Ben’s Ten – The 10 Best Cards in Shards Block

Monday, August 16th – What are the 10 Best Cards in Shards Block? Find out Ben’s picks in the first of a new series! We’re kicking off SCG Select with a must read!

Welcome to Ben’s Ten, my new column, in which I discuss the Top 10 of any given subject within Magic! In this first list, I’ll be looking at the 10 Best Cards in Shards Block! These are the ten cards that I rank as the most powerful, influential, and widely used cards in Shards Block (Shards of Alara, Conflux, and Alara Reborn) over the past nearly-two years.

Lists like these are highly subjective, but I always try to give them my due diligence. To rank these cards (counting down from #10 to #1), I looked at the amount of tournament play each one saw — in Standard, Extended, Legacy and Vintage — factored in how influential each of these cards were to their decks, and/or to the overall shaping of their formats, and took into account longevity of use. For instance, a card like Sovereigns of Lost Alara didn’t quite make this list, because though powerful, it wasn’t until the last three months that it started seeing marquee play, thanks largely to the existence of Eldrazi Conscription.

Not everyone will agree with every choice on (or off) this list, or where I ranked each card. I encourage any and all discussion about these lists in the forums of this article! Without discussion, there isn’t much point to making lists like these; they are great as a communal jumping-off point to discuss “the best” (or the worst) as a community!

Enough words! Let’s delve into my list of the 10 Best Cards in Shards Block!

#10 – Maelstrom Pulse

In order to make this list, I went through every single card in Shards of Alara, Conflux, and Alara Reborn… twice. My initial pass had forty cards, and I culled that list down the twenty-five. From those twenty-five, I culled down the list to eight cards that were definitely making the Top 10 (which are in slots one through eight), and then had to decide which of the remaining fifteen would slide into the last two spots.

There is little debate that if you looked at the dominant decks in Standard over the past two years, Jund has spent the most time as the deck to beat. Jund is the most represented deck in this Top 10 list, and had the most cards place in the final twenty-five. In the end, Maelstrom Pulse was my choice for the 10th best card in Shards block.

Maelstrom Pulse has been a staple of most Jund decks since it was released in Alara Reborn. It has performed a rare feat of being both the most hyped rare in a set, and living up to that hype. Maelstrom Pulse made Black/White token decks unviable in Standard, and acted as the premier removal spell in Jund until Lightning Bolt saw print in M10. It not only saw play in Jund, but in Extended as part of Rock and Doran decks, and in a few Elf builds (mostly in Standard). Because of longevity, power level, and play in outside of Standard, Maelstrom Pulse barely edges out other two other Jund cards that did not make this list — Sprouting Thrinax and Putrid Leech.

#9 – Hellspark Elemental

Creatures with the Unearth mechanic saw a respectable amount of play — tier 2.5 Extractor Demon decks poked their heads into the metagame now-and-again, Sedraxis Specter saw on-again/off-again play in Standard, and Hell’s Thunder had a decent showing in Red decks. The undisputed champion of Unearth creatures is Hellspark Elemental — and Hellspark Elemental is a creature in name only. In actuality, Hellspark Elemental is fantastic burn spell.

Hellspark Elemental has broken through not only in Standard, but also in Extended and Legacy. It is single-minded in purpose — a three-point burn spell for two mana… that can then be reused as a three-point burn spell for two mana. This is not very exciting, but it is very effective. It costs Red and a colorless (allowing it to be played more easily than Ball Lightning when you’re packing colorless lands in your deck, like Wasteland), and it needs to be killed twice to be stopped. It’s an efficient six damage for four mana (over two payments), and this has made Hellspark Elemental a staple in Red Burn decks.

#8 – Tezzeret the Seeker

There are two cards that made this list primarily on their strength in non-Standard formats. Stephen Menendian has noted the rise of Tezzeret decks in Vintage, to the point where has been, by the numbers, the #1 or #2 deck in the format since the first printing of Shards of Alara. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Tezzeret has dominated Vintage, I would go so far as to say that Tezzeret decks are one of the most consistent finishers in a format that prizes consistency.

Would Tezzeret decks be so great if Time Vault had not received errata to allow easy-use with Voltaic Key? This does not matter — the fact is that Tezzeret and Time Vault have gone together to form a prolonged two-prong attack on Magic’s oldest format — and combined with Tezzeret’s play in Patrick Chapin Next Level Blue (Extended), Tezzeret finishes at #8 on my list.

#7 – Thopter Foundry

Over the past Extended Season, two decks were concurrently developed: one that revolved around Vampire Hexmage and Dark Depths to create a quick 20/20 flying monster, and another that won the game based on the recurrence of Sword of the Meek plus Thopter Foundry. At some point, both decks were combined into a juggernaut known as Thopter Depths, and this deck not only dominated Extended, but has also seen play in Legacy.

When the Extended format was changed to only include the last four years’ worth of blocks, Dark Depths vanished off of the landscape. Even with Dark Depths gone from the format, Wizards of the Coast immediately placed Sword of the Meek on the banned list. Without Thopter Foundry, Sword of the Meek wouldn’t be such a threat in the format — and vice versa.

#6 – Blightning

To this day, there are people who argue that Blightning isn’t essential to the Jund build. I’d argue that there is no card so associated with Jund than Blightning — three damage and two cards for three mana. There’s few words a player wants to hear more than “Blightning you” on turn 3; or when they only have two cards in hand; or twice on turn 6.

There have been plenty of variants on the discard-two-cards-for-three-mana card in Magic (see Mind Rot), but Blightning combines semi-efficient discard along with semi-efficient burn for one extremely-efficient package of opponent-killing.

#5 – Ranger of Eos

Invitational cards tend to be hit-or-miss affairs — the ones that are good are really good, and the ones that are bad are unplayed. I’m happy to report the Mr. Ruel’s card, Ranger of Eos, is in the first camp. Played extensively in both Standard and Extended, Ranger of Eos combines card advantage with utility, combo potential and reach for one impressive package.

Utility: Ranger of Eos can grab plenty of one-mana critters that have a specific use in the game. Need to kill a one-toughness creature? Tutor up Mogg Fanatic. Need more mana creatures? Find yourself Birds of Paradise. Elvish Hexhunter lets you kill enchantments; Elvish Scrapper artifacts.

Combo: Ranger of Eos saw a bunch of play in Extended as a way to grab pieces of Elf Combo — particularly Nettle Sentinel, Wirewood Symbiote, and Heritage Druid.

Reach: The most common use was for Ranger of Eos to grab one-drop creatures that were also passable-to-great late game. Figure of Destiny, Steppe Lynx, Wild Nacatl, Scute Mob, Dragonmaster Outcast — all fine guys who can start getting out-of-control when you’ve got extra mana (or lands) to throw their way. And he also plays well with Vengevine.

#4 – Knight of the Reliquary

It took a little while for Knight of the Reliquary to take off in Standard, but once it did — watch out! The Worldwake manlands did a lot to buoy the power of Knight of the Reliquary, as did Tectonic Edge. Knight of the Reliquary combines well with Lotus Cobra to create a package of mana acceleration and mana tutoring virtually unparalleled as a one-two punch in Magic’s history.

Knight of the Reliquary hasn’t only been played in Standard — it’s seen play in Legacy as part of a potent Terravore deck, and in Extended in Reveillark, Doran, Zoo and Scapeshift decks. Given how good Knight of the Reliquary has been across three major formats, it’s landed at #4 on my list of great Shards Block cards.

#3 – Noble Hierarch

There are often argument about “which is the best creature ever?” These arguments are broken down further to “which is the best creature at a given mana cost?” For sure, I’ll be doing one (or multiples) of this type of list in future columns. When arguing about the best one-drop creature of all time, people often argue that Birds of Paradise, with the ability to produce any color mana, should be in major consideration for a slot on that list. So what would you say to the argument that Noble Hierarch is even better than Birds of Paradise, at least by the numbers?

How does Noble Hierarch compare to Birds of Paradise? The Bird has two advantages: it has built-in evasion (flying) and can tap for all five colors of mana (+Red, +Black). Noble Hierarch has one advantage: Exalted (+1/+1 to a creature when it attacks alone). So why is it that Noble Hierarch has virtually pushed Birds of Paradise out of the Standard metagame for the past two years? It’s because Exalted, on a one-mana mana-producing creature, gives that creature a lot more bang-for-the-buck in the early, middle and late-game than the versatility of two extra colors of mana.

At worst, Noble Hierarch can swing in for one on turn 2, something Birds of Paradise cannot. Noble Hierarch gives other creatures a +1/+1 bonus, even when tapped — so while you’re getting ahead of the curve starting turn 2, your creatures are getting bigger than your opponent’s creatures. This is especially important in a format like Legacy, where Noble Hierarch allows your Tarmogoyf to not only swing in for an extra point of damage, but to swing in past your opponent’s Tarmogoyf — important if you’re trying to win the damage race.

For those who have played with Umezawa’s Jitte, how frustrating is it to draw Birds of Paradise into a Jitte with no counters, or vice versa? Noble Hierarch solves that problem by allowing you to get in with that extra-crucial one point of damage. Noble Hierarch is better in multiples than Birds of Paradise, and better in the late game than Birds of Paradise (the extra utility of +1/+1 is better than no bonus to other creatures at all). Given that, traditionally, Birds of Paradise has been in the argument for “Best one-drop creature in Magic,” it’s no wonder that the card that was better over the past two years than Birds of Paradise at being Birds of Paradise is one of the top three cards in all of Shards Block.

#2 – Path to Exile

Speaking of comparisons, there’s little debate that the most powerful/efficient single-target creature kill card in Magic’s history is Swords to Plowshares. Path to Exile is first truly-inspirational attempt to replicate Swords to Plowshares, without outright reprinting Swords to Plowshares. Forget CondemnPath to Exile lets you kill the majority of creatures outright, shroud and pro-White creatures exempted of course. For one White mana, you get to remove any one threat from the board — be it a turn 1 aggro threat (Wild Nacatl), a mid-range utility creature (Knight of the Reliquary), or a huge fatty (Primeval Titan).

Yes, there’s a drawback to Path to Exile — your opponent gets a to search their library for a basic land and put it straight onto the battlefield tapped. This drawback is often negligible compared to the threat of allowing that creature to survive on the board, especially if you’re late in the game and taking out that one last Baneslayer Angel is all that stands between you and your opponent being completely out of gas.

But wait, did I say drawback? Path to Exile also doubles as mana-acceleration in a pinch. Just kill your own guy (or token creature!) and you’ve gotten a one-mana Rampant Growth at instant speed. While this was better when damage went on the stack (guy gonna die anyhow? Path him!), there are plenty of games that have been won by the White/Blue player Pathing their own creature into just enough mana to cast that Day of Judgment/Jace, the Mind Sculptor/Martial Coup.

Path to Exile is not only a staple in Standard, but also in Extended. It’s seen regular play in both Legacy and Vintage, and so it is the most widely-played card in Shards Block, as far as proliferation across goes. Yet Path to Exile “only” finishes as the second-best card in Shards Block on my list. What’s the best?

#1 – Bloodbraid Elf

If you thought that the best card in Shards Block would be anything other than Bloodbraid Elf, you haven’t been following Standard for the past two years. Bloodbraid Elf was the main boogeyman in Jund. It saw play in strategies such as Boss Naya, Red/Green aggro, Cascade, and R/G Elves, to name but a few.

What makes Bloodbraid Elf so good? You can tailor your deck around already-efficient effects that suddenly become free with the playing of Bloodbraid Elf — even if Bloodbraid Elf is countered, you still get to cascade! Six of the cards on this list — Blightning, Maelstrom Pulse, Knight of the Reliquary, Path to Exile, Noble Hierarch, and Hellspark Elemental — were regularly played with Bloodbraid Elf. Bloodbraid Elf could run you straight into six of the ten best cards in Shards block, plus several others in my Top 25 (Dauntless Escort, Ethersworn Canonist, Esper Charm, Knight of the White Orchid, Oblivion Ring, Putrid Leech, Qasali Pridemage, Sprouting Thrinax, Terminate, and Wild Nacatl).

In essence, Bloodbraid Elf is Storm for one, for a non-land card with mana cost zero through three. For four mana, you get a 3/2 haste creature, plus (realistically) one-to-three mana of a free spell — which could often make Bloodbraid Elf a seven-mana swing at four mana. Bloodbraid Elf plus Hellspark Elemental? Take six this turn, and another six next turn. Bloodbraid Elf plus Maelstrom Pulse? Take out your defender, and you take three. And most dreaded of all — Bloodbraid Elf plus Blightning — take six, plus discard two cards.

For a significant time in Standard (at least a year), Bloodbraid Elf decks dominated. It took the Rise of the Eldrazi to hinder Bloodbraid Elf, making it cease putting up record numbers; early tournaments in 2010 (StarCityGames.com Opens, Standard Grands Prix) saw Bloodbraid Elf taking 60-70% of the Top 8 slots, across the board. This wasn’t just Jund — multiple distinct Bloodbraid Elf decks were all making their mark at once, leading people to question if whether Bloodbraid Elf should be restricted, since it was showing up everywhere — and winning! That sort of domination is why I picked Bloodbraid Elf as my #1 Shards Block card. While it isn’t as played in other formats as some other cards on this list, it has a pedigree of domination in Standard that is comparable to decks like Affinity and Faeries, as far as stats like winning percentage and most Top 8 finishes go.

I hope you enjoyed this first of many Ben’s Ten columns, and I hope you’ll join in on the forum discussions to debate my picks! I’ll also see you next week, with the flip side of this week’s list. See you in seven with the 10 Most Disappointing Cards in Shards Block!

Ben Bleiweiss