What To Look For In A Top-Tier, Powerful Card in MTG

Force of Will is a classic, extremely powerful card in MTG

What To Look For In A Top-Tier, Powerful Card in MTG

With over 20,000 cards in Magic: the Gathering spanning more than 25 years, many will be wondering: what gameplay attributes make for a powerful card?

Some might say it depends on your play style and deck type. After all, a good card in one deck may be useless in another. Very true. However there are also undeniable attributes that make a card standout among the rest and make their way into many decks. These attributes are low casting cost, value generation, and often game-winning abilities or triggers.

Low Casting Cost

Yes, lower Casting Costs are always better. Black Lotus is an iconic, powerful card because it costs 0 Mana. So are the rest of the original Power 9 cards – Moxes cost 0 Mana, and an extra turn with Time Walk costs only 2 Mana. While it is rare to find newer cards with 0 Casting Cost, the powerful ones tend to have 2-3 Mana cost. Let’s take a look at few below:

Growth spiral is a powerful card for building mana base

Growth Spiral is a Common with straightforward abilities. It became known as a powerful card because for only 2 Mana, it provided two benefits to the player – card draw and placing an additional land on the battlefield. It couldn’t win games on its own, but the low cost and high utility make it so important that in a recent tournament, all Top 8 decks were using four copies each.

Similarly, Once Upon A Time offered the option of casting it for free, if it was the first spell you played in the game. Hence if you drew it on your opening hand, you could essentially fix your next draw by choosing the best card out of five. If Once Upon A Time could only been cast for 2 Mana, it wouldn’t have been that great, but the 0 Casting Cost option made it a bona-fide powerful card.

It Has To Provide Value Once It Enters the Battlefield

This also disguises itself as another “obvious point,” but lacking an immediate effect on the game can make or break a powerful card. Let’s start with a good example:

Ravenous Chupacabra is a simple 2/2 Wolf for 4 Mana, a mere Uncommon card. However, it also has a stunning “Enter the Battlefield” ability – it can destroy target creature. This is what we call a “2-for-1” card, where you are getting a Creature (and presence) on the Battlefield, and you can get to erase one your opponent’s Creatures.

Colossus Hammer is not a powerful card, but it does get the idea across
Artist: Dimitry Burmak

Next, we will put two Mythic Rare Green Creatures side by side. Questing Beast and Elder Gargaroth are worthy contenders for any kind of Mono-Green Stompy decks. Both can generate tremendous value for you. In fact, it is arguable that Elder Gargaroth provides way more value over the long game. But right now, it is Questing Beast that is considered the more powerful card, simply because it has Haste and can attack the turn it comes into play.

Imagine if Elder Gargaroth had Haste as well. It would generate almost instant value for its controller. It would become an awesome 2-for-1 card. Unfortunately, because it doesn’t have Haste, it might forever languish as a better-than-average card, instead of an amazing one.

They Can Win You Games Very Quickly

Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is undoubtedly a powerful card, with three different abilities with tremendous upside. The card is an obvious powerhouse and it is clearly demonstrated in it 8 Mana Casting Cost.

Then there are those such as Embercleave and The Great Henge that might not appear as powerful as Ugin. Embercleave needs lots of attacking Creatures to reduce its 6 Casting Cost, and The Great Henge requires a high-power Creature. However, their abilities can win you games very quickly. Embercleave can be used as a Combat trick to easily deal 10 damage or more from a single creature.

A powerful card needs to be as fast as lightning to be effective.
Artist: Svetlin Velinov

Likewise, The Great Henge generates such amazing card draw in a Creature-heavy Green deck that your Battlefield will quickly and easily overwhelm the opponent.

As you’ve probably noticed by now, a powerful card doesn’t always cost just 2 or 3 mana, contradicting our earlier point. Let’s take a look at Craterhoof Behemoth – it costs 8 mana but it is one of the most powerful cards in Green. It requires you to have at least a few other Creatures for it to be effective, but once Craterhoof Behemoth resolves, it is virtually a game-winning move.

A Powerful Card Gives 3-For-1, Or Even 4-For-1 Value

We’ve talked about 2-for-1 cards, but what if that wasn’t enough? For a powerful card to surpass all the other great cards, it needs to be triple value or more when it hits the battlefield. Let’s look at a staple card in the metagame, that had been recently banned in Standard format – Teferi, Time Ravaler.

Teferi, Time Ravaler costs 3 Mana, already a very cheap cost for a Planeswalker. But what make it backbreaking was its 3-for-1 value once it resolved. Firstly, it has a passive ability that prevents opponents from playing Instants. Next, his -3 ability returned a permanent to its owner’s hand, disrupting the tempo of the opponent. And lastly, he gets to draw a card(!) as part of the -3 ability. The amount of value generated is staggering, and it is being used in many decks over multiple formats.

Is there a card that can generate a 4-for-1 value on the same turn it is cast? It would probably have to be a Permanent with an activated ability, which we go into below.

Can Its Ability Be Repeated Multiple Times Per Turn?

If an effect can be repeated multiple times, even into an infinite loop, then you have a potentially powerful card. One strong example is Walking Ballista. Its ability does not require itself to Tap, hence the ability can be repeated as many times as possible, at “Instant Speed”, and as long as you are able to pay the cost.

Combined with other cards, such as Heliod, Sun-Crowned, an infinite combo loop is formed. Heliod, Sun-Crowned can give Walking Ballista Lifelink, and when it deals any damage, it gets a replacement +1/+1 counter, again thanks to Heliod’s passive ability. Walking Ballista‘s ability is so powerful and useful that it used in multiple formats including Pioneer, Modern, and Commander.

End Step

We hope this gives the beginner a good understanding of what makes a powerful card in MTG. In part, it does depend on how it interacts with other cards, but in other cases, its own abilities are just too good for the Casting Cost. Now that you’ve identified the notable cards, you could use some of those cards and try to rise up the ranks in MTG Arena.

After playing from Tempest to Urza's Saga block, Ted took a 20 year break from the game before returning to the classic Plane of Dominaria in 2018. His favourite formats are Commander, Draft, and, grudgingly, Standard.
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