This article generated a lot of discussion. Everyone disagreed with some of my choices, but no two people had the same idea of what to change. Any article that gets people thinking and talking about the subject is a win in my book.
Welcome, Laboratiorians. Today is a very special day here on DailyMTG.com, as I get to help kick off 20th Anniversary week. To honor this game's long history, I'll be taking a look at the Top 20 Johnny cards of all time. These are cards that have a reputation for enabling all sorts of intriguing interactions, from crazy infinite combos to silly synergies. Some have shown up at the highest levels of competitive Magic, while others are hits at the casual table.
After putting together a list of initial candidates, I rated each of them in four different categories.
Combo Potential: Provided you can set up a combo around the card, what is the end result? An exponentially increasing army of creatures? Infinite mana or damage? The bigger, the better. The difficulty of assembling a combo around the card is also taken into account. If you need three or four other cards to make it work, this rating is going to come down a bit.
Versatility: How many options are there for cool combos with this card? If a card can create a combo with a number of different pieces, it will do well here, while a card that usually requires a specific counterpart won't be getting many points.
Ease of Discovery: Cards that take advantage of an obscure rules point can sometimes be fun for highly invested players, but interactions that are relatively easy to understand often have more lasting value. They also provide newer players an entry point into the exciting world of combos. While I love convoluted combos even more than most people, the simpler ones reach every corner of the Magic community, from kitchen tables to the stages of the World Championship, and that wide influence deserves a few extra points.
Weirdness: Most of my personal favorite Johnny cards do something unique. They go where no card has gone before. While cards that do something normal, like untapping a creature or producing mana, may be easier to abuse, cards that do something you've never seen make you really start hunting for a way to take advantage of the effect. These are the kinds of cards that are dismissed by the Magic community as a whole, only to be lovingly embraced by the Johnny crowd.
So, without further ado, I present to you the Top 20 Greatest Johnny Cards in the history of Magic.
Varchild's War-Riders really started getting attention from Johnnies with the release of Urza's Saga. Under an older version of the rules, Brand would allow you to gain control of all the tokens put onto the battlefield by the War Riders. In Urza's Destiny, the card got another great helper in Repercussion. With Varchild's War-Riders giving your opponent an army of tokens, a single Earthquake would allow Repercussion to kill your opponent in one shot. Since then, players have found numerous ways to take advantage of giving your opponent free creatures, and Varchild's War-Riders has remained one of the best ways to do it.
Earthcraft was broken in half with the release of Odyssey, when it combined with Squirrel Nest to make an arbitrarily large number of Squirrel tokens with just two cards. The combo showed up at the highest levels of competitive Magic and eventually led to Earthcraft being banned. It remains banned in Legacy to this day. Interestingly, as originally designed by Mark Rosewater, Earthcraft wouldn't have enabled the Squirrel Nest combo, but it would have allowed players to untap powerful lands like Gaea's Cradle. More or less broken? You decide.
Aluren's power was quickly discovered by Magic players, with early decks using combos like Recycle and Man-o'-War to draw an unlimited number of cards. The deck transformed into a real powerhouse with the printing of Cavern Harpy. When combined with Man-o'-War, it allows you to bounce any creature an unlimited number of times, paying 1 life on each iteration. Spike Feeder takes care of the life problem, and with an unlimited amount of mana from Wall of Roots, also allows you to toss around an arbitrarily large number of +1/+1 counters. Raven Familiar was the tool of choice for digging for the combo pieces, since it could be bounced repeatedly by Cavern Harpy, and Ghitu Slinger served as an instant-speed win condition. Despite the complicated nature of Aluren combos, the card has proved itself repeatedly at the tournament level and still pops up in Legacy from time to time.
Almost any card that gives you mana repeatedly can be abused as part of an infinite mana combo, but Mana Echoes is one of the easiest. Although there were fairly easy combos to be had as soon as it was printed, Mirrodin added one of the best with Pentavus. By using the mana from Mana Echoes to get things started, you can have an arbitrarily large amount of colorless mana the turn you cast Pentavus, and there's little your opponent can do about it. Darksteel added another option with Myr Matrix. It requires more work to get started but gives you infinite creature tokens as well as mana. There are countless other combos to be had with this card, and it can even be used in only somewhat broken ways, such as chaining together multiple copies of Goblin Offensive. Really, the only thing holding this card back is awareness. Despite its power, few of today's players are aware of its existence. Perhaps its inclusion on this list will help change that.
The newest card on this list, Mikaeus has been around for less than two years, but already he's made a huge impact in casual formats, especially Commander. The combo with Triskelion has become a notorious Tooth and Nail target, and the repeated abuse of Woodfall Primus has caused groans across the world. Although persist deftly avoided these tricks by using targeted effects, as seen on Cauldron of Souls, Mikaeus's endless undying has enabled a wide variety of combos, from blisteringly fast kills like Triskelion to cards like Spike Weaver that make the game drag on for ages. Whether you love him or hate him, this fellow has made his presence felt.
One of my personal favorite cards on this list, Sundial of the Infinite gets a lot of points for sheer weirdness. Although this isn't the kind of card you're going to be going infinite with, it is the kind of card that really gets you thinking. While many players will dismiss it as a card that does nothing, a true Johnny sees only opportunity, and Sundial of the Infinite certainly has plenty of tricks up its sleeve. One of the more popular methods of abuse is using it with a card like Mimic Vat, activating the Sundial with the exile trigger on the stack to keep your tokens forever. It can also be used to negate drawback triggers like those on Eater of Days and Final Fortune. Despite its narrow ability, the Sundial has a surprising number of potential uses.
A black-bordered transplant of The Cheese Stands Alone, Barren Glory's win condition seems nearly impossible to achieve at first. Of course, this only makes people like me want to use it even more. Barren Glory presents a challenge. A puzzle which must be solved in order to win the game. Winning with this card is always impressive, and it's this kind of unique win condition that really gets the Johnny brain going. Popular routes to winning with this card include spells like Obliterate, which destroy almost everything save enchantments, or using Oblivion Ring along with cards like Apocalypse that get rid of everything.
Enduring Renewal is one of those cards where you know right away it's meant for an infinite combo. In fact, there are quite a few different combos using the card. Any free creature, such as Ornithopter or Memnite, combined with a sacrifice outlet such as Goblin Bombardment, will go infinite, as will a creature that sacrifices itself for mana, such as Wild Cantor or Skirk Prospector, with something that triggers whenever a creature enters the battlefield or dies. Enduring Renewal's reprint in Time Spiral made it a staple of combo decks in many casual circles, and although its popularity has tapered off somewhat since then, it still does something unique and powerful.
Cloudstone Curio is a curious card whose uses aren't obvious at first. With a little work, however, the Curio can enable a number of infinite combos. Anything that's free or effectively free, such as Priest of Gix or the more recent Burning-Tree Emissary, gives you an infinite number of enters-the-battlefield triggers. The card was also used in many Elf combo decks in the old version of Extended. (At the time those decks became prominent, the format was similar to what Modern is today, with fewer banned cards.) With Heritage Druid to produce mana and Glimpse of Nature to draw cards, the Elf deck could use Cloudstone Curio to return one-mana Elves to hand and cast them again, leaving them untapped and able to activate Heritage Druid's ability once more. The Curio is also often seen at the casual table, endlessly bouncing cards like Crimson Kobolds to some effect.
All right, this is a lot more than one card, but they usually serve the same purpose in the same kinds of combo decks. The ability to untap a creature repeatedly just by spending a small amount of mana is ripe for combo abuse, and a number of cards throughout Magic's history have made that happen. Bloom Tender was one of the most popular ways to use these cards. With Scuttlemutt allowing it to produce one mana of each color, Bloom Tender could use any one of these cards to produce infinite mana. The number of creatures that can be abused with these cards is almost staggering, from Metalworker to Fatestitcher to Viridian Joiner. Almost any creature that produces mana, untaps something, or any one of a number abilities can go infinite when equipped or enchanted with one of these.
Although Eternal Witness is a very Spike-oriented card, the very definition of value, it has found a place in a wide variety of combos. Perhaps the most popular of these is taking infinite turns with Time Warp, returning Eternal Witness each turn with anything from Erratic Portal to Equilibrium. Creatures can be moved from one zone to another more easily than any other card type in the game, and tacking that onto the ability to return cards like instants and sorceries, that often have powerful one-shot effects, is a recipe for crazy shenanigans. This card's combination of value and combo potential has allowed it to see play in every format in the game from time to time, and with the many games that are Magic taken into account, it may have been played more than any other card on this list.
Paradox Haze made it surprisingly high on the list for a card that can't win you the game immediately, but it really stands out in every category save combo potential. This is the only card in the game that can give you an extra upkeep step each turn, and the number of cards that can take advantage of getting two upkeep steps is astounding. While Paradox Haze is very easy to understand, the endless number of unique effects to abuse with it keeps it fun and fresh even after all these years.
Mind Over Matter has an almost legendary reputation as a combo card. Anything from Temple Bell to Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind allows you to dig through your entire deck, usually ending with your opponent very much dead. Seeing one of these hit the battlefield in a game of Commander is usually carte blanche to try to kill the player before the other piece of the combo comes down. Even before you combo off, Mind Over Matter is a powerful utility card, which was likely its intended purpose, allowing you to tap down opposing creatures or lands to prevent opposition or untap your own to get extra use out of them.
Palinchron is another blue card with a mythical reputation for going infinite, and it makes that happen even more easily than Mind Over Matter. Anything that allows you to produce twelve or more mana with seven lands gives you infinite mana and infinite enters-the-battlefield triggers. With access to cards throughout the history of Magic, making this happen is incredibly easy. You can produce the requisite amount of mana with anything from High Tide to Heartbeat of Spring. From Extraplanar Lens to Mana Reflection. From Tolarian Academy to Cabal Coffers. Palinchron is without a doubt one of the easiest ways in the game to produce infinite mana, which is the primary reason for its high position on this list.
Like Eternal Witness, Rings of Brighthearth provides an enormous amount of value in addition to the ability to serve as part of an infinite combo. Unlike the Witness, however, Rings of Brighthearth also does something unique. The ability to copy an activated ability was the sole domain of the Rings until Illusionist's Bracers came onto the scene this year. The list of things Rings of Brighthearth combos with is far too long to even make a crack at here, comprising nearly every permanent with an activated ability that does something other than produce mana. Rings of Brighthearth has consistently been a casual favorite since its printing in Lorwyn, and I don't see that changing anytime soon.
A relatively recent addition, Necrotic Ooze is similar to Rings of Brighthearth and Paradox Haze in its ability to combine with a huge variety of different cards. The Ooze, however, goes infinite far more easily than either of those. From infinite mana with Devoted Druid and Morselhoarder to infinite damage with Triskelion and Phyrexian Devourer, the Ooze can do it all. During this card's time in Standard, it got more people excited about playing combo than any other card I've ever seen.
I'm cheating again on this one, but this is the last time, I promise. These two Altars have likely enabled more infinite combos than any other card in the history of the game. Usually ending with infinite mana, infinite creatures, or both, the number of combos these cards have enabled throughout Magic's history has proved that the ability to repeatedly sacrifice any creature for mana is absurdly powerful. Aside from a cautious experiment with the expensive and vulnerable Thermopod, we haven't seen this ability since. Fortunately, these two will always be around to make your combos easier.
Few cards scream Johnny as loud as this one. If you want to win the game, you have to do something that would usually cause you to lose the game. It's all or nothing with Laboratory Maniac, and there's no turning back. From Leveler to Primal Surge, there are quite a few cool different ways to get your library out of the way, and there are few things as satisfying as winning the game with no cards left in your deck.
Although many new players may never have heard of it, Intruder Alarm was the broken combo card several years ago. Although it never saw much tournament play, there were just so many ways to abuse it that in casual circles it gained a reputation similar to that of Necropotence in competitive Magic. I can't count the number of players I've come across over the years for whom Intruder Alarm was their first discovery of the world of infinite combos. Presence of Gond was a particularly powerful catalyst. As a common, it was an easily accessible way to make an infinite number of creatures, and many aspiring Johnnies jumped at the chance.
Kiki-Jiki has dominated Pro Tours and casual tables alike through its long history. It saw play in Standard with Tooth and Nail even without an infinite combo, and continues to be played in Modern thanks to Restoration Angel, Pestermite, and Deceiver Exarch, all providing an infinite number of hasty creatures in combination with the Kamigawa Goblin. In addition to its tournament dominance, it's an extremely popular card with the casual crowd, especially in Commander. I have an enters-the-battlefield-abusing Kiki-Jiki deck that also contains Rings of Brighthearth, Umbral Mantle, and Sundial of the Infinite from earlier on this list, and our own Content Manager Trick Jarrett has a Goblin tribal Kiki-Jiki deck that's his pride and joy. This card's ability to find a place in every corner of the Magic community is the biggest reason why it's number one on my list of the greatest Johnny cards of all time.
Well, that's all the time I have for today, folks. I hope you enjoyed today's look at my picks for the Top 20 Johnny cards, and I encourage you all to share your own Top 20 picks by clicking the link to the forums below. Until next time, keep looking for the next great Johnny card. See ya!
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Mike Cannon signed on to write From the Lab at the end of 2012. An ardent casual player and lover of bizarre synergies, he'll be bringing you a selection of crazy combo decks every Monday.