I had somewhat just assumed this year was going to be a weak one, due to Onslaught mostly, but also forgetting how good cycling and flashback are. Two of the best mechanics lead to some pretty lovely cards from the era. I failed to appreciate how good Odyssey block was in terms of the extra dimensions it brought to magic and the design directions following it. Graveyard stuff is interesting and powerful and this year has a lot of great cards to help with such things. Both Torment and Judgement have some juicy offerings and kept the pace with what Odyssey started. Onslaught wasn't as horrid as I recall either. Certainly the Onslaught cards are not deep nor do they have a high average power level but none the less the set offers some staples, some nice effects, some key cards in certain places, including some nice tribal stuff and of course great cycling things.
Due to general creature power creep post Invasion and due to me first building my cube in 2005 I am starting to see cards that were once cube staples. I have not even bothered to list things like Wild Mongrel from last year and Exalted Angel from this one as they simply no longer have any cube relevance. I have for some reason listed some others that have also probably done their last work already in my cube but that were also once big names. Nantuko Shade, Genesis, even Whipcorder was a decent dork! Another noteworthy thing from 2002 is the humble printing of Naturalize. While not that big of a deal in terms of the game it feels like a reasonably big deal in terms of design philosophy. Other than fairly vanilla dorks (Stone Throwing Devils and Tundra Wolves) Naturalize represents a the first colour shifted reprint of a core effect. I am glad that white and green both have Disenchant, it feels right. I think the colour pie is great but as with any artistic guidelines I think some of the best results occur when they are broken. Only for the best reasons should they be broken but I think sticking to them too ridgedly isn't really providing any benefit. Even though Naturalize isn't breaking colour pie it shows the willingness to do adventurous things and I am all for it. Before our top ten on the year here are some of the other delights 2002 has to offer cubers of today;
Chain of Vapour
Chain of Plasma
10. Patriarch's Bidding
Bidding has to be one of the very first cards I ever cut from my cube. It is a decidedly narrow card and has only really ever had a couple of uses. At the time it was pretty exclusively to recur goblins and that has remained the most potent thing you can do with the card. Since then zombies got Grey Merchant of Asphodel and became a very good bidding tribe. Elves then got Shaman of the Pack and became a somewhat viable Bidding tribe and lastly Bloodstained Bishop turned up for the vampires giving quite a lot of scope to Bidding for the win in otherwise strong tribes. Bidding is one of the very best reasons to go tribal. It can be the ultimate value recursion card, an antidote to mass remover, or it can simply be an I win button. While I highly doubt I will ever have Bidding in my drafting cube ever again it feels like it is one of the most significant cards outside of the drafting cube when it comes to considering the context and strength of other cards.
9. Akroma's Vengeance
For a good while this was the premium technology in mass removal effects. Wrath of God merely bought you some time against affinity while Vengeance would pretty much seal the deal. It wasn't creatures so much in aggerssive decks that were the problem, it was the equipment they would carry and so Vengeance carried a lot more stopping power than a Wrath. It was even pretty good at shutting down artifact ramp decks. Vengeance enjoyed a pretty premium status as a control card all the way up to the printing of Austere Command and it continued to see play there after as well. Things are all a bit too quick for six mana removal to be all that much of a thing in cube these days. I think the only places you would see this getting used now is due to the cycling and as cyclers go this is one of the weaker ones. Three is a heavy cost making it rarely viable to do early and the effect is not typically something you want to cycle away late. Ideally big cards have low cycling costs while cheap cards have heavier cycling costs. Either way, cycling is one of the all time great mechanics and it improves every card it goes on.
8. The One Mana Cycling Lands
While I am raving on about the quality of cycling we have this cycle. These are substantially better than the original Urza's block ones as they basically cost half to cycle. Pretty obviously if you don't have enough access to said colour you want to lay your land rather than cycle it and so for the most part these are just half the cost of the various other cycling lands and that makes them pretty all round great cards. Before we had such reasonable access to card quality in colours outside blue, and before tempo got nutty and thus before the cost of EtB tapped lands was onerous, this cycle was a great way to refine mana bases. Now you want to use cards like Urza's Bauble to adjust ratios and have as filler cards but back in the day you could afford these slower but more luxurious offerings. Now we have scry lands (Temples), cycling fetchable duals and other utility lands for days and you rarely see these used. Most commonly found in Life from the Loam decks as a source of recurring card advantage.
7. Deep Analysis
A lovely little card draw tool that has a lot more interesting things going on than most other draw spells. There are several modes in which you can play Deep Anal and a lot of choices that come with those modes. Back in the day Deep Anal was good enough that you would happily run it out at four mana for a bad Council of the Soratami. As such the option to discard it was always interesting, it would allow for much more immediate and mana efficient card draw but it would significantly reduce the overall value. All in Deep Anal is a four for one which is pretty serious value, depending on how you consider the value of discarding it, just the flashback half is a two or three for one. Now tempo is far too great for four mana draw spells and so you can only play Deep Analysis if you are reliably able to get it in the bin. This makes it narrow but it doesn't make it all that much worse. Night's Whisper is a great card and so in the right deck Deep Anal is rather better. Three life is a significant cost and it adds further interest to playing and building with the card.
6. Cabal Therapy
It pains me to have this gem so low on the list. If it were more playable in singleton limited then I would have it second or something! Therapy is one of my all time favourite cards. Huge options, massive skill tester and generally all round interesting little spell. One of the flashback greats. Useful as disruption, as a sac outlet, as a thing you can tutor into your bin, as a way to get stuff from your hand into the bin! Therapy is a card I bring in and out of cube and I have found it performs pretty well with the right conditions. I probably try and make it work more than I should in singleton due to my love of the card but I have rarely been unhappy with the cards performance. This top ten is looking like it is going to be one of the biggest years for personal favourites!
5. Goblin Sharpshooter
A savage card in all respects. Sharpshooter is a headache on the rules and will single handedly defeat a lot of decks. The bane of elves. Merfolk don't enjoy the minigun much either! As a Standalone card Sharpshooter is a little bit matchup dependent. In a deck with synergies the card is a combo kill machine. Historically this was things like Skirk Prospector and Sledder to empower untap triggers and Goblin Warchief to get them online quicker and safer. You don't however need to go down the tribal route, any sort of token or weenie deck with any sort of sac outlet will empower Sharpshooter plenty. A huge amount of board control and reach. In many ways it feels like the red Mother of Runes. Pretty high power level, very hard for some decks to beat and pretty much a kill on sight card regardless of what you are playing.
4. Mental Note
This is one of those sleeper cards. Ten years ago it would be pretty suicidal running running this as you could easily mill a key card and lose on the spot. As I have moved away from combo and as decks have become more robust and redundant the danger of self mill in cube has fallen to nearly as little risk as in constructed. With the release of top notch delve cards from Tarkir, the delirium mechanic things, flashback stuff, recursive dorks, and even just an increase in good graveyard recursion effects there is a significant increase to the value of self mill. Milling random cards will give pseudo card quality or card advantage, or it can be a mana saving too. Mental Note is still narrower than things like Serum Visions but it is more powerful in the right kinds of deck and not that much less effective in the wrong kinds of deck. Part Dark Ritual and part Serum Visions Mental Note is a powerhouse of a support card and one of the most potent do nothing cards on offer now.
3. Lava Dart
Another one of my favourite cards. Turns out I love me an alternate cost flashback card. I like flashback a lot as it is... I might have mentioned that. Lava Dart is a card that has returned to prominence recently. Back in the day it was good because we didn't have enough burn. Then we did and Dart was a bit fiddly and awkward but then along came prowess and Dart jumped back into the spotlight as a premium burn card. Unlike Firebolt the back end of Lava Dart is arguably the better half and so you still get a good half card when you put Dart in the bin. Being instant also helps to make Dart super tricksy and the most option dense red card on offer. This is probably the most interesting simple card on offer, it might well have the greatest (relevant) option density per words of text or even mana cost. I want to liken it to Brainstorm in this regard.
2. Grim Lavamancer
I hadn't realized quite how many of the dorks around the time of Lavamancer have fallen off. Grim is basically now one of those few old utility creatures that remain in the cube like the green ramp stuff, Mother of Runes, er... Basically, when I made the cube most of the dorks were from the era of Lavamancer. Now that is very much not the case and Grim really stands out being the staunch remainder. He is the 11th oldest creature in my cube presently. Every bit as good as he once was despite the significant power creep in creatures. Just a classic red effect packaged in an appealing way. Grim is cheap but he is not oppressive on tempo. Grim is quite a slow card that shines in the longer more drawn out games. His "mandatory delve two" resource consumption makes him well balanced and interesting. His direct and pure damage based utility makes him appealing in most places and his low mana costs further increase his desirability. I would love to see more cards like this, cheap to play but better later in the game. Cryptbreaker is the only comparable card to come to mind and it only compares in sytle, not in power or playability.
1. Allied Sac Lands
This is rather a no brainer. These are not just number one for 2002 but arguably for all 25 years of magic. Sac lands changed things in magic and it has not looked the same since. Old mana bases got rather better. Brainstorm got rather better. I imagine sleeve wear had some insane uptick. Sac lands have to be the most played cards of all time. They certainly are in cube. They are in most decks that can run them, even decks with no need of the fixing sometimes run them, be it for the thinning, the graveyard filling, or the shuffles. While only an allied cycle it didn't really matter given you can basically fix anything with them in concert with the original duals. This cycle of five covered most of the legacy and vintage players needs for fixing and would go on to do the same with the shock lands in other formats.