While broadly power will be the main factor in cards making the top 10 lists I want it to be a bit more than just that, especially for 1993. I am obviously only going to look at cards that have an impact in cube but I do wish to give extra credit to cards that earned their fame in other formats too. I want this to be a list of iconic cards. I will consider both how good cards were at the time and how well they have held up. I will be considering their effect on the cube and their impact on MtG as a whole (although probably talking about that rather less), card design, perhaps even art! Thing single word that describes best the quality of the cards I am rating is the "biggest" cards of each year.
Starting with 1993 turns out to be jumping in at the deep end. I was well aware that the original set contained loads of core cards as well as loads of utter bombs but I had not fully appreciated quite what a substantial percentage of the original core set cards still have some kind of relevance in cube. Subsequent top ten lists from this series will get a lot shorter! If I was just doing this list on power level it would be a very boring top 10 with discussion on cards plenty well documented already. The list would look something like this;
Library of Alexandria
These cards are not just incredibly powerful ones, they are oppressively powerful. They are loads of fun to play with and they are certainly a selection of the most iconic cards of all time. I am very glad they exist but I very rarely want to play magic in a format where they are options. It is like playing a computer game with cheat modes activated. Sure, it is fun to play god for a while but it isn't quite as fun as the challenge of fair fight. So much of magic with power cards like these is about who gets and draws most of them. Everyone should play with them a bit but they should be treated more like a delicacy than a staple if good games are the objective. There are not that many cards in all of MtG that are so powerful that they take away from the game and the original sets have most of them! The other thing about most other broken cards in MtG is that you need to build around them before they are abusive which is less the case with a lot of the original set stuff. These are pretty much just broken where ever and how ever you put them to use.
The power level of the early sets is off the charts. After "the power" there are a swathe of cards that are also immensely powerful but on the polar or situational side as listed below. While many of these still crop up in most cubes they have not generally aged all that well for one reason or another. Mostly it is due to needing to build around them. They may not be on the power level of the cards considered the power and banned by many but these cards still all have a power level way above what is reasonable. All these cards have been pretty big names in cube and all of them still see use in the relevant places, it is just that those places are fewer and farther between. I don't wish to talk about these cards as they are increasingly fringe cube cards. I want to talk about the cards that are still having a huge impact on cube given that there is just so much stuff from this first year of magic.
Wheel of Fortune
Ankh of Mishra
Bazaar of Bagdad
Before jumping into this top ten we have one final list of cards that includes everything else from this magnificent year of MtG that is still relevant in cube in some way or another. I was stunned by how big it was. It contains staple effects, sideboard effects, combo cards, support cards, tribal cards and more cards than any other set with a single line of text on them. Kird Ape is my honorable mention, I was super sad not to have him on my top ten for 1993 cards. It is a lovely card design and of a lovely power level that has held up better than any other aggressive creature not just of this year but the whole era. I only recently cut it from my cube and only as a result of it being a little narrower than a more purely red one drop threat. This list of cards should show why, even to someone who likes to cube with an extensive banned list of all the oppressively powerful cards, 1993 is still the biggest year for cube cards.
Kird ApeLord of Atlantis
Red Elemental Blast
Blue Elemental Blast
So that is about 60 cards from 1993 that are still relevant in cube today and I haven't even started my top 10 yet! It wasn't even a big year in terms of total number of new cards released. Lots of bombs, lots of staples and lots of the cheapest way of doing a basic thing! So, let us finally look at the top 10 cards for 1993. These are all cube staples that still see a lot of play 25 years down the line. They range from the best cards in my unpowered cube to some of the staple aspects of some colours. Without further ado let us take a look at these cards!
10. Wild Growth
One mana ramp is very powerful but it is fair. Wild Growth is typically a lot safer than creature based one mana ramp in green although you do run the slight risk of eating a two for one if they have land destruction. Unless you specifically want creature synergies Wild Growth tends to outperform a lot of the other one mana options. It can provide mana immediately if played on an untapped land (ie after turn one) meaning it effectively cost nothing to get down. It also lets you abuse untap land effects rather more! The more creature based the cube has gotten over the years the more removal has been added to compensate. In a creature removal heavy format the enchantment ramp has been steadily growing in value. Delirium gave it a nice good boost too. I only used enchantment ramp in Enchantress decks for a very long time in cube and have only relatively recently come around to how strong these kinds of cards are in their own right. It is lovely that a card so cheap and simple such as this that has existed for as long as magic has itself is only really just starting to fully shine, at least in my cube! That a simple card like this can be somewhat of a sleeper for so long is testament to the depth and quality of the game.
9. City of Brass
This land has seen a lot of play over the years. It has always been there when times are hard. When you have those greedy decks with all the colours or when someone picks your fixing. There is probably some general correlation between jankyness of deck and chances of finding a City of Brass in it, certainly in cube at least. Like the Wild Growth City of Brass has seen a resurgence of popularity recently. Games are so tempo driven that the early turns dictate a lot about how the game will flow. The ability to cast one's spell on time is pretty much the most important thing. It doesn't really matter if you deal yourself a damage a turn for the start of the game when compared to not being able to do what you want. Even against aggressive decks the cost of falling behind early greatly outweighs the cost of a damage a turn. I have seen an increasing amount of City of Brasses found in two colour decks. There is just a very low pool of lands that tap for two different colours of mana from the turn they come in, whenever that might be, for as long as you have them. City of Brass is an almost perfectly balanced card. It has always been playable but never been so good as to find it all over the place. The cost is real and it does add up but it is often worth it. Increasingly more so it would seem. As with so many of the great cards from this era, it is elegance in simplicity.
8. Llanowar Elf
So, one mana ramp is very powerful but it is fair..! The alternative to Wild Growth. The parent of not just one functional reprint but two in Mystic and Fyndhorn, as well as a swath of similar critters. The one mana elf that taps for a mana is one of the strongest colour pie identifiers. It ties in creatures and mana which are most of what green does. In 23 years of playing magic myself I suspect I have cast more Llanowar Elves than most other spells in the game. Wild Growth may be safer but a 1/1 body offers a lot of utility from empowering other cards like Cradle to using other cards like Jitte and Clamp and now Copter too. They have value in combat and are even a win condition when you are packing Overrun effects. I love green because I love mana dorks. One mana ramp is powerful but it has always felt fair having it in just one colour - the colour that can't kill creatures or stop any kind of spells at that. Not expecting to get any more iterations of this original staple is something that makes me sad.
7. Wrath of God
If iconic was the only criteria then this would be one of my all time top ten cards and not just for 1993. Wrath has become a term which just means pick up all your guys and put them in the bin. It means any card that does that. This isn't even the best (Deluge or Supreme) simplest version of this type of cards (with that honour going to Day of Judgement, or at least the printing of Wrath that had the "bury" key word used), just the first and thus most iconic. Wrath has gotten worse over the years despite it still being one of the best mass removal spells still to this day. Threats have become more diverse and dorks more resilient reducing the effectiveness of the card. Despite all that you still just need Wraths in a lot of decks and they will decide a lot of games. So many aggro versus control games still come down to weather or not there is a mass removal spell on cue. If you can get more cards and mana worth of stuff for your Wrath then it is a positive trade and that is almost always the result. A defining card for how many games of magic are played and likely how meta and design have woven together over the years.
6. Demonic Tutor
The original sets did a lot for short hand terminology so it is a good job a lot of things were well named. Tutor loosely refers to any sort of looking through libraries for things and we have this card to thank for that. Demonic Tutor was considered too good for a very long time but seems to be one of the few early cards that is calming down in terms of power level. Unless you are playing a combo deck Demonic Tutor is not a great card, it is just sort of fine. It is nice in decks with answers but it is a significant tempo cost to use and increasingly that is a turn off for a card. With the power of threats in cube spending two mana to not affect the board leads to being unpleasantly behind. There are very few cards that are still good when you add two mana to their cost. Back when threats were less pressing and cards were more polar having the right one meant everything. In a cube without combos Demonic Tutor is eminently fair. It is almost falling into line with City of Brass, it offers perfection in one area for a real cost elsewhere. Demonic Tutor almost feels perfectly balanced in my cube in the same vein as City again being something that is played but far from whenever it can be.
The eponymous card! One of the more divisive cards in magic with most either in love with the card or pretty loathsome of it. Counterspell is a funny one, absolutely it is too good but it is only too good by a tiny margin as three mana for the same effect is too weak (certainly in any kind of cube setting). These three words in magic should be around the two and a half mana mark. Being such a clean card and being no significant degree over half a mana off in terms of appropriate power level makes Counterspell the perfect kind of top tier card. It is as good as it can be without being stupid. Yeah, Mana Drain is completely stupid. Negate is spot on for balance and power level and Counterspell sits in a happy (for it) spot between the two. Simple cards are hardest to balance and often most dangerous when over powered. If you make a card like Rampaging Ferocidon too powerful (which they did!) it isn't a massive issue as it is doing several different things. It is very rare to be in a position where exactly all of those abilities are perfect for the situation. When you have a simple clean card with only one effect then you rapidly scale up the danger. There is a vastly higher chance that a simple card is exactly situationally perfect and as you are only paying for that one thing alone you are getting the best possible deal on that perfect card. Counterspell is not over powered by much at all but being so clean, simple and direct makes it verge on the oppressively good.
4. Birds of Paradise
It is just iconic card after iconic card! Colour defining staples, term defining effects. There is lots of chatter about how much was done wrong in the early sets but you have to marvel at how much has not just been done right but done so perfectly. It seems even the accidental cards turned out very well! While a case may be made for Birds being too powerful, if they are then it is not in an oppressive way. Birds are an ideal upper bar with Llanowar Elf representing the lower bar on what I see as the appropriate range of power for a one mana ramp critter. They have such delightful flavour too. Just looking at them makes me feel warm!
3. Swords to Plowshares
The best creature removal spell ever printed. It is certainly overly powerful but Swords, like Birds of Paradise, is a relatively non oppressive card. Spot removal suffers the least from being over powered as it is reactive and so unlike the proactive cards that are over powered from '93 Swords has never felt like it was detrimental to the game. It is one of the few tempting things white has to offer these days. While not a weak colour it is rather a dull colour with dull cards and a limited range of things going on. Even red has way more interesting goings on now than white does! Lets hope over the next 25 years of magic R&D can figure out a way of making the colour more exciting.
2. Lightning Bolt
Lightning Bolt has always been the best all round burn spell and will likely keep that title. Burn has always been good but it has been getting steadily better. With planeswalkers, increasing tempo and a fair amount of paying life for things the premium on good burn just keeps going up. Bolt is one of the best creature removal spells in the game early on and has a wide range of other uses. Swords to Plowshares is better creature removal but it is only that and nothing more. There was a time I would have rated Swords over Bolt but that has fairly recently passed. The proactive and versatile Bolt is not as far above the curve as Swords, nor is it as limited in its redundancy, it just seems to be more effective and more playable. Burn is so direct and pure that a seemingly small difference is anything but, especially on the cheaper cards. Shock and Searing Spear are a really really long way off a Lightning Bolt. Far more so than Cancel is from Counterspell I might add and Searing Spear is still a great card while Cancel isn't.
1. Dual Lands
Another group of cards that are too good but are not oppressively so. The nice thing about these lands in cube is that you still only have one copy, it is not like in legacy where you can play sufficient sac lands and copies of the specific duals you want so as to not need other lands. The fact that these are basically always better than the shock lands does not take away from the shock lands in cube at all really. You still play all the good dual lands you can and would still play more if you could. The design space for top quality dual lands isn't that big either so having a cycle that has no real drawbacks just means we get to have more top quality dual lands! Good games happen when everyone is able to play their things and that can't happen with bad mana. If you are going to print and play with cards above the accepted power level then ones that increase consistency and don't pose as a threat are absolutely the best place to do it. This list contains a selection of the most played cards in the cube. The top four cards on this list quite impressively so. They are pretty close to being in the top 5 most played cards (or cycles) in the cube. It turns out that even 25 years down the line a lot of the core elements of magic remain exactly as they first were conceived!
While 1993 may have the most number of poorly designed cards of any year I had not fully appreciated how many cards were done done so perfectly. Alpha and Beta really are masterpieces. Design is far more consistent now and while there is a lot of exceptional individual card design on the go over the last two decades nothing has come close to the sheer volume of simple elegance put on show in the first outing of Magic the Gathering.