Top 10 Magic Cards of 2023

Before we move on to the first Magic The Gathering set of 2024, I’d like to look back at the highlights of 2023. Just like the last few years, I’ve picked out a Top 10 list of cards that showcase the different facets of the game that I’ve enjoyed over the last twelve months.

For me, 2023 in Magic was very much the year of Universes Beyond. Sure, it actually began back in 2020, but looking over the cards for the year made me realise how much of 2023 revolves around this new paradigm. It’s probably because we had our first ever full Universes Beyond in The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth.

Your opinion on these external IPs coming into Magic will likely make or break how you feel about the game. At first, I was skeptical. I didn’t want my favourite game to turn into that one Cardboard Crack comic everyone links when discussing Universes Beyond. Last year, I got to talk about the Warhammer 40,000 Commander Decks. I had high hopes that future UB products would show that much care for both the game and the external IP.

Having now played with Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who cards, I can honestly say I’m really enjoying them. Wizards of the Coast are giving these products to designers who obviously know and care about their theme while still keeping things within the design space of Magic itself.

In fact, I was a little worried that Universes Beyond would completely take over the list (since I’m actually playing two Doctor Who and three Lord of the Rings Commander decks at the moment). Fear not! As it happened, I found myself with plenty of cards from within Magic lore that I wanted to showcase.

Dishonourable Mention of the Year, 2023

The One Ring

The One Ring is not a balanced Magic card. People have joked that the protection effect is a Time Walk and that joke ends up more true than I’d like to admit. Getting to dodge a turn of damage and effects and then draw an absurd number of cards for the rest of the game is a complete package that probably shouldn’t have cost four generic mana.

It seems quite apparent that The Ring was designed for the Commander format, where multiple copies can’t (easily) show up. However, that means there was no thought about balancing it around using additional copies of The Ring to effectively reset the burden counters.

I’ve speculated on ways The Ring could have been balanced. Putting the burden counters on the player might have done it. Or maybe a thematic “A deck may only contain one copy of The One Ring” would have stopped it.

Regardless, the ring is overtuned, but I guess that’s to be expected given that Wizards of the Coast made a whole marketing campaign around opening it. I just really hope this isn’t setting a precedent for future Universes Beyond straight-to-Modern sets in terms of power level.

(If only Frodo had slipped on a second copy of The Ring halfway through his journeys. Maybe then the trek across Mordor would have been easier!)

Now, a note on the actual top 10. As I warn every year, this list is entirely subjective. I’m trying to showcase my favourite parts of 2023 in Magic, so my top cards probably won’t line up with any other lists out there. Anyway, to start off the list, we have:

#10: Rally at the Hornburg

Each year, I reserve a spot on the list for a draft archetype I really enjoyed. This year, I wanted to highlight Red and Red-White aggro in Lord of the Rings draft. I’ll admit, I didn’t draft as much as I would have liked in 2023. However, I have very fond memories of casting multiple Rally at the Hornburgs with an Erkenbrand, Lord of Westfold in play.

I don’t often draft aggresive decks, generally preferring synergy pieces, but for once, I really enjoyed jamming one-mana 1/1s with menace.

#9: Huatli, Poet of Unity

Despite their limited effect on competitive Magic, I very much enjoyed jamming dinosaurs in Standard when we first visited Ixalan. So, of course, I was excited for our return to the plane. I even put my old Gishath, Sun’s Avatar EDH deck back together with the intent to upgrade it with cards from Lost Caverns.

Then I opened Huatli and she immediately replaced Gishath.

Not only is this variant of Huatli a stunning card, but she does so much and asks so little. To be honest, she might do a little bit too much, especially once you flip her. Complexity creep is one hell of a drug.

Roar of the Fifth People makes you bodies, ramps you, tutors a dinosaur and then just kills your opponents. All of this available from the command zone.

Huatli doesn’t take the number one spot for my favourite of 2023, but she is up there.

#8: Breach the Multiverse – Liiga Smilshkalne

As with previous years, I like to call out a standout art from the year. 2023 was tough call. All of the ‘ring’ style showcase cards from The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth are gorgeous. I wouldn’t have been able to pick just one.

Stepping away from Universes Beyond for a second, however, reveals one card that just stands out as the year’s best art. Breach the Multiverse shows us the most important moment in Magic‘s story from the last few years and they could not let the art for it miss.

Liiga Smilshkalne, the artist for this piece, has even uploaded the earlier sketches and her concepts that went into the art over on her Twitter. I highly recommend having a look over here.

#7: Wardens of Isengard

2023 was the year I really got back into Commander after certain global events back in 2020. As a result, I thought it would be good to call out my favourite new Commander(s) for the year.

Merry and Pippin, Wardens of Isengard are at the helm of a Commander deck I affectionately call ‘Junk’. For those people who weren’t playing the game back then, Junk is what we called Abzan before Khans of Tarkir made Abzan a thing. The deck is built around generating and utilising a bunch of junk – food, clues and treasures. Very smart wordplay, I know.

The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth and Wilds of Eldraine combined together to really push the support for this kind of deck. I’ve been enjoying it so much that I haven’t dismantled it in the pursuit of another deck (the fate of the vast majority of my EDH decks).

#6: Werefox Bodyguard

2023 was not a great year for new elves (good ones, at any rate). Werefox Bodyguard is here, however, to buck that trend.

I’ve long awaited an on-theme Fiend Hunter-esque card for Elves, so it’s a fortunate turn of events that an elf rather than a human got turned into a werefox. Well, fortunate for us; less so the elf.

Werefox Bodyguard provides similar utility to previous versions of this effect, like Brutal Cathar or Skyclave Apparition. But the fact that it was printed in 2023 means you get a few more bonuses for your investment.

Flash is a particular standout when looking at removal. Sure, I’ve Chord of Calling‘d out a Fiend Hunter before, but now you can do it at instant speed even when you draw the card.

Being an elf is also vital for all of the elf synergies that I like to build around. It also means that, if an elf deck is running enough lands like Cavern of Souls or Secluded Courtyard, the Werefox is effectively free to splash.

You can also use Werefox Bodyguard on your own creatures to effectively save them from removal or reuse their ETB effects. You even get a bonus bit of life when you sacrifice the bodyguard to get your creature back.

#5: Atraxa, Grand Unifier

Griselbrand has finally been unseated as the premier legend to reanimate in Magic. However, we’re not talking about Atraxa, Grand Unifier because we want to reanimate her. No: we care about her being Green.

Both Green Sun’s Zenith and Natural Order specifically get Green creatures out of your deck. As a result, Atraxa provides a perfect backup plan in Legacy Elves. When a Craterhoof Behemoth won’t get the job done, we can instead go and fetch Atraxa, presenting a powerful threat and refilling our hand.

I’ve even used elves like Birchlore Rangers to hard-cast Atraxa, which is emminently doable at seven mana.

We’ve even had fun with Atraxa in cube draft over on stream. It’s not often a card comes up for both our elves and draft streams, but Atraxa shines in every format.

#4: Orcish Bowmasters

Orcish Bowmasters is probably too good. I probably should have thrown them in with The One Ring in dishonourable mentions. It’s so easy for a Bowmasters to pick off one of my elves that perhaps I should be upset.

However, when you give creature decks a tool to fight against the powerful draw engines in older formats, I can’t help but enjoy it. Brainstorm has been a pillar of Legacy for so long and Green-Black Elves players finally get to punish those Blue players just a little bit.

It doesn’t hurt that Orcish Bowmasters is particularly well positioned in Timeless. Speaking of which…

Best New Old Card of 2023: Natural Order

Okay, okay, I know. Natural Order was already a good card. So, why am I giving it 2023’s ‘Best New Old Card’ award? Well, right at the end of the year, a new format turned up.

Timeless went live on December 12th on Magic Arena. It’s effectively the Vintage of Arena. Every card on the platform is available to play, with the most powerful ones restricted to a single copy.

Natural Order had been printed onto Arena via the bonus sheet in Strixhaven but it wasn’t legal anywhere on the platform. Suddenly, this card – a staple of Legacy Elves – was legal in a format on Arena. Even better, Craterhoof Behemoth is also on the client. This was the perfect recipe for elves to hit the ground running in the new format.

Immediately we jumped into Timeless on stream and met with great success. Natural Order was a big part of that, alongside other two other cards mentioned on this list: Atraxa, Grand Unifier and Orcish Bowmasters.

I’ve been really enjoying Timeless as a format. I don’t know how long that will last for; WotC are releasing Modern Horizons 3 on Arena, so that might powercreep the format. But, while I can still jam a turn one Llanowar Elves and be happy, that’s what I’ll be doing.

#3: Invasion of Ikoria

March of the Machine brought us a brand new card type in Battles. While most battles seem to have fallen by the wayside, Invasion of Ikoria stood out as having some potential in Elves. On the surface, it looked like a sidegrade to Finale of Devastation. It helps find combo or synergy pieces when you need them and provides an alternate win condition in certain situations.

I love these kinds of effects. You’ll have seen me play them in Elves in in every format they’re available in.

However, a hidden mode was found for Invasion of Ikoria. It only need you to run a single copy of Vampire Hexmage in your deck. Searching out the Hexamage allows you to immediately turn the battle into Zilortha, Apex of Ikoria.

This is just a fun interaction of the sort that’s inevitably going to show up as Magic‘s card pool grows each year. It’s also a good way to just kill your opponent when you have a board full of elves lying around.

#2: Delighted Halfling

It’s a shame that Delighted Halfling isn’t an elf, but that doesn’t stop it from being powerful. I love mana dorks. I love cards that can make my cards uncounterable. And most of all, I love my turn one play not dying to Orcish Bowmasters or Lava Dart.

Delighted Halfing is one of the best mana dorks ever printed. Especially so in a game with more and more legends proving relevant in constructed play. It’s not even just legendary creatures, you can also make your planeswalkers uncounterable. Including…

#1: Tyvar, Jubilant Brawler

Despite not being an elf on his type line, I will consider Tyvar, Jubilant Brawler a second elf on this list. Sure, he works in other decks, but Elves is one of the decks that leverages all three of his abilities.

His first ability works best with mana dorks, so we can use them immediately. It also lets you use Elvish Reclaimer or Fiend Artisan straight away. The untap ability also works best alongside tap abilities, opening up the option to reuse them or to use them and still attack afterwards. Tyvar’s last ability not only lets you recycle all of the aforementioned creatures, but also ‘silver bullet’ creatures.

Tyvar immediately made it into Green-Black midrange Elves, as well as multiple versions of combo Elves built around Devoted Druid. He even lets the deck go infinite from almost nothing. Getting back a Devoted Druid with (effective) haste enables the deck to recover against removal and grind out longer games.

Overall, Tyvar might not be the splashiest card, but the way he ticked every box I needed him to for a deck I was already playing puts him ahead of the competition for 2023.

Well, that’s it for 2023.

It was an interesting year for me as a player: I found that getting back into more paper play really boosted my enjoyment of the game. You can probably tell that I mostly played Commander from how that skewed which cards caught my attention.

Next up will be our usual Elves All The Way Down review of Murders at Karlov Manor which prereleases… this weekend? Cutting it a bit close there. Have fun at your prerelease if you’re going to one and I look forward to seeing where 2024 takes us both on our Magical journeys.