- Rodrigo Martin
Do you remember the first Magic creature that became the centerpiece of your deck? After all these years, so many iconic heroes have fallen by the wayside, overshadowed by better and newer alternatives. Today we pay tribute to a whole bunch of those that will forever live on in our memory if not in our decks.
Hello, everyone! Hope you are all safe and sound and willing to spend some fun time reading this article. I don't know about you, but personally I am craving for tabletop Magic to come back; even a small eight-player tournament will satisfy the need to smell the cards again, hear the dices rolling, the riffle shuffle, and get the whole experience. While waiting for that precious moment, today seems like the perfect time to engage in an exercise of nostalgia. I have been asking all my Magic friends for their "forgotten heroes" — iconic creatures from Magic's past that didn't remain relevant into Magic's present. Some of them are quite old while others were printed just a couple of years ago, but at some point they all became unplayable for some reason.
So, come join me in reviewing some of the most memorable characters from this game. Let us pay our respects after all the hours we enjoyed together!
12. The First Draft
- Balduvian Horde
- Ball Lightning
- Darksteel Colossus
- Exalted Angel
- Flametongue Kavu
- Force of Nature
- Harmonic Sliver
- Hypnotic Specter
- Kird Ape
- Lord of the Pit
- Mogg Fanatic
- Myr Enforcer
- Mystic Snake
- Nantuko Shade
- Nimble Mongoose
- Protean Hulk
- Quirion Dryad
- Rainbow Efreet
- Regal Force
- River Boa
- Royal Assassin
- Savannah Lions
- Sedge Troll
- Sengir Vampire
- Serendib Efreet
- Serra Angel
- Shadowmage Infiltrator
- Shardless Agent
- Shivan Dragon
- Siege Rhino
- Troll Ascetic
- Wild Nacatl
After questioning close friends and different groups of Magic players, I came up with a starting list of 45 names of some of the most well-known creatures of all time. Before moving on to a ranking, keep in mind I excluded actual banned creatures. For example, Deathrite Shaman is not currently being played in Pioneer, but it would warp both Modern and Legacy again if its ostracism were reversed.
The list features a lot of examples from the early days that were soon surpassed in power and now look laughable when compared with modern Magic creatures. Still they deserve some room in the honorable mentions section. I tried to pinpoint the reason why each of these creatures stopped seeing play, whether because of a specific replacement or because of general power creep. Sometimes the answer was quite straightforward, other times it was just a matter of circumstance. Again, thanks so much to everyone that helped me assemble this ranking. I hope you enjoy it and sorry if your choice didn't make the final cut below.
11. Honorable Mentions: Early Day Icons
I still cherish the memory of the first time I held a Shivan Dragon in my hands as a kid, when I started playing Magic. It felt quite powerful as a 5/5 enormous flier that could kill in a couple of swings thanks to its pump ability. Just like the Dragon, many creatures from early Magic set the parameters of what to expect from each color.
Serra Angel remained the best finisher for The Deck for some time while Royal Assassin had the unique ability of killing tapped creatures. Sadly, I wasn't old enough to move past the kitchen table games back then. My group of friends mostly made up the rules as we went along, but still, we all venerated those white-bordered cards we traded for at school.
10. Multicolor All-Stars
Moving on to the Extended era, when it was the only format I really played. Since Standard wasn't really affordable for most of my teenage friends, we tried to assemble budget decks with the cards we owned. Multicolored cards where like rock-and-roll stars back then, with super cool abilities compared to the monocolored choices at the time. Plus, the old gold frame made them even more attractive to the eye. My first crush came with the Apocalypse release, I was absolutely enamored with the enemy pain lands and the weird kicker costs. I could spend hours talking about that set and how flavorful every card was.
One card in specific was responsible for my obsession: Mystic Snake became the ultimate trick everyone was playing. Flash wasn't a keyword back then and creatures rarely entered the battlefield at instant speed. Therefore, having a spell countered and facing a 2/2 on the other side of the battlefield on top felt totally miserable. As time progressed, the Snake fell completely out of favor across all formats. However, it's curious, nowadays we have a slightly improved version in Frilled Mystic from Ravnica Allegiance. Despite being just Standard material now and only playable in the Flash archetype, it's a nice callback to the original card.
Other multicolor all-stars from that era include Shadowmage Infiltrator, Jon Finkel himself, completely overshadowed by another Dimir card in Odyssey we will discuss later, and Mystic Enforcer, the ultimate nightmare for every black-based deck.
9. Green Buffed Creatures
Focusing on the color green, we find a long line of undercosted fatties with some huge drawback from the game's origins almost to the present; lately the drawback has become barely noticeable. Force of Nature started the trend in Alpha. Back then, the price you paid for a 6-mana 8/8 Swamp Thing-esque was a tax of four green mana per turn or 6 damage to the face. My own experience with this type of creature came with Nemesis, when I was first introduced to Blastoderm.
A giant 5/5 that couldn't be targeted by spells for just 4 mana? It was love at first sight. Fading 3 wasn't a big deal as long as you could connect a couple of turns, especially if you added a way to give it haste. Indeed, Fires of Yavimaya became one of the dominant strategies in Standard in early 2000.
|Fires by Zvi Mowshowitz, Top 8 at Pro Tour Chicago 2000|
Just looking at this list, you get an idea how Magic has evolved over the last twenty years. For example, don't even bother to compare Blastoderm with any 4-mana creature in recent sets such as Questing Beast, which is super pushed and has more lines of text than anyone can remember.
Lots more of once famous green creatures fell by the wayside. Quirion Dryad had been the finisher of choice for every blue-based shell heavy on cantrips until Tarmogoyf came along. Regal Force had been the must-have silver bullet for Elves before it was replaced by Craterhoof Behemoth.
8. Black Fliers
Same as green was characterized by its big creatures, black owns some unique examples of powerful creatures with flying that need to be mentioned within this ranking. For starters, Hypnotic Specter also known as "the Hippie" became an absolute menace of Magic's early years combined with Dark Ritual on turn one. Sengir Vampire also played a role once upon a time.
Regarding flying fatties, Lord of the Pit was the first one, bigger than Shivan Dragon or Serra Angel, and the original art by Mark Tedin remains remarkable even today. Among a wealth of examples, my favorite one is Tombstalker. For a time, it became the undercosted flying finisher of choice for tempo strategies in Legacy.
|Team America (Sultai Delver) by Daniel Signorini, Gran Prix Atlanta 2012|
During that era, Delver of Secrets / Insectile Aberration and Tombstalker were partners in crime, applying a ton of pressure in the air. The black demon was easy to cast for just 2 mana by delving away all the fetch lands and cheap spells in your graveyard. Its time in spotlight ended rapidly once Khans of Tarkir brought two new and improved black delve creatures in the shape of Gurmag Angler and Tasigur, the Golden Fang.
Long story short, the Zombie Fish usurped Tombstalker's place in every deck imaginable, just because it is cheaper and although it lacks evasion. It's a sad story and sometimes I wonder if one singleton could make it in my Delver decks, but the answer is always no. Rest in peace, my dear Tombstalker, you served well.
7. Busted Brown Machines
Next we have the original pinging machine, also known as "the coffee maker" thanks to its original art from Antiquities. I became familiar with Triskelion via its reprint during the first Mirrodin cycle in 2003. Back then, it was a part of the Tooth and Nail combo that involved having the artifact creature alongside Mephidross Vampire in order to wipe the board and then shoot your opponent to death. Today, we have a superb, polished version in Walking Ballista — way more flexible plus having the ability to add more counters. But at least old players know which one's the original.
Speaking of artifact creatures that left a mark on the game, Masticore is one of my all-time favorites, since I desperately wanted to purchase one when I started playing during Urza's Saga. At that point, a 4/4 for only 4 mana, able to regenerate and also to kill small creatures was bonkers, even with the drawback of discarding a card per turn. My parents gave me Kai Budde's 1999 World Championship with the golden border as my Christmas present, and I basically played it against the wall for a whole year.
|Artifact Wildfire by Kai Budde, World Championship 1999|
Another example of an artifact creature that fell out of favor is Darksteel Colossus, which once was the primary target for Tinker in Vintage. But the fact that Blightsteel Colossus showed up in Mirrodin Besieged instantly made the giant Golem unplayable.
Last but not least, we should make a small mention of the affinity creatures like Frogmite or Myr Enforcer. They terrorized Standard and Extended for a long time and gave a whole archetype its name. The moniker "Affinity" stuck even when no card with this ability remained in the deck.
6. Ball Lightning
Next on my list comes the red menace, historically one of the easiest colors to pilot when one starts playing Magic. And Ball Lightning was one of my early crushes when I was learning the game. One of my favorite teenage memories is visiting a second-hand market in my home town on a Sunday morning along with my mother so she could buy me a couple of white-bordered Ball Lightnings from Fourth Edition. The overall experience of killing an opponent with a 6/1 hasty trample Elemental felt amazing for a 12-year-old kid, although soon enough I understood the risk of putting all the eggs in the same basket. The Big Red Ball also lost its power over time. Recently tough, an improved version in the shape of Lightning Skelemental from Modern Horizons saw some minor play in a tribal strategy with Unearth in Modern.
Before we move on, a nod to other famous red creatures: Balduvian Horde, once considered the best card in Alliances, and Flametongue Kavu, which also played a major role during the Fires of Yavimaya period.
This is another all-time favorite that sees no play at all in present days — aside from the Pre-Modern format, which doesn't really count. For a while it was the strongest, most resilient creature in Extended, able to grow bigger with every chump block and unaffected by the spot removal of the time thanks to regeneration. This incredible Beast could also dodge any color protection, as well as Terror, by changing its own.
Obviously, you could always count on Wrath of God to reset the battlefield, but outside of that, Spiritmonger was effectively invincible. Definitely the best finisher for the black-green shells that populated Extended for a while.
|The Rock by Gab Tsang, Extended|
Why this huge creature was forgotten? Well, pretty much the same reason as the previous examples: at some point, it was no longer an appealing deal to invest 5 mana — plus keep up one extra to regenerate — into a creature that had no evasion at all. Later, you could cast bigger creatures for less mana — Tarmogoyf, Gurmag Angler — while the number of options to remove it exploded.
Actually, Spiritmonger reminds me a lot of Siege Rhino, another buffed multicolored creature that felt very impressive when it was first printed in Khans. It had it all: a reasonable body with trample with a Lightning Helix attached. Despite its good run in Standard, recently it didn't make the cut even when people tried to forced it into Pioneer; the card is so 2014 and nowadays you should be asking for more.
4. Shroud and Hexproof Foes
Back to green memorable creatures, here comes a tricky one. Troll Ascetic was the most annoying threat to deal with during the Mirrodin era, when hexproof wasn't even a keyword yet. Rules-wise, I spent a lot of time explaining to younger opponents that my Counterspell was able to target their Troll on the stack as it wasn't a creature on the battlefield. Troll Ascetic became best friends with the original artifact Sword cycle, since it was almost unstoppable once equipped with a Sword of Fire and Ice. Later on, it suffered the same fate as its ancestors: anewer and improved version pushed it aside. Specifically, Thrun, the Last Troll came with a bigger and stronger body and with the uncounterable clause added.
From an earlier time and space, Nimble Mongoose also played a major role for a long period as the primary tempo creature in Legacy. Before Delver of Secrets, the cheap cost and shroud made the Mongoose the perfect vanguard. Of course, a cheap cost wasn't enough to maintain its status among newer contestants: Young Pyromancer tokens could chumblock it for days, Deathrite Shaman nullified the threshold clause and even now that it's banned, Delver shells have better options like Dreadhorde Arcanist or Hooting Mandrills. In the end, they gave all they had and it makes perfect sense that Troll Ascetic or Nimble Mongoose are not playable anymore.
3. Exalted Angel
Entering our Top 3, you might be wondering, where are white cards on this ranking? Well, I didn't get that many examples. However, Savannah Lions is the ideal specimen when it comes to explaining how much Magic has evolved over the years. Back in the early stages, a 2/1 for only 1 mana with no drawback was something quite unique. It took quite long until the Lions where surpassed in power. In the meantime, Jackal Pup showed up as a worse version, just like Jungle Lion and a bunch of others. Years later, Isamaru, Hound of Konda became a worthy adversary although it was legendary, and finally Goblin Guide presented itself as the most aggressive 1-drop in Magic history aside from an early flipped Delver of Secrets.
Leaving the king of the savannah aside, I really wanted to talk about Exalted Angel since it was the ultimate reason why I assembled an Angel tribal deck during my kitchen table days. The art by Michael Suffin stole my heart the moment I first saw it with that red and pink palette, plus the awesome definition of the angel's wings. It was fall 2002 and Onslaught shook up Magic as we knew it via the brand-new morph mechanic, just like companion recently did. Well, maybe not that much, but the fact that you could play a card face down was something quite unprecedented. Among all creatures with this ability, Exalted Angel was the most impressive one to me, along with Blistering Firecat or Grinning Demon.
Spending three mana to cast it as a 2/2 plus another four mana to flip it was a good investment back then, especially when you could attack in the air and win some life back. Moreover, combined with Astral Slide you could cheat Exalted Angel back to the battlefield face up at the end of your turn, just like Yorion, Sky Nomad does these days … maybe a little bit better tough.
|Astral Slide by Osyp Lebedowicz, Block Constructed, Pro Tour Venice 2003|
The silver medal goes to Morphling, also known as Superman, the most memorable blue creature in Magic history and the ultimate finisher for a long period of time. Before Morphling, there were other blue beaters that served a similar role, for example Rainbow Efreet, but none checked as many boxes as Morphling: it protected itself, it dominated combat, it worked on offense and defense at the same time, it had evasion, and it ended games quickly.
Just look at how simple and pure Magic was twenty years ago! A monoblue build had all the tools to get away with only seven creatures, a ton of counter magic, and some colorless sweepers:
|Forbidian by Jon Finkel, Extended|
And the winner is … the blue-black big-headed monster from Odyssey! Psychatog is the reason why I started playing control for the first time in my life, so I may be biased when deciding the top rank. Back in October 2001, the latest set featured a callback to the creature card Atog originally printed in Antiquities. It was actually a five-card uncommon cycle plus a rare one. Psychatog quickly outgrew in importance all of its fellow Atogs as well as the aforementioned Shadowmage Infiltrator. The reason why Psychatog created a whole archetype around itself was the ability to pump itself to absurd proportions without spending any mana.
Compared with Morphling, the mana investment was lower and you just needed one alpha strike to finish the game. The deck began its lifecycle during Invasion-Seventh Edition-Odyssey Standard and then was adapted to Extended. Basically, the strategy ran a mixture of counter magic, spot removal, and card draw. The only permanents needed were lands and the Psychatog itself, aside from a singleton copy of Wonder to be discarded so our finisher could attack in the sky.
|Psychatog by Peter Myrvig Extended, Pro Tour Houston 2002.|
Regarding the game plan, you tried to go long until at some point your graveyard was full enough so that a single Pyschatog attack sealed the deal. Alternatively, you could reset the game via Upheaval, float mana, and then cast Pyschatog on the same turn. Looking at this list brings so many good memories to my mind; the deck felt very special to play and Psychatog was the face card of the strategy, feared and respected. My friends got sick of it since it had a psychologic factor of being a tiny creature that could kill you on the spot, something I always loved.
And that bring us to the end of this article. It took me quite long to find some of these decklists on the Internet but they brought back so many memories — I hope for you as well. Personally, I owe so much to this game, lots of friends and experiences, up to a point where it simply became part of my life. So revisiting all these iconic creatures almost felt like traveling to the past. As usual, thanks for reading, please feel free to leave your comments, I would love to hear from your own experiences with the cards mentioned, or with some other cards entirely.
Until next time,
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.