But there doesn’t have to be! Those of us who have been playing a long time have developed a whole host of shortcuts when we see new cards so that when we see something we don’t know, we can give it a quick read and think, “Oh, that’s basically just a Looter,” or, “Okay, it’s a Hill Giant with monstrosity.”
Those shortcuts also help us build our decks. We know Fireballs are good, so anything that looks like a Fireball receives extra attention. Similarly, we know Gray Ogres need a little something more. Many of us drool over Dragons and Shriekmaws.
Confused? Then this article is for you!
These are 4/4 flyers for 5 mana, sometimes with an ability and sometimes not. Serra Angel and Sengir Vampire are the archetypical Air Elementals with upside. These are almost always very good, first-pick-worthy cards. Even lowly Air Elemental has been a strong card in core sets. Because they’re usually only eclipsed in size by Dragons (see below), but are found at lower rarities, they tend to rule the skies. They also usually matchup much better against Spiders (see below).
Even though Luis Scott-Vargas likes to call just about every card that creates a two-for-one “basically a Divination,” these are actually somewhat uncommon (though rarely of uncommon rarity). Lately, Wizards has been giving us literal Divination, but Read the Bones fits in this category as well. Divination’s playability goes up and down with the set, but it’s usually at least somewhat playable (Theros) and can range up to excellent (Magic 2014).
This is a shortcut for premium black removal. Go for the Throat, Terror, and Ultimate Price are the closest comparisons, but Hero's Downfall fits in this category as well, as would Terminate and Dark Banishing. But in some sets, other cards receive honorary Doom Blade status. For example, Shatter was pretty much a Doom Blade in original Mirrodin block (and Terror less so). In Theros, Revoke Existence isn’t exactly a Doom Blade, but it’s closer to a Doom Blade than just about anything save Hero's Downfall and Gild. You’ll also hear people call things like Prey Upon “the green Doom Blade.” All it means is that it’s efficient removal and, almost always, very good.
There’s also a recent subcategory of this that includes super-expensive removal such as Sip of Hemlock. Those aren’t nearly as good, but they are usually somewhat playable if they’re being printed.
Dragons are big, bomby flyers. This doesn’t even really mean literal Dragons anymore (though most sets have at least one actual Dragon at rare or mythic), but sometimes it does. So, yes, Stormbreath Dragon and Forgestoker Dragon are dragons, but in this shortcut’s terminology, so is Eater of Hope. With Eater of Hope, you can look at it, think its ability is mediocre or hard to use (it is), and just say, “Well, it’s still a dragon.” So far, Journey into Nyx already has one Dragon (both literal and figurative) in Spawn of Thraxes, but I guarantee there will be more. Evaluate accordingly.
These often-undead creatures are typically creatures that bring creatures (or something else) back from the graveyard when they come into play. Black usually brings back creatures, white brings back enchantments, green sometimes resurrects lands or creatures, and blue and red often dig up spells. These cards are almost always overcosted for their sizes (Scrivener) but are usually great at playing the attrition game. Mnemonic Wall and Odunus River Trawler are two Theros examples. Typically, play these in slower decks or in attrition-based formats.
Hill Giant/Gray Ogre/Bear
These monikers simply refer to creatures of various sizes at certain costs. Hill Giants are 3/3s for 4, Gray Ogres are 2/2s for 3, and bears are 2/2s for 2. But knowing the playability of each baseline helps you measure a ton of cards’ worth—so many cards fall in or close to these categories.
For example, Hill Giants are usually playable but unspectacular, but Ill-Tempered Cyclops is a solid role-player because it’s a Hill Giant with upside. Likewise, Gray Ogres are generally not good without some pretty strong upside. Spearpoint Oread, however, has both first strike and bestow, making it a strong common.
Bears are about as common as they come, pun intended. 2/2s for 2 on their own are playable enough that they’re even played when they have drawbacks (Fleshmad Steed), but be on the lookout for bears with upside. These are the bread and butter of any Limited environment.
These are 1/4 defensive creatures, usually blue, and sometimes with upside. Theros already had a big one with Wavecrash Triton, a card that only becomes better as the set goes on. How good these are depends largely on the set, as 1/4s are great in fast environments with low toughnesses and power at 3 or less on most common creatures.
These are red X-damage spells, all twists on the original Fireball. Demonfire, Meteor Shower, Banefire, Blaze, Comet Storm, and Devil's Play are all examples. These are almost always premium spells. This one is important to note because there seems to be one in every block, but Theros block hasn’t seen one yet. Maybe Keranos is slinging some X damage around the skies. Look for it.
The comparison that started this conversation, looters are cards like, appropriately, Merfolk Looter that provide card selection but not card advantage through drawing and discarding. Because the ability is so universally used in so many sets, it’s usually easy to find the set’s looter and just know that it’s probably good. (Frontline Sage was a rare exception.) In this case, Sigiled Starfish is in the same vein, but it provides selection through scrying, which has a bit more block synergy. There may be another looter revealed at some point, but for now, this 2-mana 0/3 is your point of reference.
Ophidian has a special place in my heart, so I will always call creatures that draw cards by attacking Ophidians, but more famous and recent versions like Shadowmage Infiltrator and Thieving Magpie are probably better measuring sticks, mostly because Ophidian wouldn’t be good anymore. The rule for Ophidians is that in order to be good, they need to have some kind of evasion. Infiltrator has fear, and Magpie has flying, meaning they often bashed in for their cards with some regularity. Daxos of Meletis is something of an Ophidian with evasion, but there are also enough ways in this set to push creatures through unblocked (Aqueous Form, Wavecrash Triton, etc.) that any old Ophidian will pretty much do. Thassa's Emissary holds this title right now, and it grows even better because it can piggyback on top of evasion. These aren’t terribly common, so I’d be surprised to see another in Journey into Nyx.
These are the archetypical vanilla, usually green or white, X/Ys, where X is usually half or less of Y. Pillarfield Ox and Thraben Purebloods are your poster boys for this section, and just about every set has one or two. They’re filler, plain and simple.
There’s always a cheap burn spell. In Theros’s case, we already have both Lightning Strike and Magma Jet, both of which are premium spells. There will probably be one in Journey into Nyx, but it probably won’t be on that level.
Shades are (typically) black creatures that grow bigger when you pump mana into them, such as Nantuko Shade. These are sometimes serviceable, they mostly depend on the number of Swamps in your deck, and they occasionally still are left on the sidelines. They’re rarely bombs, but they are often part of a push to play a heavy black deck.
Back in the day, these used to be called Nekrataals or 187 creatures (the California penal code for murder). Because I’m old. These days, a more contemporary example that people have actually drafted (though Visions itself was sweet, Mirage block is not a great Draft environment) is Lorwyn block’s Shriekmaw. Flametongue Kavu is a different twist on the same idea, usually dealing damage to a creature in some form. So Skinrender is a Shriekmaw (and, actually, it’s kind of a Flametongue as well), and Nessian Wilds Ravager is a conditional Flametongue Kavu.
These cards are almost always very, very good and are usually at least uncommons, if not rares. If it looks like a Shriekmaw, snap it up.
These are typically green 2/4s (or 3/5s or something similarly lopsided) with reach. They’re green decks’ primary way to manage flyers, and they’re often very good at doing so. Just look at how a Wind Drake and a 3/3 flyer matchup against a single 2/4. Without a trick, they can’t attack. And even with a trick, they sometimes can’t attack into open green mana. Spiders are always very good, but they are rarely spectacular at any rarity less than rare.
These are your bounce spells—usually for just creatures, but not always. They range from mediocre (Unsummon itself) to spectacular (Repeal) and everywhere in between (Voyage's End), but they are almost always playable because of their versatility and typically-cheap cost. With Voyage's End and Retraction Helix, we’ve seen how good these are in Theros, so if you see any more like this in Journey Into Nyx, you’ll know you have a strong spell on your hands.
You can extend this slightly to the Griptide-style spells that put creatures on top of the library.
This is your 2/2 flyer for 3, occasionally with upside, though the upside isn’t necessary to make it playable. Nimbus Naiad, for example, is insane simply because it’s a Wind Drake that bestows. Wingsteed Rider is a premium common because it’s a Wind Drake with heroic. Wind Drakes are almost always playable—if you see one with upside, chances are it’s meant to be very good. Sometimes, you can stretch this category to include 2/1s (like Blood-Toll Harpy), but those are usually a bit worse.
And Many, Many More . . .
The history of Magic is long and full of people who like to make nicknames for things, so we can’t tackle all of them today. Instead, these are the typical ones you’ll see in almost every Limited environment and the ones to take into consideration most often. Sure, you’ll probably see some kind of Lure, Elf, Sea Snidd, and plenty more, but these give you a strong starting point for tackling any new set.