The Immortality of Planeswalkers

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It’s been almost eight years since the planeswalker card type was introduced. Before that, the lore of the game cast planeswalkers as legendary pseudo-gods that were almost always too powerful to print. I mean, we got Nicol Bolas back in Legends, but he felt like more of an “attack with big dragon that roars” instead of “archmage that casts multiple spells to obliterate his opponents.” We never got a card for Urza, because Wizards claimed that he would be far too powerful to see play. Neither did we ever get Serra or Leshrac from the pre-Mending era.

Planeswalkers were basically gods that would far overpower the “normal” creatures of the time, and WOTC didn’t yet have the design knowledge to make world-crushing nigh-unstoppable beings in card form.

During the Time Spiral block, we saw the last of the “planeswalkers imagined as creatures.” Jaya Ballard had multiple activated abilities to show the versatility of her spell weaving, but it wasn’t enough to make her feel awesome. Teferi controlled the flow of time by slowing down his opponents, but he was still just a creature. I’m not going to write an entire lore column, because you guys aren’t here for that, but the Mending was Wizards’s way of fixing and adjusting the walkers to a power level where they were more feasibly printed.

October of 2007

Enter Lorwyn. With a brand-new card type that was hinted at by Tarmogoyf itself, planeswalkers and the rules surrounding them were the talk of the town. At least, I assume they were. I barely knew how to play Magic at the time, and I wasn’t paying attention to new set releases until closer to Shards of Alara. But as a casual player, I fell in love with planeswalkers as soon as I saw them. Ironically, I was the last person in my small casual group to actually attain one, and that was only because my friend took pity and traded Garruk to me because he had two from the Garruk vs. Liliana Duel Deck.

box_garrukvsliliana

Anyway, the point here is that the planeswalker card type was a home run on pretty much all fronts. Casuals foamed at the mouth at the chance to summon an ally to the battlefield and cast spells every turn, and the Spikes of the world enjoyed how difficult to remove and mana-efficient they were. While there were balancing issues over the first few years, ‘walkers as a whole were appreciated by the entire community. Savvy traders who navigated the rift between casual and competitive caught on quick, and learned that converting tournament staples into undervalued loyalty counters was a quick way to make a profit.

This mantra has held true for as long as I’ve been in this business. If your trade partner’s binder is stretched thin, just target pretty much any planeswalker ever. I’ve sold more Vess than Veil in my time buying and selling Magic, and it’s not close. Hell, even Tibalt is worth trading for because he’s so goddamn infamous. There are multiple people out there who collect exclusively Tibalt because he’s regarded as the first “obviously bad” planeswalker. I’ve traded for a Tibalt before, and it was intentional. I wanted that Magic: The Gathering card because I knew another human being on this planet actually wanted to own it, even though the card is obvious garbage and is basically a recurring joke at this point.

WalkerArticle

In years past, $5 was always the benchmark for “cheap planeswalker that you should probably buy, because it’s going to rebound back like an Immortal.” If the garbage version of Gideon can float around at $5 despite seeing zero play, then that should be the benchmark low (the one exception being our beloved Fiend-Blooded friend).

However, it looks like we have a few challengers in our midst who are refusing to make the climb:

BadJace

Chandra1

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Vraska

Architect

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I can come to terms with the fact that Architect and Vraska won’t rise to the occasion. The Duel Deck skewered their prices and sealed their fates (and both pieces of alternate art are absolutely awful).

However, I had at least a little bit of faith in M15 Jace and M12 Chandra slowly making a comeback…

Don’t Call It a Comeback (It’s Probably Not)

Tibalt has a higher fair trade price than M15 Jace . And yet hell hasn’t frozen over, pigs are grounded for the moment, and the third world war hasn’t caused the end of us all. I’m not sure if we should throw a party for Tibalt or mourn the end of his legacy. When M15 first bottomed out, I took the $3 Jace as a signal. His name had E, J, C, and A all arranged in a certain spelling towards the front of the card, he was four mana, and he started with a large chunk of loyalty. Even if he was obviously inferior to his cousins, I figured I could easily pick these up in trade and then dump them out of my display case once they made their climb back to the $5 bare minimum.

Easy game, easy life, right? Those who can’t afford a Mind Sculptor go for Beleren, and those who couldn’t afford Beleren would jump on these. I made similar moves on Chandra, the Firebrand, trusting in the creep back to $5. Trade for a bunch, and then dump them in the display case. Garruks don’t last a week behind that glass, and neither do copies of Nicol Bolas. Why would these be any different? In my past experience selling ‘walkers to casuals, they didn’t have to be good to move off the shelf.  A six-mana Chandra sells like wildfire, and she never saw a spark of competitive play in her life.

wildfire

So how many Living Guildpacts and Firebrands have I sold out of my case ever since initating my master plan?

Zero Jaces, and one or two Firebrands.

There was actual dust on the front Jace when I went to check on my case last week, and he’s priced at $3, yet hasn’t moved in God knows how long. You would think that casual players would jump at the chance to jam a planeswalker in their decks for such a low cost, but my experience suggests anything but.

A Fading Spark

The mantra that all of us financiers and value traders has been chanting has been dead for over a year. “Trade for a planeswalker if it’s under $5,” and, “Trade for any planeswalker ever because it’s easy to sell,” are relics of a forgotten age.

I’m even wondering if my Daretti investment was a worthwhile buy, even though I managed to find some copies that I thought were underpriced at $2.70 each. I was going to rely on his rock-solid $5 price tag in order to evacuate from the spec in a pinch and settle for doubling up, but he’s already shown signs of sliding in the opposite direction.

So what went wrong? Well, planeswalkers aren’t as special anymore. Instead of having a limited number in each color to choose from, the casual players have approximately seventeen different mono-blue Jaces to choose from for their mill or control decks. Being the 57th best walker out of 59 available walkers sucks a lot more than being the 25th worst walker back when there were 27. There’s a lot less of a “uniqueness” factor, because Living Guildpact, Firebrand, or Vraska all fail to fill a niche in a deck anymore, even down to the casual level of play that those reading an article like this just don’t experience first-hand.

Where to Go with Origins?

As much as I loathe talking about upcoming sets and speculation, I’ll throw my hat into the ring on the Origins double-sided walkers because it’s relevant to this discussion. If you’ve dabbled in Magic finance at all, you’ve obviously been told or have been the one to tell people to drop ‘walkers early on in the opening season like hot potatoes. Sell them as soon as you crack them at the prerelease, because there will be a time several months down the road when you can reap the profits by buying or trading back for them at that sweet $5 baseline fallback plan.

Half of this will still be true. Sell whatever planeswalkers you open at your prerelease right away, but even once they “bottom out” at $5, I’m going to suggest staying away from these new flip ‘walkers entirely.

While they can be used as Commanders this time around, none of these ‘walkers have any truly unique traits compared to their predecessors. Chandra burns creatures and players? So does every other Chandra in existence. Gideon makes you attack him, and then turns into a creature to smack you right back. No surprises there. Jace mills? Someone fire up the printing press, this is breaking and unbelievable news!

While I definitely sound a bit cynical concerning their appeal, I’m not trying to suggest that they’re unplayable. All of the novelty is tied into the fact that they can flip, and I don’t expect their backsides to be overtly exciting or novel to the average casual player.

If you want to play them in EDH (I certainly don’t think they’re bad in that format), I suggest waiting until an absolute rock bottom of $3 to $5, and I wouldn’t advocate holding onto them while crossing your fingers. At least Garruk Relentless started out as a ‘walker, made an impact on the opponent’s board, flipped immediately, and presented a large number of options while in play. Unless these five find homes in Standard (which I do think is entirely possible for Gideon and maybe Liliana), I think it’s possible that we’ll see them at an extreme low, and it will end up being a speculating trap.

End Step

Am I correct about the $5 minimum on planeswalkers being gone for good? Is there a new lower boundary of $3, or is it possible for non-Tibalt walkers to sink even into the $1 bulk mythic status?

I’m certainly expecting a bit of dissenting criticism from this one. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on where the Origins walkers end up, and if being double-sided is enough of a novel appeal to the casual crowd that would sustain a price above $5 throughout their lifetimes.

As always, thanks for reading!

 

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10 thoughts on “The Immortality of Planeswalkers”

  1. To kick things off, I agree with you that the magical 5$ border disappeared thanks to really bad planeswalkers. I can’t totally agree about the Flip-Walkers though, as I think that at least Gideon (no, I won’t call him Kytheon…) has some appeal. He is basically a Savannah Lion with the downside of being legendary, but the upside of mattering later in the game (even though he lacks an ultimate, he can force a creature to attack, which allows for some shenanigans and a 4/4 with indestructible isn’t that bad either).

    1. Oh he definitely has a good shot of being played in Standard, I’m not disagreeing with that. I’m just arguing that most of their casual appeal will be next to none once the “woo they FLIP” hype is gone. None of them do anything original per their previous versions, except Jace giving flashback. There wasn’t much casual appeal for either Gideon before this one, and he still doesn’t have a “super-amazing game-ending ultimate”.

    2. There are some bad Planeswalkers, but not a ton of them. Tibalt was the first planeswalker to buck the trend, but we’re seeing good planeswalkers get reprinted into powder. Jace AoT is one that comes to mind.

  2. My take on walkers is pretty simple. It’s kinda my take on cards in general. Is it good enough for Legacy?

    There was a smattering of conversation about whether Narset is Legacy playable. Maybe she is BUT when would I want to cast her over JTMS?

    Lilianas of all stripes are cool. I like Lily. When would I rather have Lily DR over a LotV?

    Never in both cases. Modern is a little finicky and changes to abruptly with what’s in favor and what’s not to provide a reliable table of demand for walkers IMO so we have to go to the grownup table for the answer.

    If the walker is Legacy playable (and probably modern by default) it gets the nod.

    1. Liliana is also casual GOLD. I have never not wanted to trade for a Vess, because they sell so easily for $8-9 out of my case. Everyone wants one, because it’s more powerful than Dark Realms and doesn’t have the price tag of Veil. I liked Garruk Relentless at $5 as well, and he’s seen a lot of growth since then while popping up in Legacy decks every now and then.

  3. Literally never once heard of this “planeswalkers under $5 means they’re too cheap”

    but okay.

    1. All of the Lorwyn walkers were under $5 at one point, and look at them now (except for Chandra). Lili was an easy trade target at $4, so were Ajani and Jace. A few years ago, walkers rotating and hitting a bottom of $4-5 meant that they would creep back up over time.

  4. I like these two statements you made and I agree that Planeswalkers in general are nothing special anymore:

    “There was actual dust on the front Jace when I went to check on my case last week, and he’s priced at $3, yet hasn’t moved in God knows how long.” “Being the 57th best walker out of 59 available walkers sucks a lot more than being the 25th worst walker back when there were 27.”

    However, I think that staying away from the NEW flip-walkers entirely might be the wrong thing to do. You said this: “Half of this will still be true. Sell whatever planeswalkers you open at your prerelease right away, but even once they “bottom out” at $5, I’m going to suggest staying away from these new flip ‘walkers entirely.”

    The worst Flip-Walker is only going to be the worst out of 5. The best one will be the BEST out of 5! Until a time comes when more are printed… I don’t think you should shrug off the “flip” hype so fast.

    Having cards in your deck that act like multiple cards and give choices seems like a major direction WotC is moving towards. If you get enough of these cards together all those mediocre options all of a sudden become so much more than they were individually. The sum is greater than the individual parts and all that. I think there will come a point when true Toolbox type of decks will forever shine. Creature-Walkers, Commands, Sieges, etc. could all be a part of a new direction the game is headed. Don’t take any “new” cards for granted. Bad comparisons are made every spoiler season.

    People keep saying that these creatures that can possibly turn into walkers are easily blocked or removable. Are people not getting the fact that they interact with the other player and are essentially MUST-KILL creatures? They all have fairly low mana costs so even trading 1-for-1 using a removal spell isn’t bad at all. Cheap cmc MUST-KILL/BLOCK creatures open up a TON of options because they are FORCING your opponent to interact with them in some way limiting his/her options down the road. If you have anything up your sleeve at all… Well… there’s the VALUE of cheap cmc MUST-KILL/BLOCK creatures!

    I’m not saying these particular Flip-Walkers are super-overpowered… But the value of the concept itself is pure gold. We shall see what the Brewers come up with! These new Flip-Walkers seem like a really good way to Troll your opponent and force interactions. The value is truly realized in the interactions… Not the creature/planeswalker itself.

    Whoever has more OPTIONS during those INTERACTIONS will probably come out ahead.

  5. WURBG, I love your comment and take on “must kill” cards. I love building (Standard) decks where each card on curve is a virtual must kill. There’s a reason Goblin Rabblemaster is amazing, he’s typically a must kill. Ok you killed him, here’s a Xenagos or Thunderbreak. Ok 2 removal spells down, here comes Stormbreath…u got the 3rd?

    I think the new Lili is a must kill card and fits phenomenally into an Abzan shell. Plus 2/3 lifelink isn’t the worst, the Rhino is typically the next play, and it’s hard to let that stupid thing live. Black looks to be the best color to play post rotation, even after Origins release probably, and I think that will help Lili a lot. The new Gideon could even slot into an aggressive Abzan shell with Warden, Death Dealer, Anafenzas, lili, etc. Just really like your comment even though it’s pretty obvious.

    As far as $5 walkers and the article goes, Wizards is skewing the price of cards and so is the player base. TOO MANY CARDS ARE BEING PRINTED. When Standard is around some of these walkers have value…but these dual decks can simply destroy the prices of walkers like Jace Architect and Vraska, and even Elspeth and Kiora (not $5 but roughly 25% of what they used to be) and after Standard cards rotate there’s only casual demand for these walkers. I think as people want to brag about their Walker collection in the future it will be about FOIL ORIGINAL ART WALKERS! I fell like getting roughly any foil walker for $12-15 is the new “$5 walker” UNLESS it’s been reprinted in a dual deck. Even then the original foil walker is a solid pick up and with the art of some of these dual deck walkers being so horrific I don’t see collectors wanting them (like the Jace vs Vraska versions as mentioned in the article, just horrible looking).

    Douglas (and WUBRG),what do you think of my buy in price of foil original art walkers? Am I super off base or is it actually a decent idea? And of course I don’t buy every foil walker under $12, that’s just crazy.

    1. I’m not entirely sure how easy foil original art walkers are to move. Out of everyone who’s gone for a “Planeswalker collection” by trying to get one of every walker, they’ve all been casual or semi-casual players who don’t care about foils. They just wanted the cheapest version of the card whenever possible.

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