Planechase has been one of my favorite Magic variants, but it isn't all that well-known. With releases in 2009 and 2012, newer players haven't seen these oversized cards that bring so much zaniness to so many multiplayer games. With Planechase Anthologies being released on Friday, I thought I would share the joy that is Planechase with all of you, including a few variants even some players experienced with Planechase may not have played.
Planechase cards are Magic cards that are roughly the size of a melded card. You are not going to accidentally include these cards in your regular Magic deck! You start the game with your regular deck of Magic cards, and a deck of Planechase cards. Picture you and your opponent(s) about to start your Magical duel. Your Magic deck holds the spells you can cast during the duel. Your Planechase deck has cards that explain where the duel is. Each Planechase card shows a different plane. Each plane offers a static and activated ability. For example, when you battle on Jund, all black, red, or green creature spells have Devour 5. When you roll the Planar die (we'll get there in a minute) and hit Chaos, you get two 1/1 Goblin creature tokens.
The idea is that each player picks a Planechase deck that works best with their Magic deck. The first player flips the top card of their Planechase library, and everyone is on that plane to start. To leave the plane, or to get the Chaos ability, you roll the planar die. The Planar die is a six-sided die that has a chaos symbol on one side and a Planeswalker symbol on another. On your turn, you may roll the Planar die if you want to planeswalk or try to get the Chaos activation. If you'd like to roll more than once, you need to pay one mana more than you did the last time you rolled that turn.
When someone rolls the Planeswalker symbol, everyone leaves the plane and goes to the new plane. In theory, you will always want to get off a plane that someone else has chosen since it will work best with their deck, but sometimes your decks are sympatico so you are happy to hang for a while. As games progress and players get more mana, you'll find many turns will be spent simply paying more mana just to get off a plane particularly oppressive to you.
Most Planechase games are multiplayer games, and Planechase adds a level of chaos to a regular game. When there are four players all trying to get to planes they want to be on, you can't expect to be on a plane you want for very long. The constant shifting can make things crazy!
The problem with the original version is that it demanded that each player had some Planechase cards and a deck. Most groups rarely had more than one person who was willing to buy Planechase cards, so this version was often difficult to play. While Planechase Anthologies solves that, since one person will have all the planes and decks to share with their group, the limitation forced most people to run variants. This is where things get truly fun!
The most common variant by far is the Single Library. Instead of every player putting together their own Planechase deck, there is a single, shared deck in the middle of the table. Most groups simply stack up every Planechase card they have, shuffle them up and start playing. Instead of going to a plane from your deck, you go to the next plane that comes up in the stack. If you discover you have entered into a plane of unholy terror, you roll until you get out.
The Single Library variant was borne out of necessity for most groups. Since it was usually one player who had bought all the Planechase cards, other players didn't have the cards to build their own Planechase decks. Since most players want to play with their own decks, they would have had to try to build a deck using someone else's cards, leaving the owner with the big advantage, since their deck would have been built with Planechase in mind. Instead, with everyone playing their own decks, they simply drew cards off the top.
This variant is by far the most common, as it involves literally no extra effort from anyone before playing a regular multiplayer game, other than someone actually bringing Planechase cards. This variant jams the chaos aspect of Planechase through the roof. You have no idea what the next plane will bring! It may help you or not. I really enjoy an added element of chaos in my Magic games, particularly when it isn't one player that is orchestrating it, but it is coming from the game itself. Adding a level of crazy means even more bizarre moments can happen in games, and I love that!
Not everyone loves the randomness that is the single library, so another variant came up that has a variety of names, but my group refers to it as the Planar Map. Instead of flipping over a Planechase card every time someone planeswalks, the Planechase cards are set up in a 3x3 grid. The cards in the corners are face down, while the others are face up. Everyone starts on the plane in the middle of the map. When you can planeswalk, the player who rolled can decide to move to any Planechase card in the grid, face up or down. Generally players choose the plane best for them, or decide to take a chance and "jump blindly through the Blind Eternities" to one of the unknown planes. After jumping, the new plane becomes the center card. Any plane that can't be jumped to from the new space is removed, and cards are added to create a new 3x3 square around the new plane. If new corner cards are added, they are added face down. If you get through all your Planechase cards, just shuffle up all the discarded cards and go through them again.
I personally like this version better. It gives you some control, while keeping the chaotic nature if you really want it. There are some political ramifications with this variant as well. Players who like a particular plane will try to convince you to jump there or at least somewhere near that plane, so it isn't removed from the 3x3 map. They hope they will get a chance to planeswalk back. I've seen several players jump blindly, just to force a plane they particularly detest off the 3x3 grid. This method also demands some space in the middle of the table, so tight quarters are not best for this variant.
Less commonly-seen variants involve building your own decks to go with Planechase decks you build. These variants involve more work since everyone in the group is building at least one deck to use and everyone is building a Planechase deck.
My group has tried this variant a couple of times with minimal success. We decided if we were going to do this, we should do it right and opted to run Commander decks! Building 100 card decks that synergize with a ten-card Planechase deck sounds nightmarish, but it proved to be easier than expected. Most of us built the Planechase decks to work with the commander of the deck, and didn't really worry about the rest of the deck. The commander would be available when you needed it and most of your Commander deck was designed to work with the commander, so it should also work with the Planechase decks.
The resulting games were fun, but not so much more fun than just a regular game of Commander. The Planechase cards made the games swingy. If you got the planes you wanted, your deck would take off and dominate, then the game would planeswalk to someone else's plane and your board position would crumble. The resulting game was certainly chaotic, but far less enjoyable. Winning seemed completely dependent on a fluke. To my group, tuning decks to work with specific Planechase decks made things just too powerful.
Given the overpowered nature of tuning decks, our group thought drafting the Planechase cards might be more optimal. We thought simply choosing a deck you brought to play that night, then drafting Planechase cards to work with that deck might reduce the synergy enough that the power level wouldn't be through the roof. I'd tell you how that went, but my group prefers a Single Library variant, so we have never actually tried that option.
The real reason I mention drafting is my favorite variant, Conspiracy! I recently completed a four-player Conspiracy draft. We each drafted four packs to try and keep the power level close to what it would be with an eight-player draft. After the draft we thought about drafting Planechase as a fifth booster. We would each get 15 Planechase cards, chosen at random, then draft them, making a ten-card Planechase deck from the 15 cards we would have available. Given the weaker nature of a Conspiracy draft deck, the synergy with the reduced power Planechase deck would be limited. This would likely create some weird and fun interactions without creating consistent game breaking situations.
Our thought was to draft the Planechase cards last, since then you would have your deck and know what to draft. We figured that would be better than drafting Planechase cards first, then trying to build around the cards you drafted, since that would put a pretty tight restriction on your options. Combining these sets just seems like a natural fit; I can't wait to see how it turns out!
I hope many of you get the chance to enjoy Planechase with the new Planechase Anthologies set. The cards bring a new level of fun to your kitchen table groups! I'd love to hear your thoughts about the variants I've mentioned and others you have tried! Have I've heard of using a different Planar die so that chaos rolls and planeswalking happens even more frequently but never tried it. Have you tried variants that offer less chaos and more control with Planechase cards? Does your group have plans with Planechase cards? Drop me a line on Twitter or share in the comments!