There’s been a lot of debate in recent years about just how much power creep has set into Magic: The Gathering. From my own observations, spells have generally gotten weaker while creatures have generally gotten stronger. There are exceptions, of course – what was Wizards of the Coast (WotC) thinking with Oko, Thief of Crowns? – but we’re not going to see anything on the power level of Ancestral Recall, Lightning Bolt, or Swords to Plowshares anytime soon.
The creatures considered overpowered in Alpha are generally considered weak at this point. Serra Angel, Shivan Dragon, and Mahamoti Djinn were powerhouses back in the 90s (to the point where Serra Angel was left out of 5th Edition for being too powerful), but they are far outclassed these days by Archangel Avacyn, Inferno of the Star Mounts, and Consecrated Sphinx.
So given that creatures have been given a lot more oomph over the past few years, it’s time to re-evaluate the best creatures of all time. And what better place to start than with the color red, since it comes first alphabetically?
[Copy Editor’s Note: Any letter can come first in the alphabet when you use a Caesar cipher!]
Regardless of whatever JDB had to say, I present to you the ten best one-drop red creatures of all time! Note that this list skews very heavily towards tournament play, and not casual play.
#10: Legion Loyalist
For a while, Legion Loyalist was everywhere. Other creatures on this list supplanted it in power level, but the ability to make most of your creatures alpha-strike into an untenable combat position made Legion Loyalist a must-play in creature-heavy aggressive decks. It’s been nine years since Gatecrash released, but it had a good run of four to five years when it was the go-to choice of one-drop for Modern aggressive decks.
#9: Soul-Scar Mage
For a time, Soul-Scar Mage was a key one-drop in red aggressive decks in Pioneer and Modern, alongside Monastery Swiftspear. While the Mage gives up haste, the existence of a second one-mana 1/2 prowess creature is enough to buoy it to the ninth spot. I’ll talk more about why this is so powerful when I get to the Swiftspear, but suffice it to say being second-best to that one creature is enough to make Soul-Scar Mage fit comfortably on this list.
#8: Skirk Prospector
Back when Onslaught, Legions, and Scourge came out, red decks underwent a radical transformation. Previously, red burn decks ran hyper-efficient creatures backed by burn spells to try to outrace opponents. The suite of Goblin spells in Onslaught block turned that paradigm on its head, in what can only be described as one of the most efficient creature value engines of all time. Yes, Elf decks can go nuts on infinite mana these days and crush you on Turn 3, but these were the beginning days of a truly monstrous tribal deck.
Goblin Warchief, Goblin Piledriver, and Goblin Ringleader all combined to make a deck that ran on hasty creatures that all built off each other. Gempalm Incinerator and Goblin Sharpshooter played removal, with Siege-Gang Commander on cleanup duty. But one Goblin made for the most truly explosive starts out of all of these, and that was Skirk Prospector. Ringleaders became fuel for further creatures and Sharpshooter triggers. Siege-Gang Commander became Dark Ritual. And in later iterations of the Goblin value deck, Mogg War Marshal and friends would use Skirk Prospector to fuel an overpowering early Empty the Warrens to overrun opponents.
#7: Dragon’s Rage Channeler
Dragon’s Rage Channeler is one of the most-played cards in both Modern and Legacy. It’s the red Delver of Secrets, where the trigger is putting cards in the graveyard rather than revealing an instant or sorcery from the top of your deck. It’s pretty easy to achieve delirium early in the game if that’s your goal, and Dragon’s Rage Channeler will often be a 3/3 flying creature on Turn 3, with an occasional appearance on Turn 2. On the top of this, surveil is essentially an alternative to scry, so Dragon’s Rage Channeler is helping you fix your draws for the game while growing large.
#6: Goblin Guide
For half a decade, Goblin Guide was the go-to creature for aggressive decks in virtually every non-rotating format. A 2/2 haste creature that was on-tribe for red was seemingly unthinkable before Zendikar’s release. While the drawback on Goblin Guide was stiff, it doesn’t matter if you’ve used Goblin Guide to remove about a third of your opponent’s life total by Turn 3!
Goblin Guide still sees play today in some dedicated builds, such as Martin Kamo’s Burn deck at SCG CON Indianapolis, but it’s been since eclipsed by a couple of other creatures down this list. Still, it’d be folly not to recognize that Goblin Guide was the card you’d least like to see cast against you if you were playing control or midrange for most of the early 2010s.
#5: Grim Lavamancer
Grim Lavamancer went from “good value engine” to “okay, this is the utility red card of choice” in the span of just two sets. Those sets? Torment to Onslaught. The emergence of fetchlands made Grim Lavamancer a card that would be active and ready to clear the battlefield as soon as Turn 2! Red decks flocked to this Wizard because it could clear out pesky utility creatures the opponent ran, such as Birds of Paradise, while also acting as a recurring source of two damage to an opponent.
Grim Lavamancer was the prototype for Deathrite Shaman – and we all know that Deathrite Shaman was so good that it ended up getting banned in both Modern and Legacy. While Grim Lavamancer isn’t as versatile (plus it has one less toughness to boot), it is a mainstay for any red deck looking to add utility at virtually no cost.
#4: Goblin Lackey
When you talk cards that cheat other cards onto the battlefield at a reduced mana cost, you’ll think cards like Tinker, Show and Tell, and Sneak Attack. Goblin Lackey is very close in power level to these cards, but is bounded by having its effect attached to a 1/1 creature and being able to cheat out only Goblins. Still, Goblin Lackey is generally a “kill it or lose” creature. One hit is usually enough to put an opponent so far behind that they can’t catch up before they are dead.
For instance, imagine Goblin Lackey connecting into a Turn 2 Goblin Warchief, enabling a pair of Goblin Piledrivers. That’s two 7/2 Piledrivers, a 2/2 Warchief, and a Lackey attacking on Turn 3, assuming you don’t have more Goblins to drop to aid on that Turn 3 attack. Lackey also goes nuts with Siege-Gang Commander (five power of Goblins on Turn 2) or Muxus, Goblin Grandee (for even more explosive starts). Goblin Lackey is also one of two cards on this list ever banned (in Extended, back in 2003).
#3: Goblin Welder
Goblin Lackey isn’t the only “kill-it-or-die” creature on this list. Goblin Welder is everything that Goblin Lackey wants to be, but ratcheted up a notch. Suddenly we’re not just cheating out Goblins on Turn 2; we’re getting Memory Jar, Phyrexian Dreadnought, the Painter’s Servant combo, Retrofitter Foundry, and the works. Long story short, a first-turn Goblin Welder will often lead to a second- or third-turn loss, except without the need to actually attack. This distinction puts it a notch ahead of Goblin Lackey on my list.
#2: Monastery Swiftspear
Monastery Swiftspear changed most non-rotating formats forever. From 2014 until 2021, Monastery Swiftspear was the go-to red aggressive creature in Legacy and Modern. Fueled by tons of value spells such as Brainstorm, Ponder, and Lightning Bolt, the Swiftspear could be played in mono-red decks, Izzet decks, Boros decks, and anything else in between. It worked in Burn decks that otherwise ran no creatures. It ran in decks as the kill condition, able to deal five or six damage per hit without losing any spell efficiency. Oh, yes, and it also had haste and no drawbacks, immediately supplanting Goblin Guide as the red aggro one-drop of choice.
These days, Dragon’s Rage Channeler is seeing more play than Monastery Swiftspear in general, but Swiftspear was the de facto most powerful red one-drop for an extremely long time.
#1: Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer
This is not recency bias; Ragavan is easily the best red one-drop creature of all time. We’ve already seen this Monkey Pirate hit the banned list in Legacy, and many feel that a ban in Modern is not too far off.
It’s easy to see why Ragavan is busted. He’s got two power for one mana, lets you effectively draw cards off your opponent’s deck, and acts as mana acceleration. When we start getting that many abilities on one creature, we’re looking at Deathrite Shaman territory. We’re talking Birds of Paradise-meets-Ponder power on a one-drop. And heck, the dash ability on Ragavan is also playable for an out-of-the-blue attack that half-pays for itself when Ragavan hits. Long story short – Ragavan is a house against any deck, is pure mana acceleration and card advantage, and packs them both together in a body that should cost way, way more than one mana.
Want to join the debate? Look for my thread on Twitter @StarCityBen and let me know what you think of this list!