As 2021 comes to a close, it is common to want to look back on the year as a whole. While there's a lot of non-Magic stuff we're likely to want to forget from 2021, there were also a ton of Magic cards printed this year as well.
This graphic of course only includes paper releases, as we also had Historic Horizons and Innistrad: Alchemy on MTG Arena as well. That's a lot of new Magic cards! While it has been at times overwhelming, lots of new cards means lots of new opportunities for great designs.
There have been a bunch of really fun cards released this year, and today I want to wrap up the year by going over my favorites.
There's been a concerted effort in the last year or so to try and widen White's range from "aggressive creatures and Wrath of Gods" and it's been awesome seeing it come to fruition.
One of my favorite new themes in White has been the "second spell" mechanic, which does something when you play your second spell in a turn. This plays very well with the usual low mana curves that White decks tend to support, while also playing well with more traditional card draw and interactive spells as well.
Clarion Spirit gives White a 2-drop that feels like a very White version of Young Pyromancer. It is a single card that is able to generate a large amount of advantage and board presence, while also being cheap and not that difficult to activate. You need to build your deck in a certain manner to properly use Clarion Spirit, but the payoff is excellent even if you only get one or two tokens out of it. It also plays very well with the normal stuff White likes, like global pump or using creatures for other things.
It's played well in Constructed as well as my Cube and I just can't say enough nice things about Clarion Spirit.
Modern Horizons 2 is one of the biggest stories of the year, inserting a ton of very powerful cards into Modern and shaping the landscape of the format into something both more interactive as well as more reliant on new cards than ever. While I haven't loved the upper range of Modern Horizons 2 designs, there are some really awesome cards in the set that perfectly fit the "too strong for Standard, fun role players in Modern," and Grist, the Hunger Tide has to be way up on that list.
Grist is a three-mana planeswalker that is individually powerful, but gets much better the more you can build around it. Even ignoring the incredibly interesting static ability, Grist plays really well in creature dense decks full of synergy and fodder, providing threats and answers at a great rate. However, it's the static ability that really brings a level of uniqueness to Grist.
You can Collected Company for Grist! Return it with Unearth! Tutor for it with Chord of Calling! Cast it on turn three into your opponent's Thalia, Guardian of Thraben! The list goes on and on and I'm sure we'll be finding even more fun interactions over the years - Grist is just a slam dunk design.
A frustrating design element of non-basic lands is how often the "enters the battlefield tapped" drawback is used. There needs to be something to make cool non-basic lands without making them strictly superior to basic lands, but for many years the answer was simply to have the land enter tapped and call it a day. Treetop Village, Temple of Enlightenment, Sheltered Thicket, Barren Moor... the list goes on and on.
That's why it's awesome to finally see a colored creature land cycle that has the opportunity to enter the battlefield untapped on turn one!
Den of the Bugbear is my favorite of the bunch, but the entire cycle from Adventures in the Forgotten Realms is a great step forward for non-basic land design. Even better is how interesting they make deck-building, as they are very powerful but offer serious diminishing returns. They're a little expensive to activate and awkward to plan your curve around if you have too many, meaning the correct number is often 2-3 - powerful but not something to go overboard on.
More lands like this please!
One of the more divisive elements of Magic design in 2021 has been the exploration of the digital-only space with Historic Horizons and Alchemy: Innistrad. While I won't spend too much time here going into it (as I already have before), the long and short of it is that I really like the design space that it opens up and mostly like the designs these sets have brought.
One of my favorites from these digital-only designs is Managorger Phoenix.
We've seen tons of recursive phoenixes in Magic over the years, but Managorger Phoenix is both cheap to initially cast, while also proving simple to recur - just cast Red spells! Many of the phoenix designs have awkward restrictions or are based on set mechanics that just don't play well. Managorger Phoenix is super clean, doesn't feel that bad to cast, and makes great use of the perpetual mechanic.
The only downside here is that I can't put it in my Cube.
...or can I?
Another awesome White card looking to help the color with its card advantage problems, Ingenious Smith is a fantastic design.
Operating in the rare space as both an enabler and a payoff, Ingenious Smith is almost always worth a card if you build your deck right, while also growing to sizes that are actually useful in combat unlike something like Glint-Nest Crane. It's also an interesting deck-building exercise because of the critical mass needed to make sure you hit.
It's not a card that every deck wants, but it's a card capable of seeing play across multiple formats, which is exactly the kind of card I love.
Speaking of awesome artifact cards capable of seeing play across multiple formats, Thought Monitor is one of my favorite cards from Modern Horizons 2.
While affinity does have some baggage from the havoc it once caused in Standard and Extended, it really is a very fun mechanic. It asks your deck to care deeply about something, while paying you off accordingly.
Thought Monitor is a superb affinity card, helping to solve the major issues that Thoughtcast always had. Every affinity deck has a very difficult line to walk; there are very few slots available for non-artifact cards in the deck, and the same goes for wanting non-threats too. Thoughtcast, while often just "draw two cards" for one Blue mana, was just too often awkward and non-self-perpetuating. You need to play a lot of air in Affinity decks like Memnite and Ornithopter, making card draw with no other upside tenuous.
Thought Monitor solves this problem twice over. It's an artifact so it keeps your count high while contributing to the cause, while the 2/2 flying body is everything that Frogmite and Ornithopter want to be. Thought Monitor is even playable in non-Affinity artifact decks, which is also awesome.
For a long time, if a card was Boros that mostly meant one of three things. It was a crappy aggressive creature with haste and flying, it dealt damage and gained life, or it was some awful equipment synergy card that was never going to work in the first place. As such, Boros was one of the worst color pairs when it came to gold cards.
Well, they've clearly been working on it and the end result is Showdown of the Skalds, and what a result it is!
Showdown of the Skalds is an incredible Magic card, providing and powerful and flavorful mix of card and combat advantage that just feels right. Like most of the Red "impulsive draw" effects, it's also very interesting to play as you to carefully consider the right time to cast it, as well as consider how deck-building effects this.
Our last card is another fun artifact, helping to solve the problems that Ensoul Artifact had as well as being a much more interesting game piece. Ensoul Artifact is a super all-in card. You play it on turn two, if it sticks you're in amazing shape, if it gets answered your usually down two cards and major tempo. As such, it's a very polarizing experience from either side of the table.
The Blackstaff of Waterdeep gets around this by allowing you to change targets and reuse it, while also being an artifact itself for more synergy. This makes it far more interesting when it's actually in play, providing you with some insurance as well as many choices to make over the course of game.
While the power level may be a little too low for serious competitive play, I've played it both in Standard and Limited and it was a very fun play experience.
Looking Towards 2022
The decade is off to a rocky start, but that means there's really only one way to go!
I do hope the release pace for Magic slows down a little bit in 2022, but I'm also looking forward to see what new designs and sets have in store for us, as well as seeing how they explore the digital space more on MTG Arena.
Oh, and there better be some damn Goblins in Kamigawa Neon Dynasty!