Sunday 4 March 2018

Top 10 Cards from 1998

Tolarian AcademySo this is the year it all went a bit tits up. Mostly we have Urza's Saga to blame for that with Portal Second Age, Stronghold and Exodus taking far less of the blame. In 1998 we return to a time where cards are sufficiently potent to merit banning from depowered cubes after a couple of years of more restrained design with no such overpowered cards. Tolarian Academy is the main offender but you could certainly argue that others merit banning. Fortunately over time the power creep in creatures and the relevance of tempo has meant that in cube a lot of the oppressively powerful cards from this era are now too narrow to be a big feature in unpowered cubes. The more the combo slant, or if a cube is powered, then the more it will draw from 1998 for its card pool. I am down to about 8 cards from this year in my midrange drafting cube. Many consider this one of the most powerful eras of magic but I think that is only true in a couple of dimensions with the majority of measures coming up poorly for the year. I suspect every year from original Zendikar onwards has more main cube cards and a deeper range of cube worthy things than 1998. Urza's block was just poorly considered and easily exploited. When you can build around the offenders then they are often silly good but when you are just drafting with them most of those fail to perform. Outside of the narrow combo cards and the few great cards from this year there is not much to impress. We started to get some nice utility creatures but tempo threats are weaker than the previous year. Creatures don't really pick up again until Invasion block. Apparently the dorks from 1997 were too good! One good thing this year continues to do is lay down some core colour staples. Finally some balanced baseline simple iterations of burn see print showing growing understanding in some areas of design! We also have Merfolk Looter and Soul Warden  as well as a bunch of cards in the top 10 which are all cards I would consider staple colour pie defining cards.

SmokestackAside from the few oppressive mana producers and card draw effects there are a selection of win more cards that creep in from Saga. It has a few "you don't get to play" cards as well which never go down well. Smokestack falls into both these undesirable categories. Thankfully it is hard to get ahead when you play a four mana do nothing in cube these days and so Smokestack isn't nearly as oppressive as it once was although still being a fine inclusion for synergy and power level reasons in most cubes. It just highlights one of the many design flaws in this era. The thing that is most obvious about this year is that I really should do two lists. For most other years the best cards are pretty similar regardless of powered cube or unpowered, and what kinds of combo they might contain. For 1998 there is one cards overlap between those two lists. That in itself is an indicator of bad design! I have already reached a list of 15 insane combo cards from this year and there are many many more. All those on the list are key cards in strong combo decks or just combo all stars that wind up all over the place. Before either of the lists however here is the list of remnant cards once the 25 best from the year have been removed. It still has a couple of cards on it that were banned at the time! Silly year. All the power in all the wrong places and none of that power insulated or earthed so to speak. So many iconinc cards but so few for the right reasons!

Dream Halls

Arc Lightning
Argothian Anchantress
Back to Basics
Carpet of Flowers
Constant Mists
Crater Hellion
Dream Halls
Ensnaring Bridge
Fertile Ground
Goblin LackeyForbid
Goblin Cadets
Goblin Lackey
Goblin Lore
Hermit Druid
Horn of Greed
Intruder Alarm
Merfolk Looter
Mind Over Matter
Mishra's Helix
Mogg Manic
Null Brooch
Mind Over MatterOvergrowth
Phyrexian Tower
Priest of Gix
Price of Progress
Serra's Sanctum
Soul Warden
Shock and Volcanic Hammer!
Sphere of Resistance
Spike Feeder
Stroke of Genius
Vernal Bloom
Volrath's Stronghold
Wood Elves
Worn Powerstone

So lets have a quick crack at this combo/powered list as it would seem remiss not to at least touch on some of the most pivotal cards in MtGs combo history.

Attunement15. Attunement

This is one of the few fair and well balanced cards on this list. What makes Attunement good is playabiliy, all be it within combo shells. Attunement is a reuseable discard and draw spell that lets you dig pretty deep. A fantastic Replenish support card but also just fine in storm decks, reanimate decks and many more. Not a pivotal card by any means but one that puts in a lot of work in the background.

Goblin Matron

14. Goblin Matron

Goblin decks are not exactly combo decks but a significant number of them have that combo element to them. While three mana tutor effects are normally too slow for cube Matron is a mainstay in basically all kinds of goblin deck. Being a goblin more than makes up for the extra cost, even more so when you have Aether Vial and Warchiefs making them bigger and cheaper and then Prospectors and Food Chains to convert them into more mana!

Priest of Titania13. Priest of Titania

An often forgotten card that ranks well up there with the stupidly polar! This is easily one of the most potent ramp cards in green. It is one of the main sources of extreme power that elf decks can call upon outpacing even Rofellos in the elf builds of green ramp. While combo elves is one of the less popular directions to take the tribe in cube the Priest is a mainstay in all builds and all of them have a somewhat combo element to them like goblins. Priest is strong enough that you can even run her outside of dedicated elf decks. Ramp that can scale is dangerous in the extreme. It is pretty stupid when you can generate more mana on turn three than you need to cast every spell in your deck and that is the kind of thing a Priest can do.

Seismic Assault

12. Seismic Assualt

A nice little win condition card that can either one shot people or grind out a game in a controlled fashion. Triple red is onerous and it is an effect you typically need to build around to a greater or less extent. When you can support it in both these areas it is typically then your best card.


11. Turnabout

Although this is typically only used for one thing it is a surprisingly versatile card. You can fog an attack, Mistbind their lands, untap blockers as a combat trick and so on and that is all very cute but you don't play four mana situational cards of that kind of level in cube. Turnabout is just a great way to ramp mana in a wide variety of storm decks. It is arguably more important than any of the actual storm cards for such decks.

Voltaic Key

10. Voltaic Key

Ramp, fixing, artifact support on the cheap and even part of some combos. Voltaic Key is useless on its own but one of the premium support cards for a selection of combo decks as well as basically all artifact ramp decks. It is the sillyness of other cards that lead to key being so good. If we only had access to fair and balanced artifacts key would be an OK support tool for the odd deck and not the artifact deck mainstay it seems like it is.

Show and Tell9.   Show and Tell

So many cube decks in combo cubes employ the services of big dorks as win conditions that this is a bit of a liability. Indeed, in the very last rotisserie I did my opponent had to sideboard his Show and Tell out simply because he could empower my Aluren deck to win before even having a turn! I could literally win at the end of his turn prior to my first and it isn't nearly as low odds as it sounds, I mostly just needed the enchantment. Anyway, that little story is just to show why this abusive card is so low on this list. Omniscience is actually the best thing to Show in as it lets you then respond more easily to the things they might put in. Generally I prefer my cheat mana effects to be rather more one sided! Powerful but risky.

Exhume8.   Exhume

Speaking of two sided cheat in effects we have this little gem. I have come to rate this as the best of the various recursion spells in cube. Things very rarely align such that the extra mana on Exhume over Reanimate is relevant. The latter almost never gets you going off a turn faster. The life loss on Reanimate is savage and prohibitive in a lot of cases while the symmetry on Exhume is super negligible due to how your deck operates. In combo decks they will rarely have things in the bin that do much of much. You end up giving away the odd Sakura Tribe Elder but that really isn't that big of a deal when you have a Grave Titan or Griselbrand now in play. The critical difference between Show and Tell and Exhume and why the latter is a staple and the former feels like a last resort is simple; information. You know what you are Exhuming into and so you never pull the trigger on an unfavourable one. Exhume never cost anyone who was paying attention a game.

Oath of Druids7.   Oath of Druids

One of the fairer feeling cards of this ilk but still ultimately not one that leads to great gaming experiences. Yes, there is counterplay but only for some decks and in some situations. Often you can go land dork and they go right into an Oath and that is that. What makes Oath less brutal in cube than in constructed is its sloth, its necessary randomness and its potential danger. With small decks and limited ways to manipulate hands and library you need at least 2 things you can Oath into and ideally 3 or 4. Too few dorks and you risk decking yourself however the more you run the less potent they are on average and the less predictable your Oath outcomes. The fact that it takes two turns after playing the Oath with most dorks to do all that much to the game also makes Oath quite beatable. Aggressive decks can just rush you down even with a turn two Oath unless you happen to Oath into the one creature of the ones you have that will solve the situation.

Mox Diamond6.    Mox Diamond

No shockers here but this is the one overlap card between combo and midrange cubes. Certainly it is better (compared to itself) in the powered cubes but perhaps it isn't relatively as good in the meta. The fixing and the artifact synergies certainly get a boost in the powered/combo cubes. Midrange cubes typically just want the ramp and have more interest in the ability to fill up the bin than they do with the artifact synergies. Fixing is still always good! Not a card you find in any one archetype that often but a card that most archetypes will play in the right setting. A super hard card to build with but a lovely option to have in that process. Of all the polar cards in MtG these two for one Mox are my favourites by a long way. I think I like the variance they offer.

City of Traitors5.   City of Traitors

Free ramp, what is not to love. Most combo decks have very low curves and can go off with relatively little mana spent. If they do have any cards over three mana (that they aim to cast) it will just be a couple. City just offers a huge burst of early mana. If you make it turn one and only use it twice (due to making a land on turn two) it still takes someone making one land a turn till turn four to catch up with you mana wise. The only combo decks that don't want to play this are those that rely on land drops or land types or that simply don't have a use for that much colourless mana. That isn't loads of them! In terms of amount of play City is pretty comfortably at the top of this list. It is the extreme potential power alone of the cards above it that has put them there!

Sneak Attack
4. Sneak Attack

Although one of the most expensive cheat in cards the Sneak Attack has always performed better than, well, all the other ones on this list! If you want to put big creatures into play in the cube this is one of the very best ways to do that. Speed is all well and good in cube but singleton reduces your consistency enough that speed typically becomes secondary to effectiveness. Sneak Attack is an immediate threat and an ongoing one. Giving the things haste is just so powerful and gives so little ability to react. A lot of cards are pretty much on the spot wins in one way or another. Triggering EtB and upon death effects is lovely too. Even the something as cheap as a Grave Titan does six damage and leaves four 2/2s in play! When you have your Emrakul then that is that. Probably the best cube cheat in creature card overall.

Yawgmoth's Will3.   Yawgmoth's Will

In a general sense this card isn't very good. It is like a Regrowth for an extra mana that you have to do there and then with the mild upside of potentially getting more value from it in the late game with more mana... When you build around it using cards like Rituals and say, Black Lotus, well then Will gets to be a total joke. It often just feels like Fork all the spells in a deck built around it. Great in any deck with cheap and free spells or those that produce mana or indeed just decks that produce a lot of mana. If you think Treasure Cruise or Dig Through Time are good late game top decks in an unpowered cube you should see how quickly people conceded to a Will off the top in a powered cube.

Time Spiral

2.   Time Spiral

What could be better than drawing seven cards for no mana cost? Well, drawing seven cards and generating six or more additional mana thanks to some High Tide or Heartbeat of Spring effect. This card is so silly. Land untapping is abusive in addition to free spells already being abusive. Yawgmoth's Will is easily abused but is pretty fair in the normal sense. Time Spiral is easily abused and not even close to fair in the normal sense either. One of the daftest cards ever made. Live and learn eh? 

1.   Tolarian Academy

What seems like a really good way to abuse effects that untap lands? Is it lands that tap for infinite mana? Academy is so unreasonably potent it basically had the effect in cube for a very very long time of simply making any artifact that cost one or less playable. Academy is stupid compared even to the stupid cards from this year. It can get going on turn one and cannot be easily stopped. You can have a Strip Mine in play and I can still get at least one activation out of it which is usually plenty. A lot of fun to play with but really only for one person at the table. I banned this along with the power and have not regretted that choice at all. Academy, when in a format with Mox etc, is easily one of the most powerful cards of all time, like top 5 above all the other lands and most of the power. My top five powerful cards list, in no real order, is probably Sol Ring, Black Lotus, Recall, Time Walk and Academy. Four 1993 cards and then this five years down the line. Oops.

Well, with that horror show dispensed with we can look to the cards from this era that are less polar and as such work out rather better in a limited environment. Here are the best of the well designed and all round playable cards from the year. While they look pretty fair compared to the combo cards of the year they still contain some of the more extreme cards that remain in my midrange cube.

Survival of the Fittest10. Survival of the Fittest

Perhaps this should actually be on the other list. It is certainly more of a combo card than an all round playable these days. While Survival was the perfect grinding tool a decade ago with the likes of Genesis the increase of tempo edges out cards like this. You are three mana (and a card) down before you have done anything at all with Survival. It is only something you want in creature based decks and those suffer most if they concede tempo. When you had a narrower range of cards and more utility dorks with specific purposes in your deck an ongoing tutor effect like this was great. Now it is more about what it can put in the bin. Potent card but much more of a synergy inclusion than an all round playable these days.

Wall of Blossoms

9.   Wall of Blossoms

This is a great little card but sadly it is in the colour that needs it least. I much prefer Elvish Visionary or Satyr Wayfinder in my green decks as the more proactive body offers more utility. Green has such great defensive tools, like Courser of Kruphix and dual purpose walls  (of Roots!), such that it doesn't need Blossoms. Green is also not so commonly used as a control colour in a way that needs Blossoms.

Sleight of Hand8.   Sleight of Hand

Arguably the weakest of the one mana card quality effects and certainly in the bottom few. Sleight should be instant and then it would be more inline with the cube power level and offer a little extra incentive to choose it over something else. Sleight gets plenty of play but it is always filler, always because you didn't have better cards. It is just padding, tantamount to treading water, but it is still a lot better than sinking which is what a bad card can do to a list. It increases consistency but at a minor tempo cost. Worth it in most cubes but often less impact than a Peek or a Quicken so it is mostly about balance and preference as to how many and which cheap blue cantrips you want in your cube..

Temporal Manipulation

7.   Mox Diamond

Yup, mana is good in all kinds of magic!

6.   Temporal Manipulation

Not quite a functional reprint on Time Warp as you cannot target the player to gain the extra turn. Mostly that is good for anti Misdirection effects but it can be a disadvantage if you were to mill someone out! Five mana Time Walks are pretty fair in the cube. They typically don't see that much play simply for space and curve reasons but they rarely disappoint when they do get used.

Gaea's Cradle5.   Gaea's Cradle

I feel a bit rich laying into Academy so hard while this merrily sits in my cube. Cradle is a grossly over powered card but it is sufficiently different in how it plays out as to not just be silly in the cube setting. Cradle relies on having creatures to work. Not only do these rarely come on desirable forms that cost no mana but they are also something most decks expect to need to interact with. Arc Trail is played in most red decks that have the options on it and it is a lovely counter to Cradle. Rack and Ruin isn't something you ever want in your cube deck however... Cradle is also a bit win more, when it taps for three mana you have three guys in play and that is a pretty good place to be as a general rule. Probably that means you already have three mana up on your opponent. Cradle does lead to some silly explosive starts and it also leads to some dead card situations. It is polar for sure but the average performance isn't all that unfair.

Glorious Anthem4.   Glorious Anthem

Not as punchy as Honor the Pure, not as exotic as Spear of Heliod, and not as tempting as Always Watching. Anthem is the defining baseline again. It is what white does and it does it very well. It is rarely, if ever, the best of the Anthem effects but it is the most suitable for all the different archetypes in the cube that might want it. What it lacks in power and spice it more than makes up for in playability. The fact that we call them Anthem effects not Crusade effects despite the years difference in their printing is testament to how staple Glorious Anthem is. Just the other day I repeatedly got owned by a Boros deck going one drop, one drop one drop, Glorius Anthem. A turn four goldfish for six mana and four cards (or seven with lands). A turn four goldfish with all your mana open on turn four!

Mana Leak

3.   Mana Leak

This is the fixed Counterspell in much the same way that Shock and Volcanic Hammer are the baseline burn. Mana Leak is also more interesting than cards like Shock as it has some clause aspects to it. Good design. Solid card.

Duress2.   Duress

The black Negate and a cornerstone of what black was to become as a colour. Prior to Duress the discard effects in black were either over powered RNG hell like Mind Twist and Hymn to Tourach or pretty low powered. Duress is like the blue card quality effects such as Ponder, it is one for one, with no effect on the board. You don't lose out on cards and only a tiny bit in tempo. The blue one drop cantrips increase consistency while the black iterations provide information and disrupt. It is very fair in practice and very rewarding to the skilled user. Duress has aged very nicely with planeswalkers and selection of other non-creature threats now in existence. It is another well designed base line card that helps define the colour pie. Much as it is well appreciated how much was done wrong in these years we should not overlook the many gems it offers. An impressive number of cards, particularly cheap and simple ones, were done perfectly. The sheer number of reprints of this card are testament to that alone. How I would love one with a new name for some much needed redundancy. I suspect as this is so well named I would have much more luck barking up the Inquisition of Kozilek tree for functional reprints!

Recurring Nightmare1.   Recurring Nightmare

Nightmare is an engine card all in one pretty much all by itself. Due to the high number of EtB and upon death triggers in cube Nightmare is pretty much endless value. It is quite hard to stop and pretty devastating in most cases. Sometimes you randomly pitch a big dork and cheat it out for greatly reduced cost and increased tempo, other times you just dump all your mana each turn into cycling a couple of potent dorks in and out of play. Nightmare is a win condition, a source of a value and a great source of utility. It is like the ultimate planeswalker! Rather than grow in loyalty it scales with the length of the game and the build of your deck and it can't be attacked and dealt with anyway! Only countermagic and discard effects can touch it and both can fairly easily be played around. When I took out most of the cheat in effects like Exhume and Oath of Druids I left in Nightmare. It was used fairly often in those sorts of lists and would commonly get back things like Griselbrand. Now there are very few large creatures to abuse with Nightmare and the card remains every bit as good. There are very few black creature heavy decks I wouldn't want this in.

So 1998 was very much the biggest year for MtG since 93 but sadly not in a good way. The many great cards made this year are rather over shadowed by the over powered, polar and abusable cards. Constructed suffered a lot at the time of this set but we still feel some of the impact of it now, twenty years down the line. Storm the Vault // Vault of Catlacan is one of the least playable cards I have seen in some time and another consequence of the devastation caused by Academy.

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