tokens. Or an obscene amount. One of the two. Point is, the card is good, but you’re almost always going to use it as draw engine. It’s a tad limiting, but still super powerful.

And that’s it for part one of my Planeswalker rundown! Tune in next week for Gideon through Nicol Bolas, and finishing in two weeks with Nissa to Vraska. In the meantime, chime in in the comments! I’d love to hear of your experience running Planeswalkers in the format, and what you love and/or hate about them.

Comments
10 Responses to “Command of Etiquette—Walking the Elder Dragon’s Highlands, Part One”
  1. Tim says:

    When you say “Top 3,” are you only referring to EDH? I personally think Lily of the Veil is not just #2 all time, but she is actually a CLOSE #2. Elspeth sees fringe play as a 1-of in Legacy and Modern, these days, while Lily shows up quite often in these formats. While she may not outright be better than Jace, a turn 2 Lily is usually back-breaking against a Jace deck.

    • thejlina says:

      Yeah, you’re probably right! I totally forgot about her. I still think Elspeth is better than Karn though, and I think Karn is better than the rest of them. So let’s say that’s a top four list, with Lily as a solid number two.

      • Tim says:

        Would definitely agree with that statement, as they are the four that see the most play in eternal formats. While I think Karn is more powerful when he comes down (he damn well better be for 7 mana!) he is held behind Elspeth by the number of decks that can reasonably expect to cast him. I guess we can give Tezz AoB an asterisk in the conversation, as he is not nearly as strong in a vacuum, but he is bonkers when the entire deck is built around him.

      • thejlina says:

        I still want to see Tezz getting some more Modern love. That’s the next nut to crack, I think. I saw something yesterday that gave me some ideas, maybe adding in Jace Architect and splashing white for Sphinx’s Revelation, powering them out with Talismen and Mind Stones.

      • Li Xu says:

        I loves me some original Gideon. He probably rounds out the top 5 for me, with the other four being the ones you guys mentioned.

      • thejlina says:

        That definitely seems like a reasonable 5th. He still sees play in Modern and is an absolute beast when he hits the table. Interesting that Green doesn’t make the top five, and less surprising that Red doesn’t.

  2. Rich Stein says:

    In a vacuum, independent of metagame and format and so on, I would easily rank JTMS as #1 and it wouldn’t even be a close competition.

    • thejlina says:

      Oh totally! I guess the way I phrased it came off like I think Elspeth could possibly be in that spot. Jace has 3 non-ultimate modes and each one helps win you the game. And his ultimate literally wins the game, unlike others where it’s just a matter of putting you in a good board position to do so. Of course it’s the best!

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  1. […] Liliana of the Veil (ID: black, rating: 9)—Last week I made the mistake of not remembering Little Lily when I was listing the top three walkers…, and I put Karn on that list instead of putting her in the two spot where she belongs. It was an […]

  2. […] games in which I was slaughtered! You’re here for part three of my EDH planeswalker recap (part one and part two, if you’re interested). So, without further ado, let’s get to […]



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