Ravnica is an incredible block because it’s full of casual deckbuilding staples, and it’s the time I was actively writing for Starcity Games. When I look back on Ravnica, there’s a ton of stuff I think of as ‘great cards,’ even though they’re niche enough to need the whole deck built around them.
With that in mind, I will say the Ravnica bouncelands and signets are all-purpose good cards that casual decks can run and should always bear in mind for building. Whatever colour combination you’re in, you can make use of those ten cards, or can at least consider why not to use them. There’s also a bunch of robust utility effects at common and uncommon, with cards like Mortify, Putrefy, Watchwolf, Faith’s Fetters, Pure//Simple – just a whole lot of handy things that you can slot into decks. Not the kind of ‘pet’ cards I find myself making excuses for. So like, that kind of stuff? They’re not going on the list.
This list was hard to cut down and that’s after I set aside this special clause.
Gosh, what to pick? I had standard success with a bunch of these cards that made me feel remarkably successful, and some of those cards were also powerful enough to be valuable in Extended (which existed) and now Modern (which didn’t). Some of these cards were solid roleplayers, too – cards like Loxodon Hierarch and Firemane Angel, which you can usually find a home for. Some were top-tier utility for odd circumstances that didn’t get anything like them, like Dimir House Guard, Bottled Cloister or Cloudstone Curio. Then there were your build-around cards, things like Glare of Subdual and Flickerform, cards that could be put in a deck to utterly crush opponents on a particular angle of attack. There’s even Sunforger, one of my favourite cards I’ve barely ever played.
But, no matter the neat cards that I remember, no matter how many different decks I go to, there’s always going to be a favourite.
Chord of Calling represents was a decent card in standard, one that you largely didn’t need, and it didn’t have the same almost-always-the-best option as Green Sun’s Zenith that came along later (and needed banning in modern, huh). It let you change the state of board stalls, and presented a really good tutor effect – because it was instant speed – for some potentially really interesting ways to change the game. It was legal alongside Eternal Witness, which meant you could, provided you went unstopped, just stall a game out producing a sequence of 2/1s out of your library, which was pretty neat.
Chord of Calling in your casual or commander decks will almost always serve to create a situation not unlike picking a lock. It’s a card that makes you consider the value of every other creature in your deck, the notion that you might have access to a card at any time and then realise how rarely you want it. It’s dizzyingly powerful, but never so powerful you can jam it in any deck, and it makes a lot of creatures more powerful when you consider them in terms of happening at instant speed, as a surprise.
I tried a lot in Guildpact, including wanting to make a gro-like deck that ran off Gelectrode, and the love I had for Ghost Dad as a deck meant I tried out Ghost Council of Orzhova too. Also, again with the love of Gro, I did play with Witch-Maw Nephilim (who teamed up with Vinelasher Kudzu), in these fun, aggressive, explosive cantrip decks that just won when my threats didn’t get removed. Similarly, Dune-Brood Nephilim formed the centerpiece of a later modern deck that cared about getting lots of lands out then winning with Rogues’ Passages to generate tons of dudes. Also, I almost said Blind Hunter, a utility creature that could both feed sacrifice outlets or double up from your removal, until I realised that Blind Hunter was best when combined with the Bat Lord:
When you’re looking for a big dumb idiot to hold the ground, there are bigger and better but there are few that do the same job as ole Murray here.
Skeletal Vampire provides three bodies for six mana, with the threat of taking over the board if he’s not otherwise dealt with. It used to be you could block, put the damage of Murray and a bat on the stack, sac the bat to heal Murray, and still have the bat deal damage. Now you can’t, and Murray’s bat-creating engine isn’t the most effective, but he’s still a pretty decent body with a fairly unique effect for a control deck. Is he better than Visara? Probably not, alas.
Ultimately, though, what makes Skeletal Vampire last in my mind is his interaction with sacrifice based decks, Aristocrat decks. He is both a sacrifice outlet, and three bodies, and he can do the rare job of both providing a sacrifice trigger and more bodies for future sacrifice. Given his inclination towards extending the game – providing an air force to stall with – he can do a lot to provide #value over that time. Leave mana open to do things, if it doesn’t become necesarry, make some bats.
I just realised I gender Skeletal Vampire as male, because Murray, the skeleton in Monkey Island, is male. Still, don’t go assuming about skeletons.
Dissension is one of those sets that I hold up as an example of the Third Set problem. Despite having two guilds I properly loved in it, Dissension didn’t have enough space at all. Still, it does bear out the principle of the block, where there are a bunch of just good cards in it that you can usually use to slot into other decks, often as nearly-good-enoughs of old cards from bygone eras that we can all kind of accept are a bit too good. One particular note is the split card Crime//Punishment, which is almost a Pernicious Deed and Almost a Zombify, but crucially not either. It’s a card so flexible that its effectiveness is a real measure of how aware you as a player are of the board state. Do you play it for 2 mana to kill all the tokens on the board? But then I got to thinking about all the wonderful Simic cards, including the +1/+1 counterlord, Cytoplast Root-Kin, who has an awkward name and whose art is just a bit off, but great mechanics. Or Hit//Run? Or the Azorius control options? Or-
THEN THE WINGED HUSSARS ARRIVE!
Sky Hussar is a knight of no kingdom. The best deck I’ve ever seen running him was a modern mono-white deck running around Oketra’s Monument. They’re a uniquely flexible card, in that they can be useful in control decks to turn early stall cards like Wall Of Omens or Sea Gate Oracle draw cards when they’re less relevant as blockers in the late game, when your mana is already freed up. And if you’ve built up a meaningful attack force, the Hussar can effectively cantrip (by drawing a card in your upkeep, then untapping all your creatures when you cast it), or it can give your creatures vigilance for a turn.
There’s also some cute tricks you can do in bounce decks, letting you recover your Hussar or flickering it to get value out of tap permanents. All that and they fly, too!
I’ll probably never get them to play like they do in my dreams, but I’ll never know if I don’t keep jamming them into every dang deck I ever try that’s got the colours.