Before we begin, here are a couple of Honorable Mentions
Inheritance is not a terrible card, but it won't make the Top 10. It’s an Enchantment for a single White mana that lets you pay 3 colorless mana to draw a card whenever a creature is put into a graveyard from play. It doesn’t see much play anymore, even barely in Commander, but it’s interesting enough to put on the list.
I would be stretching to put this in the Top 10, but Spiny Starfish is a cool card for an uncommon. It costs 2U for a 0/1 which sounds fairly lame, except that it can regenerate for a single Blue mana. Cool, it makes a solid blocker. But not only that, at the end of each turn that you regenerate Spiny Starfish, you get a 0/1 blue Starfish creature token for each time that it is regenerated in a turn. Note that you can make as many regeneration shields as you want, but it only gets a token for each that one of those regeneration shields is used. So you can’t simply pay a whole bunch of blue mana and get a bunch of 0/1 tokens. Still, it’s a solid card, and I’m sure one that was abused back in the day before the official rulings were easily accessible.
Now onto the list, and #10 is not surprisingly going to be one of the famous “pitch” cards:
Once upon a time, there was a cycle of cards in Alliances at uncommon known as the “pitch” cards. They had a relatively high converted mana cost, 5 or 6, but could be played for free by removing a card of the same color in your hand from the game. Two of them required you to additionally pay 1 life, one of which is the #1 card on this list.
Bounty of the Hunt is the Green card from that cycle. What does it do?
“You may remove a green card in your hand from the game rather than pay Bounty of the Hunt’s mana cost. Until end of turn, target creature gets +1/+1, target creature gets +1/+1, and target creature gets +1/+1.”
That doesn’t sound too bad. You get to pump 3 creatures by +1/+1, or one creature by +3/+3, or one by +2/2 and another by +1/+1. So it’s basically a Giant Growth that you can split three ways without paying mana? That sounds pretty cool. The problem is you’re probably better off just playing Mutagenic Growth or Giant Growth than this. Thus, it sees no play in any format outside of some very fringe Commander lists. At the time, it was certainly better, when combat tricks were far more common and plenty in the competitive atmosphere. But it basically only makes #10 because it IS a pitch card.
Also, this card notably as a reprint with the modern Magic card border in one of the Coldsnap theme decks.
Easily the least known of the pitch cards is Scars of the Veteran, the White card in the cycle. It could easily be #10 instead of Bounty of the Hunt but its effect is rather interesting. Here’s the Oracle text:
“You may exile a white card from your hand rather than pay Scars of the Veteran’s mana cost. // Prevent the next 7 damage that would be dealt to target creature or player this turn. At the beginning of the next end step, put a +0/+1 counter on that creature for each 1 damage prevented this way.”
The second half of that effect about the target creature gaining potentially +0/+7 on a permanent basis is pretty awesome. Never mind the fact that you can save yourself 7 damage in a turn. The problem is that this card is incredibly situational and it’s not really worth a slot in any main-board. You’d have to be playing against a very specific deck for this to even be relevant in the sideboard. It had a good idea behind it, but it’s just not really playable.
Like Bounty of the Hunt, Scars of the Veteran was also reprinted in a Coldsnap theme deck.
Pillage is one of the best uncommons in the set. The only reason it’s not worth more value-wise is that it’s been reprinted several times: 6th Edition, 7th Edition, the Fire & Lightning Premium Deck, and as an Arena Foil promotional card. It’s essentially a more powerful version of Stone Rain. Where as Stone Rain costs 2R to destroy a target land, Pillage is 1RR to destroy a target land or artifact, making it a bit more versatile. Also, the keyword bury means that said card can’t be regenerated. It’s a card that saw considerable play years ago, and still finds a home in land-destruction based decks in Commander.
Pillage was later reprinted in Seventh Edition, as well as in foil in the Premium Deck: Fire vs Lightning.
Contagion is one of the legendary “pitch” cards, a cycle of which a little card called Force of Will is also part. Here's what the Oracle text for this card reads:
“You may pay 1 life and exile a black card from your hand rather than pay Contagion’s mana cost. // Distribute two -2/-1 counters among one or two target creatures.”
This is a card that sees play in Legacy Manaless Dredge as removal. You might notice that it generates a sort of counter that you simply don’t see anymore: -2/-1 counters. Why is this relevant? It shuts down Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, the main counter to the Manaless Dredge deck, making a regular 4/7 into a 0/5. It also deals with a lot of other creatures, of course. Five mana is a bit much for a card like this, but the ability to pay 1 life and exile a black card from your hand makes it very useful for the deck that needs it most.
Arcane Denial was pretty good at the time of its original release, as well. While countering a spell and having its controller draw two cards at the next upkeep sounds like a major drawback to a counter-spell, you get to draw a card during the next upkeep, as well. As the power level of cards in Constructed has risen, of course, those extra two cards to your opponent have become much more relevant. So you won’t see it in Legacy or Vintage anymore, where Force of Will, Mana Drain, and plain old Counterspell are simply much better.
However, it is a very popular counter-spell in the Commander format, as you’re limited to a single copy of each counter-spell, and in the 99-card singleton format, those extra two cards don’t mean quite as much. It took a long time, but it was finally reprinted in one of the Commander 2013 decks, which has made the original versions a bit less valuable. There are actually two separate versions of the card with different artworks, for collection purposes.
Of all of the pitch cards, Pyrokinesis might be the second best of the five. It sees considerable play in Legacy Goblins. Here’s why:
“You may exile a red card from your hand rather than pay Pyrokinesis’s mana cost. Pyrokinesis deals 4 damage divided as you choose among any number of target creatures.”
Well, that’s cool, you don’t even have to pay one life! Yes, Pyrokinesis has a converted mana cost of 6 (4RR) but all you have to do is exile some red card from your hand to split 4 damage as many ways as you like among target creatures? That sounds pretty powerful. And it is. It can deal with 4 little 1/1’s or it can deal with a Restoration Angel and her 4 toughness. Very strong card.
Also, you may not know that Pyrokinesis was actually reprinted much later with new artwork in Duel Deck: Heroes vs Monsters.
This card saw a reprint in the Commander 2013 product with alternate artwork. The text on this card is pretty wordy, so here’s the Oracle version for clarification:
“Look at the top five cards of your library. As many times as you choose, you may pay 1 life, put those cards on the bottom of your library in any order, then look at the top five cards of your library. Then shuffle your library and put the last cards you looked at this way on top of it in any order.”
That’s definitely an interesting way to card filter, but it’s a bit complicated. Essentially, you can look at the top five cards, put them aside, shuffle your library, and put them back on top in any order. But you can also pay 1 life to put those five cards at the bottom and look at the next top five. It’s a very interesting way to dig for the cards that you need, that’s for sure. It does see some Legacy play in decks such as Ad Nauseum Tendrils, Tin Fins, and Hive Mind. It also sees play in a wide range of Commander decks, where card filtering is even more important.
Shield Sphere is particularly interesting due to the fact that it’s a 0/6 Wall for 0. If it is ever assigned to block, you put a -0/-1 counter on it. Still, for no mana, that’s a really solid blocker. It only sees fringe Commander play, but for a mere common, it’s a pretty solid card. It actually saw some tournament play at one point. Most famously it saw play in the Cocoa Pebbles deck in the now-defunct Extended format way back in 1999. It emerged again in 2007 in a Legacy deck called Spanish Inquisition.
Worth more than most rares in the set, Elvish Spirit Guide has been a Legacy staple for many, many years. The Spirit Guide is never truly meant to be played as a creature, but if you do cast her for 2G she is a 2/2 Elf Spirit. But her true utility is when you exile her from your hand to add G to your mana pool. Free mana acceleration is very good, especially in the Belcher and Hypergenesis decks that she is often played in at a very high level in the Legacy format. She also finds a home in Elf combo decks that just need that one more mana to “go off.” Despite not being on the reserve list, she has never been reprinted, mostly because of her power level, being a one-turn Mox Emerald.
Simian Spirit Guide, which is the Red color-shifted version of this card, already exists in Modern, but the Green mana from the Elvish Spirit Guide could combo with more cards in Modern and potentially warp the format. It is a wonder, however, why hasn’t she been reprinted in some supplemental product, which would only be Legacy-legal. It would be cool to have a modern-bordered foil version, especially. But I can understand their hesitation, as it was a great card then, and it still is now.
Yes, you can’t discuss Alliances without bringing up the best of the five pitch cards, Force of Will. Counter target spell for 3UU doesn’t sound all that fantastic, but removing a blue card and paying 1 life when you’re tapped out to counter a potentially game-breaking spell? Yeah, that’s pretty darn good. There’s a reason every Legacy deck with any sort of blue in it runs four copies. It’s just one of the most powerful counter-spells in the game, and definitely the most expensive money-wise outside of Mana Drain from Legends.
It was a ton of fun looking through this set. It’s actually a very good set for the time, with a lot of interesting design elements. It’s cool to see that a bunch of cards from it are still seeing play, and that the Black and Red pitch cards are also still playable. It’s definitely one of the better early sets.