The holidays are an odd time for me—I get alternately nostalgic and fidgety, maudlin and mordant, focused on the onrushing future and mooning over the past. Honestly, I’m like that all the time, but it becomes more pronounced during the holidays. Because Magic: the Gathering is such a part of my past and is likely to be part of my future, that also means I dwell on Magic, whether it’s grabbing Jumpstart matchups in the margins or scheduling Commander nights around the holidays. More than anything, the close of the year means I go back through everything printed during the calendar year and consider what that full cartorama means. 2022 was an especially odd year in Magic—we revisited old planes, brought in real-world imagery, and saw what post-pandemic (implicit asterisk here, of course) Magic play design and organized play looks like, all with an accelerated release schedule.

Every single Magic card, no matter how anodyne or forgettable, tells a story, is the culmination of a series of choices and acts of labor. Take, for example, one of Magic’s most unique cards: Steamflogger Boss. It was a joke when first printed, before becoming a crucial card for Contraption decks with the printing of Unstable. The brilliance of Steamflogger Boss, though, was that it forced enfranchised players back in 2006 to feel the way new players do when they first pick up Magic. For every Magic player who can rattle off keyword abilities or has Mutate’s rules text memorized, there are countless players who believe Zetalpa, Primal Dawn is literally unbeatable or that Glimpse the Unthinkable is broken. Steamflogger Boss sought to humble expert players by throwing meaningless jargon at them, before paying off the bit by giving that jargon meaning after more than a decade. Back in Future Sight, players were frustrated by opening a useless card in their rare slot, to have another Hill Giant in their Sealed pools, to have a tantalizing potential deck strategy hinted at but never printed. Steamflogger Boss seemed exceptional—it was a lord-style card that allowed you to double up on what were presumably beneficial interactions—but it remained a curiosity until Unstable.

That’s what we’re talking about when I talk about a time capsule card. We may be loath to admit it, but post-Modern Horizons, Tarmogoyf and Dark Confidant are essentially time capsule cards. There was a time in tournament Magic when Goyf was The Threat, when a playset cost $400, when matchups came down to who could stick and protect a Goyf. Those days are gone, most likely, despite my rabid and ongoing “Print Tarmogoyf into Pioneer” campaign. Tarmogoyf’s stock has fallen, but so long as someone remembers the day they finished their playset, or the clutch double Goyf hand that pulled them through to the Top 8, or when they sold their set of Goyfs towards a crib or a car payment, Tarmogoyf will never die (or, if it does die, it will at least grow the legend of the Tarmogoyf). As an ancient player, I still get wistful when I see a Ravenous Baloth or a Figure of Destiny, and, should we be lucky enough to see it, there will come a day when we feel similarly about Solitude or Sheoldred, the Apocalypse. What Magic will look like in 2050, after decades of Universes Beyond, machine learning, and social and technological changes, is unknowable, so each year, I like to scroll back through the entire swath of cards first printed that year, excluding reprints, basic lands, tokens, Heroes of the Realm promos, etc.—2,389 this year, by my count—and pick the handful that define the year from me. It’s a quixotic exercise that often leaves me looking pretty foolish—I was way too enamored of the design space of Exert, and way too suspicious of Contraptions—but the holidays are also an excellent time for looking foolish. Prognostication is for actual wizards, not us cardboard conjurers. But the cards that defined 2022—not the best-designed, or most-played, or most-desired cards, but the cards that embody the philosophy and aesthetics of Magic in the year—are easier to pick out. For example, the story of Magic in 2020 is impossible to tell without going into Space Godzilla, Death Corona, but the controversy might be opaque in a future where “coronavirus” has become an outdated way to refer to COVID without the context of 2020. 2022 was—generally and gratefully—less disruptive than 2020, so we’ll be focused on cards that tell the story of Magic over the course of the year, which saw the release of the following sets:

  • Innistrad: Double Feature
  • Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty
  • Streets of New Capenna
  • Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur’s Gate
  • Double Masters 2022
  • Dominaria United
  • Unfinity
  • The Brothers’ War
  • Jumpstart 2022

In addition, we had the release of several rounds of Commander decks, including the Warhammer 40,000 tie-in decks, dozens of Secret Lairs, and Arena-exclusive Alchemy variants. From that bounteous glut of cards, I’ve picked my personal time capsule (although I discounted Double Feature, since those cards were first printed in 2021, although I do think its failures as a Magic product is crucial to the history of Magic in 2022). My most unforgettable card of the year, of course, was my first free preview card, Argivian Cavalier, which was everything I hoped for in Limited and an honor to have the chance to preview right here at Hipsters of the Coast. That’s the eighth card, as the personal doesn’t overcome the playable, so here’s my closing hand for 2022:

7. Retro Wurmcoil Engine

Wurmcoil was printed in several version in The Brothers’ War: retro frame, retro frame with schematic art, and retro foil serialized, all of which are absolutely beautiful. Wizards tested the fully unique card model with the “backwards” and serialized Viscera Seer included randomly in some 2021 Secret Lairs, but Wurmcoil, and the other serialized printings of retro artifacts in Brothers’ War Collector Boosters, was the first time they could be opened in boosters. Only 500 of each were printed, making them vanishingly rare and pricey, and signaling that Wizards is comfortable adapting the tactics of ’90’s sports trading cards. Aside from that, though, it signaled that Wizards was fine with the Strixhaven Mystical Archives model, down to the absurd variability of the cards. As someone who loves Limited, cards like Time Warp and Wurmcoil Engine are disruptive when I’m trying to learn a new environment, and frustrating to play against, but the surge of joy you feel when you open a Wurmcoil in your Draft pack can now be experienced by those who only open Collector’s Boosters. It’s the perfect time capsule card—a decade old, but still powerful, and the gorgeous Swanland art has never appeared in the retro frame until now, making it feel anachronistic in the best way in a set with Unearth and massive Phyrexian war engines.

6. Soundwave, Sonic Spy

Moving us from pleasantly anachronistic to jarringly anachronistic, The Brothers’ War also brought the Transformers cards. Like the serialized foil cards, these were designed to drive sales, but where the serialized cards were profoundly rare and designed to feel like unearthed artifacts, the Transformers were in all Collector’s Boosters and 10% of Set Boosters and felt like you’d opened a joker in your Magic pack. Cross-promotion of brands is tacky, but tacky can be a defined and valid aesthetic; these, however, just felt clunky. The current prices of these suggest the demand is relatively low, even for Optimus Prime and Megatron, and the wordiness and craven IP-solidification is apt to keep them as a curiosity. As one of the wordiest, Soundwave is a good representative of this experiment in brand burnishing.

5. Fable of the Mirror-Breaker

Never, never count out Kiki-Jiki. Fable is one of my favorite types of cards: unassuming on paper, but accumulating ludicrous value in play. Fable, as it turns out, does just enough at every stage to make it a pillar of Standard and Pioneer, and to flirt with Modern. 2022 was a year of tournament powerhouses sneaking through the cracks, with Ledger Shredder and Unlicensed Hearse also as unassuming but potent cards, but the little Enchantment Goblin has been the greatest success story from the anthology of success stories that was Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty. While the card templating is complex and prolix, it coheres to tell a great story, and would be exciting if not understandable to someone who played back in original Kamigawa.

4. Battle Bus

In contrast, here’s a card that would be completely opaque to a player circa Champions of Kamigawa. Smuggler’s Copter is a notorious card to those of who suffered the fallout of Kaladesh, but everything about the Bus, from card type to Fortnite art, would be alienating to someone used to tapping three mana to make a 3/3. I’m not a Fortnite player, because I am 36 with a 36-year-old’s reflexes, but I am a graveyard player who enjoys winning, and so I’m not immune to the comedy of registering a Modern deck with retro lands, Junji Ito Thoughtseizes, and a set of Fortnite-skinned Copters. This pick is representative of Wizards’ willingness to open Magic up to other intellectual properties, from those that make immediate sense (Lord of the Rings, Warhammer 40K) to those that are cultural phenomena but an odd juxtaposition (Fortnite, Stranger Things). Eventually, Wizards will pair with an IP that ages extremely poorly, and I can’t wait to throw that in the time capsule. Until then, we’ll always have the Battle Bus.

3. Attempted Murder

Unfinity came out at an awkward time and to mixed reviews. Pushed later in the year due to printing logistics, the space-themed Un- set made some choices that turned off players, from semi-permanent stickers on cards to a Contraption-style mechanic to the confusing legality of some cards in Legacy, Vintage, and (more importantly) Commander. It released between Dominaria United and The Brothers’ War, on the exact same day as the similarly extraterrestrial Warhammer Commander decks. While these products serve different audiences, there was enough overlap, and enough product shortages, that Warhammer overshadowed the cacophonous carnival that was Unfinity. I expect Unfinity cards to periodically pop up, from Saw in Half to Sole Performer, but the most emblematic card design for me was the self-referential removal spell of Attempted Murder. Storm Crow is an old joke within the internet Magic community, as referenced in Crow Storm, and the joke of “Attempted Murder” being tied to a randomized Storm Crow producer/Wither spell really nails what Un- sets do well. It’s a good joke that plays well the first time and the fiftieth.

Unfinity is also notable for hiring comedy writers to work on the flavor of the set, from LoadingReadyRun to internet comedy stalwart Seanbaby, which infused a throwback puns-and-punchline vibe that harkened back to Unglued. Here is where I shamelessly promote myself as a long-time comedy writer and Magic lover for whatever follow-up set is next—it wouldn’t be the end of the year and the holiday season without dreaming a somewhat self-indulgent dream and breathing out hopes into the new year.

2. White Plume Adventurer

Legacy is a curious format. I don’t pretend to understand its intricacies and quirks, as I missed the Force of Will-and-Wasteland era of Magic, but what I truly respect about the format is how Legacy players are determined to prove that they can win with whatever Wizards prints. From Goblin Charbelcher to 40-Land decks to Space Beleren to Minsc and Boo, Legacy players see outré cards and mechanics as a direct challenge. Some work out better than others, but the big one in 2022 was Initiative from Baldur’s Gate—when Wizards added the mechanic to Magic Online, Legacy players immediately and successfully adopted Seasoned Dungeoneer and White Plume Adventurer as a way to garner consistent advantage every turn. Rich Cali has a great rundown, and is more familiar with Legacy than I am, but the story of the Initiative is also the story of the brilliance and creativity of Magic players and our collective determination to use the tools Wizards gives us to create some truly surprising edifices.

1. The Mightstone and the Weakstone

In 1994, we were introduced to the (separated) Mightstone and Weakstone, whose splitting served as the catalyst for the Brothers’ War. Never really playable, they nonetheless seemed the best version of the powerful artifacts we were likely to get—until 2022. Now represented as a single card, and half of a meld pairing with Urza, Lord Protector, the Might/Weakstone may have the strangest templating of any Magic card—without the context of Urza and the Brothers’ War, the card looks like a misprint to any player previous to 2016 (and possibly post 2026?). The jargon—Powerstone, Meld, a planeswalker textbook with no casting cost and four abilities in lieu of a card back—is impenetrable to all but the most enfranchised players, despite the fact that, minus Meld, the front side of the card could have easily been printed back in Antiquities. That, to me, is when Magic is at its best: immediately understandable from a bird’s-eye view, but nuanced when studied at a closer level. The Mightstone and Weakstone contain Magic’s thirty-year evolution within a single card, and do so while harkening back to the flavor of the game’s earliest days.

Magic in 2022 was exhausting. Not exhausted—if anything, this year was an aesthetic highlight, with creative cards printed by the hundreds, and reasonably balanced gameplay within most formats—but it was enervating to keep up with the game’s release schedule as someone who writes about the full scope of the game. I’d equate it to this year’s other major gaming release, Elden Ring, which is a staggering achievement in video games that was exhilarating for the first fifty hours and exhausting for the final twenty. I played all of these cards, among hundreds of others, but I simply couldn’t play them enough to truly fall in love with many of them. In other years, I would have loved to have built a Commander deck around The Most Dangerous Gamer or cracked Phyrexian Fleshgorger in Pioneer or drafted Baldur’s Gate more than once or splurged on a Double Masters Sealed. In 2022, though, although I spent as much time consuming Magic as I generally do, it was all I could do to keep abreast of spoilers and get in my reps on Arena and at the gaming table. In reviewing these 3,000 cards to pick the choicest, I discovered several dozen I didn’t remember and felt the pang of regret at not being able to give so many stories their spotlight. In the deluge days of modern Magic, that’s become standard, which is a more perfect encapsulation of the game than any dozen or hundred cards could be. That said, I do think these are the gems (or glittering glass) of 2022, a sampling of what Magic has been and is becoming, of where we’ve proceeded from and what we’re progressing to. In 2023, I expect more cross-promotion of brands, more Secret Lairs, more special treatments and curiosities, but also more of what Magic does best: produce puzzling, powerful, and provocative cards. I’m already excited and have seven slots reserved for this exercise in December of 2023—whatever the year brings, we know for a fact it will gift us thousands of new cards and will continue the Magic.

Rob Bockman (he/him) is a native of South Carolina who has been playing Magic since Tempest block. A writer of fiction and stage plays, he loves the emergent comedy of Magic and the drama of high-level play. He’s been a Golgari player since before that had a name and is never happier than when he’s able to say “Overgrown Tomb into Thoughtseize,” no matter the format.

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