I always have to check back to see which number I'm on when I do these. I can't believe we're at the Top 30 already. It seems like just the (insert exact number of dates it actually is) ago that I started these. Sigh. Memories.
30. Champions of Kamigawa
Say what you will about this insular debacle, but in a vacuum it holds up pretty well. It gave us tons of legendary creatures for Commander (though after the fact), and it laid a lot of the foundations for what would later become the original Modern Masters Draft format, a format that many would hail as "nifty."
How naive we were to think casual-alienating "in a bubble" mechanics were toxic then (they are, for business purposes, but that really hasn't stopped it from happening). How foolish we were to think that, because Eiganjo Castle, Hinder, and Kokusho, the Evening Star couldn't hang with possibly the most oppressive Standard deck ever and perhaps the worst developed block ever, they weren't neat-o.
This is a set that gets brought down by its two expansions and by everyone's short-sighted "Standard is everything" reviews, but take a good look at Gatherer and realize it had a ton of good (and mostly healthy!) stuff.
29. Time Spiral
Homages and fan service are mostly artistically limp and empty, but even the most complicated Limited format couldn't keep this from being quite cool. You see, it was a Magic set about Magic. And I'm told some of us really like Magic.
New players were completely alienated, but that's okay. This game's rules are absurd. New players don't play this game anyway.
Ah, Lorwyn. The set that taught us that it's fine to inject franchise mascots into sets, even if it doesn't make any sense to the rest of the story.
Planeswalkers were a trainwreck later on, but thank goodness they got them right on the first try. Because these were as cool as they were balanced! And they were cool-looking! And this was pre-mythic, so nobody had trouble getting them. It was truly simpler times.
As for the rest of the set? I liked it just fine. Tribal stuff has been a hit forever, and I know marketing later showed that it wasn't "badass" enough for the target audience; however, I couldn't care less about that stuff.
Cute is okay once in a while. Even Dragons get old. I know I don't have a board meeting coming up, but that's my take.
27. Tenth Edition
The perfect swan song for the end of the old Core Set order. Lots of diverse cards from various "greatest hits" and none of the Blood Moons that have come to plague Modern. Get out, Eighth Edition. You don't belong here.
I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't into this set. I bought four playsets of all of it (the fetchlands did well, thanks), but that was mostly just good smart sense. Indiana Jones isn't really my thing. But I like Magic, and this set was cohesive and thematic.
It held together beautifully. Aside from the Draft format being too fast, it was super-duper solid.
Never take creatures that want to block. It's a trap. Kappa.
25. Avacyn Restored
I'm an expert on this Limited format because I saw two pros didn't like it on Twitter, and so now that's the consensus opinion. Expert over here! Everyone look!
Even if Draft did suck, it doesn't matter. Angels and Demons were cool in Duel Deck form, and they were cool in this set as well. Congratulations to everyone who bought the crap out of this product because it's aged immeasurably well.
It has Commander goods, Legacy goods, Modern goods, Standard goods, and casual goods. And plenty of all of it. And yeah, with that comes some broken, but that's easy to fix as long as it's outside of Standard.
I don't really follow the explicit details of the stories, but it seems like most of them end badly. Chalk it up to good old-fashioned desensification, but this set seemed happier to me. Go sunshine.
Sadly, this set had the unenviable job of following up four other Ravnica sets that were adored. Just being the other side of Return to Ravnica was tough, especially since Dimir got robbed of decency. But even just another Ravnica set is good stuff.
And this was some very good stuff.
I look forward to Oath of the Gatecrash. Gates are always being watched or crashed around these parts, it seems.
This set being smaller did wonders for the increased amount of feel-good you got from the packs. All of this stuff is highly contextual, and you have to remember that card previews in those days came from magazines. The Internet was still new to most of us. Getting new card information took too long! The fastest way to learn about the set was to actually buy packs!
If you bought a box of Tempest, you got some of the set. If you bought a box of Stronghold, you got close to a complete set. It wasn't uncommon (har) to get two or three of the same amazing rare. That's good action!
So yeah, this is a situation where the circumstances of the small sets made them more exciting than the other sets, especially since the mechanics had become familiar at that point. Spikes were neat, buyback was mostly fair, and a lot of the cards still see some sort of play to this day. For a small set that didn't break the game even then, that's pretty stellar.
This list still isn't all about power level. But yeah, power level has some connections to how iconic a set is, and this set was so overpowered it was redonk. (That's a short version of "ridiculous" people used back in 2013.)
Sure, it blew up Standard. But what doesn't these days?
20. Khans of Tarkir
Shards of Alara was great, and this was basically a redo of that with different color combinations.
And this thing! Siege Rhino should be Magic's new face, and Jace and his friends should be fired. This card represents everything Standard is now. So many cards from the "overpowered" sets from the past would be awful in a world of Siege Rhinos. It's impossible to win by playing cards that are different from this. Not because of raw power—though it does have plenty—but because every card you play needs to generate that all important value to validate itself. If you're getting back into the game or you know someone who is, give them a refresher on why Baneslayer Angel was insane in 2009, but mostly horrible and unplayable in 2010. If you understand that, you're ahead of a lot of people.
By the way, I 100% lost a game where I cast three Siege Rhinos against a tribal Satyrs deck. And it wasn't the way I lose most games (incompetence). That's a sign of a great format.
19. Dragons of Tarkir
Again, I'm not much of a Magic story enthusiast, but time travel is a dangerous device to put into a tale that's already hopelessly convoluted. Yawgmoth is really dead! Venser is really dead! Except I just cast Gravedigger for the 10000th time in my life and undead-ed an undead Zombie that was totally dead a second ago. And now we've got time travel. Please.
18. New Phyrexia
The idea of a set that wasn't a set (even though it was) until after an active war was completed, in this case between Mirrans and Phyrexians, was a really cool idea. Everyone knows the Praetors are incredible and Phyrexian mana, while tough to develop, worked well thematically. So in the grand tradition of being on the Internet, I'm going to ignore all that greatness and rant about something negative.
What in the hell were you trying to do with this card? Even without the timeline hindsight of knowing Stoneforge Mystic was bananas, what in the hell was this? I get that you can withdraw it and send it back out. It's a battering ram, which is what they do. But why in the world does it have lifelink? This reeks of "It's mythic, so do whatever." Good heavens.
I know I'm supposed to be doing the gimmick of this being an objective list, but it's a well-worn sub-meme that this is far and away my favorite Magic card. Now seems as good a time as any to get rid of this notion. As much as it breaks my heart to admit it, Slightly Played Elesh Norn is not my favorite card. Near-Mint Elesh Norn is. I'm sorry for all those I've misled.
[Cut to intrusive image of my parents crying.]
Yeah, I know it's a newer set with all sorts of problems, but if you take away the Standard havoc, it's really cohesive and interesting. The story is simple (it's Overwatch) but pertinent, the mechanics are cool and appropriate (and horrifically insular), and I like how it's about artifacts without the Antiquities problem of just being about artifacts.
I've crossed out the card name on all the copies I've owned and written "Symmetra" in with Sharpie. You're not fooling anyone, WotC. Got that Hasbro spy money now. You sneaky cads.
Again, Standard disaster, but that isn't everything. If you were there when Onslaught block hit, you know how desperately Magic needed something special. Nothing was wrong with the game, but it was starting to lose some of its...well, Magic. Mirrodin was a complete and utter development trainwreck, but it was also something way more important: it was proof that the people in charge of Magic looked at the game as something everlasting. They knew it needed to evolve and to look toward its future.
We take for granted the new card frame and the departure of the only world Magic had ever known at the time. But that stuff was pretty huge then. There was a new look and a new perspective. It showed the game's best days weren't behind it and that the possibilities for it were endless.
It showed that…
Forget it. I changed my mind.
Speaking of the Future
Well, we're getting down to it, aren't we? After the next installment, this series will be complete. I've enjoyed doing it, and I hope you'll join me for the finish.
A few have asked me not to spoil the surprise about what #1 is. So I won't. But I will spoil the idea of it being a surprise. Because guess what? It's not a surprise.