I hope that your day is going well. In honor of the imminent release of Core Set 2020, I wanted to go ahead and rank all the various Core Sets for you from the first in Alpha/Beta/Unlimited (ABU) through last year's 2019 edition.
To give you context, I have been playing from Unlimited through today, so I have cracked all of these packs, and opened boxes of many of these sets. From every set from 6th Edition on, I have also played them in Limited too. That will hopefully give me a strong foundation from which to evaluate the various sets during their time.
As a part of this ranking, I consider both my impressions of these sets today, as well as the contemporary aspects of the sets then. If a set was looked at poorly by players then, and hasn't aged well, then you can expect it to be lower. On the other hand, some sets were thought highly of then, but age shows differently, or vice versa. The top-rated sets will be those that hit in both aspects.
Let's take one little deep dive for you before we discuss the sets. I am not precisely sure when this happen, or what set I can point to. But at some point in time, players stopped playing a majority of cards from the core sets, rather than expansion sets - even for newer players. For example, when I started playing, everyone and their decks were all white bordered cards from the early sets. Not many cared to buy the black-bordered expansions much, and those who did, wouldn't always add them to their deck. They were viewed as a fun occasional addition to the game, but not its main feature. Even players who had been playing for months didn't have many expansion cards in. I can remember new players coming into the game, or older players, for whom that trend continued through Fourth Edition at least. At some point in time, Core Sets became the lightly purchased and pursued sets - but I can't point to when I saw that trend begin. At some point in time, Core Sets went from "Must Play" to "You Can Skip This."
With that in mind, let's look at my list!
Honorable Mention: Core Set 2020
It's not been released yet, so it's here at honorable mention. Welcome! It looks like it'll be better for drafting but for something like that, you normally need to draft ahead of time. I have found some intriguing draft formats when playing them, that didn't look that way, and vice versa. It tries to step out of 2019's shadow and do some new things with uncommon planeswalkers remaining a thing. Here's hoping for another fun set!
Now let's get the list started proper like:
17. 5th Edition
As yes, the overinflated ego. Many of the core sets prior to 5th added in increasingly more cards. 4th (368) is bigger than Revised (296), which was a little bigger than ABU (292). But 5th Edition went way overboard with more than 425 cards. As a result, it was a runaway mess of a set with too many cards, and an overinflated sense of itself. While 5th Edition did some useful stuff for the masses by pulling cards from 4th Edition that shouldn't have been added from other sets (Strip Mine, Land Tax, etc.), and pulled out cards that should have been pulled out the previous set (Balance, Channel), it was still a mess. It didn't add in many of the iconic cards released in sets from the previous addition to itself, with the notable exception of the pain lands from Ice Age. I still don't know on what planet Wizards said, "Hey, after it dominated massively, we should reprint Necropotence and keep it around for another two years!" It's just a mess of a set.
16. 7th Edition
As you may know, 7th Edition was the final set before Modern came in at 8th. It also was the first core set with foils, so 7th had black bordered foils in a white bordered set, which was weird. As I mentioned below with the previous set, 7th wisely pulled stuff like Armageddon from core sets, as well. This set introduced us to reprints from Portal sets as well. It added in core set staples like Mind Rot, Sleight of Hand, and Volcanic Hammer in Cores. It rotated in Urza's Block cards like Western Paladin and Eastern Paladin. In came Glorious Anthem, Coat of Arms, and Megrim. Some cards, such as Opposition were mistakes that dominated formats. It did do something nice and bring back Serra Angel after it was rotated for a few years. Unfortunately, while it rotated out many nasty color hosers, in still sent in stuff like Hibernation. It also was the winner that gave you Vizzerdrix, Eager Cadet, and Trained Orgg and other very weak creatures in core sets. It was considered very, very weak at the time, and has not worn well with age either. As such, it hits low for me.
15. 4th Edition
Let's be honest here. 4th Edition had some issues. As I mentioned above in my overview of 5th, it brought in cards that had no business in a core set - like Sylvan Library and Strip Mine. It didn't remove some cards it should have, such as Swords to Plowshares or Balance, but did pull out cards that it probably should have left in, such as the original dual lands. Many of the cards from the first sets were printed either in Chronicles or here. They came out at roughly the same time. The Reserve List would come out soon thereafter. Many of the cards that were reprinted in this set from older ones had some seriously secondary market value - such as Time Elemental, Killer Bees, Blood Lust, and Divine Transformation. What was good about 4th is that, as these were not in Chronicles, this was the right place for them, and I give credit to Wizards for seeing that. It may not have been popular at the time, but cards like Triskelion, Killer Bees and Divine Transformation were initially printed as Rares, so they would have been on a Reserve List if not for being here in this set. I'm sure most players are happy that Triskelion has been reprinted over the ages. So, it's not a great set. But it's not the worst either, so there's something!
14. 9th Edition
9th Edition finally gave us Black Bordered core set cards moving forward, and everyone was happy. It was a relatively mediocre set overall however. For example, the previous set had boxtoppers as a strong marketing gig, so 9th added them. But they weren't as good the second time around. As 9th was the 2nd set during the modern era, it did move over cards from the first few modern sets, so it had equipment, such as Loxodon Warhammer and Vulshok Morningstar, although there weren't many moved over. It did add in the enemy color pain lands for the first time, and you had a full cycle of ten pain lands available for the drafting fun times. Overall though, it was a miss. It wasn't as strong as the core sets on either side, and it had a notoriously bad draft environment too. Compare triple 9th Edition draft to, say, triple Coldsnap which is out at the same time as is so much better.
13. Classic 6th Edition
6th Edition was the first set to begin to make up the serious issues that were attached to 5th. It dropped back down to 335 cards, less than 4th. This set was the first core set to have the ability to add in cards from Mirage Block and Tempest. Those cards were all over the set. They choose...poorly. In some cases, they added in cards that were too powerful, and in others, added in some of the worst cards. Bad cards like Celestial Dawn or Amber Prison were added along the powerhouse Vampiric Tutor as well as Worldly Tutor, Enlightened Tutor, and Mystical Tutor. These cards dominated Standard until they rotated, as Vampiric Tutor, in particular would be run as a four-of with a number of one-of silver bullets to get out that would auto-win the game against most decks. Some of the additions to 6th worked for a core set like Gravedigger, Volcanic Dragon, or Uktabi Orangutan. The Gravedigger would be a stalwart common for sets moving forward. Unfortunately, it was also the last set with some mistakes that really needed to be pulled, like Armageddon. It also had a weird name, adding in "Classic." Overall, while it was improved over its two immediate predecessors, and added some useful cards, it still had many core set issues. 6th brought in hosers like Chill and Perish too (which played too powerfully with the Tutors mentioned above).
12. Magic 2012
Unlike the previous two new sets, the third in the series made some mistakes. One big one? They kept the Titans in. 2011 had added the Titans and they had had a strong, almost stifling presence in Standard, and WOTC left them in in 2012 when they should have pulled them out, and we had another year of Titans. Now there were some useful additions to the canon of cards - like Adaptive Automaton, Phantasmal Image, and Swiftfoot Boots. It reintroduced bloodthirst, and we had some useful cards there. It brought cards like Oblivion Ring and Solemn Simulacrum that were long overdue into core sets. It rotated some of the planeswalkers, so this was the first core set, for example, to have something in Black other than Liliana Vess. The one good thing about 2012 is that it had one of the better core set Limited formats you'll find before or since. The bloodthirst enablers are in sneaky places. But outside of Limited? This was a weak set overall.
11. Magic 2015
Garruk really hates you! This set is all about how Garruk wants to hunt down and kill all planeswalkers after his Face-turn-Heel switch during Innistrad Block and his encounter with Liliana. The limited kick off had you fight against a special version of Garruk just for that event, which was really cool. You also had a gold Garruk, Apex Predator in the set as well. After Garruk's mad loving? This set lacked some zest. The returning mechanic was convoke, and it was moved to all of the colors, not just the Selesnya Guild. While it reprinted Chord of Calling and featured cards like Chief Engineer, it was pretty weak for a modern core set. After the previous set, and compared to the next set, it was a big letdown. I did like a few new cards here, like Scuttling Doom Engine, Life's Legacy, Act on Impulse, and Hushwing Gryff as a tool to shut down popular enters-the-battlefield triggers. The Soul Series of mythics was designed to ape the Titans but were horribly done and never did anything. It's not even that good in Limited. The design contest with non-WOTC people designing cards was a fun distraction from an otherwise meager set. It just is.
Top Ten Time!
10. Magic 2013
Hello Magic 2013! I hope your day is going well. After the weakest of the previous three sets that began the new era of core sets arrived, there was some understandable attempts to make amends, and push the new era of cores. Thus, this set arrived, with a Nicol Bolas theme. Not only did we have our first gold card in a core set, but it was Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker. We also saw several new legendary dorks like Talrand, Sky Summoner and Krenko, Mob Boss arrive to the battlefield. Cards like Augur of Bolas, Thundermaw Hellkite, and Mwonvuli Beast Tracker were new. This set's mechanic was exalted, which was added to Black and was the Black/White theme. The best new card? Murder. We had never had a clean version of that effect before. Murder away my fellow fans of Black!
9. Core Set 2019
And now let's bring us to the rebirth of Core Sets, after Origins had previously been the last one. Like Magic Origins before it, 2019 does have a storyline, this time telling the story of the ancient Elder Dragon War from long ago. The story isn't as forced like the previous core set, but it's there. You have folks like Nicol Bolas and Chromium heading to core sets. Previously, we may have had a small number of mythic cards as gold in core sets, but now we are following modern card design. We have the ten draftable archetypes being announced at uncommon by two-color cards. However, the set is really weak in Limited. The archetypes aren't always there, and there are internal ones that don't line up. We have two Spirit matters cards, but no Spirit drafting archetype. Why? We could had had Blue/White be Spirits instead of artifacts, as there's not much of an artifact build here, and there are cards that get in the way of artifacts in other archetypes. I do enjoy that the set added some powerful cards like Scapeshift and Crucible of Worlds that had serious price attachments. We also have some good new cards like Stitcher's Supplier. But at the end of the day, the set feels weak, like they wanted to prioritize safety over pushing the core set envelope.
8. Magic 2011
Magic 2011 added new things to the core set formula moving forward. After the previous set introduced many new concepts for core sets, 2011 wanted to push fantasy resonance more, and we had cards like Crystal Ball get printed. It was the first core set to reprint an old mechanic that wasn't evergreen just for that set - in this case, that was scry. In jumped cards like Preordain, Cultivate, Viscera Seer, and Aether Adept. It also was the first set with the iconic Titan cycle. Enter the Titans!
7. Core Set
Another weird naming convention is here in 8th Edition. It's not called "Core Set: 8th" or even the bad Classic 6th. Nope. It was called just Core Set. Even though it had an 8 as its expansion symbol. I know. We'll be calling it 8th though. 8th Edition was the first Modern set with the new card frames, but it still had white borders with black bordered frames that began in 7th. 8th came after most of the final sets were printed in black border, and finally added in cards like Nekrataal and Ravenous Rats that became iconic cards for core sets. What really made it special though was this marketing gig it did, where it reprinted one card from every set in the game that had not yet appeared in a core set. So, cards like Rukh Egg, Phyrexian Arena, Tidings, and Furnace of Rath. This included starter sets like Portal and even ABU, so we had cards enter again like Dwarven Demolition Team or Savannah Lions. There were these box toppers with the various new additions from these sets as part of the marketing, and that was deeply resonant with many players in my playgroup and at the local stores. So overall, the set had some misses (such as the name) but overall was a strong set.
6. 10th Edition
Welcome to our final traditional core set. This one swelled in size almost 50 cards from the previous sets, and it added in many new cards from Kamigawa Block. We saw new cards like Time Stop alongside traditional mechanics like Counsel of the Soratami get added in, and cards that were missed in the previous set, like Sylvan Scrying and Crucible of Worlds headed in too. Some fun Coldsnap cards leapt in like Field Marshal as well. It added legendary dorks for the first time, and we had two legendarys from each color in, such as Kamahl, Pit Fighter, Reya, Dawnbringer, and Squee, Goblin Nabob. The set also played really well in Limited, and many folks enjoyed the launch parties held for the set. We had a record attendance at our store's premier. But there were too many promo Reyas, and she dropped in value considerably on the secondary market. Overall, it was a strong send-off to the old way of doing things.
5. Magic Origins
Prior to Magic Origins, only the previous set's loose Garruk Wants to Kill You had any sort of a story. No other core set told a story until this one, but it tried to tell five at the same time. By being on ten planes in the story, it creates ten draftable archetypes that are each set on various planes. Some of the drafting archetypes and planes introduced really did well - but nothing better or more notable than the powerful Kaladesh Red/Blue thopters and artifact build, but also created a strong world with its own sense of style - something that I think resonated with people until we went there later. (I felt that Limited was uneven and overly complex, by the by) It did introduce the five Flipwalkers, who were legendary creatures until a certain condition is filled, and then they will flip into a planeswalker. However, Jace dominated Standard and was probably an error. It made the cut in many older formats as well. They weirdly added in two new keywords with renown and spell mastery as well as the new ability Menace, although that already existed just without being templated. In fact, in every way that matters, Magic Origins was not a core set. New mechanics? Complex set? Heavy story line? This was only a core set because we were told it was, but it wasn't core in any other way.
4. Core Set 2014
Welcome back Slivers!!! Everybody loved seeing Slivers in a core set, with draftable archetypes. I liked the Red/White draft around them myself, as most would initially aim for Green 's Predatory Sliver, but I could grab the 1-drop Striking Sliver, as well as Battle Sliver, Bonescythe Sliver, Blur Sliver, etc. There are a ton of cards that were printed for this set that were really, really good. Young Pyromancer, Imposing Sovereign, Kalonian Hydra, and Xathrid Necromancer. Don't sleep on the powerful flavor and drafting options of the Bogbrew Witch and her Festering Newt and Bubbling Cauldron. Also note the Advocate of the Beast Beast deck. We have strong Limited cards like Kalonian Tusker and Academy Raider. We tossed in Mutavault into a core set. This was a big hit. I also consider it the best Limited set of the new Core Sets I've played in thus far, although here's hoping that Core Set 2020 will help challenge it.
Now I didn't enjoy the two changes to Slivers from their last appearance. They no longer looked like Slivers. And they no longer acted like Slivers. You could have kept their mechanic as one that helps all Slivers, not just your own, even though templates for lords had changed. They were that flavorfully, and enemies would send in Slivers to gain the benefits of the hives, such as Volrath's Metallic Sliver. This would have retained a key mechanical distinction of Slivers and given decks a way to fight Slivers - run Slivers. Meanwhile, they also appeared radically different than before, and that was just off-putting. I mean, the less said the better I think. Anyways, on to my top three!
3. Magic 2010
Much like the two sets that will hit higher, 2010 changed Magic in many important ways, and still resonates today. Previously, core sets came every two years, and there were two blocks of cards in between, but now they were annually, starting with 2010. 2010 also made a ton of changes that would really help moving forward. First, 2010 was the first core set since the first set to print new cards. Up until now, core sets were just rotating stock for the reprints of cards in previous sets, but no longer. Next, 2010 pushed the resonance of fantasy and fantasy tropes. It didn't want cards like the card drawing Counsel of the Soratami, but instead cards like Divination that suited a more typical fantasy flavor. It had new cards like Baneslayer Angel, Doom Blade, Ponder, and Acidic Slime that fit the bill. It also reprinted fantasy tropes from the old days, like Lightning Bolt, that hadn't been in a core set in quite some time, as well as bringing in planeswalkers into a core set.
When Unlimited was released, everyone thought that these was going to be the core set moving forward. No one thought about adding in cards from expansion sets, or rotating cards, and such. This was it! But then Revised was released, and everything changed moving forward. It changed everything about the game. As there were only two expansion sets when it was designed they brought in cards from just Arabian Nights and Antiquities. Cards such as Kird Ape, Serendib Efreet, and Desert Twister entered core sets from the former, we had also Atog, Ivory Tower, Dragon Engine, and The Rack from the latter. The power rated pulls from Unlimited were obvious, and I can't remember anyone being upset that they took away powerful and broken cards like Time Walk or Ancestral Recall. Only the Moxes were missed, because people enjoyed speeding up their turns, and Moxes were a way out of land light hands. (During this era, you could only mulligan with 0, 1 land or all land, so a hand of 2 land and 5 cards was un-mulligan-able. Thus the Moxes were great, because you could still have a real hand with 1 or 2 lands if you had a Mox or two in your opening hand). Thus, this set was considered a hit then, and still is now. It changed the game forever!
Duh. If I put anything else here, you'd think I'd taken crazy pills. All of the classics are here. Serra Angel. Shivan Dragon. Lightning Bolt. Birds of Paradise. Llanowar Elves. Swords to Plowshares. Sengir Vampire. Hypnotic Specter. Dark Ritual. Counterspell. Clone. Vesuvan Doppelganger. Mahamoti Djinn. Cockatrice. Disenchant. Hurricane. Earthquake. Fireball. Disintegrate. Armageddon. Howling Mine. Icy Manipulator. Wrath of God. Terror. White Knight. Black Knight. And then it had the real cards. Ancestral Recall. Black Lotus. Sol Ring. Regrowth. Mox Pearl. Time Walk. Time Vault. The power cards of the ages. And while some of these cards would be pulled out for being too powerful (Balance, Mind Twist, Wheel of Fortune, etc), all of these cards have stood the test of time. This set has set standards for the game that are still around today - such as Shades have the ability to pump due to Frozen Shade, or Dragons firebreathing due to Dragon Whelp and Shivan Dragon. In fact, I would argue that every core set (and every set) that has come since has just been Variations on a Theme as each subsequent set plays into this iterative pulse of repeats.
We are still living in an ABU inspired world, and I, for one, am okay with that!
All right folks, there we are. What did you think? Anything in here inspire you or you disagree with? Just let me know! As always, thanks for reading!