Promo Cards are a great way to add some style, flare, personalization, and history to any Magic: The Gathering deck deck or collection. There have been hundreds of different Promo Cards produced over the years and today I’ll highlight my picks for the sweetest promos ever made!
For the purpose of today’s article, I’ll define a Promo as a card that wasn’t available in the Booster Pack and thus had to be obtained through other means. I’ll be focusing on cards I think look and feel unique, and most importantly, represent a cool moment in MTG history.
HONORABLE MENTIONS IN PROMO HISTORY:
MOST INFAMOUS PROMO: NEXUS OF FATE
“Time to reexamine how promos work?”
Nexus of Fate is one of the most befuddling moments in Magic history and is a must in any discussion of impactful promos. It was available as a buy-a-box promo at LGS and coincided with the release of Core Set 2019. It’s a rare example of a new card, released exclusively as a promo that was legal (and format defining) in Standard.
The reason I’ve cited Nexus as infamous is it’s tenure in competitive MTG was wrought with logistical problems and controversy. First, it simply didn’t work properly on MTG Arena, in the sense games often came down to one player looping the card with no actual way to win. Thus, matches often diverged into a battle of wills regarding which player could tolerate the misery of a non-progressing game state the longest without scooping.
Secondly, the card was only available as a Foil which caused some issues for IRL paper tournaments, since playing with exactly one Foil in a deck of non-foils can unintentionally border on “playing with marked card.” Foils have a greater thickness and tendency to warp more than non-foils, and so a special rule had to be made to allow players to proxy Nexus under the conditions where it might unintentionally cause them to field an illegal deck.
Even after fixing these electronic and physical “bugs,” it turned out Nexus was also strategically broken and needed to be banned anyways!
UNOFFICIAL PROMO – MOX CRYSTAL
“A fan designed card with some real moxie.”
Mox Crystal earns an honorable mention because it’s not technically a real Magic Card, but rather one of the most famous cards created and given away by players to other players.
Before there was EDH, Commander, or Pauper the O.G. non-sanctioned fan favorite format was Five Color Magic. The rules for the format mandated a 250 card deck with a minimum number of cards of each color, and like Commander the format had many regional rules subsets that included playing for ante, not allowing sleeves, and even not being allowed to speak if you didn’t control a permanent!
Mox Crystal was created by a group of players and was considered legal (Restricted) in Five Color Tournaments. In fact, the only way to acquire a Mox Crystal was to participate and Top 8 an official Five Color tournament. I earned my Mox Crystal by finishing 2nd at the 5C Championship at Gen Con in 2007. While not officially a MTG card, it’s one of the most interesting and treasured cards in my collection.
THE SWEETEST PROMOS LIST
#10. LICENSED (PROPERTIES) TO KILL
In recent years, MTG has opened its gates to intruders from other fantasy dimensions! Notably, Godzilla, Nerf, Dungeons and Dragons, Transformers, and MLP have all appeared on official MTG Promos:
I’ll admit, there’s a saturation point with cameos from other fictional universes. For instance, I know Hasbro owns NERF but did we really need a Nerf Magic card? Still, there’s no denying its exciting to see Godzilla and Grimlock in MTG form
The fan in me is hoping to see G.I. Joe themed promos. How sweet would it be to see Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes cards with the Ninjitsu keyword?
#9. SECRET LAIR – PRIME SLIME
Secret Lair “Prime Slime” is what got me thinking about my favorite promos in the first place. I don’t recall buying a WOTC direct item before, as they tend to be expensive and rarely appeal to my collecting tastes these days, but I couldn’t resist these slimers.
S.L.P.S. is a unique combination of cards I truly enjoy playing rendered in a distinctly, unique style that speaks to me. I bought my Promo set in early August and it’s now sold out. The expected arrival isn’t until October, but I’m looking forward to adding these gelatinous juggernauts to my Battle Box. It certainly brings new meaning to the phrase, “I got dumpstered by a Scooze.”
In the words of Egon, “I collect spores, molds, and fungus.” A perfect promo set for any Sultai Slimeomancer.
#8. 2015 SDCC “NOIR” PLANESWALKERS
WOTC has gotten more liberal with wild-looking promos that stray from the traditional MTG aesthetic. Prime Slime Secret Lair is a great example of Magic cards that have a distinctly “not MTG” aesthetic. The San Diego Comic Con “NOIR” PW are early examples of WOTC testing the promo waters with buck wild designs.
It’s very cool that these Promos (available as a Comic Convention exclusive) are rendered in a graphic style that reminds me of Frank Miller’s Batman pages.
The Noir Promo Planeswalkers are both distinct, memorable, and are a cool reflection of the venue in which they emerged.
#7. JUDGE FOIL PORTAL 3K COMMANDER STAPLES
Judge Foil Packets, in the hey-day of competitive paper tournaments, were a fun way that WOTC was able to disseminate some outstanding promos into the collectible marketplace.
I don’t know what IRL will look like when we return to normalcy, but Judge Foils were a great way to supplement / reward Judges for their contribution to all of our play experiences at large events such as Grand Prixs.
As a player, collector, and fan of MTG I’m always thrilled to see old, expensive, and hard to acquire cards made available to the players who’d love the opportunity to play with them. Reprints of incredibly expensive rares like Imperial Seal or Capture of Jhinzong from an obscure set like P3K (that wasn’t even tournament legal when it was released and for many years thereafter) added to the cardpool to be enjoyed.
I much preferred WOTC’s policy on reprinting these obscure, old, and scare cards as Promos for Judges to a hard and fast Reserve List policy on cards players would love to play with, but are inaccessible to the majority of players because of their outrageous cost to own.
#6. PHYREXIAN ELESH NORN
Speaking of incredible Judge Foils….
The Judge Foil Elesh Norn (which features all text in the Phyrexian Language) is an extremely unique, iconic, flavorful, and popular promo. We’ve certainly seen more cards trending toward including Phyrexian text, but none is more iconic or exciting than Elesh Norn.
Elesh Norn is a perfect card to put Phyrexian text on because she’s iconic and a perfect representative of phyrexian-ness.
#5. “PLAYER REWARDS” TEXTLESS FOILS
In general, Player Rewards are one of my all time favorite ways WOTC created and distributed promos:
“A picture is worth a thousand words.”
We have to hop way back in time to 2009 to talk about these beauties. I really miss the DCI Player Rewards program. Back in the day, players were rewarded for participating in sanctioned tournaments of any kind through the Player Rewards Program.
Essentially, based on how many sanctioned events a player participated in during a season, WOTC sent out a packet of Promos in the mail and Wrath and Damnation (featuring amazing artwork by Ron Spencer) were among the highlights. I miss the days when WOTC rewarded players with these little “thank yous” like these for participation.
While I do think textless is a little awkward for new players who may not know what every card does, on super iconic cards like Wrath, or Damnation, I think textless is a pretty sweet look.
Cryptic Command also received a neat Textless Foil Player Reward promo. It’s sort of a weird choice to go “textless” with because it admittedly has a TON of text. Nonetheless, it’s still a cool “thanks for playing,” to receive a Cryptic in the mail as a reward for participating in sanctioned events.
#4. OLD CARD FACE PROMOS (FNM & JUDGE)
As I move through the entirety of my experience collecting Promos, I notice a distinct trend where my favorite way to receive a Promo is as a reward for participating in playing Magic. Whether it’s being rewarded in the mail for participating in a lot of Sanctioned Events (Player Rewards), or coming a way with a cool Promo for attending a fun local event such as FNM, it’s a sweet gesture to “get something for showing up to play.”
These are incredible cards that really take me back to one of my favorite periods of playing Magic: the Gathering. First of all, they are undeniably gorgeous. Second of all, I cherish the memories of being a part of the MTG experience in my local community at the time.
It was also significant that a lot of the cards chosen for these old FNM rewards didn’t have foil versions available at the time and so if you wanted to foil out a deck, these promos were a must!
It’s funny in hindsight, that the FNM promo I was most excited to win:
While Bottle Gnomes haven’t exactly held up to the test of time and power creep, the card was pretty darn good back in the day when Planeswalkers didn’t exist and damage still used the stack. I was fairly content with my Beta Bolts and Plows, but since Bottle Gnomes were a card I played often that didn’t have a foil version, I was very excited to show up to FNM that month to earn my player’s set.
Old cardface FNM promos are a real trove of excellent cards: Quirion Ranger, Priest of Titania, River Boa, Llanowar Elves, Crystalline Sliver, Capsize, and Dismiss. A lot of my old FNM Promo memories live on in my Battle Box which is a perfect place to play with some of these gorgeous promos from yesteryear.
While the FNM Rewards were the way to get retrocon foils of cards from sets produced before foils, the Judge Foil Program took things to the next level by awarding some incredibly Old Card Face Promo Foils of cards that were only ever printed with the new card face:
Not only are these some of the objectively best and most iconic cards from a particularly strong and beloved era of MTG history, but it’s also undeniable how fantastic the artwork looks when mocked up on the old card frame. In my opinion, my least favorite WOTC decision of all-time was to replace the classic card face with a new one and when I see these gorgeous old frame Judge Promos, it makes me sad all of my cards don’t look this sweet!
I wasn’t sure exactly how to squeeze them in, but:
Things just look classier with the old frame! The Promo Wasteland also holds a special place in my heart because it features on pointe flavor text from T.S. Elliot’s modern epic The Wasteland.
#3. FULL ART CHAMPS MUTAVAULT
The Champs Mutavault has always been a highly coveted promo. First of all, it’s an outstanding card done in a visually pleasing manner. It looks significantly cooler than any other Mutavault money can buy, but the extremely high price is directly related to its scarcity.
The Champs Promo Mutavault was only obtainable to players who finished in the Top 2 of “Champs” (international) or “States” (USA) Tournaments, which makes the card incredibly rare. It was actually an extremely expensive promo when it first came out back in 2007 and has only gotten harder to acquire since!
#2. BASICALLY, GREAT LANDS
In terms of customizing a favorite deck, there are few opportunities to personalize and express one’s tastes and style more than choosing which Basic Lands to play. It’s a unique blend of something that is completely irrelevant (in terms of gameplay, all Basic Islands do the same thing) but brings a lot of joy and fun into how we play.
There’s no shortage of awesome Basic Land Promos and I’d like to highlight some of the most popular of all time. It’s one of those situations where, ultimately what a player thinks is best comes down to their own subjective experience.
My personal favorite Promo Basics are the APAC (Asia Pacific) and EURO (European) promo basic land packs.
These were Promo lands that came in sets of 5 (one of each Basic Land type per pack) and were distributed outside the USA back in 1998. I love how each set has a feel and flavor that incorporates distinctly regional aesthetics and flourishes into the multiverse. I’ve always liked them because I think they look awesome, but looking back they were also a really cool inclusive gesture to MTG players and fans outside of the USA.
The APAC Plains, from the Red Pack, illustrated by Ron Spears is my favorite Basic Land of all time. Yellow is my favorite color, and it’s such a unique and distinct looking card. It’s the “plainsiest Plains” of all.
There were three different sets of APAC lands that are distinguished based on the color of the wrapper (Blue, Clear, and Red), which means there are 15 different APAC Basics to choose from.
The Arena Basic Cycle is another incredible-looking and popular cycle:
— Luis Scott-Vargas (@lsv) September 10, 2020
When the boss Tweets about something being the best, it’s definitely worth mentioning in the article (especially, when that boss is LSV)! The Arena Promos also incorporated the panoramic design where each piece of artwork naturally blends into the next to form one larger image, which is a convention players and fans still love and appreciate seeing on new cards in the modern era.
I think a lot of players might have expected to see me lead with the “Guru” Basic cycle, and while I do think they deserve a mention, I’ve never played with them because they are just too darn expensive!
The Guru Basics were part of a program WOTC offered where players were rewarded for teaching new players to play Magic. Hence, the name “Guru.” Aside from “Summer Magic” Basics (Does Summer MTG count as Promo?) they tend to be thought of as the most premium Basic Lands available. As far as Promo programs go, a Player Reward for teaching a new player Magic is a great concept. With that said, while the Guru are still highly collectible and popular with players I also think some of their luster has diminished since the artist has been cancelled from future WOTC releases.
If I had to pick my absolute FAVORITE promos, I would have to say that the various APAC and EURO Basics are the promos I enjoy and use the most often. They are not only my top pick for Basic Lands of all time, but in general some of my favorite Magic Cards.
#1. MANA CRYPT
While the APAC and EURO lands are my favorite, it’s hard to argue that Mana Crypt isn’t the sweetest and most interesting Promo ever made:
Newer players may not know this, but Mana Crypt was originally only available as a mail-away promo that could be redeemed with proof of purchase of the Magic: the Gathering Novel, Final Sacrifice (1995) by Clayton Emery and wasn’t given a reprint until much, much later down the road.
In fact, there were five different MTG novels and each offered a different mail away promo (Giant Badger, Windseeker Centaur, Arena, and Sewers of Estark), but Mana Crypt was by far the most powerful and desirable of the bunch. Well, sort of…
It’s kind of crazy, looking back, because Mana Crypt wasn’t immediately recognized as the powerhouse of efficiency that it’s known as today. In fact, it was often looked down on as a bad Sol Ring! It makes sense, as decks were significantly less “combo-y” and the 50% chance of taking a Bolt to the face was a considerably larger drawback in the olden days. Mana Crypt was a solid niche card, but it really saw its stock skyrocket when Urza’s Saga introduced combo engines like Memory Jar and Tolarian Academy.
Nonetheless, it’s pretty sweet to buy a novel (that I was going to buy anyways!) and receive unique mail away promos
One of the things I notice as I’m wrapping up my exploration of the sweetest MTG Promos of all time is the strong correlation between not only cards people like, but also the way the promo is given out. In particular, as I’m writing the article I realize how the “earning” the promo through participation adds so much to the experience and the story of the card itself.
For instance, the amount of sentimentality and connection I feel toward those Bottle Gnomes (even though they are literally unplayable now) that I showed up and played for a month to acquire at FNM stick with me. It’s a very different attachment and connection to than buying Premium Secret Lair Promos direct from WOTC even if the set features cards I really like in a style I think looks sweet.
When I see how strongly the connection between earning rewards for participation as a badge of accomplishment resonated with other fans and players on social media, I can’t help but feel it’s a missed opportunity that WOTC hasn’t done a better job finding a way to show their appreciation of fan and player support during the pandemic via a cardboard paper reward program for playing online. It would certainly be a nice touchstone between digital and cardboard, when so many fans are badly missing regularly shuffling up with their friends IRL.
In fact, when I posted about the topic on Twitter (@Briandemars1) aside from the cards I specifically talked about, the next most popular cache of cards people cited as their favorite promos were the ones they specifically remember wanting and then earning through playing and participating in the play experience (Player Rewards, FNM Foils, or Judge Foils). While I think some of the Promo Sale sets WOTC has put out recently include some very sweet looking cards, it’s hard to argue the sweetest Promos are the ones earned by being part of the MTG community and experience.
With that said, I’d love to hear about your favorite promos in the comments or social media, as well as why that promo resonates strongly with you. I was intending to pick 10 but there’s so many great examples from MTG’s 25 year history that I think I discussed closer to 50 (and could have gone on and on with more spicy examples)!