People typically don't notice design when it's done well but tend to register its presence when it doesn't quite hit the mark. The reason is that good design is supposed to be invisible. We're not supposed to notice it. Don Norman, the author of "The Design of Everyday Things," a design cult classic, has used doors as an example for that idea. When you walk up to an ideal door and pass through it, you're not aware that you've just opened and closed it. Unfortunately, that's rarely the case, with some doors offering no suggestion on whether to push or pull. Such a poorly designed, confusing door is now usually named a Norman door, after the aforementioned designer.
We're not going to talk about doors all day, however, so let's put the concept of invisible design to Magic cards. While it takes some time to learn when getting accustomed to the game, almost everybody notices sooner or later that Magic's Spiders have a few things in common. First of all, they have reach, think Giant Spider or Canopy Spider. They sometimes care about flying in another way too—some kill fliers with an enter-the-battlefield trigger, some deal damage to flying creatures. And it makes sense from how real-life spiders function: they set up traps to kill flying insects. It's the same in Magic, just bigger, as usual. Another thing these creatures—loved by some, loathed by others—have in common is their power-to-toughness ratio. Whether gigantic or tiny, most Spiders have a higher toughness than power, making them more useful as blockers: again appropriate to a predator that prefers to lie in wait for its prey rather than to hunt it down.
Once you've seen plenty such Spiders, when you encounter another one, you don't need to read the text thoroughly to know roughly what the card does. It's probably a bit beefy, doesn't kill a lot in combat, but can block pretty much any flier you throw at it. It's not quite literal invisible design, but it's using prior knowledge of the game (and of the world) to facilitate a smooth User Experience, and it is devilishly effective.
Just as in real life, poor usability is much more readily apparent than proper design. This is especially true in Magic's case, as many of the card interactions rely on tiny, obscure details that we, as players, must keep constant track of. Devotion, constellation, triggered abilities, exalted, and many other keywords or abilities are usually not visible at first sight. As a result, while dubious from a usability perspective, these minute aspects are what create fun and interesting games. If all cards were just vanilla creatures and Lightning Bolt lookalikes, we would be bored with Magic faster than you could pronounce "Fblthp." However, there are some shocking examples of extremely poor UX design among Magic cards. Such cards create slight annoyances at first but can lead to serious issues when too prevalent or stacked on top of one another.
Tarmogoyf is a prime example of a card with poor usability. As its ability is static, its size can change at any point in the game and, as a result, requires both players to constantly check how many subtypes are in each graveyard. And to check it means to carefully look at one graveyard, then do the same with the other, compare them to consider any overlap, pay particular attention to cards with multiple types (like Heliod, Sun-Crowned) and … Even then, how do you keep track of the creature's power and toughness? Do you just use a six-sided die? An easy solution, sure, but not without other problems connected to it. First of all, you've got to tap a creature with a counter on it, and that's annoying enough. Though it's not that big of a problem with Tarmogoyf as you can always check its P/T again should the dice be rolled by accident.
However, as the creature's toughness is greater than its power by one point (so it doesn't just die on empty graveyards) using a regular die doesn't quite get the job done. Granted, you can easily figure it out, but it then requires some thinking, whereas it shouldn't, really, as the basics of UX tell us. You could use special Goyf dice, but then you have to buy yourself an item dedicated to that one card with few other uses. And yes, you could use a piece of paper in its place, but that's not practical when Tarmogoyf's P/T changes once, not to mention numerous times. I like the card in how it functions in the game itself but have yet to be happy when playing paper and seeing Goyf on either side of the table. I immediately have to think about how annoying the card is to keep track of.
Coming back to the "tapping stuff with dice on it" point—Blast Zone is a great design when considered from a theoretical gameplay perspective. But when you think about how awkward it is to keep the card around in paper games, having to keep it aside (but close to other lands!), carefully tap and untap it each turn … It's barely accessible! People who live with some form of movement disability are often going to struggle using the card in tabletop games.
These are mild annoyances—even if that doesn't make them any less important; as they say, "the devil's in the details." But they are not as severe as with my next example, which can lead to straight-up exploiting. Chalice of the Void is rather simple in how it works, countering every spell with a certain mana cost, and it works beautifully online. So it isn't much of an issue currently, with the pandemic and all official paper play suspended. But the card's just terrible to play with in offline games. It's elegant enough when you play it—you pay the cost, it enters the battlefield with some counters on it. You don't tap it, and the chosen value for X is usually one or two, so it's not even an issue when the die rolls off. The first few turns usually move smoothly. Sometimes the opponent concedes immediately, knowing they don't have any counterplay to it, sometimes the players have no spells of the chosen costs. At other times they're just stuck with some spells in hand, waiting to draw a relevant spell, no biggie.
However, when some turns have passed and no spells that would be countered were played, we enter a dubious territory. Maybe both of the players have forgotten about the artifact and the game goes on as if it weren't there (even though the trigger is mandatory). That wouldn't be a terrible issue. Maybe only one of the players has forgotten about Chalice, but their opponent is nice and lawful enough to remind them of the trigger so that the game goes on as intended. Maybe one of the players has forgotten, and the other one noticed and decided to use it to their advantage. Some people think of it as a feature of the card, but it's simply cheating. The problem here is that it's difficult to prove anything to anyone and that cheating is enabled by an in-game card. There are several ethical (Is forcing spells under my own Chalice okay?) issues with the card, some balance-related, some design-related (the card's not fun to play against). While Chalice doesn't seem overly powerful in its current form, it's most certainly problematic, and I believe it shouldn't exist in its current form in tabletop Magic.
Another infamous case in which poor usability design led to the risk of exploitation is the From the Vault printing of Dryad Arbor. The creature's initial look was quite particular. It was clearly not just a land as it had quite some text in the rules box. The different Future Sight frame was also a helpful signifier—it suggested different rules, ones we had not seen before. As a result, players would often be inclined to read the card thoroughly (if seen for the first time) or constantly be reminded that the card does something different from what they were used to. However, with the Arbor's first reprint, these things changed dramatically. The card now featured a typical frame, discarding the very relevant signifier. It also got rid of the rules text, placing a simple Forest symbol in the box. These two factors now introduced a new problem, not yet seen in Magic's history.
With the lowered readability, the card became barely distinguishable from any green-producing basic land and as such was often mistaken for one. Some players, noticing the flawed design, used it deliberately as a means to gain an advantage in games. Dryad Arbor would lie among other lands, as a hidden counter for Liliana of the Veil's second ability, a surprise blocker, or an unexpected attacker. The card caused several controversies, and people discussed if this very printing should be banned. Purposefully misleading an opponent about the game state has no place in Magic, but it's hard to prove purpose when the cards themselves make it this easy. Thankfully, Wizards of the Coast learned the lesson in time for Time Spiral Remastered, giving the card the current border but choosing to replace the mana symbol with the original rules text.
Dubious visual or rules design is not the only usability problem Magic is facing. Sometimes the cards printed are just not practical to play with because they cause players to spend too much time on actions that don't meaningfully advance the game state. This has led to several bannings, with Sensei's Divining Top the prime example, being banned in both Modern and Legacy. Depending on whom you ask, the power level of Top was not the main issue. Instead, the problem was much more trivial—the players would spend way too much time "spinning it" (using its first ability) again and again. While I might have dramatized the card's history to some extent, the card often led to matches going to time (or just to the overall frustration of the opponent). As a result, Wizards decided to get rid of the card in all formats where it saw play, and I am quite content they're not looking back.
There is another set of cards causing time issues, one that is too prevalent and important to get banned now: the cycle of ten fetch lands (Misty Rainforest et cetera). These lands are embedded in our minds as a pillar of their formats, and rightfully so. They're perfectly fine from a game balance perspective for the more powerful nonrotating formats. (But leaving them out of Pioneer was a great decision!) When it comes to the practical aspect of things, though, they fall short. Having to reshuffle the deck with almost every land drop is not a great feature. As it consists of several small actions (picking up and looking through the deck, riffling it twice or thrice, then giving the deck to your opponent to cut), it takes up enough time to make it unlikely that Wizards will include them in future Standard sets.
They are also that much more problematic to any players living with movement disabilities, a point often overlooked, yet characteristic of poor designs. To be clear, however, I'm very fond of fetches and how they shape Modern, Legacy, and Vintage metagames and mana bases, and I cannot imagine these formats without them. What is done is done, but pointing out their flaws is by and large advisable so as to omit to commit the same mistakes in the future.
Magic is a complicated game, and the source of its fun lies precisely within its intricacies. Therefore, I believe we should not strip it of its involved interactions and rules. The designers working on the cards should, however, keep these factors in the back of their minds while creating new sets: the implications these cards cause in how we operate with them in tabletop games, how readable the cards are, and if they're simply too impractical in their use. Following the precepts of good UX can create invisible designs, improve the gameplay greatly, and limit frustration caused by missed triggers or rolled-off dice. Just please, for the love of Heliod, don't ever print another Chalice of the Void!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.