In honor of the 25th anniversary of Magic I wanted to write a unique article where I highlight one card throughout the history of the game. Keep in mind I'm talking about when a card was originally printed, even though it may have been subsequently reprinted a number of times. Watching the Beta draft at Grand Prix Las Vegas made me realize just how far the game has come, yet we are still using some of the same cards that were in Beta, even in Standard!
This leads me to the first card, Llanowar Elves. This is one of the most iconic cards in the history of the game, and the power level is right on target. In sets like Alpha and Beta it is natural that the power level of the cards can greatly vary. However, a one-mana creature that produces a single green and has the creature type Elf opens up the door for many decks. The card is good in Modern because of its creature type, while it sees play in Standard as the best mana accelerator in the format.
Coming out of Legends we have The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, one of the most absurd lands ever printed. We see one copy of this card in Legacy Lands decks, and it is part of what makes that deck so strong against creature strategies. There are various ways of tutoring for this card even if there is only one copy in your deck. Trying to go wide with a card like Young Pyromancer doesn't work out particularly well when facing off against this one.
Many players have a love-hate relationship with pain lands, but this was the point where there was a clear realization that the old-school dual lands were simply too strong. Paying a life for a two-color land is a rate that has held all the way through to the current Standard format of today. There are 10 different dual lands, and each has been reprinted quite a bit.
Force of Will is likely going to go down as the greatest counter ever printed. Back in 1996 it actually was printed as an uncommon, as clearly the fact that you can use it for its alternate casting cost was downplayed during development. It is effectively a hard counter for zero mana, and part of why blue control strategies are so good in formats like Legacy and Vintage. This card is a nightmare for combo decks, as many times you have to try and go off with your combo and simply hope your opponent doesn't have a Force of Will.
Tutor effects truly started becoming popular once Visions was released, alongside a cycle of tutors that could put a card on top of your deck. Out of the tutor cycle Vampiric Tutor is the strongest, as it has the least amount of restrictions, which is why we see cards like Demonic Tutor and Vampiric Tutor seeing plenty of play in Vintage today. The card is so versatile and flexible, it can be used as simply finding an additional mana source, a missing combo piece or something like Ancestral Recall to draw some cards.
Similar to when pain lands were printed after realizing the original dual lands were a bit too good, the original Moxes were also a bit too overpowered. Mox Diamond still is a very powerful card that sees plenty of play in formats where it is legal. In fact, there are decks that can actively take advantage of putting lands in their graveyard, most notable the Lands deck in Legacy. This is one of the most important ramp cards in Legacy, and usually sees play alongside Life from the Loam.
A card that can be a true house in an artifact deck. While Metalworker doesn't see as much play as it used to, there is definitely still a home for it in big-mana artifact decks in Legacy and Vintage. A single activation of Metalworker and all of a sudden you have a ton of mana to work with, so the opponent will try to kill it before you have the opportunity to activate Metalworker.
Tangle Wire is one of the most interesting cards ever printed. Fading is a mechanic that is easily forgotten about, but the idea that your permanent will eventually leave play over a number of turns is a great concept, and I wish we saw more modern cards with fading. Tangle Wire has seen its fair share of play over the years, and still does nice work in Vintage Stax decks, where it can be powered into play off Mishra's Workshop.
The Invasion Block is about the time when I first started to actually buy cards, and Pernicious Deed is a card I became very familiar with. This is a card that helped create the category of "The Rock" style decks, which is an older name for Black-Green style midrange strategies. Pernicious Deed is one of the most versatile and unique sweepers ever printed.
Onslaught is where we first see the printing of fetch lands, which have helped shape mana bases of all competitive formats. The fact you can search your deck for a two-color land with a fetch land or simply grab a basic is what make them so important. Without the existence of fetch lands, cards like Blood Moon would become too strong because decks couldn't easily find basic lands and decks wouldn't be able to play as many colors.
The first block that truly revolved around artifacts was Mirrodin, and it makes sense that this is where Oblivion Stone originated. Mirrodin also happens to be the start of the Modern format, so all of the other previous cards mentioned are only legal in the older formats. Oblivion Stone actually didn't see as much play in its early days, because of the large mana investment it requires. Now, we see it much more as a staple in Tron decks.
Moving further along in Mirrodin block we have one of the signature cards in the Affinity deck. While some artifact lands like Seat of the Synod and friends got banned, Arcbound Ravager remained, and Affinity has pretty much always been one of the top decks in Modern. There are also other decks like Hardened Scales combo that play Arcbound Ravager. One of the reasons the card is so good is the ability to modular onto lands like Blinkmoth Nexus and Inkmoth Nexus.
Goryo's Vengeance is pretty much the signature reanimation spell in the Modern format. Some of the best threats of all time happen to be legendary creatures, which means that casting a Goryo's Vengeance on the right target can mean winning the game right away. The fact that this is an instant for only two mana means it represents winning as early as the second turn, which is extremely fast for any format.
Dark Depths is banned in Modern, though it still sees plenty of play in formats like Legacy. The ability to cheat a huge flyer into play that can instantly win the game from a land is pretty crazy. The combo of Dark Depths plus Vampire Hexmage to remove the counters is one of the best ways to abuse this card.
Tarmogoyf is in my opinion the greatest creature ever printed. A two-mana card that can become very big packs a real punch. It makes sense for it to be green, as the color that has the largest threats. On the surface it wasn't clear just how insane Tarmogoyf was, but over the years with the additions of more creature types like planeswalkers,and cheaper ways to get cards in the graveyard, Tarmogoyf has only become better.
Bitterblossom was the centerpiece of one of the strongest Standard decks of all time, the Faeries tribal deck. Even past its Standard days, the power in playing this on turn two remains. Enchantments are often very hard to effectively answer, and the tokens Bitterblossom creates should kill the opponent before the loss of life kills you. We see Bitterblossom in Modern Faeries decks, and now even as a sideboard card in Legacy Grixis Delver as another way to win the game.
Goblin Guide is the signature threat in red aggro decks. I personally put this card to good use when making Top 8 of my first Pro Tour with Burn. The idea of letting your opponent potentially draw into lands in exchange for aggression makes a lot of sense, and I like the design of Goblin Guide a lot. This being a Goblin is also quite relevant as we have seen various tribal strategies take advantage of this card as well.
While planeswalkers were first introduced with Lorwyn block in 2007, there hadn't been a card nearly as strong as Jace, the Mind Sculptor. The fact that fetch lands were also present in this Standard format made Jace, the Mind Sculptor even better, as the ability to shuffle your deck makes the Brainstorm effect that much stronger. The recent unbanning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor in Modern was a good one, as it hasn't taken over the format like many were scared it might.
Phyrexian mana means you have the option to use your life total to pay the casting cost, and that came with mixed results. Gitaxian Probe and Mental Misstep were too strong, but Dismember has proven to be a flexible removal spell many decks want access to.
Coming out of Avacyn Restored we have Griselbrand, perhaps the best reanimation target we have ever seen. Most decks playing Griselbrand aren't aiming to hard card this card but to cheat it into play, either from the graveyard or via a card like Show and Tell. Once activating Griselbrand, the extra cards are almost always good enough to put the game away in one way or another.
Anger of the Gods being able to exile creatures makes it an extremely powerful sweeper. There are many decks that can beat a straight-up Wrath of God but hate to see Anger of the Gods. Whether this means persist creatures or Prized Amalgam, Anger of the Gods has proven to be a great sideboard card for red control decks even after its days in Standard.
Khans of Tarkir brought us several very powerful multicolored creatures. Mantis Rider is the one that currently sees the most play, largely because of its Human creature type. Jeskai-flavored strategies have a lot of tools to work with in Modern, and this card provides a way to get aggressive.
The return of Eldrazi creatures definitely made a splash in both Modern and Standard. Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger was a signature creature alongside Aetherworks Marvel, but then also in ramp strategies where you can hard cast it for the full 10 mana. Now that it is past its Standard days Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger remains an important piece of Tron decks.
Four-mana planeswalkers has become the sweet spot for Standard planeswalkers. Red decks happen to be some of the best decks in Standard, and Chandra, Torch of Defiance is a must-answer card that provides another angle of attack. We also see Chandra, Torch of Defiance in other formats as a way to close out games in Prison-style strategies.
It turns out that flipping an enchantment into a land can lead to some very powerful interactions. Search for Azcanta is one of those inevitable forms of card advantage that gives control decks way to actually take over if the game goes long. The fact that the front side fixes your draws is also good, which means it is a good card to have both early and late in games.
It has been proven that reoccurring card advantage in planeswalkers can be incredibly strong. The fact that Teferi, Hero of Dominaria can also immediately answer an opposing threat while remaining in play is pretty sweet. When you tag on the fact that you can untap lands when drawing cards with Teferi and the fact it can tuck back into your deck to prevent decking, we have a planeswalker that will see play for a long time to come.
Thanks for reading,