Top Five White Core Cards
- Serra Angel (many sets, most recently M15) - I don't think there's any other card I could've picked at #1 for White in good conscience. Serra Angel is one of the most frequently reprinted cards in Magic's history, along with Giant Spider. It says something about the card that its power level has remained playable all this time. White has been defined by angel creatures over the years, as has the vigilance mechanic. It's no surprise that Serra Angel has found its way into countless sets over the years.
- Pacifism (many sets, most recently M14) - I personally prefer Arrest for it's total shutdown effect, but Pacifism is almost as effective. And at two mana, it's a cheap way to neuter most problem creatures. It's also a prime example of how White handles problem creatures: put them on lockdown. It's very Azorius of them.
- Captain of the Watch (M10, M13) - This is the card that came closest to violating my original rules, as it's in only two recent sets (my minimum). Spoiler alert: this card is why I set that as my minimum. Captain of the Watch is just so perfectly White, I had to make sure I could use it. She creates a bunch of weenies, then acts as a "lord" creature for them, similar to Daru Warchief or Field Marshal of the past. Captain of the Watch is as strongly "core" as cards come.
- Solemn Offering (M10, M11, M14, M15) - After a couple sets with Oblivion Ring, Wizards must have realized that giving White such a powerful, broadly useful removal card was a little much. So they brought back Solemn Offering, which fits more into their piece of the color pie. Artifact destruction has always felt a little more Green as far as flavor (destroying man-made "blights" upon the natural world), but White has had it since the old Alpha days of Disenchant, so clearly it's a fit. And lifegain fits White as well, so, bonus.
- Planar Cleansing (M10, M13, M14) - Wrath of God is the more recognizable card, but Planar Cleansing is a better representation of where Magic is today. It's a bit more expensive (a 4 mana wrath card would be exploited in today's Standard), and it also handles other problem cards like planeswalkers and artifacts. The flavor is right, too. White is all about cleansing and order; a planar "reset" is right in their wheelhouse.
Top Five Black Core Cards
- Doom Blade (M10, M11, M12, M14) - At its heart, Black is about death, and Doom Blade provides that in spades. Wizards still seems to be feeling out Black's prime instant-speed removal slot; they've tried Terror (the first, slightly weaker), Dark Banishing (7th-9th Editions), and Murder (very strong, deeper into Black) over time. Doom Blade seems about right, especially now that they've put it at Uncommon; I remember Murder at Common being a house in limited.
- Corrupt (5 times, most recently M14) - Corrupt is a great card. It requires only a single black mana, but it rewards you for playing many swamps. I like that it's such a long-tenured card, too; its first printing was back in the mid-90s. The fact that it's still a solid card says a lot.
- Gravedigger (many times, most recently M15) - Gravedigger is a card I was glad to see return for M15, even though I'll probably never play the set. Raise Dead/Disentomb is the same effect, but really it's not that great of a value. The way you know that is that Ghoulcaller's Chant exists, which is strictly better. Gravedigger seems a better power level than Disentomb, probably about the same as Ghoulcaller's Chant. And purely, purely Black.
- Bloodthrone Vampire (ROE, M11, M13) - I prefer Vampire Aristocrat as far as cards go, but Bloodthrone is a bit more core Black. The ability to sacrifice other creatures for the "greater good" is exactly what Black is all about. In limited, Bloodthrone was a card that didn't get much love, but I found that in the right deck, it created all sorts of problems for opponents.
- Mind Rot (many times, most recently M15) - I thought temporarily about using Duress or Sign In Blood for this spot, but I think a straight up and down Mind Rot is the cleanest, purest way to approach this facet of Black. Discard is a featured aspect of this slice of the color pie, and Mind Rot almost always a card that your opponent doesn't want to see. There is the occasional bummer when you draw it later in games when you'd rather have some gas, but overall, it's a good choice.
There ought to be a shade on the list, but I just couldn't find one that felt right. Frozen Shade is the original, but it's underpowered, as is Looming Shade which followed it. Crypt Ripper and Nantuko Shade are very good, but don't have the broad-reaching print presence you need to justify calling it a "core set" card.