Ranking Every Planeswalker with EDHREC – Epilogue: Are Planeswalkers Good in EDH?
(Pools of Becoming | Art by Jason Chan)
Let's Walk Through it Once More
We stand once more at the end of one of these ranking spiels. We've spent the past 20 weeks looking at every single planeswalker ever printed. From Elspeth, Undaunted Hero to Narset, Parter of Veils, from Kytheon, Hero of Akros to Nicol Bolas, God Pharaoh, and from Tibalt, the Fiend Blooded to Jace, the Mind Sculptor, we have traveled the windy path to the ultimate conclusion.
"So why are you here now?" you might ask. Well, I can't put this series to rest quite yet. When I started this series, I got asked by a few people what I think of planeswalkers in Commander. They see a lot of play, but the general perception of 'walkers is pretty negative, so what gives? Are they good? Are they bad? Are they underplayed? Are they overplayed?
Back in 2017, I would have said 'walkers were absolutely overrated in Commander. However, it's been years since I really asked this question, and I think that's true for a lot of people. The format is a different beast, and War of the Spark completely flipped the planeswalker game on its head. I feel that after looking through all 213 'walkers, I should try and take one good stab at this question: are planeswalkers actually good in Commander?
The Elephant in the Room
Before we start talking about planeswalker playability, I feel like I need to address the obvious: planeswalkers are really cool! I think that's something that you're expected to grow out of, but I certainly never did, and I don't plan to. 'Walkers always feel unique. When I open a Ral Zarek, I want to slot him in whatever deck could play him just because the allure of playing cards that can do so much is very strong! If you want to play cards like Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh because you just think they're neat, then you should do that!
EDH content like these articles tends to lean towards optimization and what makes your deck the most powerful, but sometimes power level is not why cards see play. If you want to play a planeswalker, do it!
Finding a Spark
However, that's not really what most people are asking. They're asking if planeswalkers are worth playing from a power level perspective. Why aren't 'walkers like Jace, the Mind Sculptor as good in EDH as they are in 1v1? Are there some 'walkers we can play in EDH, or do 'walkers just not do enough to justify their downsides?
Well, to give a non-answer, I'd say yes and no. I think we can take all 200+ planeswalkers we've seen, and any future planeswalkers Wizards may print, and broadly stick them into six or seven categories that can tell us which 'walkers pass the bar and which ones don't. Most 'walkers won't match the archetype exactly, but when you need to evaluate a 'walker for Commander, you can generally stick them into whatever archetype fits best and evaluate them from that standpoint. (Fans of Fire Emblem or the Commedia Dell'arte might understand my soul better now.)
So let's speed-run (speed-walk?) through this series one more time!
1: Planeswalker Deck 'Walkers
Okay, so these are not actually 'real' planeswalkers. We had a laugh looking at these 'walkers, which were made for beginners to get into the game, and aren't actually worth playing in Commander. You can mostly disregard these.
Almost all of these aren't worth your time, but there are a few I found to be playable, if not decent. To make sure you never have to look at Rowan, Fearless Sparkmage again, I made this list of the best Planeswalker Deck 'walkers.
Over, Under or Just Right? Overplayed: Let's move onto the real 'walkers.
2: Generically Good
Here's the main thing that people have said about planeswalkers, and remains the biggest obstacle to their playability: planeswalkers are incredibly fragile. They're fragile by design, allowing an opponent in a 1-on-1 game to take them out just by attacking. With multiple opponents, that's amplified to 11, and in a format composed of giant board states where Ghalta, Primal Hunger is considered a small fry, they become more fragile than porcelain china to a Sanctuary Cat.
Planeswalkers are not going to die instantly every game. Sometimes there will be board stalls, or you'll be up against three Baral, Chief of Compliance decks, but there's a good chance that, with three opponents, at least one of them will be able to attack a 'walker. Planeswalkers should be played on the assumption that you'll need to protect them well or else they are going to die.
Given that, a lot of the 'walkers whose average case is being generically good get way worse in Commander. It's not that 'walkers like Nissa, Voice of Zendikar are doing things that are bad in Commander. Nissa basically does everything token decks could want. The issue is that there's a common scenario where Nissa does one of her abilities once and then dies, and the times where Nissa sticks around, she's only ever good, and not excellent. If you have to put in the effort to keep Nissa alive, you might as well run an easier way to make tokens, like Trading Post, or an easier way to put counters on things, like Felidar Retreat. In general, if you're looking at a 'walker and everything they do is just fine, they probably aren't "made for Commander."
Over, Under or Just Right? Overplayed: This is normally where the conversation stops, but I think there are a lot of other 'walkers to look at.
3: High Risk, High Reward
Given the fact that 'walkers are naturally fragile, one option is to play 'walkers with the expectations that you'll need to be super vigilant about protecting them. Some 'walkers will reward you if they stick around long enough, most often from their ultimate. If you ultimate a Ral Zarek, you'll be doing something utterly unique that will probably win you the game. They can also be worth protecting if activating a couple of their abilities will gain you a very substantial advantage. Protecting 'walkers like Garruk Relentless will reward you with tutors for days as well as a really solid ultimate.
There's generally more merit to this archetype, as there is a higher ceiling for protecting them, but often I find that this ceiling still doesn't make up for the low floor. Planeswalkers like Sarkhan Unbroken will win you the game if they stick around, but the amount of work needed to pull it off isn't quite worth it.
Over, Under or Just Right? Overplayed: There're some worth considering, but in general, we'll have to look elsewhere for good planeswalkers in Commander.
Here's an archetype that most are familiar with, although I'd argue that Superfriends 'walkers are kinda just the "High Risk, High Reward" 'walkers taken to the extreme. In a normal deck, Nahiri, the Harbinger isn't a great planeswalker. Even if your deck can protect her, she's not going to be the best 'walker in her color combination. However, in a Superfriends deck, Nahiri is an all-star, because she's removal that also synergizes with all the Proliferate and other planeswalker-centric cards like Oath of Teferi. The reason these 'walkers are some of the most successful in Commander is the same reason a card like Thousand-Year Storm is good in Spellslinger. They need a ton of infrastructure to be good, but when they are, they're amazing!
Over, Under or Just Right? Just Right: Also in this category is any 'walker whose primary function is to go off with Doubling Season. If I've made anything clear this series, it's that a ton of 'walkers fit this description, so be selective. You don't need Vraska, Scheming Gorgon when Tamiyo, Field Researcher exists.
5: One-Shot Spells
Now we're getting to some of my favorites. If we accept that 'walkers are fragile, we could also just see them as fancy sorceries. When you use the -2 on Koth of the Hammer and make ten mana, it doesn't even matter if he dies right afterward. You got your mana's worth out of Koth. In fact, you'll notice a lot of the top-tier 'walkers fall into this category, like Tezzeret the Seeker or Ugin, the Spirit Dragon.
The great thing about these 'walkers is that you kinda get to have your cake and eat it too. You can dream about the games where Daretti, Ingenious Iconoclast makes three copies of Staff of Nin, but when all he does is kill a creature, that's still probably fine. It really is all upside when these 'walkers go off.
Over, Under or Just Right? Underplayed: This category contains a lot of the 'walkers that I've been gushing about as underplayed, so you know I like this style.
6: Stumbling Blocks
This leans into the "One-Shot Spell" aspect, but is a little more permanent. These are 'walkers whose sole purpose is to annoy opponents into killing them. Sure, if they don't die, opponents are probably in for a bad time, but they don't have ways to protect themselves, and they don't have to.
A lot of the uncommon 'walkers, like Ashiok, Dream Render, fall into this category. Ashiok comes down, eats the graveyards, and then basically locks searches out until opponents can kill Ashiok in 1-3 turns. That's a fine tradeoff. Also appearing in this category are 'walkers that are super annoying to kill, like Vraska, the Unseen or Gideon Blackblade.
However - and this is really the key thing - it shouldn't be assumed that these 'walkers are going to be here for a long time. They aren't enchantments, like Embargo, that are around until someone finds removal. Most tables are never going to leave Teferi, Time Raveler alive, so he should be thought of as a distraction from the real threats.
Over, Under or Just Right? Just Right: I think some of these are underplayed, and I think others die too early, but it really depends on what you're asking them to do.
7: Personal Howling Mines
Finally, we have a strange middle between the "One-Shot Spell" planeswalkers and the "High Risk, High Reward" planeswalkers. These are fancy Staff of Nins with some extra upside. Usually the 'walkers that say "draw a card" are in more defensive colors, so you'll usually get them to stick around a while. If they stick around, they will reward you by being a steady stream of cards, but if they only draw you two or three card and then kick the bucket, that's also fine.
Over, Under or Just Right? Underplayed: I'd say these, as a whole, are the most underplayed. 'Walkers like Jace, Unraveler of Secrets are so generically good that you could slot them in anywhere, and they'll do work in most lower-power (and even some higher-power) metas.
So Are 'Walkers Overplayed?
I'd say the "Generically Good," and the "High Risk, High Reward" planeswalkers currently outnumber the others, and so, unfortunately, I think 'walkers as a whole are still slightly overplayed. There's too many that just require too much infrastructure to work, or just aren't worth the effort of protecting.
However, I don't want people to walk away from this series and think 'walkers are all unplayable! There are a ton of really cool 'walkers that you should be playing right now. I found a lot of cool cards that I wanted to try out, and I hope this series encouraged you to give some of the 'walkers sitting in your collection a shot.
Walking on to Eternity
With that, I think I'm finally out of things to say about planeswalkers! I continue to be equal parts baffled, grateful, and overjoyed that people continue to read, comment, and debate me on this beautiful website! I'll say it every time, I wouldn't be on this website without y'all! Next time I come back, we'll be ranking every Equipment! There's a lot of hidden gems in there, so I think it'll be a lot of fun!
To prep for that, I will be going on a two or three week break after this article goes out. Hopefully some of the other writers can keep you entertained while I'm gone.
In the meantime, I've never done something like this before, so I'm interested in people's thoughts. What do you think of 'walkers? Are they underplayed? Are they overplayed? Did you find any new toys? Anything I overlooked? I look forward to all your thoughts in the comments! Until the next journey!