The twenty years of Magic can be subdivided into many eras of design and gameplay. The game has changed a great amount from Alpha until now, and it has always been defined by a select number of cards and strategies considered the greatest in the metagame. In celebration of Magic’s impending twentieth anniversary celebrations, I would like to look back on the most beloved and most reviled cards of its past – the ones that headlined tournament-dominating decks, that warped formats, that inspired a million nicknames and as many counterstrategies. I’ll start from the beginning. Defining the early era of Magic loosely as the time beginning with Alpha’s release in 1993 and ending with Alliances’s in 1996, just before the block system began in earnest with Mirage.
In those early days, white was considered a color for griefers in some sense. It was much more control-oriented in general than it is today (although, to be fair, the entire game skewed that way), and it had a monopoly on a number of lockdown and mass-destruction effects that made it difficult for opponents to even play the game of Magic.
In Alpha, white had two mass-destruction spells it relied upon to keep opponents’ threats from hurting it. One was Wrath of God, which is only no longer in core because today’s design guidelines prefer the nearly-identical Day of Judgment. The other was Armageddon, which, needless to say, is much less fair: There is a reason why this kind of effect doesn’t get to cost four mana or be in monowhite anymore.
There’s a reason I was able to build a deck around this card, and I’m not the only one to have done so. Stopping nonflyers and nonislandwalkers from attacking you amounts to basically crippling the offensive strategy of 90% of decks, and there are many and varied ways to get around skipping your draw step, Howling Mine being easily the most well-known.
Banned in Legacy. Restricted in Vintage. An ironic fate for a card whose intent was to make the game state more fair. Balance has been a way for white control strategies to force a kind of ascetic existence on their opponents for almost twenty years now.
The most-banned card on this entire list, the mother of all griefer cards isn’t legal in any format. This one can actually make the game go on for a thousand and one nights, so maybe it’s a flavor home run, but when a wacky, game-twisting political card is despised by Commander players and was one of the first bans in the format, you know you’re in for trouble.
Swords to Plowshares
After twenty years of power creep, this is still easily the best targeted removal spell of all time, and that’s saying something. For one mana, this takes out any creature you can target, and the lifegain attached to it is such a negligible drawback to any deck that cares to run this (whether it be a mill deck that isn’t dealing damage at all or an aggro one that can make up the disadvantage within a couple turns), it might as well not even be on the card.
This isn’t considered as broken as other cards on this list, and certainly not played as much (that pesky cumulative upkeep is probably the major factor in that), but I’ve used it in Commander before to good effect. It happily shuts down two different strategies, taking away about half of what red does for its offenses and screwing up many of the finisher creatures of every color except green on the relative cheap.
Falling a little behind? Don’t fret, the taxman is here to ensure that you make your land drops consistently for just about the rest of the game, proper land-to-nonland-card ratios and mana curves be damned. White control got to be dominant by having these kinds of cheap smoothing effects and then edging out incremental advantages, which is very fun for a certain number of people and very torturous for a lot of others.
Presence of the Master
The only card on this list that’s remotely printable today in terms of relative brokenness (though it’d still not be reprinted because it’s just too sweeping of an answer), Presence of the Master was the nearly impossible to deal with answer to Stasis, Necropotence, and, yes, the white enchantments on this list. Plus it has Albert Einstein in space in the artwork.