2020 has been a wild ride for everyone, and not something that anyone could have predicted. As the year draws to a close, we can look back on Magic’s landscape and survey the aftermath. The Year of Commander has left its mark on the game forever, and the major expansions of 2020 brought increasingly powerful cards into Standard and beyond.
This year brought us some of the most interesting and mold-breaking designs, like companions and the escape mechanic. These designs have forged new paths in near-unshakable formats, and even brought new life to previously forgotten archetypes. Some of these designs went unnoticed during their preview seasons before rising to power, surprising the skeptical and rewarding the few that saw their potential.
This is my list of ten cards that have performed better than initially expected this year. This isn’t an exact science, and I’ve included cards that exceeded already high expectations, as well as cards that came out of nowhere and took a format by storm.
Mill has a reputation for being a more casual or janky archetype, with precious few windows in Modern metagames for it to be considered competitively viable. This is partly down to consistency — Hedron Crab was one of the most efficient repeatable mill effects available, but four copies was never enough. Some builds even ran Manic Scribe in an attempt to increase consistency, but with little success. Now that Ruin Crab has appeared, Mill has become the real deal.
Many were so used to Mill being known as a casual strategy that they didn’t consider its potential when Ruin Crab was previewed. It’s now capable of holding its own in Modern, even in the face of graveyard decks like Dredge. The Crab also slots nicely into Rogues decks in Standard and Historic; despite being an abysmal attacker, it fits beautifully to help turn on cards like Thieves’ Guild Enforcer and Soaring Thought-Thief. It can even be used as an alternate win condition in these decks, allowing them to attack on multiple axes.
It’s so impressive, in fact, I’d even say it’s the best one-drop creature to be printed in the entire year!
Who says a six mana “do-nothing” enchantment won’t see play? This is exactly how Shark Typhoon was regarded when it was first spoiled, with very little attention paid to its cycling ability. As it turns out, playing an uncounterable flash threat that replaces itself and scales with the game is phenomenal.
Shark Typhoon is another card from this year that’s appearing in decklists as far back as Legacy. It’s become a Modern staple, too; control decks are happy to have a flash threat, and Stoneblade decks love how well the sharks can hold a sword. Even Jeskai Lukka decks in Pioneer make great use of it, as it allows them to run more threats without weakening the Transmogrify plan.
There’s no doubt we’ll be seeing many more Shark Typhoons for the foreseeable future. This is one storm that won’t blow over.
Cling to Dust was one of the most innocuous cards to emerge from Theros Beyond Death, especially given the power level of the set. It’s been showing up by the playset in Modern, as a main-deckable piece of repeatable graveyard hate. Exiling an Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath before it can be escaped is a valuable ability to have. It’s rarely a dead card, as most decks in Modern utilize the graveyard in some form, and it can even give you an extra life buffer against more aggressive decks.
In Standard, it can remove any problematic cards that get milled by Rogues, and it can even be used against them as a way to reduce graveyard count. I’d cling to your copies of this card for the time being, as it’s going to be used for some time to come!
This entry is more of a symbolic one, referring to all of the Cycling cards from Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths. I chose Drannith Stinger as the face for this collection of cards, as it’s featured in the two most successful Cycling decks to emerge this year: Boros Cycling in Standard, and Cycling Storm in Pauper.
Boros Cycling is essentially an Ikoria Block Constructed deck, with only a handful of sideboard cards and lands coming from other Standard sets. It showcased how powerful budget decks could be, and gave players a very attractive and affordable entry point into Standard.
Cycling Storm is a deck that appeared right after Ikoria’s release, and it’s gone through several iterations before settling on the current build. It’s made possible by the abundance of new cards with cheap cycling costs, and it uses Drannith Stinger as the main win condition. This doesn’t see extensive play on Magic Online due to the number of clicks involved, but if paper Magic tournaments were possible this year, we could have seen this rise to the top of the format.
Cycling is a powerful, fun, and flexible ability that’s loved by many. Some cards were bound to see play somewhere, but I doubt anyone expected two unique and powerful strategies to develop from what is essentially draft chaff!
Heliod was met with a lukewarm reception during Theros Beyond Death preview season. Quite a few people did point out the infinite combo with Walking Ballista, though most people dismissed it as being unlikely to be consistent enough to see much play. How wrong we were.
The combo ended up working so well that Walking Ballista was eventually banned in Pioneer, and it’s also become one of the best combo decks in Modern. Heliod Company is similar in many ways to the old Pioneer deck, but it’s faster and has more ways to win. Spike Feeder also combos with Heliod, and since Collected Company can grab both creatures, you can potentially gain infinite life at instant speed. The inclusion of mana dorks like Noble Hierarch lets the deck play at least a turn quicker, too, making this a real force to be reckoned with.
Heliod has also become one of the most popular mono-white commanders, alongside Sram, Senior Edificer and Teshar, Ancestor’s Apostle. They’re a powerful life gain general, with many creatures being able to go infinite with them, like Triskelion. If this is the direction Wizards is going to be taking white in future, I may end up as a white mage yet!
Winota was initially discounted as a weaker, less consistent version of Aetherworks Marvel. The deck-building restriction required to maximize her consistency seemed too awkward on paper, but that was before she was put into practice.
The Joiner of Forces proved to be a little too powerful for Historic, and if it weren’t for the impending rotation, she would have been removed from Standard, too. It was all too easy to play several non-Humans in the first three turns, and when Winota hit the battlefield, the chance to hit a game-ending threat like Agent of Treachery was all but guaranteed. The consistency of having her in the Command Zone was also too much for Brawl to handle, and we saw her exit the format at the same time she left Historic.
Winota has also seen reasonable success in Pioneer; Naya Winota feels adequately powered for the format, and plays a little more toward a beatdown deck that can go over the top if needed. She still lies in wait in Standard, however, waiting for a large enough card pool to rise up once more.
Conspicuous Snoop was another creature that, like Heliod, was met with mixed feelings upon reveal. The more astute players pointed out an almost Splinter Twin-like combo: Boggart Harbinger puts Kiki-Jiki on top of the deck, allowing Snoop to infinitely copy itself, then finally copy the Harbinger to get a Mogg Fanatic or Sling-Gang Lieutenant and burn your opponent out.
Many dismissed this combo based on the number of moving pieces and their individual weaknesses. What many failed to see was that Goblins was already a viable deck in Modern, and very little change was needed to shoehorn the combo into the deck. Not only that, but Conspicuous Snoop is a great card by itself, acting like a more powerful Experimental Frenzy in Goblins. The combo potential gave the deck much better game against decks like Tron and Storm, and it effectively fights decks with targeted removal (like Jund and Death’s Shadow)
It’s also showing in one of the most powerful decks in Historic: Mono-Red Goblins. The key card in this deck may be Muxus, Goblin Grandee, but Conspicuous Snoop is incredible at fighting through removal and accruing value. This is one Goblin that won’t be sacrificed any time soon!
Death’s Shadow is a Modern archetype that has existed in many iterations over the past few years, and one that has seen extensive success. There was a time when people were even calling for bans! Scourge of the Skyclaves was immediately compared to the one-mana Avatar once previewed, thanks mostly to the analog of life total requirements.
Many thought that needing to manage your opponent’s life total as well as your own was too much of a drawback to make it reliable (I was guilty of this, too). Thanks to Modern’s fetch/shock mana bases and a handful of Lightning Bolts, this drawback turned out to be negligible. If anything, it’s now improved the Death’s Shadow strategy by making it more aggressive and proactive, and increasing the consistency of its threats.
Death’s Shadow is now one of the top dogs of the format once more, with Rakdos Shadow being the preferred build. Now that Scourge has replaced Gurmag Angler, the deck can now play Lurrus of the Dream-Den as a companion, which lets it make great use of permanents like Seal of Fire, Bomat Courier, and Mishra’s Bauble. All of this wouldn’t be possible without the hyper-efficient Demon from Zendikar, which only shows to be getting stronger.
When Skyclave Apparition was first revealed, very few people were expecting much from the Spirit. Most people thought it’d see Standard play, but some saw its real potential. It took almost a whole month after Zendikar Rising’s release for the player base to really sit up and take notice.
Much like Shark Typhoon, this creature is now seeing play in every format where it’s legal. It’s great in Standard and Pioneer, it’s propelled Death & Taxes back up to the top tables in Modern, and Legacy Death & Taxes runs it as a catch-all answer to almost everything in the format. It’s arguably underplayed in Commander, though I’m sure that will change once more people start experimenting with it.
What’s most interesting about this card is that it was almost a completely different card. Thanks to the last minute changes, it’s now become another eternal staple!
Yorion, Sky Nomad is one of the best performers of 2020, but also the most polarizing. Whether preoccupied with the banning of Lutri, the Spellchaser, or trying to break Lurrus of the Dream-Den, few were paying attention to Yorion during preview season. The Bird Serpent flew under the radar while more dramatic discourse unfolded. Once the dust had settled and the companion mechanic was changed, Yorion took to the skies.
The giant sky noodle was the greatest benefactor of the companion rules change. It’s a slower card; decks that run it aren’t concerned with casting it on curve, unlike Lurrus decks. Always having access to a win condition is great for control decks, too, especially when it lets you replay permanents like Elspeth Conquers Death or Stoneforge Mystic.
This companion sees play across all formats, which is a real testament to its power. Building a deck with 80 cards is no problem in formats with so many redundant effects, like Modern. The larger the card pool, the less Yorion‘s deck-building restriction matters. In fact, in control mirrors, it’s even a benefit to have more cards, as you won’t lose through decking!
No format has remained safe from the impact of this year’s releases, and some have felt the tremors right to their cores. As someone who appreciates regular shakeups to eternal formats, the changes in the past twelve months really made it enjoyable to revisit some of my favorite ways to play. These were just some of the diamonds in the rough, waiting just under the surface for the right time to shine.
What do you think of this list? If there are any other cards that overperformed for you this year, feel free to let me know on Twitter!
Scott is an Irish content creator and the Head of Budget Magic for the Izzet League. He focuses on affordable decks in Pioneer, Modern, and Pauper, particularly ones that stray from the mainstream. When he’s not writing about his favorite decks, he can be found talking incessantly about them on Twitter and on The Budget Magic Cast.