Lots of people have been posting their Top 8 favorite Magic cards on social media lately. I get a lot of people asking me what my favorite cards are pretty often, so I thought I’d join in on the fun. Rather than just a list, I figured I’d delve into a bit about why these particular cards have a special place in my heart. I’ve been playing Magic for a long time, so it was difficult to cut down the list, but here we go.
This may be a surprise to most people who are only familiar with my modern pro career, but when I first started playing competitively, I was mostly known for playing blue decks. I earned my first Grand Prix title (in my first Grand Prix, which was the seventh Grand Prix ever) playing a monoblue Ophidian deck that I had worked on with Brian Schneider. The defining characteristic of the deck compared to most similar builds was the inclusion of Vodalian Illusionist and Serrated Biskelion, which allowed me to repeatedly put -1/-1 counters on opposing creatures while never actually shrinking my own. The judging community back then wasn’t nearly as interconnected and rulings weren’t nearly as uniform, so I literally had to find out how the judge at GP Toronto was going to rule on the combo before the tournament started. While Ophidian was the real engine behind the deck, with everything from Memory Lapse to Man-o-War to Abduction serving primarily to get Ophidian through, Vodalian Illusionist was the card that most defined my particular version of the deck that won me the championship, and that gets it the honor of one of the spots in my Top 8.
I was torn between including Thrun and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben on my list, but ultimately went with the one that actually helped me win a Pro Tour. Both cards serve the same basic function in my mind, which is beating players who think they’re clever by playing with lots of spells – usually blue ones. I’m sure some people will be surprised to see this card but not Primeval Titan on my list, since Prime Time was a much more central feature of my Pro Tour Dark Ascension winning deck, but the truth is that I’ve always hated Primeval Titan. It barely feels like an actual creature – it’s just a combo enabler that happens to be stapled to a 6/6 body, as we’ve seen from its days combining with everything from Valakut to Kessig Wolf Run to Amulet of Vigor. I actually enjoyed playing my PT deck much more when I was paired against Delver and got to sideboard out most of my Titans and in a bunch of copies of Thrun to play the G/R midrange deck that I really wanted to be running at that Pro Tour, but couldn’t bring myself to play knowing my team was going to be playing ramp. It all worked out in the end.
Armageddon is probably the “Spikiest” card on this list. It’s a card that totally invalidated entire strategies during the course of its time in Standard – like any n0n-counterspell based control deck. But I liked it for much the same reason as Thrun, in that it gave me a powerful tool to punish people who were trying to play their fancy control games. My Pro Tour Chicago 2000 Top 8 deck was really an Armageddon deck more than anything else. I expected to see a lot of Rebels, Fires of Yavimaya, and U/W Control decks in the tournament, and I figured one of the primary things all those strategies had in common was a serious need for a lot of mana to operate. From the start, I was working to find a mana creature/Armageddon deck, which is what ultimately led me to playing The Red Zone that first put me on the proverbial map. I bought two Beta Armageddons not long ago, and keep trying to find an excuse to play them in Legacy, to no avail.
While it was Armageddon that quietly did most of the heavy lifting throughout the tournament, Rith the Awakener was what got me so much attention in the end. Nowadays dragons are everywhere in Magic, but back then people looked at my deck full of a bunch of huge creatures like Rith and thought it was ridiculous. Pretty much every deck back then was either a bunch of cheap creatures or a bunch of counterspells and removal, with very little in between. I ultimately wanted to play Rith to have a big threat that would be difficult for both Fires and Rebels decks to deal that could also work defensively, thanks to her saproling-making triggered ability – and she worked out pretty well, to say the least. Rith is the card that earned me the title of “Dragonmaster”, which has followed me throughout my Magic career for the past fifteen years, and even into other games like Hearthstone. It’s pretty much because of Rith the Awakener that I own a dragon hoodie, of all things, which I bought for Natalie and I for Christmas this past year. Kind of funny how things work out.
There is perhaps no card in Magic with more perfect flavor text. “Don’t laugh. It works.” I knew that G/R Fires of Yavimaya decks would be popular at the Pro Tour, and while I felt my deck’s matchup against them was pretty good, I wanted something to really put me over the top. I found Armadillo Cloak in the sideboard of a G/W deck that Jon Sonne played at the New Jersey State Championships leading up to Pro Tour Chicago, and it seemed perfect. I figured that I’d put it on a River Boa or maybe a Jade Leech and it would be extremely difficult for my opponents to race. As it turned out, I found a much better target in Rith the Awakener to beat not only Jon Finkel in the swiss, but also Zvi Mowshowitz in the Top 8. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I love planeswalkers. I love the fact that they elegantly encourage proactive gameplay simply by nature of them existing, since the ability to use attackers to destroy planeswalkers inherently makes attacking better in any format where planeswalkers are good. Elspeth was my first love, as far as planeswalkers are concerned. She could be a strong threat on her own by generating an army of soldiers, but was drastically more effective with a supporting cast of other powerful creatures she could send to the air. For a long time, my method for making any deck better was just adding Elspeth to it. I played a single copy of Elspeth in my PT Austin winning deck, another solo copy in my PT Amsterdam Top 8 deck, and a trio in my GP Sendai winning Bant Vengevine deck. Sadly, her stock has fallen quite a bit in recent years, since she matches up poorly against cards like Lingering Souls, Geist of St Traft, and Siege Rhino, so I haven’t played her much lately, but she’ll always have a special place in my heart.
Domri represents basically everything I want from planeswalkers in Magic. It’s a card with a powerful, unique effect that works best in a specific kind of deck – in this case, one with a whole lot of creatures. Domri provides flexibility, doubling as a removal effect against other creature decks and as a card advantage tool and win condition against control. One of the biggest weaknesses of midrange strategies is their need to play removal to deal with more aggressive decks that is ultimately dead against more controlling decks, but Domri helps bridge the gap. Like Elspeth, Domri’s stock has gone down a bit lately thanks to shifts in the metagame, but I’m sure I’ll keep trying to fit him into Modern Naya decks as long as I’m building them. Because I’m an honest man with honest creatures, and Domri is an honest man’s best friend.
For a long time, the term “midrange” was synonymous with “bad” in the parlance of most competitive Magic players. The idea most players have of a midrange deck is one full of cards like Loxodon Hierarch and Yavimaya Elder that basically plays neither the aggressive nor controlling role well. As someone who plays more midrange than just about anyone, I feel that understanding is flawed. My concept of a midrange deck is one that is well positioned to change gears based on the opposition. Their threats are big and resilient enough to outclass those of aggressive opponents, but fast enough to put serious pressure on control decks.
Knight of the Reliquary is pretty much my Platonic ideal of a midrange card. Against aggro, you can play her out of Lightning Bolt range and use her ability to grow and generate advantages as the game goes on. Against control, she is a fast big threat that grows even more threatening later on. I don’t like most typical aggro decks because I hate to feel like I have to rush my opponent down before they get their more powerful cards online. The whole reason I like to play dragons is that they let me be the one with the threats that my opponent can’t deal with. Knight of the Reliquary is a threat that is pretty much never outclassed, especially with support like Kessig Wolf Run to back her up. I’ve beaten opponents with multiple Wurmcoil Engines in play thanks to getting my Knights big enough and launching them overhead with Elspeth to win in a single attack. She’s the biggest, baddest girl on the block, and that’s who I like to have on my side.