Toward the end of 2019 (so roughly 20 years ago by common reckoning), I published an article here counting down the new cards that had defined the year in Magic. It was a somewhat rare chance to highlight not only the cards and decks that won the most, but the way the year had changed the broader Magic community. I had a lot of fun and immediately earmarked it as a potential yearly experiment.
And then, well, 2020 happened.
It’s been a unique year in Magic, just as it has been everywhere. I don’t think the “month-by-month” structure is going to fly this time, when most of us feel like we’ve had 200 days of March. Instead, I’ve assembled a straightforward top ten: these are the cards which — in addition to (mostly) being prominent in their respective formats — most represent the important movements and moments of 2020. Enjoy!
Ah, the jolly green giant. How I pine for the early days where the most noteworthy thing about you was the comical animation when you entered the battlefield on MTG Arena. That didn’t last long, of course, as this legend quickly went on to shatter the metagame of every competitive format from Standard to Legacy.
Much like Oko, Thief of Crowns before it, Uro showed how tricky it is to deal with three-mana cards which can offer both battlefield presence and turn-on-turn resource advantage. While he doesn’t literally blank the textbox on opposing cards, Uro is still tough for many decks to compete with, thanks to the unbelievable consistency of escape and the hard-to-race life gain trigger. Like many threats from the last few years, Uro offers so much value that you pull further ahead in any exchange where you cast it — and you can cast it nearly every turn!
Uro is not just the Titan of Nature’s Wrath, but a three-mana Titan; a Mulldrifter combined with a Baneslayer Angel, as Card Kingdom’s own Michael Rapp put it. If displacing every midrange and control deck in every format with some variant of “Uro Pile” isn’t defining Magic, then I don’t know what is.
While the rest of us were trying to reckon with the Titan of Nature’s Wrath, Pauper players had their own priorities. One ongoing concern of this budget-focused format is, believe it or not, card availability — especially in paper play, where certain ancient yet powerful commons had been creeping up in price! Rather than accept this or abandon their beloved format, Pauper content creators and community leaders began an organized and polite lobbying campaign to get them reprinted in supplemental products.
Oubliette was the white whale (well, black whale) for this group — an irreplaceable card in many of the format’s controlling black decks. Having never been reprinted since Arabian Nights, this devotion-granting, creature-exiling enchantment was on its way to becoming a Magic Online exclusive — until it finally saw a reprint in Double Masters, reducing the market price from $30 to $2. It’s the kind of feel-good format preservation players are always begging for, and Wizards even acknowledged The Professor’s tireless campaign for a reprint by giving it to him as a preview card. A great moment for both WotC’s reprint policy and their work with content creators!
This isn’t one of the first cards that leaps out at you when making a list like this, but it’s important to acknowledge both the trends that ended in 2020 and ones that started.
When you consider the recent track record of Teferi cards (and Planeswalkers in general), you can understand why the reaction to M21 being promoted as “Core Set: Teferi” was one of concern. War of the Spark had flooded Standard with dominant three- and four-drop Planeswalkers, later topped off with the two-drop Wrenn and Six in Modern Horizons. Their efficiency and inherent tempo advantage has permanently altered formats like Modern, Legacy, and even Vintage. I penned an article at the time examining the imminent balance threat posed by these Planeswalker designs, and opined that WotC needed to reconsider how they were using the card type.
And then, almost immediately, they did! If Teferi, Master of Time seems like one of the less game-warping cards on this list, that should be considered a compliment to the design process behind him and the other 2020 Planeswalker cards. Almost all of them have their niche in Standard; I myself found the Temur “Draw-Two” archetype to be incredibly competitive pre-rotation with Teferi topping the curve. But the “sub-game” that naturally evolves from their first activation feels more interesting, and far less overwhelming to opponents when they’re accelerated out on turn two or three. As a previous critic of Planeswalkers, I think that’s a turnaround worth celebrating.
After years of hearing from Ari Nieh and other designers that WotC is going to revamp white spells, this Spirit feels like we’ve finally reached that turning point. Skyclave Apparition has proven to not only be the best creature in Modern, but a pretty good creature in Standard and Legacy, too! The raw power and catch-all utility of its effect is easier to recur when attached to a cheap-ish creature, producing such huge results that non-white archetypes are trying to actively fit white mana into their decks to play it. That puts it in a very rarefied class of the best white cards ever, a welcome sight for a color which doesn’t get to flex with many straight-up bombs.
Skyclave Apparition is important not just for its overall power level, but for how it re-introduced this kind of creature-based interaction as a signature white mechanic. White’s section of the color pie has seemed to shrink a bit over the years, and is cluttered with mechanics like lifegain which struggle to hold value at a competitive level.
But after a year that also saw cool and useful printings such as Alseid of Life’s Bounty, Idol of Endurance, Seasoned Hallowblade, The Birth of Meletis and Heliod, Sun-Crowned, it’s clear that WotC are trying to gradually expand expectations of what white cards can do. Rather than a chance windfall, it seems very possible that this Apparition will have some more powerful in-color friends coming next year.
Rounding out the top half of our list is a card which, at one point, was trading for a market price more than double the RRP of the product it came in. I think it’s fair to say Fierce Guardianship once again exposed fundamental difficulties with managing reprint value in supplementary products, and with printing new staple cards into Commander.
Here, the first problem stems directly from the second. Fierce Guardianship and the other four “free-with-commander” spells from the Commander 2020 precons seem like they’d be celebrated by fans of the format. These are new pushed cards on par with the strongest eternal staples, generic and powerful enough to go in anything — so everybody is guaranteed to get at least one upgrade for their favorite deck from the new precons.
And as I mentioned in my recent series of articles about the nature of power in Commander, free spells are uniquely important to this format. They enable big turns and protect fragile commanders so players are able to have more fun doing their thing, and printing them in precons means the average player will have access to this vital effect.
But of course, just dropping a whole cycle of ubiquitous, meta-shifting power cards will always cause waves in any format (spoilers for the second half of this list!). The biggest reason Commander has always been appealing and accessible to the casual audience is that its deck-building rules promote amazing card diversity. Being locked into specific colors while having reliable access to powerful and specific enabler cards from the command zone leads to almost every card being viable somewhere, allowing players to replace generic, costly rares with obscure but synergistic commons. It’s a time-honored process of discovery which has rewarded Commander fans both intellectually and financially.
The unconditional and irreplaceable utility of Fierce Guardianship runs against that spirit of innovation, presenting players with all-purpose power they can no longer justify skipping over. A single cycle of such spells might not cause a stir, but these moments of power creep seem to happen more and more as WotC has begun designing cards explicitly for use in Commander. Arcane Signet, Smothering Tithe, Dockside Extortionist, Thassa’s Oracle and others have become ultra-staples displacing entire classes of card from the format, and community sentiment around new legendary creature designs which play “too well” with the mechanics and needs of Commander is similarly mixed.
By replacing the creative and idiosyncratic card choices of yesteryear with straightforward generic options, these for-Commander products are theoretically helpful and accessible power boosts, but in practice, they disrupt the freedom many players cherish as essential to the format.
The final entry of my 2019 recap was for Field of the Dead, which, at the time, was the latest card to swiftly leave Standard after an urgently needed ban. After that perfect example of the risks inherent to pushing the balance envelope in Standard sets, I predicted that these rapid bannings would only escalate in 2020, unless the philosophy behind such cards was wound back.
Spoiled right in the middle of Uro’s peak Standard dominance, Omnath, Locus of Creation looked so similar to that other mythic rare bomb that it was immediately red-flagged by most of the Magic community. MPL pros threw a straightforward Omnath shell together on day one of Zendikar Rising, and that list proceeded to run roughshod over tournaments with very little refinement until it was eventually banned.
While there’s something to praise in both the speed and expanded scope of the B&R solution to Omnath — which attempted to deal with underlying enablers as well as the card itself — I still find myself questioning how it got to print. As one Magic Twitter account slyly referenced in their “obituary” for the elemental (“Oh, and it draws a card.”), the elemental features a broad, explosive selection of payoffs, with zero drawbacks or requirements which would seem to balance it — especially in a format starring Fabled Passage.
The only conclusion I can come to is that, like fellow absurd bomb Niv-Mizzet Reborn, its rainbow mana cost was intended to be a barrier to casting the card. But having seen the ease with which Standard and Pioneer decks can reliably cast these tremendous threats on (or even ahead of) curve, it seems colored mana no longer fulfills its traditional role as a deck-building restriction.
Balancing something so fundamental as manabases is incredibly tricky. Simply reducing the power of multicolored lands actually set up decks like 4c Omnath to be more powerful, since they run the ramp and fixing to power onwards while aggro decks crumble without untapped dual lands. But I hope that measures like the monocolored utility lands of Eldraine and color-affirming mechanics like devotion can help push the average colors-per-deck back below two — if only so that the next big rainbow deck feels genuinely special.
I don’t think I need to do much explaining of Muxus as a Constructed powerhouse, even if you haven’t been playing against it in Historic lately. A terrifying, game-ending threat in every Goblins match-up where he features, Muxus takes a tried and true goblins payoff and… staples it to a second one. It’s hard to imagine a world where that card doesn’t dominate.
What I want to focus on here is where Muxus came from, and where it has most shined. The card is an original printing from this year’s Jumpstart supplemental set, where it was the chief prize for players opening the “Goblins” themed booster. Aside from the value and fun of opening such a cool new bomb, Jumpstart seemed to offer something Magic has never quite achieved before: a truly open-and-start new player experience.
In the past, newcomers to Magic and those trying to teach them had an imperfect choice of where to start. Constructed gameplay is much more information- and decision-dense, and puts pressure on new players to buy their own deck before they’re really ready. On the other hand, Limited offers newbies a level playing field without owning cards beforehand, but then they need to be helped with the advanced, specific logic of drafting and deck-building.
Jumpstart is perfectly poised to fill this key gap, providing a feeling of ownership and interest in your deck ala Limited without asking new players to evaluate and choose each card themselves. It’s a great innovation and I hope we see more Jumpstart sets in future!
As for Historic? Well, the format grew up a lot in the lockdown months, helped along by the restricted access to other formats. Now we’ve reached a point where Historic is being played at the world’s top tournaments, and Muxus’s Goblins might be the format’s best deck. With all the momentum and focus Historic has right now, it seems very likely that Muxus will soon lead his scrappy cohorts into paper competition as well, whenever that resumes.
Yep, I put two cards down for this entry; it’s my column, and I make the rules! Given both Lurrus and Yorion are influential thanks to the companion rule, and have been about equally prominent as a result, it would be weirder to talk about one without mentioning the other.
Companion is the kind of mechanical innovation with a very obvious and in some ways reasonable motivation — why not try to replicate the nuanced deck-building and reliable gameplay of Commander in other formats? I’m sure that making competitive Constructed more accessible and relatable to the large and mostly exclusive Commander audience is a holy grail for decision-makers at WotC. But there are a couple of reasons the companion rule didn’t have that kind of success. First, limiting the mechanic to a handful of new cards instead of the vast pool of preexisting legends massively restricted the set of viable decks rather than expanding it. And second, Commander has a lot more inherent variance and other checks on the power the command zone offers.
Companions did come with deck-building restrictions, but those don’t limit their power and consistency in actual games. So for the few companions that had a strong enough upside to pass that test, you ended up getting as close to literally free power as you’ll ever see in Magic. No wonder WotC soon had to take momentous steps like re-writing the companion mechanic and outright banning Lurrus in Vintage.
Ultimately, any mechanic that alters the fundamental rules of the game across all formats should be considered incredibly carefully, especially when it will drastically warp all future gameplay around a handful of new cards. The disparity in power between the companions in Ikoria and the repetitive, hard to counter play patterns inherent to how they worked left this attempt at experimentation dead in the water. But despite the risks inherent to rewriting Magic, I think it’s worth WotC trying something drastic from time to time — because when it pays off, as it did in our final list entry, it absolutely improves the future of the game.
2. RICK, STEADFAST LEADER
It’s hard to talk about Magic in 2020 without discussing Secret Lair: The Walking Dead — a product that countered several long-held assumptions the community had regarding what Magic might look like in the future. The combination of limited-edition direct-sales product line and non-fantasy outside IP touched a lot of nerves, but the really big precedent was the decision to print these as mechanically unique, tournament-legal cards — ensuring that Rick, Steadfast Leader would soon go down in history as an unlikely staple of tournament Magic.
After listening to a wave of community feedback, Wizards has promised to create functional reprints of these cards, and to think very carefully about doing such tie-ins again. But given recent stats showing that Secret Lair: The Walking Dead was the line’s best-seller, we can likely expect more crossovers from popular media in Magic’s future. I’m hoping that the more positive reception to the Godzilla promos from Ikoria will steer future Secret Lairs in that direction, so they feel more like optional fan bonuses than an intrusion into the Magic milieu.
Seriously, I have touched several times on how important and revolutionary the modal lands mechanic is for a card game rapidly approaching its 30th year. From the moment I first got to look at my preview card, Umara Wizard//Umara Skyfalls, without even knowing exactly how it worked, I knew this was going to be at least as impactful as companion had been. And unlike that prior experiment, the MDFC mechanic reduces the feel-bad extremes of Magic variance without decreasing the range of overall choices you make in a match.
If anything, adding MDFCs has added a whole new axis of deck-building and increased the range and complexity of decision-making around land drops to a level usually only seen in formats with Wasteland and Brainstorm. I love it, and best of all, I’m sure we’re not even close to fully using the design space around MDFCs. Interactions such as Ancient Greenwarden and Emancipation Angel make me excited to see which themes Wizards will expand upon once we reach Kaldheim and beyond in the new year!
Tom’s fate was sealed in 7th grade when his friend lent him a pile of commons to play Magic. He quickly picked up Boros and Orzhov decks in Ravnica block and has remained a staunch white magician ever since. A fan of all Constructed formats, he enjoys studying the history of the tournament meta. He specializes in midrange decks, especially Death & Taxes and Martyr Proc. One day, he swears he will win an MCQ with Evershrike. Ask him how at @AWanderingBard, or watch him stream Magic at twitch.tv/TheWanderingBard.