These last two years have been a rollercoaster when it comes to Magic and its card releases. They’ve seen an unprecedented number of bannings across numerous formats. With many overpowered and unfun* cards, there’s been no end to the maligning and complaining of Magic players – myself included. And some amount of it is justified.
As with most things, however, you take the bad along with the good, so as the year draws to a close, I’m looking back at some of the successes of 2019 & 2020. These are the cards that were playable, but not too powerful. Interesting, but not part of problematic gameplay patterns. Fun, but not miserable to play against. These cards added to my enjoyment of Magic over the past two years, and today I’m showing my appreciation.
*My dictionaries and spell-checkers continue to insist that “unfun” is not a real word, but I find it essential when it comes to discussing these topics, so I’m just going to keep using it. I’m sure old Webster will get the memo sooner or later.
The new year of 2019 started with the release of Ravnica Allegiance. The biggest and most immediate change for me, personally, was the Limited format. Guilds of Ravnica (the previous set) was one of my least-favorite Limited formats ever. It was the only time in my life that it felt like a chore to practice for the booster draft portion of the Pro Tour. Ravnica Allegiance, on the other hand, was one of my favorite Limited formats of all time. The color balance was much better, I enjoyed the gameplay styles that each of the guilds had to offer, the games tended to be less snowbally and more interesting.
One mechanic that translated successfully between Limited and Constructed was riot.
I believe that one of the key aspects of a healthy format (Limited or Constructed, for that matter) is that aggro strategies need to be interesting. Mind you, interesting is not just about “good” or “bad.” Sometimes Mono Red feels like “if I draw the right mix of lands and spells, I’ll win! If I get flooded or miss a land drop, I’ll lose!” Sometimes Mono White feels like “if my opponent casts a board sweeper, I’ll lose! If they don’t, I’ll win!” Decks like that are fine once in a while, but they generally leave something to be desired.
Riot makes things more nuanced. I really enjoy mechanics like riot and exert, which give attacking players choices and cause the combat step to be a more important element of the game. When you cast your riot creature, you have to calculate damage output, balance long-term potential against fast, guaranteed value and think about how the size of your creatures matches up against the size of your opponent’s creatures. That’s good Magic!
Here are some other highlights from Ravnica Allegiance:
Cindervines and Kaya, Orzhov Usurper are interesting and useful sideboard cards across multiple formats while Light Up the Stage and Skewer the Critics are highlights of Rakdos’s spectacle mechanic.
By the time all was said and done, sacrifice decks with Priest of the Forgotten Gods may have been bordering on too powerful. However, let’s keep perspective that creature sacrifice decks are a beloved archetype that can’t always exist in Constructed formats. In my book, Priest is a sweet card that makes for some interesting games.
War of the Spark was probably the most ambitious expansion set of all time. Let’s take planeswalkers, an incredibly powerful card type which is typically restricted to a couple of flagship mythic rares, and print 36 of them across different rarities! While a couple of the planeswalkers ended up too strong or ended up being used only in Limited, it’s astounding how many of them hit the mark.
These planeswalkers – and more – found uses in Constructed formats because of the cool and unique things that they did, not simply because they were more powerful than everything else on a raw level.
The cycle of Finales and God-Eternals did a nice job capturing the flavor of overwhelming power without translating that overwhelming power to Constructed gameplay and format banned lists.
Other highlights from War of the Spark:
Speaking of ambitious sets, 2019 also saw the release of Modern Horizons, a non-Standard legal set designed directly for Modern, Legacy and Vintage, primarily with a focus on Modern.
Modern Horizons brought to life Urza and Yawgmoth, two of the most iconic and powerful characters in Magic lore. I can hardly imagine the impossible task of designing these creatures. If they’re too weak, then you have a dud Mythic and you’ve disappointed long-time fans. If they’re too strong, you’ve unbalanced the Modern format and they have to wind up on the banned list.
At four mana, the task is to design cards that are better than Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Bloodbraid Elf and Cryptic Command, but aren’t too powerful for Modern and don’t create unhealthy play patterns.
For my money, they (mostly) did it. Urza had moments of being too strong when you could play him alongside Mox Opal and Arcum’s Astrolabe in Modern. I also don’t love all of his play patterns, like the infinite combo with Thopter Foundry plus Sword of the Meek, or the fact that his mana ability works through Collector Ouphe. That said, now that Opal and Astrolabe are no longer legal, Urza has settled into a very healthy position in Modern. He’s likewise a good addition to Legacy and Vintage. Yawgmoth is just about perfect all around.
In addition to some cool new cards, Modern Horizons was also centered around reprinting cards which were originally from before the Mirrodin era.
These were all home runs. In general, 2019 and 2020 have been great years for reprints. Why shouldn’t they be? We now have more than 25 years worth of beloved cards to choose from.
Other highlights from Modern Horizons:
I’ve spent a lot of this year playing Modern and producing Modern content here on ChannelFireball.com. By now, we’ve had a chance to digest the impact of Modern Horizons, and I believe it’s been a huge net positive. Once the dust settled on some initial bannings like Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis and Arcum’s Astrolabe, we found ourselves with a healthy format. I honestly believe there are over 50 decks that could realistically win a Modern tournament tomorrow.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Modern Horizons being another stellar Limited format.
Not my favorite set. But even then, you take the bad with the good.
Remember how I like aggro decks to be interesting? Well, Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord and Vivien Arkbow Ranger are powerful planeswalkers that level up their respective aggro decks and give them play in long and medium-length games. Powerful cards are coolest when they come with high deckbuilding costs. Sorin is a payoff for a deck where all your creatures are Vampires. Vivien is a payoff for a beatdown deck with nineteen Forests. Great cards, but not as simple as throwing Lightning Bolt in all your red decks or Ancestral Recall in all your blue decks.
Other highlights from Core 2020:
I would’ve loved to turn the power level dial down on this whole set. However, after a flurry of bannings, we’re still left with plenty of cards which, in my opinion, have a positive impact on Standard and other formats.
These cards are strong. They’re supposed to be strong. These are payoffs for their respective archetypes. Aggro decks really need something to let them keep attacking through Lovestruck Beasts and Dream Trawlers. Even if Mono Red isn’t one of the top five decks in Standard right now, I’m thankful that it’s at least playable for the dedicated pyromancers among us. Without Embercleave, I don’t think it would exist at all.
Speaking of Mono Red, I think that Torbran and his cycle of legendary creatures hit the mark just right.
Similarly, I’ve come to really love the Castles that these legendary creatures call home. From a gameplay perspective, I love having things to do with my mana when I’m flooded. From a deckbuilding perspective, I love having rewards for sticking to tame one or two color mana bases. Fabled Passage also feels just about right for a “fetchland,” rather than everyone slinging Polluted Deltas and Arid Mesas every turn of every game.
Yet another stellar Limited format. Coincidentally, Theros Beyond Death was also the last time that Limited was supported at the highest levels of organized tournament play.
Sagas weren’t invented in 2020, but they were continued strong in Theros Beyond Death. For my money, Sagas are among the best things to happen to Magic in the Modern era. The variety of effects, the long-term planning and the need to setup or play around various chapters makes for rich deckbuilding and gameplay.
Choices are great and modal cards are great when they’re done right. The cycle of Interventions was done right. I’m particularly a fan of Thassa’s Intervention.
Other highlights from Theros Beyond Death:
Similarly, I loved the Mythos cycle from Ikoria.
These cards are solid at face value. For example, spending black mana on Mythos of Nethroi gives you Murder – a card that I’ve played in Constructed before. If you can match the full color requirements, the card levels up. Thus, you have a payoff for the Abzan color combination or you have a card that you can “splash” into a Golgari or Orzhov deck where you’ll sometimes get the low-power version and sometimes get the high-power version. The Four Color Sultai decks in Historic are a great example, and I think the Mythoses are positive additions whenever they show up.
Ikoria also did a nice job of finishing the cycle of Ultimatums. I know it can be frustrating to lose to Genesis Ultimatum, but hey, seven mana spells with demanding color requirements are supposed to win games. These spells are vulnerable to permission and they appear in constructed at healthy frequencies (now that Omnath, Locus of Creation is gone).
Other highlights from Ikoria, Lair of Behemoths:
Where I didn’t much enjoy Core 2020, I absolutely loved Core 2021. I loved it so much that I felt compelled to look up the lead developer of the set (it was Adam Prosak) and send him a personal message about how awesome I thought it was. I believe it’s the best Core set since Alpha. And, while not as ambitious as a War of the Spark or a Modern Horizons, I think it’s an example of great execution on a project.
Browsing through Core 2021, I could name dozens of new cards that I find fun and interesting in Constructed, with none that I find overpowered or frustrating (maybe Elder Gargaroth or Conspicuous Snoop, but I even kind of like those). The cycle of planeswalkers was great as well.
From Modern Horizons to returns to Theros and Zendikar, a major theme of 2020 was nostalgia, reprints and flavorful throwbacks to the old days. As someone who’s played Magic since childhood, these things strike home for me. I particularly appreciated Core 2021 bringing back old characters Jolrael, Mangara and Kaervek in the form of unique, interesting creatures.
Frankly, the whole set was a highlight for me, but I’ll leave you with a couple more particularly cool cards:
I don’t have much to say about Jumpstart, except for one card that I’ve personally been enjoying.
Legacy Elves was a pretty good deck in the 2013-2016 time frame. Since then, it’s suffered splash damage from the banning of Deathrite Shaman and the printing of Plague Engineer in addition to being generally left behind.
Allosaurus Shepherd breathed new life into the archetype. It’s still not one of the five best decks in Legacy, but it’s competitive once again. I can now bring Elves to a Legacy event and feel like I’m a serious competitor instead of someone who’s just playing to have fun.
When a card can take an old favorite archetype from near extinction up to something like “Tier 2” status, I think that’s a big win.
That brings us to the final set release of 2020: Zendikar Rising. I’ve mostly enjoyed this set and I think it has a lot of qualities that are worth celebrating.
First, the double-faced lands are awesome. Here’s how I look personally view things:
I count cards like Shatterskull Smashing and Kazandu Mammoth as lands. I increase the number of “lands” in my deck to say, up to 29 or 30 in Standard Gruul, which means that I get mana screwed less often. However, since a bunch of my lands can also be played as spells, I also get mana flooded less often and rarely have to pass a turn without making a play. In this way, these cards increase the consistency of my deck, which is generally a very good thing.
Even the Pathways are cool dual lands. I like how they’re very strong for two color decks but don’t necessarily let you run wild with three and four color mana bases.
The challenge of designing new landfall cards for a non-fetchland environment must have been tough, but I’ve enjoyed the results. Akoum Hellhound is playable, but is certainly no Steppe Lynx (except in older formats, where it’s actually fun to get access to eight copies of that creature). Brushfire Elemental looked like a dud to me on paper, but has actually become an interesting part of one of Standard’s best decks.
The eight-cards-in-graveyard mechanic is a very cool identity for Zendikar’s Rogues. Your cards start out a little weak but power up later in the game. What resources are you willing to spend to gain this power up? Your opponent can manage their graveyard size, but what resources are they willing to spend in order to do so? Winning by milling can start to become a concern in long games, even though most games don’t actually end by milling. That’s good Magic!
I particularly enjoy the combination of this mechanic with the escape cards from Theros Beyond Death. Managing graveyard size is an interesting aspect of deckbuilding, sideboarding, and gameplay.
Over the course of this article, I’ve highlighted Heartless Act, Mythos of Nethroi, Eliminate and now Bloodchief’s Thirst. It’s not that these cards are revolutionary in their own right, it’s more that they combine to make Constructed Magic more interesting. It’s best when removal spells are close in power level. You wind up building your decks with a lot of one-ofs, two-ofs and three-ofs, and then when you play the games, you seek to line up the right answers against the right threats. I find this much more interesting in the modern era, compared to the old days where you’d simply play four Swords to Plowshares or four Lightning Bolt because those were clearly the best removal spells available.
That’s my two years in review! This was not meant to be a ranking or a comprehensive list, merely a handful of cards that I’ve appreciated recently. Also important, one player’s fun can be another player’s misery (and vice versa). So please, let me know in the comments section a few of your favorite cards from 2019 and 2020!