This is more of a stealth article to talk about the rapid decline in the power of planeswalkers that has come hand in hand with power creep over the past 3 or so years. Around Tarkir block, perhaps as far as Kaladesh, was the peak of planeswalker play in cube. Arguably they were at their most powerful when they first landed on the scene but with scarcity of printing it took a very long time to get enough planeswalkers into cube to meet the demand for them. For the first few years you would be picking and playing every walker you got your hands on and this would be a couple at best. This trend of pick and play all the walkers declined long before walkers did but only due to demand being met. The better measure of planeswalker prowess is the average number of walkers in decks and that continued to rise all the way to 2016. At that time I was happy playing around 5 or 6 walkers in my 40 card decks pretty much regardless of the archetype. Aggro decks struggled to find enough suitable as their curves were that much lower but the midrange and control decks had room for days. Most of the top end of my 2016 cube draft decks were planeswalkers. Jump to 2023 and we are down to around one walker per deck on average.
Walkers are not getting worse, they, like every thing else, are getting better. What is it then that is contributing to hard to this fall off in the card type? Disparity in power creep is a big part of the why. Yes, walkers are getting better but if other things are getting better faster then planeswalkers are effectively getting worse. Dorks are one of the main areas that power has crept and they are not only the main solution to walkers but they are also the main competition for their slots. In a world where Questing Beast and Glorybringer win the game faster than your average walker and/or answer it as well then it is no shocker that they are replacing them.
Removal is the other part of the game that has power crept ahead of walkers. A big part of the early dominance of walkers was the lack of non-creature answers to them. You could counter them, you could attack them, or you could Vindicate them. It took a long time before things like Hero's Downfall become a bit more standard. It was even longer before we had the likes of Angrarth's Rampage, Dreadbore, Assassin's Trophy, Ossification, Sheoldred's Edict, and a slew of other two mana spot removal spells for walkers. Back in the day if they made a walker and activated it just once and then you untapped and killed it with a three mana removal spell you were behind and that was about as good as it got for you if you were not ahead on board and able to answer it in combat. These days if I kill your walkers with a two mana spell that single activation rarely feels like it came close to those two or three mana I gained with my efficient removal. Even when planeswalkers are a good value exchange they can still be a poor tempo one and this is too often the case these days.
Not only is removal better at killing planeswalkers but people are playing more of it than ever before. When you are playing a load more removal even the stuff that can only hit creatures can help let you take down walkers. I might not want to "waste" my high quality removal spell on your medium dork but if it will also let me attack that turn and take out a walker it suddenly seems like a good plan. Planeswalkers feel the most vulnerable than ever before in the face of all the better, cheaper, broader, and more commonly seen removal. For a card type that scales in power with turns in play being vulnerable is a concern to say the least!
Another factor is game length. It seems as if a lot of the power creep is hitting the 5+ mana cards. Most now have a good shot of winning the game and quickly. Games being tempo focused and having really powerful top end cards do just seem to end. Games can run away form you to the point of no recovery if you do not get involved early. They also end pretty quickly later on too if you can't handle one of the expensive threat cards properly. This means that planeswalkers suffer twice over. Planeswalkers provide ongoing advantage, the longer they are in play the better they become. Longer games give more opportunity to stay in play longer and that works well in planeswalkers favour. I have always maintained a rough rule of thumb that good walkers are still mostly bad with just one activation, fairly even with two, and game winning with three. Back in the day those activations would be determined by the survivability of the walker, these days the game ending is curtailing the actions rather more noticeably. This leads to the second issue which is that walkers lose part of their value and much of their interesting play dynamic if the sensible play is more often to ignore them and end the game by just going face. Planeswalkers used to feel like a bit of a buffer that padded out effective life totals and helped elongate the game and this added to their value, a bit like some incidental life gain makes Lightening Helix a potent spell. Basically you could usually consider the worst case scenario for walkers to involve the effective gaining of five or so life and this really helped with their floor. These days that effective life buffer is that much less common and reliable and is no longer something that helps raise the floor of the card. Shorter games has resulted in the best walkers on offer being ones that cane come down early and do a lot to control the game or those that have a really big effect immediately. Shorter games have lowered the floor of walkers and made their average performance that little bit closer to the floor.
The last big contributing factor to the decline of walkers in cube is the increased frequency and potency of manlands and vehicles on offer. These types of card are especially effective against planeswalkers who struggle to protect against them with their sorcery speed creature control effects. Vehicles and manlands are also commonly played because threat diversity is generally useful, it is not simply because they counter walkers, if that was the case the meta would undulate back and forth. As it is we just have a lot of vehicles and manlands getting action and a consistently repressed planeswalker count to go with that. A bunch of the better vehicles and manlands are evasive further causing trouble for walkers. They also counter planeswalkers in one of the most oppressive ways - that is proactively. You just play your lands and so manlands are typically just ready to go by the time walkers are coming down. Vehicles, if not just cheap, do tend to be very well statted. And even if unable to be crewed at the time there is no guarantee that they will not be come the next attack. As such you are reticent to deploy a walker into a vehicle regardless. This all makes walkers really dodgy. Not quite dead card dodgy but that distinct vibe, just a card you can't afford to use as it will be too easily and efficiently answered by my opponent and leave me further behind.
So, what walkers do still see play and what is it about them that sets them apart from the 80%+ of walkers that have become a liability over the space of about six or seven years? Power is absolutely the main factor but certainly not the only factor. Cards like Jace, TMS and Narset have plummeted in value in the cube while still being pretty strong legacy cards. While both are still fine in cube neither stand out at all from the crowd any more. They simply lack the board presence or control. Too lacking in tempo or robustness. Two loyalty and a bounce is dodgy to say the least! That kind of line is asking to get steamrolled. Beyond just raw power the planeswalkers that remain in cube are either those with high enough impact on few activations or those that are cheap and able to maintain strong board control. Here is the list of the 9 planeswalkers that stand out from the crowd in the current state of cube.
1. Minsc & Boo, Timeless Heroes
This is a very silly magic card that was designed for a completely different format. It is still strong in commander where it has a wildly reduced activation frequency, way more opportunity to be attacked down, more life buffer and more opponents to contain it, and generally a lot beefier things to content with. Walkers are mostly not that good in EDH and this dude is. No shocker then that this is oppressive in 1v1 formats. We banned this very quickly. It was really hard to beat. Untap with it and win, often in more than one way should you chose. Even if they could answer it they still had the 4/4 kicking their head in which was often too much to handle. A lot of games were stalled by wasting removal on Boo so as to avoid it becoming a 7/7 or getting thrown at something. A really sad stall that rarely ever worked. This card was way waaay too much to the point of not being fun. Often played on turn three and either ending the game on the spot if unanswered or just leaving them well ahead at worst. This walker just entirely ignores the basic rule of walkers by being good on one activation and game winning on two. It feels a bit like it comes with a free personal Time Walk so as to skip that first turn where an opponent can answer a walker and not be behind having done so... It is cards like this that make me wish I had avoided product lines that skip standard.
2. Oko, Thief of Crowns
Another walker that got itself banned in cube although it lasted a lot lot longer than Minsc and Boo did. While Oko was too good at the time of printing, and waaay too good for standard, it is probably no longer too good for cube. Absolutely it would still be one of the best cards in cube but that doesn't matter too much as it isn't coming back any time soon. The card is wildly unpopular, in part because it dominated formats for too long and left a bad taste that way, but mostly just because it plays in a really lame way. It just turns your stuff into vanilla 3/3s. You don't get to play with fun or powerful cards, they all get Elked. Oko just brings a selection of feels bad moments. Oko is the new Ashiok (who we banned long long ago back when it was oppressive and everyone hated it. Ashiok would be pretty rubbish now I think but we never even tried it out again as it was so hated). Oppressive cards are unpopular but feel bad ones are are unforgivable.
3. Teferi, Time Raveller
This is a good example of an immediate high impact walker. Just Repulse off the bat is a sufficient effect to justify the three mana and anything from that point onwards is all just bonus upside. This does some annoying disruption and offers some convenience and trickery with the +1. If you can get more than one -3 activation with the card then it is obscene value and that is a thing that happens. A nice high floor and low cost with random savage hosing all keep little Tef incredibly playable.
4. Grist, the Hunger Tide
Not a broken card but a nice playable one that does the things you want. Flop this on turn two or three and it has a good chance of keeping itself alive for the next few turns by which point it is starting to dominate the game. When Grist has free reign to sac off some insects it made to kill your bigger and better plays the game has probably slipped you by. It is one of those walkers that is cheap and offeres reasonable board control and as such gets to play somewhat like the planeswalkers of yesteryear.
5. Daretti, Ingenious Iconoclast
While better than Grist Daretti is a little narrower needing artifact support rather than dork support. It is a lot harder for Daretti to come down and be able to answer something right away and that is the only reason it is lower. Both are just good examples of cheap walkers with removal modes and the ability to clog up the board with tokens to block with.
6. Nissa, Ascended Animist
To the other end of the scale we have a card here that has immense immediate impact. The flexbility on casting is also a nice touch. However you chose to cast her the +1 represents a sizeable board presence. This means Nissa is a bit like Minsc and Boo in that it leaves two parts, both of which really need a solution. Overrun style ultimate that you can do right away and Disenchant effect all add to the impressive modality and threat level this surprising bomb has. While very similar to Minsc and Boo in play pattern the lack of haste on the tokens and the extra mana cost ensure Nissa is at least two turns slower and thus substantially fairer. And yet she still seems pretty obscene thus far in her relatively short span in the cube.
7. Wandering Emperor
Flash is just the ticket on walkers. It all but ensures this is getting two activations and greatly increases the trickery potential and safety in deployment. While this planeswalker has some good modes the power level isn't through the roof, it is all just about how good the flash side of things are. Tokens are fine, they are proactive, they can protect or be buffed, and they do eventually represent a threat that can end a game. Exile removal is great but only on tapped creatures means you are really only getting one good use out of it. The +1 is reasonably unexciting and slow to gain loyalty and the starting count of three is low, especially for a modern four mana walker. This means that despite two strong minus loyalty abilities and a guarantee of two activations The Wandering Emporer is a little less threatening one in play and takes a bit longer to become game winning by herself. While she is fine with just two or three she certainly isn't winning the game consistently when she hits than three activation bar most walkers are held to. I expect it is more like five activations needed before Wandering Emperor is of game winning power. Even so, that safety and trickery is more than enough to make up for her slower pace there after.
8. Chandra, Torch of Defiance
One of the last of the classic walkers still impressing in cube. Chandra has always been one of the most rounded of walkers offering direct damage threat, card advantage, mana, or removal. Basically all main avenues covered. The removal is expensive but relatively effective and meaty, and for that matter, something you can add to other effects should you need to. Chandra can be effectively a two mana play costing you little tempo or she can answer something quite big off the bat and have that high impact first turn, while also protecting herself. Being red is a big deal as well. Having that early board control lets you deploy Chandra with relative safety compared to the other colours.
9. Vivian, Monsters Advocate
I fear the 3/3 reach more than I fear the elk of Oko. Vivian protects herself so well. Four loyalty and a 3/3 reach is a lot to chew through. One of the only walkers that is good against fliers, and basically the only one that is good against those pesky fliers than have haste or masquerade as land. Vivian also has a bit of a scaling effect in that if you lay her off curve with mana up you can play stuff off the top or indeed make instant use of the -2, all of which has the capacity to make for a very big impact turn. Lots of value, lots of safety, combining to assuredly overwhelm any game in which she isn't answered or somehow bypassed. I am always surprised by how well this holds up and performs in cube. It seems like it should be more average but so often runs away with games either through her resilience or through her surprising burst. She packs way more utility than most other walkers too with her tutoring element.
So there we have it, a lot of very big names missed off this list. The old cube champion Elspeth Knight Errant and the traditional best walker Jace TMS both now mediocre at best. The black three mana Liliana cards all a little situational to be considered top tier any more. Wrenn and Six, Karn Scion or Urza, and Nissa Who Breaks the World are all bombs but all are also situational and require some degree of building around to reach their potential hence just missing this list. Yes, Turn two Wrenn and Six into their one toughness play with a Boseiju and a sac land is game winning. As is ramping out a Vernal Bloom Nissa and getting to play with double mana while they scramble to find the many answers they now need. Performance in cube is determined much more by the floor of a card than the ceiling. In constructed you can set things up such that ceilings of many more cards are a reality. No shocker then that the best constructed cards tend to be more about ceiling than floor. Karn, Wrenn and Six, and any other ceiling driven walker will underperform in cube. Not always to the point of being unplayable, just in relation to the card in constructed. Often people peg their expectations to their experiences of a card and when that comes from constructed, as it very often does with the higher rarity cards you find in cube, they come away unimpressed. Human bias being what it is will then tend to over compensate. Either shock that these clear bombs are not on the list or shock that they are even in the cube at all. The fairly dull reality is often just somewhere in the middle. Still good, still fine, but neither bomb-like or shocking. The main takeaway here is that some of the best nuggets of insight are to be found under the rocks of subverted expectation.
Back to once mighty walkers that missed this list we have a recent star in Escaping Elspeth. She is still good but now white can draw cards it doesn't need the value side of things so much. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is likely the most surprising omission from the list. He is still solid but he is narrow in colours and hurting a bit from his primary archetype being pretty weak at present. Tef five fails to fully answer a thing at high cost and usually dies right away. Or he draws a card or two at some cost and then he or you die. Kaito three has felt more playable than a lot of powerful walkers and he is just a fancy little value tool and no bomb.
The actual best walkers in terms of the play that they get in the cube are those that have dork modes such as Jace VP, Nicol Bolas (the Ravager), Tibalt of Valkie fame, and Nissa the Civic Wayfinder! Time to get testing battle Teferi! These are typically just cheaper and safer players. These are the remaining walkers I have in cube, many of these are filler or hanging on. I could easily trim this list of 5 to 10 Ob style cards and you would barely notice.