I apologize for not writing more of late. I’ve barely been able to touch Born of the Gods, as I had a new little planeswalker of my own crop up. I’ve got my own 8lb, 10oz baby Jace now.
He’s tied up my time as well as my primary playtest partner (mom), so competitive Magic just isn’t in the cards at the moment. However, Jace did get me thinking along the lines of powerful Magic cards and what defines them. I used to love reading the old Inquest Top 10 lists and LSV’s current run with the Top 8 series has always been enjoyable, so I thought this would be a fun exercise.
I want to rank the most “powerful” cards currently in print. This should make for an interesting discussion in the forums, but here is how I would define the criteria:
• Mana Efficiency – You’ve got to be able to play your cards for them to have impact, so Emrakul may have the highest bar for overall power, but he needs a lot of help to get in there and do his thing.
• Flexibility – A card that does one narrow thing very well is great, but a card that can function along a broad axis of options gives you more areas where it will be relevant in game. (Doom Blade vs. Vindicate)
• Depth of Impact – How much does the card accomplish when cast? This is often trumped by the other two criteria, but certainly matters. Gut Shot may be the most efficient/flexible burn spell ever printed, but I can’t see many decks choosing to run this over Lightning Bolt if given the choice. Bolt just has too much additional impact.
So with that in mind, here are the Top 20 most powerful cards in Magic:
I was hoping to get at least one card in each color, but it’s reaching a lot to get red on to the list. However, I think we can just squeeze in one to kick things off at the top.
#20 Lightning Bolt – This card has stood the test of time. It doesn’t do anything flashy, but it’s a powerful, flexible card that is still the best reason to play red. For years it separated creatures into two classes: those with 4 or more toughness, and everything else.
#19 Balance – This is a heck of a Magic card. It’s been restricted since 1995 and as a restricted card, it’s less impressive. Still very powerful, but it doesn’t see the kind of Vintage play that it would if it were let loose. When you could build around it as a 4-of, it was disgusting, often acting as a one-sided Mind Twist/Armageddon/Wrath, as early as turn one. It plays incredibly well with artifact mana, and would be astounding with planeswalkers.
#18 Thoughtseize – Speaking of Mind Twists, there are a lot of options in this slot—Hymn to Tourach, Twist, and Cabal Therapy are all considerations here. At least one should probably override Lightning Bolt, but of the lot, I feel that Thoughtseize is the most flexible. It’s more mana efficient than the other options and grants information as well as disruption. Hymn and Twist are more powerful, but require more support, and Therapy needs a shell to build around.
#17 True-Name Nemesis – This is a slot that went through several iterations for me, sort of a “best-beater” creature. Other possibilities were Stoneforge Mystic, Delver of Secrets, Vendilion Clique, or Tarmogoyf. It’s maybe a bit premature to put the Nemesis onto the list here, but it represents a powerful threat in a vein that we haven’t seen before (at less than ten mana). It also pitches to a certain other card on this list. The Clique’s disruption and flash may make it a stronger choice, but Nemesis represents a powerful clock that is nearly impossible to interact with. As creatures get stronger over time, Nemesis’s stock will rise with them—stonewalling attacks and switching over to unblockable offense at the drop of a hat.
#16 Swords to Plowshares – On that note, creatures do keep getting better and better. There are several finally breaking out to influence Vintage, and their impact on Legacy is massive. This is a big shift from the previous run of Jackal Pup-style cheap mindless beaters. As creatures become more impactful, so too does the ability to remove them. Swords still reigns supreme as the best, ask-no-questions, flexible spot removal spell of all time.
#15 Time Walk – Time Walk has always been an iconic member of the “Power 9,” but its overall power has been diluted by newer entries over the years. That said, it still packs a wallop. The big reason for Time Walk’s continued success is its very low cost. In the worst-case scenario, you get an extra card and land drop, but given the speed of Vintage, resolving Walk usually ends the game on that extra turn. The tempo and mana advantage generated is very often too much to overcome. Time Vault is Walk’s more broken cousin, but requires help—on its own it is nearly useless.
#14 Tolarian Academy – This kicks off the mana acceleration section. Cards that can break Magic’s core restrictions (one land per turn/one card per turn) are almost by definition the most powerful thing you can do. Lands that tap for more than one mana are a way to push that dynamic, and of all of the lands that function in this way (Mishra’s Workshop, Gaea’s Cradle, Ancient Tomb, etc.), Academy is the easiest to abuse and produces the color in the game likely to utilize that extra mana most efficiently. When it was unrestricted, it lead to some of the most degenerate games of Magic ever played, and still represents one of the strongest openings in Vintage.
#13 Dark Confidant – The Great One keeps on getting better. It’s a solid source of card advantage, an efficient beater, and it scales incredibly well. As you go back in time to more and more efficient formats, Bob’s life penalty drops proportionately with the speed. He shows up in nearly every deck supporting black and continues to outperform expectations.
#12 Brainstorm – Card selection, protection against discard effects, making Bob even greater—Brainstorm is a powerful tool card. It lacks the raw power of Ancestral Recall, but it’s easily the second-best card selection spell at the U spot. Its interaction with shuffling effects can often make it a functional draw-3, but it’s best not to overlook its other aspects. Being able to hide cards on top of the library comes up a surprisingly high percentage of the time, making the blue player much harder to disrupt as they go about making your life miserable. This is a subtle card, but it offers so much to any given strategy. It’s present in beatdown, control, and combo decks, and performs different tasks in each.
#11 Tinker – So much for subtlety. Tinker is a brute force card. It bulls its way into a game-win. Blue has other effects that cheat cost, such as Show and Tell, as can black via Reanimation and others of that ilk, but Tinker does more than just reduce costs. It’s also a Demonic Tutor, which makes it a one-card combo engine. The fact that you are paying its sacrifice with a card that allowed you to cast it a turn or two faster is disgusting. Like Dark Confidant, this is a card that will continue to get stronger with time. As better artifacts get printed, its power increases in tandem. Current popular targets include Blightsteel Colossus, Time Vault, or Mindslaver.
#10 Mana Crypt – This is an often overlooked gem from Magic of yesteryear, but it has been growing into more and more of a staple in Vintage decks. The life-loss from the card can be relevant, but the ramp is bigger than anything this side of the Black Lotus itself. It’s a another blunt card, but amazingly powerful.
#9 Deathrite Shaman – Getting back to more subtle cards we have the creature that holds the crown for best ever. While it doesn’t pitch to Force of Will, it does nearly everything else. It accelerates your mana, disrupts opposing graveyard shenanigans and offers a decently quick clock. All this in either green or (peculiarly) black mana without needing any real help. The little man that could has taken the older formats by storm, hitting the whole trifecta of mana efficiency, flexibility and power.
#8 Yawgmoth’s Will – This might be one of the more controversial picks on the list, but Will is simply the most powerful Regrowth effect ever printed. It’s an absurd card in the context of its home in Vintage, but when it was unrestricted in Standard it also saw a ton of play. It shows up in control decks as a finisher, a combo enabler for storm strategies, and can simply be a value play in a black choke deck. It’s not the best turn one play, which I think keeps it from creeping up higher onto the list, but amazingly powerful with a couple of turns to set it up.
#7 Jace, the Mind Sculptor – Our only planeswalker on the list (as well as our only mythic rare), Jace has shown us time and again that he probably should have had some additional testing before being sent to the printers. It’s a toss-up between this or Yawgmoth’s Will on the best finisher for a control strategy, as resolving either typically ends the game. Jace is the hardest card on the list to cast, but is so dominant once he resolves that the game is academic if you get to untap with him. He plays well in smaller formats, defending himself against creatures (even the mighty Emrakul), provides a serviceable kill condition, and having all of the aforementioned benefits of Brainstorm, turn after turn. Oh and did I mention he’s blue? More on that in a sec.
#6 Demonic Tutor – The long-standing best black card not being played for ante (Contract from Below), Tutor just does what it does. It represents the best card in your deck, scaling in power as the format scales. This is probably the least sexy card on the list, but is just so solid. It’s easy to cast, has no restrictions (as nearly every other tutor does), and is amazing at every stage in the game. It can fix your mana early, find a kill card or a silver bullet to break-up an opponent’s line of play, all for just 1B and no life loss.
#5 Moxes (Jet, Ruby, Emerald, Pearl, and Sapphire) – The final stretch. Technically these should represent #9-5, but they really are a package deal. Printed at a time before the game was really understood, the jewelry defines Vintage Magic. They offer color-fixing, free mana acceleration, and as artifacts can be put to work in other ways (such as Tinker, Trinket Mage, or Tolarian Academy, to name a few). Their presence is the reason why Gorilla Shaman, Null Rod, Trinisphere, and Chalice of the Void show up in large numbers at a Vintage tourney, but pretty much nowhere else. They could really fall anywhere in the top 5, but we’ve got to start somewhere.
#4 Force of Will – The glue of the older formats. Force of Will offers the ability to interact with an opponent before playing your first land drop. It hits all of the categories we are looking for—it’s efficient (zero mana), it’s flexible (deals with nearly any threat), and powerful (deals with nearly any counter-threat). Force’s requirement of a blue card reinforces a desire to play the strongest color in the game. The presence of blue in a card’s cost makes a card stronger than it would be otherwise. As awesome as Deathrite is, can you imagine if it were blue instead of black? Force creates a sort of a super-devotion to blue, but it’s worth it. Easily the most powerful unrestricted card in Vintage, its presence allows for more complex games. Without the question of, “does he have it?” we would see a format dominated by haymakers, with all-in combo decks racing the lock strategies.
#3 Black Lotus – Magic’s most expensive and iconic card (though Jace may end up giving it a run for its money before too long, particularly in the iconic department). The Lotus represents the largest espresso shot of mana in the game, and color fixes to boot. It’s a super Dark Ritual that makes for the most degenerate opening hands possible. It was long considered the best card in the game, but over time, its limitations have also come forward. While it’s insane on the first turn, its value drops quickly as the turns progress. Vintage is such a mana efficient format that once you have access to 3-4 mana, that is typically sufficient. This by no means makes the card bad, just that it’s not always the best topdeck.
#2 Sol Ring – Which also holds true for the Ring. Of all the cards near the Power 9, I think Sol Ring has long been the most screwed over by comparison. This card really is better than the Moxen, Lotus, Time Walk, or Time Twister, but its status as an uncommon kept it relegated to a “lesser” card. It provides a comparable ramp to a Mox on the first turn, but explodes on each subsequent turn. While Mana Crypt is more explosive, the drawback is not irrelevant. Sol Ring provides a nearly identical volume of mana, but without the risks. The most egregious card in Commander and an absolute staple in Vintage, the humble Ring of the Sun has always been in the background waiting for its chance for the spotlight. It’s only lack is that it doesn’t color fix the way its vastly more expensive brethren do, but raw power is raw power, and this puts out way more mana than any of the others can hope to. Cubers the world over consider it the best card in Magic period, and within the slower singleton environment of the Cube I agree. However, in the larger world of Vintage, only one can claim to be the king.
#1 Ancestral Recall – Simple, efficient, and an omen of blue’s long-term dominance of Magic. Recall began showing the “Blue Bias” right off the bat. When compared to Lightning Bolt, Dark Ritual, Giant Growth, and Healing Salve, it comes off as some kind of internal gag. While the Lotus or Ring can lead to more explosive starts, Recall has the benefit of being insane on each and every turn of the game. It’s great on turn one, two, or twelve, and it’s always the best card in your hand. You can dig in response to trouble for a Counterspell or a Swords, hit your land drops, or ramp up your storm count. It works into nearly every strategy imaginable and is the best reason to splash blue in any deck. It also pitches to Force of Will in an absolute pinch, but that’s just the icing on the cake. The real power of the card is that it’s three extra cards. Not only is that crazy efficient, it’s also just a ton of cards in raw terms. To get any more out of a single card, you are looking at something like Opportunity, at six times the mana. So to recap—works in combo, works in control, works in beatdown, and just works. Still the champ some 20 years running.
Honorable Mentions – A few cards I wasn’t really sure how to classify, but should be noted are the cycle of fetchlands from Onslaught and Zendikar, and the original dual lands from the base set. They enable color-fixing and smooth out draws, but they are highly reliant on each other and they aren’t “powerful” in the traditional sense. They are certainly very important cards, but I’m not sure where or how they would work into a list like this.
I also avoided most of the staple cards that were common two-part combos (such as Griselbrand, Emrakul, Time Vault, etc.). My vote for the “real #20” (if we scratch Lightning Bolt) would have been Yawgmoth’s Bargain. It doesn’t see the kind of play it used to in Vintage, so it has fallen off the radar a lot, but the card is still very abusive. Expensive effect, but crazy powerful.
Thank you for reading, looking forward to the discussions in the forums. Which card do you think belongs up there that I missed?