Many of the iconic cards from Alpha were actually vanilla creatures. They appeared in all colors (e.g.Savannah Lions, Merfolk of the Pearl Trident, Scathe Zombies, Hurloon Minotaur, Craw Wurm). Since then, almost every expansion has featured at least a couple of vanilla creatures. Green gets the best large vanilla creatures and white gets the best small vanilla creatures. There have been some tournament level vanilla creatures, like Savannah Lions and Memnite.
A basic heuristic that judges the playability of a creature by consider the total stats in comparison to its cost. From there, abilities either cost a premium, or if the cost is not any higher, can be assessed as to be a minor effect for the format. The test is more relevant in Limited than in Constructed, as rarely are vanilla creatures above the cost of two ever playable regardless of size, while occasional vanilla five or six mana creatures are playable in Limited. It is also a measure of power level over time, as the math below has been calibrated for the last five years and creatures prior were usually worse.
The Limited math typically follows that a creature needs double the stats of the mana value (i.e. 1/3 or 2/2 for 2, 3/3 or 2/4 for 3), but the scaling become less linear at higher costs. Only green can get a common 4-mana 4/4, with red getting them with downsides, which means that 4-drops are measured against seven points and 5-drops against against nine points. Good evergreen abilities can usually be rated at one mana each, though power scaling makes these evaluations more difficult. Furthermore, toughness comes at a lower premium after a certain number, as a 1/7 does not compare to a 7/1, but both are generally worse than a 4/3.
In Constructed, a 3-mana 4/3 is already considered inconsequential, and Woolly Thoctar is close to the lower edge of acceptability; even Baneslayer Angel, a card that passes vanilla and has about four mana in abilities, was relegated to "powerful sideboard option". This is due to removal choices being capped at three mana or less to be considered good, and so any creature lacking in protection or entry value suffers at mana over three.
Muraganda Petroglyphs and Ruxa, Patient Professor are the only cards that reward vanilla creatures for having no abilities. The Petroglyphs inspired many fans to ask for a set with a "vanilla matters" themes. Mark Rosewater has extensively explained why such a theme is not feasible and won't make good game play.
- Mark Rosewater (January 24, 2005). "A Few Words From R&D". magicthegathering.com. Wizards of the Coast.
- Sam Stoddard (November 11, 2016). "The Ingredients for Great Vanillas". magicthegathering.com. Wizards of the Coast.
- Magic Arcana (April 30, 2007). ""Vanilla" Doesn't Do Them Justice". magicthegathering.com. Wizards of the Coast.
- Mark Rosewater (March 21, 2022). "What color gets the most efficient vanilla creatures?". Blogatog. Tumblr.
- Mark Rosewater (July 8, 2021). "I just noticed that AFR doesn't have any vanilla creatures in it, which strikes me as unusual.". Blogatog. Tumblr.
- Mark Rosewater (September 18, 2021). "Why have you stopped printing vanilla creatures?". Blogatog. Tumblr.
- Mark Rosewater (May 13, 2022). "There hasn’t been a single vanilla creature printed in the past year.". Blogatog. Tumblr.
- Mark Rosewater (March 20, 2022). "Since you mentioned that vanilla creatures are printed infrequently now, where does that put them on the Storm Scale?". Blogatog. Tumblr.
- Mark Rosewater (October 19, 2014). "What does French vanilla mean in the context of MtG?". Blogatog. Tumblr.
- Mark Rosewater (November 7, 2016). "A Few More Words from R&D". magicthegathering.com. Wizards of the Coast.
- Mark Rosewater (November 09, 2013). "Wait, I thought Vanilla was (...)". Blogatog. Tumblr.
- Mark Rosewater (April 28, 2017). "In regards to Muraganda and a vanilla creature theme". Blogatog. Tumblr.
- Mark Rosewater (June 16, 2017). ""Drive to Work #444 - Vanilla Matters"". Blogatog. Tumblr.
- Mark Rosewater (December 24, 2021). ""Vanilla Matters" is not a theme that's deep enough to support a set. Is it even deep enough to support a 2-color draft strategy?". Blogatog. Tumblr.
- Mark Rosewater (April 26, 2022). "Could a hypothetical Muraganda set have Vanilla Matters as one of the ten draft archetypes?". Blogatog. Tumblr.