When gold cards were first introduced, not only were many of them not particularly strong, but they had a unique restriction all their own, because these cards weren't just special. They were legendary! I remember looking at vanilla creatures that weren't particularly good deals, required obscene amounts of colored mana, and had names that seemed like they'd been crafted by pulling scrabble letters out of a bag blindfolded and thinking this was one of the best things I'd ever seen. Nowadays being gold doesn't go as far in and of itself, but we also give such cards their just rewards.
After the first set of cards in Legends and a few other sprinklings, many of which established that gold cards would be consistently more powerful than their competition, gold came into its own in Invasion block. Invasion block was all about gold, its Constructed decks were full of gold, and its drafts had players first-picking common mana fixing like Harrow and Fertile Ground over everything but a few rare bombs.
The first time around, gold itself was the central theme. When we couldn't wait any longer, gold was brought back in full force with Ravnica: City of Guilds and each of the ten color combinations was given its own distinct flavor. To this day no one is quite sure whether to call white-blue White-Blue, Azorius, Tundra, or simply It's Not Progress. Yesterday I said in passing that I'd drafted a Gruul deck, just because it seemed like the thing to say rather than "red-green." Ravnica did everything it set out to do and more, but it showcased a problem that had been there in Invasion as well. While all these gold cards are inherently awesome and do very powerful things, it can often be very difficult to find a place to play them due to their mana requirements. This left the gold cards in a similar position to much actual gold, stuck in a fort surrounded by armed guards rather than attacking for 2.
Shadowmoor brought us large numbers of hybrid cards, which tried to change all that by allowing players to choose which color mana to use. Hybrid cards are multicolored, but they're not gold, and they won't appear on this list. Just look at their border, not to mention the fact that they're easier rather than harder to cast. Nothing that can be cast with five basic Mountains can truly be gold.
After Shadowmoor introduced us to multicolor without gold, Shards of Alara brought true gold back in style. What Ravnica did for its two-color guilds, Shards of Alara has done for its three-color shards. Shards of Alara can be summarized as gold dialed up to eleven, or in this case three, and Alara Reborn turned the dial all the way to one hundred.
Without further ado, and with the understanding that Alara Reborn cards are untested enough that they may not yet have found their proper place on the list, I present the Top 50 Gold Cards of All Time, starting with several Honorable Mentions.
I saw that. You just shrugged. I even heard a faint sound of indifference. That's because we're used to the idea that this is a reasonable price for a creature this size. When this was first spoiled everyone had the same reaction: "You can do that?" It was news to us, but we quickly adapted and set to work making beatdown decks that could reliably put this down on the second turn thanks to the vast array of newly available dual lands. We played Watchwolf and it was good, until we realized the decks that played Watchwolf were not as good as Watchwolf, so it stopped seeing play. The Extended decks that Watchwolf would naturally go in have creatures that are just that little bit more outrageous, and the last few years have raised the bar to the point where Watchwolf no longer stands out. As you go through this list you'll see an impressive array of spells that you'd be happy to play, but most of the creatures that are still interesting are either recent additions or more than just a regular creature.
Before there was Zuran Orb there was Dark Heart of the Wood. You don't need life points until you are about to die, unless you feel the urge to pay them to do something silly like draw extra cards. That was doubly true with the old rules, which let you touch zero life points without dying so long as you got back above zero before the end of the current phase. That meant that this card often gave you a lot of life to play with, but the most curious thing about it was that often it didn't give you that much life at all. Many players would put it into their decks despite half their lands not being Forests, and as a result this ended up being far less effective than Zuran Orb despite its frustrating casting cost. Other people warped their mana bases and did massive damage to their decks to try and make good use of it, and many good players took far longer than they otherwise would have to recognize Zuran Orb due to the time they'd spent pointing and laughing at Dark Hearts.
Not every dragon has its day. There are likely a number of dragons that were of similar relative strength to Rith over the years, but Rith got its moment while those others did not. The reason for that was that Rith came along at the most favorable time in history for a good, large finisher in its colors thanks to the rise of Fires of Yavimaya. Decks that already had a lot of mana sources were looking for something to put them over the top and Rith was the man for that job. When the decks faced each other, a player armed with mean old Rith would have a distinct advantage even if he wasn't Armadillo Cloak and it would be almost impossible to deal with if he was. That combination routed me out of the Top 8 of a Pro Tour, and it's never been as good to be fat since, nor will Finkel be using It's Raining Men as his PT theme song. At least, as far as we know.
Other cards that were under consideration for the last round:
50. Maelstrom Pulse
The tremendous flexibility of this card to take out whatever is posing a problem for you is invaluable, and there is little doubt many will take advantage of it, but this isn't quite the card its predecessors were. Never underestimate the value of being played at instant speed. Even the ability to take out multiple additional card types combined with the ability to take out multiple copies of that card, or multiple copies of the same token, does not come close to compensating for sorcery speed. That does not mean this card is bad, for it is quite good. We are comparing this card to one of the classics, a card that is here to stay. Perhaps a closer parallel is in Vindicate in a different color combination and I think it will be telling how often it hurts not to have the ability to hit lands.
49. Destructive Flow
If only there was a deck that could both cast it and want to. This card is hard to play, much harder than it looks at first glance. It takes a while before a deck with the number of nonbasic lands tri-color decks would naturally play would get to stop sacrificing lands, and many of even your similarly colored opponents will be able to keep operating for a similar amount of time unless you bust this out right away. If you could reliably cast this off of a Mountain, a Forest, and a Swamp, that would be great, but that's not an option. However, this is a card that is often worth stretching for. Consider that many current decks in Shards of Alara Block only have a handful of lands that can even come into play untapped, let alone basics! When many decks are drawing completely dead against a three-drop, that's a strong incentive to find a way to play it or at least sideboard it, even if your deck suffers quite a bit while the card is in play. Another solution is simply to play Destructive Flow in a deck full of cheap cards and kill your opponent with one- and two-drops while no one can cast anything bigger.
48. Teferi's Moat
At Pro Tour–Hollywood I was beating up on a Merfolk deck whose creatures were far too puny to dare stand in my way. My opponent had been forced to double mulligan and had drawn five lands. I couldn't imagine how I could lose the game when out came Teferi's Moat. Suddenly none of my creatures could attack and many, many turns later he came over for the win.
Like the original Moat, Teferi's Moat is a card that a large percentage of decks simply cannot beat, and it puts many others on only a handful of outs. The problem with a card like Teferi's Moat is that it isn't easy to utilize even though it looks like it should be. Decks need to be able to cast it reliably and then they have to be able to rely on it. You can't put a Teferi's Moat out there for a long, long time against decks unknown with the knowledge that an enchantment removal or bounce spell will almost certainly kill you unless you are very brave, and once you start down the Moat road it's hard to stop. There's also always the risk that one of their creatures will be the wrong color, or it will fly, or something similar will go wrong, and the creatures that can't attack are still around to prevent you from winning the game in the meantime. Five mana is a lot, often the top of a curve, so this had better work. When it does work, it's a thing of beauty, and the opponents never know what they won't be allowed to hit you with.
47. Broodmate Dragon
When looking at expensive spells I like to use the slump test. When you play this card, will your opponent slump in his chair? There should be few good ways to deal with cards this expensive and not dealing with them should be devastating. Broodmate Dragon is very good at these tasks, because you get not one but two independent good creatures capable of dominating many boards on their own. Your opponent might have a creature removal spell or two they've been holding waiting for a target, or they might draw one, but one removal spell isn't getting it done. The twins are also good for blocking. Then you get to hit for 4 damage a turn, with a good blocker only providing half a solution. That makes Broodmate Dragon an excellent finisher. There are six-drops that pack more power, but few that pack this kind of punch and are this hard to deal with cleanly.
46. Nicol Bolas
It was a different world back then. Having a creature this big was remarkable, and his ability was even better. They discard their entire hand? Game over, man, game over. Not that it should be any other way if you hit them with an eight-drop, but those were far slower games and a lot of people wanted to get their hands on good old Nicol. Some wanted the power, others mostly the fame and then money, while others just wanted him cause he was a cool evil dragon. Chronicles made a far less cool version available and dramatically increased the supply, which took out most of his street cred, but he's back now as Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker behind the dreaded Conflux. I think.
45. Heroes' Reunion
On occasion I have considered sticking this spell on an Isochron Scepter, especially if I can fetch the Reunion off of a Cunning Wish. There are decks out there that simply have no hope of overcoming that amount of life gain, and Heroes' Reunion cast repeatedly can bury them. As a professional tool this is still somewhat narrow, but to casual players what is good in life is often simply life. The godbook study on Invasion showed that Heroes' Reunion was the second most popular card in the entire set! Gold had given these players the ultimate cheap and easy deal in life gain by combining the life-gaining abilities of green and white. To me only two pure life gain cards still feel like they are good stuff when you see them. Gerrard's Wisdom is one and Heroes' Reunion is the other. There's also something very elegant about paying the minimum amount necessary to extract the maximum amount of effect.
44. Woolly Thoctar
There are a lot of similarities between Woolly Thoctar and Watchwolf, as each pushes the envelope of what a vanilla creature can do at its point on the mana curve. It is likely that over time we will get better and better alternatives to Woolly Thoctar, but for now this card is very good at its job. Three is also a good casting cost for green creatures as it can be cast turn two off of Noble Hierarch or Birds of Paradise, providing a sixth-turn kill on its own while still packing enough punch to be effective in the late game. So far it has seen less attention than it likely deserves due to its colors not being a popular combination, but its nonlegendary status points to its promise if the mix does prove attractive later. Getting fancy is often overrated. Bring on the big beasts!
Absorb is a wonderful second Counterspell for traditional white-blue-style control decks, giving them two things they want and nothing they don't. The best part about Absorb is when opponents become afraid to cast a spell for fear that their opponent will gain life and use that valuable time to fight their way to a Wrath of God or other way to turn things around. This often leads to them making their situation worse as they expose themselves to losing to other defensive cards such as Repulse. In the battle between Absorb and other three-mana counters Absorb would almost always win out if it was easily castable, and it was even a small incentive to choose white over black as a secondary color. It also had the advantage of being more elegant than its mirror card Undermine, as it was a simple combination of Healing Salve and Counterspell for the combined price of both of them, and while the strength of the colors meant the ranking here goes the other way, Absorb shows how it's more important to get what you need rather than what is technically more valuable.
Terminate is the ultimate spot removal spell. There are no ways out, no excuses, no exceptions. That creature is very dead, and you did it for only two mana. It is unlikely any card will ever do this job better or cheaper than Terminate. Despite that, Terminate has seen far less play than you would have expected it to, and the reason for that is that its positioning turns out to be awkward. Red decks need their removal to be able to go directly to the face, which is the one thing you cannot Terminate, and while being cheap is nice, the creatures you need Terminate for don't come out fast enough to reward you much for it being so cheap. The best way to appreciate what Terminate does for you is to think how unhappy you always are when you play it on anything less than the biggest game out there. Using your two-mana spell to take out a three-mana target always leaves you wondering if you could have waited and taken out a dragon without worrying that the dragon will be the wrong color. When you're sad to use a card to make a fair trade that's often the sign you are on to something, and it would be interesting to see how popular a three-mana version would be if it could hit players.
I've already noted that back in the day gold creatures didn't have to be good deals in order to inspire awe. When you're a triple threat like Sol'kanar you can take things to the next level. The most common way to take out a creature this large was to use black removal spells, and Sol'kanar was both black and had swampwalk to punish the owner of the spell for looking at him funny. With all the dual lands and the temptations of Mind Twist and Demonic Tutor a lot of decks wouldn't be able to either block or touch the king of the swamp. Being this large for this price at the time was an outstanding deal, even if nowadays it doesn't look like much, and the bonus life points were like adding insult to injury, causing players to wince looking at their hand that little bit more and do it again when you cast additional black spells. On top of it all, who doesn't want to play with a card called Sol'kanar the Swamp King?
40. Sliver Queen
Sliver Queen was the first five-color card, and it made it count. It wasn't easy to pull off Sliver Queen, but you certainly got paid off in return with an endless supply of tokens that would have whatever extra abilities you'd care to scrounge up if you felt the need for them. Sliver Queen was also simply freaking huge even in its base form, well above the standard curve of the time. That made the Queen a combination of one of the most potent long-term weapons and a great deal even if you could never sink another two mana into it. The problem was that mana back then was nowhere near as generous in Standard, and in Extended where the Sliver decks came into their own they mostly proved too fast for the big old Queen even though the mana could usually handle it. That left most of us trading in our Sliver Queens to the kids who would better appreciate them, of which there was a more or less endless supply. Ironically, this massive popularity probably prevented the card from seeing more play in tournaments, as players who might have tried to reach for the Queen instead decided to cash them in for other cards they needed more.
Anathemancer is rapidly making a name for itself and changing the way players build their decks. There is absolutely nothing wrong with good old basic lands, but decks these days have more incentive and ability than ever to play a wide variety of colors off an even wider variety of mana sources. Anathemancer punishes them severely for this with a deadly early creature and the promise of a much bigger hit later down the line—one that can't profitably be countered and can't be stopped with discard, which will force many control decks to consider alternate means of dealing with the problem such as an Identity Crisis. Cards that force players to have enough basic lands to make do in an emergency such as Blood Moon are one thing, but cards that will outright kill you are another. This could end up being much, much higher up when all is said and done; of all the cards in Alara Reborn this is the one to watch.
There's more to Magic than just building decks and winning games. No, I have never put Reparations into a deck or thought about doing so. No, you haven't either. No, it has no worthwhile uses. But that's all right. Every time I think about this card I get a smile on my face. And that, my friends, has made all the difference.
37. Rhox War Monk
One of the most profoundly puzzled looks I've ever given when seeing a deck list designed by someone as brilliant as Gabriel Nassif came when I finally saw the version of Five-Color Control he played at Worlds. I'd talked over the options with Steve Sadin, and this was one option that neither of us had even thought of, let alone considered. When I'd seen the card, I'd looked at it, looked at Mistbind Clique and thought, Well, that's not getting it done. The last thing I'd want to do with a Five-Color Control deck was pin my hopes on a genuine honest creature, even a good man such as Rhox War Monk. Some people would go through it, some would go over it, others around it and some would just kill it. Why make yourself vulnerable like that when it's only 3 life per turn and the damage to your opponent doesn't matter much? Nassif saw something different, I'm assuming more of a "good stuff" concept, but I consider it reasonably well established that the idea turned out to be ill-conceived. That doesn't make this a bad card, however. It makes it a different card, and when decks have good reason to both be in these colors and look for good men, the Monk will be here.
Bouncing permanents is far superior to bouncing creatures, and bounce spells that are cantrips are far superior to ones that are not. Recoil isn't technically a cantrip, but the discard effect makes it "free" and also opens up the possibility of it becoming removal if your opponent has an empty hand. The ability to bounce any permanent allows decks to cover their bases, gives you the option to position things early or in a waiting game by bouncing a land and it makes sure that you'll get to trigger the discard effect. That makes Recoil one of those cards that has a hard time being bad until the point when your opponent has extra lands they can hold in their hand in order to discard them, at which point most decks that run Recoil are either using that as an excuse to crank up the discard engine or more likely happy enough to have survived this long that they don't care. One deck in particular is the reason we remember this card, but it would still be worth remembering anyway. Once again, the best gold designs combine the abilities of different colors in elegant ways; in this case, discard and bounce to go after players with an empty hand.
There's something wonderfully absurd about a giant purple hippo with an anagram for a name, but there was more to it than that. As unwieldy as it may appear to us now, this was one of the best deals out there, because it was large enough to pose a threat and efficient enough to not slow you down and let you leave mana open, which left it all but impossible to kill. This was a reason to splash green into your control deck, or splash white if you were pulling a Mike Pistulnik. Phelddagrif was good times, and was brought back again as the also surprisingly worthwhile Questing Phelddagrif. For a while Phelddagrif seemed like a card that was a tiny bit out of reach. You wanted very much to play it but it didn't quite do enough to justify going that far out of your way while we felt whimsical and vaguely guilty about those lovable purple guys languishing in our binders.
34. Mystic Enforcer
Legacy has gotten so fast that threshold decks have been reduced to playing only Nimble Mongoose and Werebear, but originally there was a third creature in that group. Its name was Mystic Enforcer, and it was large. Mystic Enforcer could easily be slipped into more "normal" builds than its cheaper brethren for several reasons. First, it can dominate a game as a makeshift dragon while its protection from black leaves very few good options for removing it. Second, being more expensive can be an advantage to a threshold card because that gives you time to get the requisite cards into your graveyard assuming that you're being rewarded for all your extra effort. To show how efficient this card is for the right deck, the final versions of Miracle Grow, which were dubbed Super Grow, used Mystic Enforcer as a finisher, since by the time you'd get around to casting it you had an all but guaranteed 6/6 flyer for four mana. There are few better deals out there than that. This was one of those cards that a lot of decks were on the edge of playing, either because they couldn't quite get threshold reliably or they didn't want to splash one of the colors, inviting them to play a high-risk but high-reward game with their mana bases that both cost them games and won them games they had little right to win.
Hibernation Sliver makes all Slivers very difficult to kill as long as you have life points and mana left to play with, and with all your creatures so cheap you would usually have plenty of both when it counted. That made good answers hard to come by while the Sliver deck was functioning as intended, as winning combats was hard, winning them quickly without trample was even harder, and removal was temporary. Cards like Wrath of God and Pyroclasm were the natural enemies of decks full of two-drops, but what good is a Wrath of God if they simply untap and put their creatures back on the table? It's unclear whether this was the most necessary of the Slivers, but it was the one that frustrated the most opposing plans to deal with the problem and even opened up new game plans when the card advantage resulting from saving your creatures could allow Sliver decks to go the control route when backed up by counters and removal spells.
32. Goblin Trenches
Good finishers for control decks that don't run any creatures can be hard to find, and Goblin Trenches filled that role at a time that nothing else could have. There were lots of good answers to individual threats no matter how large, and most decks were sitting on several when it came time to finish them. Even if you weren't trying to strand a bunch of cards, the matches often turned into exhaustion wars to see who would have spells left over when the music stopped, and Goblin Trenches would blow such matches wide open. The need to not miss land drops early would leave both decks with lots of land and not that much to do with it, allowing a player with Goblin Trenches to pressure the opponent slowly, go all-in or do anything in between and usually make their choice work. It was a very different style of play, and one that I sometimes miss amongst today's mana curves.
31. Fiery Justice
Once again we have an elegant card that gets the most you could possibly get out of five mana in terms of damage-based removal short of an even bigger drawback. Five damage split any way you wish for three mana is great bang for your buck. The 5 life points are the problem, and for a long time this card went criminally underused because players had a hard time giving their opponents life points. In a different color combination that would not have been much of an issue as control decks would gladly use a card like this to buy themselves time, and perhaps would do so now that colored mana is plentiful, but the beatdown decks that were in these colors were understandably reluctant to force themselves to count to twenty-five. Sideboards that probably should have had this card due to its ability to dominate a board decided to take a pass. It then came into its own thanks to Kavu Predator, which turned the drawback of 5 life into a whopping +5/+5. If you were playing fair, there was no way you could compete with that if the deck pulled it off and many games were won simply due to a willingness to play a card this powerful, allowing such decks to win long games they would otherwise be lost in.
30. Boros Swiftblade
Double strike is a frustrating ability. Most of the time cards that have it end up having to be watered down or costed up dramatically, because when you don't do that then players have a tendency to die. Doubling effects are highly dangerous, because now every pump spell does double damage, and there may even be other things that can double the effect again. More likely that is overkill and something as simple as a pair of large Gaea's Mights can use a Swiftblade to singlehandedly end the game as early as the third turn. This is as cheap as it is ever going to get—as to get the effect this cheap required multiple double strike colors working together—unless we decide to try out a zero-power version (Boros the Doubleblunt, , 0/1?). We won't get a shot at double strike this cheap often, and when we do we'll almost certainly have only one such card. When you can't count on having double strike available it becomes much more costly to invest in ways to properly exploit it.
29. Cavern Harpy
Cavern Harpy is the card that made the Aluren decks run by letting you duplicate effects on queue, with the rest of the pieces being able to fluctuate with the format and times. This made it a far more important card than its numbers would indicate because it made an entire deck exist for a long time, and in some cases Aluren was the only viable combo strategy available and taking it away would have radically altered the balance. In Limited Cavern Harpy was a deadly card for the right decks, impossible to kill and giving you a lot of tricks to pull off. That effectiveness in Limited kept making it seem like there was something here for decks that played things mostly straight, but it never quite worked out.
28. Lightning Angel
Lightning Angel is the embodiment of the term 'good stuff.' I first heard the term associated with Baxter's deck from the first Pro Tour to represent solid, efficient cards that lent themselves to good old-fashioned Magic. Lightning Angel gets you three damage a turn in the air, hits right away and keeps the rabble in check all for only four mana. In its day it towered over other similar choices and even when it was brought back years later it was competitive. A big key to the Angel's success or failure is whether it can win fights against its most natural enemies, which leaves it coming up a little short these days due to a wealth of 4/4s both on the ground and in the air but in an era full of bears few combats were a problem.
27. Lim-Dûl's Vault
Lim-Dûl's Vault is a super-tutor. If all you want is to find one card you can find it but the Vault offers something more by letting you preview what cards would come along with it, allowing players to plot out the next several turns of the game and see if the sequence being offered would get it done. If not, even the single card you're most after can be sent back, and sometimes it's more important to get a good mix than it is to find any one card in particular. In extreme cases where life isn't an issue, you can even cycle through the entire deck to know your choices and then play knowing what is coming, while in situations where life is precious you can usually get by with minimal loss. The Vault was ideal for Stasis decks and offered quality search at a time when other searching was at best severely limited.
26. Armadillo Cloak
Invasion draft had five two-color combinations, and green-white was essentially Armadillo Cloak. The rest was just commentary, and you wouldn't want to leave home without one or leave the draft without a bare minimum of two, and hopefully more. A good large creature armed with the Cloak will dominate the game; if it's too large to stop then, lifelink and trample rule out any attempt to chump-block or race. An abundance of removal spells in Constructed, and especially bounce out of the control decks, kept it down in Standard, but probably more than they should have. Fires decks could have a terrible time with the Cloak when it was on something as simple as a River Boa even when it wasn't going on something even larger like Rith, the Awakener, but Saproling Burst and Blastoderm caused compatibility issues. That didn't stop Cloak from being the common most likely to bring joy to little kids beating down with their enhanced creatures, but we will never know how much play this card might have had if the standard green mana curves of the time hadn't included token generators and untargetables.
Getting hit by Void is almost never fun. They get to destroy the artifact or creature of their choice and any cards of yours that happen to match it, unless they have a reason to take a shot at your hand. Many decks tried to smooth out their mana curves in order to try and make Void less devastating, but there always seemed to be a good number to choose, and the existence of quality bounce spells Repulse and Recoil meant you often had a decent read on their hand even if you hadn't looked at it directly and also made it much easier to leave them with multiple cards in the same casting cost and not take damage while building up to five. The downside was that it was expensive and a little out of place. The decks that wanted Void tended to be blue-black rather than black-red, forcing players to splash. Many were more than happy to do so.
24. Mystic Snake
Dismiss had already demonstrated the joy of counters that didn't cost a card, but Mystic Snake had the ability to become more than that. Mystic Snake was often a way to do damage to an opponent who you otherwise couldn't find an opening to get a threat down against or a two-for-one by fighting one of the many bears that were in decks in those days, and when it did these things it was good. When it got bounced it was even better, and Repulse was suddenly a much better card than it would otherwise have been. Getting caught by Mystic Snake often left decks in a much deeper hole than it looked like they were in, suddenly behind on all fronts and demoralized to boot.
The most common strategy for fighting discard later in the game is to either play everything all the time, which some decks have the ability to do, or to hold land in your hand to shield you. Discarding lands to Gerrard's Verdict, however, will hand your opponent 6 life points, which is not a good result. Often players have a nasty choice to make between discarding the lands they don't need or the spells they do. Either way, for only two mana the Verdict allowed its caster to get a card ahead, and a second copy or other additional discard spell can apply tremendous pressure as early as the third turn. This makes it the best discard spell since discard spells got fair, and even if your opponent manages to empty his hand you can still use it on yourself to gain 6 life off of useless land cards.
22. Eladamri's Call
Like most tutors, Eladamri's Call saw most of its use in decks that would use it to complete their combo so they could go off. Aluren decks made extensive use of it because they could fetch any of the combo pieces other than Aluren itself, and some versions used Academy Rector allowing them to get Aluren as well. There aren't many two mana tutors that don't cost a card to use and offer this kind of flexibility, but most creatures are valuable because they are efficient rather than because they are the right tool for the job. There's always a bigger and badder option if you could afford to pay more, which means that no matter who you Call a deck playing it straight is usually going to win up unhappy. Recent trends have only made pausing for such effects that much harder.
Long before Cancel proved once and for all that despite a lot of grumbling you will pay three mana for Counterspell and you will like it, we were offered supplemental versions of the star itself that had to come with a bonus to justify the increased cost. As they often do, the gold versions packed the most punch. Decks that want to play counters are almost always control decks, and control decks would much prefer to gain life rather than cause opponents to lose life, so all things being equal they would have preferred to play with Absorb but there were other considerations that forced most of them down the black road instead. Both created interesting situations where opposing players could potentially get themselves into a lot of trouble if they cast a spell and opened up the opportunity for their opponents to counter it. Those 3 life points usually didn't matter much, but occasionally they make all the difference, especially when a deck finds itself in a position to do 14 or 17 damage all at once but can't do 20 ....
No card embodies a player like Shadowmage Infiltrator, although Conflux also gives us Traumatic Visions nicely. Not only did Shadowmage Infiltrator perfectly capture Jon Finkel's face, but it allows a player to slowly win the game through difficult-to-block card advantage and trivial but eventually critical amounts of damage. Along with countering spells and removing threats, the specialties of the colors needed to cast him, that's pretty much all Jon ever does! With so many good instants available, once a player untapped with a Shadowmage Infiltrator and an otherwise empty board the game was practically over, and if there was some small threat left over it could be dealt with in due time.
The universal dilemma of the Infiltrator was that few decks that played it wanted to tap out to get him there, but sticking him on the board was so devastating that most opponents would consider themselves fortunate to spend that window of opportunity making him go away as trying to race him with a traditional three- or four-drop was pure folly and playing your own blocker, including your own Shadowmage or something a little bulkier risked a removal spell that would lead into a downward spiral of card disadvantage. In the end most decks ended up eschewing Infiltrator for another identically costed card that was indisputably more powerful and important, since having two creatures in that slot would have been highly awkward for many draws. Without the competition, Infiltrator would likely have seen a lot more play.
19. Gaddock Teeg
It's hard out there for expensive spells. Hell, these days it can be hard out there for any spells. Looking at many of the old creatures on this list, it's hard for new players to know what they are missing, because in the context of today's creatures they generally aren't missing all that much. With the old spells it's usually easy to see what you're missing because you've been missing it for several years.
Gaddock Teeg was the avatar of that transition, standing before those who would play without creatures and telling them that they shall not pass. Message received, loud and clear. It doesn't stop all spells, but it stops enough of any modern deck based on spells that if he sticks they'll be stuck with a hand full of useless cards, and those spells will naturally be the most powerful ones available. Even when he was shutting down a single key card like Cryptic Command, good old Teeg was a tremendous pain since those are exactly the cards that bring down beatdown decks or open up games. There is the risk that some decks out there don't have any spells they won't be able to cast, but the loss in such a case is the mana required to make him work more than the opportunity cost of a larger creature. The more important reason Gaddock was contained was that green wasn't a natural fit for the decks that wanted Gaddock, or in some cases green was but white wasn't, and his legendary status made it difficult to go too far out of the way to get him.
Crystalline Sliver allows Sliver players to play their game without being paranoid (or at least, while being less paranoid) that disaster will strike them at any time. If you're counting on Winged Sliver or Muscle Sliver or any other boost to carry you through combat, then a removal spell on the key ability can destroy your entire team, and even with Hibernation Sliver available such a blow is often crippling. Hibernation Sliver is great, but you still end up paying two life per card saved to your hand and it's very easy to fall behind. Crystalline Sliver outright nullifies all targeted removal along with a number of other solutions. It does still leave you vulnerable to mass removal cards, but without them opponents would often sit there helpless as nothing they had was able to put so much as a dent in the assault. Together with Hibernation Sliver the deck could have good answers to all anti-creature effects other than permanent barricades and have enough copies to make sure that each Sliver wave contained at least one. While the abilities do have some natural overlap, they also overlap in the right color and the abilities complement in addition to being imperfect substitutes.
17. Cruel Ultimatum
In theory, it is possible to cast Cruel Ultimatum and lose the game, but I have not seen this happen. The amount of advantage gained from this card is ridiculous even if some of the effects miss their marks, and once the kind of deck that plays this card gets that kind of edge it does not give it back. An opponent not crippled by this card was either way ahead on the board or had already lost. The only potential problem is that you do have to tap out, so if there's a strange combination deck that can discard three cards, sacrifice a creature, and go off anyway, then you'd have to be careful. There's also the tiny problem of this costing seven mana, all of it colored, but the combination of both winning the long game and keeping you alive to see it makes seven feel cheap, and there's enough behind this card that there is no need to worry about following it up with another copy unless your opponent can fire one back at you. Decks vary how many copies they play based on how reliably they want to have a copy once they hit seven mana, which is usually a question of how often they need that boost to win the game combined with how much they need to sacrifice to make sure they get that far. The phenomenon of decks that only have one copy is a bizarre side effect of a world where color is so cheap that you can play this, Wrath of God, Cloudthresher, Jund Charm, and Rhox War Monk without even worrying that this might be pushing it.
16. Ajani Vengeant
There is almost always a good use for Ajani Vengeant. When it is not under threat and there is nothing vital to kill, Ajani can lock down anything from a giant threat to a key land while forcing the opponent to find an answer. Unlike many planeswalkers the ultimate on Ajani creates a secure lock on the game, and thanks to the protection Ajani's ability gives, it is practical to get there even against decks capable of attacking. There's also nothing wrong with a good Lightning Helix between friends that then forces the opponent to finish him off. Even if all it does is eat an attack and kill a creature, you've still gained at least 5 life and that more than makes up for the additional cost. The two complement each other as well, as when one is no good the other is likely to be welcome both against different decks and in different situations. This allows decks to have the flexibility to solve problems they couldn't naturally solve and have reach they wouldn't usually have without having to sacrifice much to get it.
15. Loxodon Hierarch
Loxodon Hierarch was the ultimate keep me alive creature. It was powerful enough to maintain your spot on the curve admirably while also undoing much of the early damage you'd been taking. Trying to keep pace with a Hierarch when playing a highly aggressive deck is a head slumping experience, and due to the lack of competition most decks with access to the colored mana would choose this over other creatures in the same price range. You're behind where you should be, and all you can hope is that he didn't bring along friends, which he often would. If you were willing to spring for both colors, chances were you weren't messing around. The sacrifice ability occasionally came in handy, guarding against mass removal even though it was never the primary motivating factor, and it was hard for decks running him to justify keeping the necessary mana untapped until very late in the game.
Or at least they were in the past, remarkably often. There are essentially three ways to play Stormbind. Method one is to use it as the kill in an engine or abuse it with cards that return to hand, which would occasionally happen, but it was rare as there were generally more efficient engines. Method two was to use it to make good use of excess land and to finish off particularly problematic creatures, combined with a little extra reach. It was a slow process getting the investment ready and digging far enough into the game to have the cards to spare but if a deck had no use for excess mana this was still a highly effective endgame especially for decks that used Thawing Glaciers.
The other method was to go into Stormbind mode early, once a deck hit four or perhaps six lands, and make a sudden shift into the Philosophy of Fire. Without the need to waste card slots on land and the ability to cast occasional worthwhile spells you could put a lot of old school decks under tremendous pressure as they were stuck with lands and removal that didn't impact the game. Yes, a lot of their cards will be better than Shock, unless you were playing Limited back then in which case they might not have any such cards, but better enough? That could be harder than it seems, and 4 damage a turn kills in a hurry. This was especially effective against Necropotence decks. They'd be gaining massive card advantage, but what use is it your opponent is down four lands, he's out of cards, and you are dead?
13. Mirari's Wake
There has likely never been a card whose abilities have been so widely squandered as Mirari's Wake. Bigger creatures are wonderful. Lands that tap for extra mana are wonderful. Getting both at the same time is not as wonderful as those effects would be separately, although it is worth it. The mana effect was the one that counted, and there were a lot of good reasons to want to play a deck based around it. One your mana was doubled there were any number of ways to start generating massive card advantage and take over the game in short order, with Wrath of God serving as the four-drop to lead into the Wake and Mirari itself, which was usually the way things ended. That allowed decks to play with lots of cards they could cast without the Wake and still make use of all that mana by abusing Mirari. For over a year control decks got to be at or near the top of Standard, and without Mirari's Wake it is doubtful they would have seen much play at all.
Three little words: Destroy target permanent. It is good to destroy target permanent, and together black and white have the right to destroy every permanent type that existed at the time. There are few cards as universally efficient and useful as Vindicate. Vindicate allows decks to contain free land destruction along with artifact and enchantment removal without having to devote any space to such utility or ever risk having their creature removal or anything else stuck in their hand. It is exceptionally difficult to find a Standard deck that was allowed to play Vindicate, had the mana to play Vindicate, and had a good excuse why playing Vindicate was not a good idea. For those decks where it was castable and removal was called for, Vindicate often made it into Extended and even as far as Legacy.
Modern decks tend to have a lot more redundancy than it was reasonable to have in the past. Most combination decks had at least one card they couldn't win without, many had multiples and even the cards they could win without could slow things down quite a bit. Many control decks could be crippled or even outright beaten if you caught them with their win condition and catching their only mass removal spell could be devastating as well. With so many long games even simply taking a card away from the high end of the mana curve could be quite effective. Even when all you got out of this was the discard the overpayment wasn't that dramatic, and many decks were forced to adjust their builds to minimize the damage. The other big bonus was that you got to see their entire deck, which back then taught you a lot more than it does now due to a lot of people playing their own homebrews and a lack of other ways to take a look. Many players considered their decks' contents a closely guarded secret. Even if you lost the match, often you walked away from it with valuable technology. Occasionally a player would even concede a game that was far from over to protect his deck from prying eyes.
What players found was almost as good: They found pure gas. Squandered Resources is not even remotely worthwhile if it is being used in a fair way, but there are two strong unfair ways to use it. The original, most popular, and most obvious way is to end the game on the turn you play Squandered Resources. The deck that did this most famously was Prosperous Bloom, refilling its mana and thinning its deck by combining Squandered Resources with Natural Balance or simply to boost its way to its first Cadaverous Bloom or Prosperity. While the engine at the heart of the deck was Cadaverous Bloom it would not have been even remotely competitive without Squandered Resources, as banning this card proved. The other approach came later and revolved around rendering lands useless via Stasis. If your lands are never going to untap, there's little harm in sacrificing them and turning each land into two mana makes the upkeep on Stasis maintainable on a permanent basis.
Spiritmonger is an easy card to stave off for a long time, since almost any blocker can jump in front of him. Whether the blocker lived or not, that only makes him a tiny bit angrier, hence the mongering of spirits. Spiritmonger was about there being no way out, other than killing the player. Unless you have regenerator, you can't block Spiritmonger forever. Eventually he'll get bigger than you are, and you will die. You can't chump-block him forever, since you'll eventually run out of chumps. You can't destroy him, since he regenerates. You can't use your other removal, because he's black, unless you have something with protection from black, in which case he's temporarily something else. Meanwhile Pernicious Deeds and other such sweepers can control the game or clear a path, and your destruction awaits. Like many other dominant gold creatures, Spiritmonger muscled out all of its competition. If you had the mana to play him and wanted a large creature that didn't need to kill your opponent on the spot, you played it, period. There was no point in going to six or more mana because you couldn't do better, and going to four mana in bulk was equally silly. Other five-drops weren't even worth mentioning. Curves were sometimes low enough that you didn't get to build up to Spiritmonger, or could only afford one or two copies, but there was no doubt what the trump card was.
Trying to kill a Frenetic Efreet was a ritual of frustration. One day you'd play seven of them and all of them would die on the first attempt, taking away the whole reason you played blue-red in the first place. The next day, you'd face Frenetic Efreets that were downright immortal as you burned through card after card trying to make them go away. There were no good answers to a Frenetic Efreet, only answers that worked half the time, so as long as you weren't far enough behind that he was ignorable the Efreet was always effective. The only thing getting in the way were bigger creatures, and even then it could be a strong blocker or help soften up a defender for a burn spell—and half the time he would live either way. No card caused more chairs to almost be thrown, so while it is in many ways remembered fondly, no one wants to go through that again and we have an understanding that coin flips won't be this central again. That's what heads meant, right?
Doran is effectively a 5/5 for three mana, regularly beating up on other people's (and often your own) four-drops. He also lets Birds of Paradise attack (and boosts up Noble Hierarch) improving many of the creatures that naturally aid in his casting while hurting many of the most popular tournament creatures due to the usual preference for power over toughness. The bottom line, however, remains 5/5 for three mana, and in a color combination that both makes him relatively easy to cast and provides a logical support structure. When Doran comes out on the second turn, he puts most decks trying to race him hopelessly behind and hoping to make a poor trade to minimize the damage. The most depressing part of facing down Doran may be the other three copies of him waiting in the enemy's deck, which due to his legendary status may be stuck in his hand at this very moment. Removing him sometimes only makes things worse.
Cadaverous Bloom was the heart of our first competitive combination deck at the professional level. It had some minor other notes to play, such as being part of the theoretical Extended Yawgmoth's Bargain deck I was asked to build to show how often it could kill on turn one, and providing the method of execution in some other cases, but Cadaverous Bloom is all about the Prosperous Bloom deck. What makes it so significant is that this deck altered the landscape of Standard for years in a way that few other non-dominant decks ever have. Instead of a world focused on creature combat, all decks had to worry about how to either finish off the opponent quickly or defend against the Bloom engine. The need to radically adjust builds and sideboards and the need to play an entirely different type of game frustrated a lot of players, many of whom vowed not to lose to the Bloom deck. This often rose to the level of outright hatred, which meant that even though a lot of players didn't want to or weren't capable of piloting the Bloom deck, they still faced enough hate to keep the deck in check.
There were a lot of head-scratchers or absurdly overpowered submissions at the Invitational that Chris Pikula won, but Chris instead submitted a supremely elegant design. All Wizards did was clean it up and make it cheaper as they wanted to make sure it was good, which they did by changing it from blue to white-blue. The resulting card has seen play at all levels and adds a fascinating dimension to play. Getting the most out of Meddling Mage is hard, requiring reading the opponent, reading the opponent's likely deck list, and evaluating how the game is going to go. In many matchups the proper card to name is obvious most of the time but against decks with no one key card the answer can be counterintuitive even if you can't get a read on your opponent. When you do have a read, it is devastating and when you know a format cold and are really on your game, the guessing can get scarily accurate. One underappreciated option is to name the card that would cause a problem right now rather than trying to stop a long-term threat. Cutting off the weak point in the opponents' mana curve is often enough to win you the game.
Life gain gets no respect, because when you invest mana and cards in life gain it has the nasty habit of not making a difference, especially when you're trying to play a burn-heavy game, which either involves trying to burn out an opponent or all opposing creatures. In either case, if you fail, an extra 3 life is unlikely to save you. This lack of respect makes people reluctant to pay, but they are still thankful when it is available for free as it is on Lightning Helix. Two mana for 3 damage at instant speed is the gold standard on its own, so if you can find both colors of mana regularly this is like starting the average game at 22 or so if you can pack four copies. That makes this an automatic inclusion all decks that are trying to play good old fashioned Magic in the correct colors, running the gamut from control to pure burn.
There have been many attempts to make cards like Fires of Yavimaya, but no other similar cards have proved to be any good at the tournament level. The success and popularity of Fires of Yavimaya is due to a confluence of several factors. The most obvious of these factors is the synergy of haste with Saproling Burst, which was known to some as "The Fix." That extra turn almost doubled the strength of the Burst and made it hit for the full 20 damage in only two turns, which would normally mean a kill on turn five, or turn four if backed up by a Blastoderm. Haste was obviously also welcome when placed along side the other big creatures in the deck, and the option to sacrifice it for a boost meant that you could usefully cash it in when it was no longer useful or you had multiple copies. Even the threat of doing so was valuable, as no one could set up a combat where they would be crippled by facing a 7/7 instead of a 5/5.
The other reason was that Fires of Yavimaya was in exactly the right spot on the mana curve. Because it was a three-drop, it could be played on turn two off Birds of Paradise or Llanowar Elves. It then let any additional mana creatures left behind come out at no cost, and it got there in time to set up the cards with assisting and smooth out the deck, with the speed boost allowing you to invest in more expensive cards than could otherwise be justified. When a deck runs over thirty mana sources it doesn't want to be forced into playing three-drops that are creatures but it also wants three-drops that will help it attack. Fires of Yavimaya decks were as fast as other beatdown decks while packing more power and the ability to get brutal draws, allowing them to be the most important deck in Standard for as long as they retained their key components. It would be interesting to see what would happen if Fires returned in another similar form.
The amount of power and control offered by Pernicious Deed is incredible. Used as a blunt instrument it can be Nevinyrral's Disk and wipe out the whole board, and if you can show your hand via a small investment you can do it at any time with confidence that nothing on board is likely to be too expensive to take out. The fact that regeneration is possible is a double edged sword that often benefited the player using the Deed because it let them regenerate their Spiritmongers. Those two cards combined led to the creation of a wide array of green-black decks that Sol Malka got named "Rock." Eventually that name was corrupted to include any green-black deck involving creatures but the creatures were never the key to Rock's success. Pernicious Deed was always the key. Discard was used to force the opponent to overcommit to the table or to clear a path, after which the board was wiped and the resulting card advantage let you slowly finish off a helpless opponent. This was on top of the standard problem that decks faced when defending against Deed even when they knew it was there. If you put out large men the whole board would blow. If you put out small men, only your side would die. When the mana is available Deed also finds its way into control decks, giving Oath of Druids players a way out of almost any jam while often leaving their chosen creature intact, and in the old days serving as an unexpected Tutor target that could turn the game around out of nowhere. More recently Deed is a key part of many Landstill decks in Vintage, as they are facing down a lot of cards that cost one and two mana.
Blue control decks are full of counterspells, card drawing and removal. Given time, they will crush you, but they can often fall behind. They also need some method to finish you off, which is often a card which doesn't do much for the deck otherwise. Psychatog fills all those roles in stunningly efficient fashion. Attacking into a Psychatog means losing whatever creature the opponent decides to block. If it happens on turn three, that will cost them several cards, but they can usually get those cards back. Later in the game graveyards will build naturally and cards may not need to be sacrificed. Letting a Psychatog attack is even more dangerous because you might die. Right here, right now, the game could end. Unless the 'Tog player has been furiously burning his resources to stay alive, that first hit will almost always be in the double digits and you're likely only a Fact or Fiction or two away from it becoming lethal. The moment you tap out, that could be the end, especially if they have a Wonder up their sleeve.
Decks that were already strong could now beat you in a whole range of new ways without ever having to tap out for more than a three mana-creature, and once that creature was on the table it felt like it both dramatically slowed your ability to attack and made the situation worse on a continual basis as every turn that went by meant another card (or often cards) available to the opponent to make Dr. Teeth bigger. There was a long period where these strategies were so powerful and robust that there were no good answers, and the best way anyone found to beat a Psychatog deck was to tune the deck for the mirror matchup.