“Companion! Companion! Companion!”
The companion mechanic is all anybody is talking about on MTG Twitter these days, and it would appear these cards may already have broken a Constructed Format… or, four! Still, the one dependable, static, constant in the Magic: The Gathering Multiverse is the game constantly changes, evolves, and reinvents itself, often in dramatic fashion over time.
Today, I thought it would be fun to take a look back and revisit the Top 12 times a new blue spell came along and completely changed the course of MTG history by immediately changing how we understand and play the game across constructed formats. Companion may be stacking up results on scoreboards in every format, but how does it compare to the impact made by some of the most watershed Island related releases from the past 25 years? Well, that’s ultimately for the reader and history to decide, but it’s a story I’m looking forward to relating!
The impact of each printing I’ve chosen for discussion equates to CATASTROPHIC in terms of the immediate and substantial impact it had across formats. Since, the imprint left behind by each card roughly equates to “absolute,” I’ve decided not to try and rank these cards in terms of quality, but rather present them chronologically to highlight the tale of how blue came to be the powerhouse color we all know and love today.
Metrically speaking, the baseline requisite I’m looking to highlight are cards that were immediately impactful, relevant across multiple formats, and changed the way we think about metagames and Magic. Yes, you heard me correctly… each Blue card featured in today’s article essentially “broke the game across the board!”
If you’re new and reeling from the impact of companion, today’s article will provide context to show how dynamic (and often broken) change is a fairly common part of Magic: the Gathering throughout history. If you’re Old School, like me, it’ll likely be a fun trip back down Memory Jar Lane that recalls many of the most exciting and significant moments in the history of the Multiverse.
One last specification about the types of examples I’m looking to chart: I’m interested in cards that had an immediate impact and changed the game, similar to companion, and specifically not cards that had a surge in utility later in their golden years. A card like Flash, for instance, received a favorable errata and combo buddy (Protean Hulk) a decade after it was printed, but that isn’t the kind of card today’s article is looking to investigate.
I’m looking for examples like this:
Player, looking at Spoiler: “Wow, Card X looks really strong…”
Player, after casting it for the first time: “Wowie, Card X is even better than I thought!”
Player, one week into Constructed Format: “My life is now Card X mirrors!”
Obviously, the history of the game is a huge topic larger than just my perspective, and so I welcome the readers to share their memories and insights in the Comments Section below, or you can hit me up on Twitter (@Briandemars1). If you feel I missed something important, disagree with some of my picks, or even just want to share a fond memory about playing with some of these epic cards back in the day… let me know! Talking cards with you all is my favorite part about making the content.
HONORABLE MENTION: BLUE’S LEGACY OF BROKENESS
MTG has never been fair, nor have the colors ever been balanced in terms of quality. Look no further than MTG’s infancy and it’s clear as day Blue was given an embarrassment of riches and leg up on the other colors.
All from the first set (BETA):
In terms of what we now refer to as the “color pie,” early game designers took the following approach to ideas for blue cards:
Doing what I will loosely refer to as “blue stuff,” defined the best strategies in the early days of Magic, since it’s cards were strictly more powerful than the next best option. Furthermore, the first new card to shake up the game was also blue:
“Did Counterspell need a Ritual attached to it?”
Since these cards all entered the cardpool when the game was young, before there was much competitive stuff going on that didn’t involve Blue Mirrors, I decided to include the early stuff as honorable mentions. The true turning point in establishing constructed tournaments and formats was the establishment of the Duelist Convocation International (DCI), and their first order of business was to essentially split Magic into two formats: Type 1 & Type 2.
The fissure eliminated all of the Alpha / Beta cards that were not featured in 3rd Revised Ed., but perhaps most importantly it helped level the playing field by putting the deep six on the broken game defining blue cards such as Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Time Twister, and especially Mana Drain.
Now that we’ve hit a point in MTG history where there are multiple formats to break, it’s time to officially start the list!
#12. FORCE OF WILL
“Does anybody disagree this should be on the list? Yeah, didn’t think so.”
Force of WIll is my first addition to the list and certainly impacted all formats and changed how the game was played. On the most basic level, “Free Spells,” especially such a desirable effect as a hard Counterspell was a huge change of pace.
Before FOW came along, Blue Mages needed to leave mana untapped to cast permission spells. The traditional “dance” played out against Blue Mages was to force them to tap out and then fire off a powerful, game-breaking spell to swing the game such as Armageddon or Mind Twist.
The emergence of Force of Will meant that from this point forward, so long as a Blue Mage had a hit point and blue card to pitch, that the shields never truly went down! It also meant that Blue Mages could “Force Through,” their own threats against opposing counterspells or removal, which would be a defining feature in Xerox style Blue Tempo Decks.
Force of Will may ultimately hold the mantle of the most impactful Magic card ever printed in terms of how it has changed and defined the game across time. In fact, it remains THE defining card in all Eternal Formats to this very day.
“I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly.”
In retrospect, it’s often easy to take for granted how significant certain past events actually were in their time, but I’m going to pay full respect to mighty Man-’o-War.
Today’s article is constructed-centric, but let’s start with the fact Jellyfish is one of the most influential Limited designs of all time as a part of the original 187 ETB creature cycle. While Man-’o-War’s legacy tends to be synonymous with Limited, it’s difficult to overstate how impactful the card was in Constructed formats as well.
Not only was Man-’o-War extremely good, but the design was novel and helped to innovate a new style of tempo-oriented Blue we now refer to as Xerox. For newer players who are skeptical that a card that feels pedestrian by the power creepy standard of today’s card, think about how good Reflector Mage was, and that’s roughly the impact of Man-’o-War against the field in its time.
“It was the first blue creature since Fat Moti that understood Blue Mages.” –Patrick Chapin.
Affectionately known as “Superman,” by blue players, the impact of morphling was prolific as it immediately earned the distinction of being the best closer in the game and remained so until it was eventually eclipsed by another entry on today’s list.
In fact, Pemmin’s Aura, a Scourge design that grants a creature Morphling’s signature moves is an anagram homage to Morphling: “I am Superman.”
Not only did Morphling boast a ton of awesome and highly relevant abilities (flying, shroud, and vigilance), but it’s “pump” stats benefitted from a rules nuance of the day known as “Combat Damage on the Stack.” Essentially, a player could pump Morphling to a 5-1, put 5 combat damage onto the stack, and then pump Morphling’s toughness, before the resolution of combat damage, which meant Superman outclassed virtually every other creature in head to head combat, while also being untargetable, evasive, AND vigilant!
If you played blue in any format when Morphling was unleashed upon Magic, chances are Morphling factored into the equation. Regardless of whether it was Oathed, powered out by Mana Drain, or cast after making a bunch of land drops in a Counterspell deck, it’s a fact that Morphling was The Bomb.
Speaking of Bombs…. Morphling also boasts the distinction of being the first card that competitive players campaigned to have banned from Limited play. Makes sense, considering it’s virtually unbeatable!
“Blue is now also the premier combo color.”
In the early days of MTG, Blue Mages were able to rest on their laurels of drawing extra cards and countering spells. What more could they have needed? I mean, they had just gotten actual SUPERMAN in cardboard form? Well, what came next as the “saga” of Urza’s Block played out was beyond most Island slingers could ever have hoped or dreamed of!
As Urza Block unfolded, Blue Mages now also boasted the fastest and most furious combo kills in every format including Block Constructed.
While Tolarian Academy is the most broken card from the most broken period of Magic designs ever, it’s not “technically” a blue spell, but it’s synergy with blue spells largely informs the lens through which we understand the era.
Tinker earns my checkmark as the defining game changing blue spell from this crop of powerful blue-combo cards. It also proved its status as “too powerful for any format,” even without it’s partner in crime, Tolarian Academy, by putting up the most dominant PT performance of all time at Extended PT Mirrodin. Tinker has justly earned a ban or restriction in every possible, and for good reason, it’s just TOO BROKEN!
HONORABLE MENTION: ISLANDGATE AND OTHER BLUE SPELLS
The Masques Block “Island-Gating” spells have quite a reputation and storied history across time and formats. I’m hesitant to include them as “all time” high impact game changers at their moment of conception, although their legacy across time earns them a spot as all time top blue Spells.
It’s difficult for me to say they were huge game changers because there were other strategies that were perhaps more dominant at the time:
A savvy reader may also have noticed that Ice Age’s Brainstorm didn’t make my list, and for a similar reason:
Brainstorm was a solid card that was played in blue decks, but the emergence of Necropotence is what really impacted how we played the game at the time. I would also say that these honorable mention cards tended to get better over time as more and more synergistic cards fell into place around them. For instance, being able to Brainstorm a Morphling back onto the top of one’s Oath of Druids deck, or especially after the arrival of Onslaught’s first fetch lands (Fetches are right up there with FOW in terms of “Game Changers.”).
As I recall, the raw card advantage of Accumulated Knowledge (especially paired with Intuition) stands out to me having a larger impact at the time. Gush and Daze really hit their dominant stride and lit the world on fire when they teamed up with the perfect win condition, Quirion Dryad, a few sets later to create the infamous Grow Deck.
Miracle Grow brought Xerox style decks to the precipice of greatness, but the next entry on my list would lift it to the heights of pure absurdity:
“What looks like a Basketball, but dunks on you?”
Move over Superman… There’s a new sheriff in town!
Did ‘Tog have powerful allies in Standard?
How about Extended, Type 1, and Type 1.5:
Let’s just say, Psychatog had lots of friends in high places to team up with, but it’s undeniable the card was the PERFECT threat to dominate the game at the time.
Psychatog redefined what a win condition could be. Unlike Morphling, which either needed to be cheated into play or cast in the late stages of a game after having made 6+ land drops and then required a hefty investment of “pump mana” and combat steps to finish off an opponent, it was often the case that just untapping with a Tog in play was GG on the spot.
‘Tog also functioned as a proto-goyf card, as it could be deployed cheaply in the early stages of a game and lay down outstanding defensive blocks against small aggressive creatures to help stabilize and turn the corner which is something a Morphling couldn’t realistically do on its own.
Pyschatog had undeniable synergy in blue Xerox shells, like Grow-a-Tog, since it was able to reallocate all of those churned cantrips into damage. A single Gush, for instance, directly translated to 6.5 extra damage via Tog pumps. The impact of Psychatog was immediate, but it’s also a fun fact it was able to reinvent itself for one final “hurrah!” as a powerful dredge finisher in Ravnica 1 Extended.
A fitting victory lap for one of the greatest to ever bring the beats!
HONORABLE MENTION: MIND’S DESIRE
There’s no doubt the storm mechanic changed the game and left a legacy that continues to shape how formats are played, but today’s article isn’t about specific mechanics so much as specific blue cards.
If Mind’s Desire didn’t own the distinction of being the card that was preemptively banned from Eternal Formats, and had it’s shot to run roughshod over Type 1 and 1.5 it would likely be a snap include on my list. With that said, the DCI recognized that Desire was essentially a card that was completely unstoppable in a world of Moxen and Rituals and shut it down before it ever had a chance to do its damage!
Mind’s Desire earned a place in the Extended metagame, but never had adequate support to fight through stacked Psychatog decks in Standard. If this were a list of “cards of any color that changed the game,” I’m snapping off Tendrils of Agony with a bullet as it was a combo win condition that rivaled even the endless fleet of Psychatog in Eternal Magic.
“More like… Unbalanced.”
When one thinks about blue cards that changed Magic, Counterbalance may not immediately come to mind, but I’m confident it was one of the biggest game changers I’ve ever played through! The biggest reason to snub Counterbalance is that it combined with another busted card in order to do its damage:
On an alternate topless Magic timeline, perhaps Counterbalance is a castaway, but fortunately that is simply not the case. Would Tinker have dominated in the Saga days without Memory Jar? Context obviously matters a great deal and that circumstances were ideal for Counterbalance to rule the multiverse for several years.
While Counter Top was only legal in Standard for a short time at the end of the summer before Kamigawa Block rotated out, it was absolutely 100% dominant.
The real impact of Counter Top strategies was felt in Extended and Legacy, where it essentially ruled both formats with an iron fist. At that time, the high level metagames of both formats were an intricate rock, paper, scissors of various Counter Top decks! Luckily, it wasn’t too long before WOTC printed a Split Second answer to the powerful soft lock:
Not only did Counterbalance take over various formats for an extended period of time, but it also dramatically changed how the game was played. The interaction between Counterbalance and Senesi’s Divining Top allowed Blue Mages to lock opponent’s out of resolving spells without even needing to invest actual cards.
I’m not here to say Counterbalance is a better Magic card than Top, but for the purposes of today’s article it is certainly true that CB is a blue spell that changed how the game was played when it was released!
#6. CRYPTIC COMMAND
“Tap your team; draw a card.”
Lorwyn introduced players and fans to planeswalker cards for the first time, but it also ushered in a brave new era of game changing blue spells. I’ve written a few drafts of today’s article, and I’ve been back and forth between Cryptic Command and Ponder in this spot.
Depending upon how I choose to frame the argument, I believe I can make a compelling case for either, or even both. Ponder boasts a significantly more ubiquitous impact across all formats, especially the Eternal ones where Cryptic Command is essentially priced out by virtue of costing four mana to cast.
The real question boils down to: “Did Ponder really change the game?”
It clearly impacted Eternal formats and meta-games by padding the already unstoppable Eternal Blue decks with great CMC 1 cantrips. The impact of Ponder in Standard increased after the release of Morningtide, when it helped set up turn two Bitterblossom with gross consistency.
Ultimately, I went with my heart (possibly at the expense of my brain) and gave the checkmark to Cryptic Command, because despite the fact that it was priced out of Eternal Formats I believe it’s impact upon Standard, Extended, and Modern is a little more in step with actually changing the game.
In Standard and Modern there is no doubt that Cryptic was the tone setter for its entire tenure. It was the backbreaker workhorse in a string of dominant Blue decks that lasted its entire tenure in Standard: Mystical Teaching Control, Faeries, and finally Cruel Control. Blue was the best and it was largely due to having an extremely powerful spell like Cryptic Command that could essentially “do whatever you needed it to do,” including interact with cards on the stack, in play, or just be a 2-for-1.
#5. JACE, THE MIND SCULPTOR
“JTMS: Better than all.”
No single card broke Magic harder, created as much chaos, or changed the game more than “Big Jace.” There are plenty of examples of times when the wheels came off the game and formats became badly broken: Affinity, Academy, and Energy all stand out as examples of a complete and utter breakdown of game design, but all of these examples hinge on several powerful synergy cards combining to fuel one broken deck.
Jace, on the other hand, was just a singular card that broke every format from Block to Vintage all by himself! Does that creature pass “The Jace Test?” No? Well, it’s now virtually unplayable.
To complicate matters further, the dominant mythic-rare reached the all time zenith price tag for a non-premium Standard Legal card, nearly $200 USD, for a single copy and every player needed four copies. The monetary issue, made trying to ban this broken card after players had invested a small fortune into collecting them an awkward situation for everybody.
Jace, The Mind Sculptor is the first example of Wizards of the Coast testing the waters and trying to push the power level of a Planeswalker and the result was a convincingly broken threat.
#4. MENTAL MISSTEP / GITAXIAN PROBE
“Assimilate or die.”
Zendikar 1 through Innistrad 1 is often fondly recalled by fans and players and one of the greatest periods in Magic’s history in terms of flavorful sets, compelling formats, and iconic designs, but looking back with 20/20 hindsight there were clearly a lot of absurdly broken.
In my opinion, phyrexian mana is the most broken and poorly thought through mechanic in the history of Magic. One of the guiding principles of Magic is that everything has a cost, and the relationship between what you get and what you have to pay, tends to determine how good a card is.
The problem with phyrexian mana is that trading a resource we start with an overabundance of (hit points) for a resource that is constrained (mana) is simply an absurd rate of exchange. These are basically the “freest” cards since Moxes and Black Lotus, which is elite company.
Aside from being basically “free,” these spells ended up doing more than they appeared to on the surface and only got better as more synergistic cards entered the cardpool. They provided incidental sources of advantage that impacted the outcome of games by generating prowess triggers, additional Storm, an extra dredge, a extra hit points on Death’s Shadow, or even gaining perfect information to play around an opponent’s cards or hit with a Cabal Therapy.
The free phyrexian mana cards changed the game because they outright broke the rules of the game before they were eventually banned & restricted out of existence.
#3. SNAPCASTER MAGE
“Innistrad was a good set for Blue creatures.”
The Modern Age of Magic has seen a deliberate attempt to better balance the utility of playing cards to the board with the efficiency necessary to answer them with removal, and Snapcaster Mage provided blue with the best of both worlds.
While Snapcaster was never banned from a format, it certainly made its presence known and changed how the game is played and metagames look and feel. If you’re playing blue cards in a format where Snapcaster Mage is legal, it’s probably somewhere in your 75.
In Snapcaster’s early years, it’s bread and butter was pairing with the free phyrexian mana spells from New Phyrexia. What’s better than casting a spell for free? Doing it twice.
SCM also provided blue based decks a level of redundancy never seen before, since the card essentially doubled as extra copies of whatever you needed it to be at the time. Against aggro decks, it’s an extra Bolt + Blocker. Against combo decks, it’s an extra Counterspell + a clock. Against a control mirror, it’s whatever you need it to be at the time + a way to attack their planeswalker.
If you were to poll a random sample of Magic players asking “what is the best creature ever printed,” chances are Snapcaster wins, and it’s only fitting after exploring Blue’s proud tradition of excellent creatures that Islands once again hold that mantle.
It’s also crazy that Innistrad provided Blue Mages with another all-time great creature:
HONORABLE MENTION: DELVER OF SECRETS
“The other best creature of all time?”
If you’re looking for a debatable counterpoint to Snapcaster as the best creature of all time, look no further than Delver of Secrets!
The key to the success of both of these creatures is that they so perfectly synergize with the style of play that blue decks do best. I return to the Chapin quote about how “Morphling was the first creature since Fat Moti to understand Blue Mages,” and it’s clear Snappy Boi and Delver were designed to suit the changing needs of Blue Mages across all formats.
#2. DIG THROUGH TIME
Khans Block is often affectionately remembered as the Age of Abzan and the single most iconic card is easily Siege Rhino, but it was also quite the set for obscene blue spells. The blue delve spells, Dig Through Time & Treasure Cruise essentially broke every non-Standard format from the get-go.
Honorable Mention: TREASURE CRUISE
Essentially, neither one of the blue delve spells could be contained in a non-rotating format. Treasure Cruise also has the distinction of having also broken #MTGPauper, but I gave the checkmark to Dig Through Time because of the outstanding work it did in Standard where it saw play over Cruise.
Even with some of the strongest, most iconic Standard decks of all time roaming free, Dig helped keep blue on the map at the top tables in decks like: Jeskai, Dark Jeskai, Ascendancy, Esper Dragons, and Dimir Control.
Looking back, it is my opinion that Khans of Tarkir was the single greatest Standard set of all time and was some of the most enjoyable Magic I ever played. The cost? Every single other format was broken for a couple of months before being rectified by banning the blue delve spells. Totally worth it.
#1. 2019’s “3-DROP WALKERS”
I’ll give the easy checkmark to Oko, Thief of Crowns. If Oko didn’t exist, I’d give it to one of these:
The way 2019’s Walkers “changed the game” essentially parallels the parable of JTMS from Worldwake: If you put too many powerful abilities on a planeswalker and don’t make it cost enough mana, the card immediately becomes the defining threat across formats.
One thing I’ve noticed since working on this article is how closely many of the ban-worthy 2019 cards closely parallel older designs that tended to break the game. Say what you want about companion, but at least it’s something completely new that we’ve never seen before!
It was a lot of fun looking back and trying to piece together the story of how blue cards changed not only the formats we love, but also how tournament Magic is played. Obviously, such a complex and dynamic history is much larger than one perspective and point of view, but these are the cards that I remember having a tremendous impact toward changing the game. With that said, I welcome any and all readers to lend their perspective and insight to the comments section. I’d love to hear examples of blue cards that I may have overlooked, or even instances where you outright disagree with my perspective.
I tried to include as many Honorable Mentions as possible, but I could have gone on for days talking about how sweet blue cards impacted the game. If there’s a particular card, even if it’s just an HR, feel free to give it some love below!