Planeswalker Duels: Designing an M:tG Variant

As I am both an avid game designer with a head full of game design ideas and a passionate Magic: the Gathering player, it seems pretty natural to me that I would at some point be coming up with my own Magic: the Gathering variant of play, like the Elder Dragon Highlander variant I have been enjoying tremendously since I “discovered” it a few years ago. The only question that begs for an answer is “what took me so long??” 😀

So in this article I want to present you with my first rough “draft” of a Magic: the Gathering variant of play which I have come up with recently, inspired by the aforementioned and to me extremely fun, both in building decks and in the actual playing, Elder Dragon Highlander variant, which I will, for now and until I can think of a better name, call “Planeswaler Duels”, as each Player would be choosing a Planeswalker as their avatar and build their deck around them. With the ever-growing number of different Planeswalkers being released, the options and possibilities to make such a deck will grow, so this Planeswalker-centered variant can only get more and more interesting with every new Set containing Planeswalkers they will be releasing.

My main goal is to come up with a way of playing Magic that allows for even greater deck customization than Elder Dragon Highlander and would involve a great amount of strategic choices that actually matter (an aspect that makes any game enjoyable and exciting) not only during the actual gameplay, but also when constructing a deck for the variant I am about to propose. This I want to achieve mainly by letting a Planeswalker act as what would be your Commander in Elder Dragon Highlander and by “equipping” that Planeswalker with a “Spellbook”, a secondary deck of cards from which you may choose Spells to cast as long as your Spellcaster is “active”. But I think it is best at this point to share with you how the Spellcaster Duels variant is played and what makes it different from regular M:tG or even the Elder Dragon Highlander variant. A word of caution: You have to be familiar with the basic game rules in order to understand the following:

Planeswalker Duels Rules:

  • Each Player starts with 30 Life, the goal of the game being to reduce your opponent down to 0 as in regular M:tG.
  • Each Player chooses a Planeswalker to serve as their “avatar” in the game and builds his deck around that Planeswalker.
  • Each Player has two Decks: The (regular) Library and the “Spellbook”.
  • Your Library may have up to 60 cards, with each card being allowed only once, except for Basic Lands and at least one card must be of at least one of the colors of your Planeswalker.
  • The Spellbook is what sets this variant apart from regular M:tG. Your Spellbook may contain any number of Instants or Sorceries which must be of the same colors as your Planeswalker avatar. Combined with the converted casting cost of your Planeswalker avatar, the Instants and Sorceries in your Spellbook may not exceed a total of 10/15/20 mana (not sure about the right number – this will require testing). Each card can be run once in your Spellbook. You do not shuffle the Spellbook in with your main deck/library cards, but rather place it next to your Planeswalker avatar. These are the Spells the Spellcaster may use during the game – his or her personal book of spells – the Spellbook. Now as long as your Planeswalker is in play, you may once per turn and instead of activating one of the Planeswalker abilities (the ones that add or remove counters from the Planeswalker) cast any Instant or Sorcery directly from your Spellbook. A used Spell from the Spellbook goes to the “Archive”, which is the discard for your Spellbook cards. When your Spellbook is empty, and only then, you may take your Archive and put it face down to replenish your Spellbook so the Spells can be used again. One and the same card cannot be in your Spellbook and Library – one card can be run either in Spellbook or Library. You may look through your Spellbook at any time, while it is concealed from the opponent. The Archive is visible at any time to all players.
  • Your Planeswalker avatar is not shuffled into your library or added to your Spellbook. Instead, at the beginning of the game, place him or her next to your Spellbook card pile tapped, denoting the Spellcaster is not summoned but “inactive” at the moment. This area is called the “Planeswalker Zone”. Any time you want and can afford to mana-wise, you can summon the Planeswalker in the Planeswalker Zone by simply untapping them.
  • Planeswalkers can be attacked as per normal, but they do not go to either Graveyard or Archive, but are just tapped, denoting they are “inactive” and can be summoned by paying their mana cost +2 generic mana for each time they are summoned beyond the first time and simply untapping them.
  • Planeswalkers cannot be countered and cannot be target of Spells or Abilities.
  • Spellbook cards can only be used when your Planeswalker is untapped, when he or she is active.
  • The rest works as per the normal rules. You can summon Creatures and cast other Spells from your Library normally and attack your opponent with your Creatures in order to reduce his life points to zero.

Now those are the tweaked game rules I came up with for the Planeswalker Duels variant of play. As I noted above, these are a first rough draft, and some things, like how much the total cost of your Planeswalker plus Spellbook should be, have to be determined through just testing this and see how it all works out.

So what comes next to me is to build two decks for this new, homebrew format of my own devising. Considering that many Duel Decks Wizards of the Coast has released over the last few years, some of which I already own, feature two Planeswalkers duelling each other, so I decided to just pick one of my Planeswalker-themed Duel Decks and turn the preconstructed decks into custom decks for my new rules variant. In this case, the decision fell on the Elspeth vs Tezzeret Duel Decks:

Both Elspeth and Tezzeret are quite powerful and have unique abilities, very different from each other, so I think this will be a good start to make decks for the purpose of testing my Planeswalker Duels variant. Let me show you the two Planeswalker Cards so the deck lists I am going to show you below will make more sense to you. Here is Elspeth:

And here Tezzeret:

Coming up with decent decks for my M:tG variant, built around these Planeswalkers, will be quite challenging, most of all choosing which Instants and Sorceries to run in the Spellbooks, but I like a good (deckbuilding) challenge. I will assume that each Planeswalker plus Spellbook can contain cards that cost a total of 20 mana. Please keep in mind that I have obviously zero experience with how all this will play and work out so consider the following decks first, experimental prototype builds that will be altered and refined along the way. So here are the two decklists (converted casting costs in parenthesis):

Elspeth Soldier Swarm:

Planeswalker: Elspeth, Knight-Errant (4)

Spellbook:

Path to Exile (1)

Disenchant (2)

Wrath of God (4)

Armageddon (4)

Saltblast (5)

Library:

Creatures…20

Elite Vanguard (1)

Savannah Lion (1)

Isamaru, Hound of Konda (1)

Champion of the Parish (1)

Ballyrush Banneret (2)

Precinct Captain (2)

Whipcorder (2)

Veteran Armosmith (2)

Fencing Ace (2)

Elite Inquisitor (2)

Intrepid Hero (3)

Mentor of the Meek (3)

Veteran Swordsmith (3)

Preeminent Captain (3)

Field Marshal (3)

Crusader of Odric (4)

Phantom General (4)

Daru Warchief (4)

Knight Captain of Eos (5)

Captain of the Watch (6)

Other Spells…14

Condemn (1)

Swords to Plowshares (1)

Raise the Alarm (2)

Disenchant (2)

Journey to Nowhere (2)

Crusade (2)

Honor of the Pure (2)

Shared Triumph (2)

Glorious Anthem (3)

Oblivion Ring (3)

Abolish (3)

Terashi’s Grasp (3)

Mobilization (3)

Captain’s Call (4)

Artifacts…4

Skullclamp (1)

Sword of Vengeance (3)

Loxodon Warhammer (3)

Coat of Arms (4)

Lands…22

Daru Encampment

Kabira Crossroads

Forbidding Watchtower

Kjeldoran Outpost

Secluded Steppe

Floating Meadows

16 x Plains

Tezzeret Artifice:

Planeswalker: Tezzeret the Seeker (5)

Spellbook:

Merchant Scroll (2)

Fabricate (3)

Tinker (3)

Thirst for Knowledge (3)

Argivian Restoration (4)

Library:

Creatures…12

Phyrexian Dreadnought (1)

Tidehollow Sculler (2)

Etherium Sculptor (2)

Leonin Squire (2)

Trinket Mage (3)

Auriok Scavenger (4)

Master Transmuter (4)

Sphinx of the Steel Wind (7)

Magister Sphinx (7)

Inkwell Leviathan (9)

Darksteel Colossus (11)

Blightsteel Colossus (12)

Other Spells…6

Stifle (1)

Enlightened Tutor (1)

Artificer’s Intuiton (2)

Demonic Tutor (2)

Mortify (3)

Thoughtcast (5)

Artifacts…18

Welding Jar (1)

Amulet of Vigor (1)

Pithing Needle (1)

Dispeller’s Capsule (1)

Executioner’s Capsule (1)

Aether Spellbomb (1)

Sol Ring (1)

Voltaic Key (1)

Expedition Map (1)

Wayfarer’s Bauble (1)

Sensei’s Divining Top (1)

Relic of Progenitus (1)

Basilisk Collar (1)

Cranial Plating (2)

Lightning Greaves (2)

Worn Powerstone (4)

Nevinyrral’s Disk (4)

Darksteel Forge (9)

Lands…24

Darksteel Citadel

Seat of the Synod

Vault of Whispers

Ancient Den

Arcane Sanctum

Esper Panorama

Seijiri Refuge

Jwar-Isle Refurge

Evolving Wilds

Terramorphic Expanse

5 x Island

5 x Swamp

4 x Plains

I will be following up this article with two more Spellcaster Duel decks based on the Duel Decks Garruk vs Liliana which I happen to have in my collection as well and will report the progress and playtest results of my “homebrew” M:tG variant!

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