The Top Ten Planeswalkers in EDH

Since their inception to the game in Lorwyn, Planeswalkers have made an impact in every format.  Though initially thought to be a “once in a while” thing by Wizards’ R+D, they’ve proved to be so popular, both as characters and as cards, that each block sees at least 5 new Walkers.  A Planeswalker coming into play can take total control of the game, often having an immediate impact as soon as they’re cast.  Some have reached incredible prices (Remember when Jace, the Mind Sculptor was around $100?  What?  He’s back there again now?), and some have been fantastic failures (poor Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded…).  Even now, before the release of a set, you’ll often see Planeswalker cards have the highest pre-order values online.  Yes, it may be hype, but there’s something to be said for a card type that can get players so excited for a new set.
In EDH, Planeswalkers have a place in almost every deck.  You just have to remember that in a multiplayer format, they must be protected much better than in a 1 vs. 1 game.  Chances are, you’re probably not going to get to use their Ultimate abilities (Doubling Season shenanigans aside), so you have to choose which Planeswalker fits into your deck on the merits of all it’s abilities.  The following list was compiled grading each Planeswalker on their abilities, their casting costs, how many decks they fit into, how they affect the politics of the game, their survivability, and by many more metrics (you should have seen my spreadsheet – it was all sciency-looking).
Without further adieu, we will now rank the Top Ten Planeswalkers in EDH (as of Gatecrash).

 

Number 10

Love him or hate him, Sorin Markov won’t be leaving the format any time soon, so you might as well get used to it.  Though his 3BBB casting cost restricts the number of decks he can go into (mercifully, according to some), even some three-colour decks that include Black will put him in a card slot for the immediate impact he has on the the game.  He won’t often live to see any of his abilities activated a second time, his -3 ability has been the cause of a lot of pain and discussion about the card’s use in the format.  I won’t speak to that (abilities like that are incredibly divisive, and I’ll save that for another column), but I will say that it sometimes serves a useful purpose – if a player is playing a lifegain deck, things can get out of hand, and Sorin Markov  helps keep them honest.
Sorin’s +2 ability is usually relevant enough, taking out some useful utility creature or small general, and it is hard to counter.  Combined with the outside chance of using his Mindslaver Ultimate (though very rarely, as most will use his -3 ability on another player, given the chance), and you can see why Sorin easily earns a place into the top 10.

Number 9

The only reason Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker isn’t higher on the list is because of his casting cost.  Not only does he have the highest casting cost of any Planeswalker ever printed, with a converted cast cost of 8, his colours limit him to either Grixis (which doesn’t have many choices, general-wise) or 5-colour decks (also suffering from a lack of Legendary creatures).
Each of Bolas’ abilities will have an immediate impact on the board – he is the definition of a bomb, even in EDH.  If the game being dominated by a Legacy Weapon or Debtors’ Knell?  Use Bolas’ +3 ability and ruin someone’s plans.  Having trouble with a indestructable Darksteel Colossus or are you about to die to that 50/50 trampling Omnath, Locus of Mana?  Use his -2 ability and turn the tide of battle.  And if he survives long enough, his ultimate severely cripples a player.  Yes, his casting cost is restrictive, but his survivability, immediate usefulness, and the level of control he provides more than make up for it.  If you can run Nicol Bolas in your deck, you probably should.

Number 8

Since he got printed a few years ago, I have never seen anyone go ultimate with Tezzeret the Seeker – and yet he is still included in a lot of decklists.  That shows you the utility of his first two abilities.  Tezzeret is most often used for his “-X” ability.  Right after you cast him, you can tutor any artifact with converted casting cost four or less directly into play – let’s not discount how useful that can be, as most tutors go to your hand.  This allows you to search for that combo piece or necessary piece of protective equipment in a way that’s hard to counter.  Need mana?  He fetches you Sol Ring and survives, not to mention the artifact lands are “free” for him to tutor into play (Seat of the Synod).  Need card draw?  He gets  Skullclamp and survives.  Don’t need anything in particular?  You can always get Sensei’s Divining Top.
His +1 ability is also very useful.  After he’s already tutored something into play, he’s generally pretty low on loyalty counters, and is also low on your opponents’ priority list – the damage is done, and he won’t again be a threat for a couple of turns, yet.  This allows you get some extra mana out of those mana artifacts you just tutored into play, or gives pseudo-Vigilance to two of your artifact creatures to protect himself.
His all-around usefulness and in-game survivability makes him an unsung all-star amoungst the Planeswalkers.  If your deck has artifacts, and let’s face it, your
deck has artifacts, then Tezzeret is the Planeswalker for you.

Number 7

Speaking of utility Planeswalkers, here we have one of the Lorwyn first five.  Out of all the Planeswalkers I’ve seen hit play, Garruk Wildspeaker is one that seems to stick around.  If he is killed by your opponents, it’s almost an afterthought.  This is a mistake on their part.
Garruk is a very versatile Planeswalker.  He’s slow – that is, his counters don’t move up or down very quickly, and this gives your opponents a false sense of security.  His real use is his mana-acceleration capabilities.  Untapping two lands a turn doesn’t seem like much, but mixed with other mana acceleration, it can get you far ahead pretty quickly.  Later on, untapping those two lands becomes a bigger deal when you have Mana Reflection in play, or one of the Ravnica Karoo lands (Selesnya Sanctuary).
Though his -1 ability doesn’t see much use, it allows you to protect Garruk for free post-boardwipe, which already puts you ahead of your opponents.  His Ultimate, is deceptively powerful.  Since Garruk often survives longer than most Planeswalkers, the chances of you seeing his Ultimate are actually pretty good.  In certain strategies, like Voltron or Tokens, it can be a game ender, and it is hard to counter.  Though it’s on the battlefield, he’s a win condition that hides in plain sight.
Garruk isn’t flashy or exciting, but his versatility and his ability to be played in almost any deck earns him a spot on the list.

Number 6

I remember drooling when I first saw this card spoiled – that Ultimate was just juicy.  Her pre-order price tag of $40 told me other people thought the same.  Yet, as Return to Ravnica was released, her price plummeted.  Standard decks just couldn’t play her (much), and Modern and Legacy wouldn’t even give her the time of day.
EDH loves you, Vraska the Unseen.  You can hang out with us.
Vraska protects herself more fully that any other Planeswalker has before.  Using her +1 ability almost makes her invulnerable, except for the person who decides to throw some sacrificial lambs at her.  Where she really shines, though, is her -3 ability.  Destroying any non-land permanent is incredibly useful, but it also creates a mini-game – when you use this ability.   That is to say, this is when your opponents can safely damage her, so you have to choose your moments wisely if you want her to stick around.  On top of that, you can immediately use this ability when she comes into play, and she survives quite nicely afterwords.  Finally, her Ultimate, though fragile, is still relevant.  There’s lots of ways to give your creatures Trample (pumping them first), or make them unblockable.  Vraska can be seen as a win condition by herself, something most Planeswalkers can’t claim.
She’s in a popular colour-combination (especially after Return to Ravnica), Vraska can survive even with no creatures to protect her, and she’s immediately useful.  She makes the cut.

Number 5

The very first (retroactive) Emblem-maker, Elspeth, Knight-Errant has everything you’d like a Planeswalker to have.  She protects herself with her +1 ability, putting a chump blocker into play.  She allows you to go on the offensive with her other +1 ability, making a creature larger and evasive for an attack which is very useful for Voltron decks.  If you can pull off her Ultimate, you can reasonably expect to win the game.
For a Planeswalker that takes 5 turns to be able to use her Ultimate, I’ve seen someone get that Emblem more often than you’d think.  It could be because she has no minus abilities besides her Ultimate, so you have no choice but to only go up with her loyalty counters.  It could be that she protects herself while doing so.  It could also be the kinds of decks people tend to run her in are good at protecting her.  Or it could just be my meta.  In any case, Elspeth makes a spot for herself on the list for her survivability en route to a game-changing ultimate.  Once she hits the board, your opponents know that they’re on a clock, one they can’t always run out.

Number 4

Was there any doubt that big Jace, the Mind Sculptor would be on the list?  Probably the most versatile Planeswalker printed (and really, it’s hard not to be versatile when you have so many abilities available right away), some may even wonder why he’s not higher on the list [editor's note: I am wondering].  Each of his abilities that you can reasonably expect to use are useful in EDH, but none are game-changing (unless you’re able to use them over and over again) – it’s the fact that you have so many options that he even ranks as high as number four.
Have no illusions – you will never go Ultimate with big Jace, in EDH.  Not even with Doubling Season (disclaimer: it could conceivably happen, but it’s very, very unlikely, so you should never count on it).  As soon as he hits the board, you have one, maybe upwards of three turns before he’s targeted.  The fact is, though, that you can do some damage with him in the meantime.
His +2 Fateseal ability isn’t great, unless you get stuck in a mana clump/shortage, or need to dig for answers.  The only time it has a real effect on the game is when someone is leaning heavily on their Sensei’s Divining Top, or they tutor to the top of their library at sorcery speed (which they likely won’t do with the Mind Sculptor in play).
His +0 ability is where he really shines.  Brainstorm is an incredible effect (made more-so with the printing of the Miracle mechanic), but there’s nearly no repeatable effects like it in Magic (not to mention Ponder-like effects.  This is why  Sensei’s Divining Top is so ubiquitous).  Jace changes that, and really helps you play a tempo game in a format where it’s difficult to do just that.
His -1 Unsummon is often his most under-rated ability.  Is an opponents’ Forgotten Ancient is getting too large?  Bounce.  Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger ruining everyone’s day?  Bounce.  Also, if you’re able to keep Jace relatively low on loyalty counters  (at a level where his Ultimate isn’t even a hint of a threat), then maybe, just maybe, you just might be able to keep him a little longer.
His Ultimate is a whopper, almost instantly taking an opponent out of the game, but in a multiplayer format, the use of this is only for the cool story it creates (for you, not them) and bragging rights (for both of you, I suppose).
For his sheer utility, Jace II makes the list.  Just don’t be angry if he’s a 4 mana Brainstorm, and nothing else.

 

Number 3

I’ve been playing Magic since I was in grade school.  At the time, Fallen Empires had just come out (I had no where to go but up, as it turns out).  I didn’t know how to play, but the art of the cards and the vague impression that all of the numbers and words on the cards somehow came together to form a game had me transfixed.  Over time, I got a little older (like you do) and got a little better at the game.  By the time the Tempest block came out, I was playing in tournaments (with my much-beloved Sligh deck).  Shortly after, though, about midway through Urza‘s block, I left the game for a long, long time.  I’d still play a few times a year, here and there, but I never bought any new cards, and I even regrettably sold off all my old ones.  Even after that, I drifted even further away from the game, until there came a point where I hadn’t played in over 5 years.  Then, after moving away from my hometown of Sarnia, I went back to visit, and some of my old friends threw together a deck for me to play.  A few drinks and a couple of hours later, I was hooked again.  My friends had made me a Noxious Ghoul-based Zombie deck, my one friend was playing a Modular deck (Arcbound Ravager being the most famous Modular creature), another was playing a massive-lifegain deck, and a fourth was playing a Vampire-tribal.
After that night, I had to start buying more cards.
I went to Sarnia’s LGS (Future Pastimes – you should check it out if you’re ever in town) and bought myself a box of the latest release – Lorwyn.  The concept of Tribal was pretty new to me (I had missed Onslaught), so I loved the Changeling and Tribal aspects of Lorwyn (it’s kind of odd how I always seem to get into the game during low-ranking sets, right?).  There was a card-type I had never seen before  – Planeswalker (nor had any of my friends – we were playing “kitchen table” Magic with older cards).  I was pretty confused as to how they worked, and since I was the only one who had any, we decided not to play with them until I traded some around (my one friend was notoriously difficult to trade with, so this took a while).  Staying with the Zombie deck, I naturally had Liliana Vess as my first Planeswalker.
Liliana the first has become as close to a staple as a Planeswalker can be.  In a recent scanning of over 500 decklists on www.mtgsalvation.com, one poster noticed that she is the most played Planeswalker.  Her +1 ability isn’t too powerful, but it can be built around pretty easily to make it so you are the “target player” that discards a card.  She is the closest we currently have to a reanimator Planeswalker, so naturally she goes in that kind of deck.  Otherwise, her +1 ability is mostly used after her -2 ability has nearly
exhausted her Loyalty counters.
Liliana’s real power comes from her -2 ability.  To be able to tutor unconditionally, even to the top of your deck, in a way that’s very tough to counter merits her inclusion in any deck that runs Black.  And since she comes into play with 5 Loyalty counters, you can easily get two of these activations off before you have to start adding counters.
Because most of her usefulness is in her -2 ability, you rarely see anyone race to her Ultimate.  This is a shame, because it is a doozy.  “Return all creatures from all graveyards to play under your control” can be a game-ender, especially in the colour that can tutor you and your opponents creatures to your respective graveyards  (Buried Alive and Life’s Finale).  Black also has a number of boardwipes.  At -8, it takes 4 turns to get there – not as fast as some Planeswalkers, but because she comes into play with 5, Liliana has a greater survivability than a lot of Walkers.  She also isn’t seen as an immediate threat, so she’s low on your opponents’ list of priorities.
Liliana has such broad appeal that she fits in almost any deck, and helps almost any strategy.  Because of this and the fact that she tends to stick around longer than most Planeswalkers, she easily makes it into the Top Three.

 

Number 2

I’ll admit, I have a soft spot for Venser, the Sojourner.  Most of my current EDH decks are singleton versions of old 4-of casual decks of mine, and Venser was an important part of one of my last casual decks before I made the switch to EDH.  It was a Blue/White Blink/Charge Counter monstrosity, but it was a lot of fun to play.  Now, I have a Rubinia Soulsinger Bant Blink deck, which has become one of my most consistent decks, with Venser as an important piece.
Though he’s known as the “Blink” Planeswalker, you don’t need to have a dedicated Blink deck for him to prove his usefulness.  His +2 ability can blink anything with an enter the battlefield ability, and there are lots in the format in every colour – any of the Titans, Eternal Witness, Vesuva, Zealous Conscripts, Pithing Needle – these are all cards you see, without having to modify your deck to make Venser more useful.  On top of that, he can reset permanents with counters you’ve used up, like a Vivid land (Vivid Creek), or even another Planeswalker with a good minus ability (like the previously mentioned Liliana Vess or Tezzeret the SeekerSorin, Lord of Innistrad is fun, too).  Failing a “profitable” use for this ability, you can always use it to give one of your creatures pseudo-Vigilance in order to protect Venser.
When I play Venser, I generally play him for his first ability, and use the other situationally, but that’s only because of how I generally build decks.  For others, his -1 ability is where he shines.  Making all of your creatures unblockable for only one Loyalty counter means that you can do it again and again, especially because using his +2 ability means two more activations.  This ability is useful for quick Voltron decks.  Most of the time, those Voltron decks can get a few early swings in, but stall out once their opponents’ stabilize.  Venser, being a 5-drop, comes down at just the right time to combat this, giving the Voltron creature another free swing or two.
Finally, Venser’s Ultimate is one of the more attainable game-altering Ultimates out of all the Planeswalkers.  He comes down with 3 loyalty counters, but often immediately shoots up to 5.  He goes Ultimate at -8, so after his first use, he just has to survive for two more turns (and unlike a lot of Planeswalkers, his Ultimate doesn’t remove all counters from him at the first chance to activate it (he’ll have 9 counters, it takes 8 to go Ultimate), so he’ll
survive after you get your Emblem).  Most of the time, people don’t worry about Venser too much until the turn before he’s about to go Ultimate.  Being in Blue/White, the control colours, this is a mistake, because you can always throw out an unexpected trick to keep him alive.  I personally have gone Ultimate with Venser at least a half dozen times, which is just gravy, since I include him almost exclusively for his +2 ability.
And lets all take a moment to appreciate the power of his Emblem, shall we?
Whenever you cast a spell, exile target permanent.
Once you have that level of control to the game, even if your opponents decide to start playing Archenemy on you, you have a better than average chance to pull through.  At least half the time I’ve gotten the Emblem, my opponents have wanted to scoop, and for good reason.  At that point, you’ve pretty much already won.
Every ability is useful, he often stays alive for a while, he fits in most decks, and given the right conditions, you can reasonably expect to use his Ultimate.  Venser is arguably one of the best Planeswalkers for EDH, and finds his place at number two on this list.

 

Number 1

I remember when the New Phyrexia spoilers got leaked.  At the time, we were all wondering what side of the war Karn would end up on, and when the title of New Phyrexia was announced (as opposed to Mirrodin Pure), it seemed that Karn was destined to be the next Yawgmoth.  Not so, it seemed.
By the time New Phyrexia rolled around, Planeswalkers were old hat.  We all knew the drill – 3-5 casting cost, usually.  Sometimes two colours.  One really useful ability (plus or minus, usually minus), and an Ultimate.  Only one Planeswalker had surprised me when it was spoiled, and he surprised a lot of other people, too – Jace, the Mind Sculptor, though it didn’t become as apparent until later that his usefulness would come from his +0 ability.
When Jace was first spoiled, it set people to talking – that Ultimate was insane!  That Ultimate, that Ultimate, Jace’s Ultimate – that’s all you heard.  Then, after Jace, for a long time, nothing.  Each Planeswalker was looked at, deemed worthy or not, but not much discussion was made of them.  Karn Liberated was the first card, not just Planeswalker, since Jace that I had to read over and over again, just to make sure I read it correctly.  The effect of Karn’s Ultimate hadn’t been printed on a card for over a decade (Shahrazad), since near the beginning of Magic itself.  That couldn’t be right!  Though his Ultimate saw some Standard play in a fringe-ish deck, exiling Eldrazi Titans from your own hand en route to restarting the game with them in play, Karn’s power doesn’t come from his Ultimate.  In fact, in EDH, though he’s run in many decks, and his survivability could easily see him go Ultimate, I’ve never seen anyone choose to do this (and for good reason – EDH games go long to begin with.  A single game can take an hour or two, depending on the players and decks involved).
Let’s take a look at Karn’s +4 ability.  First, +4?  It could read “+4 – if you haven’t done so, put four loyalty counters on Karn Liberated” and I’d still run this card.  Adding 4 loyalty counters makes it so someone has to get big damage through to Karn before he even feels it.  Exiling a card from someone’s hand isn’t the most useful ability, but it isn’t entirely without merit.  Unlike Liliana Vess, unless you actually intend to go Ultimate with Karn, you’d never choose to do this to yourself.  Even if you never intend to go Ultimate, the person you choose to target with this will still likely get rid of a non-permanent (that being a destruction spell or a counterspell, most likely).

Oh, and did I mention it’s +4?

Karn’s -3 ability is what justifies his place at Number 1 on this list.  The ability to repeatedly exile a single permanent with no restrictions is beyond powerful.  Dropping Karn allows his controller to possibly take control of the game that turn, or at the very least, hope to get back into it.  Most importantly, he allows colours that lack removal of certain permanent types access to that kind of removal (artifacts and enchantments for Black, enchantments for red, etc.).  He is a must-run in even competitive decks, simply because he is the best form of colourless targeted removal in the game, and in casual, he allows colours that  normally lack answers the answers they need.  I can’t stress enough how Karn should be in every single mono-red, mono-black, or mono-blue deck, and every combination thereof.
This also leads to the fact that Karn can go into every deck.  Literally, every single deck.  No other Planeswalker can do that.  Mid-game, even if you’re playing White or Green, the colours that don’t have problems dealing with permanents, Karn is never a dead draw.  There is always that one permanent among all your opponents’ that you wish wasn’t there.  Being colourless, Karn’s colour identity doesn’t interfere with anyone’s plans – except your opponents’, that is.
Let’s recap.  Karn is able to go in all decks, is immediately immensely useful, and has a high degree of survivability, plus, if you like, it’s entirely possible to go Ultimate with him.  All these factors considered, Karn Liberated is the best Planeswalker to play, from an EDH perspective.

Until next time, keep turning cards sideways.

Tyler
If you have any questions, comments, or have any suggestions for any Commander-related articles you’d like to see, feel free to contact me at tyhartle@hotmail.com