Last updated on June 6, 2023
Avacyn, the Purifier | Illustration by James Ryman
One of the things that sets Magic apart from other trading card games is the wide variety and diversity in its creature types. One that’s consistently a big hit with fans and dates all the way back to Alpha in 1993 is angels.
I’ve met several fans of this tribe in my years playing Magic, seen many Commander decks, and cast a fair few of them myself. Today I’m going to delve a bit deeper into this community favorite. What’s the history of angels in Magic and which of Magic’s angels have stood out the most?
Let’s talk about that.
What Are Angels in MTG?
Youthful Valkyrie | Illustration by Anna Steinbauer
Angels have been around since the early days of Magic. Richard Garfield could clearly see that traditional fantasy tropes like elves, goblins, and dragons would be big hits with potential fans when he created the game and angels would likely be a big hit too. Despite having their origins in various religions including all three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), angels have evolved into a common fantasy trope used in many works of fiction throughout history.
In Magic, angels are often used as a way to give white access to larger creatures that are thematic to the protection and order themes that it usually has. They mostly followed a simple recipe in their early days: they’d cost five or more mana, have flying, and unfortunately, most of them were just bad.
Better angels were printed as we got more cohesive designs. In the last decade, we’ve seen quite a few good ones, some of which have even seen competitive play.
Now, let’s go over some of the best angels in Magic’s history in the order they came out!
#23. Serra Angel
Yeah, we have to start right at the beginning. Serra Angel is one of Magic’s most well-known creatures and is still relevant today. Five mana for a 4/4 with vigilance and flying is still a good rate even by today’s standards. The card would still be a Limited powerhouse if it were printed today.
Serra was last seen in Dominaria where it sadly underperformed, but that was mostly to do with the fact that white was very underpowered in the set. If the color was overall a little better the card would have been very solid in the format. Serra Angel still sees a little bit of play in Old School, the perfect home for these kinds of classic cards.
#22. Karmic Guide
Karmic Guide is an interesting card as it looks obviously powerful at first glance. It may have echo as a huge downside but being able to reanimate any creature in your graveyard as an ETB trigger is very powerful.
#21. Lightning Angel
Apocalypse was Magic’s first set with any focus on tri-color combinations and was to try to make cool multicolor cards that could combine keywords from each of those colors. Especially ones that wouldn’t normally have been put together since Magic had very little focus on multicolor cards up to this point. I think R&D thought they would add too much complexity to the game for newer players.
Lightning Angel was a really nice and pushed keyword soup card. It combines haste from red, flying from blue, and vigilance from white. I’m not sure if it saw much play when it was first printed but it made its way onto the timeshifted sheet for Time Spiral where it saw a good amount of play in various aggressive Zoo-style decks at the time.
Fast forward to 2014: Khans of Tarkir comes out and WotC brought it back. But it was one mana and toughness less in the form of Mantis Rider. Rider saw a lot of play in Standard and it also sees play in Modern Humans decks thanks to a more favorable type line.
#20. Exalted Angel
Morph is one of the best mechanics that WotC has ever made in my most humble opinion. It makes for really fun and exciting Limited gameplay since you never know for sure what might get flipped face up.
Exalted Angel is a perfect example of morph seeing Constructed play. The one-two punch of casting it face down on turn 3 and turning it face up on turn 4 proved to be an effective win condition that was cheap enough to see play even outside of Standard.
While it may not see any play today, I still remember it being around when I started playing in 2009 in both Legacy and in Cube drafts. It didn’t take long for its position as a control finisher to be completely usurped by Jace, the Mind Sculptor and a few more cards printed in the following decade, though. It still had its time in the spotlight and is worth mentioning.
#19. Akroma, Angel of Wrath
Akroma, Angel of Wrath became another fan-favorite character with its first printing in Legions. I can imagine that seeing this card for the first time back in 2003 would have been a treat even if a keyword soup creature isn’t all that exciting nowadays.
Akroma’s original card has been printed a bunch of times in the last couple of decades and the character has shown up a few times in other variations. We got her color-shifted to the arguably more powerful Akroma, Angel of Fury in Planar Chaos and the same combination of keywords also appeared on Future Sight’s Akroma's Memorial. We most recently saw Akroma’s first new card in a very long time with Akroma, Vision of Ixidor in Commander Legends.
#18. Platinum Angel
Mirrodin was a weird set for lots of reasons but one thing that stands out to me is the very large number of artifacts that do weird and unique things. Platinum Angel very much fits into this category with an effect that had never been seen on a Magic card before and has only been seen a few times since
Platinum Angel is the scourge of Commander tables around the world even to this day, especially when players protect it, make it indestructible, and generally make it hard to remove. It’s seen a little bit of competitive play from time to time but it’s a lot easier to kill in Constructed than in Commander so it often gets left behind in favor of options that are harder to kill.
#17. Angel of Despair
This is an incredibly simple card but it definitely saw a bunch of play in its day. Particularly in Commander.
If your deck needed a nice all-purpose answer to any permanent, then you could play Vindicate. But if you have creature synergies, you could run Angel of Despair instead. It has more functionality since it can be reanimated and flickered. There’s not much else to say about it. It’s a nice card that does exactly what it says it does.
#16. Empyrial Archangel
Shards of Alara contains a cycle of five huge boss monsters, one for each shard. They were all mythic rares and they all had a “herald” which allowed you to sacrifice a creature in each of their colors to search your library for the exact creature and put it into the battlefield. They all cost eight mana using the same cost of “ABBC” in their respective color combo.
But they somehow ended up not being legendary. I’m not exactly sure why but they most certainly would’ve been if Commander were a supported format in the mid-to-late 2000s. Empyrial Archangel is at least an interesting and somewhat unique effect and one that’s shown up in Legacy from time to time where it can be reanimated and protect you from burn spells for a long time. Definitely one to remember if you’re building a Commander deck since it can at least be very annoying.
#15. Maelstrom Archangel
This one is entirely for a bit of self-indulgence. I’m a huge sucker for 5-color decks (I even have a 5-color Shrines deck in Commander) so I couldn’t write this without highlighting my personal favorite angel. Maelstrom Archangel isn’t particularly good but I enjoy it and it’s a fun card to cast.
#14. Baneslayer Angel
Core Set 2010 marked a huge change in Magic’s history. Not only did the rules get a big tidy-up like the removal of mana burn and “damage on the stack” rules but R&D’s design philosophy changed dramatically. How much must it suck for a new player to open a cool card like a big angel or dragon only to find out it’s a bad card?
M10 changed the game as far as that goes. R&D made an extra-concerted effort to make sure that card designs were more intuitive than that. If they want to push a card for Constructed play it might as well be the big angel or dragon that players all over the world will open and be excited by. This change is why most of the best angels in the game will be seen from this point on.
Baneslayer Angel was huge when it was printed and saw a ton of competitive play across multiple archetypes, usually as a full playset. It was just huge, efficient, and unparalleled at winning damage races. It was easy to kill, sure, but back it up with a couple of counterspells and you’re golden.
#13. Iona, Shield of Emeria
Iona, Shield of Emeria made waves as a massively unique effect to be printed in much the same way that Platinum Angel did. Even today Iona sees play in Legacy Reanimator decks as an easy way to auto-win against monocolor decks. But what’s even better about it is that you don’t need to shut off an entire deck for it to be relevant.
Most multicolor decks unwittingly have all of their removal spells focused in a single color so all you have to do is shut your opponent out of that color and Iona will be extremely hard to get off the table. It’s rightfully banned in Commander, not just because of how unfun it can make games but also because of its auto-win combo with Painter's Servant.
#12. Linvala, Keeper of Silence
Preventing your opponents’ creatures from activating abilities is a bit niche but very potent when it’s relevant. This made Linvala, Keeper of Silence an ideal silver bullet for Birthing Pod decks for many years.
It’s currently legal in Historic but there hasn’t been much need for it in the metagame. Linvala is costed efficiently enough to warrant attention when a deck breaks out that it can shut down. So keep it in mind the next time you build a deck that focuses on activated abilities to work.
#11. Chancellor of the Annex
The Chancellor cycle of New Phyrexia was a fun one. It added to the growing list of ways to annoy your opponent without spending any mana. Chancellor of the Annex was the only one that interacted with your opponent in any meaningful way. A playset of this Chancellor means that you’re able to counter Force of Will that would shut down your combo before you go off if you happened to be a deck that was capable of winning on turn 1 or 2.
#10. Restoration Angel
Restoration Angel is probably the card on this list that’s seen the most competitive play by far. It was in the same Standard form as Snapcaster Mage for a good year and a half and they became firm friends.
Instant-speed flicker effects are no joke since they let you reuse ETB triggers, save creatures from removal, and get rid of nasty auras like Pacifism. What’s even nicer is when they’re extremely efficient (like Ephemerate) or when they have a big body attached.
Resto, as we often called this angel, can do all of the above and it can also ambush creatures in combat. Oh, and it’s a 3/4 flier for just four mana. It saw a lot of play in Standard and has even branched out to Modern as well as being an all-star in Cube and Commander, where it can even go infinite with Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. Resto is also another great silver bullet for decks that can reliably search it. Just an amazing card all round.
#9. Avacyn, Angel of Hope
Avacyn was the titular character for the Innistrad block’s angel and demon-themed set: Avacyn Restored. The set told the story of the fight between Avacyn and her legions of angels and Griselbrand and his hordes of demons. Having been locked away in the Helvault, their war spread across the plane of Innistrad when it was shattered.
Sadly Avacyn, Angel of Hope card never saw any play outside of Commander and other casual settings at eight mana, though it is still a formidable threat in that format. Avacyn was at least good enough to win the fight in the end and she went back to being Innistrad’s protector, restoring the balance of the plane for years to come.
#8. Gisela, Blade of Goldnight
Another Commander staple, Gisela, Blade of Goldnight was one of Avacyn’s archangels along with Bruna and Sigarda and the leader of the flight of Goldnight. The three were represented by mythic rare multicolor angels. The fourth sister, Liesa, represented black and wouldn’t be seen in card form until Commander Legends.
They all had fairly unique abilities and while Sigarda, Host of Herons saw the most competitive play, Gisela certainly had the most staying power. It’s an awesome Commander card and a particularly fun one to build around to make full use of its abilities.
#7. Angel of Glory’s Rise
Another card that’s worth noting thanks to its use as a combo piece is Angel of Glory's Rise. Former pro player Tzu-Ching Kuo made waves back in 2013 by coming second at GP Quebec City with a reanimator combo deck that combined this angel with Fiend Hunter.
Basically, Glory’s Rise returns Fiend Hunter to the battlefield and you exile the angel with Fiend Hunter’s trigger. You then sacrifice Hunter to get the angel back and you can do this infinitely. Throw in Undercity Informer and Burning-Tree Emissary (which can both be brought back) and you can kill your opponent on the spot. It’s a fun combo and one that I remember causing several judge headaches at the time.
#6. Archangel Avacyn / Avacyn, the Purifier
Avacyn is back and now she’s angry! When we returned to Innistrad we found the plane ravaged by the incoming threat of the Eldrazi. Avacyn was no longer able to protect the plane so she started purifying it of the Eldrazi’s corruption. Sadly she was killed during the course of this story so it’s unlikely we’ll see her again in any upcoming sets.
Archangel Avacyn was an absolutely absurd card in Standard, topping the curve of several decks. It’s seen a little bit of play elsewhere, most notably in Pioneer, but nothing like the profound impact the previous Avacyn had on the Standard format.
#5. Gisela, the Broken Blade + Bruna, the Fading Light
Another sad story is that of the archangel sisters Gisela and Bruna. As they attempted to fight off the Eldrazi scourge that ravaged the plane, they eventually fell and succumbed to Emrakul’s influence. They died grisly deaths as their bodies were melded into Brisela, the Voice of Nightmares, a horrific Eldrazi abomination.
Gisela, the Broken Blade and Bruna, the Fading Light never ended up doing much but they’re still a great combo for Commander. I also remember lots of casual Standard decks used them just for the experience of melding them into Brisela.
#4. Atraxa, Praetors’ Voice
I doubt there’s a Commander player on the planet who’s unaware of the existence of Atraxa, Praetors' Voice. Ever since this 4-color commander showed up in the Commander 2016 decks, Atraxa has made itself known as a go-to commander for all kinds of counter-based and proliferation strategies, especially planeswalker tribal decks. This card’s popularity has earned itself a number of reprints in the last few years as it remains problematic for many Commander tables.
We even have a guide for a pretty awesome super friends build with Atraxa.
#3. Lyra Dawnbringer
Lyra Dawnbringer saw its fair share of play in Standard and held the title of best card in Dominaria Limited. It’s also a pretty solid Commander as an angel lord as well as a legendary angel, which is pretty nice.
Lyra is functionally the same in Constructed as a legendary Baneslayer Angel, though. Times had changed since Baneslayer ran rampant across the top tables of PTQs and Lyra never reached the same heights. Gone are the days where a creature is playable just for being efficient with a bunch of keywords.
#2. Legion Angel
We simply haven’t seen a lot of really good angels recently. The goalposts have shifted and what would have been amazing ten years ago just doesn’t cut it now. Legion Angel has been consistent over the last year and saw a bit of play in some Standard decks. The reason I wanted to highlight it is because of what its ability signifies.
The fact that this angel takes cards from your sideboard, along with other recent cards like Fae of Wishes and the companion rule, shows that this is some design space that WotC is more willing to explore. I think that’s a really neat thing for them to do.
#1. Liesa, Forgotten Archangel
Midnight Hunt has finally given us a Standard version of the fourth archangel, Liesa. Forgotten Archangel has already made a few waves. This card makes for a good control finisher in Standard and is one of the best rares in the set for Sealed and Draft. I’ve been itching to build a new Commander deck around sacrifices and this legendary angel looks like it’ll slot perfectly into that.
A good angel deck needs a lot of good cards that aren’t necessarily angels themselves. Here are some of the best angel payoffs, in no particular order.
Kaalia of the Vast
Back when WotC released the first ever Commander precons in 2011, they decided to focus on the “wedges” (3-color combos that form a wedge on the color pie). The wedges had never been given defined identities in the same way other color combos had in Shards of Alara and Ravnica, so what exactly were they supposed to do?
The answer for what we now know as Mardu was angels, demons, and dragons. Kaalia is a nasty Commander to play against to this day. It’s not unheard of to see a hasty Kaalia of the Vast come swinging on turn 3 with some acceleration and a Lightning Greaves.
Entreat the Angels
Miracle was probably a big mistake on WotC’s part. It’s a difficult mechanic to play with and even harder to police as a judge. Nevertheless, Terminus and Entreat the Angels made miracles a deck in Legacy all by themselves.
The deck only tends to play one copy of Entreat as its win condition these days, but this card has done some real work over the years. Probably most notably in catapulting Alexander Hayne to the Top 8 of Pro Tour Avacyn Restored with this Innistrad block Constructed deck.
This is a random card and it’s definitely possible that you’ve never seen before. Youthful Valkyrie was one of WotC’s “only in theme boosters” cards for Kaldheim. My theory is that Kaldheim was at some point going to be a full-on tribal set with black/white angels as one of the tribes.
All of these theme booster cards are tribal-based and were likely cut from the main set when WotC shifted their focus away from the heavy tribal support. But since they gave us a strong 2-drop angel that also supports angels, we might as well use it. This card made angel tribal a very real deck in Arena’s Historic format along with a few other cards from recent sets.
Another tribal support card from Kaldheim shows us what could have been if Wizards had stuck to their guns with the set’s tribal Valkyrie theme. Dragonspeaker Shaman is a great support card in dragon decks and Starnheim Aspirant has already taken up a similar seat in angel decks. Cost reductions are one of the most potent effects in Magic and this one is right at home in angel decks given how expensive they usually are.
One of Kaldheim’s many stunningly beautiful sagas, Firja's Retribution is the epitome of tribal support. Four mana for what is effectively a Serra Angel token is already a hell of a good rate but your whole team also gets a few nice bonuses on successive turns.
This card was virtually unbeatable in Limited if it reached chapter two. It’s likely that Brazen Borrower is the main reason this card didn’t see any play in Standard pre-rotation. We may yet see some new possibilities for the card now that the Borrower is gone.
Emeria’s Call / Emeria, Shattered Skyclave
The modal double-faced cards of Zendikar Rising have been a huge hit. The flexibility of a spell that can also be a land has very powerful applications in Constructed. Emeria's Call has seen a lot of play in Standard midrange and control decks so far and I don’t see that changing much now that we’re post-rotation.
Cavern of Souls + Unclaimed Territory
You can’t talk about tribal support cards without mentioning the best tribal lands ever printed. Both Cavern of Souls and Unclaimed Territory have seen a ton of play across several tribal decks in every format. Cavern even sees play in non-tribal decks that really need to resolve a single key threat like Primeval Titan.
The traditional fantasy trope of an angel is a benevolent being that protects humanity from evil or as a messenger from God. Though this doesn’t always work out. There are many stories where angels end up evil or corrupted, and the story of Satan throughout Abrahamic religions and popular culture (like Inferno by Dante Alighieri) is one of a fallen angel who rebelled against God.
The trope of a good angel is generally true in Magic’s lore. Avacyn is a guardian angel on Innistrad who protects the people of the plane and keeps the Day/Night balance that’s integral to much of the storyline. Other angelic characters like Iona are written as protectors of the heroes of various storylines, though of course that isn’t always the case.
There are a number of angels in the game that are corrupted by the Phyrexians. As I already mentioned, Bruna and Gisela met a grisly end at the hands (tentacles?) of the Eldrazi in 2016’s Eldritch Mood, leaving Sigarda to fight their corrupted form.
Although angels are supposed to be good characters, that hardly makes for compelling stories. There are a wealth of evil angels in Magic’s history, especially when they delve into black mana. The black/white Valkyries of Kaldheim aren’t exactly evil but they’re certainly not good either.
The Valkyries of Norse mythology were a group of women commanded by Odin who dispassionately decided which warriors would live or die on the battlefield and then guided the departed souls to the halls of Valhalla. Magic’s Valkyries of Starnheim serve a very similar function but they’re also fierce warriors as Norse Valkyries are often depicted in popular culture.
Coupled with the corrupted angels of New Phyrexia and Innistrad it’s pretty clear to see that while angels try to be benevolent it never quite works out.
Are There Any Male Angels in MTG?
Yes, but they’re in short supply. The plane of Amonkhet is an exception to the general rule of female angels in Magic, in that its angels are all male. But WotC has confirmed that this is specific to Amonkhet and the rest of Magic’s Multiverse has female angels.
There are two angel cards that have been printed of male angels, though: Gabriel Angelfire and Malach of the Dawn. But that’s it! Angels are typically portrayed as female in fantasy, though their religious roots are quite the contrary.
Many of God’s angels are depicted as male, perhaps most famously the angel Gabriel who brings the word of Jesus’ birth in the Nativity. As someone who went to a Catholic school in my early years, I remember many Nativity plays where the teachers had to remind us that Gabriel was a man even though there are many depictions of a female Gabriel, most likely to align with the popular fantasy tropes.
Magic’s angel cards are very predominantly female characters. If I had to guess I’d say this is to distance them from religious imagery and align them closer with fantasy, much like many depictions of the angel Gabriel from my youth, and perhaps some of yours too.
We haven’t had any new angel characters for quite some time, so there’s not much on the market if you want to pimp out your Magic collection with some angel-themed accessories. We’re getting two new Innistrad sets this year, though, and the possibility of new angels means the possibility for new accessories, so keep your eye out at your local game store for new angel-themed products.
Double-Sided Avacyn Playmat
The best angel-themed accessory on the market if you’re looking for older products would be the double-sided Avacyn playmat. Printed back in 2016 for Shadows Over Innistrad, Ultra Pro created a reversible, double-sided playmat with the art from Archangel Avacyn and Avacyn, the Purifier.
This playmat (as well as others based on Avacyn and other angel cards) are currently out of print but might be available secondhand from other players or marketplaces like TCGPlayer or Cardmarket. I’m sure you can find to meet your needs if you look or ask around at your local game store.
Avacyn Restored Card Sleeves
On the flip side, you’re in luck if you’re looking for card sleeves! Ultra Pro’s Avacyn Restored sleeves are still available. The pack comes with 80 sleeves so there’s some wiggle room if you’re building for Standard with a sideboard, but you’ll need to double your order if you’re a Commander player.
- Official Avacyn Restored artwork deck protector sleeves
- Made to especially fit full size MTG Magic the Gathering card
- Archival safe, no PVC
- This Item is New / Factory Sealed from the Manufacturer
- Standard 66 x 91MM on new black material
Atraxa, Praetors' Voice | Illustration by Victor Adame Minguez
Avacyn is gone but her influence is likely not gone from the plane of Innistrad. I don’t know about you but I’m incredibly excited to see what Midnight Hunt and Crimson Vow have in store for us. What are you most excited to see? Let me know if you have a favorite angel that didn’t make my list! And what makes it your favorite angel?
Until next time, take care of yourselves and each other!
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