Competitive Magic tends to slow down around the holidays, as players take a well-deserved break from the grind. As such, I thought this would be a good time to take a step back from my normal strategy content and write something a bit more fun. I reached out to the community in request of some categories that I could use for to recap my favorite parts of Magic from 2019, and you sure delivered! I always appreciate opportunities to connect with the community I love, and hopefully this gives you all a little more insight into who I am in the process.
First up, we have non-creature spells. Boy, were there a lot to choose from!
Command the Dreadhorde may not look efficient on its face (its converted mana cost is six), but it’s rare that you don’t end up getting more than six mana worth of permanents out of this beauty.
I believe Force of Negation is one of the best-designed Magic cards of the year, if not the decade. It may seem insignificant that Force exiles the spell it counters, or that it’s only free if you cast it on an opponent’s turn. But both of these caveats are likely the results of a lot of testing and tuning. Great job, Wizards!
The Royal Scions is just what I want a three-mana Planeswalker to look like. Providing small amounts of value over the course of a few turns before a powerful ultimate is kind of the sweet spot at three mana. The Royal Scions may not be competitively dominant like its counterpart Oko, but I think it is a much more reasonable card design.
Finally, we come to Embercleave. This one may seem a bit out of place on this list, but it can be efficient and powerful, just like Wrenn and Six. Truth be told, I have a soft spot for Temur Battle Rage, so its Standard-legal analogue definitely makes my list.
While I am quite fond of non-creature spells in general, removal spells might just be my favorite category of all.
Modern hasn’t had a good two-mana edict for years, and Liliana’s Triumph is… well, a triumph. This card gave black decks a playable edict besides Liliana of the Veil, and it even dodges Leyline of Sanctity.
Tyrant’s Scorn has a lot in common with one of my all-time favorite cards: Fatal Push. But Scorn has the added versatility of being able to bounce an indestructible creature (which is relevant against Marit Lage tokens in Legacy).
Back to the splashy effects, Casualties of War is about as big a bomb as Standard removal spells get. The potential for a clean five-for-one excites me a great deal; more realistically, it’s an easy three-for-one, which is still well worth the six-mana price tag.
Coming in at number five, we have Enter the God-Eternals. (Yes, I know this card features the number four very prominently, but I just didn’t have the heart to rank it at #4 for that reason alone.) During the Esper Hero days of Standard, Enter the God-Eternals was quite the haymaker. I’m all about this reboot of Cruel Ultimatum, a card that I’ve longed to play more often.
Nekrataal is one of my favorite creatures ever, and Hero’s Downfall is one of my favorite removal spells. Naturally, Murderous Rider hits all the right notes for me. This card is a reasonable three-mana creature that can answer creatures and Planeswalkers alike, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing it this year.
Wizards had a tough line to walk with Seasoned Pyromancer: it gave fair decks a looter without pushing graveyard strategies. They completely nailed this design.
Brazen Borrower seems like a combination of Vendilion Clique and Pestermite — two cards I played a ton in my Splinter Twin days. Borrower forces your opponent to either play into a counterspell or face down an end step 3/1 flier, and that really appeals to me.
God-Eternal Bontu fills my little Aristocrats-loving heart with joy every time I see it. The ability to trade extra lands or other permanents for a grip of extra cards is quite appealing, especially when it comes attached to a 5/6 menace creature.
Young Pyromancer is a card I’ve loved to play in eternal formats, and Hero of Precinct One is the closest Standard has seen in quite some time. In the context of Ravnica Allegiance, it was not hard to fill your deck to the brim with powerful multicolored spells to trigger Hero on every turn.
Adventure is my favorite mechanic that has been printed in some time. The ability to have a reasonable spell, a reasonable creature, or both is incredibly appealing and added a ton of replay value to Throne of Eldraine Limited.
For a long time, snow permanents didn’t have much of a place in non-rotating formats, but the release of Modern Horizons gave us reasons to put snow lands in our decks. Arcum’s Astrolabe, Ice-Fang Coatl, and Dead of Winter have all seen a fair amount of tournament play in a variety of formats.
Ninjutsu isn’t a new mechanic, but like snow, it returned on some new cards in Modern Horizons. While ninjutsu rarely breaks into competitive constructed play, I love the complexity it adds to combat, forcing players block in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.
Spectacle, much like ninjutsu, is another mechanic that changes the flow of combat. There’s more to think about when creatures hit the red zone, which I quite like.
Addendum rounds out our list. The Azorius mechanic never really broke out of Limited, but I think it did a great job of teaching players that it’s sometimes correct to play you instants at sorcery speed. (More on the value of avoiding generalizations here.) Overall, I think this is a subtly well-designed mechanic.
1. 4-Color Traverse Shadow – Modern
2. Sultai Delver – Legacy
3. Simic Stompy – Pioneer
4. Esper Hero – Standard
5. Jund Sacrifice – Standard
We’ve talked about a bunch of different cards and mechanics from 2019. It only makes sense to wrap up with the best decks of the year.
First, we have 4-Color Traverse Shadow in Modern. While my heart belongs to Grixis Shadow, this new build really came into its own at the end of the year.
Sultai Delver was popular a few years ago and eventually died off as Grixis and Temur became more popular. Now that Wrenn and Six isn’t running the show anymore, Sultai Delver has made a resurgence in Legacy. (Oko certainly helped, too.)
These first two decks fit my playstyle as a tempo/midrange player. Simic Stompy isn’t necessarily in my wheelhouse, but it’s hard to ignore its raw power. This Pioneer deck has a slight ramp feel with ten mana creatures, but still takes over the game with under-costed creatures backed up by Stubborn Denial.
Given that Hero of Precinct One, Tyrant’s Scorn, and Enter the God-Eternals all made my previous lists, it should come as no surprise that Esper Hero is my favorite Standard deck of 2019. The deck’s value engine and ability to grind into the late game caught my attention, but the variety of interesting lines of play really hooked me.
Jund Sacrifice was a deck that I was messing around with around the time War of the Spark was released. I remember sitting in my Airbnb before MC London building decks with God-Eternal Bontu, Mayhem Devil, and Cruel Celebrant and having the time of my life. Ever since the Gatecrash-era Aristocrats deck, the idea of sacrificing things for fun and profit has been one of my favorite things to do. While Jund Sacrifice took a while to morph into the Jund Cat/Oven deck we see today, that day was one of my most enjoyable experiences playing Magic this year.
Hopefully you all had as much fun reading this as I did writing it. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter at @RappaciousOne and let me know which cards and decks you enjoyed most this year. Happy holidays, and I’ll see you all in 2020!
Michael Rapp is a Modern specialist who favors Thoughtseize decks. Magic sates his desire for competition and constant improvement.