The Best Angels for Each Era of Magic
- Gianluca Aicardi
Magic has existed for 25 years now, and Angels have been around from the beginning, always eager to protect the worthy (the player) and punish the wicked (the opponent). To celebrate their everlasting piety and fury, let’s decide which have been the true paragons of virtue at each stage of Magic’s history.
Angels are sort of a tricky concept to adapt to Magic, because in real life they’re mostly linked to monotheisms, whereas in a fantasy world, especially one composed by countless different planes and cultures, you certainly want to rely on polytheistic religious systems, providing better flavor and mechanical options. This didn’t stop Richard Garfield and Alpha’s creative team to introduce in the original core set a creature clearly defined as an angel, stemming from the artificial plane created by the planeswalker/goddess Serra.
From that point on, and throughout 26 blocks (counting, though improperly, Arabian Nights, Antiquities and Legends as the first block, and The Dark, Fallen Empires and Homeland as the second block), Angels have been a permanent fixture of the game. Only Kamigawa, Theros, Tarkir and Ixalan don’t contain any Angels due to being inspired by real Earth cultures (Japanese, Ancient Greek, Central Asian and Mesoamerican, respectively) where there aren’t non-human supernatural beings that could easily be equated to angels.
Their role in Magic has historically been of a finisher or strong tactical presence in white-based decks, since there are only nine completely non-white Angels out of 141 printed as of Dominaria and all of them come equipped with flying (albeit for the poor angelic schmuck Gabriel Angelfire, this is not necessarily true every turn). Let’s see which of them have been the main white guardians of each era.
1. The Prehistoric Age
The Timeline: Alpha to Alliances, 1993-1996.
The Dominion: Serra Angel, first manifested in Limited Edition Alpha, August 1993. It was a time of very bad creatures, that first era, and Serra Angel was one of the very few to stand out by not being terrible. Actually, despite her obvious obsolescence, she’s still quite playable to this day, and her reprint in Dominaria proves that she’s not completely out of place 25 years later, an almost unique feat for a creature that old. She might be one mana too late in the curve by current standards, but she swings in the air for four and she can still block afterwards. Her “does not tap when attacking” ability would go on to become a paradigm for powerful Angels and it made her very effective in general and invaluable in the right deck. It’s hard to retrieve such archeological lists, but if we go with the Old School ‘93/’94 format, we can see her particularly shine as the wincon of Stasis Prison decks.
The Virtues: Well, there are only four other Angels from this early period, and they look like this. So I’m just gonna nominate Fallen Angel from Legends, because she’s the first black Angel, she’s still remembered fondly, and ultimately capable of a powerful alpha strike in the right circumstances (which were however not too easy to achieve back then).
2. The Classic Age
The Timeline: Mirage to Scourge, 1996-2003.
The Dominion: Akroma, Angel of Wrath, first manifested in Onslaught, October 2002. Magic had matured and had become somewhat more structured starting with Mirage, and creatures had started to become a more relevant part of the game, to the point that Onslaught block included a set, Legions, entirely composed by creatures. Akroma (who’s technically an Illusion, though they never got around to adding it to her type line) epitomizes the designers’ newfound comprehension of what investing a large quantity of mana into a creature should result in: she impacts the board from the get-go, is hard to get rid of, and dominates both combat phases while contributing a fast clock. The concept of superior tactical beater with tons of combat keywords would return multiple times, and of course with her color-shifted version from Planar Chaos, Akroma, Angel of Fury. The prime reanimation target of her era, original-recipe white Akroma was featured in Exhume/Reanimate decks and later replaced Spirit of the Night (after which she was modeled) as the ultimate threat in RecSur builds from the Oughties. Fifteen more years worth of reliable high-end fatties would in turn see her replaced eventually, but she’s still fierce enough not to look bad on any battlefield.
The Virtues: Speaking of reanimation, Urza’s Legacy gave us the combo-prone Karmic Guide, while Onslaught also had Exalted Angel, whose morph trick makes her able to attack as early as turn 4 (in non-accelerated conditions), thus generating an 8-life swing thanks to her lifegaining trigger, an ability that debuted a few years prior with the overcosted Warrior Angel from Stronghold.
3. The Modern Age
The Timeline: Mirrodin to Rise of the Eldrazi, 2003-2010.
The Dominion: Baneslayer Angel, fist manifested in Magic 2010, July 2009. At one point, the most expensive card in Standard, the infamous “Walletslayer” is a miniature Akroma, but with Exalted Angel’s lifegaining properties, and more or less a strictly better Serra Angel (except in those Stasis builds). A straightforward midrange beater, she instantly became a staple of her era, culminating in the list winning the 2009 World Championship, which featured a full playset of Baneslayers. Part of her appeal (read: her inflated Standard price) was because of her being an Angel, some say. Less than a decade later, she looks more obsolete than expected, since now a hardcast 5-mana creature is expected to hold a higher tactical value than just “she’s good at combat” (more likely some ETB trigger with immediate impact). Were Baneslayer legal in last year’s Standard, though, her throwaway anti-Dragon ability would have completely nullified Glorybringer.
The Virtues: The Modern Age marks the point when creatures had finally reached equal consideration to other spells, as reflected by this period’s rich offer of competitively playable (and indeed widely played) Angels. In particular, Guildpact gave us one of the all-time best reanimation targets in Angel of Despair, i.e. Vindicate on a stick (rendered obsolete only by Ashen Rider seven years later); Time Spiral had Serra Avenger, a baby Serra that would combo nicely with Aether Vial in Death & Taxes decks; and Zendikar block included a strong Angelic theme that resulted in a number of powerful cards like Emeria Angel, Iona, Shield of Emeria and Linvala, Keeper of Silence.
4. The Postmodern Age
The Timeline: Scars of Mirrodin to Dragons of Tarkir, 2010-2015.
The Dominion: Restoration Angel, first manifested in Avacyn Restored, May 2012. “Resto” perfectly illustrates why Baneslayer Angel would lose her relevance in later eras, and what a format-defining creature would now need to be. What we’re dealing with here is essentially an instant whose effect is to replicate the ETB trigger of a creature already on the battlefield (with the non-Angel clause merely meant to avoid she’ll become a 1-card infinite “creature entering the battlefield” triggers). This opens up a large number of scenario, making her not just a combo piece for the Birthing Pod decks that would dominate Modern in this time. Her flash speed means she can surprise-block an attacker, or save a fellow creature from removal, or just appears on the battlefield on the opponent’s end phase, gaining tempo, dribbling sorcery-speed countermeasures, and changing the balance of the following combat. Any deck with access to white whose battleplan safely extends into midrange has potential room for some Restoration Angels.
The Virtues: Many to choose from. Three above all: also hailing from Avacyn Restored (the most heavily populated Angel-themed set ever, featuring 12 new Angels), Sigarda, Host of Herons is the most reliable of Avacyn’s lieutenants, the Powerpuff Angels; Angel of Serenity from Return to Ravnica is as a curve-topping finisher that clears the board upon hitting the battlefield (or alternatively, ensures her owner that her demise will still generate value); and another one chiefly found in Pod lists, Magic 2014’s Archangel of Thune, a powerful lifelinker whose mechanical Gavony Township trigger infinitely combos with old-timey Spike Feeder, of all creatures.
5. The Contemporary Age
The Timeline: Battle for Zendikar to the advent of the Three-and-One paradigm, 2015-present.
The Dominion: Archangel Avacyn, first manifested in Shadows over Innistrad, April 2016. The third coming of Avacyn, this time in transformer configuration (after the somewhat cumbersome Avacyn, Angel of Hope and the truly disappointing Avacyn, Guardian Angel) is sort of a compendium of Angelic history. She has Serra Angel‘s cost, body and combat abilities, along with the long-term impact and clock of Akroma (and the transformed color of red Akroma), plus the speed and protection capability of Restoration Angel. And if she doesn’t gain you life the way Baneslayer Angel does, she’s ultimately able to sweep the battlefield in a similar way to some of her more expensive sisters like Angel of Serenity, Sunblast Angel or Magister of Worth. The Angel for the contemporary player who wants it all, she suitably was the centerpiece of the UW Flash archetype during her Standard tenure. She has showed up only occasionally in Modern after that, albeit through no fault of her own.
The Virtues: In Shadows over Innistrad block, the Powerpuff Angels (minus Sigarda) have been turned mad and evil by Emrakul, and Gisela, the Broken Blade sees Gisela turned into a streamlined mini-Baneslayer, able to meld with her sister Bruna to give birth to the Brisela monstrosity. Amonkhet, instead, is home to the elusive male Angels (prior to that set, only two other Angel cards in Magic history were clearly gendered as male), the most effective of which is Angel of Sanctions, bringing the Fiend Hunter ability to the Angel universe, but with an embalm twist that makes it harder to deal with.
Will Dominaria’s Angel lord Lyra Dawnbringer herald a new age for competitive Angel tribal in eternal formats? Probably not, since I don’t see the anthem effect to be too relevant to creatures that are usually already buff enough, and don’t usually populate the battlefield in large numbers (barring big Decree of Justice/Entreat the Angels resolutions), but the universal lifelink might be a factor. And she certainly feels like a contemporary take on Baneslayer Angel, doesn’t she?
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