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How to Use Planeswalkers in Magic: The Gathering

Jeremy casts spells in between his careers as a chemical analyst and campus manager.

Planeswalkers in Magic

Planeswalkers, who gradually amass loyalty to unleash various effects, have arguably become Magic's most popular card type, especially with their surge in the "War of the Spark" expansion.

But thanks to murky explanations and changing rules, newer players are often confused by how these unique cards work, especially in regards to the legend rule. To help clear the air, here's everything you need to know about planeswalkers in Magic: The Gathering!

Kiora, the Crashing Wave mtg

Kiora, the Crashing Wave mtg

Casting Planeswalkers in Magic

Like other spells, casting planeswalkers requires you to pay the appropriate mana cost listed in the card's upper-right corner. In this case, Kiora requires four total mana including at least one green and one blue. Then, your planeswalker arrives with a number of "loyalty counters" listed in the bottom-right corner (Kiora starts with two).

Once per turn during either of your main phases, you can activate one loyalty effect per planeswalker by adding or subtracting the amount of loyalty listed. Additive abilities are generally weaker, but they're reusable and increase total loyalty, protecting against battle destruction. Subtractive effects are more costly but offer powerful abilities, many of which grant outrageously powerful (and irremovable) emblems.

You can use a planeswalker's minus effect even if it would reduce the planeswalker's loyalty to zero, but your planeswalker will die after the effect resolves. However, you can't subtract more loyalty counters than you have; for instance, if Kiora had five loyalty, she could use her ultimate -5 effect (though she'd head to the graveyard afterward), but if she only had four, she would only be able to use either of her first two traits that turn.

Liliana, Death's Majesty mtg

Liliana, Death's Majesty mtg

Battling Planeswalkers in Magic

As fierce as planeswalkers are, they're not invincible—opponents can choose to attack them with their creatures, and if a monster connects, the damage removes loyalty equal to that creature's power. And just like with regular attacks, you can choose (or decline) to guard attackers if you control valid blockers.

Excess damage against planeswalkers is essentially wasted; for example, if an opponent swung at a five-loyalty Liliana with creatures totaling 20 power, and none were blocked, that extra 15 damage wouldn't go through to you. Remember that opponents can divide their attackers between you and your planeswalkers as they see fit, and some battle-related traits don't affect planeswalkers; for instance, deathtouch won't immediately kill them.

How Planeswalkers *Used* to Work With the Legend Rule

Perhaps the biggest source of confusion regarding planeswalkers is how they coincide with the legend rule. Let's first discuss their initial design; remember, this is not how they currently operate, but how they originally functioned—players who haven't kept up might mistakenly think these rules still apply.

In the past, you could only ever control one planeswalker of a given type (shown in the middle of the card)—one Jace, one Chandra, etc. If you fielded multiple planeswalkers of the same form, you would have to sacrifice one. For instance, playing "Jace, the Mind Sculptor" while controlling "Jace, Unraveler of Secrets" would force you to forfeit one (of your choice). This made it riskier to deck-build with multiple planeswalkers of the same character, though you could field any number simultaneously as long as they had different types. But current policies allow planeswalkers more freedom...

How Planeswalkers Currently Use the Legend Rule

Eventually, every planeswalker was given the legendary type, and like other legendary cards, you can only control one of a specified unit without sacrificing. However, this only applies to duplicates of the exact same spell; you're now able to control multiple copies of identical characters as long as they're different cards.

For example, you still can't field two copies of "Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh," but you could have one alongside "Nicol Bolas, the Deceiver" (and any other different Bolas forms).

Nissa, Voice of Zendikar mtg

Nissa, Voice of Zendikar mtg

Which Planeswalker Ruleset Is Better?

Some players preferred the original concept thematically, as it made characters feel unique (after all, there aren't two Nissas running around in the lore). However, many favor the update in gameplay terms because it allows the freedom to enlist multiple copies of the same character in different forms. So pick your poison: what makes less "sense" or what restricts deck-building options.

Chandra, Pyromaster mtg

Chandra, Pyromaster mtg

How Planeswalker Damage Works

Planeswalkers have also changed in the way they receive damage. In the past, players could redirect noncombat damage dealt to an opponent against one of their planeswalkers by simply declaring to do so.

However, starting with the Dominaria set, this rule was replaced. Now, individual spells tell you whether or not they can target planeswalkers, and most older cards that could target a player can also affect planeswalkers. This change was definitely for the best, simplifying a complex mechanic into a much less confusing one without drastically altering Magic's gameplay.

The Wanderer mtg

The Wanderer mtg

Planeswalker Rarity in Magic

Planeswalkers used to be almost exclusively mythical rare, but War of the Spark introduced several rares and even uncommons, making them much easier to collect. Several of these newer units also lack loyalty-gaining abilities, limiting their total supply. However, they compensate with an enhanced starting loyalty and enchantment-like passive effects.

Between their evolving mechanics and passive abilities, planeswalkers are stronger than ever, and you can further empower them using the right supports. But for now, as we eagerly await Wizards of the Coast's next planeswalker expansion, vote for your favorite card, and I'll see you at our next MTG countdown!

© 2019 Jeremy Gill