Custom Card Game Design

Tuning planeswalkers


in a previous article I looked at planeswalkers from a design perspective. Here, I want to talk about balance considerations on planeswalkers.

The era of planeswalking is over!

This is only my opinion and you may disagree, but it seems that Wizards has dismissed planeswalkers as a card for casual players. None of the planeswalkers currently legal in standard are played all that much. It’s all beatdown – playing dudes and smashing in. And that is one of the problems planeswalkers currently face: The planeswalker removal in standard is just too strong right now. That would of course be creatures. As long as these freakin’ guys are legal, I don’t see how you can play a planeswalker and expect him to live a turn.

What are you talking about? Planeswalking is the coolest thing in the world!

The reason I’m saying this is because I like to rant (obvs), but also because planeswalkers are viewed as innately more powerful, just because their card type. This most likely is a result of the state of standard about 1-2 years ago, where planeswalkers completely dominated the format. When there were only few planeswalkers printed, Wizards definitely wanted to make all of them awesome. Now, that there are more than 30 out already, it isn’t a big deal if one of them doesn’t get played that much and development is now more cautious than before. I’m fine with that, but I think it would be a pity if planeswalkers would fall out of competitive play entirely.

However, people haven’t caught up to it yet. They still seem to overvalue new planeswalkers or bash on designs of custom planeswalkers because they are overpowered, when in fact they are entirely unplayable. It seems to be a common theme with humans in general that we are reluctant to adjust our mindset, and then do a complete flip-flop when the old mindset can no longer be upheld.

I’m taking away your planeswalking, for good!

When evaluating a planeswalker, or any card, a very important concept is ‘expectation value’. What is the average value you get out of this card in an empirical number of games? A planeswalker shouldn’t have a higher or lower expectation value than another playable card (the “It’s a mythic – it should be more powerful!” fallacy), but should have the potential to be more powerful than those cards – something the opponent has to deal with eventually. A planeswalker grants you versatility at the price of vulnerability. Sometimes you can defend it and it will be awesome, but sometimes you can’t and you would rather have another card.

However, if you sometimes feel like you just skipped your draw, the planeswalker isn’t playable. You should always at least get some value out of it. Let’s compare two planeswalkers: Ajani Vengeant and Chandra, the Firebrand. Both Ajani and Chandra have the potential to win you the game. Ajani by blowing up your opponent’s lands and Chandra by wiping one side of the board or by twincasting an insane spell. But this isn’t likely to happen. More likely your opponent will stop you from that plan and it now becomes more imporant what else your planeswalker can do. Planeswalkers that can defend themselves are generally viewed as more powerful (Elspeth, Knight-Errant for example) and almost no thought is wasted on the strength of their ultimate.

Ajani can defend himself by tapping down a problematic permanent or you can just cash him in for a Lightning Helix. If that was the only thing he could do, then you’d rather play the Helix, but the potential of killing multiple guys or the ultimate make him an interesting choice. Chandra worst possible value is a Gut Shot that gains you some life – not exactly what you want for four mana. Her best line of play? Untapping with her and twincasting a Sorin’s Vengeance. But how likely is that? Most likely her planeswalking will be taken away from her before you can untap because she can’t defend herself.

But not every planeswalker has to have the ability to defend itself. The Firebrand could have worked out if her starting loyalty was increased (maybe 5, with the abilities +1, -3 and -8) or by reducing her cost to one colorless and two red.

When you adjust the numbers on your planeswalker, keep in mind the ‘expectation value’ in comparison to the mana cost and what else you could be casting. Also, consider that a low cost planeswalker generally faces down less creatures on the board and is more likely to survive. In your head, go through some possible sequences of play and ask yourself if your planeswalker is totally bonkers or ‘meh’ in any of the situations that arise from those sequences.

Plane I: Blue

I definitely should have followed that last advice when I designed this lovely girl here:

Kiora Spellcatcher

I suspected that she would be overpowered, but wanted to have our playtesting confirm it before I made any changes. And boy, she’s the jaciest Jace there is. Her on an empty board is just as game over as the good old Sculptorino. You can’t keep up with the mana required to get through spells and soon you’ll be facing a wall of counterspells and have no option but to concede. And even on a filled board she is decent. Bouncing a creature or just using the plus ability, taking some hits for a turn and then wiping the board on the next turn are all possible sequences of play.

Fixing her with that ability structure seems difficult – there is no fraction of a mana. So I restructured her while keeping with the idea of the counterspell enchantment:

Kiora Spellcatcher

This planeswalker has a lot going for her. Turtles are awesome, the “+1: Put a chump-blocker into play” ability was done before and is known to be balanced on a four mana walker, and she has additional control utiliy that isn’t too oppressive.

Plane II: Red

I’m running down Chandra so much, but I don’t hate her. Rather, I hate the fact that Wizards still hasn’t managed to make a competitive version of her. So I made my own version that I’d like to see in Return to Ravnica (no idea if it even makes sense for her to be there, probably not). Here is what I came up with:

Chandra, Phoenix-Wing

I started with the mana cost: Obviously two red and a colorless. “(number) damage to target creature or player” can’t be balanced as a plus ability on a planeswalker in my opinion, so I made it the new “red looting”. I knew she had a thing for phoenixes, something that wasn’t done on any of her versions yet, so I made her summon Chandra’s Phoenixes. Of course, it wouldn’t be Chandra if not at least one ability would deal direct damage to something. I made it not hit players so that the ability doesn’t compete with the zero-ability for damage to the face.

The -X ability allows her to act as a Forked Bolt for three mana at the least, which isn’t too bad. The zero-ability is awesome in aggro decks and can also be very good in a control deck (equip a sword to it?). The plus-ability is obviously also very good in control decks.

She is definitely very pushed. Is her -X too strong when you can ramp her loyalty up that quickly? You play her on an empty board and she becomes a repeatable Pyroclasm on demand. The first ability should probably be +1. Discard, then draw is not really a powerful effect, so the first ability should just be used to up her loyalty in order to drain it with her -X, which I think is interesting.


4 responses to “Tuning planeswalkers

  1. adventmtg August 15, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    Love it. I’m not too fond of Chandra’s name, but that’s a creative issue more than a design issue. At a glance, the new Kiora’s ‘ultimate’ seems a bit underwhelming… How does it play? I’d almost like to see it where she could pop out two of those enchantments onto the field before blowing herself up, especially since as enchantments (as opposed to emblems) they can be interacted with.

  2. antaresmtg August 16, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    After the first version being completely nuts, I wanted to be more careful with the second. I don’t think a “wait-one-turn-ultimate” has to be that powerful, so two tokens might be excessive. If it turns out not powerful enough, and thinking about it you are correct that it most likely will, I’d start with readding “Draw a card” to the effect (which would make it a cryptic command).

    Chandra’s name is another allusion to the Avatar series 🙂

  3. Ivory September 25, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    Ah I see that you too are angry that a competitive version of Chandra hasn’t been released. I’ve actually tried my hand at this before. When I made this, I wanted this card to feel like Chandra; done in a very burn-your-house-down style. I tried to make sure each of her abilities matched Chandra’s flavor, and had strong flavor, just to make the card have more appeal.

    Here it is:

    Chandra – 1RR
    +X: Chandra deals X damage to you and to target creature.
    0: Until your next turn, whenever Chandra takes damage, Chandra deals 2 damage to each of your opponents.
    -8: Chandra deals 10 damage to each opponent and to each creature they control. Sacrifice Chandra.

    It may seem strange that you have to pay life to make Chandra deal damage, but it feels very red to me. You can also see the incredible amount of defense this one’s packing, she’s very useful for taking out a fatty, or she can stand by, ready for her when you need her, giving your opponent’s her wrath whenever she’s hit. Her ultimate is based on the original Chandra Nalaar’s ultimate, only more useful for multiplayer. You’ll need to pay at least 5 life to access it, and it also costs Chandra herself, because once everything’s on fire, her job is done and she leaves. Mechanically, it’s because you can ramp to the effect so quickly, and it deals 10 damage to your opponents as well. The ultimate probably needs a little tuning. S’too bad.

    Also, I must say I’m a big fan of your latest Kiora. She’s the first blue planeswalker I’ve liked everything about. But a side note, shouldn’t her -5 just create an emblem? It shortens the box, and makes your hard earned -5 effect less hateable.

    And I lol’d at “I’m taking your planeswalking away, for good”. Avatar ftw.

    But anyway, just randomly popping in here, don’t mind me.

    – Ivory

  4. antaresmtg September 27, 2012 at 4:59 am

    The problem your Chandra has is that you can’t use the plus ability unless a creature is on the field. Also, being able to ultimate on the next turn strikes me as much too powerful, even if you have to pay some life (you’re also killing a creature on the way up). You can also just keep plusing her to kill everything, given that you have enough life. Try to imagine how it feels to play against her when your opponent is at a healthy life total.

    I would like Kiora’s ultimate to be an emblem, but you can’t sacrifice emblems as they aren’t permanents. Enchantment tokens are indeed a bit unelegant.

    Thanks for stopping by.

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