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Some planeswalkers, such as Jace, Architect of Thought and Domri Rade have seen a lot of tournament play, while others, such as Gideon, Champion of Justice and Vraska the Unseen are rarely used in tournaments. Why is this? Gideon, for example, can turn into a huge threat pretty quickly, while Domri does little to directly improve your board.

What makes a planeswalker tournament-playable? What characteristics are desirable in planeswalker?

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4 Answers 4

In general, Planeswalkers are slow to do anything by themselves, so the ones that see tournament play are the ones whose early abilities complement the deck or give immediate card advantage.

Gideon, Champion of Justice

Gideon takes about 4 turns to get out (by mana cost). His +1 doesn't do anything useful immediately, and even when he does get big he can be stopped by 1 chump blocker a turn. His ultimate is good, and will probably win you the game, but it takes a long time to activate and it puts all of your eggs in one basket, making you very vulnerable to a Swords to Plowshares

Vraska the Unseen

Vraska, again, probably doesn't get out until turn 5. Her +1 ability does nothing but deter your opponent from going after Vraska, which does nothing to stop them from killing you. Her -3 is useful, but half of her loyalty is a bit of a steep price to pay to destroy just one permanent. And her ultimate, which you're optimistically getting off on turn 8, does nothing if your opponent has 3 bears to block with.

Domri Rade

Domri, on the other hand, gets out on turn 3 and immediately starts helping you get cards. With him on the field in a creature heavy deck, you are much more likely to be able to play a creature every single turn. And if you do manage to get his ultimate off, then the double strike+trample combo makes even a few moderate powered creatures into a major threat.

Jace, Architect of Thought

Jace, like Gideon, gets out on turn 4. However, his +1 ability immediately protects both you and him by weakening your opponent's creatures, and generally just slows them down, which is very useful for a control player. His -2 ability is also one of the best effects in the game (consider that it's strictly better than "Reveal the top 3 cards of your library. Put 1 into your hand and the rest on bottom in any order"). His ultimate is very situational, but you don't really need it when the other abilities are doing so much for you.

Conclusion

Domri and Jace share two major qualities. First, they complement existing major deck archetypes: Domri accelerates a Red/Green aggro deck, and Jace helps a mono Blue control deck both by slowing the opponent down and by getting the player the cards they need when they need them. Second, they both give the player card advantage. Getting more cards into your hand from your library every turn is very useful both because it helps you play more quickly by making it more likely that you'll hit land drops and have cards to play, and because it makes it more likely that you'll have the cards you need when you need them.

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Don't forget Domri's -2 ability; even if he just gets killed the next turn, it's often essentially a removal spell, which can be a pretty big deal, and some nice versatility. –  Jefromi May 30 at 4:14
    
I don't know. It's nice to have that option, but you're paying loyalty counters, giving up an opportunity to get another card, and trading creature for creature at worst. I'd bet that it's almost entirely the first ability that makes Domri desirable. –  murgatroid99 May 30 at 4:18
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I'm not saying it's nearly as important as the +1, just that if it weren't there, it'd be a noticeable loss. An extra card is great, more counters is great, and you're going to use the +1 a lot more, but sometimes you really need to kill something. –  Jefromi May 30 at 4:20

Disclaimer : I don't play standard, so if you look this from standard perspective, then it maybe somewhat irrelevant.

These are basic factors that should used when evaluating a planeswalker.

  1. How efficient is the casting cost?
  2. Can it protect itself and you?
  3. How good is it assuming you can't fetch its ultimate?
  4. How much the board impact it provides if you can only get 1 activation from it? (Assuming almost every PW got killed after it comes down)

So if you ask why Vraska and Gideon doesn't see much play :

  1. Vraska's 5cmc makes only control deck wants her, the problem is, there's no BG control in standard I guess. And, while also she protect herself quite well, it's sadly only from creature threat, so it's still, can be burned, for example. She also really bad if you can't ultimate her, and also her ultimate can easily negated with block / sweep, so it's most likely a pseudo vindicate costs 5. Not appealing at all.
  2. Gideon is a total disaster. He goes fat quite fast, but, the problem is, no one cares to attack him. Compares to the first Gideon, this gideon doesn't protect you at all. Sadly, protection is what white deck needs at turn 4+. And, most likely, by the time you cast it, to make its +1 impactful, you already near to death. It's ultimate also a joke. Conclusion : don't play it unless you play for fun only.

Domri is a special case here, his cmc is really cheap (3) and comes in aggro color, which only cares to give a good pressure, so it doesn't really need to be able to protect himself or you. This pseudo draw, is good, in an aggro deck, and the ultimate is backbreaking (seriously).

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+1; If you can't treat the PW like a modal Sorcery and still feel it warrants inclusion, it doesn't warrant inclusion. –  Brian S May 30 at 15:55

I think a major element is that these planeswalkers all provide some form of card advantage the turn they come into play as a +1: card draw (Domri and Garruk, caller of beast's +1s fall in that category), tokens, mana, discard... Planeswalkers that majorly hobble the opponent with their +1 (Jace Architect. Kiora) are also playable. The major exception is Ashiok, but his +2 is a ticking bomb on its own (unlike those of Vraska or Ajani, caller of the pride) and he is played in shells that can protect him very well.

Otherwise, with the prevalence of Dreadbore, Heroes' Downfall and now Banishing Light, a planeswalker like Vraska, Gideon or Ral Zarek that durdles for several turns or are just an overcosted version of a cheap spell rather than having a useful + ability just won't cut it.

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up vote 1 down vote accepted

The various answers all list some good characteristics, but none of them lists all characteristics. This is a compilation of the other answers by @Circeus, @MosesAprico and @murgatroid99. I highly recommend checking out their answers for a more in-depth explanation and an analysis of the planeswalkers mentioned in the question.

Important characteristics

Almost all strong, tournament-playable planeswalkers have all of the following characteristics:

  • The planeswalker complements an existing deck archetype, or enables a new deck archetype. Either way, it needs a strong, competetive deck to be played in.
  • The planeswalker is appropriately costed for the deck it is in. This might be 3CMC for more aggressive decks, but can be up to 6CMC for control decks.
  • The planeswalker provides some kind of card advantage.

Other desirable characteristics

Strong planeswalkers often have the following characteristics, but a planeswalker lacking one or more can still be tournament-playable:

  • The planeswalker has an impact on the turn you play it. Since a planeswalker often draws removal and can be attacked, it needs to be worthwile even if you only get to keep it for only one turn.
  • The planeswalker can protect itself well. This can substitute having an immediate impact.
  • The planeswalker can protect you. A planeswalker can be very strong, but if it can't do anything to prevent your life total from dropping, you might still lose the game.
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