Feature Article – Best. Creature. Evar.

Read Feature Articles every Monday and Thursday... at StarCityGames.com!
When it comes to having things to complain about, few things can awake the interest of a Green mage like creature lists. Embarking once more unto the breach, Talen Lee guides us through speckled places in Magic’s recent-ish history, and opens that colossal can of worms that comes from trying to name names.

Magic players are a compulsive lot. For the most part, the game teaches us a lot about quality and relative pressures, but it does so in a way that looks absolute. If you’re like the Magic players I know — and you’re reading StarCityGames.com, so I am going to say you are — you discuss the game with your friends, even when you’re not playing. This is good behavior, incidentally; it’s a kind of persistent practice, a way of honing your skills that does not involve standard mechanical processes*.

Part of this process tends to be making lists. We think in terms of up and down, of good and bad and worse. We don’t tend to think in terms of paper-rock-scissors, which is what we should think. Magic is more complicated than that, but it’s the easiest metaphor for Magic. Those lists tend to start out simple and become more complicated as analysis tests them further and further. Right now, a fairly large can of worms has been opened up by the presence of a Good Green Creature in standard, which has led to the typical discussion of What Is The Best Creature In Magic?

Everyone runs off and argues and bickers and examples and pontificates on what they think is the question, without ever pausing to check and see if the person they’re talking to is thinking of the same question. It all comes down, annoyingly, to just how you mean the word best.

Thumping Base
Do you remember the Jitte wars period of Magic? That was an era where this could be really highlighted. If you were playing control, you could barely care less about your opponent’s Jitte; if you played aggro, you could not care more. The tools you have available to you at any point in time change the value of the problems you’re facing. Cast your mind back further to a far more broken time — Pro Tour Tinker. Psychatog actually showed up there, and even more weirdly, so did Pirates. [Yay! — Craig.]

Neither had the tools to really do the numbers against the brokenness of George W. Bosh, of course. But those two decks ricocheted around in the pairings listing, trying to find some place to be, somewhere to go, and with a ratchet and a clink, they landed across the table from one another.

Psychatog’s a scary deck. It’s generally remembered with more shuddering fear than Pirates, which tends to only come up when people are discussing Stasis**. But in that place, and at that time, two decks that were utterly inadequate to contend with their environment pulled themselves from the mire and found themselves facing one another. And then and there, it didn’t matter that Pirates couldn’t touch Twiddle Desire. It didn’t matter that Psychatog couldn’t beat a Turn 1 Phyrexian Processor For Twelve Thank You Very Much. What mattered were Psychatog’s chances against Pirates.

Dr. Teeth did not smile that day. He went home; he gave Animal that sad look only a father who knows he’s disappointed his son could give, and went and wept on Gladys’ shoulder. Because Pirates owns Psychatog.

Owned, I suppose. Any words on Pirates? Is it dead yet? Or is it just of its feed?

This kind of thing makes the discussion of “best creature” a tricky one to navigate. I mean, Psychatog appeared as a three-of in a Blue-Black control deck that persisted for about four years, well into its life in Extended and established itself in Vintage while it was still standard legal. Back then, that was an achievement, as — nice as they are now, I am sure — the Vintage community of yore could be at best termed a pack of insular pillocks who made fun of Oscar Tan for daring to give hoi polloi a glimpse at the curtain within their format’s sanctum sanctorum, and could more succinctly called d*cks.

On the other hand, Disciple of the Vault was the first aggro creature to get banned in Extended, ever. It was rare to see a creature on the banned lists — I think I remember the first one I’d seen was Hermit Druid (oh, when we discount the Ante Creatures), who was banned for the ridiculousness that was the kind of self-mill that would make an Ichorid player bite their lower lip in trepidation.

Disciple of the Vault could be used in combo — its initial presence in Hulk Flash lists and its brief appearance in some second-sunrise based decks proves that. Yet, we all remember where he really did his work, alongside an Atog, or a Ravager, heading in for one, picking up Cranial Plating, making every trade a bad one. He was — is! — an amazing creature, whose major field of impact has been Standard, ‘cos R&D banned him before he could go ape on Extended.

Trogdor The Banninator
What does that make him? Not even Morphling got banned. Is being banworthy a fair qualification to name a creature as “best”…? Because that shrinks the list embarrassingly, and puts Juggernaut on the list. Awkward, no?

Banning isn’t quite a fair metric, in my opinion. Bannings are the result of a lot of other factors lying against one another, and often R&D try to be strategic in their bannings. Operating on the — true — assumption that individual cards support individual decks which support the metagame, R&D ban single cards in an attempt to injure a deck (sometimes) or kill it outright (less often, but dramatically so in recent memory). So a card that gets banned might not be “that bad” in most of its contexts.

Consider Entomb. It was banned for speeding up Reanimator decks. Those decks used Exhume and Moxen and was done as an explicit move to hammer on Reanimator decks that were ponying up Verdant Force. It’s a world of difference to the Extended of today, where an opponent will raise an eyebrow at the reanimated Verdant Force and go: Nice clock. Then they’ll kill you anyway. Extended has rotated once since then and had a bit of a shake-up in the form of the Ravnica duals.

Are they going to unban Entomb? I doubt it. But Entomb as an individual card is a very narrow tutor. Its banning slowed down the Reanimator deck, forcing it to rely on Buried Alive (three times the mana) or Careful Study (unreliable). Either way works fine — the deck existed without Entomb, but it was slower.

When we say “best creature ever,” the list tends to get mired by people waving the flag for their particular finisher of choice, forgetting that some creatures that swung alongside pals were still quite utterly ridiculous, and that creature swarm decks use creatures too.

It’s almost an effect of the board design; you see just one creature on the table, and you acknowledge that it’s kicking your ass, and there’s this awkward period of “Hrmph.” One player versus one creature, and the creature wins? That’s a badass creature, then, surely?

Then there’s other qualifiers. Format differences — not just stuff like sets and rotations, but the way people play. Multiplayer, for example. Avatar of Woe? Clunky in duels. Brutal in multiplayer. Nezumi Shortfang was a cute trick in Kamigawa block, but he’s an absolute titan in casual. In a world without sideboards, the Wishes are totally awesome because they can fetch anything. In Momir Vig, Azorius Guildmage is a two-mana “I Win,” and Hoverguard Sweepers are what you pray for when you cross your fingers and slam down for seven. I mean, these people play Magic too — it’s just stupid to assume that tournament success is the only metric for creature quality.

Then we talk about influences in environment. Terravore was rubbish, wasn’t rubbish, was rubbish, wasn’t rubbish again. Goblin Matron was a joke card, then a cornerstone tutor, then unnecessary, then amazing again. As a card moves through Standard, then into Extended, then into Vintage, then back into Standard again as some silly bastard thinks it should be reprinted, its fortunes change. The Timeshifted sheet holds some real all-stars of Magic’s past, and some of them have done nothing. Prior to Lorwyn, just how bad was Lord of Atlantis? I know, me and Romeo tried to make merfolk decks, and they were kinda … fish poop. Now with the Merrow on deck, they’re totally amazing.

What does all this analysis tell us? That “best” is — wait for it — at best a patchwork term. You can’t just blanket something as “the best creature in Magic” and expect everyone to agree, even if we had some way to prove it.

So this discussion suggests that lists of this ilk, and accolades of the style I speak are pointless and time-wasting and that we should all just stop bothering with fun listy stuff. Sounds good, amirite?

The Fun Listy Bit
Oh, you thought you were getting out of it. Ho ho ho.

The parameters I’m using for this list are tournament success; duels primarily; and a casual bent that tries to weigh a creature’s impact in Standard with its impact in other formats. It’s about creatures that either defined a deck, or creatures that could shoulder the game on their own. I’m trying to not be too biased towards control finishers here, because most of these lists are.

The curiosity there is that, well, control finishers need to deal the 20 on their own. They have to be the king of the board. Sure, you, the player, are doing the assist, but they’re basically soloing a player (with no Shivans).

Yes, my list biases towards Standard because that’s where the players are. You can say making a splash in Standard is not hard, and making a splash in Vintage is impressive (and it is), but it’s also kinda meaningless. It’s like being the youngest guy in the nursing home, or the smartest guy in special ed — the only people who care drool a lot***. Staying power is important — but the barrier for entry in Vintage means that a large number of creatures are pre-emptively banned. Vintage doesn’t need a creature to be clever, or creative, or controlling as much as it needs that creature to be cheap.

This is not the list of the best creatures in Magic. This is my list of the best creatures in Magic.

The Couldabeens
There are a lot of creatures that touch in this kind of category. They’re big! They’re scary! They stick in the memory as being Really Really Good! And then they go nowhere once they leave Standard.

This portion of the list is far shallower than it should be; there are so many creatures who merit attention as “good but not great.” Many of them are in recent — like, one or two Standards ago — memory. Most of them are big and fat (because small and cheap tends to be better). So why am I treating these, and not the many others?

Luck of the draw, I guess.

Keiga, The Dawn Star; Meloku The Clouded Mirror
I lump these two guys together because they were quite samey by the end of it. Meloku was his finest when you weren’t accelerating much and instead intended to wipe the board a few times and drop a fattie. Keiga was better when you wanted to drop your pants, slam down a creature, and race. These two guys were splashable, so they showed up in most any deck which had a stable manabase. They closed the game fast when they arrived, so they slotted into mid-game decks. They were Blue, so they fit well in the control decks of the period (mass removal in colors other than White was pretty ordinary and weenie-oriented).

Keiga and Meloku aren’t really that great, though. They’re both good, they both do their job, but what they really offer is access. Keiga is a big, simple, uncomplicated body with a “don’t kill me” clause. As a 5/5 flier with shroud he’d probably be just as happy to turn up and bash faces. Meloku demanded mass removal and grew as a threat from turn to turn. Both were powerful, sure, but both died to a Terror effect just fine.

It’s impossible to deny that they had a big impact in Standard. It is harder to say whether that was a bad thing or not, or that they themselves were all that scary. I hated Meloku with a passion because of his amazing game-ending ability and my issues with his color, but for all my huffing and puffing, he’s not all that and a bag of crisps. Either of these creatures do the same general job. Be big, kill opponent. They both handle defense quite well, and when the time comes to go on offense, can close out the game quickly. They’re both blue, so they’re both members of a color that rarely needs help to be good in a format, and they’re both splashable so they’d show up alongside the colors that did need help.

Impressive? Yes. Format defining? Maybe even. Best? Nah, not really.

Kodama Of The North Tree
The spiritual brother of the Ravenous Baloth, Kodama of the North Tree was Green’s answer to control. Rush him out, force him down, get him on the table somehow (Chord of Calling was good, or just stacking your deck for three of them), and watch the control player sweat bullets. There were few answers to him beyond blocking, and with his stats, he was rarely a fair trade.

The Kodama of the North Tree also hasn’t shown up in other formats. It hardly matters. He was a good Green creature, and while uncomplicated and direct in how he impacted the game, he never pretended he was anything else.

It might be simplistic of me to label him an “anti-control” card, but I think that’s true. He was a threat for dealing with a clear board, just like Meloku was a threat for dealing with a choked one. I can’t think of many creatures on this list that are so specialized, and it’s that specialization that dooms many of them.

Kokusho, The Evening Star
Big yawns. See Keiga; except here, Kokusho was more useful in multiples. The color he was in couldn’t really sustain a pure control strategy, so he’d typically get accelerated out, dodge most removal (because all of it cared about spirits, size, or color in just the wrong way to deal with Kokusho), and smack a few times, only to die and provide the finishing blow.

Kokusho then vanished. He’s not seeing play in extended. Multiplayers hate him. Vintage players probably don’t even know what he does (‘he’s one of them attacky-blocky thingies, right?’). Nope, Kokusho had all the chops to be a scary man in the “normal” game, but lacked that je nais sei quoi he’d needed to handle the big leagues.

Ravenous Baloth
I’ve covered this man a while ago, now, in my fat retrospective, but to summarise: Ravenous Baloth was a fantastic anti-aggro creature who slowed the beats from Red aggro decks in Standard. Those Standard decks were powerful enough to compete in Extended, which gave Ravenous Baloth a chance to go fight it out against them there. He’s never been that complicated or that tricksy, but that’s fine. Sometimes all we want out of our four-drop is soaking up some damage to the face, and late-game slapping onto the grid to close the game out once our opponent’s exhausted their grip.

Baloth’s impact in Standard was pretty much a direct and opposite effect to Whatever Aggro Was Good At The Time. When aggro waned, Baloth was played, but he was kinda half-hearted about it. He competed against Exalted Angel, and she did his job better. Exalted didn’t rest on the mana curve in the same snug spot, though; she could be rushed out of the gates fast, but Black and Red aggro decks would happily kill her morph form, and they’d just as happily run riot over your face while you build up to the six mana required to play her out there fair. In essence, the Baloth bought you tempo in a simpler package. This is a rare — but pleasant! — instance of Green’s simplistic philosophy proving a benefit, rather than a drawback****.

One of the traits of this familiar Green fellow that differentiates him from other cards of his generation are that he needs no other beasts to be good. A “Threshold Zero” card, Ravenous Baloth is fine as a 4/4 for 4 who can gain you 4 on the way out the door. He doesn’t need to gain you 12 or 16 or any such malarkey — and given that beasts tend to be more expensive than he is, it’s almost a bit of a tease.

One synergy I always tried to get rolling during the Baloth’s time in Standard started with this core:

4 Ravenous Baloth
4 Wretched Anurid
4 Blind Creeper
4 Krosan Tusker
4 Oversold Cemetery

I thought that looked really sick. I might still think that. Though when you’re in Green and Black, you want a reset button, and that took me to my Death Cloud Deck that is somewhere off in my archives somewhere. For some reason, I have this creeping suspicion that Peter Jahn has written on this subject already, and he squeezed in Contested Cliffs. And Hystrodon.

Excuse me, I need to go play Beasts for about half an hour.

Goblin Piledriver
What, here? Yes, here.

Goblin Piledriver was printed in Onslaught. Goblins were playable, but not good. They showed up in some embarrassingly small numbers during Onslaught-Legions block season (when Darwin Karstle showed us The Claw), and that was it. Scourge came out, and some mystical alchemy from two cards threw Goblin Piledriver and his friends up into the position of staring down The Hump at Worlds while Wake players wondered who, exactly, they’d have to crush.

Goblin Piledriver is a great creature. He’s better with friends, he has a built-in protection ability, and he’s cheap. I don’t expect there are any goblin decks that seriously run fewer than the full complement of him. Yet as the block environment suggests, he’s not enough to shoulder the goblin deck on his own.

I’m not sure what other factors might have led to the appearance — then dominance — of Goblins between Legions and Scourge. Astral Slide still existed. Stabilizer didn’t create a vacuum for goblins to fill — and it didn’t give it a tool that would change the one bad match for goblins.

Heck, Scourge had Wing Shards and Silver Knight! Surely that makes it worse for them?

For all the factors one could account for the non-existence of the goblin deck before the printing of Goblin Warchief, one can infer from that nonexistence that on some level you can’t say that Goblin Piledriver made the deck. In less fancy terms: Piledriver < Warchief.

Yosei, The Morning Star
This guy deserves more chops than his brothers because he took a color that conventionally sucks and made it suck less. A control finisher that didn’t, for once, fly in the face of white’s best control card, Yosei was basically Keiga, but White, and even more novel when he died. He could do fun tricks with untap steps and the legend rule, and recurring him gave more direct benefit than recurring Keiga; after all, your opponent can run out of creatures, but he can never truly run out of untap steps unless you’ve done something inconsiderate like killing him with a 5/5 flying hasted dragon.

Yosei is a high water mark of White design, carefully honed for multiplayer, as well. He’s not too strong, unlike Kokusho and to a lesser extent, Ryusei. If he tapped down and delayed everyone, he’d be a guaranteed multiplayer hater, and would get by-proxy banned shortly enough. Instead, he lets his controller engage in some careful, strategic retaliation, which is brilliant.

Strong Contenders
Once we move past the cards that could-have-been-but, we tend to run into a seam of cards that actually-were-but. Most of these creatures, once, were considered the high watermark for creaturedom across their formats, and have fallen.

Akroma, Angel of Wrath
Sometimes you can get something that passes for efficiency by bolting keywords onto a creature and praying. Akroma has seen play in almost all formats that I know of, with only Legacy being an area I’m not certain. Assuming that legacy has seen a few reanimation decks like the extended ones, I will assume — assume — that Akroma has seen play in Legacy.

And why shouldn’t she? She’s got all those abilities, those super-special nifty abilities… right?

Kinda not. See, the thing is, Akroma actually has four abilities:

1. A 6/6 body
2. Haste
3. Flying
4. Vigilance

The protection from Red and Black is kinda neat, but Red decks already see a 6/6 as a hellish problem to get through and the Black days of her first Standard outing shrugged and killed her anyway (Entomb for Edict cost the same as her, and I saw it happen more often than not). The Vigilance is almost a gimme too! Trample, first strike? These are just gravy abilities on a creature that Had You At Hello.

So why is she not up in the higher parts of the list?

She costs eight. If you ignore mana cost, she has to stack up to Darksteel Colossus and Sundering Titan. If you don’t, she costs eight.

Akroma is a big, impressive, splashy spell. She’s certainly one of the most iconic and surplus-powerful creatures ever printed. But most of that power is beyond what she needs. Take away three or four of the keywords and cost her down a little and you’d have something really scary; but you can’t do that. You shouldn’t do that, either, because really, Akroma is not paying retail for her abilities. She’s getting a bulk discount on most of them because, well, hell, how much does trample matter on a flier? How much does first strike matter on a 6/6? Not that much, really.

To use an extraordinarily nerdy analogy, Akroma is the “completely finished” version of Final Fantasy 6. Yeah, Paladin shield, all the espers, all the dances, all the rages and so on and so forth. You don’t need that much. You spent two hundred hours on a game that could be finished in about eight. A 5-power haste creature would finish the game just as quickly as she would!

And the final nail in her coffin is that Akroma has precisely dick synergy with anything. Oh, she “synergises” with “playing creatures for free,” but so does Darksteel Colossus and Sundering Titan, and that’s why they show up more. They have extra synergy with “playing artifacts for free,” too, and neither of them fly, or have vigilance, or protection from anything.

Perhaps most oddly, Akroma and Sundering Titan cost the same. If they come down on the same turn, they kill the same turn. And Titan is an artifact. He’s also hard to kill, despite having no built-in protection and susceptibility to every artifact killer in the world.

Did I mention she costs eight?

Birds of Paradise
Kenneth Nagle once posited a very true line in one of his articles here on StarCityGames.com. He noted that there are two basic kinds of green decks. One kind taps out on turn 2 for Wild Mongrel; the other tap out for Sakura-Tribe Elder. It is those players in the second group who truly appreciate Birds of Paradise.

Devin Low pointed out that many players regard Birds of Paradise as The Best Creature Ever. It’s not an unlikely comparison; after all, the creatures offer a kind of mana fixing and diversity that is rarely available. It’s almost always the best Green creature in Standard if price is anything to go by.

No reason for me to hide my bias here; I hate Birds of Paradise. I don’t like that green’s oft-named best creature feels so out-of-colour. However, with the recent move in R&D to spread colour alliances a little more evenly, perhaps we’ll see more Green fliers and Birds will feel a bit less odd.

The reason I put Birds in this group is almost a kind of confirmation bias. I don’t think that Birds are in the same category of power as those heavier hitters. I think it, like Morphling, has become far less important than it once was, and that as the goalposts for what a creature can do have shifted, these icons have remained. Worse, the Birds are such a mainstay in market value that they coerce out other cards that I think I’d like to see.

The mothership mentions that they spread power around in a set. To have a Damnation, a color has to have a fair few Muck Drubbs. To have a Wrath of God, a color has to have … wow, pick a White rare from a core set. Righteousness, sure, that’ll do.

I think that Birds of Paradise, in 10th Edition and onwards, are the Wrath Of God of Green. They occupy a large portion of Green’s “allowed” power. Birds also encourage a kind of deck design that can put you miles behind in tempo if your opponent knows to throw Mogg Fanatic at them.

Heck, there’s your metric right there. Mogg Fanatic > Birds.

Flametongue Kavu
You witness before your eyes, dear reader, a mass murderer. Not your conventional, knife-wielding, giggling maniac mass murderer. No, Flametongue Kavu is the more insidious kind. Like a nazi super-scientist with his amazing eugenics gas, Flametongue Kavu killed dozens of creatures before they were ever even sleeved up.

Originally conceived as a spelling test so The Ferrett could winnow out casual writers too stupid to waste his time on, Flamtounge [deliberate] Kavu’s power to swat any 4-toughness-or-less creature out of the sky, then follow up with a 5-turn clock made him a shoo-in in any control deck that packed Red, and most aggro decks too. Red was pretty good in those days — and yet most of that strength comes on the shoulders of Flametongue Kavu.

Because he was economical, splashable, and a source of card advantage, the Flametongue Kavu showed up everydamnwhere, and because he was everydamnwhere, savvy deckbuilders started weighing the merits of a five-cost body against a four toughness. Then those savvy deckbuilders told decent deckbuilders and then decent deckbuilders told idiots, and so conventional wisdom was formed. From what I can see, though, the conventional wisdom is right; a Flametongue Kavu represents losing your five for their four and leaving them with their four. Pay one more for Dark Banishing, get a 4/2 body? And it can even block?

And just like that, Serra Angel’s comeback was snuffed out. Poof. Just like that. There are a lot of creatures from that period of Magic that were quite good, but they could not pass the Flametongue Kavu threshold.

I don’t necessarily think the Kavu was the best creature in that block, but I do think he was the best removal spell.

Goblin Warchief
Now here’s the strange alchemy. Scourge introduced combo cards, the control tool that is Wing Shards, and oh, let’s not forget neat removal spells, and oh, um, all of that doesn’t mean much?

Goblin Warchief seems designed to get hammered on by Wing Shards! Goblin Warchief! Take two! Next turn? Three cheap goblins! Hahah! Swing! Oh, wait, I have to lose the team. Pants.


The Warchief was part of a cycle — yeah, see who remembers that — and they all had the same mechanic. Make it cheaper, do something cute with the tribe. Problem is, the other tribes the other warchiefs supported were crap.

Goblin Warchief is, on his own, a better version of Goblin Chariot. But with his friends, he’s the glue that holds together a deck that terrorised Standard, Extended, Legacy, and Vintage. A Vintage deck that attacks? What?

How can you quantify this guy? On his own, a ten turn clock that starts on turn 3, with friends, a turn 3 kill?

I’m going to step off my pedestal as an overly analytical unhelpful twat and step up again on the ephemeral podium of ephemeral feeling-derived unhelpful tw*t. I’ve played Goblins a fair bit, and the feel I get playing Goblins is that the absence of Warchief is wrong. Always. The deck feels off. It feels like turning up at school without your sports gear when you realise that whoops I’m twenty four and don’t go to school any more.

Like I said before; there’s a bad habit of creature listers to wind up positing a creature as being “good” just because it closes the game off on its own. Goblin War Chief is rotten on his own, but the catalyst for a pack of 1/1 for 1 and 2/1s for 3 and a 2/2 for 5! to completely overtake an environment with Psychatogs in it.

Golgari Grave-Troll
Now, this is an odd one. Golgari Grave Troll is a creature card; it says it right there on the type line. It’s not a remarkably powerful creature, given it, much like Warchief, needs friends to be good. It doesn’t get itself in the yard, or any of that jazz. So why is he here?

Golgari Grave Troll sees — or saw, god only knows with the rate of notvonnation that you get in Vintage — play in Ichorid decks in Vintage. As long as we’re going to talk about Green creatures being clever and tricky and different, I’ve come to think of it as at least a little silly to not think of the GGT as “not counting.” Sure, he’s not a dude who hits the table and attacks, ever, but he’s still a Green creature card who had an impact in all formats.

It’s a bit sad that he’s just a part of the pipework, and Sutured Ghoul or Ichorid are the spouts, but that’s still something that deserves attention. Wizards did this, and this guy has an effect that makes him really good in lots of formats.

Jackal Pup
What drawback?

Jackal Pup is the benchmark for pure efficiency. There have been creatures before and since who do similar things, but when you get down to it, Jackal Pup was great because of all the possible Jackal-Pup-ish things he could be, he was the Jackal Puppiest.

Jackal Pup has lost his place in Vintage and Legacy, but for a time there, he was as good as it gets for mono-red decks. The Red Deck Wins strategy thrived on an entirely different style of two-for-one, and Jackal Pup was the gold standard of that type.

Nothing to see here. A Blue fattie that flew, self protected, and could block stuff as it attacked. It was really a kind of Blue Serra Angel. Big deal?

Morphling’s an embarrassing creature, really. His place on this list is historical.

Moving on!

Protean Hulk
In our reimagining of “best creature,” if we’re going to acknowledge that cards like Goblin Warchief and Ramosian Sergeant (omg spoiler!) are good, we have to acknowledge this man. Protean Hulk is a combo card, yes, but who does his job better?

Protean Hulk handles the whole affair of “winning” once you get him going with Flash. He, much like Goblin Warchief, is integral to the effect. I can’t really see how, if we stop being bigoted about Control Finishers, we can keep being bigoted against Combo Creatures.

Plus, he attacks for six. In Vintage.


Ramosian Sergeant
I thought I’d mention this one just so White wasn’t left totally out in the cold amongst all the good Green stuff. Hello White! How are you doing? Are you keeping well? Did you get that sweater I sent?

Wild Mongrel
I fancy, at some point after Odyssey had been printed and written about and was about to rotate, some developer — let’s say Aaron Forsythe, since I wuv him — was sitting around and talking with some other, more staid developer — let’s say Randy Buehler, who I expect could care less about this article.

Aaron: So, this is the best Green creature ever printed?
Randy: Yeah, man.
Aaron: That sucks.
Randy: Yeah, I know, it’s ruining the environment.
Aaron: No, it sucks.
Randy: What? It’s Wild Mongrel, dude!
Aaron: It’s a two-drop that attacks and blocks well, lets you expend a precious resource, and can save itself from some removal.
Randy: Dude! It has stupid synergy with the block mechanics-
Aaron: Shouldn’t the color of creatures get creatures that synergise with the block mechanics?
Randy: Now that’s just crazy talk. Come, we have puppies to inject with AIDS and a number of Blue cards to undercost*****.

How did this guy “ruin” the format? From what I can see, he died just fine to the Edicts and Bloods and Mutilates and Wraths serious control decks were packing. He busted out of the gates fast and he dodged Dark Banishing, but changing colors let him play some silly shenanigans and occasionally block a Fear creature. He could become Black to dodge that removal? Wow, how terrifying. I mean, it’s not like Psychatog wasn’t Black already. How many times did Wild Mongrel run into the red zone and change into a color like Red or White thinking “Oh hell, gotta dodge that guy with Protection From Green.” They even printed a Pro: Green guy during that period, capable of standing in front of wurm tokens all day in a jesting mockery of Being Good.

Am I saying we should push for creatures better than Wild Mongrel? Consistently? No. Honestly, I think that Wild Mongrel should be a White card. Yep. Planeshift ‘er White. Gimme a 2/2 for 1W that can counter a spell targeting him and get +1/+1 for the cost of a card. Keep it common, too.

But Wild Mongrel’s success in older formats can be tied directly to his cost efficiency and his synergy with cards you already wanted to throw away. One card for one point of damage is lousy metric — we’re used to squeezing much harder — so the fact he can throw away Accumulated Knowledges and Deep Analyses and Arrogant Wurms and Roar of the Wurms and whatever the hell else we’re throwing into the heap is what redeems him.

If they had printed Wild Mongrel in Weatherlight, he’d have been far less scary. If nothing else, there, he’d have had a real combo deck to compete with.

The Cream
Now, here we are, some of the more epic names in the business. There are some guys who get great press in here that I don’t think deserve it — and there are probably one or two subtle surprises.

Exalted Angel
I waver a bit about Angel being up here. She was undoubtedly dominant during her Standard period, has synergy with Astral Slide, morph creatures (it’s a facedown angel! KILL IT!), Blink effects, decks that like to kill opponents, and decks that can suffer a few Plains provided it lets them close the game out with a 4-power flier who can put them ahead in a damage race in the most passively white way imaginable.

The most telling thing about Exalted that I can see is that, in Extended, whenever anyone makes a control deck, you will find her lurking nearby. She’ll often be in the sideboard — like in No Stick — and will quietly wait until the deck needs a fast, efficient control finisher. It’s like, the rule.

Usage has proven to me to be the key. Akroma is good on paper, rarely played in reality. Exalted Angel looks unexciting because she just attacks and blocks and gains life, mechanics that have all been generally disdained by serious tournament pundits. But the proof is in the pudding. She just keeps showing up. Throughout all Block, there she was. Throughout Standard, she was there. Throughout Extended. Now I hear that there are White Weenie decks that stretch their mana curve just for her in Legacy, and I’ve even heard whisperings that there’s this Blue-White control deck in Vintage that played her for a while? Called EBA or something?

For a while? I’m not sure. Even if she didn’t show up in Vintage, she’d still have staying power and utilitarian effect. A control finisher, the top of a weenie curve, Exalted Angel outdoes Akroma by Doing Enough and never asking for a tip.

It’s sad that, in my personal pantheon of the best creatures in Magic, this is the only White card. I tried to think more about their weenies, but the kind of game-defining, deck-structuring mechanic a cheap creature needs to be amongst the ‘best’ only shows up by mistake — and that kind of mistake tends to not stop at the card’s mana cost and often spills right over into colour.

Goblin Welder
Wait; why is he here, in the cream, when Birds of Paradise is in the cheap seats?

I don’t know if Welder was any good in block. I remember a pundit during Pro Tour: Tinker saying that Urza’s Block had all these artifact-related cards that couldn’t go get anything that scary until Mirrodin existed; I imagine back then, Masticore was “not that scary.”

Welder and Birds almost fill the same role, but the scale is totally off. Birds costs you no cards and gives you one mana; Welder costs you a permanent in play of some variety, and can get you… well, Gleemox.

Welder only seems to really be “of his own” in the Vintage environment. Before Extended rotated him out, he ran around in Teen Titans and was I am told, quite good, but Teen Titans didn’t seem to do too much at that point, probably due to it being found in the later parts of that Extended’s life. He didn’t have much impact in Standard, he didn’t have much impact in Extended, so why here?

Goblin Welder represents a prodigious amount of effect on a tiny body. There have been many decks built around him, not built with him in it, but built around him. He’s teamed up with Vintage all-stars Thirst For Knowledge and Survival of the Fittest; he’s rendered Mishra’s Factories immortal; in fact, for a time there I believe he was actually fuelling Mindslaver lock decks.

This is understandably, a big deal! It’s easy for these lists to get caught up in creatures who go anywhere (Birds of Paradise), or creatures who drag a deck with them (Ramosian Sergeant); it’s another thing entirely to represent a core of multiple decks with the same creature. Added to this, he can’t get much cheaper, provides a body that is about as survivable as you could hope, given his cost, and he even has some entirely theoretical application in a goblin deck.

Yeah, not holding my breath on that one.

I remember when this creature was a junk rare in the 2/1 binder at my local store. This card was so bad before Ravnica, and then, with the printing of Golgari-Grave Troll and Stinkweed Imp, he flew into the hearts and minds and wallets of players everywhere. From there, he became an anti-control staple. In Extended, he offered excruciating speed; in Vintage, he offered a completely mana free victory route.

I keep vacillating over whether Ichorid belongs here, or in the tier below; I mean, he’s just a 3/1. He does ask that a strategy be built around him, and he does ask that a deck be formed to capitalise on him. Is he the power behind the throne, or just Bazaar of Baghdad’s most efficient lap-dog?

I know it’s odd for me to say a nice thing about Vintage — you tards — but right now I’m compelled to do so, so hold your breath: To call what passes for “innovation” in other formats as an innovation in Vintage is a grievous insult in many cases.

If you measure an innovation by the difference it makes in a deck, then innovation happens all the bloody time and it’s not all that innovative to begin with. It’s just shuffling around deck chairs, and the difference made by “three Terrors or four?” can be no better than a coin toss when you’re amongst hoi polloi like us. Innovation as measured by the impact of a deck — either its creation wholesale, or the hybridisation of a strategy, or the clever slaughtering of a sacred cow of deck design just in time to make Victory Burgers — is a much bigger thing, and to achieve it in Vintage requires a lot more than just shuffling around individual pieces.

In Vintage, it’s entirely possible to win with six or seven completely stupid cards in your deck, because games can be over so fast, you can see so few of your cards, and the kinds of games where those cards lead to a loss could just as fairly be attributed to the fact your opponent killed you before you got an upkeep. This can make the process of testing a little diluted, which can mean actually identifying weak points, actually finding the real problems with your deck and strengthening them requires a genuine insight, the kind of flash of inspiration that prompts grown men to bolt from their baths naked.

True innovation — real, genuine, sit-up-and-you-want-to-do-what?! innovation, the kind that seems to exist almost only in Vintage — is to normal deckbuilding innovations what engineering is to construction. They bear a superficial resemblance, but there’s a reason the latter is done by uneducated ex-cons and the former takes a degree.

Ichorid is the banner of that innovation. It took someone with a goofy idea, a bit of insight, and a saucy wink to bring the synergy to our attention, but once he had, the strategic work was taken in earnest. Golgari Grave Troll saw “play” in Vintage, for god’s sake — alongside some mainstays like Cabal Therapy and Unmask, sure, but not alongside Black Lotus or Your Mox Of Choice.

Ichorid, one of the best creatures ever? Yes. Not in what he does, but in what he made players do.

Remember how I mentioned that some cards “solo players”…? Masticore does that, but he does so in exchange for your deck. You drop a Core, and you basically have to get used to the idea that you don’t have a hand or a deck anymore; you have a Masticore.

On the other hand, that’s entirely okay.

Masticore solos the board, solos the player, and all you have to do is not tap too low. You goon.

Anyone surprised?

Sutured Ghoul
Sutured Ghoul almost doesn’t seem like a creature, in the same way that Flametongue Kavu doesn’t seem like a creature. Sutured Ghoul is a combo outlet, while Kavu is a removal spell. The thing is, nobody does it better. Some decks have been Ghoul delivery vehicles, like Angry Hermit, or that thing Gabe Walls piloted where he forgot to Cabal Therapy himself (silly boy). Some other decks have engaged in self-mill as a part of a general game plan, like Ichorid, and Sutured Ghoul has been the king hit that ends the game. In Classic, he was often Ritualled out in a kind of orgiastic excess.

The thing is, it’s hard to deny that Sutured Ghoul is really good at what he does. He doesn’t have Haste, but he does have Trample; in this case, that means overkill is worth it.

Sakura Tribe Elder
One thing this list did for me — once I started looking — is realise how many great, strategy-defining creatures existed, and how some of them hit multiple formats at once. I was really impressed with that, and this little guy was one of those candidates. Now, if we went over this list with my personal eye towards “fatties” I liked, well, we’d be far worse off, because most of them aren’t Green and I think Green should have some great ones.

Sakura-Tribe Elder, as a recent enough card, doesn’t bear much analysis; he gives you what you want, and barring for Sudden Shock, will always do so. He turned up at a time in Standard to capitalise well on what he did, and he will lazily saunter from list to list.

As long as a Rampant Growth effect is wanted — and it’s a good effect — this guy is the best one printed. He’s no Azorius Signet, but he can fake it for most of the time.

Tarmogoyf’s upsides are pretty evident, and his points have been gone over at length. He costs almost as little as Swords to Plowshares, and, in most any sane game, will be a 3/4 for 2.

Why is he so good? Tarmogoyf combines a spectrum of effects. Rare as it is to see a creature with Standard impact that also directly shoves around Vintage, Tarmogoyf has done so.

First, he rewards you for playing other cards. Diverse decks with lots of stuff in them. The challenge of getting Tarmogoyf to grow bigger is not much of a challenge, but the challenge of getting him to be truly huge is. The thing is, he’s not like a Threshold creature, which tend to be overcosted by one until you hit threshold, then undercosted by two thereafter (it’s a fun experiment to go through Threshold creatures with that metric, and to see what other creatures could be made using that). With just three card types in the yards, he’s a 3/4 for 2, and pure beatdown decks were happy with a 3/4 for 3 and two colors a few months ago.

The thing is, what makes Tarmogoyf good in Vintage has almost nothing to do with what makes him good in Standard. In Standard, Tarmogoyf wins creature combats with his comparative drops (except other Tarmogoyfs, of course). He forces an opponent to spend time and effort dealing with him and lets you do Other Stuff while you’re at it; he lets you glean card advantage and holds the ground against most any aggressive threat that comes out at the same time.

In Vintage, he’s a grotesquely high-powered cheap drop that can close the game in two or three short whacks. Since you want to close the game really fast in Vintage, and since you’re already going to be spending your time and effort disrupting your opponent’s game plan, the fact that Tarmogoyf “wins creature combat” with comparative opponents is irrelevant.

Whether he’s sharing space with Thrill of the Hunt or Ancestral Recall, however, Tarmogoyf makes no promises and tells no lies. He just offers you a killable body at a discount price. Fortunately, in his case, the discount is worth it; an 8/9 creature for two mana is pretty ridiculous. Stepping down from there, a 6/7 is a bargain, a 4/5 is still quite gonzo, and a 3/4 can beat up Watchwolves.

In the end, Tarmogoyf is the high water point for a pure, plain, boring body. Not a fan of him myself, but I like clever. The lesson learned here is that there is such a thing as being good enough without being a smartarse.

Ulterior Motif
I remember one of my first outings reading articles was one of these “best of” lists. It featured some cards I owned that I had not looked at very clearly. Knowing what the article told me, I ran to those cards and had a good look at them, and had a play with them, and then, whoah, holy damn, they’re really good! It was part of my shifting in play, my learning how the game moves.

Due to the constant presence of the core set, there are certain cards that can always be looked at as the benchmarks for their play era. That’s how this game plays. There are some creatures on this list that don’t deserve their place, really, because they just got it for being in the Right Place at the Right Time. There are some creatures that deserve a lot more attention than they got, because being good in Standard is worth about being ten times as much as being good in Most Any Other Format if we’re going to go by player-base impact. That’s just not how I made this list.

And let’s face it: If you started reading this piece, you’re doing it so you can disagree with it, or because you’re the kind of weirdo who can put up with reading seventeen pages of me crapping on about stuff you already know.

As a corollary to all that, you could notice that some Magic writers — like, say, me — have sat down and said: Wait, man, Magic is all relative, then acted like we were parting the clouds for the audience and unveiling the face of god. Pretentious of us, I know. So when we do that kind of thing, remember that we’re list-makers by nature, and those lists are the point from which we start getting better at playing and making the game.

I hope this little dance through the creature list habit has been fun; and I do indeed hope that it’s opened your thoughts to a few other ways to view a creature as “good.”

Hugs and Kisses
Talen Lee
talen at dodo dot com dot au

* This is why I feel draft pick articles are actually very useful for bad players. Don’t take that the way it sounds; I’m not saying you’re bad if you like draft pick articles. I’m saying that bad players should memorise draft pick orders as the first step towards becoming Less Awful players. Leaning in Coldsnap drafts to pick three cards in order was a boon to me in winning those drafts: Snow-covered lands, Ronom Hulks, and Skreds. The step that comes after those draft picks is realising why that list was arrayed the way it was beforehand.

** You were expecting a Kenji quote, weren’t you? Sheep.

*** I could have used grosser comparisons, but I was trying to be nice. And I’m not implying all Vintage players drool. Calm down.

**** I wonder how hard it can be to design creatures that are too clever.