Today I spotted a card in the Modern Horizons spoiler that made me smile:
In terms of creature type Bear, Ayula is royalty in terms of value for the cost and even better flavor. The card is also a cool homage to a term, “bears,” used by players to describe 2-drop creatures. Today I’ll break down the history of where the term comes from, a brief history of 2-drop creatures in Magic, and end with a Top 8 of the greatest 2-drop creatures of all time.
Mommy, Where Do Bears Come From?
Referring to 2-drop creatures as “bears” has deep roots:
Grizzly Bears were a common in Magic’s first set, Alpha (1993), and were featured in each subsequent core set through 10th Edition. 28 years later, and despite the fact that Grizzly Bears haven’t appeared in a new set in over a decade, we still refer to our aggressive 2-drops as “bears.”
“My Draft deck was too clunky. It needed more bears.” We also refer to aggressive 2-drops with abilities that mess with an opponent as “hatebears.”
Bears have never been the “elite” 2-drops of Magic, even in Alpha:
And, to be fair, even being an “elite” 2-drop creature didn’t carry much weight then since the spells outclassed creatures:
These cards are pretty unreasonable and are banned in most formats. In formats they are legal, they are restricted to a single copy. Even after 28 years of power creep, they don’t make ‘em like this any more…
Nonetheless, 2-drop creatures have come a long way since the days when Knights were the best 2-drop creatures in the game.
So why do we call great 2-drops bears and not knights? It comes back to being a common printed in over a dozen consecutive core sets and people using the card (then a fixture of Limited play) as a point of reference. As concepts like “mana curve” and “tempo” became more firmly established and discussed, people realized that “doing something” and deploying a threat on turn 2 led to success.
“My Draft deck needed bears” translates to, “I didn’t have enough 2-drop creatures and would have the bear minimum in terms of quality.”
The undercosted broken spells such as the Power 9 are the most iconic features of early design, but Grizzly Bears is among the most significant features of costing that design nailed on the head.
Even 28 years later, the 2/2 for 2 baseline holds true as a reasonable bear-o-meter of what a common 2-drop should be.
What Is a 2-Drop?
I had Bears on the brain when I set out to write this article, but the deeper I got into my topic, the fuzzier it became. I realized not all 2-drops qualify as “bears” because they don’t attack and block, and not all creatures that can be cast for 2 mana necessarily qualify as 2-drops.
There were at least two roads I could take with the topic:
1. I could change how I framed it: “The Top 8 Best Creatures You Can Cast for 2 Mana.”
Obviously, I didn’t do this because that isn’t the name of the article you are reading, but so as not to subvert expectation completely I’ll give that list at the end of the article.
2. I could double down and figure out how to answer the question I initially asked: “What are the best 2-drop creatures of all time?” by actually thinking about what it means to be a great 2-drop.
First of all, what the heck are we talking about when we say “2-drop” creatures? To me, it suggests a creature that costs 2 mana we want to cast on the second turn.
Are these “2-drops?” They certainly cost 2, but are you ever trying to cast them on the second turn?
The dynamic was further complicated by formats that adhere to a loose interpretation of the “1 mana per land drop per turn” rule, which is most formats these days.
An Eldrazi player will say their 2-drops cost 3:
The fact that we use this language when talking about 1-, 2-, and 3-drops suggests that there is a correlation between the term 2-drop and casting the card on the second turn.
Here are the rules I made for today’s list:
- Card type – Creature (Sorry, Bitterblossom!)
- Must be castable with 2 mana on turn 2 (Sorry, Serra Avenger and Matter Reshaper!)
- Casting the card on turn 2 has to be something players actually intend to do (Sorry, Narcomoeba, but anybody who casts you on turn 2 is losing… great card with CMC=2, but terrible “2-drop”).
- “All time” implies that history matters—and it does—but being good right now matters a lot as well. There are no cards in my actual top 8 that are not relevant players in current tournament Magic, but I did use long-term success as a tiebreaker.
There are so many 2-drops in Magic that are awesome for a variety of reasons, and because my top 8 didn’t necessarily show that variation I wanted to touch on it in the honorable mentions to showcase how 2-drop creatures enable different strategies.
The Knights of the Kitchen Table
“Of all time” implies that history matters, and historically speaking these are important designs. While Grizzly Bears is a great baseline for a common 2/2 for 2, the Knights embody the concept that elite 2-drops will have higher upside and additional abilities, such as first strike and protection, added on as a bonus.
If you scour the first several years of Magic, there are few 2-drop creatures that are close in terms of bang for your buck:
The game, and how we play it, changed significantly with Fallen Empires when two more “Knight” variants were introduced:
Eight quality Knights in a mono-white or mono-black deck was a significant step toward lessening the mismatch between aggressive creature decks and controlling noncreature decks. To this day, black and white Knights are a defining feature of the Old School format.
Are Mana Dorks Bears?
When I think “bear,” there’s a close association with attacking and combat. While mana dorks can sometimes block effectively and sometimes attack effectively, they serve a different purpose in the decks that play them.
There are even some mana dorks that do qualify as bears and fill both roles:
Devoted Druid and Sakura-Tribe Elder were close to making my list, but ultimately fell just shy. I did consider that these have value outside of traditional tournament Magic. Rofellos, for instance, is banned as a commander, where he filled a unique and broken role in the format. Sakura-Tribe Elder has a unique role in Modern Valakut decks, was a Standard player during its time, is a Commander fixture and even sees some Pauper play.
Even though “thinking about bears” got the ball rolling for my 2-drop topic, I was open to selecting cards that were not bears. Wall of Omens, for instance, seldom has ambitions in the combat step beyond blocking, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be an outstanding 2-drop in a defensive deck.
Wall of Omens deserves a mention alongside Wall of Roots and Blossoms as game-changing, defensive 2-drops.
Cards That Were Too Great…
These cards have a greatness level that is difficult to judge because they are basically banned from everything! They are undeniably busted, but are they great? I would argue that part of what makes a card great is that lots of people get to play with it.
They would certainly be near the top of my list of most egregious 2-drop mistakes! For the purposes of playing Magic, we all agree to pretend they don’t exist.
The Top 8 Greatest 2-Drop Creatures of All Time
#8. Eidolon of the Great Revel, Journey Into Nyx 2014
Few would deny that Eidolon is a terrifying 2-drop (especially if you can’t immediately deal with it!) and embodies the spirit of what I am trying to unpack with this list. While its utility is primarily limited to Burn decks, it’s hard to imagine a 2-drop these decks would want more!
The card shortens games by punishing the opponent for casting their cheap spells and is extremely effective against decks with a high velocity of cheap cantrips. Since red decks are such a big part of Magic, Eidolon is a card with great value that will likely stay a fixture for a long time.
#7. Dark Confidant, Ravnica 2005
I’d get roasted pretty hard if I didn’t include Bob on my list and to be fair he deserves to be here. Dark Confidant changed the game by changing the perception of what a 2-drop could be and what it can do in a deck.
Obviously, netting a card each upkeep is amazing value on a 2-drop, and for a long time Dark Confidant boasted the title of “best creature in Magic.” It was one of the most played cards across all formats, including Vintage. While impactful cards have lessened Dark Confidant’s role in tournament Magic over the past 14 years, it continues to be a solid staple and a fantastic card to deploy on turn 2.
#6. Walking Ballista, Aether Revolt 2017
Walking Ballista has made a huge impact on tournament Magic in a short period of time. It was also one of the trickiest cards to place on my list.
First, the “all-time” qualifier. While I have no reason to believe Ballista will suddenly “fall off,” I also can’t prove it won’t, which makes it difficult to say that it’s a greater “all-time” card than cards that have put up results for a longer period of time. With that said, it has become a fixture in decks that continue to drive the current tournament metagames.
The other thing that makes the card tricky to evaluate for this list is the variable casting cost. Part of what makes Ballista such a good card is flexibility of cost. It’s a 0-, 2-, 4-, 6-, 8-, and 10-drop as well. People don’t play the card because it’s the best thing to do on 2, but rather because it’s pretty decent no matter what you pay. In fact, playing the card as a 2-drop Mogg Fanatic is fairly tame compared to the impact of other cards on the list. But even so, pinging a Champion of the Parish, Delver, or Noble Hierarch is often exactly what you want to do with 2 mana on turn 2!
Ballista is one of the most challenging cards on the list. I was toying with the idea that while it is one of the best creatures in Magic, it might not be one of the best in a discussion specifically dealing with 2-drops. The insight that tipped the scales was that there are some decks, like Modular Affinity, that often want to play Ballista on the second turn.
#5. Tarmogoyf, Future Sight (2007)
Few cards are as iconic as Tarmogoyf, and for good reason. The card is one of the most significant printings of all time!
While Tarmogoyf has slipped a little bit after 12 years, it continues to remain a staple.
The importance of Tarmogoyf can’t be overstated. While the cost of the creature was likely a blunder that broke several unspoken rules, such as 2-drops shouldn’t be so large as to negate damage-based removal, the impact was swift, immediate, and changed key dynamics players had long taken as a given.
All it takes is one card to dramatically change the game, and Tarmogoyf is just such an example!
#4. Arcbound Ravager, Darksteel 2004
I feel confident that I chose the top four correctly, at least based on how I framed the list, but it was a real struggle to order them because they are all amazing, iconic, and game-changing. But they are all linchpins for extremely different styles of game play!
You can’t ask more from a 2-drop creature than Arcbound Ravager. The card has helped define every format where it’s legal for nearly 15 years now. It was too much for Block and too much for Standard. It earned a ban.
I ranked it fourth in a discussion of “2-drops” because Ravager’s value is less linked to being played on turn 2 than some of the other options. Given the choice between playing Ravager or “something else” on turn 2, it’s usually right to hold the Ravager until you have more resources in play to maximize its effectiveness.
It’s still a great turn-2 play and deserving of high treatment (there are only three cards I rate more highly!), but I had to draw the line somewhere. These elite cards are simply the best at what they do, and so we’re evaluating cards that do very different things.
Arcbound Ravager is the elder statesman of my list. In terms of “all-time” consistency, nothing beats Ravager at being great for a longer period of time. Ravager could be #1. Since I’ve already revealed he’s the oldest, you now know that all my selections come from the modern era. Creatures have come a long way since Knights were the pinnacle of what a bear could be!
#3. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Dark Ascension 2012
I gave Thalia the nod here despite the fact that I almost never play with the card and don’t particularly like it. The fact that I don’t like this card is an indicator that it is good against the tournament decks I like to play. Since I tend to gravitate toward things that are broken, it means this card is good for Magic!
I gave it the nod over Ravager because it better embodies greatness at being a “2-drop.” For instance, if you gave me the choice between playing a Ravager deck that would always cast Ravager on 2 and a Thalia deck that would always cast Thalia on 2, I’d lock into the Thalia deck despite it not being my favorite style of deck. That says a lot about how good this card is when played as a 2-drop. If I don’t have it, I probably still want to draw one later on in a lot of matchups. Thalia is a staple of every format where she is legal, and a formidable commander (value stat).
This is the mother of all “hatebears.” Thalia is the glue that holds these archetypes together. All of the decks that are a collection of annoying creatures that mess with people would be borderline unplayable if Thalia wasn’t around.
#2. Snapcaster Mage, Innistrad 2011
Snapcaster Mage was another difficult card to evaluate as a 2-drop since its value (like Walking Ballista) isn’t necessarily linked with playing the card for 2 on turn 2. In fact, its value increases significantly as the game goes later.
I don’t need to explain why Snapcaster Mage is a good card. It is the most-played creature in every format where it’s legal. According to MTGTop8 data: 38% of Vintage decks, 27% of Legacy decks, and 25% of Modern decks feature the card in some capacity. Keep in mind, MTGTop8 polls Top 8 deck lists for data (so decks that win rather than all decks), which suggests there is a strong correlation between playing Snapcaster Mage and winning.
Decks that play Snapcaster don’t typically need to play Snapcaster on the second turn because they play lots of cheap instants and sorceries, but Snapcaster is a great turn-2 play in decks that play free spells.
Additionally, one of the many reasons that Gitaxian Probe “had to go” was that it made Snapcaster Mage a premier 2-drop, in addition to being whatever it is now. It’s an “all-time” list and so it still counts for something! Also, who hasn’t slammed Snapcaster on turn 2 in Ambush Viper mode to get a great block and trade?
#1. Stoneforge Mystic
Stoneforge Mystic is a tough one to argue with, but I’m open to counter-arguments. Stoneforge Mystic better embodies the essence of what a “2-drop” is than Snapcaster Mage and for that alone it deserves the nod on a list that is built on that guiding foundation.
I play Stoneforge and Snapcaster in the same decks and Stoneforge is typically the better 2-drop of the bunch on turn 2. Not only does it not require a card in the graveyard to net value, but it takes advantage it has already netted and threatens to run away with the game by cheating a Batterskull into play at a reduced price next turn. The automatic value of tutoring up the right Equipment for the job and potentially cheating mana on the following turn leads me to believe it’s a better creature to play on the second turn than, well, anything else!
While Snapcaster appears in 28% of Legacy decks and Stoneforge is below that with 22%, it’s also worth pointing out that decks that play Stoneforge typically commit at least six spots (four Stoneforge, one Batterskull, one Jitte), whereas, you typically don’t see the full four Snapcasters. If you’re not buying the argument, it raises another question: Why is Stoneforge banned and Snapcaster legal in Modern? I’d suggest their power level is fairly similar and while Stoneforge is a stronger “2-drop,” Snapcaster is right there with it in overall power level.
Bold prediction—In five years one of the following will be true: Snapcaster and Stoneforge Mystic are both legal in Modern, or Snapcaster Mage and Stoneforge Mystic are both banned in Modern. I think it’s unlikely that the format has one and not the other. Perhaps the boldest part of this prediction is that Modern is still a format in 5 years… but I believe it will be.
I know I used “banned from everything” to disqualify Hermit Druid and Goblin Recruiter, but there is a subtle but important distinction between those cards and SFM. Druid and Recruiter are where fun goes to die: 2-drop 1/1s that say “stack your deck” or “put your library into your graveyard” have little redemptive value. Stoneforge, on the other hand, facilitates game play that feels like playing Magic. It’s super, duper good… but it’s still Magic.
For this reason, I fully expect that we haven’t seen the last of Stoneforge in Modern. It’s only a matter of time before power creep gets to the point where she’ll be right at home. Regardless of whether she ever comes back to Modern, Stoneforge Mystic is the pinnacle of what can be achieved when casting a 2-drop on turn 2.
More Honorable Mentions
Once I decided that Snapcaster Mage and Walking Ballista met my criteria for credible picks on a list of “2-drops,” 1-7 felt solid to me. 8th was up for grabs. I did consider Sakura-Tribe Elder and Rofellos for those spots, but also:
Eidolon snuck into the Top 8 with lucky breakers, but had the same record as these other cards. They’re all deserving and elite 2-drops. I was leaning toward Revoker because I’m biased toward playing sweet decks, but I decided Eidolon does more heavy lifting in the decks that play it.
Baleful Strix is a pretend card that came in a crackerjack box. It was designed to be a niche player in a niche format, and unsurprisingly it is. It’s clearly a very good card, but it doesn’t have history on its side and its impact has been medium at best.
And, Ooze, while decidedly the coolest option and most interesting card, tends to be a one- or two-copy utility card and not at peak value on turn 2.
Top 8 Best Creatures That Can Be Cast for 2 Mana (Being a 2-Drop is Irrelevant and History Doesn’t Matter)
I reordered my list so that being played on turn 2 doesn’t impact the value, and added Narcomoeba into the mix.
It’s hard to compare things based on abstract concepts that span multiple formats, decades, and criteria. As always, comments, questions, different points of view, and opinions are always welcome and encouraged in my comment section. I’ll do my best to respond. Hopefully, my list wasn’t too un-bear-able.