2021 is finally done with and I’ll reiterate what I said this time last year: well done on surviving it. As is the tradition for late December/early January, it’s time for a bunch of retrospectives across the internet. 2021 was a big year for Magic formats I play the most. We saw the release of Modern Horizons 2, which had far-reaching consequences across Modern and Legacy. We’ll just have to see how much that impacts the Top 10 list.
Just like last year, I’ll start with some dishonourable mentions and move on to the main list momentarily.
I never thought we’d see the day when Wizards of the Coast printed another White removal spell that could join Swords to Plowshares as a four-of in Legacy. However, I never took into account that a set as pushed as Modern Horizons 2 could exist. To be honest, Prismatic Ending might even be better than Swords. Not only is it a great creature removal spell that you don’t mind firing off early (unlike Path to Exile where the extra land matters), but it covers problematic non-creatures too.
So, if Prismatic Ending is so good, why is it here on the Dishonourable Mentions list? To be honest, it’s just too good and too flexible. Let me explain why that’s a bad thing.
Before, in formats like Modern, while the removal was good, you could play around it or attack from an angle that was less susceptible to it. If a Blue-White deck wanted to kill your turn one play without giving you an extra land, it had to dip into Red or Black. If you brought in a non-creature permanent to dodge a powerful removal suite, they couldn’t kill it with the same card that killed your one-drop.
As a result of all this, Prismatic Ending has become ubiquitous across the formats it’s legal in. So ubiquitous, in fact, that I believe it to be too good. The kicker is that, because it’s an answer rather than a threat, Prismatic Ending will never be problematic enough to ban. That means I’m going to have to put up with my Llanowar Elves getting Ended a lot in future.
Fury and Solitude
Hey, it’s more Modern Horizons 2 cards. I wonder how many times this set is going to show up in the article.
This pair of ‘free’ removal spells are much more of a personal bugbear. As a player who likes playing lots of creature-based synergy decks, free spells that thwart those decks are particularly frustrating. Each of the cards is offensive in its own way: Fury kills multiple Elves at once, whereas Solitude is in the same colour as Ephemerate, a combination which is extremely frustrating to fight through.
Now we get onto a particularly divisive topic. Alchemy is a digital-only release unique to Magic Arena that both rebalanced the most powerful cards in Standard and added a bunch of new cards. Together, these form a new online-only format.
The release of Alchemy caused a very mixed reaction in the online Magic community. A lot of people are unhappy that cards they use in Historic have received nerfs for the sins of Standard. The lack of compensation for these nerfs has made people particularly annoyed. What’s worse, the structure of the Alchemy packs adds fuel to the garbage fire that is Arena’s economy.
The thing that specifically baffles me, however, is this: if the intention was create a ‘balanced’ version of Standard with nerfs and buffs, why release a plethora of new, powerful cards that reshape the format? This effectively makes the nerfs and buffs pointless.
Whether you enjoy the new Alchemy format or not, its release certainly has split the community and angered a lot of players. As a result, it definitely belongs at the top of the Dishonourable Mentions list.
Now, a note on the actual top 10. As I warned last year, this list is entirely subjective. My intent is to showcase my favourite parts of 2021 in Magic, whether that’s a draft format, some cool cards for my favourite decks or beautiful art. Anyway, to start off the list, we have:
#10: Aegar, the Freezing Flame
As HexaGorgon’s resident Elf fanatic, I had to bring up some tribal synergies from Kaldheim. But wait, you ask, why is this a Giant and not an Elf, Jamie? Well, I’m sorry to say it, but Elves didn’t really make it in Standard. Trust me, I tried across multiple streams.
As a result, I decided to play around with a different tribe in Standard, and I landed on giants. Aegar is here to represent that deck and the fun I had with it. I chose Aegar because there’s no better feeling than burning your opponent’s creatures while also getting to draw more cards.
#9: Faerie, Faerie, Faerie Rad
Last year I included Indulging Patrician as my favourite art of the year. This year had a lot of art I enjoyed, especially Strixhaven Mystical Archive. However, the cards that really caught my eye were this set from a Secret Lair back in February.
They’re garish, bright and bold and I love them.
#8: Seek an Elf card
When they announced a second Jumpstart product that would introduce digital-only cards to Magic Arena, I was worried. You see, Elves had a really good pack in the first Jumpstart product that gave us Allosaurus Shepherd. I thought that meant we wouldn’t get any new Elvish friends in the new set; and I was kind of correct.
Instead, there was a Freyalise pack, which was an Elf pack by every metric besides name. Elves were already doing well in Historic and the new cards just supercharged the deck. The two cards showcased here introduced a new line of text that is eeriely similar to my favourite (draw a card): seek an Elf card.
Freyalise is a potential turn-two play that generates card advantage, untaps Elves to ramp you more, and helps you refill your hand once the dust settles.
However, secretly, the card that stole my attention was Skyshroud Lookout. Elvish Visionary and Coiling Oracle are two of my favourite Elves of all time -with Visionary taking the number one spot. Lookout is just a powered up version of Visionary that always draws you a relevant card. It also has reach to boot, letting you block some annoying 3/1 flying creatures that can potentially get past all the Elves on the ground.
As an aside, my enjoyment of these cards highlights that I’m not against the digital-only nature of the cards being introduced in sets like Alchemy. Rather, it was the other issues surrounding that release that earned it a spot on the Dishonourable Mentions list.
#7: Prosper, Tome-Bound
I almost put Lathril, Blade of the Elves in this spot as a respresentive of new Commanders that came out in 2021. However, I already had an Elves EDH deck and Lathril is just another option for that.
Prosper, however, made me want to build a new deck around a mechanic that is traditionally not worth it in the format: impulsive draw. This uniqueness wins him a spot on this list.
The other card Prosper narrowly beat out is Toxrill, the Corrosive, another unique card that entices me to build a completely new deck, rather than simply slotting into an existing one.
#6: Yavimaya, Cradle of Growth
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth is a card that has seen a lot of play over the years. It does lots of little things that aren’t individually too powerful, but add up to mean it’s always relevant. I’ve always enjoyed including it as a one-of where I can to eke out a small advantage. Whether it’s allowing players to save their fetchlands for the opportune moment or making Eye of Ugin an effective three-mana land for Eldrazi decks, Urborg isn’t going anywhere soon.
However, Urborg is the sort of card I only expected Wizards to print once. Some corner cases with the rules and the card’s inscrutability for newer players disincentivise releasing a second version. So imagine my surprise at the reveal of Yavimaya, Cradle of Growth in Modern Horizons 2! Not only did they print a new Urborg, they did it in the colour that I wanted most.
Since its release, Yavimaya has put in loads of work in Modern and even some in Legacy. It has singlehandedly won games on stream by letting us leave fetches uncracked with only one life remaining or allowing Quirion Ranger to pick up a land in response to Field of Ruin.
Other Elves players really like the interaction between Yavimaya and Elvish Champion, which is just another angle that the card works on, even if I personally leave that for the sideboard.
#5: Hell Mongrel
I like to include a card that represents my favourite draft archetype of the year. In 2021, that was Red-Black madness in Modern Horizons 2. Hell Mongrel gets the spot on the list over cards like Terminal Agony and Bone Shards because it does both sides of what the deck wants. This good boy both a) has madness and b) is a discard outlet.
I’ve also been trying to put together a Pauper madness deck playing Hell Mongrel alongside the card it is a callback to: Wild Mongrel. (The deck is fun, but probably not very good.)
#4: Grist, the Hunger Tide
Grist, the Hunger Tide has a very interesting first line of text. Grist counts as a creature card everywhere except the battlefield. Now, the first few interactions this enables are obvious: we can put Grist into play with cards like Chord of Calling or Collected Company. However, I don’t think we’ve fully mined the interactions arising from this ability, and I look forward to discovering them. It’s the kind of complexity you expect from a Modern Horizons 2 Mythic.
So, beyond having a unique first ability, what does Grist bring to the table? Well, the aforementioned interaction with creature-combo pieces like Chord and Company is very powerful in decks that are already running those cards for other reasons. Having access to a tutorable piece of removal that does dilute your Company hits is really important.
Furthermore, Grist can grind out an endless stream of blockers or threats while being difficult to remove using cards that are normally good against creature decks (Prismatic Ending and Unholy Heat aside). We’ve ground out games where our Elves were dying too much and killed people with the -5 ability multiple times.
Grist is a welcome boost to creature-synergy decks in Modern, a format where combo pieces can be trivially picked apart.
Best New Old Card: Quirion Ranger
As with last year, before the Top 3, I need to give out the Best New Old Card award. This award is given to a card that isn’t new, but has gained new context during the year. The can be due to other cards being released, meta changes or new formats.
Quirion Ranger has been a staple of Legacy Elf decks for as long as I’ve been playing them. It interacts extremely well with Dryad Arbor, either as a land you can untap or to allow you to chump block for free. It also enables a lower land count: you can always pick up your land and replay it to avoid missing a land drop when you don’t have one in hand. This interaction is made even better by the printing of Yavimaya, Cradle of Growth, allowing you to pick up a Gaea’s Cradle and replay it for EVEN MORE MANA.
Quirion Ranger also shows up in Pauper, enabling lower land counts and untapping Priest of Titania for EVEN MORE MANA.
2021, however, finally gave us access to Quirion Ranger in Modern when it was reprinted in Modern Horizons 2. Since its release, I’ve reworked all of my mana bases to include Ranger and it has been working wonders. In the same vein to the formats mentioned above, Quirion Ranger facilitates running lower lands counts and lets us untap Elvish Archdruid for EVEN MORE MANA.
Now we just need Modern Horizons 3 to give us Wirewood Symbiote and we’ll be set.
I complained about the Modern Horizons 2 pitch-elementals right up near the start of this article, so what is one doing down here? Am I just a hypocrite who likes the Green one (that I get to play with) and dislikes the Red and White ones used against me? Maybe a little bit, but I would like to defend Endurance as one of the two good designs of the cycle, alongside Subtlety.
For starters, what does Endurance[c]‘s effect do when you use the free mode? It’s a reactive ability that counters opponents trying to do unfair things with their graveyard. You get to stop Reanimator and Dredge decks, strategies that can often be problematic (especially Dredge.) Typically, beating those would necessitate targeted hate, rather than being free removal against early creatures.
Further to this, combining Endurance with flicker effects such as [c]Ephemerate after Evoking it doesn’t really do anything extra -other than letting you keep the body. If you flicker a Fury or a Solitude you just keep getting more value. If you flicker an Endurance or a Subtlety, you get nothing unless you time it in a very specific way. Maybe the issue here is Ephemerate. That card is pushed more than it has any right to be.
What also makes Endurance good for me personally is it’s a Collected Company hit that feels good even when the ability isn’t that relevent. I’ve happily brought it in to block Dragon’s Rage Channelers and Inkmoth Nexuses.
It’s also a beautiful card and it just feels good to play. This is a subjective list, after all.
My number one card from Kaldheim makes it to number two of the year. Realmwalker combines three of my favourite things: creature synergy pieces; topdeck manipulation; and getting to combo off. Realmwalker is a great addition to any green-based tribal deck, whatever format you play, whether it be your Frog EDH deck helmed by Grolnok, the Omnivore or the most obvious place for it: Elves.
In the right Elves shell, Realmwalker lets you put a huge portion of your deck into play at once. When combined with Sylvan Anthem (yet another Modern Horizons H2 card) and Heritage Druid, you can cast each Elf you see on your deck and scry any lands you see to the bottom. We don’t get Glimpse of Nature in Modern, so this is the kind of combo I play for.
Realmwalker won out in my Kaldheim review, but we’re not done with that set yet, because our best card from 2021 is…
#1: Elvish Warmaster
Rounding out an all-Green top three (and let’s be honest, an all-Elves one, too, despite only one of them being an Elf) is Elvish Warmaster.
Perhaps the card that has helped Elves players keep up with the plethora of new removal options the most, Warmaster is one hell of a card. At first, some people wondered if a Dwynen’s Elite that didn’t immediately give you the token was good enough. It definitely was.
Warmaster brings two of the three most important things in Elves decks in one package. We get additional bodies almost every turn (and sometimes even our opponent’s turn). We also get a mana-sink win condition that makes use of all those extra Elves. The only thing missing is mana generation, which Warmaster even contributes to when combined with Heritage Druid. Warmaster + Druid + the token it makes is the exact three Elves you need to use the Druid.
In fact, my new favourite opening in Modern Elves is a mana-dork into Warmaster and Heritage Druid. Maybe sneak a Quirion Ranger in there too for good measure.
Warmaster’s activated ability is sadly more expensive than Ezuri, Renegade Leader‘s overrun effect, but the two combine extremely well. Trample and Deathtouch together mean it really doesn’t matter what your opponent has on board; they are just dead.
It’s basically a must-kill creature for our opponent. The games where Warmaster survives compared to those where it’s removed are night and day. Things can quickly spiral out of control over a few turns. Even if it does eat a removal spell a few turns later, it’s often too late.
You might have missed being number one back in the Kaldheim Review, Warmaster, but you’ve definitely earned the top spot of 2021.
So that was 2021. How many times did I mention Modern Horizons 2? It took seven slots once you include the Dishonourable Mentions and Best New Old Card. It isn’t really a surprise, seeing how impactful that set has been. Let’s hope 2022 has a bit more variance in its best cards. With the current Elf drought on planes like Innistrad and Kamigawa, we won’t be getting as many Elves, that’s for sure.
Speaking of Kamigawa, I’ll see you for that set review in a few weeks. It was the plane that gave us Glimpse of Nature, so there’s still hope!
Jamie is a MtG and assorted gaming enthusiast who wants to bring his enjoyment and passion for games to everyone.