Too-Specific Top 10 - Spooky Scary Skeletons
(Unworthy Dead | Art by Carl Critchlow)
Send Shivers Down a Top 10
Welcome to Too-Specific Top 10, where if there isn’t a category to rank our pet card at the top of, we’ll just make one up! (Did you know that Lightning Skelemental is the only skeletal Ball Lightning?)
If you ever happened across some black cards from Magic's history that happened to be in Mandarin, then you may have noticed some changes to the artwork of those cards:
These changes were not always so blatant, but if there was a large, prominent, human skeleton in a piece of art in the 90s or early 2000s, you can pretty much guarantee that there was a hastily worked over alternate art for the card. This was because of a Chinese tradition holding skeletons as a bad omen, and Wizards made the decision to not chance things, and not to feature skeletons in cards that were to be sold in China.
Let's get an idea of just how routine a hoop that became to jump through with iconic Alpha card Drudge Skeletons.
While the Alpha through Fifth Edition versions of the basic regenerating Skeletons weren't exported to China, starting in Sixth Edition, WotC began selling cards there, and they had to figure some things out. The alternate art in this version is actually pulled from a rapidly-skinned-over Unworthy Dead, as they'd already run into this problem with that card when it was printed in Urza's Saga the previous year.
As R&D kept needing this basic black common for each Core Set, they eventually settled on the same art and the same alternate art for this card for several years, until the practice of avoiding skeletons in art was lifted in the late 2000s.
However, when looking at the undead designs for the game during this time period, more often than not the question that got asked was, "Why not just make it a Zombie instead?" Which is fair enough, although it did result in a rather underrepresented tribe.
Even outside of actual Skeletons, however, this phenomenon kept cropping up.
So, with that in mind, you see a significant drop-off in (humanoid) skeletal artwork for many years in Magic, beginning just after the Urza's Saga block and ending with Innistrad.
All of which got me wondering: given that there's a rather reduced supply, what exactly are the most popular skeletal cards?
Top 10 Skeletal Cards
This one's not too complex, so let's get right to the criteria:
Criteria: Cards with the type "Skeleton", or cards that feature a skeleton prominently (you shouldn't have to zoom in) in their artwork, either of which need to have been printed in regular-sized paper (thanks, 2018 Europe Legacy Champion Trophy Cards). As is tradition, all results are ordered by EDHREC score.
10. Living Death
(25,379 Inclusions, 7% of 363,843 Decks)
Living Death needs no introduction for anyone who's been playing Commander for a while. This black staple allows you to swap all the creatures on the battlefield for all the creatures in everyone's graveyards, and the results are never not interesting. Typically after this resolves, there are about 15 triggers on the stack, half the creatures are going back to the graveyard, and half of everyone's life total is gone. Then, if no one has a board wipe, the player who cast it can often just alpha strike for the win. In short, Living Death and a full graveyard wins games.
9. Darksteel Ingot
(30,646 Inclusions, 4% of 705,708 Decks)
The same can hardly be said for Darksteel Ingot, even under the best of conditions, and for me at least, the odd artwork of the Box of Rocks Secret Lair is not the best of conditions. I respect that they went out on a limb, and I'm sure lots of people are fans, but I just have no idea what is happening here, what the idea was, or why anyone would want this. Just in terms of gameplay, Darksteel Ingot is the epitome of Precon Momentum at the best of times, with only a few 'Indestructible Tribal' decks that would actually have a real reason to play it outside of other, better alternatives. For those not in the know, "Precon Momentum" (and also "Precon Effect") is the term we use for cards that probably only see significant play because they're regularly included in the Commander Precons. Everyone has a copy because it shows up in 20 different decks, it's not quite bad enough to kick out of the deck right away when you're doing quick precon upgrades, and it's a budget card to boot, so it also gets into the budget builds.
None of that changes the fact that, unless you're just a fan of the art, you're probably better off with a Signet or one of the other much more flexible Manalith variants.
(32,474 Inclusions, 20% of 166,033 Decks)
Back when it was printed, there was no better removal spell than Terminate. For two mana, you could get rid of a creature, no questions asked. Where previously you had to wonder about the color, background, or current condition of a creature, Terminate just put it out there in plain conditions, at instant speed. You want a creature gone, it's gone. Plus, unlike many other cards that have dwindled over the years, it seems Terminate has stayed as the benchmark for how much mana a creature removal spell should cost. While we've seen Go for the Throat and Doom Blade replace Terror, we have not seen a direct equivalent for Terminate that costs less mana or less colors. All of this is to say, I think Terminate is here to stay.
7. Scavenger Grounds
(34,623 Inclusions, 5% of 705,708 Decks)
While I wouldn't say that Scavenger Grounds has gone so far as to replace Bojuka Bog when it comes to utility lands that can hose graveyard decks, I will say that you can play it in a lot more decks, and I've definitely seen black decks play both. While three mana to get rid of a graveyard at instant speed is far above what you'd usually pay for the effect, the fact that it's stapled to a land means you aren't really using up a card slot in your deck to do so. The instant speed there also does a lot more work than the average player might think, allowing you to remove cards in graveyards as they're targeted, or while an Underworld Breach is on the stack. Put plainly, Scavenger Grounds is the best graveyard removal stapled to a land that you can put into any deck right now, and I don't see that changing anytime soon.
(36,487 Inclusions, 21% of 172,615 Decks)
I, for one, was not expecting for the spooky scary skeletons list to devolve into Apocalypse staples from back in the day, but here we are. Putrefy was the ultimate in flexible creature removal, or at least it would have been if it wasn't printed right alongside Vindicate. Regardless, it allowed Golgari decks to choose between a problem creature or a problem artifact, even before Golgari existed as a concept. While there have been attempts to outclass it with Assassin's Trophy, Abrupt Decay, and the like over the interceding years, it's still the no-nonsense version of this effect in green and black in the same way as Terminate, at least until Wizards decides otherwise.
5. Acidic Slime
(41,599 Inclusions, 12% of 345,117 Decks)
If you're looking to pay more for an effect that you can get for less, then might we talk a bit about Acidic Slime? While often maligned by writers such as myself for being a five-mana version of either Creeping Mold or Reclamation Sage, I've recently come back around on Acidic Slime. It's true that you can get portions of this card's effects for less mana elsewhere, and that the five-mana slot is maybe the busiest in all of Magic for spells with significantly splashier effects, but even so, Acidic Slime is flexible removal that can also easily two-for-one. Adding deathtouch to a Reclamation Sage might not seem like much, but it all too often results in taking out a a Titan or preventing anyone from attacking you in the first place. Combine that with the increasing necessity to have access to abilities that can remove lands, in addition to enchantments and artifacts, and maybe we've been giving Acidic Slime a bad rap.
On the other hand, while I said that I've been reassessing it, that's truthfully because I've been seeing others play it against me. For myself, I still have not managed to find a five-mana slot to spare for this Ooze in any of my decks, not even in the one that has a minor Ooze tribal theme.
4. Animate Dead
(42,189 Inclusions, 12% of 363,843 Decks)
Before I actually compiled this list, I had imagined that Animate Dead would easily be at the top of it. Widely regarded as one of the best Reanimate spells of all time, it's also half of the two-card Worldgorger Dragon combo that is extremely popular across a wide subset of play. Put simply, Animate Dead both stands on its own merits and can also easily end games in combination with the right cards, making it an old-school powerhouse that has shone across almost every format across Magic's history.
3. Diabolic Tutor
(44,289 Inclusions, 12% of 363,843 Decks)
Gotta love a plot twist! Animate Dead is getting outshined by a four-mana uncommon tutor with several strictly better relatives. Which isn't to say that Diabolic Tutor is bad; if you're on a budget and need a tutor, there is not a more flexible option out there for you. While many would instead lean into Transmute effects like Muddle the Mixture or Dimir House Guard, historically, a lot of those actually aren't budget cards anymore. The cheapest of the Transmute bunch, the nigh-unplayable Brainspoil, is still only a quarter, but any of the versions that are attached to a decent card cost at least a dollar, and it'll take $5 for the privilege of playing Muddle the Mixture.
Hm... maybe it shouldn't come as a shock that Diabolic Tutor sees so much play. After all, it finds a card, no questions asked, and it does it without breaking the pocketbook, which is never a bad thing.
2. Godless Shrine
(82,829 Inclusions, 49% of 167,754 Decks)
Godless Shrine is but one of ten of the cycle of "Shock Lands" that have been popular in the format since its inception, despite their price tag always being in the $15-20 range. The reason for their popularity? Why, they're the next best thing to the original Dual lands, of course! They can come down untapped to give you access to two different colors of mana, or you can even search them up with anything that looks for a basic land type! The high popularity of this perpetually $10+ card compels me to remind everyone that you don't need to have $500 mana bases with shocks and fetches, and that budget mana bases are still very, very good.
1. Ancient Tomb
(94,157 Inclusions, 13% of 705,708 Decks)
However, if you are looking for a premium land that does something no other land can do, then look no further than Ancient Tomb. Coming down untapped and immediately giving you two mana, Ancient Tomb is some of the best fast mana that money can buy, getting you a full turn ahead by just playing a land. Sure, you might not have any colored mana, but that's why you tap it for a Signet!
Once more, we must bow down to the volunteers making Scryfall's art tagger a reality, as it helped make this Top 10 a reality. I'd love to leave off with a few other popular cards that you probably never realized had skeletons in the artwork:
I'd also feel bad if I didn't go out of my way to make sure that we actually had some Skeleton creatures in our Skeleton article, so here are the Top 10 Skeletons as they currently stand:
Top 10 Skeletons
- Reassembling Skeleton
- Golgari Grave-Troll
- Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon
- Dimir House Guard
- Tinybones, Trinket Thief
- Sanitarium Skeleton
- Lightning Skelemental
- Champion of Stray Souls
- Tenacious Dead
Give it a few months and you'll be seeing Clattering Augur on this list, I guarantee it.
Nuts and Bolts
There always seems to be a bit of interest in how these lists are made (this seems like a good time to stress once again that they are based on EDHREC score, NOT my personal opinion), and people are often surprised that I’m not using any special data or .json from EDHREC, but rather just muddling my way through with some Scryfall knowledge! For your enjoyment/research, here is this week’s Scryfall search.
What Do You Think?
There's been a quesiton hanging over my head during this whole article: why do Skeletons exist? If Mummies got folded into Zombies, shouldn't Skeletons have been absorbed into the Zombie pool as well? Why are they their own unique creature type when so many other undead depictions have been put under the Zombie moniker?
Finally, what are your favorite cards with Skeletons in the art? Were there any that surprised you when you lookied through the list? Do you own or play the weird Darksteel Ingot?
Let us know in the comments, and we'll see you at the bone-legged table that used to just be a Halloween decoration at the LGS, but then became permanent because everyone liked it so much.