Magic's Biggest Boogeymen

Magic’s 13 Biggest Boogeymen

Tom Anderson Commander, Legacy, Modern, Standard

As a game with plenty of dark, fantasy roots, Magic has overlapped plenty with Halloween. Just look at how often we return to Innistrad, or Innistrad: Double Feature’s attempt to evoke that classic monster movie vibe. But despite our familiarity with ghouls and ghosts, demons and devils, vampires and Vorstclaws, Magic still holds certain horrors which can frighten the sleeves off even the most seasoned Magic veteran. Whether these cards bullied our favorite decks, sucked the fun out of friendly play or spelled certain, terrible doom for your big tournament run, these 13 Boogeymen of Magic still haunt us, even after they have been banished from our tables.

(Why 13? Because 13 is the spookiest number.)

13. Hogaak

Our first Boogeyman is a perfect visual fit for the list, rocking a Dark Souls-boss aesthetic and a spooky-sounding name. But Hogaak didn’t just look the part. This monster was one of the most ominous oppressors of Modern in recent memory, and a poster child for some of the more obvious balance issues which arose from the first Modern Horizons set.

The ‘Gaak was nigh-unstoppable during his period of legality. Its reign of terror seemed unending, too, as Wizards of the Coast first tried to ban cards around the new legend in hopes of finding a happy compromise. But the beast staggered on, unhindered by sideboard hate or heavy metagaming. 

In true Halloween fashion, the only way to kill this deck was a ban through the heart — and that’s just what Hogaak eventually got.

12. Delver of Secrets

Another coincidental case where horror visuals preceded a terrifying tournament body count, Delver of Secrets has one of the biggest metagame footprints of any creature in Magic history. Effectively providing a three-power flying clock from turn one, it helped flip the script for instant-heavy blue decks from control to disruptive beatdown, birthing the archetype which still bears its name.

Of course, Delver itself is not the only strong card in Delver-the-deck (or the strongest card… or even a card in the deck these days). But without its presence, cards like Brainstorm would not have had such a convenient win condition to revolve around. 

Even as Modern and Legacy players battle new threats like Ragavan and Murktide Regent, the name “UR Delver” is still the name we give our fear. That longevity is spooky.

11. The ‘7/10’ Commander Deck

“Oh, so your deck’s about a seven on the power scale?? What a coincidence…”

Since Commander focuses on creating a mutually fun and balanced game, those who haven’t played much must use abstract measures to communicate the strength of their decks. Unfortunately, the definition of “powerful” in a game like Magic can be as varied and subjective as the definition of “fun.” 

The common horror story is everyone at the table agreeing their decks are about a 7/10 — strong, but not too strong! Yet the warning bells start ringing when one Commander is a bit more “notorious” than the others, though it’d be rude to call someone a liar just based on that… they did agree to play a 7 after all!

Two turn cycles (and thirty five minutes) later, you vow never to hang around your local game store after dark again.

10. Griselbrand

Not all of Magic’s Boogeymen reveal their true, terrifying nature at first glance. Delver of Secrets is a humble one mana common, after all. But not so with Griselbrand, whose every aspect plainly promises the doom it so swiftly and reliably delivers! Mana cost, type line, stats and abilities all combine for a package so scary, it has to be perma-banned in Commander.

Other formats are not so lucky, however. Despite the prevalence of low mana value cards in tournament Constructed, Griselbrand’s all-around impact makes him the inevitable answer any time a deckbuilder asks “what’s the best creature I can cheat out with this?” He is The Monster At The End Of This Combo. 

Fear him.

9. ‘The Deck

“The deck” is a fear ancient beyond imagining. And yet, a shadow of it still lurks somewhere in the heart of Magic players today, even if they do not know it (that sounds like something out of a horror movie, right?).

In 1996, Magic players had to name their fear for the first time, and they just called it “the Deck” — because those who learned its secrets claimed it was the only deck you’d ever need. 

Combining the raw potential of the Power Nine with merciless answers like Mana Drain, Strip Mine and Moat, Brian Weissman’s masterpiece only needed a couple of Serra Angels to finish off its overwhelmed opponents. 

Of course, most of these cards are now illegal to play anywhere, and have been for a long time. But “The Deck” never really died. Its suffocating, counterspell-heavy playstyle set the template for blue/white control decks, which have tormented every generation of Magic players since. 

8. Eggs (a.k.a. Sunny Side Up, a.k.a. KCI)

Sometimes a nightmare is less about terrifying, brutal power and more about a slowly-unfolding insanity — one which tortures the mind and soul, even as your physical shell appears untouched. Such is the unholy power of Eggs, which has now had to be exorcized from Modern on two separate occasions.

This Boogeyman takes the form of degenerate combo decks, packed to the brim with cheap artifacts that generate value either by entering play, going to the graveyard or both. These decks are very powerful and can terrorize large tournaments when they’re legal. 

But mostly, they’re known for taking incredibly long, complicated and boring turns, forcing opponents to sit and watch the Eggs player fumble dinky little cards around until they figure out if you’re dead or not. It’s this kind of mind-melting non-gameplay which once compelled Hall-of-Famer Brian Kibler to flee his feature match, leaving a chilling final note — “F6” — the Magic Online shortcut for “pass all priority.”

7. Memory Jar

Halloween isn’t Magic’s first or only spooky season. A far less festive atmosphere hung over the game in late 1998 and early ‘99 — a time infamously dubbed “Combo Winter.” 

Thanks to the mad-scientist design philosophy of Urza’s Saga, wave upon wave of truly busted combo decks had obliterated any chance of “normal” Magic gameplay in tournaments. This led many players to simply walk away in disgust, giving Wizards themselves a serious fright.

The powers that be started to ban combo cards left and right, desperately trying to wind back the clock and save their player base. Then, just as their efforts seemed to be bearing fruit, Urza’s Legacy was released — including the extremely potent Memory Jar

Perhaps, at the time, designers thought its hefty mana cost would present some obstacle to fast combo. But it was obvious as soon as the set dropped that this card would plunge players right back into the frosty hell of Combo Winter. 

Memory Jar was emergency-banned just two weeks after release; the only time this has ever been done in an official tournament format. Instead of destroying tournament Magic, it became one of the game’s great spooky stories — both for its players and its creators.

6. Mass Land Destruction

This is not a boogeyman bound to just one card, one color, one deck or one format. Rather, it is a primal terror which exploits the fundamental fear of every player: mana screw. 

The random chance that any given game might suddenly crumble into frustrating defeat, through no fault of your own, is probably the least-popular aspect of the whole Magic experience. Getting over that hump as you lay your crucial early land drops is a genuine relief. So, what could be more cruel, more fearsome, than having that joy of participation ripped away by an Armageddon or Jokulhaups

There is no happy aftermath to Mass Land Destruction. Either your opponent is left in a dominant position to easily close the game while you do nothing, or they aren’t — in which case you can look forward to a mind-numbing stretch of draw-go Magic while you rebuild. 

Both are made worse because you know this wasn’t just bad luck; this was done with malicious intent, by a fellow player. True betrayal.

5. Turn Three Tron

Wizards of the Coast may have put a stop to Combo Winter by banning Memory Jar, but they could never fully stop the kind of evil it represented. Players don’t come to tournaments to play fair, balanced, exciting games of Magic

In fact, many of them seem intent to not play Magic any more than they can possibly help it. What those people play instead is Tron.

With its ability to reliably generate seven mana off just three lands, the explosiveness of Tron went unmatched (at least in Modern) throughout most of the last decade. 

It’s hard to say what exactly made opponents more furious, more fearful. Was it the raw power of the engine or its unsettling simplicity? Either way, the message is inescapable: all your careful deckbuilding and masterful play can be destroyed in seconds by a novice keeping three lands and a Karn

Memento mori, Magic players.

4. Emrakul

No modern encyclopedia of fear would be complete without some nod to cosmic horror; the idea of beings and powers so far beyond human comprehension that the merest brush with one can destroy you. Emrakul fulfills that dread promise as completely as a Magic card could.

Emrakul is not just the deadliest creature ever printed, but it pushes the boundary of the deadliest creature it is possible to print for a tournament environment.

In terms of metagame impact, there are many similarities between Emrakul and Griselbrand; both banned in Commander for our sanity, left legal as the upper end of potential payoffs for Modern and Legacy. But in terms of the ongoing lore of the game, the memorable aesthetic of the Eldrazi, and the conceptual beauty of her position as The Ultimate Creature,* Emrakul is a much bigger Boogeyman overall.

*Yes, I’m a Melvin.

The Reserved List 

They say the best scary stories are rooted in our real life experience. Well, what could be more real than the constant, crushing pressure of financial survival in our capitalist society? The huge sums of cash which amount to buy-in fees for most Magic formats are never really talked about enough, even when they gatekeep many players and taint the enjoyment of many more.

When grappling with such complex and overwhelming anxieties, human beings have a natural tendency to compress the problem down into a single, representative boogeyman. In this case, the Reserved List. 

In practice, the list is a fringe issue, spiking the price of already-costly niche formats and accelerating the adoption rate of proxies in casual Commander. But to the community, it has become the perfect locus for everything grimy and anti-player about the financialization of Magic

It represents the game’s inherent pay-to-win dynamic, the abandonment of classic formats, the cynical price speculation, the divide between collectors and players, malicious counterfeiting and the loss of innocence which had allowed some of us to envision our relationship to the game as more than just consumer-to-product. The whole damn lot.

2. Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Truth be told, it’s been many years since this card gave anyone genuine nightmares. The Greatest Jace made his debut in the distant past of Worldwake almost 13 years ago now (apologies to those skeletonized by this knowledge). 

At that time, he was kind of the Emrakul of planeswalkers — so obviously beyond our previous understanding of power levels that it seemed to afford him a singular, timeless status. Emrakul’s aura has stood the test of time, Jace’s… not so much.

All this isn’t to say the Mind Sculptor isn’t still potent. Clearly, he is. But the entire pace of Magic has somewhat run by him, to the point that a four-mana Brainstorm machine seems like a fair and manageable win condition for control decks. 

I was obliged by the premise of this list to include him somewhere near the top, as no other card has been so famously and consistently called out as “The Boogeyman.” But past laurels are not enough to claim the No. 1 spot. Guess he’ll have to settle for Better Than Most, this time.

1. Dredge

Despite Jace’s history, the No. 1 Boogeyman of Magic was never in doubt. What other deck or card has struck real fear into the hearts of players for so long with just a single word? Which horror is it that forces players and Wizards designers alike to check under the bed for tournament results each night — just in case the monster is back? What single moment in Magic could be more dreadful than the one where you reach desperately for your sideboard, only to realize you left your Leyline of the Voids at home?!

Dredge is Magic’s slasher movie monster. It overpowers any conceit of fighting fairly, crushing egos as easily as it feasts on pre-board deck configurations. It forces you to play by its rules, to mulligan in panic for the few specific weapons which can make it feel pain. And, like all great horror franchises, it’s impossible for Dredge to truly die. 

You may feel like the danger has passed and you can safely shave a few Rest in Peace from the 75. Then, one day, someone at Wizards will decide it’s time to try unbanning Grave-Troll again. We’ll forever be looking over our shoulder any time an opponent jokes about taking the draw — and if that’s not the mark of a real Magic Boogeyman, I don’t know what is.