Since the early days of the game, black has been secondary with cards with blue being the king. Still, while blue’s history with this is all about changing costs and not much more, black has a more detailed history, which gives us clues into how WotC views different resources and their values.
The benchmark these days seems to be Read the Bones, which is quite strong, seeing plenty of Standard play. But how did we get there?
Note that I left out some cards designed purely for multiplayer formats, so they would skew the history. Also, I might have missed some cards that don’t say “draw cards” on them, but effectively do the same thing. I’ve tried to find them, but can’t be sure I’ve found them all. Also, I left out all multicolored cards. This is for black only. Finally, I’m talking about putting cards into your hand from the top of your library (more or less), not tutoring for multiple cards, or gaining advantage with cantrips or by sweeping the board, for example.
Black has always had to give up something to draw cards. Usually its life, but the first card draw for black was something completely different, something they just don’t do anymore.
Ante has been long gone. It was a stake for the game. At the beginning of the game, each player would put the top card of their library into the ante, an whoever won the game or the match, would get the card. Back in the day, even sealed tournaments would have the option for playing for ante.
Its a real feelbad mechanic, because its quite swingy. Sometimes you’d ante the best rare in your deck, while sometimes you’d just ante a basic land. However, its in human nature, that you don’t want to risk the worst thing happening, so you tend not to play cards like this. However, its very strong. Very, very strong. Unless you’re on the edge of death already, this is the kind of card that just wins you the game. One mana, draw seven… and people think Ancestral Recall is good…
This did set the stage for black card draw very well, though. You can do it efficiently, but you’ll have to give something up.
The Early Attempts
The first example of giving up life for cards in Legends in the form of Greed. Again, quite efficient card draw, although nowhere on par with many future spells. Manawise it was very efficient. Jayemdae Tome saw some play in those days, so Greed was probably better than people gave it credit for in those days, but deck design was nowhere near the level its today. It saw a few reprints in the core sets (Fourth, Sixth and Seventh) as well as Commander in 2013.
The next big thing was Necropotence from Ice Age (1995). Remember Black Summer? This was the card that brought it on. Actually, its not the only one, because the deck needed other tools as well, but this in conjunction with Dark Ritual, Hypnotic Specte and Nevinyrral’s Disc was a pretty good base for a deck.
This changed the baseline of paying two life for a card into paying only one, which has been the norm lately, although there are expections and you generally end up paying more in other ways.
They kind of learned their lesson on that one, but not really. Necropotence was reprinted in Fifth Edition…
Alliances (1996) had two more cards for card draw, but they aren’t as impressive.
Fatal Lore is an early example of “punisher” card where the opponent is given a choice. It wasn’t very good in an environment where creatures were hardly played and even if they were, your opponents would probably just take the cards anyway.
Casting the Bones was similarly problematic, as its always risky to put something like this on your creature, when it could be removed in response and Swords to Plowshares was the removal of choice anyhow. For the longest time, black card draw was always rare, but this was apparently safe enough to put into common.
Mirage (1996) brought a new level of commitment to the life payment, but with the slow formats back in the day, you didn’t necessarily mind. It was sometimes worth it. Interestingly enough, this was considered beginner friendly enough at the time to be put into one of the Portal sets.
Infernal Tribute from Weatherlight (1997) didn’t bring actual card advantage, because you needed to sacrifice something to it. The old wording means you can’t even sacrifice tokens to it. Still, it enabled you to dig deeper into your deck.
Tempest (1997) brought a very expensive removal spell, which does have its benefits. Of course, multiple targets is great, but strangely enough it doesn’t require anything else.
The Card Begins to take Shape
Portal (1997) just got a functional reprint of Infernal Contract, which, again, seems strange for a beginner set. Paying life for anything is pretty scary when you first start.
Exodus (1998) brought this little gem. Its one of the rare cases where a card uses an X, but not in the casting cost. This also brings up a weird, but nice limitation of being able to cast this only during a very limited time, but you can draw quite a few cards, if you are just ready to discard many of them and lose some life. But as we all know, that life is often meaningless, if the cards give you the edge you need.
Portal: Second Age (1998) has a lot simpler and straight-forward spell compared to the first Portal. Also, this is the first time these spells are this simple. They definitely had a problem with just making unnecessarily complex cards in the early days.
Like Infernal Tribute, Reprocess from Urza’s Saga (1998) isn’t really card advantage, but it does have a mana edge over Tribute. On the other hand, here you have to pay everything once and can’t use it over a long period of time.
In Urza’s Destiny (1999), they attempted to fix Necropotence. Did it work out? Yawgmoth’s Bargain is restricted in Vintage and banned in both Legacy and Vintage. The thing was that you can cheat it too easily into play and after you’ve done that, its just way too efficient an engine.
Portal: Three Kingdoms (1999) had two spells. Ambition’s Cost was a functional reprint of Ancient Craving from the previous Portal. It was printed as a rare here, but in Eight Edition, it was uncommon, heralding the future of these spells.
Odyssey’s (2001) Skeletal Scrying was an uncommon, bringing these card down from rare for Standard as well. Gravestorm on the other hand was a kind of difficult card to use. It was slow, if it worked at all. I’m not sure, but it might have had some relevance in the format back in the day. Maybe graveyards were important back then, but I still don’t see this working very often.
Apocalypse (2001) brought the rarity down even further. Phyrexian Rager is actually just a cantrip, but I included it here because it was a common. Its bigger brother, Phyrexian Gargantua does draw you two cards, and its uncommon. Both of these have been reprinted a few times in sets and plenty of times in other products, as they are simple, but very playable. Phyrexian Arena on the other hand, is a rare for a reason. It takes a long time to get there, but its one of the more efficient card draw cards out there in terms of mana cost.
Mirrodin’s (2003) Promise of Power gives you five cards for five mana, which is very efficient, when taking into account the card you have to use to get the effect. Its four extra cards for five mana and five life. Doesn’t see any play though.
Skulltap from Scourge (2003) is another common, but its not much of a card advantage again, as you need to sacrifice a creature. Now you can sacrifice tokens, so that’s good, but this is at sorcery speed, which means you can’t sacrifice something when its targeted by removal or something. Decree of Pain, on the other hand, is a very costly sweeper, but in some formats it just might be worth it. Back when they had cube as one of the formats at World Championships, there’s was a situation where Brian Kibler used it very well against Owen Turtenwald.
Graveborn Muse from Legions (2003) is an interesting tribal card in that its actually worse when you have more of its brethren. With one its great, with more than that its diminishing returns pretty quickly, as it can kill you quite fast.
Fifth Dawn (2004) brought the new norm for card draw. [ard]Night’s Whisper[/card] was still an uncommon, but there was no frills here. Just two mana, two life and two cards. It still sees some play in Modern (by myself, if no-one else). The actual problem here is that you don’t often want to use this on turn two on draw, because you might need to discard. Its not actually bad for you, but might be something that would deter newer players from using this.
As one of my all-time favorite commanders, this legend from Champions of Kamigawa (2004) isn’t strictly advantage, as your opponent gets the benefit first, but its very cool and look how it just wants to cuddle you.
Pain’s Reward (Saviors of Kamigawa (2005)) is an interesting card. Completely useless, unless you’re already way ahead of your opponent.
Ravnica: City of Guilds (2005) brought the most popular black card draw card ever (but only because the better ones are banned). Dark Confidant is very efficient manawise, but is somewhat fragile and potentially very costly. Its especially risky against aggressive decks, but depending on the state of the format, its often very good. Moonlight Bargain, on the other hand, is interesting, but not very good. In a slow enough format it might prove very good, but it costs five mana, which is kind of bad.
Dissension’s (2006) Hellbent mechanic put a lot pressure on these cards, so they aren’t very effective. They do work in a more aggressive deck, though. Not necessarily very well, but still.
Phyrexian Etchings from Coldsnap (2006) is slow, but potentially very powerful. If you can keep it up long enough, you don’t even have to pay the lifecost, but of course, if you’re putting enough mana into the cumulative upkeep, you’ll never be able to use the cards either.
Future Sight (2007) has Minions’ Murmurs. The swinginess of this card is pretty problematic. You can’t be too far behind to use it and if your much ahead, you won’t need it.
Lorwyn’s (2007) Hoarder’s Greed is a bit on the expensive side for this effect, but it also clashes, which means you might be able to use it again. I wasn’t playing actively in this period, but as I understand it, creatures were quite a bit more expensive in those days, so maybe this could actually be useful.
Shadowmoore’s (2008) Dusk Urchins, on the other hand, seems quite strong. I’ve never played it, but just attacking or blocking once, trading it and drawing a card seems very strong for three mana. Hard to use, sure, but I like how swingy it must be.
Shards of Alara (2008) brough two kind of suicidal cards. Immortal Coil doesn’t really see play, but I bet it could be great in certain environments (like slow formats, where graveyard hate isn’t played much). Ad Nauseam, on the other hand, is the basis for a deck in Modern (its namesake actually) and played in Legacy Storm decks (maybe Vintage as well, I don’t know the format enough to say). Although its pretty broken, I love the design.
Sign in Blood from Magic 2010 (2009) became the standard for this kind of a card for a while. It was reprinted in three other core sets and has found its way into quite a few other products. Night’s Whisper is kind of overpowered (not much, but some), so this is at least a bit fixed, because it has the double black requirement. Also, it can target the opponent, so you can actually burn your opponent out with it (I’ve done it and it has been done to me in Commander of all formats). It saw some play in Standard every once in a while and I played it in Modern before finding Night’s Whisper.
Worldwake (2010) brought Shoreline Salvager, which requires an Island, so its basically half blue and probably pretty playable in Limited, although not having played that specific format, I can’t be sure.
Caress of Phyrexia (New Phyrexia (2011)) smells like MaRo, because its actually a pretty good wincon in a limited Infect deck. Its more expensive then the previous “draw 3, lose 3” cards probably for this very reason. At uncommon, you could fairly easily have two in your deck, so it probably was very strong.
Innistrad (2011) brought new life to previously printed Skulltap. The difference here being that Altar’s Reap is an instant, so it can actually blank opponents removal, thus being actual card advantage. Not that’s its that good. Playable, not very. It has been reprinted in a couple of draft environments where sacrificing is a thing, as well as Conspiracy and one Commander deck. No points for guessing which one.
Dark Ascension’s (2012) Harrowing Journey is again one of those “draw 3, lose 3” cards, but since you can now target anyone, its more expensive, but probably still usable in many situations.
Avacyn Restored (2012) brought another very broken card, but now in a very different guise (and it hasn’t been banned or restricted outside of Commander yet). Griselbrand is, besides Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, one of the big favorites for cheating into play through reanimation or other ways. This is quite understandable and in Modern, its part of a very strong combo deck. Harvester of Souls hasn’t had quite the same impact, but sees plenty of casual play.
Interestingly enough, Disciple of Bolas was one of the rares in some Event Deck. It was printed in Magic 2013 (2012), but that wasn’t the deck it was found in (it was in one of the Return to Ravnica Event Decks). Seems a bit off for newer players. Its very strong in slow formats (meaning Commander).
I recently had a discussion on why people slept on Read the Bones. The reason was this card from Return to Ravnica (2012). It worked so well in conjunction with Gray Merchant of Asphodel and it was so good against the very prevalent control decks that it shut out other draw cards pretty well, although even those decks would sometimes add one Sign in Blood or Read the Bones, because more cards is always more cards.
Dragon’s Maze (2013) couldn’t really compete with RtR, but I personally liked Blood Scrivener. I played a lot of monoblack aggressive decks at the time, and it was just one more two-powered beatstick. Of course it was outclassed pretty quickly in that role, and it was never that good anyhow. Toil (probably not showing properly here, as I don’t think the software supports split cards) was just a slower version of Sign in Blood. Probably playable in limited, but nothing more than that.
Magic 2013’s (2012) Dark Prophecy is pretty poor, although I do like the design.
Card Draw for Everyone
Read the Bones from Theros (2013) has become a great tool for Standard, especially after it was reprinted in Magic Origins. For a time, it seemed to fall behind Painful Truths, but with Goblin Dark-Dwellers and fewer three-colored decks out there, it has definitely proven itself to be a very good draw spell, despite its meager beginnings as a draft common. Erebos, God of the Dead[card], on the other hand, is a real throwback. It kind of closely resembles [card]Greed quite often, but than it just becomes so much more, when you are able to get it online.
Sanguimancy from Born of the Gods (2014) never even saw much limited play, because it was just so hard to use. Having very little control over how much life you are paying and how many cards you are getting is not a great advertisement for a cards. In a way, same is true for Pain Seer, which is a fixed version of Dark Confidant, but fixed means a lot worse, in this case. I did do pretty well with it, though, so I have fond memories of it.
Magic 2015’s (2014) Waste Not is a very hard to abuse card, but it was the last Community Design as of this writing, so it has a special place in many players’ hearts. It does appear in sideboards of some Modern decks and there was a nice delve-based deck with it and Dark Deal at its center. I tried out Indulgent Tormentor in Standard, but it didn’t work out, because removal was so omnipresent at the time and it dies to pretty much anything. Necromancer’s Stockpile was an engine card that never really panned out, even when paired with Tymaret, the Murder King in a monoblack deck, like Conley Woods did.
Khans of Tarkir (2014) has three cards with the ability to draw cards. Bitter Revelation doesn’t technically draw you anything, but you still get two more cards in your hands. The ability to filter those cards a bit and the need for cards in the graveyard meant this saw some fringe play in Standard. Grim Haruspex on the other hand was a big part of the early versions of the infamous Rally the Ancestor decks. And I mean the ones with Nantuko Husk and company, not the ones with Siege Rhino. Raiders’ Spoils was just a good card in the black-white warriors deck in draft, although I gave it some consideration in my BR Warriors deck I played for a short while.
Dragons of Tarkir (2015) had two nice variants of Sign in Blood. Vulturous Aven couldn’t target the opponent, but could let you get rid of some 1/1 you had (for whatever reason) and get two cards for your trouble. It was pretty good in the draft format. Damnable Pact was something people had great expectations for, but it never really panned out. Its just two slow and burning your opponent out didn’t come up often enough.
Battle for Zendikar (2015) brought these numbers to a new level. Painful Truths was a major player in Standard for a while and has made appearances in pretty much all Constructed formats, including some play in Vintage. Shaving off one mana from Ancient Craving seems to do a lot. Of course, the fact that you can tune it to the situation somewhat helps as well. Ob Nixilis Reignited continues with the trend of one life for one card, but the flexibility is great. Sometimes its just a five mana removal spell, but you do what you have to do. Smothering Abomination was another card with a lot of promise that never really panned out. It was a limited bomb, which won me many games, but besides that, it didn’t do much, although the Event Deck for the set included it and it worked fine in there. Vampiric Rites is just so much poorer when compared to Evolutionary Leap that it never found a place in Standard, but did have some limited relevancy.
Magic Origins (2015) was all about the five iconic planeswalkers and these two are directly from Liliana’s story. Demonic Pact is a Johnny-favorite that sees pretty frequent play in Standard and with Harmless Offering could actually be somewhat prominent. Kothophed, Soul Hoarder hasn’t seen similar play, but makes a good Commander for your EDH deck.
Shadows over Innistrad (2016) wasn’t as kind in this regard. Merciless Resolve is an underappreciated card that can make Delirium decks tick by putting two types into the graveyard at instant speed. Noone expects that, unless they’ve seen it happen. Otherwise, not that interesting. Asylum Visitor seems great, but just doesn’t fit into a metagame full of tokens.
As card advantage has been spread more widely between colors (not being only in blue), black has gotten better at it. The early attempts varied widely between way too strong and way too weak, but no that they have learned not to make these designs to fancy, these cards have become a basic component of blacks abilities.
The exchange of life for cards has been a stalwart since Legends and its a pretty good way to make these cards feel different from their blue (and sometimes green) counterparts. Like Bob (Dark Confidant) says, “Greatness at any cost”. Life is a pretty easy one to understand, but I don’t mind these cards making you lose other things as well. Two life for one card is pretty much the norm (with Read the Bones you are only up one card), but usually the rate is somewhat better, because there’s some other benefit involved (like the scry 2).
Like so many other cards over the years, they have become better at these things. They aren’t rare anymore. You can get your hands on these in a draft (depending on the format) fairly easily, so they are considered part of black they want to show you. Its an easy way to show how black is ready to win by any means necessary, even if it means making deals with demons or just drawing some of your own blood.