Last week I wrote an article about the eight cards I was most surprised to see completely belly-flop into the Constructed card pool. It was a fun article to write and discuss in the forums, and when it was suggested that I write the inverse—about cards that initially flew under the radar during spoiler season only to soar to “game changer” statu—well, I was all over it!
There are many elements that make Magic the greatest game ever created: the customization, the gameplay, and the fact that formats constantly change and evolve. One of the overlooked attributes of the game is that it constantly asks each player to make evaluations based on hundreds, even thousands, of small (but relevant) pieces of information. When spoiler season rolls around every few months, we don’t know exactly what is going to happen across all the formats—we simply make our best hypothesis.
Today’s article is about cards that flew under the radar when they were first spoiled. Once people actually started playing the games, these cards quickly established themselves as the cream of the crop once the dust settled.
An article like this is interesting to me on two levels. The first is that it’s obviously fun to take a stroll down nostalgia/memory lane. I was always a big fan of history class, whether I was there for it or not. History teaches us about how the events of the past have led to, and impacted, the present. It’s not just a bunch of meaningless factors, but rather a breadcrumb trail that shows how we got to where we are today.
So, whether you are here for a few good stories, or simply looking for clues from the past that may give you better insight into evaluating new cards to have an advantage brewing or playing the finance game, hopefully there is something in today’s article that you’ll enjoy!
Let’s jump in!
The Metric of Overlooked Ridiculous Cards
Once again, I’m going to revert to my standard “conversational metric,” meaning that the ranking and order isn’t nearly as important as thinking critically about the topic. I know people want to see the writer “put their money where their mouth is,” and I’m always game for that. I’ll throw my opinion hat into the ring and give you guys something to argue for or against by counting down from #8 to #1.
Do I expect everyone to agree with me 100%? Absolutely not. Any topic that insists on providing the “Top X of all time…” is too large and subjective for everyone to agree.
There are a lot of different ways to frame the discussion and for today’s article I’ve chosen to go about it like so: I’ll be counting down cards that became gigantic, game defining, but were not widely viewed that way when they were first revealed. I will not be writing about cards that were overlooked, but became much better as a result of a later printing.
Dark Depths was a card people correctly thought was trash when it came out. The printing of Vampire Hexmage, years later, made the card a powerhouse years later. I will not be including cards like that on my Top 8 list.
My list is specifically cards that were poised for greatness right from the get-go and that most people simply overlooked. So, these are cards you’ll surely recognize even if you’re a newer player.
#8) Nobody Feed the Trolls
Looking back, how was it even possible to not be completely blindsided by what was to become begrudgingly known as “dredge”?
I think this card also gained significantly from later printings, especially in Future Sight, which has helped to it the status it holds today as one of the most broken cards ever.
With that being said, even without Time Spiral block’s bag of goodies, the Dredge deck was able to function right on the heels of Ravnica’s release.
The old Extended Ichorid Dredge decks quickly emerged and blindsided the majority of players for a couple of weeks. 99% of players (myself included) never envisioned a deck that didn’t play Magic in the traditional sense and used its graveyard as a pseudo hand/card advantage engine.
If you were sleeping on how broken Dredge was, don’t feel bad because I’m pretty sure that design and playtest were equally clueless about the Pandora’s box they were opening by printing a card with Dredge 6 in the textbox!
#7) You’ve Got to Learn to Walk Before You Can Run Away with the Format
Spoiler Alert: Walking Ballista is the newest printing featured on this list.
Ballista is a card that was widely touted as a “generic good card with limitations.” Well, when it comes to Ballista, the sky was the only limit.
Ballista was a card that had a sort of “sideboard or niche” stigma attached to it—it turns out that it was a straight-up game changer.
Maybe Workshop decks that want a few Triskelions will upgrade to these… actually, it’s the best spell in the deck. The card has been everywhere in Standard since its release. The card is a mainstay in multiple Modern decks.
It turns out that the flexibility and inevitability on an artifact creature is extremely potent! Ballista is here to stay.
#6) Hot Fun in the Summertime
Necropotence doesn’t cleanly fit into my list, since way back when Ice Age was released, we didn’t have the same kind of “spoiler season” hullabaloo we do today. But it is worth noting that the card was openly mocked as a terrible, unplayable card in the gaming related magazines of the time. Yes, people used to get info about decks by buying magazines in the 90s!
It turns out that this card was not only insane, but that it turned Magic on its head for a period of time by completely dominating and warping tournament play. Ever heard of “Necro Summer?” Once Necropotence was discovered the game would never be the same. I’d also argue that Necropotence was a lesson unlearned in terms of game design that was later repeated in Phyrexian mana. Letting players trade life for free resources rarely goes well in the context of tournament play! Necro, the original sleeper.
#5) The Pride of the Golgari
While Rat and Rev were merely Standard cards that were difficult to evaluate, DRS was a card that was poised to straight-up take over all non-rotating formats. Even when the card did take over, it was hard for some to recognize that this card was secretly running the show.
DRS was the Dan Gheesling of Legacy and Modern for a long time, well-liked in the house and inexplicably saved from the chopping block time and again by tricking others to use the power of veto to save it.
Sometimes things are invisible except in hindsight.
#4) Jace, the Mind Sculptor: Better Than All
I was one of the few who didn’t get completely swindled by JTMS. But I had the advantage of playing Magic on a nearly daily basis with Patrick Chapin at the time, and if I hadn’t I probably would have missed the bus.
I remember that during spoiler season I made a statement to Patrick like, “Brainstorm is good because it costs 1. I wouldn’t want to pay 4 to try and do it more than once.”
He responded by saying that this was one of the most broken cards he’d ever seen and that he wasn’t using hyperbole for emphasis when he stated that this card was going to destroy every Constructed format.
Okay, let’s build Jace decks.
Jace was clearly an above average Magic card when it was spoiled, but very few people had the foresight to understand that it was simply off-the-charts powerful. The conflagration of information, as JTMS went from “decent” to “the only thing that mattered,” created crazy surges in price and culminated with a dramatic Standard banning.
Jace defined an era of competitive Magic. Few cards can boast that, and few would have predicted it during spoiler season.
#3 This Jitte is Bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S
It may be difficult to believe, but this insane Magic card went under the radar during spoiler season. I think the reason is that it was difficult to really understand how dominant the card would be during actual gameplay.
When I saw it on the spoiler, I dismissed it because it looked like a bad Sword of Fire and Ice. It doesn’t draw cards or grant protection!
People started to pick up on the card at the prerelease once they got a chance to play with it and/or lose to it. I remember that I was lucky enough to have one in my Sealed pool and every single time I would cast it the exact same scenario would occur.
I play it.
My opponent reads it.
I equip it and attack.
I get value.
My opponent quickly realizes that it’s unbeatable and calls a judge.
My opponent asks judge: Is this really how this card works!?
It’s the type of card that once you see how it dominates a game, it becomes clear how insanely powerful it is. It went from zero to hero in a hurry, which is why I have it at number three on my list. It wasn’t on my radar, nor do I remember anybody talking about it before the prerelease. But once people got the chance to actually play with it, the card became the topic of all conversations.
#2) Beauty is Power, A Smile Is its Sword
More than Jace. More than DRS. Psychatog was one of the most shocking Magic cards ever printed. Nobody saw this card coming and before we knew what hit us, it was too late.
I want to point out that Jon Finkel’s Invitational card was the most expensive, hyped card in Standard and was in the same set as Psychatog with the same casting cost!
Psychatog went from chaff to tier 1 quickly after its release and became the dominant win condition in every format. I would argue that it falls into the same category as cards like Necropotence, Phyrexian mana, and delve—effects that trade an irrelevant and arbitrary resource (life or cards in graveyard) for something that matters. In this case, damage.
Psychatog was the kind of card that makes already problematic cards like Gush, fetchlands, and Upheaval even better by being the perfect “tip of the spear” kill condition for these kinds of decks. One card, one attack step, and victory is assured.
I would also argue that Psychatog functioned, in its day, as a kind of prototype Tendrils of Agony before Storm was ever created. It turns those churned cards in a Xerox style deck into a resource that can be repurposed in a productive way.
Whether you are on board with me that it is the second greatest sleeper card of all time, well, I’ll let you decide. Every ‘Tog has his day and no conversation about sleeper cards is complete without Dr. Teeth.
#1) The Lhurgoyf Nobody Saw Coming
Psychatog may be a controversial pick at #2 with JTMS, Jitte, and DRS all in the mix, but I don’t think too many people will disagree with Tarmogoyf at #1. If you disagree, I would love to hear the reasoning in the comments.
Tarmogoyf was a card that floated under the radar for a long time, until it didn’t, and then all hell broke loose.
Back when Future Sight came out, I was working at the LGS, and I closed the shop down. Tarmogoyf was in the case at $4.00. I opened the next morning and one of the first things I did was pick up the price gun and change the price from $4.00 to $30. By the end of my shift it was $50. The madness never stopped.
It went from “another above-average green creature” to one of the most broken cards ever printed status in the span of a day. Absurd. It was like a switch was flipped and it was suddenly clear how powerful and efficient ‘Goyf was.
A cheap finisher with big power and toughness. It can block early. It can close quickly. Shrugs off burn like a boss.
Today, Tarmogoyf is one of the most iconic cards ever created, which is saying a lot for a random Lhurgoyf from Future Sight! Tarmogoyf has lost some of its luster as power creep has caught the rest of the world up to where this beastly creature was a decade ago, but the fact that Tarmogoyf is still a staple of Modern and Eternal formats, all these years later, is a testament to how busted it was in its day and how amazing it is that the card was completely overlooked for a while…
Thanks for joining me for this walk down memory lane with the cards we thought were forgettable but we’ve come to remember most!
I feel pretty strongly about my top 5 (and the way I ordered them) but if you’d like to rearrange them in the comments, I’d love to hear how you all would have lined them up. Also, it was tough narrowing it down to just eight. I had four more that I was going to post as honorable mentions, but I instead decided to leave those up in the air for people to guess in the comments. If you guess one, I’ll let you know. Super bonus points to anybody who comes up with one that isn’t in my Top 8 that I straight-up overlooked.
It’s crazy to me, to look back and remember how some of these cards that are absolute staples of the game were overlooked back in the day.
With Magic, you never know, until you know, and even then it still feels like a lot of educated guessing!