Every Set in Magic: Head to Head Knockout Part 1
This is the first part of a six part series to determine the best Magic set ever printed. With the release of Dominaria United there have been 128 Magic sets that were released in booster packs. This is a great number for a head to head knockout tournament so that’s what I’m doing. This includes all normal sets, core-sets and supplemental products like Conspiracy, Battlebond and Modern Horizons. I will try to be objective where possible, but my own preferences will inevitably have an impact on close ties. There are no seedings so expect to see some big names going head to head in round one. This post will cover the first half of round one, with 32 sets getting knocked out. This is going to be a long one, so let’s get started!
1. Magic 2013 v Urza’s Destiny
Out first match up is between Magic 2013, a fine core set, and Urza’s Destiny, the third set in one of the most busted blocks in all of Magic’s history. The exalted mechanic was a fun theme for a core set and Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker was the first ever gold card in a core set. The big hits from this set include Thragtusk, Thundermaw Hellkite and Omniscience. However I doubt any core set can beat a set from Urza’s block.
Urza’s Destiny is pretty unique as the only set apart from Arabian Nights to have been designed by a single person. Urza’s Destiny isn’t as broken as the other sets in Urza’s Saga block, but there are still plenty of iconic and/or busted cards. These include Plow Under, Metalworker, Opposition and Treachery. At lower rarities there aren’t as many cards that still resonate today but you still have cards like Trumpet Blast, Yavimaya Enchantress and Thran Dynamo. Our quest for the best set of all time starts with a landslide victory for Urza’s Destiny.
Winner: Urza’s Destiny
2. Mirrodin v Unstable
My second pairing is one of the most frustrating match-ups in the first round for me. I’m sure for most people Mirrodin is the easy answer but I love Unstable and I’m sad to see it fall at the first hurdle. It introduced a new card type with equipment and was a turning point for the game as we left Dominaria behind. I think these two innovations fixed real problems for the game. Without equipment Magic struggled to represent any kind of weapon and introducing a new flavourful card type opened up more design space to explore. An even more glaring quirk of Magic before Mirrodin was that almost all the sets took place on Dominaria. I can appreciate how beloved Dominaria is, but by staying there for so long, we never got to explore and fall in love with other planes.
The fact that I can reasonably talk about Magic before and after Mirrodin makes it a winner for its historical importance, but I must give Unstable some recognition too. It’s one of my favourite sets of all time for just being so wacky, fun, creative and innovative. Before Unstable, silver bordered sets had failed to sell and been extremely awkward to actually play. Unglued and Unhinged were designed as fun supplements to a normal draft, but I don’t think this approach ever took off. These sets weren’t designed to be drafted solo, which is how people actually tried to play with them. Unstable was the first time we had a properly crafted limited environment for an unset with modern design principles applied and it was a blast. It changed the narrative that silver-bordered sets were always a failure which is no mean feat but ultimately Mirrodin is my winner.
3. Mercadian Masques v Fifth Dawn
Out third tie is between Fifth Dawn, the set that introduced scry, and Mercadian Masques, a set famous for not including any new mechanics. That description of Mercadian Masques is a bit unfair but the lack of any obvious and enticing mechanic is part of the reason Mercadian Masques never generated as much hype or love as other sets from the same era. The other big reason is that the set was much weaker than most sets. This was an understandable reaction to the insanity of the previous Urza’s block but it does make the set harder to love.
Whilst the set didn’t have any named mechanics it’s unfair to say that Mercadian Masques didn’t introduce any new ideas. The rebels and mercenaries have abilities that let you search up more and more rebels and mercenaries. For example you could use Ramosian Sergeant to find Ramosian Lieutenant and use that to find Ramosian Captain. Meanwhile the spellshapers let you discard unwanted cards to get the effects of classic spells. For example Undertaker lets you turn excess lands into copies of Raise Dead. These mechanics or mechanical ideas do give Mercadian Masques an identity, but in each case they lead to repetitive game-play where decks are just designed to do the same thing over and over again.
Fifth Dawn on the other-hand had a more successful track record when it comes to mechanics. Scry has since become evergreen and is a personal favourite of mine. It’s powerful enough to be an exciting bonus effect on cards, but not so powerful it outshines set mechanics like cycling which also help filter your draws. It’s simple enough for new players but adds decision points that favour the better player in competitive magic. The other mechanics and themes haven’t had as much long-running success as scry, but I think they gave the set a real identity. Artifacts don’t normally care about colours of mana so the sunburst mechanic creates a completely new style of artifact deck that plays all five colours of mana. Artifacts like Skyreach Manta reward you for playing all five colours you get all the benefits of being a colourless card as well.
Perhaps the most damning indictment against Mercadian Masques is that we have never returned to Mercadia, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone express a desire to return. Nostalgia for old sets is usually very strong, so it’s notable that the mechanics, cards and setting of Mercadian Masques aren’t being asked for at a time when revisiting old planes has been never been easier. Fifth Dawn is clearly the winner in this match-up.
Winner: Fifth Dawn
4. Alliances v Dissension
It’s impossible to talk about Alliances without talking about Force of Will. It’s hard to think of another set where one card stands out from the rest of the set so starkly. Of course the art is incredible and as a free counterspell it has held the legacy format together as a counterplay against the most degenerate strategies magic has to offer. It is part of a cycle of pitch cards along with cards like Pyrokinesis that taught the Magic community how powerful casting a spell for free could be. Alternative costs have become a rich source of future mechanics. They have sometimes led to broken cards but on the whole they are powerful and exciting and the pitch cycle were the first ever cards to have alternative costs.
Another feature of Alliances are cards that support control decks. Control decks had existed since Alpha powered by the likes of Counterspell and Wrath of God but lands like Kjeldoran Outpost and Thawing Glaciers turned control decks into true control decks with inevitability based around win conditions that are hard to interact with or stop. Even if you don’t like control decks, you have to recognise Alliances was a key step in the evolution of a classic magic archetype.
Dissension is a harder set to analyse. Ravnica block as a whole was a massive success and the ten guilds of Ravnica are still extremely popular factions. Each set in this block however focused on only three or four guilds making each set feel incomplete when viewed as individual sets. The three guilds in Dissension are Azorius, Rakdos and Simic and each has a new mechanic. None of them are bad mechanics but none of them were fantastic.
The Azorius mechanic forecast makes for elegant designs like Skyscribing but it also leads to repetitive gameplay. Rakdos gets hellbent which is the most flavourful mechanic in the set and a perfect fit for a hedonistic guild. I love cards like Infernal Tutor and Cackling Flames but the gameplay of being empty-handed can be very awkward. It’s telling that when a similar mechanic appeared in Amonkhet it only appeared on a handful of cards and revolved around one or fewer cards in hand. Finally graft was an efficient way to put +1/+1 counters on your creatures in the Simic guild, but not an especially memorable mechanic.
I don’t think there are any real flaws with Dissension but I don’t think there are enough memorable things in the set for it to beat Alliances. As well as the pitch spells and the control cards, Alliances was also the start of a golden era of Magic art with Sue Ann Harkley becoming Magic’s art director and iconic artists like Terese Nielsen and Rebecca Guay making their debuts in this set with cards like Force of Will, Elvish Ranger, Kaysa and Noble Steeds. This all helps put Alliances into round two.
5. Modern Horizons v Odyssey
Comparing sets for this series has helped me see some unexpected parallels between sets that at first seem completely different. Modern Horizons and Odyssey is a great example of this as both sets share a pretty unconventional approach to Magic. Modern Horizons being legal in Modern without going through Standard allowed cards to exist that would be too strong for standard. It also allowed characters and mechanics from magic’s past to return, usually in new and inventive ways. Odyssey on the other-hand shook up Magic theory by incentivising you to discard cards instead of caring about card advantage.
Modern Horizons was a real celebration of Magic’s history with characters like Serra the Benevolent and Urza, Lord High Artificer finally getting cards. We also saw a plethora of mechanics used in creative new ways. Mechanics that were previously tied to specific guilds and factions were free to be used in completely new ways. For example overload had only appeared on red and blue cards, but here we got Winds of Abandon, Mind Rake and Scale Up. We saw the unexpected return of mechanics like storm and dredge with cards like Weather the Storm and Shenanigans and saw mechanics used to do weird things like Throes of Chaos which triggers cascade but doesn’t actually do anything itself.
Modern Horizons gave us cards like Force of Negation and Wrenn and Six that shook up the modern format. We also got support for archetypes that needed more support to compete such as tribal decks. My favourite part about the set however was the draft format and the wild mix of archetypes in supported. From traditional themes like blue-white blink and black-red goblins to more unusual things like ninjas, snow and changelings this set had something for everyone and was a refreshing change from the themes we see over and over again in traditional sets.
I adore the original Modern Horizons but unfortunately it’s another of my favourite sets getting knocked out in the first round. Whilst Modern Horizons celebrated Magic’s history, Odyssey was making that history. Odyssey wasn’t the first set to have cards that cared about the graveyard, but it was the first to make the graveyard an important part of the game. Getting cards into your graveyard became something players wanted to do. Flashback let you cast spells from your graveyard and threshold powered up your creatures if your graveyard was big enough. This set fundamentally changed how players saw the graveyard. Today it’s common for players to understand that the graveyard is a resource and can be viewed as a second hand and that is all thanks to Odyssey.
It wasn’t just the graveyard theme that made Odyssey special though. After a number of sets that had pushed Magic away from interactive game-play, Odyssey pushed Magic back towards complex and interactive game-play. The limited format is famous for this and cards like Wild Mongrel, Psychatog and Entomb would become constructed staples. The new setting on the continent of Otaria featured lots of new or unusual creature types such as dwarves, centaurs and cephalids. Like Modern Horizons this set also had fun and wacky designs. We got fun things like squirrels and the fabulous Atogatog as well as two of my favourite alternate win conditions of all time in Battle of Wits and Chance Encounter. Odyssey was a game-changer for competitive magic, but also included a lot of other fun cards for casual players. Odyssey advances to round two.
6. Innistrad v Antiquities
Almost straight away, we have the biggest tie of the round in a clash of two titanic sets. Innistrad is revered as one of the best sets of all time filled with constructed staples and an iconic draft format.
Antiquities was only the second ever expansion and the first to introduce real Magic Lore. The Brother’s War remains one of the biggest and most important events in Magic story and it all unfolded in Antiquities.
Both sets have some truly iconic cards in them. Antiquities gave us incredibly strong lands such as Mishra’s Workshop, Mishra’s Factory and Strip Mine. Of course Antiquities also gave us great artifacts like The Rack, Millstone and Ashnod’s Altar. Innistrad on the otherhand gave usLiliana of the Veil, Parallel Lives and Snapcaster Mage. So is this going to be too close to call?
As I take a deeper look at Antiquities I notice two significant flaws. Firstly, Antiquities is hyper-focused on artifacts. Apart from the lands, everything is either an artifact or interacts with artifacts. This helps build a thematic set but by going so deep on one theme, it leaves the set feeling very one-dimensional. This might be defensible, but the second flaw Antiquities has is that many of the artifacts are so disappointing. Dragon Engine is the poster-child for this. What should be an epic war-machine is just a plain, boring and overcosted small creature.
There are plenty of interesting artifacts in Antiquities I must mention. Ashnod’s Battle Gear gives us a very early version of equipment whilst Millstone created the very first mill decks and gave this popular strategy its name. My favourite card in the set is Ornithopter which has been reprinted many times and found a home in many different artifact-combo decks.
There’s no doubt that Antiquities is iconic, but Innistrad has had a much bigger influence on modern set design. Magic sets were traditionally designed around a mechanical theme first and past attempts to design around flavour and theme had been disappointing. These approaches are known as ‘bottom up’ and ‘top down’. Top down sets are far more common now and it’s all thanks to Innistrad. Innistrad showed how much fun a top down set could be and how popular cards can be if they resonate with an established genre from pop-culture. Innistrad also introduced double-faced cards which whilst initially controversial have gone on to be a powerful design tool used in a variety of different ways in many different sets.
Looking over the list of cards in the set, Innistrad’s case only gets stronger. Cards like Prey Upon and Fiend Hunter are the first examples of cards that have become present in most sets. Delver of Secrets and Liliana of the Veil have defined multiple formats and even a simple card like Walking Corpse represented Magic shedding past hang-ups about printing What first looked like a really difficult decision has become much simpler for me. Innistrad emerges as the winner from this battle of the heavyweights.
7. Avacyn Restored v Ravnica Allegiance
If this was based purely on the draft experience, Ravnica Allegiance would win hands down because Avacyn Restored is infamous for being one of the worst limited formats of all time. The format is designed around the soulbound mechanic where two creatures can form a bond and share abilities. The drawback to doing this is that the removal had to be really weak to compensate, and the result was miserable. However this isn’t the whole picture. If you look at the rares and mythics the set is packed full of iconic cards. Griselbrand and Craterhoof Behemoth are two of the best big creatures of all time whilst Cavern of Souls is one of the best cards for tribal decks ever printed. Even if limited was bad, we still got iconic commons like Mist Raven and Cloudshift.
Facing down Avacyn Restored is Ravnica Allegiance which was following the now well-established formula for Ravnica sets. There are five guilds and five new mechanics and a host of cycles carried over from Guilds of Ravnica. There isn’t anything particuarly wrong with Ravnica Allegiance. It’s a well made set with good cards, but there isn’t anything particuarly special about it either. This is a straight-forward win for Avacyn Restored.
Winner: Avacyn Restored
8. Future Sight v Shadows over Innistrad
There is only one winner in this match-up. Future Sight was a completely unique set and we haven’t seen anything like it since. Stuffed with mechanics both old and new, this must be the most complex set ever printed. Many of the most unique cards in magic all appear in Future Sight. Dryad Arbor is the only card in the game that is a land and a creature. Darksteel Garrison is the only fortification. Because Future Sight has so many unique effects, it’s not surprising to see cards like Narcomoeba be archetype staples or a card like Bridge from Below get banned in Modern. However Future Sight wasn’t just about pushing boundaries. A number of future-shifted cards marked the point that deathtouch, life-link and reach became the keyword abilities we know today. Meanwhile, in the story, the multiverse was changed forever with the Mending turning planeswalkers into powerful magic users rather than god-like beings of almost unimaginable power.
Shadows over Innistrad is a personal favourite of mine and I think the set is under-rated with mechanics that work well, both together and with the themes of the set. The plane of Innistrad was gripped by a sense of creeping dread and madness. This led to the delirium mechanic which might be one of my favourite mechanics of all time. It fit the theme of getting stronger for discarding lots of cards and presented players with lots of different ways to approach the problem. You could discard cards, mill, sacrifice cards or play cards that naturally go to the graveyard. You had to choose which four card-types to focus on and consider playing cards with multiple card-types. You might try to enable delirium as fast as possible or build a deck that plays long drawn-out games where delirium is eventually free. Unusual card designs like Sinister Concoction, Fork in the Road and Vessel of Paramnesia became interesting tools for decks trying to sculpt their graveyard. Delirium is such an open-ended design and rewards players for creativity and problem solving. The tracking of Delirium did get tedious for players but I hope it does return someday.
The story of Shadows over Innistrad resolves around Jace trying to discover the source of the madness which introduced clues, artifact tokens that can be sacrificed to draw a card. This was the first time we saw artifact tokens be a set mechanic and it worked so well, we have since seen treasure, food and blood tokens. However what I remember most about Shadows over Innistrad is how flavourful everything was. The gothic horror of Innistrad was combined beautifully with an eldritch horror theme. Cards like Archangel Avacyn, Westvale Abbey and Cryptolith Rite just nailed the combination of being strong cards whilst having gameplay perfectly matched their flavour. Other favourites from the set include Thraben Inspector, Triskaidekaphobia and Second Harvest. I’m definitely sad to see Shadows over Innistrad knocked out so early but I have to recognise how unique and important Future Sight was.
Winner: Future Sight
9. Modern Horizons 2 v 3Ed/Revised
Modern Horizons 2 was a very good sequel to the original Modern Horizons and featured some of the craziest cards of all time. Garth One-Eye lets you play copies of Black Lotus, Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar doesn’t have a mana cost because the name is too long and of course everything about Urza’s Saga is crazy, including the power level, the art and the type line.
This set gets some criticism for the way it has transformed Modern, but I love so many cards from Modern Horizons 2. It doesn’t face very stiff competition in the first round and I don’t think anyone will be surprised to see Revised bow out here. Revised was a core-set that contained only reprints and it was the first to see cards rotate in and out of the core-set. It meant problematic cards from Alpha and Beta were dropped and cards from Arabian Nights and Antiquities were added. A lot of the cards added weren’t very exciting, and the set isn’t that dramatically different from second edition. This is a comfortable win for Modern Horizons 2.
Winner: Modern Horizons 2
10. Scars of Mirrodin v Ixalan
Scars of Mrrodin was the beginning of what Mark Rosewater calls the fifth age of Magic design. The fascinating part of this fifth age to me is the concept that mechanics can be designed to create a desired emotional response. Infect, poison and -1/-1 counters making all your creatures weaker was a great way to make you feel the horror of fighting the Phyrexians. We also got proliferate, a mechanic I adore, that captures the idea of an infection spreading and getting stronger.
I really liked the plane of Ixalan and I’m glad we will be returning there in 2023. However the set itself was underwhelming. It focused on the four tribes of vampires, dinosaurs, pirates and merfolk. It was great to see dinosaurs introduced into magic as their own creature type for the first time but the focus on these four tribes led to a very linear draft format. The only playable decks were decks based on these tribes and once you had picked a tribe, your draft picks were completely dictated by your tribe. The limited format was also very fast and aggressive which nullified other strategies. In constructed the support for the tribes wasn’t strong enough and the tribes were relegated to mostly fringe decks in Standard. The biggest impact of Ixalan was the introduction of treasure tokens which have since become ubiquitous.
There were some great cards in Ixalan such as Kitesail Freebooter, Settle the Wreckage and Unclaimed Territory and I had a great time building casual dinosaur decks but it doesn’t have enough to avoid defeat against Scars of Mirrodin. Scars of Mirrodin has a little bit of everything. There are fun mechanics like proliferate, iconic creatures like Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon and extremely powerful cards like Wurmcoil Engine or Mox Opal. Of course the Phyrexian invasion of Mirrodin was also a big event in Magic lore as well. This is a straight-forward victory for Scars of Mirrodin.
Winner: Scars of Mirrodin
11. Visions v Dominaria
I am trying where possible to evaluate the merits of each set as objectively as possible, but I must confess that I love Dominaria. I’m hoping Dominaria goes far in this competition so I winced when I saw that Dominaria was up against Visions in Round One. Visions doesn’t have any new named mechanics but it introduced enters the battlefield effects which must go done as one of the biggest innovations of all time. It helped make creatures more powerful which often suffered in early magic for being too weak when compared to spells. With the printing of cards like Man-o’-War, Nekrataal and Uktabi Orangutan creatures could have a more immediate impact and this opened the door to more design space for creatures. Enter the battlefield effects might seem like a trivial mechanic now, but it hadn’t been done until Visions which makes Visions an extremely important set in Magic’s history.
It’s difficult to compete with such an important contribution to magic, but I would argue that Dominaria introduced three innovations which collectively compare to enters the battlefield effects. Firstly Dominaria saw the introduction of sagas, which have become an extremely popular card type, as seen by how often they are being printed. Sagas combine consistently incredible art with a thematic set of abilities to tell the history of a plane. I adore sagas and the original set of sagas was my fantastic way to reintroduce Dominaria’s grand history to a new generation of Magic players.
Secondly Dominaria was the first set to use special pack collation as major hallmark of the set. Putting a legendary creature in every pack was very exciting at the time and paved the way for the craziness of putting a planeswalker in every pack in War of the Spark. It also provided the needed support for historic, a mechanic that cared about legendary permanents, sagas and artifacts. These three groups of cards were grouped together in an easily remembered way as part of a new Magic design technique called batching. This idea is the third big contribution to Magic because it was so completely new and unlike any other mechanic in the game. We have since seen it return with modified in the new Kamigawa set that cares about creatures being enchanted, equipped or having a counter on them. I feel like we have only just scratched the surface with what is possible with batching.
This is clearly a tough match-up. So what does Visions offer other than cards with enters the battlefield effects? Notable cards include Vampiric Tutor, Natural Order, Impulse and Summer Bloom. However once you look past the most famous names in the set, the card file starts to get less exciting. For example we get cards with rather dull mechanics like cumulative upkeep, phasing and flanking whilst other cards like Magma Mine Elven Cache and Lightning Cloud are just too overcosted.
Dominaria on the other-hand has a much richer array of cards and offers something for everyone. Fans of older lore got to see the Weatherlight on a card as a vehicle along with a number of other returning characters. Mono-colour decks were supported by a very strong cycle of cards that included Goblin Chainwhirler and Tempest Djinn that helped create strong decks in standard. You could build the Rat Colony deck, or build around legends such as Jodah, Archmage Eternal or Tetsuko Umezawa, Fugitive in casual formats. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria would become a problem in standard, but this set provided a lot of staples for standard including the long awaited reprint of Llanowar Elves. The limited format was also widely popular with a variety of possible archetypes, powerful uncommons and plenty of fun cards to play with.
It’s hard to understate how important the creatures with enters the battlefield effects from Visions are on Magic history. However I feel Visions doesn’t have the same depth and breadth as Dominaria. This was a tough match-up and Visions going out in the first round is a shock, but Dominaria is my winner.
12. Urza’s Saga v Onslaught
What a match-up! Two classic sets going head-to-head. Urza’s Saga seems like a set that should sail through the first few rounds. It is packed with iconic card including Gaea’s Cradle, Tolarian Academy, Voltaic Key, Smokestack, Sneak Attack, Show and Tell and Time Spiral. The list goes on and on. However that list includes a lot of broken cards and constructed formats were ruled by degenerate combo decks until a mass banning in December 1998. These busted Urza’s Saga cards might be beloved cube staples or key cards in eternal formats today but this has to be balanced against the damage they did to the game at the time.
Few cards in Onslaught can compete with the heavy hitters in Urza’s Saga on power level with the obvious exception of the allied fetch lands. These are the best lands in any format where they are legal. They provide unparalleled mana fixing at the same time as synergising with graveyard mechanics, powering up landfall, providing a shuffle effect at any time and so on. It’s a close call whether or not the reliable mana fixing fetch lands have provided over the years is more important than the excitement generated by broken cards. For me the problem with Urza’s Saga isn’t the fact that it contains broken cards, but that it contains far too many. Constructed formats can adapt to a few powerful cards but the sheer volume in Urza’s Saga was too much for tournament magic.
In order to choose between these cards I have to look beyond just the biggest cards in the set. Something about Urza’s Saga that stands out is that it’s themes are quite muddled. Originally designed to be an enchantment focused set there are 101 enchantments in this set, and many different cycles of enchantments as well as other cards that care about enchantments. This includes great cards like Glorious Anthem, Argothian Enchantress and Sneak Attack. However the set is usually better remembered for all the broken artifacts which is understandable when the block broke constructed magic and is named after a famous artificer. The named mechanics introduced in this set are cycling and echo don’t help give the set a direction either. Cycling is very popular mechanic with the card filtering it provides helping create more fun games an avoid games where you draw too many or two few lands. It’s one of the best mechanics of all time, but it doesn’t help Urza’s Saga build a clear identity.
On the other-hand Onslaught does have a clear theme. It’s the first set to focus on tribal archetypes and provided lots of support for decks built around a single creature type. Tribal support has been around since the beginning of the game in small amounts and tribal decks have always been popular. Fallen Empires explored this somewhat but Onslaught went much further. If you are a fan of elves, goblins or any of the other tribes supported in Onslaught, this set was fantastic for you. My favourite tribal support cards from this set include Goblin Piledriver, Elvish Vanguard and Soulless One.
I mentioned Fallen Empires earlier, but Onslaught is the first set to look like a tribal set as we understand it today. Onslaught was a trailblazer for tribal sets and many have followed in its footsteps from Ixalan, Innistrad and Lorwyn. It was an example to be followed instead of a warning of what not to do like Urza’s Saga. It was a great set but it broke constructed magic and it’s main theme of enchantments didn’t stand out. This is why Onslaught is my winner.
13. Dragon’s Maze v Mirrodin Besieged
Dragon’s Maze should have been an amazing set. The ten guilds of Ravnica are very popular, and this was the first set to feature all ten guilds at the same time. In theory this is a recipe for success. However the set ended up being a total mess with far too much going on for a small set. On top of the ten guild mechanics, there was also support for guildgate decks including the legendary Maze’s End, a defenders matter theme and also fuse cards that let you combine both halves of a split card. This could have been forgiven if the cards were good, but there are almost no stand-out cards. Once you look past a handful of rares like Voice of Resurgence and Notion Thief the set it’s hard to find much to get excited about. Some of the commons like Mindstatic and Steeple Roc are extremely poor whilst Emmara Tandris might be one of the most boring legendary creatures ever printed.
Up against Dragon’s Maze is Mirrodin Besieged, a set that continued the war between the Phyrexians and the Mirrans. Both factions got a new mechanic with the Mirrans getting battlecry, which is great for aggressive decks and the Phyrexians getting living weapon. Living weapon might be one of the most flavourful mechanics ever designed. Rather than starting as a useless artifact until you attach it, equipment with living weapon come into play with a germ token that brings the equipment to life. It lets designers make more playable equipment without making them broken and really does capture the idea of a living weapon.
Dragon’s Maze has a reputation for being one of the worst modern sets and I have to agree that this reputation is well deserved. My main memory of Dragon’s Maze is opening boosters and getting nothing but junk with the ten-card cluestone cycle being especially miserable to open. No-one will be surprised to see Dragon’s Maze eliminated and Mirrodin Besieged advance.
Winner: Mirrodin Besieged
14. Born of the Gods v Innistrad: Crimson Vow
Born of the Gods is infamous for being one of the worst sets of its era. I loved Theros block but even I have to admit it had its faults. It introduced two new mechanics, inspired and tribute, both of which have been long forgotten and haven’t been missed. There are some great cards like Brimaz, King of Oreskos, Courser of Kruphix and Satyr Wayfinder but the set quickly drops off after that. Chromanticore is a personal favourite of mine and Gild is notable for producing the first non-creature artifact tokens. Clues, blood, food tokens and treasure tokens all follow in the footsteps of this card.
Speaking of Blood tokens, these appeared in Innistrad: Crimson Vow and were a fantastic mechanic for limited. Initially dismissed by many as a minor bonus, it quickly became apparent blood helped your deck function far more efficiently. This could have been a great limited set but the preponderance of busted rares and mythics meant limited gameplay was often far too focused who opened the best cards and who drew them most often in games.
There were a lot of other mechanics in Crimson Vow. Cleave played well but looked and felt weird. Disturb returned and but was less flavourful than in Midnight Hunt as it was now on spirits that came back as auras. Exploit was another returning mechanic and played really well with the decayed tokens from Midnight Hunt. Training was a disappointing mechanic in limited and saw no play in constructed. The transforming werewolves were far fewer than in Midnight Hunt, but the werewolves we got were often stronger than the ones we got in the werewolf themed set. Overall these mechanics were a mixed bag.
I’m not a huge fan of either set, and both sets had some genuine flaws. When you compare weak mechanics like inspired and tribute to the power of blood tokens or the novelty of cleave I think Crimson Vow had much better mechanics. Crimson Vow also stood out for some great art. Gift of Fangs, Thirst for Discovery and Demonic Bargain are among my favourites. This makes Crimson Vow a clear winner. To no-one’s surprise, Born of the Gods is eliminated in round one.
Winner: Innistrad: Crimson Vow
15. Prophecy v Eldritch Moon
Prophecy is infamous for being a poorly designed set, frequently mentioned in the same breath as Homelands. There are no new mechanics and the themes don’t mesh with the rest of the block. A handful of cards like Foil, Plague Wind and Avatar of Woe have gone on to become classics but most of the set saw no play in constructed and few cards were even playable in limited.
My biggest problem with Prophecy is the amount of cards that either punish you or your opponent. Rhystic Study is the most expensive card in the set and I find the constant taxing effect miserable to play against. This is one of nine Rhystic cards which are all terrible designs, with cards like Rhystic Cave and Rhystic Tutor being miserable to play with if your opponent pays the tax. There are a lot of other unnamed design ideas that appear on multiple cards and they are so bad. About a dozen cards care about untapped lands with Branded Brawlers being especially egregious. It can’t attack if your opponent holds up mana for instants and can’t block if you do the same. So many cards in this set just punish you for the sin of trying to play the game. Other examples include Glittering Lynx and the rest of the cycle which let your opponent take abilities away from your creatures. I actively dislike so many cards in this set.
Eldritch Moon is the clear winner in this tie. There are few sets worse than Prophecy and Eldritch Moon is not one. This set paired the gothic horror of Innistrad with the eldritch horror of the eldrazi and I think it was a great combination. The emerge mechanic that let you sacrifice creatures to cast big eldrazi monsters was very flavourful whilst meld was a wild use of double-faced cards to create an oversized monster. There are constructed staples like Selfless Spirit and Collective Brutality and fun designs like Permeating Mass or Fortune’s Favor. There is more I could talk about and Eldritch Moon had some real flaws too, but I will save that discussion for the future when this set faces stiffer competition.
Winner: Eldritch Moon
16. Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths v Exodus
Apart from the anarchy of Future Sight, Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths might be the most complex set that wasn’t a supplemental set. Companion was on a cycle of ten monsters that you could play from your sideboard if you met a deck-building restriction. Companion was so strong it had to be given errata for power level reasons which is unheard for Magic, and even after the errata companions dominated every format. Mutate was much less of a hit in constructed but let you merge creatures together creating a complicated stack of creatures that often defied intuition. We also saw the introduction of keyword counters which further pushed the theme of building your own monster.
Exodus was the final set in the Tempest block and was a more straight-forward affair. It continued a major story arc with the crew of the Weatherlight escaping Volrath’s Stronghold. Buyback and shadow returned in small quantities and with the small twist that some buyback costs required you to pay life or discard cards.
This is an interesting tie because Ikoria was synonymous with complexity whilst Exodus introduced no new mechanics. I expect for most people the winner of this match-up will depend on your opinion on mutate and companion. For some mutate is emblematic of runaway complexity and companion represents sky high power levels that have transformed so many formats. Those who agree with this probably love a plethora of classic cards like Merfolk Looter, Recurring Nightmare or Oath of Druids in Weatherlight.
Personally I think companion was an interesting idea that was executed poorly. In its defence I must say companions added fascinating build-around archetypes to the draft format. I also believe mutate was a success despite the sometimes bewildering rules involved because for every unintuitive mutate ruling there was a cool combo you could build. It was fun seeing which creatures from Magic’s past made great hosts to be mutated onto. Beyond the most controversial elements of the set there were some great cycles. The ultimatums were epic, and I adored Seb McKinnon’s art on the Mythos cycle. We also got payoffs for themes like vigilance and menace which are great fun for building casual decks. On balance I think the positives outweigh the negatives with Ikoria. I prefer to give Wizards credit for being ambitious and pushing Magic design in new directions. Exodus will be one of the best sets to get eliminated in the first round, but Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths is the one that advances to round two.
Winner: Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths
17. Starter 1999 v Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty
Over 20 years separate these two sets and it’s hard to believe these come from the same game. Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty was my favourite set since Modern Horizons 2 whilst Starter 1999 might be one of the worst sets on this list. Starter 1999 was another attempt at a simpler version of Magic to ease new players into the game. It did have a handful of exciting cards such as Grim Tutor but too many of the new cards are boring and weak designs like Willow Elf and Vizzerdrix.
You can’t accuse Neon Dynasty of being weak or boring. It gave us more ninjas, futuristic technology, sagas that transform into creatures and our first Phyrexian planeswalker. Any one of these things would have been enough to beat Starter 1999. I could go on and on about this set but I’ll save my discussion for future rounds where it will surely face stiffer competition.
Winner: Kamigawa Neon Dynasty
18. Guilds of Ravnica v Lorwyn
Guilds of Ravnica is one of my favourite sets of all time and was the first set to inspire me to write one of my huge set reviews. This set came out when I was having a difficult time in Russia and I pored over the set and fell in love with so many cards. Cards like Risk Factor, Experimental Frenzy and Knight of Autumn took my appreciation of Magic design to the next level. I had a great time reviewing the set and even though I no longer review every single set, my set reviews are all inspired by the fun I had reviewing Guilds of Ravnica. I also love the beautiful autumnal colours in the art of cards like Centaur Peacemaker, Wary Okapi and Affectionate Indrik.
However I have to put my personal biases aside and declare Lorwyn the winner. Planeswalkers made their debut here, and have proven themselves to be powerful in competitive formats and very popular with casual players. The five planeswalkers introduced here would become some of the most recognisable characters in the game. Cards like Ajani Goldmane and Jace Beleren might not be the most exciting planeswalkers ever printed, but all of the first five planeswalkers are solid designs.
It isn’t just the planeswalkers that make Lorwyn the winner. We got Ponder, one of the best cantrips of all time, Thoughtseize, one of the best discard spells of all time and Mulldrifter one of the best commons of all time. Oblivion Ring was the first of what became a staple form of removal for white and Doran, the Siege Tower which was the first card to support the popular toughness-matters archetype in casual play. Lorwyn was a very impactful set and is a comfortable winner in round one.
19. Dominaria United v Judgment
Dominaria United is the newest set out of all 128 sets so it’s really hard to fairly judge a set that is so fresh in our minds. What has stood out to me is how well balanced the limited format is and how challenging this has made drafting. However this contrasts so strongly with the new standard format where black is incredibly dominant, helped in no small part to the the reprinting of Liliana of the Veil. How ironic then that Dominaria United is up against a set that was focused on green and white to balance the previous set Torment having a massive bias towards black. This experiment of deliberate colour imbalances has never been repeated which I think speaks for itself. It sounds like a flavourful idea but I think it just warps limited and constructed in too many ways to be worth it.
There are some great cards in Judgment that I have to mention. The incarnations such as Wonder and Anger are iconic and these designs still hold up today. The wishes such as Burning Wish and Living Wish were even more influential and gave us the first cards that use the sideboard during a game. However these great designs aren’t enough to make up for the issues caused by the colour imbalance. I’m willing to bet that Dominaria United will turn out to be a good set for all five colours of Magic which would give it edge over Judgement.
Dominaria United also features a fresh approach to set design that I really appreciate. Instead of just focusing on two-colour pairs like most sets, each individual colour has a strong identity and the two-colour themes naturally emerge from combining two themes together. Interestingly cards like Writhing Necromass and Tolarian Terror are the real signpost cards instead of the traditional gold uncommons. I think this approach is part of what makes the limited format work so well and I’m interested to see if it’s repeated in future sets. This was a close tie because there are a lot of iconic cards in Judgment and we haven’t had time to find out how good the cards in the newest set really are, but I’m going to give the win to Dominaria United.
Winner: Dominaria United
20. Coldsnap v 10Ed
Next is a battle between the summer sets of 2006 and 2007. Coldsnap is a bit of a weird set. Marketed as a long-lost continuation of the original Ice Age block and reusing old mechanics like
cumulative upkeep this was supposed to feel like playing old Magic. They even went as far as designing a new mechanic called recover to capture the feeling of playing at a time that graveyard order mattered. Deliberately designing a set around archaic mechanics that almost no-one wanted to be brought back is such a strange decision.
It was also a small set designed to be drafted with just Coldsnap boosters which meant that players got many copies of the same commons in their deck. Designers played into this with the ripple mechanic. The first copy of a card with ripple you cast can cast all the other copies in your library if you get lucky or simply filled your deck with as many copies as you could. This led to a very degenerate limited format. Mechanics like cumulative upkeep were tedious exercises in book-keeping whilst the cards that got better in multiples all boiled down to the luck of how many copies you drafted or opened in sealed.
The biggest hit in the set is was the updated snow mechanic, with the a new snow mana symbol and new snow cards to support the archetype. It would be a while until we saw snow return in Modern Horizons and Kaldheim but Coldsnap was a really good foundation for making snow decks more popular.
For all its weirdness Coldsnap still beats Tenth Edition which followed it one year later. Tenth was the first core set to be printed in black border since 1993 and was also the last core-set in the old format before core-sets became a mixture of old and new cards with Magic 2010. These changes were necessary to make core-sets more popular and Tenth Edition is straight-forward example of why. Perhaps the most exciting thing about this set is that it was the first core-set to include legendary creatures. That is pretty laughable by today’s standards and so Coldsnap advances comfortably.
21. Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur’s Gate v Eventide
It’s hard to separate Eventide from Shadowmoor as a stand-alone set. Both sets have a heavy focus on hybrid mana and most of the mechanics of Shadowmoor carry over into Eventide. The major difference is that Eventide is based on enemy colour pairs instead of allied colour pairs. With all ten colour pairs getting so much support for hybrid mana and a lot of good lands from the Lorwyn-Shadowmoor block, this was a golden era for playing many colours and cards with challenging mana requirements.
Eventide introduced two new mechanics. Chroma rewarded you for playing cards with colour intensive mana costs whilst retrace lets you cast a spell from your graveyard by discarding lands. Chroma was never as successful as devotion, a later mechanic inspired by chroma and retrace is so powerful it can only go on cards that are otherwise fairly underwhelming.
Eventide’s opponent in round one was also a sequel of sorts. It continued to explore Dungeons & Dragons on Magic cards like Adventures in the Forgotten Realms before it whilst also being a draftable commander experience like Commander Legends. We got a lot of great dragons and support cards for dragon decks, but I feel like Baldur’s Gate was a less successful sequel than Eventide. Commander Legends was able to explore all of Magic’s history and include characters from 30 years of history that could never get cards in a Standard legal set. It also offered less support for themes like dice rolling and the dungeons than I had hoped for. The new dungeon mechanic initiative was compatible with the older dungeons but in a really awkward way. Eventide didn’t go above and beyond Shadowmoor, but it was a natural continuation of its ideas in a way that Baldur’s Gate failed to do, and that makes Eventide my winner.
22. Magic 2015 v Magic 2019
This is the only core-set match up in the first round and I have a soft spot for both of them. Magic 2019 represented a triumphant return for core-sets. I loved the return of the Elder Dragons and the story for this set was really good. Rather than advance the normal Magic storyline, it delved into the relationship between Ugin and Bolas and explored why they are such rivals. We got to see more of Dominaria’s past and hints that the clans on Tarkir are regaining strength which gives me hope for a return to all the things players loved about Khans of Tarkir. This was the first time a core-set had this much lore, and sadly the following core-sets didn’t follow in the foot-steps of Magic 2019. I think this was a great way to explore Magic’s past and revisit places that have been destroyed and spend more time with iconic characters that have died.
Magic 2019 also had a vision for the types of cards in a core-set. There were big reprints like Scapeshift, Crucible of Worlds and Omniscience and rather than trying to introduce entire new archetypes into Standard the set included more cards than usual for older and larger formats. Cards like Alpine Moon, Infernal Reckoning and Isolate were all clearly targeted for specific formats. I think this is an interesting approach to take but I think the next core-set Magic 2020 was more successful because it had a greater focus on Standard, but I like that Magic 2019 tried to be something different to older core-sets.
Talking of previous core-sets, Magic 2015 is a good example of a more generic core-set. It had convoke as its one mechanic which is a great mechanic. It also had a really fun series of cards designed by guest designers. This includes some great cards like Hot Soup, Waste Not and Aggressive Mining. Other new cards include some real classics like The Chain Veil, Reclamation Sage and Ensoul Artifact. I have some very fond memories of Magic 2015 but I’m going to give the win to Magic 2019 for being a novel take on core sets and for the real strong piece of story telling that accompanied the set.
Winner: Magic 2019
23. New Phyrexia v Kaldheim
New Phyrexia was the culmination of the Phyrexian invasion of Mirrodin and we got even more Phrexians than ever before. The Praetor cycle was a real highlight with Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite going on to be one of the best creatures to cheat into play in the game. Every other mythic is also incredible with two swords, Batterskull, Karn Liberated and Phyrexian Obliterator.
The big new mechanic in the set was phyrexian mana. It let players use life to reduce the cost of spells which made a lot of effects too cheap. It also circumvented the colour requirements for spells giving all colours access to effects they otherwise lacked. Many of these cards would go on to be format staples, banned, fan favourites or a combination of all three. This list includes iconic cards like Dismember, Gitaxian Probe, Birthing Pod and Surgical Extraction.
I really enjoyed Kaldheim and I’m glad we finally got to visit a plane filled with Vikings and based on Norse mythology. However the price of exploring such a rich vein of inspiration is that there were too many great themes for them to all be fully supported in a single set. We got tribal support for races such as giants, elves, dwarves and zombies as well as changelings to add further tribal support. We got our first gold sagas to explain the history of Kaldheim and the ten realms. We got a buffet of legendary creatures and gods to play with, as well as mechanics such as boast and fortell. And then there were still yet more themes to talk about. A minor runes theme showed up in constructed and the snow theme was a major part of limited. I think most of Kaldheim was great apart from the gods whose double-faced nature I found excessively wordy and inelegant.
Kaldheim was one of my favourite sets of 2021 but I just wish Kaldheim had been a part of a two set block so we could have had more support for each of the different themes and more time to explore each realm. The big knock against New Phyrexia is that the phyrexian mana cards were broken and caused big problems in multiple formats. However broken cards are usually also iconic cards and the sheer number of iconic cards in New Phyrexia means that it is my winner in this tie.
Winner: New Phyrexia
24. Worldwake v Innistrad: Midnight Hunt
For a small set, Worldwake punches above its weight. This set gave us Jace, the Mind Sculptor, one of the most iconic planeswalkers of all time and the first to get four abilities instead of three. Other big names in this set include Stoneforge Mystic, Avenger of Zendikar and Death’s Shadow. Like most Zendikar sets there was a focus on including great lands too. The Man Lands like Celestial Colonnade and Creeping Tar Pit are fantastic whilst Bojuka Bog is an ultra staple in black Commander decks. Another land, Eye of Ugin was a cryptic hint that the Eldrazi were coming, who would become some of the most popular antagonists in Magic lore.
Midnight Hunt is the sixth set to take place on Innistrad, and being much newer than Worldwake, none of its cards have become as iconic as the cards I mentioned earlier. Don’t get me wrong there are some excellent cards here. The Meathook Massacre has become a multi-format all-star and even commons like Consider and Infernal Grasp could become classic staples of the game. However Midnight Hunt was marketed as the werewolf set and this is where things fall apart. In standard the werewolves weren’t good enough to see play and even more damningly the archetype was terrible in limited as well. That only leaves casual constructed which is what I mostly play. I was so excited to have more werewolves for my werewolf deck only to find the designers created a new day-night mechanic for werewolves. Personally, I hated the new day-night mechanic for being so easy to mess up and forget about in paper whilst not being compatible with the older werewolves. If the set had better werewolves which were compatible with the older werewolves I think Midnight Hunt might have been better received.
In the end, there are good cards in both sets. The heavy hitters in Worldwake have been proven to stand the test of time whilst the disappointing werewolves make it hard to get enthusiastic about Midnight Hunt. Worldwake is the clear winner for me.
25. Rivals of Ixalan v Betrayers of Kamigawa
Rivals of Ixalan has the distinction of being the last small set designed to be drafted with other sets. It represents the end of an era where many sets were smaller and simply complimented a prior set rather than every set being a large set with a new world, new characters and new mechanics. Rivals of Ixalan gave the four tribes of Ixalan plenty of new toys to play. This may not be the most ground-breaking or ambitious set in Magic’s history but it does what it sets out to do and you can easily build a fun dinosaur, pirate, vampire or merfolk deck from the two Ixalan sets. For example Ghalta, Primal Hunger, Dire Fleet Neckbreaker and Champion of Dusk are all great cards for their respective tribes.
Strangely the best thing about Betrayers of Kamigawa is also focused on a tribe. Betrayers of Kamigawa was the first set to give us ninjas and the ninjutsu mechanic which is one of my favourite mechanics of all time. The flavour of ninjas disguised as other creatures is great and it interacts well with other effects such as creatures you want to pick-up and recast or ways of making your creatures hard to block. Building ninja decks and playing with ninjas is always fun. Unfortunately for a set that uses a shuriken as its set symbol there are only eight ninjas in this set which is really underwhelming. There are a number of other iconic cards in Betrayers such as Umezawa’s Jitte and Mirror Gallery but I find it easily to pick a winner here. Betrayers of Kamigawa failed to really maximise on the ninjas theme whilst Rivals of Ixalan did what it promised and gave us lots of sweet cards for each of the supported tribes. Rivals of Ixalan advances to the next round.
Winner: Rivals of Ixalan
26. Magic 2021 v Nemesis
One of the trends in round one is seeing the core sets get knocked out by more complicated sets that have the advantage of introducing new mechanics, new planes and advancing the lore. This match-up might be the exception and I think this is much closer than it first appears. Magic 2021 is the most recent core set and perhaps the last one for a while. Core sets are traditionally rather low in impact but I think Magic 2021 did a number of interesting things. Whilst mill, shrines and dog-tribal might not be important for competitive magic, they are all popular in casual settings and all got some love in this set.
Mill decks have been around since Millstone and mill players have long clamoured for mill to become an official keyword. With Magic 2021 they finally got their wish. Similarly dog is now an official creature type replacing hound which was another long-running request. This change was accompanied by some much needed support for dog decks such as Pack Leader. We also got six new shrines such as Sanctum of Fruitful Harvest which added to the five shrines from Champions of Kamigawa which made a fun casual archetype much more reliable. The legendary Sanctum of All was a fun payoff and cheap shrines like Sanctum of Tranquil Light make the deck much better at getting more shrines into play. Other changes brought about with Magic 2021 include the return of prowess and phasing as mechanics that we can expect to see in most sets. Prowess is a fun and popular mechanic whilst phasing is a nice alternative to bounce and flicker effects. Given how prevalent and powerful enters the battlefield effects have become, bouncing your opponent’s creatures has gotten weaker and flickering your creatures has become much stronger. Individually, none of these changes are huge, but I think that collectively they are a respectable piece of Magic’s continuous evolution.
Nemesis stands out as the highlight of the Mercadian Masques block. It was the only set in the block to introduce a new keyword mechanic and many of the strongest cards in this block came from Nemesis. However neither of these achievements are that big. Firstly, the new mechanic was fading, which was a very severe drawback that caused your creatures to disappear after a few turns. Secondly, whilst that list of cards strong enough to make a mark on tournaments or become classics includes Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero, Daze and Tangle Wire, I don’t think this list of iconic cards is long enough to automatically vanquish Magic 2021.
What settles this tie for me is that Magic 2021 is a far more fun set. Instead of cards like Parallax Tide or Rising Waters designed to stop your opponents from playing Magic, Magic 2021 has epic spells like Terror of the Peaks and Fiery Emancipation. Instead of a frustrating mechanic like fading that penalises you, we got casual favourites like dogs, mill and shrines. Since this is a close call, I’m going to go with the set that is simply more fun to play with. There are certainly plenty of exciting cards to build around in this set such as Archfiend’s Vessel, Nine Lives and Brash Taunter. This is why Magic 2021 advances to round two over Nemesis.
Winner: Magic 2021
27. Stronghold v Fallen Empires
Fallen Empires is infamous for being one of the weakest sets of all time. It was also the first set to be a commercial failure and was vastly overprinted. There are a handful of classic cards in Fallen Empires such as Hymn to Tourach, Goblin Grenade and High Tide but it’s pretty slim pickings after that. Notably many cards were given multiple different arts which was always a strange decision given the cost of commissioning new art.
Stronghold was the second set in Tempest block and has a far wider selection of classic cards. Mox Diamond and Sliver Queen are the two most notable cards in the set but even amongst the commons we have the first printings of Shock, Fling, Sift and Mana Leak. Unlike Fallen Empires, there are plenty more good cards in Stronghold in addition to the biggest hits. This is an easy win for Stronghold.
28. Arabian Nights v Portal
Arabian Nights was the first ever expansion for Magic and contained only 78 cards. Released only a few months after the game itself, this was a time when Wizards was scrambling to capitalise on the overnight success of Magic. Like the original set Alpha, there were a lot of interesting ideas that wouldn’t be fully explored until much later. Unstable Mutation introduced -1/-1 counters, El-Hajjâj was the first card to something resembling lifelink and a handful of cards like Bottle of Suleiman brought coin flipping into the game. We also got the first lands that did something more than tap for mana. Library of Alexandria and Bazaar of Baghdad in particular have proven themselves to be some of the most powerful lands of all time.
The flavour of Arabia and One Thousand and One Nights however means that Arabian Nights doesn’t feel like a normal Magic set. Portal however is even further from normal Magic. Designed to be a simpler entry point into Magic, this set has no artifacts, no enchantments and hardly any instants. This watered-down version of Magic has some classic cards in it but too much complexity has been taken away and what remains is a pale imitation of Magic. Even words like library and graveyard are replaced with words like deck and discard pile to ease in new players. Some cards like Gravedigger, Wind Drake, Lava Axe and Mind Rot would go on to see many more printings and become part of the lexicon of limited aficionados but most of the cards are too bland to be memorable. This is an easy win for Arabian Nights.
Winner: Arabian Nights
29. Portal Second Age v Magic 2012
Next we have another Portal Set and it’s going to suffer the same fate. The second Portal set used more Magic lingo like library and graveyard but was still restricted to just creatures, sorceries and a handful of instants. If anything this set has far fewer notable new cards than the original Portal set.
Magic 2012 is a classic example of a core set from this era, although the new cards didn’t include any stand-out headliners like Baneslayer Angel or the titans from the previous two core sets. This set introduced ‘dies’ as a rules shortcut for a creature being put into the graveyard and saw hexproof become a keyword replacing shroud. I have a personal soft spot for Magic 2012 but I don’t see it advancing very far in this tournament. This is a pretty generic core-set with a fairly low impact but it still trumps the bland version of Magic offered by Portal Second Age. Magic 2012 advances to round two.
Winner: Magic 2012
30. Oath of the Gatewatch v Mirage
One of the first booster boxes I ever bought was Oath of the Gatewatch so I have lots of fond memories of this set. However I have to recognize that it isn’t going to beat Mirage which is one of the most important sets in Magic’s history. Mirage was the start of the first proper block, a model of set releases that tied releases together through lore and mechanics. This approach to set design would last for over twenty years. However this wasn’t even the most important thing about Mirage. It was the first set designed to support limited play. Players had been playing sealed and draft but early sets weren’t typically designed to stand alone and boosters of previous sets didn’t contain enough creatures or removal to make limited play a very fun experience. Today limited play still has a legion of dedicated fans and sealed is the quintessential format for pre-releases which are a highlight of the Magic calendar.
That doesn’t mean Oath of the Gatewatch did nothing for the game. It gave us the new colourless mana symbol, a new basic land and weird eldrazi that required colourless mana to be cast. It was also the set that saw Jace, Gideon, Nissa and Chandra unite to form the Gatewatch. Some people did get tired of the Gatewatch appearing in every single set but there’s no denying that this was the start of one of the biggest stories in Magic’s history. Although the end of the story in War of the Spark had a number of issues, I still view this as one of the most successful eras for magic lore and it really started here in Oath of the Gatewatch. I’m sad to see this set get knocked out in the first round, but Mirage is a worthy winner.
31. Streets of New Capenna v Throne of Eldraine
Of all sixty-four match-ups in the first round this is the newest pair of sets to go head-to-head. When sets are from the same era of Magic design it can be much easier to compare them and here we have a convincing win for Throne of Eldraine. On most metrics Throne of Eldraine is the better set. The gangster theming of Capenna was pretty forgettable whilst Throne of Eldraine was packed full of fun references to classic fairy tales with cards like Trapped in the Tower, Bake into a Pie and Gingerbrute. Throne of Eldraine was clearly a more powerful set with many cards getting banned. For some this is a big knock against Throne of Eldraine but for me an overpowered set is better than one where the majority of the cards have been ignored or forgotten. Streets of New Capenna has a few big hitters like Ledger Shredder but I suspect most of the Magic community has already forgotten most of the cards in Streets of New Capenna.
The Limited formats are another easy win for Throne of Eldraine. Adventures were fantastic in limited and this format was unusual in that it supported mono-colour decks leading to some fascinating drafts as you weigh up the merits of committing to one colour or building a normal two-colour deck. Streets of New Capenna on the other-hand was horribly imbalanced with one faction Brokers being far superior to all of the others. Throne of Eldraine comfortably advances into round two.
Winner: Throne of Eldraine
32. Battle for Zendikar v Ninth Edition
Battle for Zendikar isn’t especially well remembered despite being the best selling set of all time for a number of years. The limited format was extremely unbalanced with green being famous for being completely unplayable in draft. This is an interesting set to dissect with the main factions both being underwhelming and failing to live up to the precedents set for them in the original Zendikar. I look forward to critiquing this set further when it faces stiffer opposition. However Battle for Zendikar’s first opponent is only Ninth Edition. This was the last of the old generation of core sets that only contained reprints and used the much maligned white border. The first half of round one ends with a comprehensive victory for Battle for Zendikar.
Winner Battle for Zendikar