Top 10 Magic Sets of All Time
Hello Nation! I originally expected this article to contain the results from the Core Set Challenge. What was great was that we had a lot more entries than I was expecting, and most of those entries are full sets. Thanks! However, it will take me longer to include everything in my article. Therefore, we won’t see results this week. Instead, let’s talk about a Top 10 list I’ve really been itching to make.
All of my Top 10 lists contain a level of subjectivity. I know that. Most are based on rational reasons, though. You can argue whether you think Mother of Runes is the top 1-drop of all time for casual Magic, but you have to admit that her value is massive. By its very nature, this list will have an increased amount of subjectivity. We can all agree with what makes a good 1-drop in Magic. It’s a lot harder to agree on a good set. Does it play well in Limited? Will it add a lot of cards to my deck in Commander? Can it do things that other sets don’t? Should it have a lot of flavor? I mean, some players will think the best sets have a lot of flavor, and other players may not care. There are just so many subjective criteria, and no person will care about them all.
I’m actually surprised that this type of article doesn’t see print more often. We are a people who love giving our opinion and voicing our dissent. Top 10 lists make sense, and . . . discussing your favorite Magic sets? It seems like an obvious choice, and yet, I don’t remember seeing an article dedicated to it. For today, let’s count down my favorite Magic sets of all time. (For the purposes of this article, Alpha is not eligible. It was create in a vacuum, but no other set was. If it were allowed, it would obviously be either first place or not on the chart.)
Honorable Mention – Innistrad
All of my previous Top 10 lists have had at least one honorable mention, so I want to ensure that continues today. It’s still early for Innistrad, but it has played like a real winner thus far. I can only hope that the rest of the block is as good (or better). This is a bit of an odd choice because I don’t really care for the flippy cards that much. They aren’t that useful, and it’s a lot of bookkeeping. How many spells did we play this turn? What happens when Roger forgets to turn over his card? These cards are not multiplayer-friendly, and by the time my turn rolls around again, they may have transformed three or four times. They are about as multiplayer-friendly as Soul Warden, which has us constantly having to backtrack to find out how much life someone had gained.
Still, the rest of the set is aces. The flavor is top-notch, and there are a lot of interesting things under the hood. The introduction of Humans-matter cards is nice and perfectly suited to the set. I love the rare set of lands that do things, like Kessig Wolf Run. We also have a lot of great creatures, common cards that are powerful, nice pieces of Equipment, and more. My favorite cards from this set include Mentor of the Meek, Mirror-Mad Phantasm, Army of the Damned, Past in Flames, and Creeping Renaissance. I’m a huge fan of Flashback. I also really appreciate the large number of flavorful reprints (which leads me to question why the out-of-flavor cards were printed, but that’s another article).
#10 – Urza’s Legacy
Urza’s block was an odd thing. People often remember it as the block of overpowered cards and powerful artifacts. It really wasn’t. It actually had a minor enchantment theme. All you have to do is look at cards like Opalescence, Replenish, Crystal Chimes, Veiled Sentry, and Faith Healer to see it. While Urza’s Saga Limited was dominated by Black and Pestilence, and the cards were on two power levels, Urza’s Destiny really lacked a lot of the oomph of the block. Urza’s Legacy was right in the middle—all nice and cozy. It was the first set with foil cards, so that was a nice addition to the game. What really stands out is the power of so many commons, uncommons, and rares alike. So many great cards from all sorts of colors and rarities combine to give the set a real shot in the arm. For example, look at the common Aura cycle that includes Rancor and Cessation. You have great commons like Cloud of Faeries, Frantic Search, Snap, Miscalculation, and Crop Rotation. These cards do great things for decks and are great tools even today.
This set is also the home of cards like Avalanche Riders, Engineered Plague, Bone Shredder, Mother of Runes, Viashino Heretic, Raven Familiar, the man lands, and Tinker. Don’t forget great rares like Deranged Hermit, Weatherseed Treefolk, Karmic Guide, Memory Jar, Goblin Welder, Might of Oaks, Grim Monolith, Defense of the Heart, Radiant, Archangel, and Multani, Maro-Sorcerer. While a lot of old cards have been replaced by similar or better options, we’ve never seen cards as good as some of these. There’s never been another Goblin Welder or Weatherseed Treefolk or Rancor. Even some cards that aren’t on my list are great, like Fog of Gnats and Ghitu Slinger. This was truly a powerful set of cards that were rarely broken (aside from the obvious players like Tinker, the untap cards, and Memory Jar) but that were very good for decks.
#9 – Visions
For years, if you had asked me what my favorite set was, of all time, this would be it. As I think back, I have to believe that my love for it as the number one set was more from nostalgia than anything else. I still believe it is among the ten best sets ever made, but I am easing it back from the Top 3 to the back half. Visions is the first modern set in a lot of ways. Sure, Mirage introduced the idea of a block and some other things, but Mirage is also well-known for being full of chaff and castoffs. Mirage also follows the pattern of previous sets with weaker uncommons and commons that led to weak Limited play.
Visions changed all of that. Visions didn’t just introduce a lot of modern ideas, but it also had those ideas applied at every rarity. You had cards of high quality at common (River Boa, Crypt Rats, and Fireblast, to name a few), uncommon (Creeping Mold, Prosperity, and Goblin Recruiter are useful examples) and rare (Vampiric Tutor, Tithe, and Natural Order serve here). Let’s not forget that Visions also introduced creatures with enters-the-battlefield abilities, like Nekrataal, Knight of the Mists, Man-o'-War, Uktabi Orangutan, and Shrieking Drake. That’s a very potent ability Visions gave to Magic. I know that Visions may not look as good in hindsight, because you see cards like Solfatara and the Chimeras. But trust me—even today, there’s a lot of good under the hood. From Desertion to Quirion Ranger, and from Suq'ata Lancer to Undiscovered Paradise, this is a set with a lot to offer casual players.
#8 – Time Spiral
This whole block was a gift from Wizards of the Coast to me. It was for people who had been playing the game long enough and intensely enough to know virtually every card. They wanted people like me, who actually was playing when Coal Golem saw print, to understand what Coal Stoker was doing. I remember Shocker, so it’s follow-up, Barbed Shocker, is fun. So many cards from Time Spiral were throwbacks to bad cards. It was great! Sure, there was the obligatory callback to Ancestral Recall or Black Lotus, but most were really bad cards from way back when. That’s what I love about Time Spiral. I love that someone cares enough about Basal Thrull to give me Basal Sliver. I adored seeing Thallids again. This was a blast for me!
Don’t get me wrong, we have just spectacular cards for casual play, too. I’m very fond of Draining Whelk, Stuffy Doll, Saffi Eriksdotter, and Kaervek the Merciless. It’s got lots of great cards. One more thing that’s very important about Time Spiral: It is living proof that unintentional spoilers are a Very Bad Thing™. I know the whole Magic community wants to devour information about things as soon as possible, and we all want to say things. I had the full spoiler for Rise of the Eldrazi early because I write for print magazines, but I never, ever told anybody a piece of information. This was among the best casual formats ever to see print, and I couldn’t tell anyone! I never, ever would. That’s cheating. My best prerelease of all time was cracking a Time Spiral pack and seeing a time-shifted card. In my first pack, I opened a foil Sol’Kanar the Swamp King. My heart skipped a beat, and it was among the most beautiful things ever. We opened more, and we cracked product for Sealed. We had no idea what cards were printed as time-shifted cards, and it was just a brand new experience. Can you imagine what would have happened if some idiot had spoiled that to everybody ahead of time? It wouldn’t have been one of my favorite moments from tournaments. I’m glad I had my moment, and I hope people back off from giving out info that’s not theirs.
#7 – Invasion
One of the things I like about the first set is that it promises so much. Sometimes, later sets deliver! That’s a good block. Sometimes, the later sets really disappoint you with how badly they fail to deliver (see Number 4 below). That’s a bad block. I hope Innistrad won’t fall into that trap, but many sets have. You’ll find that six of the eleven sets I discuss today were the first set in a block, and I think that really means something. It’s new, and it’s exciting! Of the rest, four are the second set in a block, and only one is the third. I guess I feel that by the time we find the third set, we’ve sort of run our course. Things become a little ho-hum. That’s not always the case, and in Invasion block, Apocalypse was the second-best set in the block after the so-so Planeshift (with great uncommons and a lot of blah).
Anyway, Invasion was the first of the thematic blocks. Sure, Urza’s has a light enchantments-matter theme, but nothing major. In my opinion, this was the first fully modern set. You saw a ton of great multicolored cards, and they have really stood the test of time. Kicker was a powerful mechanic, and the combination of a useful mechanic, a fun block theme, and quality cards resulted in the first truly fun play experience post–Urza’s block. This was the era of Fires decks, which won by attacking with big creatures. That was a really new thing. It’s wasn’t some combo deck from Urza’s block or a deck with Rising Waters or Rishadan Port in it. It was fun! Watch as I beat down with Saproling tokens, Kavu, and more. Anyway, Invasion goodies rock the commons (Recoil, Tribal Flames, Agonizing Demise, and more) but are especially strong in the uncommon and rare sections. This was the set that brought crazy back with split cards like Spite // Malice and Assault // Battery. This was the set of fun cards like Captain Sisay and Reya Dawnbringer. It was the era of mighty Dragons, powerful Legends, great utility cards that are still top-notch today, and fun times.
#6 – Stronghold
There are a lot of reasons to like Stronghold. Stronghold was the set that made Walls pertinent. It pushed them in power, and several were played in top decks of the day. Many are still played today (Wall of Tears, Wall of Blossoms, and Wall of Souls). It’s the set for some of the most beloved casual cards of all time (take a hard look at Grave Pact, Reins of Power, Megrim, Sliver Queen, and Volrath's Stronghold). It has some of my favorite cards, like Tortured Existence, Hermit Druid, and Portcullis. It took the Spike mechanic introduced in Tempest and fleshed it out, including the very powerful Spike Feeder. It pushed the Sliver mechanic with great entries like Crystalline Sliver. It gave us very solid utility cards like Shard Phoenix, Mana Leak, and Mox Diamond. Mogg Maniac is a classic card to stall games and punish attackers.
This set is just chock-full of goodness. Sure, Exodus is flashier with its fancy handful of rares that are broken (Oath of Druids, Recurring Nightmare, Survival of the Fittest, and City of Traitors), but it’s a weaker set overall. Tempest has very powerful cards as well, but there’s a lot of chaff running around, such as the enters-the-battlefield tapped and pain land cycle of enemy-colored lands. Stronghold has the goods and the cards.
#5 – Zendikar
I found the concept of an adventure world to be very resonant. I adored some of the cards that made it in, particularly the artifacts that represented the equipment an explorer would need. Cards like Adventuring Gear and Expedition Map are just fun. The set also has a lot of powerful cards that do fun things. The aforementioned Map is a colorless way to tutor for any land—not just basics. Because of that, you see it in a ton of decks. The lands-matter theme really fleshed out a lot of decks. Since so few cards that cared about land existed before, there are a lot of deck ideas that use more Zendikar cards than you would normally see. Everything from Enchantress decks to Horn of Greed–based decks want Zendikar cards (and what set is Horn of Greed from, hmm?).
These cards really play well with others. How many decks can Oracle of Mul Daya fit in? Hundreds! How about the Refuges? I play them constantly. There’s always a place for Khalni Heart Expedition, Lotus Cobra, and Emeria Angel. And that’s just the land-centric cards, so don’t forget all of the other cards from the set that work. Whether it’s a simple Gatekeeper of Malakir or a not-so-simple Eldrazi Monument, we’ve got the power. Let’s also not forget the full-art lands, which add to the value of the set, or the enemy-colored fetch lands. This was a set that not only oozed flavor, but dripped quality.
#4 – Champions of Kamigawa
Earlier, I discussed how I tend to like the first set in a block the most because it promises the most. This is an example of when those promises fail. Champions was awesome. The follow-up set, Betrayers, was lukewarm at best. I mean, come on. Ninjas? A bit obvious, wouldn’t you say? And it was with a very non-Ninja-like ability, too. The cards were meh. Then, Saviors came along and stunk up the place with its very by-the-numbers card list. In my opinion, the worst set since Homelands was Saviors of Kamigawa. Yuck. My tagline for Kamigawa Block: We started so high and fell so low. To me, this was the first postmodern set. Invasion and Visions are, to me, iconic sets that changed everything, and this changed everything again.
This was the first flavor-based set, and wow was it flavorful. I knew very little about Japanese folklore, and this was something. I understand the issues. The names are not easily pronouncable pronounceable or memorable. Was Azusa Lost but Seeking, or was she the Lady of Scrolls? Which Myojin did what now? Which Star is Ryusei? How can I tell the Soratami apart? What about the Hondens? How many Kami are there with their crazy art? I hear you. However, beyond that is a set that just works together. I have a full set of Champions of Kamigawa that I redeemed from Magic Online, and drafting the whole set, face-up, is just something else. It works perfectly. Drafting it in real life was a pleasure. It has light tribal elements, strong Arcane elements, aggro and control, and more. You can draft a Dampen Thought deck in order to mill someone. It’s a great set. Many are cards we know and love (Kokusho, the Evening Star, Keiga, the Tide Star; Yosei, the Morning Star, Meloku the Clouded Mirror, Asuza, Lost but Seeking, Sensei's Diving Top, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Rend Flesh, Kodama's Reach, Gifts Ungiven, Glimpse of Nature, Hinder, Heartbeat of Spring, Isamaru, Hound of Konda, Journeyer's Kite, Forbidden Orchard, Ghostly Prison, and Konda, Lord of Eiganjo). However, the set as whole has languished in obscurity because it’s harder to connect its cards to real decks than it is a set’s like Zendikar. My favorite cards from the set are Hana Kami, Long-Forgotten Gohei, Thief of Hope, and Tatsumasa, the Dragon's Fang. But really it’s Hana Kami.
#3 – Lorwyn
This is the highest-charting set that is the first set of a block. I still remember Mark Rosewater writing that Wizards had intentionally tried to go easier on the cards in Lorwyn block because Time Spiral block was too complicated. Well, he missed. Drafting Lorwyn block was probably among the most challenging and confusing Draft formats ever. You had to keep track of so many extra factors. Especially Lorwyn/Morningtide Drafts that worried about both class and race subtypes—plus, there were the creature types of spells and the introduction of planeswalkers. They may have aimed for simple, but they missed. (In a fun way!) One of the things I love about Lorwyn is that it is the first block ever to portray Swamps as colorful. Here’s what I would like for you to do this weekend: Go drive to your nearest swamp. Take a look around. Here’s what you’ll find: While there are a few places as dark and dank and lifeless as the artwork we see on swamps, for the most part, they are colorful and vibrant. I like a swamp that actually looks like a swamp for once in Magic’s life, you know? Lorwyn gives that to me.
Lorwyn oozes joy and happiness from its pores, and it works. For once, we can leave behind war-torn worlds of epic pain and torture and just spend some time with Faeries and farmers. That’s all I want—some time with the goodies. In early sets in Magic, you often found cards with names and ideas that worked in medieval Europe but that are not particularly warlike. Consider cards like Farmstead, Icatian Town, Tragic Poet, and Musician. Not Dark Musician of the Forest, and not Eldritch Musician, and not even Musician Mage. It’s just “Musician,” and that’s all; thank you very much, and good night. Lorwyn sort of brought that back. The most powerful force in our lives is love. Not hate, not anger, and not jealously, but love. Ever notice the decided lack of love in Magic? Exactly! Lorwyn is about love, kindness, and a gentle spirit that pervades things. Sure, the set has winners like Crib Swap, Oblivion Ring, and Thoughtseize. But what really makes it stand out as the best first set in Magic’s history to me is that it promised so much more. It promised a change in the very way we think about the world. Now all the bad guys do is steal Goats and nab pies. It’s a real change.
#2 – Rise of the Eldrazi
This is the first set in the countdown that grabs a spot alongside a fellow blockmate. It will not be the last. Say hello to your blockmate, Zendy! Why is Rise of the Eldrazi my favorite set? Especially since the lead designer was also the guy who did Saviors of Kamigawa (yuck) and Scourge (weak). It’s very simple: Rise of the Eldrazi is awesome! I can’t tell you how excited I was about various themes. A Defender theme? Sign me up! A big-creature theme? I’m game! The biggest and baddest creatures of all time? You can knock me over with a feather! A lot of cards in the set can fight against the big bads, including creatures with Level Up, Auras with Totem Armor that regenerate a creature to allow it to block again, and so forth.
Now, I do feel that we have a duet of sad notes. First, I’m not a super-big fan of Level Up as a mechanic or in terms of the way it looks. This is not an RPG. I know we tried to RPG-up Zendikar with Allies and now Level Up. But that’s not what this is. This is a card game. It’s for card-flippers, not dice-chuckers. Now, if they have to do Level Up, they did a solid job. But I’m just not super-happy with it. Second, I feel that Annihilator is a bit too griefery for my tastes. I’d prefer it to force nonland sacrifices (which shouldn’t be in-flavor in the land block anyway.) As they are, they basically Armageddon someone who is light on permanents when an 11/11 trampler is already going to ruin his day, you know? Anyway, I thought the return of the tribal type on the Eldrazi spells was awesome and totally out of the blue, and I wish that Mark Rosewater hadn’t said that Wizards didn’t intend to use it again. I wish they would print a ton more tribal cards, and Innistrad would rank higher on my list if cards like Army of the Damned were tribal. (I know Rise might not technically be the third set in the block, but rather a standalone . . . based on how you interpret it. Whatever, I don’t care, go away!)
#1 – Planar Chaos
This is why these lists are so much fun. I don’t think many people have Planar Chaos in their Top 10s, especially not in the Number 1 spot. Future Sight says, “Hi,” by the way; it’s in the Top 20 (as are Exodus, Apocalypse, New Phyrexia, Shards of Alara, Ravnica, and Nemesis). Anyway, Planar Chaos has been lauded by some as the least-liked set of modern times. Okay, fair enough. Here’s the deal. I have spent fifteen years of my life playing Magic. During this time, I’ve spent, roughly, $25,000 on cards, tournaments, sleeves, and more. That’s a quick guess; I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a lot more. I spend about $2,500 a year on Magic right now. I buy three or four boxes of most sets (some sets warrant more, some less), plus cards for Abedraft, Abe’s Deck of Happiness and Joy, and decks. (Abedraft is a copy of every card in Magic, but it’s still missing a few). Then, add the hundreds and hundreds of articles I’ve written about Magic for this site, SCG, various magazines, and so on. Now, add the hundreds of thousands of hours spent playing, working on decks, sorting and organizing my collection, and so on. The result is a staggering amount of time spent on this hobby.
Here’s the point: Time Spiral block is a gift from Wizards of the Coast to me and all the people who are like me. If you’ve played for three or four years, it’s not for you. This is a nostalgia block to serve as a reminder of things that have come before. And frankly, I don’t care if more than half of the Magic-buying and Magic-playing public doesn’t grok Time Spiral/Planar Chaos/Future Sight . . . because I do. And that’s why I embrace Planar Chaos as the best set ever made. The idea of cards that could have been made but weren’t is awesome. I love seeing a 3/3 flyer in Green, flyer-hosing in Red, bounce in Red, countermagic in White, land searching in Blue, and more. This is a lot of fun. Planar Chaos is about one thing. It asks, “What mechanics are actually in the flavor of another color but aren’t done there?” Historically, regeneration is in Green or Black, but why not White to serve as another way of saving a creature? Green is the color of nature, and nature has created an incalculable number of species that fly, so why not Green creatures? Doesn’t Red having Trample and Giant Growth (er . . . Brute Force) make sense for the color of anger and trading a resource for a quick gain? If Black is the best color at destroying a creature, why shouldn’t Damnation be in print? These are perfect thoughts for exploring what the color wheel means. I love it! These cards are both in the Color Wheel and not at the same time, and it’s brilliant.
In addition to this aspect of Planar Chaos, another thing you should be happy with is the emergence of cards onto cardstock that would never have been printed outside of this set. Any Green deck can have raw card drawing. Any White deck has access to countermagic. You can play Dead // Gone in your Red decks. You can drop Pongify in your Blue decks. Plus, we have cards that are just good. We have Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth and the new Akroma, Angel of Fury. Then, add the Planar Chaos Dragons, and a lot of great cards, from Wild Pair to Whitemane Lion, and from Simian Spirit Guide to Mire Boa. And let’s not forget some really good Slivers while we’re mentioning good cards. Guys like Sinew Sliver and Necrotic Sliver have real power.
So, I am giving Planar Chaos my top spot, and deservedly so. The cards work, the theme works, and the idea is perfection. It’s my present, and I’m keeping it.
Thanks for reading! If you liked today’s article, I hope you’ll talk about it here and let me know what your Top 10 list is!
See you next week,
P.S. Let’s play a quick game! Here is my favorite set in each of these blocks:
Mirage block – Visions
Rath Cycle – Stronghold
Urza’s – Legacy
Masques – Nemesis
Invasion – Invasion
Odyssey – Torment
Onslaught – Onslaught
Mirrodin – Darksteel
Kamigawa – Champions
Ravnica – Ravnica
Time Spiral – Planar Chaos
Lorwyn uber-block – Lorwyn
Alara – Shards of Alara
Zendikar – Rise of the Eldrazi
Scars – New Phyrexia
Innistrad – Innistrad (so far . . . )
(Bonus: My favorite set from Ice Age block is Ice Age, and my favorite small set is The Dark.)