The top 25 red cards of all-time most certainly involves a fair number of burn spells, and today's first card is not only one of the best burn spells in the game's history but one of its most historically significant.
Fireblast marked the beginning of a new era.
You see, for the first couple years of Magic, the color red was largely a support color, primarily contributing burn spells, artifact and land destruction, and a variety of niche spells for special occasions. Once in a while, you might see a Shivan Dragon or Kird Ape, but the color largely bore little resemblance to the red we know today.
By late 1996, the first year of the Pro Tour, a new perspective on red was formed, thanks to Jay Schneider's Sligh deck. Here, cheap, mediocre red creatures were coupled with burn for interaction to enable an aggressive battlefield control deck with some midrange properties. Players would often assume it was more aggressive than it really was, then be surprised when the red deck took over the game with Orcish Artillery and Death Spark.
Fireblast was underestimated by many at first. After all, how much did you really want to sacrifice your lands to cast it anyway?
The thing is, sacrificing your lands was no cost at all if it ended the game. While there were a fair share of "Fireblast in response to Armageddon or Balance" moments and sometimes you'd have to Fireblast the Sengir Vampire brickwalling your team, the majority of Fireblasts were played as part of a lethal volley.
Visions debuted at Pro Tour Paris in early 1997, the Mirage block Constructed Pro Tour best known for Mike Long defeating Mark Justice in the finals with a Cadaverous Bloom/Squandered Resources/Prosperity combo deck. While Long's Bloom deck was, without question, the more influential of the two, most players don't realize it was Mike Long that actually designed Justice's second place "Voodoo" deck as well.
The Voodoo deck was a R/B aggro deck before R/B aggro was a thing, with a healthy dose of burn for interaction that could be used to reduce the clock, and access to eleven discard spells after sideboarding, in order to combat Bloom-Drain decks.
Natural Balance was used by the Bloom-Drain decks to generate incredible amounts of mana with Squandered Resources. The Bloom player would tap all their lands, sacrifice them all, then Natural Balance, effectively making ten more mana.
Fireblast threw a monkey wrench in things, big time. Playing a Fireblast in response to a Natural Balance didn't just offset the sacrifice two Mountains cost, it actually netted two mana, since the lands from Natural Balance entered the battlefield untapped.
While Bloom decks could generally tap people out with Power Sink, ensuring it was safe to go off on the following turn, Fireblast meant Justice could drop down to three land, then go find two more land and actually follow up with an Incinerate or possibly even Funeral Charm.
Visions was the beginning of a new era of red decks, and not all were so "interactive." While Viashino Sandstalker and other aggressive red creatures found a variety of homes, the one we typically remember first was the first true Red Deck Wins, Deadguy Red.
- 4 Ball Lightning
- 2 Dwarven Soldier
- 3 Goblin Digging Team
- 4 Goblin Vandal
- 4 Ironclaw Orcs
- 4 Lava Hounds
- 2 Viashino Sandstalker
This was the moment the red decks dropped the act. This was the birth of what we now consider red aggro, fast red threats curving out and maximizing damage, with burn to clear the way and eventually to provide the reach necessary to finish the job.
#9: Chain Lightning
The Fireblast decks above and the Sligh decks just before were not the first red decks, of course. In the first year of Magic, red aggro decks existed; it's just that archetypes weren't particularly well-defined. Magic theory had a long way to go, and besides, the cards available year one spoke to a very different game than Visions-era Magic, let alone the Magic of today.
The very first Magic World Championship was a 512-player single-elimination showdown (best two out of three), held one year after the game's debut. Zak Dolan ended up taking the title with an exotic "Bant" Control deck , featuring an extremely diverse array of interaction and denial. In retrospect, his opponent in the finals piloted a list many of us would likely have preferred:
Lestree's deck was an early foundational piece of Magic technology, giving birth to the first Zoo deck (so named for the Kird Apes and Savannah Lions that would go on to replace Argothian Pixies). Cheap, aggressive creatures, with Lightning Bolts and Chain Lightnings helping clear the way.
Chain Lightning may generally not be as good as Lightning Bolt, but it's still quite a bit better than we'd generally consider healthy. One mana to deal three damage is very warping, and having access to eight copies of this effect was a defining influence on early deckbuilding.
Nowadays, Chain Lightning has been largely relegated to fringe Legacy play, but its efficiency is timeless and that play will likely continue for generations to come. They reprinted Lightning Bolt after a long absence. It's not out of the question that we see Chain Lightning return someday. Rest assured, if we ever see such a thing, its impact in Standard and Modern would be incredible.
#8: Goblin Guide
Goblin Guide is a messed up Magic card.
Eventually, Tempest gave mono-red players access to one-drops the likes of which had never been seen before.
What about the drawback?
On many, many occasions, Goblin Guide's ability has functioned as upside, giving its owner valuable information about what to play around. Generally speaking, it is a drawback, but unlike with Jackal Pup, this drawback is not so clear cut.
- 3 Elite Vanguard
- 2 Goblin Bushwhacker
- 4 Goblin Guide
- 3 Kor Skyfisher
- 4 Plated Geopede
- 4 Ranger of Eos
- 4 Steppe Lynx
Goblin Guide wasted no time hitting the big time, appearing in everything from red aggro to Naya, including this Boros Landfall list Bram Snepvangers took all the way to the finals of the 2009 Magic World Championship.
#7: Blood Moon
The original "keep 'em honest," Blood Moon has grown well beyond its original intended functionality as a way to keep every deck from blurring together. How many cards in Magic's history can compare for sheer quantity of turns played without much hope of ever changing the outcome?
While Blood Moon is best known for its role as one of the most brutal hate cards in Modern and Legacy (both in sideboards and maindeck). It also enjoyed quite a bit of success when it was (weirdly) reprinted in 8th Edition. For instance, Mark Herberholz's Pro Tour Honolulu-winning list featured the time-honored tradition of sideboarding in Blood Moons to ruin the hopes and dreams of Tron players.
- 4 Burning-Tree Shaman
- 4 Dryad Sophisticate
- 3 Frenzied Goblin
- 4 Giant Solifuge
- 4 Kird Ape
- 4 Scab-Clan Mauler
- 4 Scorched Rusalka
Besides, you never know when you're going to face some happy-go-lucky white/black/green midrange deck with altogether too many shocklands and copies of Vitu-Ghazi, the City Tree.
Speaking of the best sideboard cards of all-time, Red Elemental Blast and its nearly identical analog, Pyroblast, are extremely high on the all-time list, thanks to whole "Counterspell + Maelstrom Pulse" for one-mana thing, and in a color that doesn't get access to such things but greatly appreciates them.
While we're going to be seeing no shortage of decks sideboarding Red Elemental Blasts throughout this countdown, the following list is one of the most influential decks in the game's history and went so far as to maindeck them(!)
- 1 Black Lotus
- 2 Disrupting Scepter
- 1 Jayemdae Tome
- 1 Mirror Universe
- 1 Mox Emerald
- 1 Mox Jet
- 1 Mox Pearl
- 1 Mox Ruby
- 1 Mox Sapphire
- 1 Sol Ring
- 2 Moat
- 1 Ancestral Recall
- 2 Counterspell
- 4 Disenchant
- 4 Mana Drain
- 2 Red Elemental Blast
- 4 Swords to Plowshares
- 1 Braingeyser
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Mind Twist
- 1 Recall
- 1 Regrowth
- 1 Time Walk
- 1 Timetwister
Brian Weissman's "The Deck" is one of the most legendary decks in the game's history, and along with related decks by Matt Place and Mike Long, provided the foundation for the concept of a control deck. Before the works of these three deckbuilding geniuses who are all among the greatest the game has ever seen, players would frequently pack their decks with so many creatures, even when playing "control." The idea of making every card in your deck dedicated to the sole purpose of not dying was a radically different paradigm.
Red Elemental Blasts instead of two of the Counterspells speaks to the power imbalance that existed in the early days between colors. Such an overwhelming majority of the best decks were blue, why not maindeck Red Elemental Blast? The ability to counter two spells in a turn with only three mana up was especially important in those pre-Force of Will days.
Red Elemental Blast was also deceptively important because of its ability to be played for red mana. Despite looking like a U/W deck that splashed only the tiniest bit of the other colors, The Deck would reinvent itself after sideboarding, turning into a Blood Moon deck despite having just seven basic lands, itself (and this was obviously long before fetchlands). Being able to function under a Blood Moon wasn't always trivial. Sometimes you just stick the Blood Moon while you can and plan on things coming together later. Then, when you eventually try to play a Disrupting Scepter or Jayemdae Tome, having access to Red Elemental Blast to help protect it was a big deal.
As for the Red Elemental Blast versus Pyroblast question… well, it wasn't always as easy as it is today (where the default of "split them" is the most common solution, thanks to cards like Cabal Therapy and Meddling Mage).
The primary functional difference between them (besides having different names) is that Red Elemental Blast can only target blue cards, whereas Pyroblast can target any card and only counters it or destroys it if it's blue. This gave Pyroblast the ability to be played for no gain, just to get it out of your hand against a Black Vise or perhaps setting up a Balance.
Pyroblast could kill Skulking Ghost and eventually help build a Storm count. On the whole, Pyroblast was generally the slightly better option (much to the chagrin of players in possession of beautiful Beta Red Elemental Blasts). However, the printing of Misdirection revealed an interesting weakness in Pyroblast. That same flexibility could be turned against it. While Misdirection being a blue spell meant it could easily redirect either red blast when they target a spell, the red blasts are modal cards that have their mode locked in.
If Pyroblast tries to kill a Serendib Efreet, Misdirection can move the Pyroblast to anything else, where it will just fail. Red Elemental Blast, however, can only redirect it to another blue permanent…
Those were the days...