Monday 26 February 2018
Top 10 Cards from 1997
So this year saw a ramp up in product with nearly twice as many new cards released as previous years. Portal was a factor in this but we also have three other non-reprint only sets in Weatherlight, Tempest and Visions compared to two from the previous couple of years. You can see the ramp up in number of cards still in the drafting cube as well as the long old list of other cards retaining cube relevance. Lots of sideboard stuff and the first real bit of power creep to be found in creatures. Some of these tempo cards still hold their own to this day. Nothing since 1993 managed that and 97 probably just about outclasses 93 on that creature front (excluding mana dorks of course!). There are about 15 cards from this year still worthy of my drafting cube however half of those are pretty fringe and have been in and out of the cube quite a lot over the last decade.
This is the year that combo really started to come to light. There was also a lot of shadow weenie decks that were dull in a different way and I think the design team took the wrong message from that and toned creature power down. With all the tutors now up and running combined with pushing out the boat on new and exotic card design without the hindsight of what kinds of effects are likely to be dangerous it is no shock that the earlier combo decks were oppressive. All this also massively compounded by having such a weak representation of aggressive decks. Just because there are a lot of them about doesn't mean they are objectively good. I think the context of these events has overly warped the design philosophy of MtG. Combo was only rife in this era of MtG due to these factors, it is not so much the fault of combo itself or the support cards for it. I think the fault lies in card design that is more easily abused from this era with too narrow a range of interactive tools to deal with them and the impotence of aggro, neither able to race nor disrupt the combo decks effectively. I think a lot of the combo decks of this era would fold pretty hard to the standard decks of today, certainly if they could prepare sideboards for them. Prosperity is a cute counter to Hazoret at least! Here is the list of cube relevant cards from 97. Not only is it longer than the previous years but the average play of the cards listed will be rather higher as well. Although the bottom end of the spectrum is a lot higher with this year it would be fair to say the the top end of the power level was more contained. I have no cards banned out from this period. Power creep for this year is in the average cards, not the top end.
Aura of Silence
Sapphire (and other) Medalions
Helm of Awakening
Soltari Priest / Monk
10. Jackal Pup
This little card signals the arrival of red deck wins. It was the best stand alone aggressive one drop in red for a very very long time. I am pretty sure we didn't see another playable two power one drop in red until Goblin Guide! Norrin the Wary and Goblin Cadet don't feel playable to me even though I have run the Cadet in cube and constructed! Goblin Patrol isn't a one mana card. etc etc. Since Goblin Guide we have had a steady influx of playable red one drop dorks and so Pup has gone from the best steadily to the worst (of those that are cube worthy). One or two more good red one drops and the Pup will lose its long standing cube slot. Much as Pup is quite a lot worse than Savannah Lions it is substantially more interesting and leads to some cool situations. It will be a sad goodbye when Pup is retired but his cool interactions will live on in Firedrinker Satyr at least. Hopefully they will continue to reuse this drawback but on increasingly potent cards.
Abeyance is one of white's only ways to interact with spells. If you are a white combo deck you really want this for forcing through your things. Black has discard, blue has countermagic and white has this. White has a few other things along the same lines but none of those are generally playable as they either don't replace themselves or they cost too much, or they just don't really get the job done. Improved with the release of planeswalkers but sadly reduced in utility as tempo has started to dominate over control and combo. I think all colours should have some ways to interact with peoples plans that are not limited to things in play (or graveyards). This kind of effect feels perfect for not being like countermagic or discard and thus giving white some unique identity. Abeyance is used mostly as filler now but it has lead a rich and full life! It feels like a pretty fair card in a world dominated by creatures and looks increasingly well designed.
8. Ancient Tomb
Certainly compared to the likes of Mana Crypt and Grim Monolith Ancient Tomb seems pretty balanced. Turns out however that mana ramp is generally one of the least balanced things. As you iron out the oppressive stuff the Tomb looks more and more potent. These days a good Tomb start feels like you got a free Time Walk. Ancient Tomb is a bomb in a few places like Eldrazi decks, affinity decks and a load of combo shells. In aggro decks and midrange decks the lack of coloured mana makes it less useful to completely useless. In control decks it is high risk high reward. Yes, it can still easily be that free Time Walk but it will probably cost you half your life which might well kill you. This isn't so narrow that you can't usefully run it in a non-powered, non-combo cube but it is still very much one of those all in high roll old cards that isn't greatly balanced and that doesn't lead to the best games. I don't run this in my cube any more for that reason. Of my "powerful enough but polar and narrow" cards it is absolutely one of the most played still. Often in quite unexpected places it will work wonders. It is the kind of card that you should always ask the question "is my deck an Ancient Tomb deck?". More are than you would think and it adds a lot more to decks than most other cards can.
7. Time Warp
The fair Time Walk! Even at five these can be a bit oppressive. They are shocking things to have in your starting hand but they are a joke once you have made it to the five mana mark. If you are at all ahead when you cast one of these in cube you typically win on the spot. An even game can even be put out of reach with one of these. Worst case scenario they are a free cycle when you get to the five mana mark. Some cube decks simply use ramp and recursion to effectively loop these kinds of effects indefinitely. These can be great in certain combo decks, control decks all the way through to aggro decks. Although they have an air of the win more about them the fact that they are not that much of a burden in the mid and late game unlike other costlier spells which makes them the good kind of win more card. They have a feel of the Treasure Cruise about them in that when you use them they are painless and great but they will be dead weight in hand in the early game. If your deck can work well off muligans then it can probably support Time Warp.
This has always felt super fair so I found the printing of Anticipate a little insulting! Impulse is just great filler. Instant speed makes it feel incredibly cheap to play despite being double the price of most card quality effects. It is much more of a control card than anything else but it is sufficiently innocuous that it will crop up all over the place. It is more in the tutor camp of cards than other card quality as it only really does one cards worth of setup and doesn't let you stack your library. It is better than all the other cheap card quality in terms of its digging potential seeing a juicy four cards deep and bettering the mighty Brainstorm!
A super underrated card here. A cheap cantrip in white to support the likes of Monastery Mentor. A shuffle effect, fixing and even a two for one for about half the casts. Tithe is often better than Land Tax. If you are ahead it still gives you something yet it is one of few cards that aids the player going second more. To my mind that makes it exceptional design but I suspect Wizards view it as more powerful than they would like. It feels like a version of this made today would find basic lands and be a sorcery. Like Land Tax, it is one of those cards that isn't oppressive or proactive so even if it is above the desired power level it is not something people object to at all. This is one of those cards that isn't exciting so it doesn't catch peoples attention but it really should just be in every cube, there is no reason not to run it!
4. Goblin Bombardment
This was a bit of a sleeper card for me but I think that was my error misjudging how one is supposed to use such things. I just had it earmarked as a specific combo card and nothing more. This should have been in my cube really ever since creatures started to dominate the cube meta. It is insane reach, it is fantastic for empowering things like Blood Artist. It is great for denying Jitte counters or lifelink triggers. I actively want this in any creature or token heavy deck that is somewhat low to the ground. Great utility, one of the few cards that is worth playing in cube despite doing nothing on its own. It provides so much control and option density and it comes at very little cost. There are also tonnes of otherwise great cards that this supports very well. Rabblemaster is always a treat!
The red Force of Will! Fireblast is actually super narrow. You really only want it in aggressive decks that are entirely or predominantly red. If aggro red was not one of the most common, most popular and most potent archetypes in cube I doubt this would still be a thing. I have cut plenty of more powerful cards for being narrow. I do love this card. I appreciate how a smattering of free spells greatly increase the depth and complexity of games. I think singleton formats get the most out of these potent free spells. Killing someone a turn early with a Fireblast is a thing, it is how you want to use it but it isn't what makes Fireblast a "good" card even if it is what makes it powerful. What makes it good is when you put most or all of your lands in the bin in the early game to wiggle out of an awkward spot and manage to steal that game several turns down the line despite the huge setback. It is far more like Daze in that regard just closer to Force of Will in power. This non finishing blow use happens a surprising amount in cube. Knowing when you can and have to seemingly cripple yourself with the card is a big skill tester. Fireblast has had a recent surge in potency with the release of Insult / Injury. Red decks getting turn three kills is a very real thing in cube now and Fireblast is a big part of that.
2. Vampiric Tutor
Probably the best Tutor printed in magic. The more tempo has become dominant in cube the more Vampiric has over Demonic Tutor. I love this card. I love this cycle and this is my favourite of them all. It costs you every resource but nearly baseline on every account. It ties together so many decks so well. Faithless Looting is the only other card quality card with card disadvantage that gets universal play. Both see lots and lots of action in a stunningly wide array of decks. Cube decks being less focused than constructed ones mean that a wider range are keen to make us of card quality effects. Vampiric Tutor is one of the biggest skill testers in the game. Use it wrong and it hurts you in every way while achieving nothing. Use it well and it will sort out your deck and solve many a problem. I never play Demonic Tutor in tempo driven decks but I frequently play Vamp and it is great. Sadly Tutors are more oppressive in constructed as you can cram in way more main deck bullet cards in a 60 card deck which means we probably won't be seeing more cards like this. Vamp is hard to abuse in cube and so it is just a great fair card. It doesn't make combo decks good, it makes them viable because that is how singleton is.
The first of Wizards many attempts to make a fair and balanced Strip Mine. A goal they finally managed to achieve two decades after the original with Field of Ruin. Wastelands might look like a neat and clean fixed Strip Mine. It is certainly a lot less oppressive as it offers some counterplay but it is no less brutal when it connects well (which is still pretty often). If you have to walk into a Wastelands and it gets you then it is a pretty free win for your opponent. In constructed you are far less likely to have to walk into it as you will have more sac lands with the option to find basic lands. The only thing I really like about this card is how it creates extra significance and merit to basic lands. It is a bit too polar good, a bit too easy to include and is a huge punisher card to those on the draw. It is cards like Wastelands that actually make the original Mox seem fair and balanced as they offer some generic variance to who is "on the play" each game. You could be on the draw and counter their Wasteland with your Mox so to speak. Ramunap Excavator seeing print, as well as an influx of nice playable new dual lands, has elevated Wastelands to the high alert watch list for cards I might consider for a ban. Still, the most played and powerful card from this era, pretty much regardless of format! Probably contending for that accolade from all eras combined!