Years later, Limited play is an essential slice of what has become a large and diverse pie. Limited gives new players a chance to fight on an even playing field. In a Sealed Deck tournament, everyone gets the same resources to start off with: six booster packs. In a draft, everyone is on the same footing as well. There is some comfort in this. The arms race feel of starting out in Constructed can be stressful.
While that is an essential and ultimately interesting side of the game, Limited offers a refreshing reprieve. You, your brain, and some number of booster packs. That's all you need to play Limited. It's a beautiful thing. I don't know who came up with the idea to draft the cards similarly to a sports draft, but whoever they are, we all owe them a debt.
In celebration—and in reflection—of the long, storied, history of Magic: The Gathering, I have a list of the Top 20 Limited Cards.
This list isn't meant to be exhaustive, and it's not trying to simply categorize the best card from each block. Instead, we will be looking at some of the most memorable cards from sets going back before many of us ever thought of opening a booster pack in a draft. Sometimes a card passed the Groan Test so well I just had to include it on the list, other times the picks are subtler.
Either way, here it is, the Top 20 Limited Cards:
#1. Return to Ravnica Block
What happens when the most powerful card in the format costs two mana, is splashable, and is nearly unanswerable the turn it gets played? Pack Rat is what happens. It was remarkably difficult to see the raw power this card possessed—right up until the moment someone cast it against you. With very few answers in the format for a turn-two Pack Rat (particularly if it was deployed on the play), it quickly rocketed to the top of the Groan Test charts. One of the most maligned—and powerful—Limited cards in memory, whispers of Pack Rat and his evil deeds will echo in tournament halls forever more.
#2. Magic 2013 Core Set
Chronomaton looked so innocuous. I remember thinking it was just okay, would probably make the cut in most decks, but wasn't a high pick or particularly exciting.
Then I cast one. Suddenly, my mana was used up every turn of the game. If my opponent let it go, my little colorless one-drop would run rampant over his or her four- and five-drops. A turn-one Chronomaton simply had to be answered at some point during the course of the game. Once people started playing Pacifism on it, I knew it was going to make this list. The ticking and tocking that it emanated started as a soft hum, but quickly grew to a deadly tenor as the game went further.
That's respect. It's hard to imagine a better place to put one colorless mana. Keep on tickin' little buddy, maybe we'll see you back in a set someday.
#3. Avacyn Restored
Not so affectionately known as the "Pair Bear," Druid's Familiar seemed like a logical progression for the soulbond mechanic. You had your common 2/2 soulbond creature that pumped power and toughness, but we needed an uncommon, more powerful version of the same thing, right? Thus was born this evil, destructive beast.
I know it looks like a normal bear. Kind of cute, if a bit big and burly.
This card is mean. Very mean. It was so hard to answer, and such a big tempo hit (it provided a 4/4 blocker while enabling a haste-like attack from whatever else happened to be lingering on the battlefield next to it) that it became feared early in the format, for the duration of the format. It added 6 power and 6 toughness to the battlefield for four mana, and was remarkably difficult to answer while it did it's dirty deed.
I remember I had Conley Woods in the booth at Grand Prix Vancouver for a chat. I asked him what card he wanted to open more than any other in the tournament.
You know what the answer was. Enough said.
#4. Innistrad/Dark Ascension
My mom—like many people—doesn't care much for spiders. I'm not particularly fond of them either, now that I think about it. After drafting Innistrad for a while, and doing fine at it, I had Brian David-Marshall on the podcast to talk about a new deck he was playing in Innistrad draft: The Spider Spawning Deck. With a partial eye roll I listened to him postulate that Spider Spawning may just be the best card in the set. Not the best uncommon—the best card.
I knew he was excited, and after he explained how this crazy deck worked (recasting Spider Spawning thanks to help from Memory's Journey and Runic Repetition after decking yourself on purpose), I had to try it. Not only did it work, it opened my eyes. I started looking for more interesting interactions. I started drafting decks that could go so late in the game that the only thing that mattered was that it had some form of inevitably.
For me, Spider Spawning was a game changer. I remember the first time I drafted it at Friday Night Magic . Four or five of the regulars crowded around to watch how I could not only mill my entire library into my graveyard, but also cast and recast Spider Spawning enough times to overwhelm my opponent with little spiders.
I can't thank BDM enough for showing me another way, and I can't thank Spider Spawning enough for being the light on that path.
#5. Magic 2012 Core Set
Through the rigors of the scientific method I have come up with this list, but I'll admit some bias here: I love Merfolk Looter. It's a testament to the power level of this card that I was able to keep picking it early even in a format dominated by the bloodthirst mechanic. The raw power of card selection never seems to get old.
And hey, after you sculpt the perfect hand, it even blocks a Gorehorn Minotaurs to buy you a turn to actually cast the cards in said hand. I'll take it.
#6. Scars of Mirrodin Block
Scars presented us with two clear paths from which to choose: infect or metalcraft. As people dabbled early in the format with both options, it became clear that infect was powerful. At some point, taking anything that said "infect" on it at all became the strategy, and there were few better options than Plague Stinger in this category.
The real key was evasion, as there were plenty of ways to increase the power of your creatures in the format. Once that clock got going, you were forced to answer it or die. And sometimes you tried to answer it and just died anyway.
#7. Magic 2011 Core Set
And here I thought I knew what a bomb was this whole time... You know, the big, powerful five- or six-drops that you pick up early in a draft and then use to finish off your opponent? The Shivan Dragons of the world were pretty content with their lofty position as bombs until these Titans appeared and outright ruined their entire parade.
The Titans were so powerful—at six mana—that you could often cast them, have them immediately killed, and still be far enough ahead to just win the game. It didn't even matter. And if a glance at your opponent revealed big, teary, Frodo-like eyes? It was just over.
My personal favorite Titan was Grave Titan. When the "Gravy Train" rolled into town, he left behind a lot of slain opponents and 2/2 Zombies. I think the best one was probably Inferno Titan, though, as it could stabilize almost any board, and was an incredibly quick clock to boot. Interestingly, Primeval Titan was the worst for Limited, even though it was the best for Constructed play.
Either way: the Titans showed up and redefined what being a bomb meant. It hasn't been the same since for poor old Shivan Dragon. I'm told he has taken on personal counseling for his feelings of inadequacy.
(Don't worry, though, everyone's favorite old-school Dragon still gets first-picked plenty often.)
#8. Rise of the Eldrazi
Rise of the Eldrazi is one of the best-balanced, interesting, and fun Limited formats I have ever played. It's also very close to the top of the list for my favorite Draft format ever. You can draft many different strategies, the removal is good enough to keep you alive but not so good that it's a no-brainer, and the archetypes vary wildly.
Everything is nice and fun until Drana arrives. Always the rebel, she just can't let a good thing stay good. When Drana shows up to your Rise of the Eldrazi party, the party ends. Quickly.
She eats creatures like popcorn, and in the process hits you over the head so hard you either die right there or maybe live one more turn just to repeat the process.
She was an aberration in what was otherwise one of the most well-balanced formats ever printed. And for that, she will always be remembered.
I would be remiss if I didn't give an honorable mention to one of my personal favorite cards of all time: Vent Sentinel.
Vent Sentinel taught me so much. He took me under his big, molten arms and showed me what being a defender was all about. The first deck that I ever really adopted as my own was the Vent Sentinel defender deck from Rise of the Eldrazi. It changed me as a drafter.
Keep burning Vent Sent. Always.
Zendikar was a mean place to live. Everyone was always so aggressive, and nobody ever took the time to just block like a civilized adult. It's just attack, attack, attack. Such is the way of that world; it's in its nature, I suppose.
Many a game of Zendikar Limited started with an attack, and the attacking didn't stop until someone was dead. Blocking? Who has the time?
And then someone slams a Vampire Nighthawk on the table.
I remember the pure joy when I played a Vampire Nighthawk in an early game of Zendikar Limited and my opponent hadn't come across one before. He picked up the card, read it, then put it back down on my side of the table.
Then his face kind of scrunched up. His eyes darted to the side, and he reached down and picked it up again.
Yeah. You are probably going to want to read that again.
Where is the drawback on this thing? It was really tough to kill with the common removal available, since it had the requisite 3 toughness. It also was impossible to race, blocked magnificently (even blocking both the Surrakar Marauder and the Welkin Tern), and it even attacked very nicely on its own.
Vampire Nighthawk a three-mana laundry list of awesome that would be great in any Limited format, but was particularly amazing in the one it debuted in.
#10. Magic 2010 Core Set
When Magic 2010 came out, nobody quite knew what to expect. How good would the draft format be? How far would R&D push this whole "new cards in the core set" thing? Would they try to make a splash, or keep it conservative?
They apparently decided to make a splash. The splash's name was Baneslayer Angel. Baneslayer Angel represented something I hadn't really been exposed to yet: Raw Power. Just pure, raw, awesome, power.
Sure, you had the "Just dies to Doom Blade" camp climbing their podiums to start shouting. And you had people that thought five mana was a bit too much considering it was just a creature. You see, this was around the time we started seeing creatures pushed really far. This was before Thragtusk, the Titans, Thundermaw Hellkite, and Voice of Resurgence. This is when creatures were still just creatures—i.e., things that eventually died to removal.
But Baneslayer Angel started a change in perspective on that front. If a creature could be so utterly powerful on its own that it could warp the whole board state around itself, it had to be respected.
Oh, and this was mainly happening in Constructed.
In Limited? It was kind of laughable how insane a resolved Baneslayer Angel was on the battlefield. The absolute definition of a bomb in every way, Baneslayer is one of the best—if not the all-time best—five-mana creature in Limited history.
#11. Shards of AlaraBlock
A few different cards were memorable for me from this block, but the one that really stuck out was Path to Exile. It's easy to see why: it's arguably the best removal spell ever printed and it's likely the best ever printed in a set designed to be drafted. I don't feel that I need to go too far into how good Path is. It just straight answered anything you needed it to.
A clean slate of killing anything targetable, exiling it, and the fact that it's one mana at instant speed meant that it was a first pick in essentially any pack you opened it in. With so much fixing around that block, it was easily splashable, too.
Playing Path to Exile in Cube draft and Modern Masters puts a nice contrast on how good it was in Shards of Alara Block Draft.
#12. Shadowmoor Block
I had a chat with some of my coverage coworkers for some of the sets I either drafted lightly or not at all. I trust their opinions and used some of them here.
"Your whole goal was to take advantage of the hybrid mana system. The power level of cards didn't go down because they had hybrid mana symbols. Your mono-Mountains deck was playing white cards, black cards, yet never had mana problems."
#13. Lorwyn Block
There are many sweet cards from Lorwyn block, but none as sweet as Mulldrifter. The best part about it is how deceptively advantageous it really is. Mulldrifter is one of the few surefire three-for-ones ever printed. For just one card, you get a 2/2 flying creature and you get to draw two cards.
Think of it this way: If there was a card that cost the same as Mulldrifter, but just had you draw three cards, that would be pretty darn good. What if you were guaranteed to draw a Wind Drake as one of the three cards? Not bad at all.
What if you got to cast that drawn Wind Drake for free? Zero mana.
That's what Mulldrifter does. Oh and on top of all that, it's also flexible thanks to the evoke mechanic, smoothing out draws and finding answers to urgent questions.
#14. Time Spiral Block
I haven't personally drafted Time Spiral much in my life. I wasn't playing when it was out, so it's just been with friends and on Magic Online a few times for me. Before doing my first few drafts, I asked what cards I should look out for besides any obvious bombs.
"Sprout Swarm," was the universal, and kind of loud, answer. So I looked it up. Seemed fine to me. I asked, though, if there was maybe something more powerful or game-ending than Sprout Swarm, since it seemed kind of slow and not that impactful on first viewing.
Okay, okay, sheesh. As it turns out, I never opened one myself, but I did have the distinct displeasure of playing against one once. It all starts out so innocently, making sprouts. It just gets so ugly so quickly after that. The chance of coming back diminishes more and more as the game goes on, and making a card this powerful at common is something R&D is not wont to repeat.
Magic players love to disagree. Sprout Swarm is one of the things they don't disagree on, and that speaks volumes.
#15. Ravnica: City of Guilds Block
We often see evolution of picks in a Draft format. A card will start out as a low, unexciting pick, and creep its way up the list. Occasionally, there is a hidden gem of a card that goes from fringe playable to first-pickable. This doesn't happen too often, though.
The bounce lands started out as respectable mana-fixing, then evolved into first-pick-quality cards over time. They changed the way the decks they were included in were built. You could actually run fewer lands, the more bounce lands you had. This was a remarkable change to the way deck construction was viewed.
The fact that Ravnica block was a multicolored block meant that the combination of mana-fixing and virtual card advantage, plus the extra slots in the deck, meant that the sheer utility of these cards had to be respected. And it was.
#16. Kamigawa Block
Few cards are uttered with such respect and fear as Umezawa's Jitte. I've never had the occasion to face down a Jitte in Kamigawa Block Limited, only in Cube. And in Cube, it's often a first-picked powerhouse. In Cube... where the most powerful cards from all of Magic's long history are shuffled together and drafted.
In Kamigawa Block Limited, it must have just been insane. Imagine a dominating bomb of a card... that costs two mana. Two colorless mana. Meaning that it goes in any deck in the format. And it's an artifact! This is so much tougher to deal with than a creature. Sometimes, the best creature really does just die to removal. Not with the Jitte. Just slap it on some other creature and go to town.
If I had to choose the best Limited card, ever, Jitte would be very high on that list, if not at the absolute top.
#17. Mirrodin Block
"The first time I drafted Mirrodin, Equipment looked good, but I wasn't sure where to draft it. I took it in the middle of the pack since it seemed like it might be good. By the second draft, just two hours later, I first-, second-, and third-picked Bonesplitters. They were that good."
Any card that can keep up with the cards included in Modern Masters has earned it's spot, in my book.
#18. Onslaught Block
An early iteration of the "build-around-me uncommon, Lightning Rift was a card you would take whenever you saw it, then build around it fully. Grabbing every card that had the word "cycling" on it became the name of the game.
Sounds like my kind of card.
#19. Odyssey Block
The best two-drop printed at the time, this mutt enabled madness activations, changed colors so that cards like Dark Banishing and red burn spells couldn't kill it, and it also enabled threshold.
It was rarely blocked, and it would combo with madness cards like Basking Rootwalla to hit your opponent for 3 and get you a free creature. Great in combat, great with the synergies of the time, and already a solid Vanilla Test veteran, Wild Mongrel certainly left its mark.
#20. Invasion Block
Sometimes, a format presents many amazing things to do, but fewer ways to enable said things.
"The format was full of powerful two-for-ones like Consume Strength, Probe, and Jilt, but they all required multiple colors. You wanted as many of them as possible, and Harrow was the best option for unlocking these decks."
"Harrow jumps you in mana quantity and also gets you to the colors needed to play big bombs and multiple-colored spells. Domain was a real thing in this format."
With all those sweet cards flying around the draft table, it's no wonder high-quality mana-fixing became so popular.
To Another Twenty
I hope you enjoyed our look back at the blocks of yore. Did you agree or disagree with any of my picks? Let me know on Twitter or via email what you thought the most memorable cards were from these blocks.
And we'll see you again in twenty more years for another list!