The most frustrating thing in Magic is losing to a seemingly unbeatable threat. Sometimes that takes the form of a powerful creature, but more often than not it’s an unanswered planeswalker.

These marquee cards are designed to be this way. As the chase mythics of a set, and the face cards of the product, planeswalkers are built from the ground up to be impressive, game-winning cards. Their basic design is actually quite interesting, and their presence adds an interesting element to the game, but when they’re always must-answer threats, it gets tedious to see the game inevitably warp around them.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. The core mechanics of planeswalkers are a solid foundation, and yet the way they’re implemented seems to have a fatal flaw. The card type is now a mainstay of every format barring Pauper (just give it time…), making it more important than ever to address what makes so many planeswalkers problematic. If the problem can be identified, it can be avoided, making future designs healthier. It worked for equipment and vehicles, so I have high hopes.

Attackable Permanents are a Great Idea

As I said, the design of planeswalkers isn’t all doom and gloom. Noncreature permanents that are vulnerable to damage are quite an ingenious concept that dates back to the original design of Ravnica, City of Guilds. Richard Garfield proposed a new card type for that set: structures. Much like modern planeswalkers, structures could be attacked and destroyed with damage.

The card type obviously didn’t make it to print, but the basic idea was sound (Dr. Garfield is pretty good at designing Magic cards, as it turns out). If they had been added to the game at the time, it would have been quite interesting to see what the modern landscape would look like; every plane has some sort of building or defensible position on it, so the card type could have shown up in any set. Of course, we’re seeing that play out now with planeswalker cards, but sending creatures to attack castles, mines and fortifications instead of individuals would have significantly changed the tone of Magic over the years. Just imagine if War of the Spark had featured buildings from across Ravnica instead of its planeswalkers; even if nothing changed mechanically, it would feel very different thematically.

Games like Hearthstone and its now-defunct predecessor took the concept of attackable permanents a step further, by allowing creatures to attack each other directly. Magic’s combat phase would need a significant overhaul if it wanted to do the same thing as those games, and it probably wouldn’t be worth the effort. Besides, mechanics like Provoke and Fight serve the same purpose as declaring an attack against a creature, and do so without needing to fundamentally alter the rules of the game.

Adding a completely new permanent type that can be attacked, on the other hand, isn’t as big a leap. The rules for multiplayer games already serve as a clean model for how attacking and blocking a planeswalker would work, and once the changes to direct damage were implemented in Dominaria, interacting with these new permanents outside of combat became equally as intuitive.

New Resources are Hard to Balance

It’s unclear if it was part of the original design for structures, but the planeswalker card type also introduced a brand new resource to the game: loyalty. Not only does loyalty serve as a planeswalker’s life total, but it can also be spent to activate various abilities. Loyalty abilities don’t require mana, so determining how much they should cost can be tricky; the sorted history of overpowered planeswalkers is evidence of that!

At its core, though, Magic is balanced around mana. Players can typically expect cards with similar casting costs to be roughly as powerful as one another, and for bigger spells to have a larger impact on the game. There’s some variation to this (it would be hard to make over twenty-thousand cards otherwise), but generally speaking, the rule of thumb stands: the more you spend on a spell, the better it will be. The odd exception to this has always been free spells; if you can get something without spending any mana to get it, no matter how minor the effect, there will almost certainly be a way to abuse it.

If a Magic card uses something other than mana to do something, it frequently breaks the game. Necropotence took the adage that “your life total is a resource” a little too literally, and it resulted in “Black Summer” – perhaps the first instance of a one-deck metagame. Kaladesh‘s energy mechanic ran into the same problem, having notoriously broken Standard in two. Energy was so powerful that even after several key cards were banned, it remained a powerful archetype until it rotated out. Since then we’ve seen other spells circumvent the mana system, like Fires of Invention, and it usually ends badly for the formats they’re in.

Comparing one resource to another is always tricky; how can you assess how powerful a new resource will be when it’s first introduced? That said, history has shown us that mana-agnostic abilities always need to be handled with great care; they can be a lot of fun to use, but they can easily cause problems. Keywords like dredge, for instance, are notoriously impossible to balance, and any ability that allows a player to pay for a spell with something other than mana will always be good (I’m looking at you, Affinity and Delve).

With all that in mind, it’s really not surprising that planeswalker loyalty is one of the better mechanics in the game. It has a lot of parallels with energy and other manaless mechanics, and yet it’s rarely given the same level of scrutiny. When coupled with an aggressive mana cost, it can easily become overpowered, especially considering the fact that planeswalker loyalty is a self-renewing resource.

Getting Something for Nothing

In a lot of ways, Kaladesh‘s energy mechanic felt like a new take on planeswalker loyalty. Its obvious shortfalls were that energy was too easy to obtain, and that being a pooled resource made it far too flexible. Cheap energy producers were designed to syphon their energy into larger, more powerful effects, and while this was a cool concept, it proved far too easy to abuse.

Charge counters and +1/+1 counters are similar in how they function, but unlike energy or loyalty, they’re usually handled with much more care. It’s rare to be able to transfer counters from one permanent to another, and “refueling” a permanent usually comes at a hefty mana cost. There are a few notable exceptions, but they serve to illustrate just how powerful counter-based mechanics can be if left unchecked. Thankfully, for the most part, when a permanent is able to repeatedly put  1/+1 counters or change counters on itself without spending mana, it usually spending the entire turn doing nothing but  powering up, or has to put itself at risk by attacking.

This same care that usually goes into balancing +1/+1 counters and charge counters had never really been placed on planeswalkers. Perhaps the greatest sin of the card type is that planeswalkers can “pay a cost” for an effect by increasing their loyalty. This is usually justified with a waive of a hand, saying that having to spend a turn to use a “plus ability” is a drawback in and of itself; the card’s “minus ability” is so much better, hand how awful it is that the player has to scry instead of dealing damage to a creature…!

Let’s be honest: that excuse is utter horsefeathers. You’re still gaining the benefit of an activated ability, and making the planeswalker harder to destroy in the process. It didn’t cost you anything, and you’re still further ahead than you were before using the planeswalker.

It’s Symmetrical, So It’s Fair… Right?

I will grant you that some plus abilities do make an attempt at being balanced. Jace Beleren gives your opponent a card, and Liliana of the Veil makes you discard one yourself. These are still powerful effects, though, and if they were on any other permanent type you wouldn’t expect them to generate a resource as well. Take Temple Bell, for instance: its activated ability is exactly the same as Jace Beleren‘s plus ability, and the cards even requires the same amount of mana to cast. The big difference is that Temple Bell isn’t charging itself up for a bigger effect later in the game.

Planeswalkers typically have a powerful “ultimate” ability that requires building up loyalty over several turns. Unlike other permanents, though, they keeps generating free value as they gain counters. This makes the planeswalker harder to destroy, gets it closer to a game-winning effect, and all the while its controller gets to scry, or draw a card, or create a token every turn. You could argue that gaining loyalty is no different from adding the words “gain 2 life” to a spell, but unless you’re playing Necropotence, you can’t directly channel your life into an activated ability. Planeswalkers can.

Lux Cannon is another good comparison; it builds up counters in the same way as a planeswalker, and it can unleash a powerful effect once it has enough of them. The difference is that until the Cannon reaches its “ultimate,” it’s just a lump on the battlefield. You don’t get a bonus every time the artifact charges up, and you don’t need to. Lux Cannon is already a scary card that looms on the battlefield like the Sword of Damocles, threatening to destroy the best permanent when the time comes. If tapping the artifact drew you a card, or let you deal damage with every charge counter gained, it would feel excessive and unfair.

Planeswalkers are fundamentally no different, and yet gaining loyalty always comes free with some other effect. The argument seems to be that because planeswalkers can be attacked lose any progress they’ve made toward their ultimate that players should get something for the time spent building them up. This leads to unpleasant games, where an opponent is forced to throw everything they have at a planeswalker in a futile attempt to delay the inevitable. All the while they are getting buried under free card advantage

Trying to destroy a planeswalker via combat damage feels like wading through sand; your progress is quickly undone by a plus ability, and all it takes is one big blocker to shut down any hope of removing the problem. Theoretically, attackable permanents that can heal themselves can create an interesting tug-of-war, with each player scrambling to build up or destroy the card. In practice, the tug-of-war is always rigged; the defender keeps getting a bonus when they add loyalty, while the attacker keeps losing resources just to try and remove some. And it only gets worse the longer it goes on.

Don’t Lose Hope

Thankfully, the story doesn’t end here. The planeswalker card type is a surprisingly versatile one, and it only takes a few small adjustments to transform them from insurmountable sources of card advantage to interesting, characterful cards with opportunities for counter play. Please join me next time as we explore this problem further; we’ll be taking a look at quests, the future of planeswalker design, and the legacy of a madman.

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