About 20 million people play it. It consists of over 13,000 cards. If you’re not careful, it’ll consume your life. Magic: The Gathering is a trading card game wherein players build decks according to different formats in order to engage in duels against other players. Competitive Magic thrives around the world, with specific metagames dictating the popularity of cards at different times as professional players build the most effective decks for tournament play. There are limitless combinations and enough different styles of play to suit just about everyone. There’s even a very popular online variant.
Predating Pokémon — Wizards of the Coast (the company that publishes the cards) and Nintendo went to court over it — by three years, Magic: The Gathering was the first trading card game ever produced, in many ways building on pen-and-paper role playing games. The art is filled with mythical creatures and the storylines with high action, with the cards themselves acting as spells of every kind.
Sometimes, though, R&D at Wizards of the Coast gets it wrong when they design a card. Sometimes they don’t (or can’t) predict how the game will evolve, leading to so-called “broken” cards — cards so unbelievably powerful, they need to be restricted or outright banned from play. Still, if you’re a Vintage player (or just a filthy casual like me), there’s no end of joy to be had playing these cards. Beyond the broken and banned, there are simply great cards worthy of building a whole deck around. Some of the cards I put in this list either because I personally love them or because I am tired of getting beat by them. Everybody’s got their own opinion of what makes a card the best; that’s half the fun of the game.
While none of the cards on our list are legal for Standard play, here’s a quick reference for what’s in the block as of late October 2017:
For the latest in Magic happenings, check out my colleague Collin MacGregor’s latest: Rivals of Ixalan: Top 10 Best Commander/EDH Cards
Even as new sets come out and new killer combos are created, we’ve compiled the top 20 best Magic cards of all time to honor the great cards that have come before, some by design and some wholly unintentionally:
1. Force of Will
Not to be confused with the entirely separate Force of Will trading card game, Force of Will is an excellent counter spell for Blue control players. Printed in the Alliances expansion, it’s not even currently restricted, so play it to your heart’s content in Vintage and Legacy constructed decks when you need to put a stop to your opponent’s combo deck. The ability’s great, but hardcasting (that is, actually paying the mana cost) it once in awhile can be pretty rewarding. Oh, right, the price. There’s always Pact of Negation, Foil, or — hold that thought.
Legality: Legal in all formats except Standard and Modern.
2. Mental Misstep
Or Mental Misstep. From the New Phyrexia set, this Blue counterspell still lets you spend life instead of mana to cast it. Banned in Modern and Legacy, this card still makes the rounds in Vintage. The banning does lower the price, as does the fact that it’s easy to come by. Don’t want to pay life to counter a spell? There’s always good old-fashioned Counterspell.
Legality: Banned in Modern and Legacy.
3. Lightning Bolt
What’s not to love? A card as simple as it is great. Spend one Red mana, deal three damage. It’s been reprinted a bunch of times and I suspect it always will be. It’s the perfect card in that pros use it (direct damage being one of the favored strategies in tournaments), but it’s easy enough for an absolute beginner to grasp. You’re sure to find at least one in a 2011 Core Set Fat Pack.
Legality: Legal in all formats except Standard.
Price: $2.50 (price varies)
The two-for-one combo of scoping your opponent’s hand and causing them to discard is nice. One Black is even nicer. Sure, you have to pay two life, but what kind of Black deck doesn’t ask that from time to time? It’s a Rare that was most recently reprinted in Theros, but it originally appeared in the Lorwyn block.
Legality: Legal in all formats except Standard.
Price: $14.99 and up
5. Mishra’s Workshop
Three mana. For free. It must be used to cast artifacts, but my advice to you would be: put artifacts in your deck. There are nearly 1,500 to choose from, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a use for this card. On the other hand, you might very well have trouble finding this card. You could always take your chances with a very old Antiquities booster pack.
Legality: Banned in Legacy.
Originating in the Darksteel set, Skullclamp is simple card advantage. Run it in your weenie decks to set up your win condition. Really, just run it if you have it. It’s cheap, it’s reliable, and it’ll work over and over again throughout the course of a game. Naturally, something so beautifully broken cannot be left to wreak havoc, so mind your formats when you select this one for your deck.
Legality: Legal only in Vintage and Commander.
Price: $1.89 and up
7. Library of Alexandria
On it’s own, this Arabian Nights land is quite good. Tap for land or tap to draw a card if you have seven cards in hand. There are plenty of other ways to draw cards, so this one should be simple to play. But for even more outrageous card draw trickery, pair it with Land Tax. You see where I’m going with this. It’s a classic combination.
Legality: Restricted to one copy in Vintage. That’s all you get.
Price: $259.99 and up
8. Sol Ring
Absolutely essential in artifact decks, but awfully handy regardless, getting this card in your opening hand means you can have four mana by turn two. It’s a huge, clear advantage. Hook it up with Prototype Portal. Gets reprinted in Commander sets these days, so it’s easily found, though copies with the original art are a touch more expensive.
Legality: Legal in Commander, restricted in Vintage.
Price: $3.19 and up
9. Tolarian Academy
While we’re on the subject of artifacts that could hang around for awhile, let’s factor in a card that lets you profit wildly from them. This card is pretty much what it says on the tin and first appeared in the Urza’s Saga expansion. Generate huge amounts of mana by running out artifact after artifact, and use it to do all kind of very nasty, very Blue things. Seem broken to you? Seems broken to me. Especially when you hook it up with the parts of the Power 9 yet to come on this list.
Legality: Restricted to one copy in Vintage, otherwise banned.
Price: $26.66 and up
10. Umezawa’s Jitte
In a sense, this is broken the same way Skullclamp is, except that having options is always nice. The key to this one centers on the fact that the equipped creature doesn’t have to deal combat damage to a player, just combat damage at all. It’ll work as removal, it’ll pump your creature, and it’ll give you a couple of life in a pinch. As a player notes on the Magic site, the trouble with this card is that it makes you feel as though you could stop it if you could only figure out how. I chose this both for its delightful brokenness, but also because I am sick to death of being beaten with it.
Try pulling one from a Betrayers of Kamigawa booster pack.
Legality: Legal in Kamigawa Block, Legacy, Vintage, and Commander. But definitely not Modern, come on.
11. Time Walk
Take an extra turn for two mana. One of them is even colorless. I don’t know what to tell you; if you can’t make this card work, you’re on your own. The price should deter most people, and if it doesn’t, don’t worry, you only need one. One of the Power 9, of course. Though I doubt very seriously that anyone would let this slip by, you could try buying a vintage card lot and taking your chances. There are some Revised set boosters kicking around, too.
Legality: Restricted to one copy in Vintage. Don’t let me stop you from spending $6,000 to play four copies casually against your local meta, though.
Actually a cycle of five cards, all of which are in the Power 9, the collective Moxen are mana cheats. They’re zero-cost artifacts, which means on turn one you can get down to business with your two drops. Use them to break your Tolarian Academy. Use them to break your friendships. Just great all around. I’m ashamed to tell you that early on in my Magic days, I was gifted at least two of these. Pearl for sure, but I would bet Ruby and Jet as well. You know what I did with them? I gave them away. Heed my tale and always ask your more-experienced player friends to double-check whatever you’re getting rid of. Here’s the full list:
Legality: Restricted to one copy in Vintage.
Price: $72.99 – $1,101.89
13. Black Lotus
Possibly the most famous card in the game. A copy of this card once sold at auction for over $27,000. If you don’t know it by now, this is your first time reading about Magic, and I welcome you to the fold. Have any of your friends offered their castoff Commons and Uncommons yet? How are you coming along with turn order? Have you picked up card sleeves? How about a deck box? Are you on your way to needing a carrying case to get back and forth between game nights? I’m joking. Sort of.
I’m not joking about the rarity, however. You might just want to console yourself with a huge random lot and see what you find.
Legality: Restricted to one copy in Vintage. Power 9.
Price: Good luck.
14. Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Let’s take a break from the Power 9 for a moment so that I can tell you a quick story that puts me on the other side of my Moxen mishap. I received a copy of this Planeswalker in a Worldwake booster pack (he’s right on the front) and immediately knew what I had to do. I sold it for $272 to a card shop because I knew someone would make better use of it than I could. You can have it for considerably less, though it’s not exactly a bargain.
Legality: Legal in all but Modern.
Price: $93.79 and up
Returning to the Power 9, this is a card that, when properly deployed, can both reset and seal the game. You play out your hand during your turn, then drop this and get a fresh seven cards. It’s basic, very overpowered stuff. To get around the restrictions, there is also Time Reversal, which costs two more mana and is far more widely available.
Legality: Legal in Commander, restricted to one copy in Vintage.
Price: $582.17 and up
16. Ancestral Recall
Card advantage for days and days. The Bluest of Blue, this card cheaply fetches you three additional cards. So simple, so broken. The last of the Power 9, but by far not the least.
Legality: Limited to one copy in Vintage.
17. Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
One of my favorite cards, and the obvious heart of my deviously Vintagey, predominantly Green ramp Eldrazi deck. Like Jace up there, I pulled Emrakul randomly out of a Rise of the Eldrazi booster pack one day. It has a Time Walk and half a Timetwister built right into it. It flies. It has Annihilator 6. It also costs 15 colorless mana. I’ve hardcast it a couple of times, but let me tell you, it isn’t easy. It’s on the list for the sheer Lovecraftian scale of the thing. It’s a sight to behold.
Legality: Legal in all formats except Commander and Standard. Tricky Commander, anyway.
18. Yawgmoth’s Will
Basically, here’s what you do: Cast instants and sorceries all game long. Play Yawgmoth’s Will. Cast them all again. You could almost consider this an advanced card for Vintage players, but play it and find out. Why play your deck only once?
Legality: Legal in the Urza Block, restricted to one copy in Vintage.
19. Bazaar of Baghdad
There’s a lot of text on the actual printed card from Arabian Nights, but the online-only update makes it easy to understand: Draw two cards, then discard three cards. Card draw and discard all in one go for free. Use it in your Dredge deck. Use it in Blue. Use it with Yawgmoth’s Will. Make your opponent sad. The only drawback, of course, is that it will likely never be reprinted, so you’ll have to search high and low and pay an awful lot to own it.
Legality: Banned in Legacy, but legal in Vintage.
20. Demonic Tutor
Not to be confused with Diabolic Tutor, which costs twice as much mana to cast, Demonic Tutor lets you search your entire deck for any card. Go fetch your win condition. Go grab a mana fixer. Go find that enchantment destroy. The possibilities are endless. It’s legal in Commander, which is where it really shines.
Legality: Legal in Commander, restricted to one copy in Vintage.