My Top Ten Magic Cards of the Decade

My Top Ten Magic Cards of the Decade

The last ten years have seen big changes for Magic. The player base has seen huge growth, casual formats like Commander now drive card prices more than tournament staples and Magic Arena has been a game changer. Underneath it all however, the cards tell the real stories.

I’ve chosen ten cards to represent the biggest developments in Magic design. Read on for some multi-format all-stars, banned cards and a few surprise inclusions!

Nicol Bolas, Dragon God

Magic story has had its ups and downs over the years. The first golden age for magic story was the Weatherlight saga which was Magic’s first long-running story-arc that spanned many years. One weakness of this era is that the story existed in books, but didn’t always appear on card designs. Important characters like Gerrard Capashen received weak and uninspiring cards. Magic entered a second golden age with fiction freely available online and cards designs that accurately reflected the events and characters of the story. The Bolas arc may have ended in acrimony with poorly received novels, but the second half of the decade saw more engagement with the story than ever before.

Some of my favourite cards are those that tell the story of an entire set. I love Crux of Fate which forces players to make the same choice that Sarkhan faces. But perhaps my favourite example is on Nicol Bolas, Dragon God. Bolas’s ultimate plan of draining power from other planeswalkers is represented perfectly on Bolas’s static ability.

Bolas gets better alongside other planeswalkers, but fortunately War of the Spark makes it easier than ever to acquire planeswalkers. One of the most exciting new technologies this decade was collation, allowing far more control over the contents of a booster. Dominaria guaranteed a legendary card in every pack, while War of the Spark did the same for planeswalkers. War of the Spark boosters are so exciting to open because of this, and I’m sure that we’ll see more exciting ideas originating from printing developmnents in the future.

Emrakul, the Aeons Torn

Magic 2010 was released at the end of the last decade, but if it had actually been released in 2010, Baneslayer Angel would have been a slam dunk inclusion on this list. It heralded the beginning of a new era, one where creatures would become the most important card type in magic, and their power level would be pushed to new heights. Other classic examples of this push came in Magic 2011 with the titan cycle with cards such as Grave Titan and Primeval Titan. These were some of the best creatures ever printed, and showed that there were no longer any limits to how powerful creatures could be.

If you get excited about big creatures then this decade had some special treats for you. Griselbrand and Craterhoof Behemoth are fantastic, but nothing comes close to Emrakul. Magic needs its villains and whilst the eldrazi may not be evil, they are one of the few antagonists to have enduring appeal. Bolas and the phyrexians have been around since the dawn of magic, but almost all the other antagonists can’t provide a universal threat, being either dead, forgotten or just unable to planeswalk.

Emrakul the Aeons Torn is a jaw-dropping card. The art is incredible and the abilities are worth every mana. Almost unstoppable, Emrakul is immune to counterspells, removal and once she swings at you, you probably lose seven permanents in a vain attempt to chump block. The sheer power of the eldrazi is matched by the allure of their mysterious lore. What is their purpose? Ulamog and Kozilek may be gone, but I can’t wait for the cosmic horrors that will be unleashed when Emrakul returns.

Delver of Secrets

A top-down design is one that is inspired from flavour and theme rather than being constructed from mechanics. Kamigawa block was the first attempt at a top-down block, using Japanese mythology as a basis. The relative failure of that block led many to doubt the merits of top-down designs. Innistrad was a second attempt at top-down design based on the horror genre and it was a rousing success, that completely validated top-down design. Delver of secrets is one such design, being classic horror film The Fly in card form. Other examples of highly resonant designs include Screeching Bat and Civilized Scholar.

It’s no coincidence all my examples of resonant design were double-faced. When first conceived, magic cards without a magic back were predicted by some to be a step too far, but instead, the possibilities for double-faced cards are still being explored. The story-telling potential of cards with two names, arts and text boxes is vast. My favourite use of this technology is to show a character like Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy becoming a planeswalker. No other cards have come close to showing such a critical story moment.

Of all the transform cards, one stands out as a multi-format all-star that exemplifies an entire archetype. A single Delver of Secrets backed up by a barrage of disruption can win a game single-handedly. Any card that has decks named after it every format is absolutely deserving of a place as card of the decade.

Hazoret the Fervent

New creature types pop up from time to time, but one of the best first appeared in Theros block. The gods started as a mega-cycle of fifteen fickle deities that demanded you to be devoted to their colour or colours. Cards like Iroas, God of Victory and Purphoros, God of the Forge paired a huge indestructible body with abilities that matched their colour(s). Keeping them active as creatures could be hard, but the reward was worth it. Gods have returned several times since, with different implementations of their indestructibility and their fickle nature.

In Ahmonket, the gods again demanded players be worthy before helping in combat. Instead of devotion, the gods had a new criteria appropriate for their philosophy, along with an activated ability that helps fully activate the god. Gods can and probably will return on other planes in new forms but keeping the same epic feeling.

Many standard formats in this decade were dominated by splashy pushed mythics. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Archangel Avacyn were power houses that ran their respective formats. Hazoret was so important to the rise of aggressive red decks, because it gave red decks the reach they so often lack. Resilient to many forms of removal, Hazoret complimented aggressive decks that naturally empty their hands quickly and apply lots of pressure.

Atraxa, Praetors’ Voice

Perhaps the biggest story of the decade was the meteoric rise of Commander. The first commander decks were released as an experimental product in 2011 and have since become one of the most eagerly awaited sets released each year. It was recently revealed that Commander is the most played constructed format, and its popularity is only increasing. We now see exciting legendary creatures printed in almost every expansion in an attempt to satisfy the insatiable desire for new commanders, and cards like Smothering tithe to moderate the weaknesses of certain colours and archetypes in the format.

Commander sets aren’t subject to the same power level as standard legal sets. Commander sets are an opportunity for designers to take the gloves off and let rip. Atraxa is one of the most popular commanders of all time, giving players access to the best four colours in Commander, four great keywords and the potential to go nuts with proliferate. There are many directions you can go in with Atraxa. Your deck can be themed around +1/+1 counters, planeswalkers or even something more niche like energy. What ever you decide to do, Atraxa will be an engine, turbo charging your deck.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Many would say this was the decade of planeswalkers. They may have made their debut in 2007, but they became a dominant part of competitive magic and beloved by casual players. No stranger to a ban list, Jace has been considered the strongest ever planeswalker for most of the decade. Oko, Thief of Crowns may now be stealing some of Jace’s thunder, but Jace is still the most iconic planeswalker and the most expensive.

The first planeswalker to get four abilities, Jace is a lesson in the power of flexibility. The option of going to five loyalty straight away makes him hard to kill, the ultimate is devastating, and the -1 is infuriating to play against. The zero ability is the most eye-catching ability though. Brainstorm is the cornerstone of the Legacy format, where it offers premium card selection. It can take years of practise to understand when and how to get the most out of one brainstorm, which is why Jace’s ability to brainstorm every turn is so spectacular. Unbanned in Modern in 2018, now even more players get to experience playing with a card that can be considered the face of Magic for the decade.

Infinity Elemental

One of the sagas of the decade was “the vanilla mythic”. Vanilla creatures are creatures have only power and toughness but no rules text. They appear in most sets at common and uncommon, and cards like Gigantosaurus have appeared at rare. The idea of a vanilla creature at mythic fascinated the community when Mark Rosewater revealed that one would appear in a future set. Crazy theories abounded, but no-one predicted Infinity Elemental because no-one predicted Unstable.

Unstable was a smash hit, reinvigorating the un-series of sets based around wacky and inventive things that can’t be done in black border. The previous un-sets had been commercial failures, with infamous designs like Look at Me, I’m the DCI and Ashnod’s Coupon that made people laugh, but no-one wanted to draft or play the sets more than once. Unstable showed how successful silver bordered magic could be. I chose Infinity Elemental to represent this set because I remember how often the community wondered, ‘Is this the set with a vanilla mythic?’. In a few months time I will be looking at my favourite uncards of all time, so look out for silver bordered fun on my blog.

Attune with Aether

For much of the decade Standard didn’t see bans. Dominant cards and archetypes would come and go, but not get banned. Even if cards like Dig through Time and Treasure Cruise were degenerate in older formats, standard was seen as stable. In January 2017, bannings return to Standard and they didn’t stop. The orthodoxy was broken, and bans have become grudgingly accepted. Five cards from Kaladesh block would get banned and I had to include one of them. Artifact blocks always trouble ban lists and artifacts like Smuggler’s Copter showed that design still struggled with pushed artifacts. This punishing experience has led to the rise of coloured artifacts.

But artifacts weren’t the only problem with balancing Kaladesh. Energy was a novel mechanic, representing the aether infused through out the plane of Kaladesh. Cards would create and use energy, but when combined with each other the synergy was too powerful. Banning win conditions like Aetherworks Marvel didn’t work, so an innocuous card like Attune with Aether had to be banned. The free energy alongside a useful effect was simply too powerful. I hope bans will become a thing of the past, at least in Standard, but Throne of Eldraine doesn’t provide much hope as we enter a new decade.

I hope we return to Kaladesh in the future, and that energy returns as well. Energy was one of a number of alternate resources that Magic has experimented with over the last five years. Clues, treasure and food were all useful artifact tokens that could be traded away for one resource or as fuel for other cards. Together with energy these four resources appeared at different power levels, but they appeared on flavourful cards and helped build the identity of the plane and draft environments they appeared on.

Cogwork Librarian

Magic isn’t one game but a rules system that supports many games. Conspiracy was the first of a series of experimental draft formats and it brought many innovations. Mechanics like dethrone and will of the council emphasised playing magic with more than two players, whilst other cards shook up how decks are drafted and built.

Many of the designs are inventive, or even radical, but they can come at the cost of warping a draft environment or adding tedious bookkeeping to every draft. Cogwork Librarian on the other hand can be played in any cube format, where it’s a highly popular addition. It opens up more options and strategies for drafters and I love how the librarian can be picked and used by many different players over the course of the draft.

Prey Upon

The colour pie continued to grow and evolve across this decade. Innistrad’s Prey Upon premiered the fight mechanic and variations like Rabid Bite and Savage Smash appear in other sets.

Another colour pie change gave red more access to card draw, with Act on Impulse paving the way for cards like Light up the Stage and Outpost Siege. Impulsive draw like this fixes a glaring weakness for red, whilst matching red’s spontaneous nature.

In tandem with the arrival of fight cards removal underwent great changes. Cards like Murder and Doom blade started the decade at common, before being shifted up to uncommon. Removal hit a nadir in Theros block with cards like Vanquish the Weak and Sip of Hemlock. 2019 saw a change in philosophy, beginning in War of the Spark with cards like Ob Nixilis’s Cruelty and murder returning to common in Magic 2020. This shift in power levels was one of the biggest and longest-running sagas in limited magic over the decade.

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