The planeswalkers that Core Set 2019 are far from spectacular. This is obviously fine - not every 'walker can be Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, and you can't have Jace, the Mind Sculptor without Jace, the Living Guildpact. Why not, you ask? Look, don't examine the metaphor too closely. The point is that the five recently-printed planeswalkers aren't ever going to be multi-format all-stars.
...OR ARE THEY!?
No, they're not. Don't get it twisted.
Despite this, all five of them are seeing some level of play and, if you'll believe it, not just in Standard. These planeswalkers are being included in successful Modern and even Legacy lists, so it may be a little short-sighted to consign them all to the scrapheap just yet.
Still, it's in Standard that they threaten to have the biggest impact. With rotation on the ever-approaching horizon, big mythics like these planeswalkers will be important in defining the metagame later in the year. For that reason, it's worth getting in on the ground floor. It's important to get across what these planeswalkers do and how well they do it – the best way to do that right now is to take the temperature of the current format and understand the role they play within it.
Most of the M19 five suffer from a common problem - being a little too narrow to see widespread use throughout a range of decks. Whereas Gideon, Ally of Zendikar was a great inclusion in more or less any white deck, Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants needs a much more specific support cast for him to truly shine.
Not that this is an enormous liability – last week, Seth Manfield highlighted one a 5-0 Knights deck (and yes, I couldn't be happier that this deck is a real thing), and since then, the deck has continued to put up modest results. There are two approaches, and each makes good use of the new Ajani. Seeing as Seth has already discussed the tribal synergies of paolothewall182's take on the archetype, today, I want to talk about the more generic and less synergistic midrange list in which Ajani is getting it done.
Rather regrettably moving away from cards like Benalish Marshal and Valiant Knight, this deck can bolster its lategame position by trading away explosive tribal synergies for a value-driven game powered by planeswalkers and Lyra Dawnbringer. While there's still the punishing curve of Knight of Malice into History of Benalia, playing a long game of attrition is much easier thanks to the exceptional removal and the recursion of Ajani.
Ajani is a great play at any point of the game. Early, he powers up cheap creatures that are hard to block, from Knights to Freebooters; late, he returns one of these creatures for defence/interaction/a clock. This deck doesn't compromise on the power level of individual cards, and having 12 of the format's best two-drops to reanimate with Ajani is huge.
White decks packing efficient, cheap creatures will always want Ajani, and for that reason, I'm keeping my eye on how things progress from here on out. We may see green or red (or in a perfect world, blue) paired alongside white in search of the best support color, but for now, I'm happy to be getting busy with Knights of all kinds, and I'm happy to have Ajani at my side as I do so.
Despite commanding the highest price of the five 'walkers, Tezzeret has had a quiet start to the season. This could simply be a question of him not finding the right place to really get the party started - but if that isn't happening now, with the artifact-heavy Kaladesh block available, will it ever come together for the Artifice Master?
His only consistent appearance has been in the sideboards of Mono-Blue Paradoxical Outcome decks, but then only as a one-of. Close examination of the league results, however, churned out this little beauty that lleaf33 piloted to a recent perfect finish.
I wrote about the power of Herald of Anguish a long time ago, then seeking to support him with Tezzeret the Schemer. This list, I have to say, looks a lot more convincing! This deck is packed to the rafters with artifact synergies, to maximize both new Tezzeret and Herald of Anguish. It makes absolutely no concessions when it comes to interactions, packing Fatal Push and Metallic Rebuke in addition to the Standard powerhouse, Vraska's Contempt.
Improvising out the Herald should be very easy, with plenty of one-drop artifacts and the go-wide capacities of Sai, Master Thopterist. For the same reasons, you'll usually be drawing two cards with Tezzeret, which is exactly where you want to be. Just to put another inch of icing on this already delicious cake - just imagine how big those Karn tokens are going to be!
This deck is super clear-cut in both construction and gameplay, and I like the refreshingly direct approach it takes to enacting a gameplan. The sideboard is a little boilerplate, but with so little room to move in the main deck, it's understandable (and you don't want to over-sideboard with this deck, anyway). Any way you slice it, Tezzeret is the perfect fit for this deck.
Tezzeret also powered AnarchistAbe to a 5-0 finish in Legacy, if you'll believe it – and to make the victory even sweeter, the deck contains zero Reserved List cards!
With Ajani rewarding you for playing small creatures and Tezzeret mandating the inclusion artifacts in your deck, it's unsurprising to find that the newest Liliana also has some pretty stringent deckbuilding requirements. Honestly, hers are the most demanding of the entire quintet, as without a fair few Zombies in your deck this card does stone-cold nothing.
Once again, Seth Manfield was quick on the draw with new technology, and showcased a Mono-Black Zombies list in some videos last week. "Zombies is the best tribal deck in Standard again," he asserts – I don't know that I'd go that far, but then again, he does have the edge on me when it comes to total World Championships won. Only by one, though! Maybe he knows what he's talking about.
As Seth mentions, mono-black isn't the only way to squeeze this particular orange. FriendRudy and taratama have both put up the numbers online with a white-black deck, splashing white for Wayward Servant and a few sideboard cards.
The thrust of this deck remains largely unchanged, despite the addition of white, and its overall gameplan doesn't really look any different. Liliana is not only a terrific way to fuel Graveyard Marshal, but readily serves as a double removal spell where necessary. What's very exciting about her, however, is her "ultimate." Being able to "draw" a ton of cards from your graveyard is, historically, an obscenely powerful effect – and this is the deck in which we'll see the most fireworks.
One larger point I wanted to make with the white-black nature of this deck is this: don't get too myopic about mono-black Zombies, especially with Guilds of Ravnica approaching. It's a safe bet that the Golgari Swarm will bring more Zombies to the table, and provide a heavy incentive to play green. Liliana could continue to appear in two-color lists for a good while yet.
Sarkhan doesn't ask too much of you; his first and last abilities don't really rely on anything else to do their best work. His second ability, however, obviously wants to power out powerful Dragons – as early and as often as possible. On the back of this, we saw "Grixis" Dragons piloted to a respectable 11th place finish at SCG Worcester last weekend. Glorybringer has been a Standard fixture for quite some time and has a respectable second fiddle in Demanding Dragon – but both pale in comparison to the power of Nicol Bolas, the Ravager.
The joke is an obvious one – this is, essentially, a mono-red list that double-splashes for an insanely powerful gold card that can ends games very quickly regardless of their length. Bolas plays incredibly well on turn four or turn 14, and is a good reason to play both blue and black.
As for Sarkhan? Handily, he can add all the colors of the rainbow and aid you in powering out the mighty Elder Dragon, not to mention serving as a decidedly useful way to dispose of things like Abrade and Magma Spray in matchups where they don't do anything. Sarkhan is, rather bluntly, a tidy little utility play that won't really be used to single-handedly overtake a game but is a cheap threat against slow control and will provide incidental value here and there in other matchups.
As something of a sidenote, I'm very concerned indeed that we have a "Grixis" deck playing a triple-red card as a matter of course. I very much hope we're sufficiently incentivized to move away from cards like Goblin Chainwhirler post-rotation – hopefully, Guilds of Ravnica has too many powerful gold cards for us to ignore. I really don't like an RRR card being played in a deck that attempts to support three colours and is labelled as such.
Mono-Red Prison is a fringe strategy in Modern, and Raystack has a niche take on the niche archetype. The inclusion of Sarkhan, Fireblood offers another resilient three-drop threat for the deck, and can also power out… Avaricious Dragon?
Poor Vivien! Not only is the new kid lacking an epithet like all the other cool kids, she also isn't seeing any main deck play to speak of. Having said that, she is being included in the sideboards of the format's best green decks. That's an encouraging start, and already Vivien is beginning to meaningfully contest Nissa, Vital Force as green's anti-control threat in post-board matches.
There's still a long way to go for Vivien Reid, and she may never quite get there. Ajani, Mentor of Heroes had a similar green-based card advantage engine and never really blew Standard to bits – it remains to be seen, therefore, how useful her second ability is. Removing white enchantment-based removal, blowing up vehicles or slaying Dragons all seem like excellent uses for her -3, so perhaps her time is yet to come.
If we're to be a little more optimistic, however, there's this to consider. Of all the planeswalkers, Vivien Reid is the least narrow. All the others require some very specific scenarios to do their best work; Vivien asks virtually nothing of you outside of playing creatures and lands, which is not a particularly taxing thing to do. As a result, her potential as a "generic good stuff" planeswalker is the highest – especially if she can be effectively defended the turn she comes down.
Despite being a little underwhelming at first glance, all five planeswalkers are making their presence felt across Standard (and, as illustrated above, in Modern and Legacy as well!). It's important not to dismiss them from this point, even though none of them are displaying Chandra or Teferi-like dominance. All five have potential to play big roles in the upcoming Standard format, filling their "niche" roles, and for that reason, I'm not ignoring any of them. We'll see what the pros make of these five mythics at the Pro Tour in Minneapolis!
- Riley Knight