Best Magic Card Designs of 2020

Bradley RoseDesign

From Elder Giants to Giant Pirates, 2020 saw plenty of exciting, new Magic cards. We escaped from the underworld and battled it out in the Underdome. Our creatures mutated, formed parties, and partnered with other commanders. 

With 2020 coming to a close, let’s review the new cards released this year. Each of these cards are exemplary in their own ways. They may introduce rules text that’s never been seen before. Some are reflections of an evolving Magic color pie. They may delight specific audiences, or they may just tell a great story.

Ready? In order of chronological release, let’s start with:

Storm Herald

Red has started to care more about Auras in recent years, as you can see from card designs like Brood Keeper and Champion of the Flame reward you. While this is a new development for red, the color’s combat prowess and affinity for noncreature spells make it work.

Storm Herald carves out new design space for red with Auras; never before has a red card returned enchantments from the graveyard to the battlefield. Storm Herald expresses how utilizing expired Auras temporarily is in red’s color pie. And flavorwise, the card evokes the impact of being struck by lightning: brief, but deadly.

In the future, we can expect to see more single-turn Auras and red cards that work with them (though probably not until another set where Auras or enchantments matter again). Imagine the Thrill of Possibility when you discard an Aura and cast a red Aura return card!

Surgeon General Commander

With the popularity of Commander, most new mechanics introduced to Magic are wise to have an accompanying commander. With each set release, there are Commander fans wanting to build a deck around a shiny, new mechanic.

Unstable’s Dr. Julius Jumblemorph enabled a green-white host-augment deck. Problem solved, right? Unfortunately, this left out all the fun, potential combinations with the blue, black, and red host/augment cards. Thus, the search for yet another new host-augment commander continued…

…until Unsanctioned! Surgeon General Commander has all five color mana symbols on the card, so it has a five-color identity. However, the templating for its mana ability is incorrect in the black-bordered world. Thus, it’d lose the five-color identity. A conundrum! Luckily, since host-augment is exclusive to silver-bordered cards, Surgeon General Commander solves this problem with a silver-bordered solution.

Cleverly, Surgeon General Commander also solves the host-augment problem for mutate. Ikoria’s mutate has its own Dr. Julius Jumblemorph with Otrimi, the Ever-Playful. Similar problem here — you can’t mutate with white and red cards. This Wombat Bat Chameleon ensured mutate would have a five-color commander even before mutate released!

Ram Through

With keyword counters, Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths explored different cards that care about keywords. Staple effects that usually grant a keyword mechanic until end of turn can grant it permanently now. Not all effect and keyword counter pairings are straightforward designs, though. Ram Through invented new design technology to solve its own pairing issue.

Green often gets a Rabid Bite effect in new Magic sets. One way to make trample matter for a “bite” spell is to ensure the spell can only target creatures with trample. That’d be a restrictive design and would leave your card dead in hand if you don’t control any tramplers. By introducing new rules text referring to “excess damage,” you can target any creature and still get trample as a reward!

Going forward, we can expect to see “excess damage” on future cards. Magic only has Ram Through and Flame Spill using this technology so far, but give it time!

Lavabrink Floodgates

Commander 2020 threw me for a loop when I first read Lavabrink Floodgates. Red doesn’t usually do permanent mana ramp like this. Rather, red creates Treasure tokens or has one-turn bursts of mana as with “rituals” like Irencrag Feat. So, what gives?

Lavabrink Floodgates teaches us a new lesson about red’s ramp. Instead thinking of red’s abundance of mana as temporary, think of it as being volatile. Volatility can encompass temporary mana, as well as unreliable mana. And unreliability fits squarely in red’s slice of the color pie, as we can see with unreliable card advantage sources like Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast and Robber of the Rich.

Playing Lavabrink Floodgates early as a mana rock is a gamble, which is red’s specialty. Your Commander opponents can work together to ensure you won’t have this on the battlefield by next turn.

Pursued Whale

Not every card needs to be some groundbreaking development of Magic’s color pie to shine. Pursued Whale excels in telling the familiar story of chasing your white whale.

There are two primary ways to deal with a creature: blocking in combat and casting removal. Blue has the “siren” effect of forcing creatures to attack, such as with the mechanic goad. Blue also has a softer “hexproof from spells” effect by making opposing removal more expensive to cast.

By combining these two effects together, you get the tale of Moby Dick.

Akiri, Fearless Voyager

Card draw is essential to keeping up in Commander games, but not all colors have equal access to it. Historically, red-white has been the worst color combination for card draw, but it’s received some new tools recently to help mitigate the issue. However, the one thing Boros was lacking was a commander that draws cards – that is, until this year!

Akiri not only allows you to draw cards, but it lets you draw several in a single turn. It’s good to have that option if you need to catch up on cards in a game.

Akiri soared so Wyleth, Soul of Steel could burn brightly. Wyleth and Bell Borca, Spectral Sergeant stand on the shoulders of Akiri’s first brush at Boros draw.

Adventure Awaits

Green has many variations of looking at the top N cards of your library and getting cards from them. Usually, the cards you get are creatures and/or lands. Sometimes, though, you can miss and get nothing from casting such a spell. It’s not like this is in green’s color pie to miss sometimes — that’s more of a red thing. This variance seemed like a necessary evil for this kind of effect.

Fear not, for Adventure Awaits brings a solution to this problem. Before, you either got something or nothing; with Adventure Awaits, it’s now a matter whether you get “something” or “something you wanted.” The floor on what to expect from casting this spell is not as disappointing.

What’s even better is that sometimes you do find a creature, but it’s not one you need. Adventure Awaits invites you to perhaps pass up the opportunity in search of something greater.

Promise of Tomorrow

White is divided between the two worlds of aggro and control. One the one hand, white can lean more like red and deal early damage. On the other hand, white can be controlling like blue and play board wipes like Wrath of God. These two modes of playing white are often at odds with one another, and knowing when to switch gears can be a challenge.

Appropriate for its name, Promise of Tomorrow gives us a glimpse of what white can do going forward. In the past, you could follow up a Wrath of God by casting Faith’s Reward afterward, but you couldn’t reliably cast both in the same turn.

White’s ability to return creatures from the graveyard to the battlefield is often conditional. You can bring creatures back with Brought Back the turn they die, or you may be limited to targeting smaller creatures with cards like Idol of Endurance or Strutting Turkey.

Promise of Tomorrow is like a Faith’s Reward that takes a long time to resolve. That’s a neat twist that makes a big difference for white. I hope we see more white methods of returning creatures in this fashion.

Kodama of the East Tree

When you see enough Commander games, you get to know all the usual suspects: Sol Ring, Command Tower, etc. When it comes to ramp, one of the best spells you can cast is Kodama’s Reach.

In addition to being a set made for Commander players, Commander Legends is also a love letter to the Vorthos audience. The set’s legendary creatures include characters that have never appeared on cards before, and many of its spells contain allusions to Magic’s past.

In Champions of Kamigawa, Kodama of the North Tree and Kodama of the South Tree were printed. They each have flavor text that are excerpts from the “Poem of the Five Trees.” Kodama of the Center Tree was printed in the next set, Betrayers of Kamigawa. Alas, in the final set of the Kamigawa block, the East and West Trees didn’t appear.

Fast forward fifteen years, and Kodama of the East Tree is here. Those familiar with Kamigawa can smile knowing that just one Kodama tree remains. Those familiar with Commander are happy because Kodama of the East Tree is synergistic with Kodama’s Reach. Why the East Tree versus the others? Well, you see, Kodama of the East Tree has reach!

2020 Vision

Which cards released in 2020 do you think had the best designs? Tweet me @bradleyrose and let me know how awesome Explosion of Riches is (I agree)!

Adventure awaits in 2021, and tomorrow has plenty of promise!