Thursday, January 12, 2012

Target Planeswalker

Remember that whole debacle last year where everyone hated planeswalkers (most Jace, the Mind Sculptor) because there weren't enough good answers to them? Wizards elected to skip printing Oblivion Ring for a year and the effect was vastly more pronounced than they expected. Other valid answers included Vampire Hexmage for the heavy-black mage and, uh, I think there was another one. Hex Parasite? Yikes.

DespiseThat was the least fun Standard environment in quite a long while, but Wizards and anyone else paying attention learned a valuable lesson: The capacity to kill planeswalkers via combat—while vital—is not enough. There have to be spells that can kill them directly. So far, everything that can handle the newest card type does so circuitously, without ever mentioning them by name. Some target a group of types from which planeswalker is not explicitly excluded, while others remove counters from permanents (a fairly unique weakness of 'walkers). Despise is the only exception, specifically naming the card type you can make your opponent discard.

The obvious question—one many players and designers have asked—is whether we can use the phrase "target planeswalker" to create explicit answers. Some folks strongly believe yes, some no. Let's examine the situation from both sides and see what conclusions we can make.

Here are a few sample card skeletons for later reference: Murder is a black card with "Destroy target creature or planeswalker"; Liquefy Soul, a blue card with "Counter target creature or planeswalker spell"; and Bar, a white card with "Exile target planeswalker." The rarity, mana costs and other potential restrictions that might be on actual cards that evolve from these skeletons are irrelevant to the conversation. We want to know if the effect should exist at any level.

There is an obvious advantage to making cards like this. Every card needs answers and specific answers (aka limited / restricted answers) make the game better overall because it makes more of a difference which answers you finally include in your deck. Planeswalkers are necessarily powerful cards, so we really can't afford to make an exception for them—they need reasonable answers at least as much as every other card type.

By making a card like Bar, we're giving the player a (presumably efficient) answer to planeswalkers. The implicit cost being that if a player with this card in their deck plays against someone lacking planeswalkers entirely that the card becomes a blank. There is an inherent risk to putting Bar in your deck, which would likely justify a low mana cost.

TerminateA card like Murder is another story because it's very rarely dead. Not everyone plays many 'walkers, but most decks do play a fair number of creatures. Murder gives you an option that Terminate and Bone Splinters don't. You can always choose which of your opponent's bomb creature or bomb 'walker is the bigger threat and deal with that one. Liquefy Soul has the same versatility but with the standard countermagic disadvantage that you have to have your answer in hand as well as the mana to cast it available at the exact moment the spell is cast.

There are cards like Bar, Murder and Liquefy Soul that handle every other type of permanent and every other combination of types, so why not throw 'planeswalker' into the mix? The biggest argument is that planeswalkers are too special to be treated like any other card type. Players are planeswalkers, so planeswalkers cards represent beings on par with players. There are no cards that say "destroy target player" (though it seems inevitable that they'll print one) and transitively, there shouldn't be anything that says "destroy target planeswalker."

My problem with that argument is that planeswalkers aren't players and nothing in the game should compete with the player. Planeswalkers are cards, even if they are special cards, and as such are answerable to the same set of design rules that make every other card work in the game.

One could argue that an unwritten rule of planeswalkers is that they can't be targeted by any old spell. That makes them more worth playing and reinforces their uniqueness. I don't have a strong counter to that, but I will say that 'walkers are plenty special already and that a spell that targets a planeswalker is, by definition, not just any old spell.

Interestingly, everyone with whom I've discussed Liquefy Soul that also has a problem with Murder does not have a problem with "counter target planeswalker." Despise seems to fall in the same camp. I believe the idea is that you're meddling with the spell that summons that 'walker to your aid rather than the 'walker himself. Perhaps we can expand upon that logic to argue that a planeswalker card doesn't represent the planeswalker himself—It certainly doesn't work like another player would and each planeswalker card clearly doesn't represent the whole of that character's abilities—but rather an agreement with that 'walker to help you out for a while. "You gave me four mana so I'm going to do this, this, and this for you. Nothing more. Oh, and if you don't protect my interests, the deal's off."

In that light, it seems like it wouldn't be such a rare spell that can end that relationship prematurely. Perhaps "Destroy target planeswalker" isn't so unpalatable in that context? Does that make Murder okay? Maybe not. In fact, it might even solidify the argument that a spell that can put a creature into the graveyard can put a planeswalker there too, since you're not killing the 'walker like you were the creature. Let's try one more twist.

If I can attack your planeswalker and piss her off so that she abandons you, who's to say that I can't level some insufficient but still nasty death magic at her and have the same effect. She's not dead, because it's not that easy to off a 'walker, but she's just as annoyed that you would let me do that to her as she was when you let my creatures nip at her.

While the reason for all these arguments has been mechanical (to keep the game fun and balanced), the arguments themselves (both for and against) have mostly been based in flavor. I'll offer one more, entirely mechanical argument. Why can red kill planeswalkers out of combat when no one else can? The ability to redirect damage from a player to her 'walker effectively changes every burn spell to read "Target [creature or] player or planeswalker." If you can use fire magic to scare off annoying interplanar allies, why not death magic?

BramblecrushFinally, how do you justify cards that do deal with planeswalker but not explicitly. Oblivion Ring and Bramblecrush can both answer a planeswalker despite not having that word in their text box. For now at least, "nonland permanent" is interchangeable with "artifact, enchantment, creature or planeswalker" and likewise "noncreature permanent." There's an interesting argument against using the word "planeswalker" explicitly on common spells because 'walkers are so rare that most new players won't encounter them for a while and we don't want to make them learn another set of rules on top of all the other great many they're already absorbing if we can avoid it.

O-Ring and 'Crush get around that problem, but they don't get around the problem that they're handling planeswalkers just as easily as anything else. If you can't reconcile that—and I don't see how you can without some major smoke and mirrors—then I believe you must concede the major argument against planeswalker-explicit targeting. On the upside, you can cling to the not-at-common argument as I have no response to that. In fact, I agree with it wholeheartedly

While I clearly have a side in this discussion, I don't take it for granted that it's correct (and have to assume it's not flawless, at the very least). I certainly don't want to squelch the other side's voice; In fact, I'm rather hoping that you can add your perspective and point out some tasty nuances of perhaps even entirely missing arguments so that we can consider each side more fully.


  1. With Despise and Sorin, Lord of Innistrad leading the charge, I'm going to assume we're progressing closer and closer to a world where Murder is a plausible design. Just needs to find the most appropriate flavor.

  2. It's fine to have Vindicate and Counterspell effects that can answer planeswalker cards, but actually saying "planeswalker" on a card should largely be avoided. It's can be used sparingly for gameplay or flavor reasons, but should mostly be avoided because it refers to such a small set of cards.

    A spell that says, "Destroy target planeswaker," will only interact with about five cards in the entire block, all of which are mythic rares.

  3. "There are no cards that say "destroy target player" (though it seems inevitable that they'll print one) "

    See: Door to Nothingness

    I think that planeswalkers should be able to be targeted like everything else, although I'm not sure where a spell that only targeted planeswalkers would belong. It's a very lame card to get in draft so it probably should be at least rare.

  4. To be clear, I am interested in a card like Bar that just says "Destroy target planeswalker" but I'm more interested in cards like Murder or cards with less breadth than O-Ring and Bramblecrush.

    Perhaps "Spoil Magic": "Destroy target enchantment or planeswalker."

  5. @Obsidian - While I do agree that there probably shouldn't be a card that simply reads "Destroy target planeswalker", the logic that it shouldn't exist for flavor reasons and/or because there are so few planeswalkers per block is ultimately a bit faulty. This is because regardless of how rare PWs are in a collectible or limited sense, they cause the bulk of their problems in constructed formats, where they've become abundant. And ultimately some concessions do have to made for the professional players, a demographic that really doesn't care about the flavor.

    Even as planeswalker design has improved and become more balanced, the addition of ~5 PWs a block may prove to have a significantly greater impact on a format like Modern than can be ably predicted, and I'd rather they discard prohibitions like "this effect is too narrow (in block)" or "this makes flavor weird" if it can make the game better.

  6. I'm happy to see Planeswalker appear in rules text when it makes sense (Despise), but I don't want it in the same textbox as Destroy because the flavor feels so off. If we're proposing PW removal in white, exiling seems fine. As for rarity, I'd really like to keep specific mentions rare and above, but I can see uncommons when flavor demands it. I'd like O-Ring at uncommon, and no simple execution for just PWs, but maybe something like:

    Gentlemen's Duel 1W
    Exile all PWs.

    It would usually be played as a 1-for-1, but would also discourage the "planeswalker deck" that makes attacking unviable.

  7. The flavor reason for not mentioning planeswalkers on spells would be that spells in Magic represent spells at use in the world, not just those used by planeswalkers. Most beings don't even know planeswalkers exist, so it would be weird if spells existed to specifically deal with them. It's ok if some spell for other uses can incidentally be put to use on them.

    Mechanically, planeswalkers play a role in making creature combat relevant, so I don't think there should be too many direct answers that bystep combat. Although having no direct answers would also be problematic, those answers probably have to exist at the right number in the environment. They shouldn't appear on cheap 2cc spells that also remove creatures, because it's easy to put many copies of those into your decks so they tend to become ubiquitous.

    I don't think it's wrong for the word "Planeswalker" to sometimes appear on a common in an expansion set, but it would be a bad idea in a core set, because core sets try to enable a teaching strategy of "teach as you go along, teach only what they need to know." By that logic, it would be fine for the word planeswalker to appear on a planeswalker ability like Sorin, even in a core set.

    Gentleman's Duel looks good for the health of the game. Awesome idea! I would consider costing it higher to try to make it unwieldy as a 1-for-1 answer, keeping it strictly a sideboard card against "planeswalker.dec" but maybe it's ok since it's a narrow effect.

  8. There is a lot of design space for targeting planeswalkers. I get the argument that flavor-wise, it doesn't make much sense to have spell to target something that isn't known to exist. We, as players, know about the existence of planeswalkers and would most likely create spells to deal with them. For example:

    Gain control of target creature or planeswalker.

    Gentlemen's Duel seems a bit undercosted. I'd probably cost it at 2WW to mirror DoJ.

  9. I mean, I could see some of these cards, but it's hard to think of where they would fit with the "New Age of Magic". After all, the setting for the block would have to be one with prominent planeswalkers. Despise works because it's a phyrexian card and phyrexians are some of the biggest bads out there.

    But for the rest of these cards, you'd need a strong story motivation for them. After all, that's how they design sets now. And has been stated, none of these are really the best for a core set. But maybe a block built around a large team of Walkers confronting/working for Bolas could have them. If /every/ mythic rare in the set was a Walker, you'd see enough in a draft where narrow answers would be justified (approx. 3 per draft). And it'd be flavorful because the spells in such a set would be built around a battle between walkers themselves. The reason these answers don't make more sense in most sets is that the average plane doesn't build defenses against planeswalkers (except phyrexians).

    TLDR; Because sets are trying to base themselves in flavor instead of mechanics, it'd be a rare block that justifies printing narrow answers to planeswalkers.

  10. The flavor for Gentlemen's Duel could be some kind of bubble dimension for private dueling, not necessarily a way to zap other planeswalkers and obliterate them. Also, I think it's ok to print narrow answers to things that aren't connected with the set theme, such as Stony Silence.

  11. I don't see much of a point in printing narrow answers to planeswalkers when there are so many ways to print answers that also have other uses.

  12. Though to answer Jay's question more directly, I think Murder and Liquefy Soul are printable at uncommon, and Bar is unprintable at any rarity or mana cost.

  13. I'm curious why White was chosen as the color that would theoretically have an unadorned "Destroy/exile target planeswalker" effect. I wouldn't use Sorin as a good precedent since planeswalker ultimate effects aren't necessarily bound all that strictly by pie.

    I would think that Green would be the default for Planeswalker-hate. Why? The fundamental nature of a planeswalker is that it's an entity that moves from one plane to another. While traveling anywhere but the plane they were born on, they are an intruder, something foreign to that ecosystem. It would make sense if Green magic would have some way of expelling the contaminating presence. And most of the closest mono-colored cards we have to "destroy target planeswalker" are green already (Bramblecrush, et al).

  14. @HavelockV
    If there are narrow spells that answer planeswalkers, those spells can lay low and not be a factor in most metagames and only kick in when planeswalkers become too strong.

    If there are too many versatile spells that also answer planeswalkers, planeswalkers would receive incidental hate, even if they're not overpowered in the current metagame.

    @Alex Luminumcan
    I agree for mechanical reaons as well. Green only gets removal for permanent types that don't matter in every game (like enchantments and artifacts.) Planeswalkers matter a lot in constructed games, so I'd like to see Green's anti-planeswalker capabilities boosted.

    White already removes too many permanent types. I like Oblivion Ring being an answer to planeswalkers, but White shouldn't turn into the go-to color for planeswalker removal.

  15. @Chah What rarity do you print them at? Common or uncommon would absurd, since Planeswalkers rarely show up in limited. So I guess it's like putting another Stony Silence or Witchbane Orb in your set: a rare nobody, nobody wants to open.

    And they've avoided printing narrow answers so far, but somehow planeswalkers haven't been hated out of the metagame.

  16. Which colors should handle planeswalkers how is an entirely different question which I didn't even mean to start up until we at least had consensus that you could make cards that target them in the first place. While it makes flavor sense to me that white could literally bar a planeswalker from a plane with its rule magic, I absolutely agree that white is already too flexible in its removal. Similarly, I agree that it makes a lot of sense mechanically to put PW-removal in green, I'm only partially swayed by the flavor argument.

    As for the argument that all spells from a set represent the magic of that plane and most wizards don't know about planeswalkers to have magic against them, I see several holes in that logic:

    1—Not all cards from a set represent indigenous magic. See Planeswalkers themselves. You could easily have magic brought to the plane _by_ planeswalkers (or other interplanar forces like the Eldrazi).

    2—Not all cards must represent magic created by NPCs. Remember that the player is a planeswalker of considerable power. Surely we have the ability to craft spells of our own. In the context of the game, that can probably only be represented by having magic of unknown origin which we can then claim credit for (by putting it in our deck) and thus, retroactively, have invented.

    3—It's entirely reasonable for a spell meant to deal with a known threat to coincidentally also be to handle planeswalkers. Spoil Magic, above, was meant to dissolve an arcane structure that allows the magic of an enchantment to persist. It just so happens the same magic can dissolve the planar bond that allows a planeswalker to be in the local plane.

    This discussion caused me to think of a really bad-ass idea that is probably inevitable for Magic. A planeswalker hunter (or serial killer) who uses his own spark to hunt and destroy every other 'walker in the multiverse (possibly because he believes they are a meddling blight or possibly because he wants to be the only one). We'll call him Sylar for now. This terrifying walker /would/ have magic that can straight-up kill 'walkers and that magic could take card form the same way Garruk's Overrun and Ajani's Lightning Helix do.

  17. why destroy? Why not just: Remove all loyaltycounters from target Planeswalker.

    1. That's actually a good point. We really just need to see:

      Instant (C)
      Remove all counters from target permanent.

      I'm not sure it really needs to be in black, though precedent would suggest it. But it would actually be neat to see in a block like Innistrad, now that we've seen Undying. You could kill PWs, diminish things that have been powered up by Travel Prep (etc...), or actually save your Undying.

    2. I almost feel that Vampire Hexmage (in the goal of PW-killing) is a smarter print than this. That's an overstatement, as I realize you can't leave up doom blade/mana leak alongside it, but the fact that you can't remove the counters before your opponent gets a chance to fire their PW once seems relevant.

      Black has "Sorcery BB - Destroy target planeswalker" right now. I think Sublimate would certainly play interestingly in current Block and standard (Undying & Infect), but in terms of pw-removal, sometimes I just feel like Hexmage is underplayed (rather than underperforming).

  18. Havelock V, I guess you're right. Versatile spells like Oblivion Ring haven't hated out planeswalkers.

    I still think non-versatile spells like Gentleman' s Duel would be great against the threat of planeswalkers.dec taking over some future metagame.