My Top 5s Of Magic And Beyond In 2020

Bryan Gottlieb offers ten Top 5 lists to finish 2020, including Magic set releases, formats, and individual cards. Let the debate begin…

Nahiri’s Lithoforming, illustrated by Campbell White

Confession time. I have always loved arbitrary rankings of things. While others of kindergarten age were citing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or My Little Pony as their favorite television show, I was singing the praises of MTV’s Top 20 Video Countdown (I sound ancient). I could talk to you at length about the changes from week to week, and slights to my favorite music videos were personal offenses that drove me to tears on more than one occasion.

I was a weird kid.

That weirdness didn’t disappear in my adolescence, it just shifted its focus. Inquest’s list of the Top 10 Hottest Magic Cards defined my understanding of what cards mattered and what cards didn’t. I memorized NBA draft classes. I’d buy Billboard magazine just to pore over the charts.

Somewhere on the march to adulthood I finally began to understand how arbitrary all these rankings were. They were either determinations made by inherently flawed humans (as we all are) or were masquerading as mathematical despite being based on some inscrutable combination of factors that served to reinforce biases and assumptions while favoring certain classes of the materials being ranked. The mask was off, and I had become too cool for charts and rankings.

Thankfully, the next step in my evolution as a human was to realize that I’m not too cool for anything. Cool is my dump stat. Overly scrutinizing something that spoke to me on a weird, primal level was only making me a joyless automaton. Top “X” lists may be silly and flawed — but I love everything about them.

One of the reasons I look forward to the New Year is the extreme quantity of rankings that accompany the season. Every form of media, product, and moment is broken down, and a Top X of 2020 for virtually everything you can think of is out there somewhere. As a ranking aficionado, it feels like I have a solemn duty to add to the noise. Apologies to PVDDR who has firmly established the Top 5 list as his turf. I’ll kick things off with a list designed to reduce his ire.

Top 5 Magic Players of All Time

  1. Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa
  2. Jon Finkel
  3. Kai Budde
  4. Luis Scott-Vargas
  5. Gabriel Nassif

This was the year that PVDDR cemented himself as the greatest Magic player of all time. His sustained success across multiple eras and forms of the game has become unparalleled. The fact that this success came despite a home base in South America and the logistical hurdles that come with that location is mind blowing. Beyond that, his contributions to the literature of the game are top-tier. 

It’s hard dealing in rankings for a form of competition where the best and brightest often have very real incentives not to compete. LeBron James isn’t leaving basketball because he can make more money in any number of other ventures. That is a real factor in Magic however. There’s no question that both Kai and Jon could have done even more in the game if the incentives were great enough. Kai finds himself at the top levels of competition once again this year, seemingly almost by accident. I’ve got to take things as they stand though, and 2020 is the year the PVDDR’s body of work became the greatest of all time.

As far as the other entrants on my list, LSV continues to rebuild after being absolutely shafted by Wizards of the Coast (WotC) during the creation of the MPL. The man gave up competitive play to make coverage of the game better at the worst possible moment, and the failure to shortcut him to the top tiers of play was truly unforgivable. Despite that, I’m positive he will be adding more accolades in the future and continuing to climb these rankings. The late-career resurgence from Nassif has been similarly inspiring, and it seems like he’s rekindled a passion for the game that waned a bit during the 2010s. The top spots on this list might be more in flux than any of us expected just a few years ago.

Top 5 Magic Cards of 2020

  1. Skyclave Apparition
  2. Nahiri’s Lithoforming
  3. Forsaken Monument
  4. Teferi, Master of Time
  5. Dryad of the Ilysian Grove

Despite plenty of problematic outliers, there were some real moments of individual brilliance from Magic cards this year. Dryad of the Ilysian Grove is exactly the way I like to see Standard sets influence Modern — by virtue of strange interaction with the larger card pool. Obviously not every strange combo enabler is ideal, but I think Dryad does several things right for the format. Making a combo piece a creature means the format can focus on traditional interactivity, and the 2/4 body is perfectly sized to be influential but not domineering. I also think Modern benefits from combo existing on the battlefield rather than the stack, especially after the printing of Cleansing Wildfire (a near-miss on this list).

Teferi, Master of Time did a lot to renew my faith in planeswalkers. Appropriately powered, unique, and extremely flavorful, Teferi felt like a rebirth for the card type in the post-War of the Spark era. Static abilities on planeswalkers are far more interesting when they are influencing how the planeswalker itself works rather than the broader game.

Forsaken Monument and Nahiri’s Lithoforming deserve mention together because I think they achieve the same goal. Both cards inspire deckbuilding with their power without breaking the game in half. Cards with high ceilings are always exciting to build around. The first week spent tuning Omnath, Locus of Creation decks was honestly a bunch of fun for me. The problem comes when the solved state is just too good.

The needle is challenging to thread, but I think both these cards nailed it. Watching Corey Baumeister’s dawning comprehension as he figured out what my Lithoforming Combo deck was capable of on VS Live! is exactly why I love deckbuilding. I want to figure out what is possible, not be told what to do. Neither card set the world on fire, but both led me on joyous explorations of the Standard format and its card pool.

My Number 1, though, is just a good Magic card designed in a unique way. The fact that it bolstered Magic’s most maligned color is icing on the cake. Too much power has been tied up in raw card advantage recently. Skyclave Apparition succeeds like a Magic card would have succeeded ten years ago. Versatility, risk/reward, complicated decisions, and even deckbuilding calculus all contribute to make Skyclave Apparition my favorite Magic card of 2020.

Top 5 Sets of 2020

  1. Jumpstart
  2. Core Set 2021
  3. Zendikar Rising
  4. Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths
  5. Theros Beyond Death

2020 will go down in history as a strange, strange year for Magic. All indications are that Magic was the most successful it’s ever been. And it achieved this incredible success during a pandemic that certainly should have prevented people from getting together to play the game. Despite the success, Organized Play was an utter mess, and format health was a persistent problem. This odd dichotomy is what really shapes this list.

Absent from my Top 5 are products like Commander Legends and the Secret Lair series. First, I don’t even know if these count as Magic sets for the purpose of this list. It’s all gotten murky in a way that I could have never anticipated. After I spent the early part of this article going off about my obsession with orderly rankings, it probably doesn’t shock you to hear that I preferred a cleaner, predictable release cadence for Magic products. I guess more Magic cards are always a good thing, until the exact moment they aren’t. Obviously, we’re not there yet.

The other reason I exclude Secret Lairs and Commander Legends from this list is that they just aren’t for me. Breaking the borders of the fantasy world to include Rick Grimes feels like the cheesiest and most cash-hungry thing Magic has ever done. To me. If you appreciate it, I don’t have any desire to convince you otherwise. It’s totally possible that a Secret Lair focused on something I love would have me singing a different tune.

Commander Legends misses me on two fronts. First, I’m just not a Commander player. Second, if I ever were to play Commander, it would be for the opportunity to play with cards that I appreciate but aren’t powerful enough for competitive formats. As supplemental Commander products create more and more “must-plays,” the format veers further from an alternate way to play Magic: The Gathering and closer to Magic: The Board Game. And that’s fine! It’s just not what I’m here for.

Of the sets that did make the cut, Theros Beyond Death and Ikoria feel like inclusions by default. Theros Beyond Death was both mechanically and thematically boring, and brought with it the problematic play patterns of escape. For some reason, we’re still suffering under Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath in most formats.

Ikoria fared better from a flavor perspective, but mechanically was an absolute mess. Mutate basically missed Constructed despite introducing heaps of complexity. Companions might have been the largest power-level mistake since Alpha. It’s hard to overstate just how far these cards missed the mark by.

Lurrus of the Dream-Den Omnath, Locus of Creation

Zendikar Rising got saddled with Omnath, Locus of Creation, but the rest of the set started to approach something special. Modal double-faced cards (DFCs) have proven to be a huge boon to Magic gameplay, and the lands have been the best of the bunch. I was skeptical of their ability to have a positive impact on Constructed Magic, but I’m happy to say I was wrong. The mythic DFCs in particular have proven to be well-costed and -designed.

Core Set 2021 is where we break firmly into the realm of triumphs. The set did a beautiful job of finding reprints that were both exciting and appropriately powered. Meanwhile, the original designs were loaded with home runs, including one of my favorite planeswalkers of all time in Teferi, Master of Time. Core sets carry a lot of baggage with them, but this one showed there is still potential for these sets to deliver.

The best set of 2020, however, was the one that the pandemic probably derailed the most, and it’s a true shame. Jumpstart is exactly the product Magic has been missing for ages. It’s pick-up-and-play, repeatable, and the perfect introduction to Limited. I have a feeling that local game stores would have been packed with people cracking Jumpstart packs if the circumstances were different. I hope the product gets another opportunity in the future, because it might be the best gateway to the game ever created. I’m often critical of the deluge of mechanically unique cards, but if they are being used for an on-ramp as good as Jumpstart, I will happily welcome more Muxus, Goblin Grandees to the game.

Top 5 Formats

  1. Draft
  2. Historic
  3. Modern
  4. Legacy
  5. Pioneer

Again, there’s much to be said about the formats that didn’t make the list here. Standard was an absolute mess in 2020. Magic’s flagship format endured its darkest days… and it seemingly didn’t affect the health of the game one bit. I guess that’s a good sign, but it certainly doesn’t encourage WotC to exhibit more care in the future. Fixing Standard on a patchwork basis could be the new normal.

Ultimately, it ended with us in a solid place for a Standard metagame. Things are balanced right now, and archetypes are more diverse than they’ve been in a while. At least in my spheres though, it doesn’t seem like people even care all that much. Without a tournament scene driving Standard play, there are just too many better ways to play Magic. Long term, this doesn’t seem great to me, but 2020 has me questioning a lot of my assumptions about what actually matters for Magic’s success. Is a non-rotating card pool of ever-increasing power what the new generation of players wants instead of Standard? Time will tell.

Pioneer is in a make-or-break moment. Gameplay has been above-average throughout this year, but Uro and Omnath continue to cast large shadows. Add in the duplicative nature of the format with Historic, and Pioneer needs to carve out a reason to exist. I think odds are high it is outright replaced in the coming year, unless there is a return to paper Magic and a dramatic outpouring of interest. Consider the upcoming printing of Time Spiral Remastered. Who is that product for as things stand now? I think the answer is “nobody, unless Historic is becoming a paper format.”

Legacy (stop me if you heard this one before) has an Uro problem. Obviously, that is doing far less to impact format health than the absence of live Magic. Legacy is a niche format that thrives off the support of a dedicated community. It will be fine when paper Magic returns, but the format is sort of in a holding pattern until that time.

Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath

Modern benefitted from the addition of new cards this year, apart from (wait for it) Uro. There is certainly some hype around Omnath in the format right now, but these lists haven’t impressed me yet. The addition of Cleansing Wildfire came at the perfect time, as it started to look like Primeval Titan was going to spiral out of control. I’m extremely trepidatious about the impact of Modern Horizons 2 on the format, as I’m not sure what a design team that was trying to make cards more powerful than Oko, Thief of Crowns or Uro could have possibly come up with. The last Modern Horizons set introduced more problems for the format than it solved. For the time being though, Modern remains solid, and interest has persisted despite the absence of paper play.

Now, we enter the realm of success stories. Historic is the little format that could. Despite the lack of any clearly defined goals, a bizarre ban policy, and cards seemingly being added at random, Historic has turned into a format that the player base has supported en masse. High-level competitive events have certainly helped, as has the erosion of Standard. Regardless of the reasons, the interest in Historic feels organic, and converting it into a paper format might be the way to turn Arena fans into full-blown paper Magic players… if that’s still even a goal. Wow, has the business landscape for Magic become indecipherable in 2020. Also, ban Uro.

Finally, we come to Draft. Every single Limited format was above-average in 2020. While there may not have been any all-timers amongst these sets, each one brought me months of enjoyment. The addition of human drafts to Arena had me just playing Magic for fun again. I’ve heard it stated that more players play Limited than any other form of Magic, and I must wonder why that isn’t reflected more in competitive play offerings or even the broader Magic zeitgeist. Let’s hope that 2021 is the year focus returns to Magic’s best format.

After a few thousand words on Magic, I hope you’ll grant me the opportunity to share a few additional lists of the other media I enjoyed in 2020. I would love to hear your lists on these same topics, so feel free to hit me on Twitter @BryanGo. Here’s hoping that 2021 has brighter days for all of us!

Top 5 Video Games

  1. Monster Train
  2. Teamfight Tactics
  3. Hades
  4. Yakuza: Like a Dragon
  5. Fall Guys

Top 5 Anime

  1. Jujutsu Kaisen
  2. Dorohedoro
  3. Akudama Drive
  4. ID: Invaded
  5. The God of High School

Top 5 TV Shows

  1. What We Do in the Shadows
  2. The Mandalorian
  3. Big Mouth
  4. The Good Place
  5. Schitt’s Creek

Top 5 Movies

I only watch movies on airplanes, so I didn’t see a movie released this year. Wild.

Top 5 Albums

  1. Taylor Swift – Evermore
  2. Taylor Swift – Folklore
  3. Wayfarer – A Romance with Violence
  4. Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou – May Our Chambers Be Full
  5. Run the Jewels – RTJ4

Top 5 Books I Read This Year

  1. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
  2. Dune by Frank Herbert
  3. The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
  4. The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale
  5. Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden by Wizards of the Coast