Playing With Planeswalkers In cEDH

Harvey McGuinness • February 16, 2023

Narset, Parter of Veils by Magali Villeneuve

Outside of dedicated casual Commander decks, planeswalkers have long been designated multiplayer's worst card type. Essentially disruptable enchantments with powerful-yet-limited activated abilities, the potential for incremental advantage which have made planeswalkers behemoths in 60-card constructed hasn't quite had the opportunity to translate into Commander, let alone cEDH. That being said, entering the format without considering the key planeswalkers in the field is a dangerous mistake. Whether they're helming a decklist, serving as support in the 99, or providing back-breaking combo potentials, planeswalkers have most definitely made their mark, and it's time we acknowledge their potential.

Planeswalker Commanders

Jeska, Thrice Reborn

Alright, let's start with one of the most arguably ubiquitous planeswalkers and make our way down, shall we? While Jeska, Thrice Reborn doesn't see quite the same degree of cross-strategy spread throughout red decks as, say, Lightning Bolt, Jeska is an exceptionally interesting card in that she sees play both in the 99 and as a commander. Very few cards can claim to be both in the 99 of some decks and at the helm of others, and yet here Jeska is. So, what does she actually do to warrant so much play?

Jeska, Thrice Reborn's viability lies in both her capacity to pressure life totals and serve as a repeatable removal spell. Her first ability allows for a tripling of combat damage, something which lists such as Ishai, Ojutai Dragonspeaker and Slicer, Hired Muscle have both proven to be valuable as both game-winning conditions and resource management against Ad Nauseam players. Moving to her second ability, even with a starting loyalty of one, the potential to remove three targets at once should never be understated. Being a Partner Commander who scales with the game, Jeska frequently comes down at two or even three loyalty in the early turns, opening up a whole host of options the second she hits the field. This immediate viability in nearly all game situations is what has allowed Jeska to flourish: unlike most other planeswalkers, any loyalty ability can be activated the turn she enters, preventing her from stalling out.

Best of all, Jeska allows her pilot to win with infinite mana. Every successive cast allows for a [-X] activation that can target your opponents and place Jeska, Thrice Reborn back into the command zone. This is often used in conjunction with Auriok Salvagers & Lion's Eye Diamond in Tymna decks or Dramatic Reversal & Isochron Scepter in Ishai decks.

Tevesh Szat, Doom of Fools

While Jeska was fast to clear the board and player's life totals, Tevesh Szat, Doom of Fools - the other Partner planeswalker on our list - takes a very different approach. Yes, he has two very powerful abilities which he can activate immediately, the first check on our list of cEDH viability, but the dual pressures of an increased mana value (five versus Jeska's three) coupled with the inability to scale with the game means that, when Tevesh hits the field, the plan is to keep him there. This restricts him from being played in the 99 of most, if not all decks, but the potential explosiveness he brings as a Partner is enough to warrant building strategies around him.

Similar to Thrasios, Triton Hero, the face value of Tevesh is defined by gradual advantage. Earlier, I mentioned that this isn't enough for planeswalkers to break out in cEDH. Tevesh breaks around this by not only being a Partner, but one which can provide so much advantage so fast that incremental no longer describes the situation. Even if it's only once per turn, having the capacity to draw up to three additional cards is incredibly powerful, especially when the source of that activation is being cast from the Command Zone.

Grist, the Hunger Tide

Although Grist, the Hunger Tide isn't nearly as ubiquitous as Jeska or Tevesh, this planeswalker has succeeded in rejuvenating the Protean Hulk archetype, serving as a premier Commander for decks seeking to win the game off of a Hulk death trigger. Given that these Hulk lines continue to serve as the primary win condition for most Golgari decks (outside of The Gitrog Monster, of course), it's important for us to take a moment and look at who will likely be helming the list.

When serving as a commander, the primary ability to be concerned about is Grist's -2. For the cost of two loyalty (Grist comes down with three, meaning this can be activated immediately), Grist provides us with the opportunity to sacrifice a creature and destroy a creature or planeswalker. The removal effect itself doesn't particularly matter when we're sacrificing a creature that wins us the game when it dies, but it's helpful that Grist, the Hunger Tide serves as a sacrifice outlet in the Command Zone with relevant text should we ever need to remove a creature while we're on the defensive. Similarly, while Grist's final ability doesn't provide much for consideration given the high cost to activate and the limited use for it in Commander, the mill effect resultant from activating Grist's +1 can be a frequent source of both reanimation targets and sacrifice fodder, meaning that all of Grist serves to synergize with the rest of it. In short, the card is both versatile and immediately effective, allowing for it to succeed in its role as a strategy-helming Commander.

Minsc & Boo, Timeless Heroes

Card draw, early aggression, and a sacrifice outlet all in the Command Zone, Minsc & Boo, Timeless Heroes is a versatile threat that currently serves as the best Gruul cEDH Commander option available right now. Similar to Grist, Minsc & Boo is another Protean Hulk deck that trades in black's recursion and powerful tutors for red's explosivity and early-game combo potential. While Gruul may not be the best of color pairs in the wider meta right now, the unique card draw potential stapled onto a removal ability which Minsc & Boo provides from the Command Zone is certainly worth the consideration, especially for anyone hoping to be able to say "Hamster" and "Hulk" in the same turn. You can read a writeup about the deck right here on Commander's Herald.

Teferi, Temporal Archmage

The cEDH blue boogieman of days gone by, Teferi, Temporal Archmage is a threatening presence on any board state that has the potential to win out of nowhere, thanks to the one-card combo it can claim alongside The Chain Veil. While faster mono-blue Commanders have come to push out Teferi from the roll he once held in monopolizing the Command Zone, it can prove worthwhile to remember that - unlike a lot of the current values engines, mana sinks, and sacrifice outlets which currently run away with cEDH games right now - Teferi is a part of the combo it runs, not just an enabler. This puts Teferi, Temporal Archmage into the category of "commander-dependent" decks. A weakness, definitely, but not something sufficient to completely propel him outside of cEDH pods near and far.

Support Pieces

Oko, Thief of Crowns

Repeatable commander removal. Efficiently costed repeatable commander removal. Efficiently costed repeatable commander removal that does not allow your opponents to immediately recast their commander. This is all you need to know about Oko, Thief of Crowns when it comes to understanding his role in cEDH. Yes, Oko can technically do other things, but a repeatable Lignify-esque effect is a substantial enough threat to warrant consideration regardless of the rest of the card. Did I mention this ability ADDS to Oko's already absurdly high base loyalty count? Well, it does.

The main reason Oko, Thief of Crowns sees the amount of play that it does (5.39% of all decklists, as per - a number quite high for planeswalkers1) is that it is a relatively unique effect, given that it is repeatable. Couple this with the additional ability to exchange control of permanents (I can just imagine swapping a signet for a Drannith Magistrate or the like...), and Oko is removal that can turn into a Gilded Drake if it's given time.

Teferi, Master of Time

Rather than breaking the tradition of incremental value via an explosive and immediately activatable loyalty ability akin to those of either Oko, Thief of Crowns or Tevesh Szat, Doom of Fools, Teferi breaks parity in true blue fashion by being activatable at instant speed and on any player's turn. In effect, this means Teferi, Master of Time can activate loyalty abilities four times per rotation, as opposed to one. While not necessarily scaling in the same fashion as Jeska, Thrice Reborn, Jeska is nonetheless the best comparison for Teferi when run in the 99: each take a key aspect of Commander (the number of opponents in Teferi's case and the repeatability of casting from the Command Zone in Jeska's) and take advantage of it to outpace traditional planeswalker limitations.

Evaluated purely by his loyalty abilities alone, Teferi, Master of Time isn't much to look at. The ability to active four times per rotation, and at instant-speed no less, is responsible for his breakthrough success (4.15% of the meta), make no doubt about that. Paying four mana to loot once isn't good, but paying four to potentially loot three times and then phase out a problematic creature at the perfect time is a solid rate, especially in the Midrange and Stax lists in which Teferi sees play.

Tezzeret the Seeker

Tezzeret the Seeker is a sorcery-speed artifact-to-field tutor with potential long-game upside. Five mana is a lot to play, no doubt, but the potential to serve as the necessary final tutor before the game ends should not be overlooked. As any green player will tell you, cheating a tutor target into play as opposed to simply into your hand is an incredibly powerful and frequently necessary effect, allowing you to bypass vulnerabilities on the stack. Ideally, this is how Tezzert will be played in most scenarios: not as a planeswalker, but moreso as a sorcery speed Whir of Invention. If Tezzeret finds himself sticking around for long, his +1 ability should not be dismissed as useless. In Urza, Lord High Artificer and the like, Tezzeret the Seeker can frequently serve as an extra ritual each turn, providing just enough extra edge each turn to help grin out a win. You'll often see Tezzeret the Seeker in decks able to make a lot of mana like Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy and Urza, Lord High Artificer.

Teferi, Time Raveler

I'll be honest, when I learned that Teferi, Time Raveler only sees play in 2.9% of the meta, I was a bit phased at first. Being a Stax effect in Azorius, the number of decks that want to play him is certainly limited, but when he does come down the entire game shifts. The loyalty abilities of Teferi are certainly useful - the +1 turns Sorceries into Instants, and the -3 is a tempo swing and provides card draw - but that is not why people play Teferi.

"Each opponent can cast spells only anytime they could cast a sorcery."

This is why Teferi sees play: the static ability. Teferi doesn't just shut down end of turn Ad Nauseams, Tutors, and the like, but for three mana we are able to completely shut down opposing counterspells. Like most of the remaining planeswalkers on our list, Teferi, Time Raveler was able to break through into cEDH not because of value or any particular loyalty ability, but because of his immediate and lasting impact on the game via a pressuring static ability.

Tyvar, Jubilant Brawler

Tyvar here is the wild card on our list. Phyrexia: All Will Be One has only just hit shelves, so he hasn't had much of an opportunity to shine, but he has certainly been making waves in deck testing over these past few weeks. His static ability isn't oppressive, but it does add something crucial for any deck focusing on creature-combos with activated abilities: speed. Tyvar, Jubilant Brawler enables Hermit Druid to pop off the turn it hits the board, evading a key weakness of the decks which play it. In a similar vein, it also enables Devoted Druid combos to get rolling as soon as both pieces hits the field, as opposed to waiting for summoning sickness to wear off (yes, I will yield that this isn't as important now that combos exist which center on turning Devoted Druid into a noncreature permanent, but the added speed for activated abilities is important nonetheless).

Combo speed aside, Tyvar, Jubilant Brawler turns a well-timed top-of-deck Tutor into a reanimation spell through his -2, while his +1 frequently serves as mana production through the untapping of any sort of mana dork (which he also happens to conveniently enable through the pseudo-haste static ability). While it will definitely take time to really evaluate what impact Tyvar will have in cEDH, one thing is clear: he certainly has all the pieces necessary to be worth testing.

Combo Potential

Narset, Parter of Veils

Alright, I'll say it...I miss Hullbreacher.

On a more objective note, Narset, Parter of Veils serves as a two-card combo "soft-win" with half a dozen other cards. Timetwister, Wheel of Fortune, Winds of Change, etc... resolving any of these with a Narset on the board will strip your opponents of their hands and refill your own. If that isn't enough to put you sufficiently ahead of the rest of the board, Narset also allows for up to two pseudo-Impulse activations with her [-2], digging you deeper for the cards necessary to secure a win (potentially a second wheel, perhaps).

Outside of the Partner planeswalker Commanders on our list, Narset is the most played planeswalker in cEDH, coming in at over 6% of the meta. That's a substantial percentage for any card, especially a three-mana sorcery-speed spell, and a testament to Narset's power throughout different strategies. Even without a wheel in hand to immediately follow up with, Narset's static ability puts sufficient pressure on the board to stall each opponent until the threat is answered.

Karn, the Great Creator

In most games, Karn, the Great Creator serves as a temporary asymmetric Null Rod. I say temporary because, out of all the cards on our list, Karn here suffers the most from the planeswalker card type. Neither of his loyalty abilities are particularly useful in most situations (killing a Mana Crypt by making it a 0/0 is pretty funny though), meaning that the value from playing Karn comes mostly from his static effect.

It's the inherent parity-braking which Karn, the Great Creator brings with him which allows for him to be worthwhile in some lists. Given a turn or two, and this can allows players to run away with the game solely from the sheer gap in resources (did I mention Karn also shuts off Isochron Scepter and Treasure tokens). When coupled with a card like Mycosynth Lattice, Karn packs the potential to shift from a soft-lock into a game-winning piece of resource denial.

Vivien on the Hunt

Outside of the final two planeswalkers on our list, Vivien on the Hunt is by far the most linear card we'll be talking about. A key piece in many Rocco, Cabaretti Caterer combo lines, this iteration of Vivien is defined by her +2. Having another copy of Birthing Pod, one which is tutorable by Arena Rector as well as Thalia's Lancers and is flickerable by Felidar Guardian, opens up a multitude of win-conditions with Vivien on the Hunt as the centerpiece. While this hasn't been enough to let Vivien break out beyond roughly 3% of the meta, it is enough to warrant putting her on our radars as we sit down across from the less-ubiquitous green lists.

Notable Duplicates

Jace, Wielder of Mysteries

Another card in the lineup with Laboratory Maniac, it's hard to compete when you're in the same category as Thassa's Oracle. This version of Jace sees play in just 1.66% of decklists, and for good reason. Yes, he's helpful as an extra copy of Thassa's Oracle in case something goes wrong from say, a Praetor's Grasp or the like, but other than that the card doesn't do too much. Neither loyalty ability is meaningfully impactful, especially given Jace's triple-blue casting cost. The cost-benefit for Jace, Wielder of Mysteries just isn't there for 98% of lists. Is it worth a consideration solely as backup defense in mono-blue Thassa's Oracle lists? Definitely. Should you be excited to play it? Probably not.

Professor Onyx

Surprisingly enough, Professor Onyx clocks in at exactly the same play percentage as Jace, Wielder of Mysteries: 1.66%. Unlike Jace, however, Professor Onyx does something unique as a duplicate: the card fulfills an identical role as that of Witherbloom Apprentice, but has the far less restrictive color identity of mono-black as opposed to black and green. Casting and copying a Chain of Smog infinite times with either permanent on the field will win you the game and, while Professor Onyx costs three times as much mana as Witherbloom Apprentice, she allows you to resolve this combo in any deck running black. While I'd much rather play green than pay four extra mana, it is nonetheless important to be on the lookout for Chain of Smog combos outside of green decks, and we have Professor Onyx to thank for this.

Wrapping Up

Planeswalkers are especially vulnerable cards, especially in cEDH. Nonetheless, as design space has opened up in recent years and static abilities have become more and more present across new iterations, these flagship characters have undoubtedly had an impact on the game we play. Whether it's losing hands to Narset, Parter of Veils or getting pummeled by a Slicer, Hired Muscle that's been tripled by a Jeska, Thrice Reborn activation, planeswalkers - when they do find their niches and roles - are an important part of the game that cannot be ignored. So, keep an eye out. You might just find one worth running.

  1. As for data sourcing, per, "The analyses... are automatically updated from the cEDH Decklist, and Commander Spellbook."

Harvey McGuinness is a student at Johns Hopkins University who has been playing Magic since the release of Return to Ravnica. After spending a few years in the Legacy arena bouncing between Miracles and other blue-white control shells, he now spends his time enjoying Magic through cEDH games and understanding the finance perspective.