The most playable creatures in Oldschool

It appears we keep nibbling at the smorgasbord of potential topics we found on the last mailday. Well, if I can't play and I ain't getting much new mail, mise well keep punching that horse. And, I mean, typographical errors in Alpha and miscuts aren't horrible topics for this blag, so I don't feel like we're scraping the barrel. But please call me out if I start writing lengthy analyses on Operation Desert Storm or the life of Georg H.W. Bush.

So, another spoil of that spicy mail day was a playset of Alpha Scryb Sprites. I noted that I hadn't been actively looking for Alpha versions of that card, but that Alpha was what I found, and the price tag wasn't, quote, "that bad considering it mise well be a top10 creature in the format". And then a hero in the comment section asked what I would consider to be the top10 creatures in oldschool, and now here we are.

Before we start, I have a bunch of disclaimers. First, this list is what I would consider the "most playable creatures if your aim is to have a good deck". Otherwise the list would have been even more subjective somehow and consist of cards like Granite Gargoyle, Vesuvan Doppelganger, and Guardian Beast (honorable mention), before ending with Juzam at #1. Because those are the cards I subjectively most enjoy playing, and hence are the best in my biased mind. But they are not the most useful cards if your goal is to build a winning deck.

Still, these are all superior creatures.

Second, this list is based a lot on recent top-tier meta in either very large or very "spiky" tournaments using Swedish rules 93/94. A card like Hypnotic Specter might be better in rule sets where you have access to Fallen Empires and Hymn to Tourach to go full Handelman. With more historical goggles Flying Men and perhaps even Electric Eel should have been in the top16. And if we had included Fallen Empires here, I'm also that sure pump knights would appear somewhere on the list.

Third, this is, like, impossible to do right. Creatures are good in different ways and in different decks. If you were to rank good creatures in Vintage, in which order would you put, say, Griselbrand, Thassa's Oracle, Monastery Mentor, Lodestone Golem, and Golgari Grave-Troll? I'm sure a lot of you have answers, but I'm also fairly sure that your answers may differ. So take this subjective list with a grain of salt as well.

Lastly, writing a top10 left out far too much sweetness, so we'll do a top16 instead. Ok, let's go.

16. Juzam Djinn

Juzam Djinn is number one on a bunch of other lists. Coolest creature, sure. Best creature, why not. But as "most playable" goes, I sadly think the grinning genie comes a bit short. In the mid 90s Juzam was often ranked as the best creature in the game, or at least in the top3. But today dying to City in a Bottle is a real drawback for a 4-drop, and the double black mana cost makes our hero a bit harder to splash than, say, Erhnam Djinn. Still, Juzam is certainly up here rubbing elbows, and he would probably see even more play if he didn't have such a prohibitive price tag. Juzam is played in e.g. Disaster, Juzam Smash, Machine Head, and MonoBlack, along with being fancy sideboard tech in a few other creature-light decks.


15. Shivan Dragon

Hm, I don't think I like this list. First Juzam, and now Shivan at only number 15? Is it because it costs six mana and dies to a one-mana blast? Boo, this list.

Anyway, Shivan Dragon is one of the most blatant questions you can offer in a game of oldschool. "Do you have an answer, or do I just win?". Shivan is popular as a one- or two-of in a few different decks - like Troll Disco or The Dragon - and is occasionally seen in the sideboard of more controlling or combo-ish builds as an alternative wincon post-board. Cool guys with Gauntlet of Might or Eureka in their piles may opt to play the full set, but usually one Dragon is enough to shuffle up for the next game. It is a beautiful and iconic beast, and a wonderful one-of to spice up any deck that can cast it.

14. Hypnotic Specter

This guy used to be the stuff of nightmares, particularly during the Black Summer of 1996. Hypnotic Specter was discontinued after 4th Edition, and it took all the way until 9th Edition before it got to return to Type 2, long after cards like Serra Angel and Erhnam Djinn were deemed safe again. And at that point it was argued that it was much due to the lack of Dark Ritual in Standard at the time; a turn three Hyppie isn't nearly as game-ending as a turn one Hyppie of a ritual. And yeah, if a turn one Hypnotic Specter connects a couple of times, the game is most likely over. The problem, however, is that the Specter is a perfect lightning rod for cards like Bolt and Swords. And if you spend two cards to get out a threat which the opponent then counters with a one-mana spell, it is very likely that you will be on the losing end of that equation. Still, if the opponent doesn't have an answer, the card advantage and disruption generated by the Specter is absurd, so it seems fair to let it hang out here. 

A few notable decks with Hypnotic Specter would be e.g. Disaster, MonoBlack and Party Crasher. It also occasionally pops up as sideboard tech in creature-light decks (like Distress and more rarely The Deck, though protect that tech with your life).

13. Tetravus

Hey, did you know that 'tetra' is Greek for 'four', and 'avis' is Greek for 'bird'? And that 'tetravus' supposedly is an ancient Greek term for great-great-great-great-grandfather? I didn't, not until I read a book. Anyway, Tetravus laughs at both Moats and Abysses, and is wildly good with cards like Mishra's Workshop and Copy Artifact. Also Hell's Caretaker or Ashnod's Altar if you want to be a bit more spicy. We find this magnificent four-bird crushing face in decks like Artifact Aggro, The Machine, and most lists where Sage of Lat-Nam is a good card.

12. Erhnam Dinn

So if you have multiple decks named after you, you probably belong on this list. Erhnam Djinn is so much more than just EhrnamGeddon or ErhnamBurn'em though. Passing all the blast-tests (Red Elemental, Blue Elemental, and Psionic), as well as various Disenchant and Bolt tests, this is what we would call a resilient threat. Yeah, he won't tell the tale of when he fought Juzam and lived, and casting two Berserks won't let him one-punch someone at full health, but that single colored mana in the casting cost makes up for a lot of it. Erhnam is simply extremely splashable, and when he's not making a ruckus in his namesake decks, Arabian Aggro, or 5C Midrange, we often find him as a powerful sideboard plan in combo decks like TwiddleVault.

 11. Kird Ape

Arabian Nights cards are ripe with Easter eggs and anagrams, and seeing how e.g. that 'Erhnam' above is an anagram for 'Herman' (Richard Garfield's brother-in-law), one might be excused to wonder if Kird Ape is a close anagram for something more unsavory. Well, shame on you for thinking that. 'Kird' is supposedly the arabic word for 'forest' or 'jungle'. Go read a book. Maybe the Jungle Book, as there's a bit much kid rape going on in 1,001 Arabian Nights.

Anyway, Kird Ape is a threat way above curve for its mana cost. Its raw effectiveness even got it banned in Extended back in the day. These days Kird Ape is a cornerstone in decks like Arabian Aggro, Lestree Zoo, and RG Beats, and was it not for City in a Bottle I'm sure the monkey would crack our top10.

10. Llanowar Elves

Llanowar Elves is probably the best creature on this list if we go by modern standards. Functional (or actual) reprints of creatures from 93/94 don't tend to make much waves when reprinted in modern Magic, but Llanowar Elves still hasn't really been outclassed in what it does, and people tend to rejoice whenever it gets reprinted. Aggressively costed and full of flexibility, Llanowar Elves is simply a really solid card, and any deck that can reliably cast it on turn one should consider it. These days in contemporary Oldschool it particularly shines in Green Weenie, ErhnamGeddon, and "Malte Decks" (RG aggro).

9. Argothian Pixies

It took a few years of the format before we realized just how good Argothian Pixes really was. But maybe it's not so weird, as the Pixies' strength mainly lies in countering the meta. The cards that would outshine Pixies - Black and White Knight, Elvish Archers, and so on - are very under-played as they fall easy prey to Mishra's Factory. And Pixies, on their hand, then eat those ubiquitous Factories for breakfast. It is also an early drop that stops high-curve treats like Triskelion and Su-Chi dead in their tracks, along with surviving things like City in a Bottle. Pixies pull their weight in decks like Green Weenie, Zoo, and UG Stompy to name a few.

8. Scryb Sprites

And here we have the Scryb Sprites, the guys that prompted this list. There are decks today - actual good decks - that play cards like Emerald Dragonfly and Fire Sprites, which are basically Scryb Sprites for twice the mana cost. Scryb Sprite is the latest tech of the cards on this list, and I'd argue that a lot of players still underestimate them. As a 1/1 flier for one colored mana, the Sprites looks very similar to Flying Men, but unlike Flying Men it survives Elemental Blasts and City in a Bottle. And, I mean, Flying Men won multiple Sharks and large tournaments in its heyday before people learned that they should Blast it early and keep a Bottle in the sideboard. Scryb Sprites are very much still finding new decks, but example piles where it shines could be Green Weenie, Malte Decks, and Stompy.

7. Sedge Troll

Sedge Troll is a little special here, as it is not a splashable role player for multiple different strategies like, say, Erhnam Djinn. Instead, the Troll prompts people to build decks around him, to maximize his own potential. Sedge Troll is almost always partnered with Nevinyrral's Disk (in decks like Troll Disco or Guardian Disco), but we do also occasionally see him in other red/black decks that simply need a resilient wincon. He certainly requires his mana base, but the card is good enough that it single-handedly moves Badlands up a tier or two among the dual lands.

6. Atog

Atog was the breakout creature of 2019 and then dominated the meta for a year or two. Though Mr Teeth's reign seems to have dwindled a bit in the last year as the meta adjusts, I'd still argue that he is one of the most fearsome creatures you could stare at from across the table. Earlier 'tog strategies included stuff like CandleTog and AtogSmash, though these days he's more likely to show up in things like EyeTog, DibAtog, and Artifact Aggro at the top tables.

5. Triskelion

Triskelion is one of the main arguments why Mishra's Workshop is restricted and Copy Artifact is a great card. If you are going artifact beatdown, this guy is your endgame. This dude was a Vintage staple up until a few years ago (when Walking Ballista took his place), and is probably the single best creature in formats like Brother's Highlander and Oldschool Commander.

4. Su-Chi

Yeah, so perhaps an even better argument of why the shop is restricted and Copy Artifact is great would be this guy. Sure, Su-Chi dies to a plethora of artifact removal, but it passes most other tests; from Lightning Bolt to The Abyss via Terror and Elemental Blasts. Having four toughness is a huge deal, as it means that an active Mishra's Factory can't block it and pump itself to kill it. And when playing with contemporary rules, Su-Chi's death trigger is never a drawback (though it barely was in 1994 either), and this guy just becomes an aggressively costed wincon with upsides. And it has the friendliest mana cost a person could ask for. Su-Chi currently sees play in e.g. Artifact Aggro, White Zoo, and 5C Midrange.

3. Savannah Lions

Heh, five years ago this dude would probably not even have been on the list, and now the argument is more about exactly how close to number one it should be. Savannah Lions used to be seen as a spicy card, mostly relegated to White Weenie or 5C Zoo. Then they had their breakout preformance at n00bcon X, where LauterDeck, Fantasy Zoo, and White Zoo all ended up in the top8 with a playset of Lions in each. Today various LionDib or LionSu-Chi strategies are the most feared tempo-decks in the meta. Turns out attacking for two with your one-drop is kinda busted in a slow format like this. And the fact that it is an aggressive creature that survives City in a Bottle is icing on the cake.

2. Serendib Efreet

Eight years ago or so, I was introducing a friend - who mainly played Standard - to 93/94. I let him borrow my UR deck for a tournament at BSK, and when he came across Serendib Efreet in the list he proclaimed, "Wow! This creature is good enough that it could be playable today!". If that's not high praise for any mid-90s creature I don't know what is.

Serendib Efreet got banned in Extended in its day, and is probably the only creature in 93/94 where a possible restriction has been a serious discussion. The Fire of Sri Lanka is so good that it almost single-handedly makes City in a Bottle a great sideboard card, which in turn makes cards like Juzam Djinn and Kird Ape worse. One of the later hot takes in 93/94 is to argue that Serendib Efreet is overrated (which may well be the case), but even if it is just half as good as most people think, I think it would still firmly fit in our top3. Serendib Efreet is a key card in decks like LionDib, UR Burn, and Suicide Blue. Oh, and it's the only creature on the list I've made a single-card post about.

1. Serra Angel

Que Serra, Serra. If your deck has access to all colors, and you have to pick just one creature to play, this is your choice. She is reasonably costed, plays defense at the same time as offense, has evasion, and pass a majority of the tests we could offer (bolt, beb, reb, moat, bottle, and so on). Until the printing of Morphling in Urza's Saga, a lot of players would argue that Serra Angel was the best creature in the game. Tier decks with Serra Angel are almost too numerous to list, but The Deck, LionDib, and Party Crasher would be three. Is it still a contested take to say that Serra is better than Serendib Efreet in contemporary oldschool? I don't know, but she wins here regardless.

Honorable mentions:

 0. Mishra's Factory

Yeah, this one isn't a creature per say and it doesn't really count. But if our aim is to win in the combat phase, I guess we can't avoid mentioning the Factory as the actual king of the hill.

Proper honorable mentions would include cards like Sengir Vampire, Flying Men, Sage of Lat-Nam, Guardian Beast, Birds of Paradise, Ball Lightning, Sol'Kanar the Swamp King, Preacher, Old Man of the Sea, Mahamothi Djinn, Rukh Egg and Juggernaut to name a few. Granite Gargoyle and Bartel Runeaxe are sweet ones too. Maybe Azure Drake if we're going to Top32. Tetsuo Umezawa if we're talking Cube or Commander (tepid take: Tetsuo is the best commander by miles and should be banned in 93/94 EDH, at the very least to have as commander). 

But that's my rant. Feel free to tell me where I was wrong. Was it Sedge Troll? Feels like it was Sedge Troll. Such a hard creature to place.

For the next post here I don't know yet. Maybe just a summer cleaning of the blog, adding a few tags here and there and updating the decks-to-beat. Maybe a list of the sweetest creatures. Maybe something about Ice Age. Or maybe the wildest mailday, as it looks like I'm finally able to cross over to Sweden (after a year and a half), and pick up 17 months of post at my parents' house. We'll see where the world takes us. Got my first shot of the vaccine, and I'm gearing up to roll. Until then, I wish you all a great summer!

Kommentarer

  1. Thank you for putting this together. I think I speak for many readers here that your posts are truly special and are the glue that tie the community together. You have achieved something special here. Have a great summer Mg (Carmine from Canada)

    SvaraRadera
    Svar
    1. Thanks a lot Carmine, those are very kind words :) Have a great summer you too!

      Radera
  2. Great read, as always. Two comments:
    - If you play with more than two colors and green is one of them, Birds of Paradise is almost always an auto-include . When you are short of duals, Birds is a great way to compensate, and you may actually include green just for this purpose. Birds is of course more useful as a mana-source than as a creature, but it still can be sacrified late-game against a Serra, Shivan or whatever. All in all, I would rank Birds higher than Llanowar Elves.
    - Will O the Wisp : Extremely good defender for 1 mana, I think it deserves to be among the top 10. Flying, immune to elemental blasts and can easily be regenerated.

    SvaraRadera
    Svar
    1. Thanks man :) Yeah, Birds are surely a solid card, but I don't think they compare to Llanowar Elves these days. The fact that Llanowar trades with e.g. Lions and that they combo with Pendlehaven are huge pluses in their favor. And I'd argue that most good 3+ color green decks in fact don't play birds (Twiddlevault, 5c midrange, Arabian Aggro, The Deck, GRU Malte, ErhnamBurn'em, etc). There are far more copies of Llanowar in top8s of the last couple of years than Birds, but Birds are still surely an honorable mention and would be in the top32.

      Will-o-the-Wisp is awesome and rad, but still needs to prove itself in an actual competative tournament before I add it to a list like this one ;) It would probably be in my top16 sweet creatures, but it doesn't really crack the "most playable" list.

      Radera
  3. It is true that Llanowar Elves is more played than Birds. This is due to lack of supply of Birds (rare and expensive) rather than playability. Since Birds are only marginally better than Llanowar Elves, plus the Elves have a bonus for better artwork, most players are not willing to fork out several 1000s of extra dollars to exchange their playset of Elves with a playset of Birds.

    SvaraRadera
    Svar
    1. That's just not correct. As a basic counterexample, I own sets of both and have played different decks with Elves far more than decks with birds. Also, almost all tournaments these days allow same-art reprints, so it is more 10s of dollars than 1,000s of dollars. And finally, the fact that Elves regularly shows up in competitive top8s where birds almost never do should speak for itself in regards to a list of "most playble creatures if your aim is to win", which is what this list is.

      Radera
  4. At the begging of the article, I was trying to figure the creatures and was very close to your choices.
    Funny thing is, I was considering birds or elves and elves felt little bit better.
    Serendib seemed like first place to me. But with acces to power and in tournament environmet (sideboards), Serra makes sense.
    What about list of 10 strangest creatures?
    Have a nice summer!

    SvaraRadera
    Svar
    1. Yeah, I think it's a really close fight for the #1 spot, and Serendib is certainly a very reasonable pick. Two years ago I'm pretty sure I would have placed it on number one, but in the last years it just feels like people play against it better, and that Serra has taken the upper hand (even if just slightly).

      Top10 strangest sounds fun!

      Radera
  5. I have a playset of both Elves and Birds. Birds left my binder once in 3 years, to move to another binder. Elves has been the correct play since forever, it just took some people some time to figure that out ;-)

    Juzam on 16, we definitely need a talk...

    SvaraRadera

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