Magic the Gathering in 2021, A Retrospective

Magic the Gathering in 2021, A Retrospective

This is a first of what will be an annual tradition looking back at the past year in Magic. I’ll start by looking at each set from best to worst and giving them all grades finishing with my set of the year. Afterwards I’ll give awards to individual cards such as “best sorcery of the year” or “best artwork of the year” before finally crowning my best card of the year.

2021 Set By Set Retrospective

Crimson Vow – 6/10

hhh
Crimson Vow isn’t a genuinely bad set but it’s so hard to get excited by it. It’s now our seventh visit to Innistrad and it comes only a few months after Midnight Hunt. This time the focus is on vampires, but most Innistrad sets have a vampire archetype, so this isn’t very original. This set has good cards, but I’m not sure there are that many that are too exciting or memorable. Mostly it’s just more vampires, more zombies, more spirits and more werewolves. This is a pretty formulaic Innistrad set.

Perhaps the headline mechanic was blood, which was fantastic for limited, and synergises with the madness vampire cards from the Shadows over Innistrad block. I don’t find it very flavourful though using an artifact to represent blood. The craziest mechanic was cleave which gives you an alternate cost that edits out words from the spell. It looks and feels weird and doesn’t really fit with the rest of the set.

With Crimson Vow I feel the year ended a bit flat, but I’m excited about all the sets in 2022, so I’m sure Magic will bounce back with more fantastic sets soon.

Midnight Hunt – 6/10

hhh
Midnight Hunt was a real disappointment to me. I love looking back at the original Innistrad which was one of the best and most influential sets of all time. I loved everything in Shadows over Innistrad block and I was really excited to return to Innistrad again. Unfortunately Midnight Hunt couldn’t match my expectations. Firstly it focuses on the classic tribes of Innistrad. This sounds great but some of these tribes like zombies and vampires have been done many many times by now so the set feels like a bland replica of past Innistrad sets.

Midnight Hunt was sold as the werewolf set but the werewolves were really lackluster. They were terrible in limited and a total flop in Standard. Even worse was that they were no longer compatible with the older werewolves. All of the werewolves use the new daybound mechanic which uses a different trigger to control the transition between day and night. It’s tedious tracking the new mechanic when there aren’t any werewolves in play and it’s really ugly putting them in a deck with the old werewolves. This means I don’t want any of the new werewolves which is a massive disappointment.

For all these short-comings, I have to recognise some of the great cards in the set. There are a lot of simple cards that will be instant staples such as Consider, Infernal Grasp, Fading Hope and Cathar Commando. It’s great to see people get excited about simple cards like these.

Popular mechanics like investigate and flashback also return, whilst disturbed was a very flavourful take on double-sided cards. The zombie tokens in this set come with the decayed drawback which was interesting. You can’t use them to block and they can only attack once, leading to interesting play patterns. You can either build up a huge army of decayed zombies to attack all at once or find useful ways to tap or sacrifice them.

In the end, the really disappointing facets of the set are balanced out by some great cards, so I went for a distinctly average 6/10 rating.

Strixhaven – 7/10

hhh
Strixhaven is another difficult set to evaluate for me. The school theme is a real turn off for me, whilst the Mystical Archives is perhaps my biggest highlight of the year. But do those even count as part of Strixhaven proper? It’s not surprising though that such iconic and powerful spells printed with absolutely gorgeous art was so popular. What else did Strixhaven have to offer?

There were five factions or colleges which were themed very differently to their Ravnica counterparts. It was a highly structured set with most cards belonging to the five colleges and supporting the game plans of these five archetypes. Like many previous sets divided into factions, this does limit the complexity of the set as it only supports five archetypes and doesn’t offer a lot for players trying to do something different.

The Lorehold college was a particular highlight. As the college of history this invigorated a colour pair that is almost always an aggressive archetype. It’s great to see red-white doing something novel and original. Cards like Thrilling Discovery and Reconstruct History showcase a great new direction for red-white mages. The other colleges however weren’t as radically different from conventional magic colour pairs which was a disappointment.

The limited format was a big hit where the unique gameplay of drafting lesson and learn cards alongside the Mystical Archive. Learn cards can grab lesson cards from your sideboard which was a very interesting mechanic. Notably all the mechanics appeared in all the colleges, which was a nice change from the tried and tested formula for faction sets. Overall though, the theme, some of the factions and the really wordy double-sided cards didn’t excite me, so I rate Strixhaven as a good set, but not one that I love.

Adventures in the Forgotten Realms – 7/10

hhh
The next set is a landmark in Magic history. This is the first set since Arabian Nights in 1993 that doesn’t use Magic IP and lore, but instead explores Dungeons & Dragons as its source material. With Universes Beyond nearly upon us we’re going to see more sets like this in the future and I think AFR is a benchmark for what we can expect.

One of the biggest innovations of this set, and perhaps of 2021 as a whole, was the use of flavour words to glue a card together. Words such as engulf and dissolve on Gelatinous Cube have no rules associated with them, nor are they repeated on other cards. We have never seen this on Magic cards before but it helps unite the rules and game-play of the card and the flavour of the card and create a cohesive design that you instantly understand. I don’t expect to see flavour words in every set going forward, but I thing they are perfect for sets in Universes Beyond which use intellectual property from other fictional settings.

If that wasn’t enough, AFR also introduced dice rolling into black border magic. I think this was done very successfully, and could have easily gone wrong given how unpopular variance and luck-based mechanics can be with competitive players.

However despite being such an important set, it isn’t one I love. Apart from a few exceptions like Beholders I don’t care for the flavour of the set. Also the power level of the set is pretty low. The dungeon mechanic was extremely cool and a bold new design, but most cards that interact with dungeons are super weak. The draft format was also extremely lop-sided with some colours being much better than others. Overall AFR gets 7/10.

Time Spiral Remastered – 8/10

hhh
Remastered sets have existed in digital magic for a long time to introduce cards onto a digital client that predated the client. Given the cost of older iconic sets, players have speculated about reprints of older paper sets but I genuinely thought it would never happen. Out of nowhere came Time Spiral Remastered, a condensed version of Time Spiral block. I wish the wacky future shifted frames were still used, but it’s fantastic to see Magic try something new and the set is filled with awesome cards.

The novelty of a paper remastered set however was completely overshadowed by the old border cards in every booster pack. I never expected to see the old border return, and it was a perfect way replacement for the time-shifted cards in the original Time Spiral block. I find the new frame much easier to read but the old frame is iconic and it looks really good with certain card arts. The choice of cards chosen was also inspired. The 121 cards that were chosen are all iconic cards that never appeared in the old border. Together they represent so many different aspects of the game from casual to competitive and across all the different sets and releases since the modern card frame was introduced. I fell in love with these cards and have collected almost the entire set.

I don’t want to give a reprint set too high a grade, but I loved this set and the old border cards were a love letter to the old frame and all the great cards that never got the chance to appear in the old frame. Time Spiral Remastered was a great set and gets 8/10.

Kaldheim – 8/10

hhh
The first set of the year was Kaldheim, a set themed around Norse mythology. This has long been a popular request from fans and we finally got to see Magic’s take on Thor, Odin and all things Viking in February. This was an incredibly dense set filled with an insane amount of stuff. First of all we have ten realms and each had a supported tribe. Changelings helped glue the tribes together, but if that wasn’t enough there was also foretell, boast, snow, sagas, runes and twelve gods.

I loved the tribal themes, the return of snow and our first gold sagas. There were also lots of great designs not connected to the many big themes. Fynn, the Fangbearer and Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider saw the surprise return of poison and the Phyrexians after many many years while Giant Ox and Colossal Plow was a cool combination. I would have ranked this set even higher but it felt too crowded and the gods were a bit of a let down. They were all really complicated cards that weren’t as magical as the gods on other planes.

Modern Horizons 2 – 9/10

hhh

Set of the Year 2021

Finally my set of the year was the wild and wacky Modern Horizons 2. Ostensibly designed to add exciting new cards for Modern players, this set features mechanics, characters and themes from across Magic’s history making it incredibly rewarding for the most enfranchised players.

Freed from the constraints of traditional set design, the designers were able to go crazy. Mechanics like storm and affinity for artifacts are far too busted to be allowed in Standard, but here they can thrive as draft archetypes. The power level and complexity is also pushed beyond that found in almost any other product. I can’t imagine Urza’s Saga or Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar in any other product.

I especially love the homages to classic cards with designs like Timeless Dragon and Phantasmal Dreadmaw. Old mechanics also get a new lease of life. For example overload was an Izzet mechanic in Return to Ravnica, but here it can be used by any colour giving us Damn. Most sets limit the number of mechanics to reduce complexity, but Modern Horizons gives us a smorgasbord of mechanics and ideas. We also see characters from old stories and lore featured on cards for the first time, such as Geyadrone Dihada and Tourach, Dread Cantor.

I do have a small amount of criticism for Modern Horizons 2. The obvious one is the price. Because it has so many good cards, the prices for the set were astronomical. Some of my favourite cards from the set ended up being unbelievably expensive which is challenging for a casual player.

My other disappointment is that the archetypes weren’t as crazy as the original Modern Horizons. Snow, ninjas and changeling tribal were all very different from what you get in a normal set. This time we got squirrels which was fantastic, but a lot of the archetypes were things like artifacts and reanimator which are much more traditional archetypes. The craziness was a bit more restricted this time in service of the draft environment. However the really crazy cards were some of the craziest cards ever printed and far beyond anything in the original Modern Horizons.

Despite these small nit-picks, I am the target audience for this type of set and I loved it so I’m giving it a 9/10. It didn’t quite have the same magic as the original so it doesn’t get 10/10 but I still had an absolute blast opening this set.

2021 Individual Awards

For the second half of my retrospective, I’m going to give awards to individual cards that stood out. The categories include best card in each colour, best card of each card type as well as awards for best art, cutest art and best flavour text. I’ll start with the cards that won a single award, then those that won multiple awards and finish with my card of the year 2021, that won many different awards.

Prismatic Ending

hhh
Best White Card of 2021
My best white card this year was a clear win for Prismatic Ending. This uncommon from Modern Horizons is one of the best removal spells of all time for larger formats where everything is usually very cheap and playing many colours isn’t too hard. When it was first previewed many speculated that being a sorcery speed answer might be a fatal flaw, but in fact its versatility and efficiency is far too good. Did I mention it also exiles?

Another white card that deserves a mention is Doomskar. Board wipes are one of the most iconic tools in white’s arsenal. Nowadays four mana board wipes come with a drawback and five mana boardwipes come with an upside. This tends to keep Standard balanced between aggro and control archetypes. This gives aggressive decks just enough turns to attack slower decks before the threat of board wipes looms over them. Doomskar just laughs at this convention and can be played on turn three! It still costs five mana in total, but being able to cast it on turn three is sensational. There have been many different board wipes over the years, but none are as impressive so early in the game.

Hard Evidence

hhh
Best Blue Card of 2021
Hard evidence doesn’t look like much. It makes a weak creature and it costs a total of three mana to replace itself. But it synergises with so many different themes and archetypes. It’s a sorcery for spell slinging decks, it creates an artifact for artifact decks, it can eventually draw a card for decks that care about that. It creates two permanents for one mana which is very efficient and slower decks will love a 0/3 blocker on turn one. I love that it has so many possible synergies for such a simple card. The versatility of this card and the simplicity of this design have made Hard Evidence a worthy winner.

Gelatinous Cube

hhh
Best Black Card of 2021
A lot of the monsters from Dungeons and Dragons aren’t very familiar to me, but one of my favourites has always been Gelatinous Cube. Adventures in the Forgotten Realms wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it was at its best when it focused on iconic concepts from role-playing games or resonant characters, items and places from the Dungeons and Dragons lore. Gelatinous Cube is an shining example of a clean and simple design lifted straight from a D&D session. I’ve already talked at length about flavour words. I think Gelatinous Cube is a perfect example of flavour words and I predict cards like this will be integral to Universes Beyond when it launches.

Gelatinous Cube is also a fun card to play creating lots of tension. Will the cube dissolve its prisoner before a removal spell can be found? I love this little mini-game that encourages interaction and counter-play.

Other great black cards this year include Infernal Grasp which feels like an instant classic and Skullport Merchant which is incredible for an uncommon. The treasure helps you ramp and splash powerful cards whilst also giving you a sacrifice outlet and a source of card-draw. It also just blocks really well.

Dragon’s Approach

hhh
Best Sorcery of 2021
Relentless Rats and Shadowborn Apostle are classic examples of creatures with the unique ability that you can fill your deck with any number of copies. There are interesting and quirky things you can do when almost all your spells have the same name but there are few cards with this ability and all of them have been creatures. Dragon’s Approach is the first time we’ve seen this on a non-creature spell and I had to recognise this milestone with an award. I’m not surprised that this common has become pretty expensive. If you can fill your graveyard and then cast Dragon’s Approach you can cheat a huge dragon into play for free. It’s very cool to see a single common sorcery defining a entire strategy in this way.

Treasure Chest

hhh
Best Artifact of 2021
One of the big shifts in Magic design philosophy this year was the addition of dice rolling in black-bordered magic. Rolling dice, especially twenty sided dice or D20s are such an iconic part of Dungeons and Dragons that it had to appear in Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. There is a clear difference between the cards in AFR and the wacky random cards we have seen use dice rolling in silver bordered sets in the past.

For example Strategy, Schmategy has a very high chance of doing nothing or even actively hurting you. Competitive players tend not to enjoy this type of randomness so there are very few cards in AFR with such wild variance on the dice rolling cards. The dice rolling tends to just provide a small bonus rather than determine the course of the game. I however prefer the wild and crazy side of dice rolling where anything can happen and you have to gamble to get a big payoff. This meant I didn’t enjoy the dice rolling cards in AFR as much as I hoped, but they didn’t infuriate competitive players either. My favourite of the dice rolling cards is Treasure Chest. It’s a fun design, captures the feeling of opening a chest in D&D perfectly. I’m glad at least this card got some of that wild and random variance and I’m sure this will be the most loved of the dice rolling cards in AFR.

Grist, the Hunger Tide

hhh
Best Planeswalker of 2021
How horrifying is a swarm of insects that can merge to form a planeswalker? Grist came out of Modern Horizons 2 and is fun for everyone. Casual players like myself can build an insect themed self-mill deck whilst competitive players can look for ways to exploit the ability. A simple example is using Collected Company to put a planeswalker into play, but playing with Grist is a continuous exploration of interesting interactions and quirky rules.

Honourable mentions include Valki, God of Lies who uses the double-sided card format to maximum effect. Turning the card over, we learn Valki is actually Tibalt in disguise. Another honourable mention is also a returning planeswalker with a new name. Professor Onyx has a magecraft ability that ends games so quickly but most importantly we get to see Liliana again after the dramatic finale of War of the Spark where Gideon sacrificed himself to save her.

The Artifact Dual Lands from Modern Horizons 2

hhh
Best Land Cycle of 2021
2021 was a great year for common dual lands. Strixhaven had campuses like Quandrix Campus with powerful mana sinks to help with mana flood. Even better were the snow duals in Kaldheim which combined beautiful art with the snow subtype to support snow decks which often want to play many different colours.

However the winning land cycle is from Modern Horizons. Artifact lands are very rare because giving artifact decks additional synergy from their land base is very dangerous. These are balanced by entering play tapped. They would be really vulnerable to artifact removal like Shatter so adding indestructible balances out that risk and adds the option of Ensoul Artifact shenanigans. The fact that you get all this from a common dual land is incredible.

Squirrel Soveriegn

hhh
Cutest Card of 2021
No explanation needed for this one. Just look at this cutie.

Mind’s Desire (Mystical Archives)

hhh
Best Art of 2021
I had to include a Mystical Archives card somewhere, as this was probably my favourite part of Magic in 2021. Available in every pack of Strixhaven these weren’t impossible to acquire for the average player, but still had some of the most unique art ever put onto Magic cards. They added a unique element to Strixhaven limited where occasionally you would open an absurd mythic, but even the most boring Mystical Archive cards had unbelievable art.

It was hard to pick a winner, but I chose Mind’s Desire because the art is suitably epic for a card banned in Legacy and restricted in Vintage. Being able to open it in normal booster packs with such beautiful art without ruining the draft format or the Standard format was perfect. Compared to the frustrations that surround other unique treatments like Secret Lair, this was far superior both in quality and availability. I hope we see more collections like this in the future.

Unmarked Grave

hhh
Best Card Name of 2021
Modern Horizons gave reanimator in Modern a big push, whilst keeping it on a power level appropriate for Modern. It would have been easy to just add Entomb to Modern, but that could easily enable all sorts of degenerate shenanigans. Unmarked Grave also adds a non-legendary restriction that forces players to avoid the usual reanimation targets like Griselbrand. This gives Modern renanimator a different identity to the rest of Modern. I love the name of this card because it takes a restriction that was added to make the card weaker and turns it into a creative and simple design. The restriction no longer sticks out like a sore thumb but is an essential part of the cards flavour. Unmarked Grave is a fantastic example of the power of a good name.

Confront the Past

hhh
Best Flavour Text of 2021
Strixhaven may be a completely new plane, but there were still some familiar faces including Liliana, sorry, Professor Onyx. During the climatic events of War of the Spark, Liliana tried to sacrifice herself to save the day. Gideon then sacrificed himself to save her. We haven’t seen Liliana since that traumatic event, and we can see in this flavour text how she is still haunted by Gideon’s death. It’s great to see snippets of the aftermath of such an important event and how it has effected some of our favourite characters.

Other good flavour text this year included Young Necromancer, Arrogant Poet and Dig Up. I have no idea why black cards did so well grabbing my attention for flavour text this year.

Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider

hhh
Best Green Card of 2021
Magic Story Highlight of the Year 2021
Magic has three iconic villians. Nicol Bolas and the Eldrazi have had conclusions to their storylines in recent years, but it’s been a long time since we have seen the Phyrexians. Dating back to Antiquities in 1994, they are a huge part of classic Magic lore. We only got one Phyrexian this year but what a Phyrexian. Not only is Vorinclex’s appearance in Kaldheim an exciting tease for the future, it also heralded the arrival of a very important creature type update. For the first time Phyrexian is now a creature type! Wizards had long been reluctant to errata older cards and add a new creature type. However times have changed, and now the Phyrexians will surely be even scarier than before with tribal synergies to make them even stronger.

We will have to wait until we see more Phyrexians, but Vorinclex was a pretty exciting tit-bit to get us excited for what is to come. With trample and haste he’s a scary threat and his other abilities can do crazy things to sagas and planeswalkers.

I must give Emergent Sequence an honourable mention. Like Hard Evidence earlier this does so much. It’s a creature and a land, it supports landfall, ramps your mana production, helps you splash other colours and comes with a +1/+1 counter or two. It isn’t pushed or broken, but it just does everything green decks love doing.

Tibalt’s Trickery

hhh
Best Red Card of 2021
Best Instant of 2021
Perhaps one of the most talked about cards of 2021, Tibalt’s Trickery is multiple things. On one hand it’s a unique Counterspell variant that feels exceptionally chaotic, perfect for red mages. On the other hand it enabled totally degenerate decks. I expected it to be part of fun and janky combo decks, not to get banned in Historic and Modern. I still think this a wonderfully novel piece of interactive magic for red decks, and the rise and fall of this card across multiple formats was definitely entertaining as a casual outsider.

Garth One-Eye

hhh
Best Legendary Creature of 2021
Best Gold Card of 2021
Black Lotus is unquestionably the most iconic of all Magic cards but with that fame comes an astronomical price that puts it impossible to play with for all but a handful of players. Garth One-Eye gives far more players a way to play with Black Lotus. Garth One-Eye appeared in the very first Magic novel, which explains why he can only use magic from Alpha, as that was the only set that had been released when it was written. Each of the chosen cards is iconic, but nothing compares to Black Lotus. This design uses a weird new mechanic of creating copies of named spells. This would be completely normal in digital card games, but seeing it on a paper card is something else.

Honourable mentions for best legendary creature go to Vorinclex who already has two awards, the absurdly expensive Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer who has become a staple in older formats and the wonderful Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar whose name is so long there’s no room for a mana cost.

Urza’s Saga

hhh
Best Colorless Card of 2021
Best Land of 2021
Best Enchantment of 2021
Craziest Card of 2021
Card of the Year 2021
What can I say about Urza’s Saga? I love Magic because there are always new surprises, but I can’t think of another card that has surprised me as much as this one. The first colorless saga and the first land that’s also an enchantment, Urza’s Saga pushes the limits of what you expect from a Magic card. The second chapter is a nice call-back to Urza, Lord High Artificer and Karn, Scion of Urza whilst the third chapter is a really powerful tutor option that can tutor up Glasses of Urza or Urza’s Bauble to stay on theme. Powerful, beautiful, shocking and thematic, this is a very worthy winner for Card of the Year 2021.