Thanks to damned Heliod, God of the Sun, though, there is no more Elspeth. I can’t tell you how angry I am at Wizards of the Coast’s Creative Team for killing off Elspeth – even if it made sense to make her the tragic hero of the Theros story line. But her legacy will live on in my Magic writing screen name, as well as in the decks that play one or more of the Elspeth planeswalker cards.
A good deal of time has passed since I did this new comparison review. Looking back on it, I wasn’t too happy with it, so I decided to do a much more in-depth comparison of the three Elspeth planeswalkers. She deserves it. So...
Which Elspeth Planeswalker is the Best?
It’s time to revisit this old thread of mine. Which Elspeth incarnation is the best?
Honestly, I’m a huge fan of all three cards. Elspeth is, of course, my favorite planeswalker in Magic. Elspeth, Knight-Errant was one of my favorite cards when I started playing Magic (Kitchen Finks was my favorite for a long time). After a very expensive and miserable several years playing Yu-Gi-Oh without much to show for it, I went online to see what was doing with Magic the Gathering. With that search, a picture of Elspeth Tirel from Scars of Mirrodin popped up. I instantly fell in love with her abilities.
But with any Elspeth review, you have to start with the classic from Shards of Alara, one of the first Mythic Rare planeswalkers ever.
When I first started playing Magic, I was typically a red/green player. I loved aggressive strategies, same as I did in Yu-Gi-Oh. But then I discovered the joys of playing White Weenie. At that time, during the Lorwyn-Shadowmoor/Shards of Alara block era, Elspeth was that archetype’s best friend.
Elspeth, Knight-Errant costs 2WW to cast and begins with 4 loyalty counters on her. She has two +1 loyalty abilities. The first of those gives one of your creatures for a quick +3/+3 and give it flying. The other puts a 1/1 soldier token into play. But it was her ultimate ability that I always loved most about her. That ultimate ability, which costs 8 loyalty, makes all artifacts, enchantments, lands, and creatures you control indestructible for the rest of the game. All of this comes for just four mana.
Having 2 plus loyalty abilities was what made Elspeth, Knight-Errant so popular. Her ultimate came before the advent of emblems, but like an emblem it lasts until the conclusion of the game. That inevitability of such an ability being able to be activated made her a prime target for opposing burn spells and creatures. It made her a target, which could buy you a turn or two if you were behind. She could continue to protect herself from non trampling creatures with her soldier token producing ability. If your opponent couldn't break through somehow and decrease her loyalty, you'd end up having an indestructible army for the rest of the game.
While she proved to be pretty useful defensively, it was her more offensive first ability that won her the hearts of many aggressive players. A 3 power and toughness boost plus flying makes just about any creature a major threat, especially on turn 4.
The first Elspeth saw plenty of Standard play and was one of the more expensive cards in Standard for a long time. Knight-Errant continued to see a lot of Legacy play for years, and was in some Modern decks when the format first came to be. Over time, as creatures have become more powerful, though, she's nearly disappeared from Legacy, seen now only as an occasional one-of in the sideboard of Death and Taxes. She isn't the mainstay in Modern that she once was, either, usually appearing as one or two copies in the sideboard of Naya Company. The Knight of the Reliquary/Retreat to Coralhelm combo deck, known as Knightfall, tends to main-deck 2 copies, though.
Like most planeswalkers, though, Elspeth, Knight-Errant lives on in Commander. Knight-Errant can give one of your big ground-bound beasts a “lift” and a boost over your opponent’s ground-forces at a critical juncture. Being able to make your own permanents indestructible is pretty relevant against anyone wiping the board, too. Popular Commanders that have included the first Elspeth include Avacyn, Angel of Hope (who makes things indestructible herself), Darien, King of Kjeldor (a token-happy Commander), Eight-and-a-Half-Tails, Geist of Saint Traft, and Odric, Master Tactician. Ironically, she also has appeared in a good number of Heliod, God of the Sun decks…
Fellow Planeswalker Nahiri the Lithomancer, who has the distinction of being able to be used as a Commander, has also become good friends with Elspeth, Knight-Errant. It’s also possible if all Planeswalkers become usable as Commanders in the future (as is the case in some playgroups), Elspeth, Knight-Errant could make for a pretty darn good field general.
Knight-Errant’s overall value has taken a hit with multiple reprints. In addition to appearing in a Duel Deck, she's had supplemental printings in the limited print run of the first Modern Masters set and in the Modern Event Deck.
Besides also looking quite bad-ass, Elspeth Tirel takes a much different approach than her original Shards of Alara incarnation. Like Knight-Errant, Tirel begins at 4 loyalty, as well, but costs one more mana to cast at 3WW. Her -1 ability puts 3 1/1 soldier tokens into play. This is a pretty good way to instantly protect her and establish a better board presence in a way that Knight-Errant never could. Her +2 ability allows you gain 1 life for each creature you control. On the surface, it’s a bit underwhelming, but incidental lifegain has proven useful time and time again. Really, her +2 is more of a gateway ability that leads to her ultimate option. For only five loyalty, you destroy all other permanents, except for tokens and lands.
When I first set eyes on this card, that ultimate ability seemed to be a much better ultimate ability that Knight Errant’s. It’s a total board wipe that benefits you playing tokens. If your opponent isn’t playing tokens, too, this ability can be extremely one-sided. Sure, she can get to 6 loyalty on the first turn she’s out there, potentially gaining you a few life in the process. Then, you blow up the board and Tirel survives!
There are a couple of problems with her, though. Wiping the board is always a ton of fun, but it’s usually just better to play a board wipe like Wrath of God, Day of Judgment, or Supreme Verdict - the last two of which weren’t printed at the time. Having to wait a turn to wrath the board without being able to make her tokens first is really what limited her playability, overall. Also, she’s a huge target. No one wants to see an Oblivion Stone-like Planeswalker hanging around the board. Were she able to make the tokens first instead of having to use her inconsistent lifegain ability, this would have been a very, very good planeswalker.
Being able to pop out 3 tokens a turn, though, as a -1 ability, sounded really powerful, though. Unfortunately, outside of some control builds - most of which weren’t competitive - Elspeth Tirel pretty much was left behind. One of her counterparts in the set, Venser, the Sojourner, saw a lot more play than she ever did as part of Planeswalker-based control decks. You’d see a Tirel here and there, but she just never really survived that particular Standard metagame. Caw-Blade and Splinter Twin overran the format and she turned out to be too little too late. Had her minus and plus abilities been reversed, we would have had a very different story.
As it turns out, Tirel’s gaining life as her lone plus ability can’t beat immediately gaining a loyalty counter and creating a 1/1 soldier, which can serve as an immediate chump-blocker. Also, giving some thing +3/+3 and flying until end of turn turns out to be more useful most of the time, especially as a plus one. Ultimately, Knight-Errant proved to be a much better Constructed card than Elspeth Tirel. Knight-Errant is a more efficient planeswalker that threatened a much different sort of ultimate - one that was not as immediately threatening but could be inevitably game winning if your opponent couldn’t deal with her in time.
In Commander, while nowhere near as popular as Knight-Errant, Elspeth Tirel has found a few homes. Commander is an extremely grindy format, and being able to drop a card like Tirel can wreck your opponents’ plans - especially in a multi-player environment. She can serve as a sort of “reset button,” and her life-gain ability has a chance to really make a difference if you have enough creatures running around. While not quite a Commander staple, she has made her presence felt alongside popular Commanders such as Darien, King of Kjeldor, Rhys, the Redeemer, Tajic, Blade of the Legion (who is himself indestructible), Teysa, Orzhov Scion, and Trostani, Selesyna’s Voice. With the exception of Tajic, these are all pretty token-happy decks, who greatly benefit from Elspeth’s token-saving board-wipe ability.
Fortunately, Wizards R&D would learn from the mistakes of Elspeth Tirel and create one of the most dominant planeswalkers Standard has ever seen.
A third version of Elspeth, and more than likely the last (unless Wizards Creative somehow resurrects her) came upon us in the Theros block. Interestingly enough, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion was the first review I ever wrote on the relaunch of Win Target Game. When I saw the new Elspeth art I was ecstatic.
Learning from the mistake made with Elspeth Tirel, the ability to make three 1/1 Soldier tokens into a +1 ability was brilliant. Everyone who saw that was a fan of this Elspeth immediately. Her -3 ability destroys all creatures with power 4 or greater. With Theros meant to be a block with some pretty epic creatures, this seemed pretty good. Her emblem, which cost 7 loyalty, gives you an emblem, granting all of your creatures a boost of +2/+2 and flying.
There was only one issue: her casting cost of 4WW. Who was going to play a 6-drop planeswalker in Standard?
As it turned out, this was a 6-drop planeswalker would end up being a format-defining card. Every Blue/Black or Blue/White/Black (Esper) Control deck made room for her. Not only were those tokens often the primary offensive and defensive creatures in the deck, but her Smite the Monstrous-esque ability took care of plenty of Polukranos, World Eaters and other big creatures. The emblem, plus those tokens, would end up as a sort of win condition for the long drawn-out games.
While she ended up being pretty high on the mana curve, Elspeth’s third iteration had so much power built into her that she basically begged to be played. Also, Elspeth’s popularity in general caused her original version, Knight-Errant, to be reprinted in not just one, but two products soon thereafter: Modern Masters and the Modern Event Deck. Sun’s Champion also was reprinted in the Duel Decks: Elspeth vs Kiora. This put quite a damper on her price, but it only made her more affordable to those who wanted her.
Even after her exit from the Standard format in October 2015, she has continued to appear in a variety of Control decks in Modern. But where she really shines is in Commander. She’s become just as popular as Knight-Errant, and has made friends with newer Commanders such as Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim, Dragonlord Ojutai and Narset, Enlightened Master.
Sadly, the debate of which is the best Elspeth Tirel planeswalker could well end here. The Creative Team went and killed Elspeth, potentially making Sun’ Champion the final cardboard incarnation of Elspeth Tirel, Knight of Bant. At least she went out on a good note! May she one day return from the Underworld and take revenge on the back-stabbing Heliod! Long live, Elspeth!