Planeswalkers are a lot of fun. They add a whole new dynamic to the game that really warps how you play, for the best. A planeswalker gives you extra life, creatures, damage, you name it. In cube they are highly valued as paying for value once and continuing to get returns off your card is so huge. It might suck to get your Jace, the Mind Sculptor Lightning Bolted after only one Brainstorm, but you just played a card that said “2UU: Brainstorm. You gain 3 life”, and that was as bad as it gets playing that card. A lot of the planeswalkers carry this style of card as a floor, and for the worst-case scenario—one that careful play and consideration can avoid a majority of the time—you’re looking at a pretty awesome outcome.
But who is the best? If you opened a pack with the 15 best planeswalkers, which would you choose? How you are feeling day-to-day will affect this answer, as one day you might want to draft mono red and the next day Esper control, but making universal rankings for these types of things is fun and it could generate some good discussion on what actually makes one planeswalker better than another, even though they functionally do completely different things. It is entirely possible that a p1p1 could be between the 15 best planeswalkers; you put the cards in your cube so they can make it into packs, and while the odds are long the odds are there, so it’s better to be prepared in case this situation comes up, right? Or it’s a lot of fun to do lists like these; I’ll stick with that. So let’s get down to the listing!
Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas: In the right deck, Tezzeret is the best card in that deck. If you can get 10+ artifacts in your deck, the +1 on Tezzeret is almost always hitting, and a lot of the artifacts you are grabbing are the types of cards you’re interested in making 5/5s, especially later in the game. Signet? Mox? Swing for 5! Plus, the ultimate is cheap to execute and can act as nice reach in colors (blue and black) which typically can’t hit the face. The reason Tezz doesn’t make the list is that you do need to build around him. The other day I tried putting him in a deck with 6 artifacts, but the +1 missed too much to justify it, AND I was putting cards I would’ve wanted on the bottom of my library. Most of the planeswalkers in this list can be fit in a variety of strategies without much building around them. They either fit into the basic archetype that doesn’t take a lot of leg work to put together (Karn in decks that want to cast 7 drops, Koth in fast red decks) or they are cards which, if you are playing that color, you want to play that card. (See: most of the mono-white PWs.) AoB is great, but I wouldn’t be OK including him over a lot of the other universal PWs.
Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker: There are few better feelings than hardcasting a Nicol Bolas. 8 mana is no easy endeavor in cube, and if your deck is trying to get to that level you should rewarded. Nicol Bolas is so awesome; from the old-school flavor to the new-school power level, he’s super appealing to all types of players. His power level is undeniable, as when he hits the board he’s either taking your creature or destroying other problem permanents. That being said, he still costs 8, and he still has 3 different mana symbols in that cost. A lot of decks can’t afford to play him, whether it’s an impossible splash or you deck has no chance of making it to 8 mana, which keeps him off the list. Still, playing with a planeswalker that trumps the other planeswalkers flavor wise is fun, cool, and strategically sound if your deck can realistically cast him.
Vraska, the Unseen: Vraska has been great in play, but also a bit slow. Being able to Maelstrom Pulse a card and still have 2 loyalty on her is awesome and deals with a lot of different cards, as a Maelstrom Pulse does. Getting two out of her is nice as well, and when people dedicate creatures to her it’s pretty sweet. But I’d like to get a little more play with her before she moves onto the list. Could she be a top 15 Planeswalker? She may already be, but I don’t want to jump the gun on that, because as of now I’m not OK ranking her.
Elspeth Tirel: The problem with this Elspeth isn’t that she has powerful effects; making 3 1/1s and gaining life for all your creatures is really nice. The problem is that dropping her and using either one of the abilities can be kind of awkward. If they have a 2/2 flier, then you can’t -2 her without just losing her, but if you have no creatures than what is the +2 effect really doing? And if she eats a shock, are the three 1/1s really that good? I would still play her in a lot of different decks, but unlike a lot of the PWs on this list she can lead to some bad moments where you need the tokens she gives you, but you can’t afford to let her die, which is a distinct possibility for her by the time you get to 4 mana that 2 loyalty isn’t going to be enough. Awesome card, but in a lot of different scenarios she’s an Elspeth-22.
Sorin Markov: I love Sorin Markov, and while it may seem like any card that costs 6+ in cube is a personal favorite (which is probably true…), Sorin has been there since day 1 for my cube experiences. Way back in the day, 4 or 5 years ago, my brother told me he and a friend of mine, Kirk, were starting to play Magic again back at my town. In 94 or 95 me and my brother played a little bit, but we had no idea what we were doing, so in all honesty I was walking back into the game with no experience. I started getting into it and, looking back, I still had no idea what I was doing. We were playing 3-player magic and the game was confusing and new things seemed to happen every match and oh my god what did I get myself into? There were nights I was frustrated because it seemed like I was getting beat by new rules that made no sense, but after years of this I started to actually pick up the game and, combined with all the reading of Magic articles and watching of videos I’ve been doing for the last few years, my game has improved tremendously. I very easily could’ve said “screw this game” and walked away, but learning and getting better has been a rewarding experience. I’m definitely a better player than I was a year ago, and was a better player last year than a year before that, etc.
In this multiplayer games, Sorin was popular and a lot of fun. He’d hit the board and start blowing guys away, and Mindslaving an opponent was so satisfying. To this day we still play with Sorin in Sky’s cube, and he’s pretty solid, but for BBB he needs to do more than 2 dmg and hit the board with a high loyalty count to justify a top 15 spot. He’s great and sees play in just about every draft he makes if there’s a black player that picks him up, which is not always a guarantee when you do a high amount of winston drafting, but the guys on the list are really a step above. Still, there is a lot of nostalgia of how terrible a player I was when I see that card, and using him to win games makes those days seem far off, which is nice. I still lose games because I can be an idiot and miss obvious plays sometimes, but those moments are not as often; I wouldn’t say I’m a “good” player, but I’m not the awful player I was, and it’s nice to have Sorin here in this part of the journey, being used properly instead of bringing them to 10 life and missing the man land that kills him.
Now that we got those out of the way, let’s get down to the meat and potatoes!
#15 – Chandra, the Firebrand: This card has been used in two of the most vicious decks I’ve seen—and the deck was built two sessions in a row by two different players! The main cogs of the deck were Chandra, Snapcaster, and Time Walk—see where this is going? In a blue deck with a lot of card draw, and some luck, it wasn’t too difficult to assemble this monster. The first time it was made Kirk laid a beating on both me and Sky, routinely taking 5 turns in a row. How do you beat that? What was once a Vendilion Clique swinging for 3 becomes 15, and if the Snapcaster has some room to work, it’s a pretty easy GG.
Two days later Sky, Kirk, and I went up to my brother’s friend Jon’s place (sorry if I needed an ‘h’ there, Jo(h)n) to do a 7 person draft, something we don’t often get the chance to do. In the first pack I opened up a Time Walk, got the Chandra, and when we started on the second pack, I said “just maybe…” and voila, pick 2 Snapcaster. I lost one game that day to kirk, going 12-1; I mean, really, how do you beat someone taking 5 turns in a row?
That being said, if you don’t have a bunch of instants and sorceries in your deck you’d like to cast, she’s a bit boring. 1 damage is relevant but not exciting, and it’s not like all your non-creatures are going to be instants or sorceries with all the bomb equipment, important other PWs, and other non-instant/sorcery spells. She makes it at #15 alone for being part of the most powerful cube deck I’ve ever seen drafted in person. (I’ve drafted better decks on cockatrice, but in those cases it was more a result of my opponents not knowing what they’re doing. Getting a 4th or 5th pick Library or Sol Ring is not unheard of on cockatrice; free magic can attract some awful players.)
#14 – Venser, the Sojourner: When built around, this card is seriously filthy. I’ve talked about him before, but to reiterate there are so many ETB creatures in UW he can abuse—and not even including the other colors—that playing the creatures you naturally draft typically supports a Venser deck. When you can stretch the mana base to 3-5 colors, you open up a whole world of possibilities. Black gives you all the 187 dudes; red gives you creatures that deal crucial game-clinching damage or deals with problem artifacts; and green carries the same artifact theme while also making some tokens and, if you get really big, destroying those other planeswalkers that go poo-poo on your parade. He can also get lands for important EOT spells or counters you need to open, and resetting a separate planeswalker at a low loyalty can be nice as well. -3 brings this Karn to 1 loyalty? Just kidding, he’s back at 6. And in a pinch, if an opponent takes one of your great creatures, +2 Venser and get back that guy you own.
The -1 ability is insane as well. There are a good amount of ETB token makers, from the splicers to Myr Battlesphere., that you could have a sizable army to swing in for the kill with and any board is not a problem. A lot of players will forget Venser can do this, but without it he might not be completely 100% cubeable. For some it may seem like a bonus, but it’s a smart design choice that allows your Venser to have two possible kill-cons in this ability and the ultimate.
Unfortunately for Venser, he really does nothing if you have no way to abuse him. Including a 5 mana card that bounces land, or playing him on a board where he or you die to attack is really awful, and there are times where he will sit as a dead card in your hand. There are still many packs where I’ll pick him first, sometimes even ahead of higher entries on this list, because I love building the Venser Deck if I know that’s the direction I’m trying to go in. Not sure on his price, but if you don’t play him because he doesn’t do anything/not enough, I suggest trying him out first.
#13 – Koth of the Hammer: Koth of the Hammer is the best 4-drop you can have in a red aggressive deck. Keldon Champions, Ajani Vegeant, Hellrider, Avalanche riders…these guys have nothing on Koth. Using Koth is typically pretty simple: +1, untap your mountain, swing in for an additional 4/4. If your deck is any good your opponent is on their heels and can’t really afford to attack into Koth, and if they do that’s one less blocker for your other guys. After a wrath he’s great to drop, and in anticipation of one he’s nice too unless you’re staring down a Rout. And while it doesn’t happen too often because Koth is a quick-killer, the ultimate is super nice. The inevitability of mountains tapping for 1 is typically a game clincher; it’ll take a lot to overcomes 2-4+ a turn from your opponents lands.
While Koth is mostly an aggressive planeswalker, his -2 gives him some utility in red Wildfire ramp decks. Before you cast your Wildfire or Burning of Xinye, activat his -2, floating the mana and cast it, then dropping either lands or some utility creatures after to get in for some beats. Also, the -2 can be used to cast your big creatures that survive the Wildfire effect, and the +1 will take away games on a clear board.
Koth sits at #14 because outside of aggro and a pretty narrow/stretching-it ramp application, he can’t fit into most decks. I don’t like him in control builds because often I’m the guy who wants to defend and there’s no guarantee I’m going to have a lot of mountains if I’m playing 3+ colors, and if I can’t stop an attack into Koth, he’s a pretty useless spell. But in the fast, aggressive red decks, he is the best 4 drop to have, especially since you only have 1 or 2 in your deck, and would be #1 if that’s the direction you want to go in.
#12 – Tamiyo, the Moon Sage: Admittedly, I don’t have a ton of experience playing with Tamiyo, but I’ve been beaten by her online a decent amount and she is super powerful. Tapping down permanents is great, from problem creatures to important lands, and Tamiyo sits at 5 after the first activation. If you only have one creature and no burn in your deck, the +1 can stop everything you’re doing. In reanimator strategies, her +1 can completely shut down your deck if she can target the creature. The whole time you are building up to an ultimate that is not hard to pull off and can turn the tide of the match. I don’t think I need to spell out how no max hand size and any card hitting your graveyard returning to your hand could be super powerful. Her -2 seems good, but I’ve never seen a board where you’d rather get the cards then tap down a permanent, though they probably exist.
Tamiyo is another card that could move up the list, but right now I’m OK keeping her where she is. While tapping down a permanent is great, it’s a bit unexciting, and sometimes it’s not enough. If you don’t have a win con she’s not really a win con in herself, she’s more an enabler for the rest of your deck to act while soaking up damage so you can reach your important spells. Tamiyo is great, but I’m reluctant to put her higher without at least playing with her and not getting beat by her only.
#11 – Garruk, Primal Hunter: When this guy hits the board, he is a monster. +1 for a 3/3 is a pretty nutty ability. 3/3s are sizable creatures and do a good job of either defending Garruk or going on the offensive. They outclass most aggro creatures, and at least hold their ground against a lot of the midrange dudes. 3 toughness is the sweet spot for a lot of burn, but if they’re using the burn on the Beast, it’s usually not the worst. His -3 ability blows games out of the water. In green you typically have at least a 3/3, which Garruk provides. Dropping Garruk one turn, +1ing him, and then dropping something like a Thragtusk, Thornling, or Titan the next turn to -3 it is hard to overcome. The raw card advantage he gives you, something that green lacks across the board except for a few cards that get snapped up quick, is insane. If you can pull off the ultimate and they don’t wrath, you’re looking at a GG.
Of course, GGG is a lot. Because Garruk is so strong I debated on putting him earlier in the list, but you really need to play him in a heavier green deck. I understand that elves and green fixing can allow you to hit GGG pretty easy, but the other Garruks are easier to play, and it typically means he can’t find a way into a 3+ color deck unless your fixing is really nice. This means that there are times you’ll grab him in a Winston draft or early in an 8-man and he’s unplayable; with the other Garruks, this is not the case, especially with Relentless. On power level alone this Garruk would be higher, but GGG is holding him back.
#10 – Sorin, Lord of Innistrad: While the second coming of Elspeth, Knight-Errant was a bit pre-emptive, this Sorin does serious work. Making 1/1 tokens is great; making 1/1 tokens with lifelink is even better. If you’re chump blocking with these guys it helps out in a race, and if you’re attacking you get far ahead with every connection. The -2 ability is one of the more underrated abilities on a Planeswalker that isn’t an ultimate. (Other than Venser’s -1.) +1+0 doesn’t seem like a lot, but in BW token themes are pretty prevalent. Turning your Bitterblossom or Cloudgoat tokens into permanent 2/1s can deliver some serious damage, and having that effect for the rest of the game is so huge. On top of that, Sorin’s ultimate is really brutal and can put you so far ahead while being easy to achieve.
Putting Sorin at #10 is no slight towards him; this is a list full of strong cards. While he is very good, BW keeps him out of a lot of decks, and not giving your 1/1s any evasion or removing roadblocks makes him worse than the other guys ahead of him. BW as the only two colors in your deck can be rough too, since you will be fighting for all the sweet removal as other players are willing to splash O-Rings, Go For the Throats, and other easy-to-cast cards in those colors. With that in consideration, there have been some good packs where Sorin was the clear choice; he is no chump, not at all.
#9 – Garruk Wildspeaker: A couple years ago, even a few, this guy would be much higher on the list. With his +1, you can ramp into huge spells or leave removal/counter magic open, protecting your guy who on his own does not give any threats if you immediately +1 when he hits the board. You can pump up to 7 mana the turn after you untap with him, more if you have any of the bouncelands. The -1 is nice too on a 4 mana planeswalker. Going down to 2 loyalty can be dangerous, but the 3/3 is a sizeable threat that can keep your Garruk protected until you stabilize a bit more. And the ultimate is one of the better ones, for the fact that it can end a game and is really easy to go off with. An essentially free Overrun can is brutal, and you can go off with it the turn after you drop Garruk if you +1 him the first time.
For as good as Garruk is, he’s a bit unexciting as well, and I know I’ve thrown that term around but with the power level of the cards on the list, you really gotta do some incredible stuff to make it to the top. It’s not like he’s even that much worse than the other cards, but I personally feel the power level of the cards ahead of him are higher. Sometimes untapping the lands will do you nothing, or you get a 3/3 and he eats a burn spell like a stagger shock or a cheap Red Sun’s Zenith. The cards ahead of him all have the power to easily keep a game locked out by themselves even if you’re not drawing spells, while Garruk can only go down 1 so many times before you have to untap lands which sometimes don’t help at all.
#8 – Ajani Vengeant: I have read that some players consider this card a more aggressively-suited card; while that is not wrong by any means, I would put Vengeant into any deck that was able to cast spells for 2RW. Ajani Vengeant has a lot of different utilities. Like Tamiyo, Ajani can keep a permanent tapped down, locking out all sorts of threats. In an aggro deck this is useful for stopping your opponent from stopping you with the mana they need to cast their wraths or their own planeswalkers; in a more controlling deck, Ajani is nice to stop a problem creature from continuing to lay abuse, and combined with a Ring of Gix or an Icy Manipulator you can tap down what you see fit and keep your opponent from doing much. Tapping out to draw some cards and then having your big mana stone or important land unable to untap can derail a lot of decks.
His -2 is my favorite ability on the card. The +1 is great and the ultimate is nice and easy enough to work towards, but the 3 damage deals with so much and the 3 life can save your ass. The other day I was playing an awful deck with 2-3 win conditions, all removal, and a bunch of mana stones. (The deck did surprisingly well, only losing to mono red in 3 extremely close games; I’m going to be writing about it soon, with “soon” being anything from “this week” to “this year”.) The Ajani was on the board and I Catastrophed for lands with him sitting there…but my opponent bounced it with a Into the Roil off his 3 lands open. My line of thought was that getting the Catastrophe countered wasn’t the worst as it ate a counter that I couldn’t afford to let hit one of my other few bombs of Firemane Avenger, Aeon Chronicler, and Angel of Despair—yes this deck was pretty awful—and that might’ve been a misplay, but if it went off without a hitch I was odds-on favorite to win the game, but I didn’t consider Into the Roil, which was definitely a missplay. After Catastrophe-ing all the lands away with some mana stones on the table, I dropped Ajani a couple turns later when I drew one of my red sources and got to tapping…but I had a Mana Crypt in play. I was at around 5 life, and every time I got hit with the Crypt, I was able to nullify it with the Ajani and continue to draw, all the while bringing him closer to a red zone that one of my awful finishers could deal with. Ajani helped nullify the randomness of the Crypt all while putting pressure on my opponent and locking him out when I got lucky.
Being two colors hurts Ajani a little, and not being able to tap the permanent down—just making so it can’t untap—means that on some boards Ajani is a 1 for 1 plus some additional life. While this is an acceptable result from planeswalkers some of the time, this is an issue that has come up enough for Ajani to keep him lower on the list for me. His overall power level in nice and high, but +1ing only to have him die can hurt.
#7 – Liliana of the Veil: Other than our #1, Liliana is the most skill-intensive planeswalker to use in cube. The +1 ability is incredibly strong, but you can’t always use it. Is this card in my hand worth more than getting rid of the card in their hand? Thankfully, these situations don’t come up too often, and the earlier you can drop a Liliana, the more devastating she is. CMC 3 is the perfect sweet spot for such strong effects. I would happily get an edict out of a card and then have it eat 2-3 damage, or make them discard 2-3 cards and eat 4-7 life, all for the cost of 1BB. The best part about her casting cost is that you can Dark Ritual into a t1 Liliana. You need to have them both in your hand—of course—but you put the cards in your deck to draw them, and it’s a great synergy that is worth including.
Liliana’s ultimate is really cool too, forcing your opponent into a Fact or Fiction scenario with all their permanents. The other day I was playing a game where I was staring down a Jace, Memory Adept with only 13 cards left in my library, a Sorin Markov at 6 loyalty, and Liliana at exactly 6. My hand had 3 or 4 cards, but my opponent’s life total was too high to survive through another mill 10. I made the choice to -6 Liliana, putting his Winter Orb, Jace and another permanent aside while allowing him to keep all his lands. If he kept the Jace, I was guaranteed dead; I had no way to increase my deck size, and there was definitely no chance I had him dead on the board in 4 turns. Still, giving him the option of “go for the win” or “keep your lands” made him choose the wrong choice, in my opinion. Perhaps it was safe, but at that point we were already on game 3 and my deck was pretty much seen completely; giving my opponent a “tough” choice with an “obvious” selection of lands kept me alive longer and in the game further than I should have been.
But like I said in the first point, sometimes you really can’t +1 her, and sometimes there is nothing to -2, or the creature they could sacrifice is not worth the damage keeping those two loyalty counters on would prevent. Her awesome abilities and CMC 3 pushed her pretty high up on this list, but in the times she’s useless, she’s a bit of a liability/non-entity.
#6 – Garruk Relentless: The best Garruk, this guy is an easily splashed doozy. On the front side he pumps out 2/2 wolves all day until there is one of the many creatures 3 damage can kill. Once he flips the 1/1 deathtouchers don’t pack as much of a punch, but deathtouch is an awesome ability and they can guard the Garruk until he gets to a nice amount of loyalty. At any point being able to sacrifice one of these tokens to get any of your creatures out of your deck is incredible. If you’re playing green, you could grab cards like Acidic Slime or Uktabi Orangutan to deal with problem artifacts or a variety of the big beefy monsters green decks like to run. But since Garruk only costs 3G, there’s a good chance you’ll be playing other creatures in different colors and Garruk becomes a toolbox. Since this ability is essentially free i.e. it requires no mana, the chance you’ll be able to grab something and play it that turn is high.
I can’t emphasize enough how awesome the fact that he costs 3G is. It’s so easy to splash him at 4 mana, with any fetch and dual combination, vivids, signets, and all other sorts of easy ways to produce green helping you get him into the deck. He gives decks without mana threats a continual wave of them, whether it’s to put on the pressure after a wrath or to block until you have a spot to drop your own threat or draw into one. Other than Chandra and Karn, Garruk is the easiest played, but where you need the cards to support Chandra and the ability to hit 7 mana with Karn, Garruk is a good addition to all decks of all sorts.
The biggest problem with Garruk is that he’s easy to remove if you can’t flip him and start upping his loyalty. Most all fliers that he doesn’t kill get him and wreck him, and any burn will take him off the table quick. Against red decks, you might get a 2/2 and have him eat a lightning bolt, which is OK but something the red deck can get around. But if they can’t finish him off and can only shock or swing into him for 1, he starts becoming much more of a problem and can get out of control as the creatures he produces trades with just about everything on the ground.
#5 – Karn Liberated: In a block full of awesome cards, this guy was the king during spoiler season. There were swords, Batterskull, phyrexian mana, and all sorts of goodies in the second Mirrodin block, and yet no card was more exciting than Karn. He’s the only colorless planeswalker, and his abilities are nuts and game-changing. For +4, he exiles a card from target player’s hand to go up to 10. 10 loyalty is a hard mountain to climb down and gives your opponents a tough choice if they’re within the realm of racing: do they remove that Karn first, or hope their opponent doesn’t draw anything to help the Karn clear the board? All it takes is one road block and a couple of -3s before your good position looks awful and Karn is still chilling there, chest out like a true bro, asking if you even lift.
His ultimate is something else, too. One of my favorite magic stories involves the Karn ultimate. I was playing kirk and facing a fairly impossible task with a terrible deck. Card after card, play after play; his deck left me battered and bruised. At one point I drew a Zealous Conscripts, and Kirk that next turn decided to go up to 14 on the Karn…and, well, you can probably guess what happened there. Next turn I steal the Karn with Conscripts, -14, and we play again. I ended up losing (my deck couldn’t win the first time; a few lands and an instant didn’t help) but the play was really sweet. The ultimate on Karn is the coolest thing, even cooler than swinging in with assassin tokens.
Karn still costs 7, and even in a powered cube, 7 is a lot of mana. Aggressive decks do exist, and if you’re getting beat with a Goblin Guide and Sulfuric Vortex, that Karn in your hand may be nothing. Also, if your Karn can’t stop the kill with his -3, then his +4 is certainly not going to cut it either. 7 mana is the price you have to pay for the Karn daddy, and it’s a price I typically have no problem with.
#4 – Gideon Jura: Gideon Jura is the Shahrazad of cube—when he hits the board, a mini game of “kill Gideon” begins with your creatures. Like Karn, Gideon hits a high loyalty number, but they have to attack him, which can either set you up for milking the +2 ability to save you some more life or setting up the -2 ability of killing target tapped creature. Make the problem come at Gideon, and then Gideon will make sure the problem is no more. 8 loyalty is so much for 5 mana too; for that 5 mana you are, at least, gaining 8 life and maybe more, like additional life, an open path for attack, or a nullified sword activation. As the floor of this card, we are starting pretty high up.
Once you start beating in for 6 is when Gideon gets nuts. Spend all day long +2 and -2ing until the path is cleared, and then a free activation a few times is enough to win. Without the 6/6 ability, Gideon probably wouldn’t be top 15, but because he is his own win condition and removal puts him at #4. I’ve seen games where a Gideon Jura held off an army of 3 or 4 guys, forcing them to attack, blowing them up, and getting support from the owner’s top deck. A game could be going your way and then Gideon hits and now you have to kill two players.
Gideon is the only planeswalker that dies to Doom Blade and other similar removal, which hurts his stock. Against some decks, they’ll hold the removal until you activate him, and if you do it sooner rather than later you get very little value out of him. Only a few cards kill him in cube though, making him tough to beat and earning him the #4 slot.
#3 – Jace, Memory Adept: Also known as “Jace, Adept at Winning”, this guy is a power house. If you can stick Jace for 2-3 turns, you win the game. And I’m not talking “you’ll win the game with card advantage” or “you’ll get a fatty army that eventually be able to attack in for the kill”–you win the game because they have no more cards left in their deck. I couldn’t even tell you what his ultimate or +1 did as I’ve never used them, but that’s OK because it’s not necessary. Sure, he doesn’t effect the board or protect himself, but think of it as a glass cannon in your deck that you need to protect for a turn or two. You try to land him on boards where he’ll be safe, and even if he dies before you mill their entire deck, getting them to less than 10 is entirely possible by the time you hit 5 mana after a couple attacks, and after that it’s up to you to just not die for X amount of turns. This is sometimes easier said than done, but when you can do it, the game becomes incredibly easy. One time after a frustrating match where a single JMA killed him, a buddy said “Jace is the easiest card to use in cube—all you need to know how to do is say ‘Mill 10’”. And it’s true, and he’s great because of that.
I can understand why people wouldn’t want to include him because he doesn’t protect himself, but with such a powerful effect I think that’s a stigma he needs to shed. JMA takes a grindy game and blows it out; he takes a board of your opponent’s 2 creatures to your 1 and says “it’s time for you to make a bad attack”; he looks at most other planeswalkers and laughs at their tokens as he watches ten cards hit the graveyard. Jace, Memory Adept is a cold-hearted man.
If you run Eldrazi and they make it into a lot of decks, then maybe Jace isn’t for your play group. And, as I’ve said, he does nothing to protect himself. Jace is kind of like the Death Star; in most the games, he will be blowing up Alderaan, but there will be times the rebels from Yavin 4 flip him the bird. And against graveyard strategies, he can backfire, but unless they’re reanimating a fatty that has haste or removes him it’s tough for their reanimated target to catch up to Jace’s laser beam of mill. This dude is the real deal.
#2 – Elspeth, Knight-Errant: Where Jace, Memory Adept does nothing to protect himself, Elspeth makes an army. She carries two +1 abilities as her main skills—which has not been repeated since—and they are incredible. She pumps out 1/1s, and then she gives them +3+3 and flying. Pumping out tokens is nice; it protects Elspeth until she eventually gets up to her game-breaking ultimate. The really sweet one is +3+3 and flying. Giving regular creatures this type of reach is nuts and can close games quick. Now, imagine giving it to something stupid, like a Grave Titan, Spinx of the Steel Wind, Mirran Crusader for the insane beats. Unless they can produce their own army of fliers, Elspeth closes games out quick.
Those abilities are extremely nice, but the way Elspeth is costed and the amount of loyalty she has after the first activation ticks her closer to her ultimate, which is easy to execute and—as long as you can support it with more creatures, artifacts enchantments, and lands of your—puts you far ahead. The quickest you can activate this ability is within 5 turns, which isn’t insanely fast, but you never have a tough decision of “do I work towards the finisher or do I activate this better ability.” Other than Memory Adept, she’s one of the simpler planeswalkers to use: you either want to swing in with damage, or you want another soldier to either block or get past a blocker. There are tougher decisions, but for the most part you have a pretty clear idea of which mode you want to use.
Because of this army-in-a-can ability, 5 loyalty after one activation is pretty nuts. Unless they have a flying bomb like a Sphinx of Jwar Isle, Kamigawa dragon, Thundermaw, or any other 5+ powered flier, they have a tough decision of whether they attack into Elspeth or they defend against the 3+ powered flier coming against them. Can you afford to send Stormfront Pegasus in to attack? What if the soldier that is soon to be flying is holding a Sword of Fire and Ice, or a Jitte? Can you still let a sword connect? Do you get as much damage in before Jitte clicks up? In a powered environment where you can drop an Elspeth anywhere from turn 3 to 1, giving yourself all that extra life plus an endless stream of threats is invaluable; your opponent ends up using all their resources to take out your planeswalker and the creatures she produces, and you hand fills up with cards that you don’t need to play while Elspeth does all the work. If the smoke clears and she’s not still standing, dropping one of those now-castable bombs as you hit your land drops along the way can break their back as they used 2, 3, even 4 cards to stop her. Elspeth forces your opponent to focus your attention on her while they should be worried about the offensive she’s laying upon you as her loyalty count steadily rises. Elspeth is incredible; I’ve switched into white late during drafts and not regretted it if she made it to me by pick 3 or 4, and in an unpowered cube seeing her that late is a clear sign that white is wide open since she is one of the better cards in that environment.
#1 – Jace, the Mind Sculptor: In one of my past articles I said that Jace, Memory Adept was the better planeswalker, and I honestly believed it at the time I wrote the article. If you’re looking to kill the opponent in two to three turns and you can protect JMA to do it, then he is absolutely the better planeswalker. While there are a large amount of board states that allow you to pull off this kill—hence the #3 rating for JMA—there are more board states where you can lean on the swiss army knife that is Jace, the Mind Sculptor and find a way to win the game. If you have a deck with answers, threats, and other win cons, Jace is good; if you can protect him, he is a win con; and if you already have a board state and just need that little extra oomph to get ahead, JTMS is good. I’d probably take him over a Mox, swords, any titan, wurmcoil, and a variety of other cards, because he allows you to utilize his abilities to put yourself in a position to win. Jace, the Mind Sculptor is in no way an easy card to use, and that’s part of the appeal. Because there are so many options, you have to consider which line is the best, and choosing the wrong one could lose you the game…but choosing the right one will often lead you to winning the game. It’s a 50-50 where it’s entirely up to you which side the coin lands on.
Do you +2 to Fateseal? This is the “win condition” mode of JMTS. When you can afford to protect him and you don’t need to dig for more answers, it’s nice to be able to switch modes. This is the mode I use the least, and the mode that a lot of players mistakenly choose the most, as they’re afraid of leaving him at a lower loyalty count, even on boards where he is in no danger. The +2 mode should be used when you don’t need to improve your hand or you’re guaranteed to get there with him. Behind a hand full of counters and removal, or plopping a moat in front of him, you can afford to take the time to get him up to 12. From the moment you cast him to when you naturally get to -12 him from 13 takes 6 turns, which is a long time; usually it’s better to set up your board and hand with his other abilities than it is to lean on this.
Do you -1 to Unsummon a creature? While dangerous, unconditional bonce can save your life, improve your own board, or can even win you the game. There are times a Keiga, Phantom Centaur, or some other troublesome beater is laying into you and -1 Time Walks them, and if it’s a token then that’s even better as tokens are gone forever off of a bounce. There are other times where you have a Grave Titan out, swing in with him, and then -1 to give yourself an opportunity to cast him for more Zombies and an untapped Titan. And then there will be times where there is a creature in the way of your kill and -1 allows you to get in there. Unsummon is so sweet, a card you don’t want to play on its own but glad to have on a guy like Jace.
Do you activate the 0 ability to Brainstorm? Most of the time, the answer should be “yes”. Drawing 3 cards is no joke, and doing it in turns after you untap with Jace allows you so many different lines of play. Brainstorm is a sweet card that a lot of cubes run as its own inclusion; being able to activate it turn-by-turn for free is unbelievably powerful. Add in a couple fetches or other ways to shuffle your library and you have an insane amount of card advantage and the Mind Sculpt-ing part of his name becomes apparent. In addition, your opponent may question whether to save removal for him or the cards you’re drawing off of him, which is probably a mistake but one they are sometimes forced to make. Your opponent will ignore him and he’ll take over a game, or they’ll make a bad attack or use a Vindicate/burn spell to take him off the board and the next turn you drop another problem you drew off the Brainstorm that they are now ill-equipped to handle.
Jace, the Mind Sculptor is everything you want in a planeswalker: he allows you to draw spells to get into the game; he removes pressure they’re putting on and puts some on his self; and when left alone, he can win the game on his own. It might seem like the obvious or easy choice, but it’s so obvious and easy because, time and time again, he has proven his value. I could make this list a hundred times and #2-#15 might be different, but the Mind Sculptor will always sit at the top until they make another guy to dethrone him, which is not that likely but anything could happen.
If I missed some guys or forgot to mention someone, leave a comment! Lists like this are always up for debate, and I invite you to join in. Thanks for reading!
Also, because I love alters, I decided to post an altered version of all the planeswalkers on this list. In order:
Agent of Bolas by Evil Nerd Inc. http://www.facebook.com/EvilNerdINC
Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker by Card Kitty http://www.cardkitty.com/
Vraska, the Unseen by Galspanic http://s916.photobucket.com/user/galspanicmtg/library/?page=1
Elspeth Tirel by Klug http://klugalters.blogspot.com/
Sorin Markov by Klug http://klugalters.blogspot.com/
Chandra, the Firebrand by ssalteration http://www.facebook.com/alterer.ssalteration
Venser, the Sojourner by Plague Spitter http://forums.mtgsalvation.com/member.php?u=12098
Koth of the Hammer by C.Wilson http://www.cwilsonart.com/
Tamiyo, the Moon Sage by poxy14 http://s671.photobucket.com/user/poxy14/library/
Garruk, Primal Hunter by O.Ramos Altered MTG http://forums.mtgsalvation.com/member.php?u=89904
Sorin, Lord of Innistrad by EM Altered Magic Cards http://www.facebook.com/pages/EM-Altered-Magic-Cards/
Garruk Wildspeaker by adunakhor http://i624.photobucket.com/albums/tt325/aradunakhor/GarrukWildSpeaker002Klein.jpg?t=1272455178
Ajani Vengeant by krauser13 http://s1178.photobucket.com/user/krauser13/library/
Liliana of the Veil by nofingers http://forums.mtgsalvation.com/member.php?u=19992
Garruk Relentless by Prince Ender http://forums.mtgsalvation.com/member.php?u=104058
Karn Liberated by Jackie Lee http://jackieleealters.tumblr.com/
Gideon Jura by Card Kitty http://www.cardkitty.com
Jace, Memory Adept by Card Kitty http://www.cardkitty.com
Elspeth, Knight-Errant by Sandreline http://www.sandreline.com/
Jace, the Mind Sculptor by Klug http://klugalters.blogspot.com/