The Five Biggest Card Design Mistakes of the Modern Era

Some cards should never have been printed. In this week's article, Hans takes a look at five of Magic's worst designs in the Modern Era. Can you guess which cards made his list?

With a history that spans twenty-five years, Magic: The Gathering is bound to have a few cards it wishes it could take back. I'm not talking about the early mistakes, such as Black Lotus or Arcbound Ravager – the cards on today's list are inexcusable design mistakes that shouldn't have made the light of day. Whether it's breaking the color pie, destroying future design space, or simply warping the way players play Magic, these cards (and the people who designed them) have a lot of questions to answer.

1. Cavern of Souls

Cavern of Souls

The printing of Cavern of Souls was made in good faith – due to the power level of Snapcaster Mage and its interaction with Mana Leak in Standard, Wizards R&D wanted to take a preemptive measure in giving tribal decks a way to fight back against the flashbacking menace. Once the context of its creation are removed, however, Cavern of Souls reveals itself as a terribly designed card that completely trivializes and invalidates a subset of spells in Magic.

To be clear: the effect of making creature spells uncounterable is an important effect that should be a part of the game. I'd even go so far as to say that a permanent that grants that effect to creature spells can be reasonable, safe, and interesting. With that said, tacking that effect to a land – one of the most difficult types of permanents to destroy in Magic that also happens to produce five colors of mana – was a colossal blunder. By ensuring that every tribal deck ran Cavern of Souls, counter magic becomes a moot point in these matchups with hardly any downside to running these lands. The existence of the Cavern is just as egregious as a hypothetical land that gives creature spells it casts hexproof – its effect is too powerful and game-warping for a land.

2. Walking Ballista

Walking Ballista

The color pie in Magic is one of the most important aspects of card design – certain colors have effects that others don't; specific colors have limitations when it comes to what they can do. For example, red can't destroy enchantments, black cannot remove artifacts, blue doesn't have access to creature removal, green doesn't get Lightning Strike-like effects, and white doesn't get to draw cards. While there are some cases of color bends (especially from older sets), these principles make sure that the colors – and thus the decks – don't become homogenized. Colorless cards take a bat to this approach and smash it into pieces – with Walking Ballista being one of its biggest offenders.

Walking Ballista's ability to double as creature removal and burn takes the color pie and throws it out the window. Colors that previously didn't have access to Shock effects could now ping away the board or shoot down the opponent for lethal. Now, if a non-red, mono-color deck wants a way to deal with creatures, it can look to Walking Ballista as the answer. While that may be a boon for deck builders, it's overall a loss for the game because it pushes deck building towards further homogenization.

3. Deathrite Shaman

Deathrite Shaman

Another guiding principle of Magic is the core principle of "cost versus effect": A card should have an effect proportional to how much it costs to use the card. Many of the most problematic cards in the history of Magic have had effects that scaled disproportionately to their costs. Deathrite Shaman is the poster child of this phenomenon – it costs a single, measly mana and can single-handedly win the game.

Deathrite Shaman is a classic case of a card that simply does too much. It can be cast with either black or green mana; gives these two colors access to graveyard hate, life-gain, and direct damage; and brick-walls opposing 1/1 creatures. It's the most powerful one-mana mana dork in the game and it has rightly earned its spot in format banlists.

4. Emrakul, the Aeons Torn

Emrakul, the Aeons Torn

Emrakul, the Aeons Torn is one of the coolest cards to have ever seen print, as well as one of the most egregious. While most people have stories about how they survived an attack by Emrakul and were able to win the game regardless, the card is as close to a creature version of an "I Win" card that exists in Magic. That by itself isn't preposterous (although questionable). But the fact that it's the go-to insta-win card for decks requiring a win condition is so problematic from a design perspective. There will never be a card that is as ultimate as Emrakul. Because of all the effects stapled on its top, it's the card you want to cheat in with Sneak Attack, Show and Tell, Omniscience, and Through the Breach. Due to the presence of Emrakul, there is no longer design space for a card that could act as a finisher for the aforementioned cards.

5. Planeswalkers

Teferi, Hero of Dominaria

Every year, new planeswalkers enter Standard. And every year, the card type does its best to prove why it was a mistake to be created in the first place. Even when a given situation isn't as bad as the times of Jace, the Mind Sculptor in Standard, planeswalkers tend to warp the meta around them due to their efficiency and power level. Within the past few years, we've seen the dominance of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, Liliana, the Last Hope, Saheeli Rai, and the current top dog Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Because planeswalkers are marketed heavily as the face of sets and supplementary products, these cards are pushed in terms of power level at much higher frequencies than any other card type in the game. The more powerful of these hard-to-remove permanents accrue card advantage the moment they hit the battlefield whether by drawing extra cards, acting as repeatable removal, or creating a board presence.

That's it for this week! Were there any cards that you think I may have left out? Leave your comments below to share what you think were the biggest design mistakes of the Modern Era!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.


Karnigel(2018-10-26 14:29)

I think we both have here other points of fews :D The comments descripe it good. I am only here to support the other comments ;)

fablodibongo(2018-10-12 16:09)

Modern era is the design mistake of magic

Jooster(2018-10-12 13:20)

Have to say these are largely just... Wrong. Aside from DRS and planeswalkers, they all come with extremely heavy deckbuilding costs if you want to abuse their design flaws. Cavern forces a tribal deck and restricts your non-creature usage, Emrakul needs to be cheated into play, and Ballista costs an unreasonable amount of mana, or fragile 2-3 card combos, to truly bust. In Ballista's case especially, there's plenty of alternatives to win with access to those enablers.

DRS is absolutely a design mistake, I don't think anyone's really contesting that.

Planeswalkers... Kind of. The mistake isn't in the cards themselves, it's in WotC's decision to make them difficult to remove. They're often poorly costed in regards to being able to use one or even two abilities, and only really begin to become a problem once they can be protected enough to generate more than their value. That's part of the reason why 3-mana PWs are often the most dangerous, because of the double-barrel of their opponent not likely to be able to threaten them early on and their cheaper mana cost making them easier to recover their value. As we see more PW-specific answers being designed though, they're going to become harder and harder to protect. The real issue is that until recently those answers simply haven't been made, but we're seeing it happen more nowadays with cards like Plaguecrafter and Assassin's Trophy

MikeDem(2018-10-12 00:49)

I disagree with every choice u made except deathrite shaman... Card is busted....

Cyanu(2018-10-11 19:27)

I feel that your approach in this is very one dimensional in some of your picks...

Cavern bothers you more than DRS? Apart from the fact that Cavern is only here to make sure you resolve creatures of a specific pre-selected type, we're in the age of Terminus... What's more unfair? Casting a bunch of uncounterable humans or wiping the board for 1 mana*? (bypassing indestructible, regeneration, persist/undying, on death triggers, protections from X etc)

Emrakul: for 15 mana it could as well have 'you win the game' etb, if there's a problem is how you can cheat him in, currently there's not

Planeswalkers? Most of them are underwhelming for modern while there's not a single one that deserves to be on the banlist

IrenicusShadow(2018-09-27 10:58)

Well... I disagree with a lot on this list...
A) Cavern - Yes it's very strong - but more so as a rainbow land, than making things uncounterable. But it needs to be rainbow to help every tribe, otherwise you would need to at least choose a color, which by itself would make it clunky. What makes it to good is the way to far spreading tribes... As "Humans", "Wizards", ... No one would really care about a Cavern with tribes like elves, goblins, even slivers as in good old times...
B) Balista - No, just no. Balista is the first really good (modern) adaption of Triskelion. Trike itself is as old as Antiquities. So yes, it explores "Burn" and "Removal" in colors which hardly get it... But at a very hefty cost. For a Shock you pay 4 colorless mana or one red by comparison. By this standard Arcane Encyclopedia should be named as well, as it is a "good ol' tome" revisited and draws colors extra cards (repeatable) which shouldn't draw that easy...
C) Deathrite - I agree. Too much for to less. Take the black ability away and it's fine (make the green effekt g/b)
D) Emrakul - Never say never. We thought this standard was made with Spirit of the Night. Than Akroma. Than Darksteel Colossus. Than Progenitus. Than Blightsteel Colossus. Now Emmi. Well Emmi is as brutal as it can be - cointerproof, timewalk, annihilator, protection,... You get it. But it is designed as it should be - the end. The greatest know force (except Planeswalker), unbeatable and world eating. Annihilator was a mistake (Storm Scale 9?) - especially with numbers higher than 2. And you can't interact with it - as protection from colored spells is way to strong on a beater like this.
E) Planeswalkers - Only as they are very new to the game and there aren't many answers around. But with increasing answers (as a lot of black removal get's "target creature or pw", more direkt burn, better creatures, more o-ring style effects for white) their power level will fall. Look at the Jace Beleren and Garruk Wildspeaker - old stars when they were "born". Today noone cares... They are to fragile or weak. Even today most walkers are mediocre at best, some good, but not game ending. One or to per year? Yes... But that is true for each cardtype... Vraskas Contept and Settle the Wreckage for Instants shaped the standard around them. Or Smugglers Copter, Walking Balista and Hope of Ghirapur for Artifacts...

Greatest design flaws?
Scarab God. Exactly like Deathrite: way too much - just win.
Snapcaster Mage - At least one mana to cheap for it's effect.
Nexus of Fate - Really? Reshuffling (no exile clause), Instant Speed Timewalk? Really?
Scapeshift - Crop Rotation was bad... This is even worse.
Eldrazi - Colorless, over the curve creatures with nearly no drawback. Magic is abour the power struggle of five colors (with the help of some colorless tools etc).

dragonflynl(2018-09-26 20:08)

Though I can certainly see your arguments for these cards, fact remains that (by my knowledge at least) none of these five have ever forced an emergency ban. Sure enough, Deathrite Shaman made it onto the Modern and Legacy banlist (the only one on this list, mind you), but I feel this is not necessarily because of a design flaw per se. Wizards themselves admit that they do not test their new cards in older formats, and it is unavoidable that some of the new cards have interactions with older cards that are way too powerful.

That being said, I think there have been cards with a flawed design- especially when they were released into Standard, the format with the smalles cardpool of all the constructed formats. It is still incomprehensible to me that cards such as Smuggler's Copter and Aetherworks Marvel and the entire Energy-mechanic (or in the past, Arcbound Ravager, Skullclamp, Stoneforge Mystic) were developed, tested and not considered problematic. These cards at some point completely warped Standard and warranted an emergency ban, in Standard- the only Constructed format that is being tested for. Therefore, I would consider the cards that are or were banned in Standard more of a design mistake than the cards on this list.

Not saying you're wrong, just pitching in my 2 cents on the subject :)

Kind regards,

The guys at Dragonfly Trading.

Rochester-Cube(2018-09-26 19:03)

Hmm... No offense, but this selection seems absolutely arbitrary and random. The terms seem to be completely undefined.

What does "Modern Era" mean? One would think it means the Modern format, everything from 8th Edition and the original Mirrodin block onwards. But, no, apparently Arcbound Ravager is not from the "Modern Era". So what is this "Modern Era" then?

And what does "design" even mean? Even though, the actual teams in Wizards R&D aren't named "design" and "development" anymore (it's now Vision, Set and Play Design), the distinction still makes sense: "design" is what the card does, "development" concerns the power level. In most cases, you seem to be talking about the power level. Then looking at banned lists like the one for Modern (with Deathrite Shaman) or EDH (with Emrakul) would have many possible answers to the question (what format are we talking about anyway? Standard? Limited? Cube? Modern? EDH? Pauper? That influences the choices immensly). However, "design" has nothing to do with power level. If Cavern would cost 3 to activate or Deathrite Shaman 4 to cast, it would still be the same design. (When talking about actual card design, the format might not matter, but considering the power level, it does!)

And finally: Seriously? The fifth "card" on this top 5 list is all 133 planeswalkers? I can see a power level argument for a few, like the ones you mentioned. But all 133? Even the Planeswalker Deck ones? And how are planeswalker cards "hard-to-remove"? They can be attacked with creatures AND are vulnerable to direct damage, making them actually the easiest-to-remove permanent type... By far!

But, oh well. I am just ranting and you probably had a pressing deadline
... And I am probably jealous that you have the opportunity to write articles like that and I don't ;P

Trigunner(2018-09-26 18:45)

It's true that planeswalkers are always among the most powerful cards in standard, we see that be how heavily they are played and by how much they affect the metagame and deckbuilding. But I wouldn't go as far and say that it was a mistake and create this card type. Planeswalkers in general are not overpowered, it's just that they are pushed too much, wich the article also mentions. We also had planeswalkers who didn't see Standard play and in other formats planeswalkers aren't played as much, because they are easier to handle or more powerful effects exist. Like all cards planeswalkers don't exist in a vacuum, their power is relative to the context in wich they are played. But I agree that for standard planeswalkers are just way too efficient. I usually fear playing against them as they often can turn a game completely around if they are not dealt with in one or two turns.