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
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
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
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 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.
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!
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