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By: CottonRhetoric, Cotton Rhetoric
Mar 18 2013 1:07am
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After analyzing grizzly bears, it's time to move on to some other creature types. Only this time, there's a big difference: instead of having many lists for one huge category, I'm making one list each for many small categories!

    Savannah Lions 


Category #1

Best Savannah Lions

definition: any 2/1 for 1 mana

You can cast a Savannah Lions with a Savannah; you can cast a Tundra Wolves with a Tundra; yet it takes two Bayous to cast a Bayou Dragonfly HMMMM.

Drifter il-Dal     5    

Tattermunge Maniac

It didn't make quite the splash we expected it to when it was first spoiled, proving that maybe a 2/1 in red isn't as anarchic as we once thought (at least, it's not anymore, but of course Jackal Pup had its day in the sun once). Still, it does show up on tournament tables every now and again, and its tribal relevance doesn't hurt.

Savannah Lions     4    

Savannah Lions

The original is still among the best, although it has been surpassed a couple of times in recent years.

Just take a look at how many tournament appearances it's had in different formats over the years, and it should put to rest those age-old, ridiculous arguments that Jackal Pup is the superior creature just because he's red. Jackal Pup was in like, 3 decks! Savannah Lions, quadruple that. Easily.

Elite Vanguard     3    

Elite Vanguard

It's less flavorful than the original Savannah Lions... but it's also a human, a tribal type that recent white decks seem to care an awful lot about. I can't say the same for cats (sorry, Raksha Golden Cub—I wish we could have worked something out).

Dryad Militant     2    

Dryad Militant

It has stats good enough to stand on its own. It also has a very relevant ability.

It came out in the middle of Snapcaster Mage's reign, and it's pretty clear that WotC made this as a hoser. But thankfully, they've learned something since their Teferi's Response days, so they decided not to make this card a dead draw against the rest of the field!

Gravecrawler     1    


Ooooh, Gravecrawler. First it's a Savannah Lions, then it's another Savannah Lions, then it's another one!

From beatdown to combos, this card is a powerhouse.  It can't block... but neither can it recite poetry, juggle bowling pins, or offer tax advice.  Nobody needs or demands it to.

Congratulations! You're lucky you're not an instant or a sorcery, or Dryad Militant would put an end to your recursion.


Norin the Wary  

Honorable Mention:
Norin the Wary

He's got the right stats, but they will never come up during combat, since this guy leaves play before anything happens. Sure, they could be relevant with the new "fight" keyword, or if a Night of Souls' Betrayal hits the table.... but usually this guy is just part of some zany combo.

He's fun but he's not quite in the spirit of what it means to be a Savannah Lion.

  Goblin Cadets  

Wheatless Chaff:
Goblin Cadets

Savannah Lions work best when they're on your side, don't you find?

Unless and until this guy gets Bronze Bombshell's ability printed on him, I ain't playing him.

I do suppose he's good against creatureless decks... but if you have that predictable a metagame, you could do even better tailoring than this.


    Isamaru, Hound of Konda


Category #2

Best Isamarus

definition: any 2/2 for 1 mana

They're bigger than Savannah Lions, which makes sense, because dogs are bigger than lions.

Nettle Sentinel

In the right deck, he's never stuck tapped. In fact, he usually has vigilance!

This is aside from the combo shenanigans he has, for instance with Heritage Druid or Earthcraft.

    5     Nettle Sentinel

Vampire Lacerator

Shucks! I thought nostalgic favorite Carnophage was going to make this list until I saw this guy and remembered. You know, when it comes to creatures, what was once considered broken in the broken Urza's Block is now just plain old pretty good. (Of course, when it comes to spells, and especially blue spells... they're still broken.)


Vampire Lacerator


Diregraf Ghoul

It gets even rougher! It's a good thing black decks don't have Dark Ritual anymore, because there sure are some mighty one- and two-drops.

It can't block right away like the Lacerator can, but it doesn't lose you life on its own... and as a zombie it combos well with Diregraf Ghoul. As if either needed a boost.


Diregraf Ghoul


Isamaru, Hound of Konda

Long before Watchwolf hit the scene, Isamaru was proving that it was possible to get players excited about vanilla creatures. How? By making them drastically above the curve, of course! This was at a time when Savannah Lions was as good as it got for a white one-drop, so to see our champion bested was quite a spectacle.

"But it's legendary so you can't safely play four of them," you conjecture. Incorrect; people ran four and still won tournaments without a sweat. It's that good a body.


Isamaru, Hound of Konda


Goblin Guide

This guy is ridiculous. In red no less!—a color that once thought Jackal Pup was a bargain, and that's before it even had Lava Spikes to go with it. For you see, as good as Isamaru is already, the goblin also has haste.

"But surely his drawback of giving the opponents land will—" NO IT WON'T. Whatever minor inconvenience he creates every 3 turns on average is a very small matter next to the six damage he just dealt. This guy is bonkers absurd even if you're not taking advantage of his goblin tribe. And a quick glance at the ol' 8x5 rule will show you just how over the curve this fellow is, even when being compared to tournament caliber creatures. (Can I call it "ol'" when it's only a couple of weeks ol'? I can? Good.)

    1     Goblin Guide

Congratulations! Is that... is that calisthenics??



Honorable Mention:
Ghazbán Ogre

"Put this in your stompy deck!" they said. 

"Are you sure? It seems kind of risky."

"Hey, if you didn't jump into an early lead with your stompy deck, you weren't going to win anyway."

We listened. We put it in our deck. Not because we trusted this advice, but because the Ogre was about the only high-powered one drop to choose from back then, after Rogue Elephant.

I'll admit it: sometimes it worked. But usually we cast him on turn one and then got hit with a Lightning Bolt to the face and gave our ogre to the opponent before even getting to attack with it.

Every deck back then had 4 Lightning Bolts. Except our mono-green stompy deck.

  Flailing Soldier  

Wheatless Chaff:
Flailing Soldier

It's such an exciting-looking card, but only to people who have never used it. They start dreaming about how big they can make it. And if our opponent tries to kill it, we'll just pump it up more than they can pump it down!

Perfect for our land destruction deck!

Anyone who has used this, though, knows that the above is wrong wrong wrong, and Flailing Soldier never lives longer than our opponent wants it to. No matter what our strategy is.  Because two toughness just isn't that much.

They should put this ability on a 6/6 trampler though! That would be cool. Something our opponent couldn't just squash at will.


    Barrow Ghoul


Category #3

Best Barrow Ghouls

definition: any 4/4 for 2 mana

What efficient stats! Why aren't there more of these?

Veteran Brawlers     5    

Veteran Brawlers

"Wait, these guys are terrible. What are they doing on a Top 5 list?"

You're right. They are terrible. But the thing is, only 7 Barrow Ghouls were ever printed, so scoring 5th place doesn't require very much.  What kept them from being the Wheatless Chaff? Well, neither this card nor that one can attack very often, if ever... but unlike that card, this one can at least block pretty reliably. It's not so worse a deal than Wall of Razors.

Flesh Reaver     4    

Flesh Reaver

Let it not be mistaken—this is not a good card, either.

It might look like one at first. It was in the same block as Phyrexian Negator, and it was during a time when Dark Ritual, Carnophage, and Hatred were all standard-legal, making "suicide black" one of the top decks. (The other deck? The one with Tolarian Academy and Time Spiral and Windfall in it!!  Yes, those were crazy times.)

So what went wrong with this guy? You see, unlike Carnophage (and Serendib Efreet and Juzam Djinn and Fledgling Djinn and a lot of other cards I could name), Flesh Reaver does not help you win the race. At best, you and your opponent are losing the same amount of life. And that might even be okay! Just look at Shepherd of Rot—he was playable. It's when you realize that Flesh Reaver almost never functions at best that things start looking kind of hopeless. See, unlike the Shepherd, this guy is in no way guaranteed to make your opponent lose 4 each time it taps. But it is guaranteed to make you lose 4, whether he gets blocked or not. And he doesn't so much as have trample. He makes your life total dwindle very fast and your opponent's dwindle very slowly, if at all. Not even suicide black wants that kind of a deal.

In other words, whatever flavor text writer called the reaver "highly effective" had never seen it used.

Imaginary Pet     3    

Imaginary Pet

We're slowly getting closer to playable here!

This one is for the casual room only, but it at least serves a purpose in there. For instance, you could run it in your blue-black hellbent deck (the one with Veiled Crocodile and Howltooth Hollow and Necrogen Mists. Or am I the only one who plays with that deck?). Or you could intentionally let it bounce every turn, and do some Pandemonium damage. Or you could drop a Lightning Greaves and turn it into a cheaper, bigger Viashino Sandstalker!

...Illusion tribal deck. Okay now I'm done.

Barrow Ghoul     2    

Barrow Ghoul

I don't think he's ever seen tournament play (please correct me if I'm wrong), but I do know he's seen a lot of play in my own casual decks.  My favorite combination is to feed him a cycled Street Wraith, but he also works well with graveyard fillers like Mesmeric Orb. If you have enough fuel going, you can double up on your theme and run some Circling Vultures!

Jotun Grunt     1    

Jötun Grunt

And now for the actually good card in the category, the one that has seen some tournament play.

Jötun Grunt might seem worse than the real Barrow Ghoul at first since it's a cumulative 2 instead of a steady 1, until you realize that (1) he can eat any type of card, not just creatures, and (2) way more importantly, he can eat cards from any graveyard—not just your own! So your opponents may think they're all slick with their Bazaar of Baghdads and their Golgari Grave-Trolls, but you'll show 'em what time it is. You even get to pick the cards! (I pick Unburial Rites and Firemane Angel.)

The Grunt isn't infinitely sustainable, but his drawback definitely has an upside to it.

Congratulations! Nice hair, Johnny Rotten.


Loxodon Peacekeeper  

Honorable Mention:
Loxodon Peacekeeper

It's another card that seems to be good until you actually put it on the table.

It's not good in an aggro deck, because you want to be ahead on life. It's not good in a midrange or defensive deck because... well those too want to be ahead on life, at least at some point in the game if not the whole time. And it's not even good in a deck that has an alternate wincon besides damage! Because... why would you want a 4/4 in those games? Just get a real wall, man.  One that the opponent won't randomly steal with a shockland.

But he's still appealing, because there's always that dream that you can make him work. That elusive, impossible dream that we chase like Gatsby's green light.


Wheatless Chaff:

Okk!!!!  How my blood boils at the thought of you.

Yes, it's possible to get a creature with higher power and toughness than 4/4, and yes, you can totally attack and block with him.

But not in the early game!!!  So what's the point of having him cost only 2 mana??  Just to sit around looking intimidating?  If not for Chris Millar's monosyllabic deck back in the day,* I don't think the Okktopus would have been put in a single deck, ever.

*It seems like the 2006 article's formatting got messed up during WotC's site redesign and the decklists are missing! Shame; they were funny.


    Merfolk Looter

Let's get some categories that don't have to do with power, toughness, or casting cost.

Category #4

Best Looters

definition: a card that can both draws and discards the same amount of individual cards as part of the same effect

All 5 cards with Loot in the name share the looting mechanic. Pilfering is not as well defined.

Merfolk Looter

Ol' reliable just barely makes the chart!

He's an absolute game breaker in limited, and he has seen some constructed play too, thanks mostly to fish decks. He's cheap, he's simple, he's effective if a bit slow, and once your draws are smoothed out enough he can swing in for 2 next to a Lord of Atlantis.


Merfolk Looter


Vodalian Merchant

There are some decks that prefer the Looter and some that prefer the Merchant. This guy tends to get slightly more play though, since his ability is quicker and he's free to attack the next turn. Obviously this comes at the price of reusability, but in the land of constructed, your decklist is refined enough that repeatable looting shouldn't be too necessary. Especially in an aggro deck like fish, where you want to just drop everything immediately anyway.


Vodalian Merchant


Frantic Search

It's card disadvantage, and unlike the two above cards, we don't get to keep a creature after we're done looting with this. So why is it good? Two reasons.

One, it came out in Urza's Block, which provided so much card advantage (I already mentioned the Time Spiral / Windfall deck) that a little disadvantage didn't really matter.

Two, it came out in the Urza's Block! Therefore we have lands like Tolarian Academy and Gaea's Cradle, making this card not only free but also a Dark Ritual of sorts. Pret-ty nuts.


Frantic Search


Careful Study

It wasn't free, or an accelerant—in fact it had the nerve to actually cost us a mana!—so why is this better than Frantic Search, when they have the same effect?

This came out during the Odyssey block, which might not have had Windfall or Tolarian Academy, but it did have a very heavy graveyard theme. So this card simultaneously:

On turn one, by the way.


Careful Study


Faithless Looting

What if we took an already great card like Careful Study, and then let you cast it a second time?

Sure, we don't have the graveyard theme in standard by the time this comes out, but we do have plenty of graveyard-matters cards, including Snapcaster Mage, Unburial Rites, Lingering Souls, Bloodghast, anything with unearth...

And if another card puts Faithless Looting into your graveyard, flashing it back does not even cost you card advantage.


Faithless Looting

Congratulations! How are you going to loot stuff that you've set on fire?


Looter il-Kor  

Honorable Mention:
Looter il-Kor

This guy shoulda been something huge. He's like Merfolk Looter, except he also deals damage while working!

Don't get me wrong, he's still often first-pick worthy in limited, but he never really made waves in constructed. The reasons are (1) unlike Merfolk Looter, you can't loot before combat if you want to, and (2) he hasn't got that fishy tribal type.

The shadow is nice, but it just isn't enough.

  Teferi's Imp  

Wheatless Chaff:
Teferi's Imp

Rrrgghh my blood is starting to boil again. I don't think writing these articles is good for my health.

Think about what a bad deal this loser is. Really think about it. You cast him on Turn Three. (I'm assuming you didn't get a Turn One Llanowar Elves, because nobody smart enough to use that card is dumb enough to use this one.) On Turn Four, the Imp uselessly phases out, making you discard a card and get nothing in return except the inability to attack or block. On Turn Five you are finally completing the other half of the loot. Turn five. Your opponent is casting a Baneslayer Angel and you are replacing a card you discarded two turns ago. And if you can keep this 1/1 on the battlefield long enough... you'll get to loot again on Turn Seven! The turn that a Sun Titan is attacking you.

Phasing creatures are all bad—seriously, every single one of them, you can have a look—and this guy is one of the smelliest banana peels in the garbage can. Possibly even the smelliest, as only Warping Wurm really gives him any competition. (Hey and before anybody suggests Frenetic Efreet and Rainbow Efreet as good phasing creatures... they don't have phasing! They can phase. Worlds different.)

Why does a powerful wizard like Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir want this imp as a familiar? I'm going to guess he kept it for just one week before either selling it to a lesser wizard or casting a Psionic Blast on it to vent his anger. Or inviting a red mage over for supper and asking him to cast a Shivan Meteor on the imp.

It deserves it.




Category #5

Best Ball Lightnings

definition: a creature with haste that kills itself at the end of the turn

Did you know? The cause of ball lightning in the real world has never been explained.

Putrefax     5    

Blistering Firecat

As many before me have pointed out, this card's 7 power is a lot better than Ball Lightning's 6 power. All for the simple reason that three of these is enough to win the game, but three of those will still leave your opponent at 2.

How often you will get three copies of the same creature unblocked in one game is another issue, but that is the metric people use.

Blistering Firecat     4    

Ball Lightning

So what's Ball Lightning doing higher on the list than Blistering Firecat?

7 power may be better than 6 power... but 3 mana is way better than 4 mana. We're talking about burn decks, here. Decks for which Char is a late-game plan. Decks for whom every single card drawn needs to be utilized to its fullest: frankly, they don't even want to draw a fourth land, let alone wait until the fourth turn to play it.

Hell's Thunder     3    

Hell's Thunder

Relative newcomer Hell's Thunder boasts a high damage potential, although the high mana investment makes it more for decks a little slower and less pure than dedicated burn decks.

It has one important quality that Ball Lightning lacked: resilience. You cannot take down a Hell's Thunder with a Terror. You can only weaken it.

Hellspark Elemental     2    

Hellspark Elemental

"Oh, that element." You know people made fun of Rust Elemental when it came out, for the way rust isn't an element... but at least it's a thing! What's a hellspark? It's a 1988 novel by Janet Kagan, according to Google, but it isn't a word, according to the dictionary, and it certainly isn't an element, according to everyone except Wizards of the Coast.

Alpha took all of the good elementals, like Air, and Fire, and Earth. But it's not like we're out of nature. How about a grass elemental? Or a dirt elemental? Anything is better than a made-up-word elemental. Magic just cannot stop itself from smashing together compound words. (Did you ever read this satire?)

But perhaps you want me to actually evaluate the card. It has resilience like Hell's Thunder, but it also has speed. And you can save its unearth for just the right moment, that perfect turn when you had two extra mana floating around and nothing to do with it. Back to Hell's Thunder—how often do you have five mana floating around? If you unearth Hell's Thunder, it was your plan for the turn. If you unearth Hellspark Elemental, you're maximizing your resources.

Ichorid     1    


...Apparently, the best Ball Lightning is a free, reusable black spell that doesn't even trample. But read his text box. He meets all of the criteria in the definition. He's it.

If you're not familiar with this guy's tournament pedigree, he's had a home in a bunch of different formats before ultimately becoming the centerpiece of a top-ranking vintage deck, the very quirky and fascinating Manaless Ichorid Dredge deck. It's a deck with only four lands, and they're all Bazaar of Baghdad, which cannot tap for mana. It uses Serum Powder to start with the Bazaar in hand, then dump a dredge spell into the graveyard, then trigger it, then get a ton of free creatures onto the battlefield, while also casting some free disruption on the opponent. It sounds crazy, but it works.

Most of Ichorid's uses on the way over to vintage were a lot less degenerate, but they were still very powerful. As Bloodghast shows us today, free reusable creatures can do quite a bit of damage. And that guy doesn't even have three power.

Congratulations! You cheater.



Honorable Mention:

I love this guy! But I must admit he's not very good, despite having the same stats as the best "real" Ball Lightning, Ball Lightning.

The reason is probably obvious: he costs GGG. This means you are not playing him next to Lightning Bolt but Hornet Sting.  And you don't have any redundancy options, unless you consider Unyaro Bee Sting or Yavimaya Ants worthy of your attention.

  Spark Elemental  

Wheatless Chaff:
Spark Elemental

The way I see it, this card has only two things going for it:

  1. It's very good at teaching new players. Specifically, it teaches them how bad Spark Elemental is.
  2. It's very, very good with the Higure avatar. But so is Raging Goblin so as you can see this distinction does not translate into real Magic.

Yes, Spark Elemental is a bad card and the only Ball Lightnings that approach its badness are Lightning Serpent and Arc Runner.

"But you can search it up with a Ranger of Eos." Okay you got me on that one.



That's all for this week!

There are still a lot of categories I want to run through, so check back next week for some more.


I am very surprised you by Paul Leicht at Mon, 03/18/2013 - 02:09
Paul Leicht's picture

I am very surprised you didn't mention the new Ball Lightning: Spark Trooper. Not only does it does all the things Ball Lightning does but it has lifelink. :D

Also: What's with putrefax?

He's OK but the kind of deck by CottonRhetoric at Mon, 03/18/2013 - 09:36
CottonRhetoric's picture

He's OK but the kind of deck that wants a Ball Lightning doesn't usually care about gaining life. If it was a top 10 list he would have made it.

As for Putrefax, it's left over from an earlier version of the list. I changed the words but forgot to change the thumbnail. I did the same thing with Drifter il-Dal up top :X

As a pauper player, Spark by Solset at Mon, 03/18/2013 - 10:42
Solset's picture

As a pauper player, Spark Elementals do show up sometimes in daily event winning burn lists which maybe makes it one of the more played "ball lightnings"

Hmmmmm fair point. I admit to by CottonRhetoric at Mon, 03/18/2013 - 10:59
CottonRhetoric's picture

Hmmmmm fair point. I admit to not knowing much about pauper.

I also call foul on Spark by olaw at Mon, 03/18/2013 - 13:20
olaw's picture

I also call foul on Spark Elemental. It actually sees a decent amount of play in Modern burn decks. Considerably more play than Hell's Thunder or Ball Lightning get at any rate.

Otherwise, cool lists. I find these articles pretty fun.