Thursday, March 5, 2020

Bad Cards For Life

Why do bad cards happen to good people?

The variable power level of Magic cards has been a point of contention since the beginning. Design writers like David Sirlin have decried the practice of “bad” or “underpowered” cards, preferring instead that any card be as viable as any other. Mark Rosewater famously wrote two articles about bad cards around eight years apart from each other with various reasonable justifications.

However, Rosewater's articles offer an incomplete explanation of why bad cards are worth including in CCGs. This is because “bad card” actually encompasses a fairly wide range of cards, and each has more or less claim to being worth including in a set. Let’s look at some of the categories of bad cards and why they may be included in a Magic set.

Why print One With Nothing?

This card costs as much to buy as Urza's Tower!

I'm going to start with the most classic category of bad cards: Weird, terrible rares. These are often a sore spot for people because opening a card like this means you just lost real monetary value – compare opening a Torrential Gearhulk or Concealed Courtyard in Kaladesh versus opening a Dubious Challenge. Despite the justifiable disappointment weird terrible rares generate, they also have the most reasons for existing in Magic sets.

The first reason is that weird terrible rares are maybe not terrible permanently or forever. Bazaar of Baghdad was unplayable for 13 years until the release of the original Ravnica, Death's Shadow was a bulk rare until someone realized its meaning in a fetch-shock format, and Tarmogoyf requires no explanation. In fact, the more weird terrible rares that get saved from the Island of Misfit Cardboard either by player ingenuity or new synergy, the better Constructed formats become, as they become more defined by the player base's research than by the designers' decisions as to what cards should have the highest power level.

The second reason is that weird terrible rares offer a challenge to deckbuilders in the same way a beaten-up jalopy offers a challenge to car enthusiasts. It's not as fun to Jenny to take an okay card and make it great with synergy as much as it is to take a card that has seemingly no strategic benefit whatsoever and make it pretty good. I'm not much of a Johnny myself, but even I can see the appeal – I enjoy my Grenzo, Dungeon Warden Commander deck partially because it makes Tel-Jilad Stylus and Reito Lantern into genuine threats.

The third and final reason is that Magic is an experiential game more than it is a strategic one. The secret to Magic's success is that it creates an interesting, coherent, unique narrative for everyone who plays it. So a successful card in Magic is a card that helps generate this narrative, more so than a card that's powerful. As long as people are laughing about how terrible One With Nothing or Sorrow's Path are, they actually become very useful for the game when printed sparingly. Could you even call them...good cards?

Why print Demolish?

This card might have been sideboardable in Kaladesh draft! (But I used the Theros version because it has the best art.)

Magic is in an interesting position because of its lengthy history. When making a new game, if you include cards or mechanics that make the game unfun, you can simply leave them out. For example, there isn’t a card in Terraforming Mars that lowers the oxygen or temperature, because that would slow down the game and make it last forever.

However, Magic has already established that it's willing to have certain effects that are bad for the game if they're too strong. These are mostly things that drag out the game with a predetermined winner and include land destruction effects, Fog effects, and significant amounts of lifegain. But you can't just cut these out of the game entirely because players expect to see these effects as part of the design skeleton of most draftable sets. So what can you do? Make them bad on purpose.

Feed the Clan was a playable lifegain card, but if you keep printing lifegain cards at the level of Feed the Clan, you run the risk of a deck emerging that simply gains so much life it can wait for the opponent to deck out. Cards that don’t actively move the game towards an end have to be weak or else the game will suffer.

Why print Open Fire?

This card made Reddit furious!

Sometimes a card is necessary to make one format work and terrible in another. Sorcerous Spyglass is a solid role-player in Standard, so good it's banned in Brawl, and completely unplayable in Limited. Nobody complains about this, though, because Sorcerous Spyglass is obviously oriented towards Constructed formats.

The cards that often draw complaints are cards that look like they're oriented towards multiple formats, but secretly aren't. Open Fire is a C-level Limited common that worked well in Hour of Devastation draft, but it had the misfortune to be printed during the 2014-2017 removal nadir. Players who wanted a different direction from a Standard format where a Shock reprint was something to get excited about were disappointed, even though Open Fire was clearly aimed (lmao) at Limited.

Not every card can be for every player and every format, and "bad cards" like Open Fire existing are unfortunately inevitable.

Why print Knight of the Keep (or other D-level Limited cards?)

This card somehow ended up less playable than Jousting Dummy!

Why are most Cubes more difficult than a normal booster draft? It's because they have a much flatter power level. Many picks in Cube are extremely difficult because many of them in a typical powered Cube are capable of winning the game on their own or with one or two friends, so it largely comes down to memorizing the strength of each draft archetype or the performance of each card in the context of the format. In other words, drafting a flat power level format requires more outside knowledge compared to drafting a format where some cards are obviously worse than others.

In Magic, draftable sets can be more complex than a core set, but they're still trying to appeal to as broad a player base as possible as evidenced by New World Order. If someone drafts one or two times a year, throwing 35 incredibly difficult decisions at them, some of which require listening to Lords of Limited to make the right one, is going to make them come away feeling like an idiot. Better to make some (but not all!) decisions obvious either because one card was particularly good or most of the cards were significantly worse.

D-level limited cards also allow players invested in an archetype to salvage a terrible draft. If you're going in on WX Knights in Eldraine, but it dries up because you didn't read the pod correctly, Knight of the Keep isn't going to stop you from going 0-3, but it will at least make you feel like you have a fighting chance.

The trick of including strictly worse cards in a draft game isn't something exclusive to Magic, either. Sushi Go has some cards that are absolutely worse than others – a 1-maki roll card compared to a 3-maki roll card – to decrease the number of decisions per pick, lower the game time, and make it more accessible to Gamewright's targeted younger audiences.

These cards are bad because if you put them in a Magic deck, you'll be disqualified!

Are there bad cards with no justification?

Of course.

The bad cards that shouldn't exist are bad cards that are purposeless – they're not even vaguely playable in any format and they basically take up space. Magic's low-power blocks like Masques and Kamigawa are filled with these, and cards like Numai Outcast and Quicksilver Wall are bad in a mediocre way that aren't even good to make fun of. One of WotC's design achievements in the past decade and a half is significantly lowering the amount of these, making drafting decisions harder and improving deck quality across the board.

At rare, you have weird terrible rares that aren't weird enough. Release to the Wind had no real purpose, and it wasn't particularly appealing to Jenny because it didn't do anything that a normal card couldn't do. Either you spent two extra mana on a flicker effect in a format that didn't need it (Limited didn't have a lot of ETB effects and Standard at the time had Kaladesh, which had much better flicker effects) or you spent three mana on a bounce spell that's worse than Unsummon.

There's also cards like Archangel's Light that are bad because they were added to the set last minute without enough time to test. Ideally, these wouldn't exist, but not everything goes according to plan, and it's better to have one bad card than 250 bad cards because your last-minute addition took over Standard. That said, it's hard to tell the difference between one of these and the aforementioned weird terrible rares unless a designer admits it, like the Tree of Redemption reprint in A25, so this category is hard to mark down.

Cards can be exciting, they can be hilarious, they can even be confusing or infuriating, but the one thing a card absolutely should not be is boring. Therefore, the "worst" cards are the most boring of all.

This card's actually pretty cool, I just put it here to represent boredom!


I assume most people reading this knew from the outset that making a Magic set with only "good" cards is A) impossible by definition and B) would require so much effort to balance that it would be impossible for any organization not willing to spend years and years on it. But even if you were to do that, the game you would have at the end would at best be Cube and at worst not even be Magic as we understand it. 

A bad card is a lot like salt – too much is disgusting, and by itself it's uninteresting, but it can vastly improve its context, and leaving it out would make everything bland. I hope you take this to heart as you work on your designs, Magic or otherwise, and that you appreciate how cool that metaphor was! I'm very proud of it.


  1. Love most of the article, but I have to push with more questions for one of the categories!

    Why print Demolish, and other 'staples'? Why do we have to keep printing these cards, if the effects are not good for the game? If the reason is that "players expect to see them", why not just stop printing them, and have players get used to not seeing them any more? There's many other once-commonplace effects in Magic that they stopped printing because they didn't lead to fun games, right?

    I think there's a combination of factors behind cards like this, personally. For one, it's indeed an expectation, in terms of exploring obvious design space. It'd be frustrating if Magic was a game where lands were NEVER destroyed, because it's so obviously something you can destroy. So you introduce it, just to let the players who want to experiment with that effect see how it plays out. It indulges player curiosity. The argument from here continues as you outlined it... so it's mostly just me offering the slight correction that the expectation doesn't spring from "they've always done it", but instead from, "well, wait, what would destroying a land look like on a card?"

    However, I DO think these cards are printed as a matter of tradition, too. Why is that? In my custom sets, I don't feel beholden to print a card like Demolish or Fog just because that's the way it's been done. I'm okay with putting bad cards in my file, but I want them to be marginally more niche playable than that - more like Knight of the Keep, if that makes sense. What leads someone to put Demolish into a set over a card that's D-level, but still theoretically playable in a maindeck? I think in that case, it's often just tradition.

    I do think that they also relate to your first category of "the game deserves weirdly bad cards". Fog sucks for a fun game of Magic, but it can make for some interestingly off-kilter games of Magic with Turbofog. I think Magic is a richer game when such decks exist, even if I don't want them to dominate or always exist. It is fun to try to figure out how to make bad cards like Clear a Path or Demolish into 'good' cards in a deck that make for a fun game of Magic not through progressing quickly to an end state, but by doing odd things. (As you said, experience over strategy.)

    To a certain degree, I also think it might be that red has historically struggled with effects at common that it has to get a card like Demolish to fill that out. White and green also struggle with noncreature effects, hence why lifegain and fog typically show up for them. They have to stretch into the unfun bits of their color pie for spell effects more frequently. I don't think it's a coincidence that (as far as my gut tells me) red has gotten Demolish less frequently after they started getting rummaging at common.

    Lastly, I think a lot of the cards in this Demolish category fall under low-skill player appeal. Stuff like lifegain and fog effects are very appealing to low skill players. While "not losing" is obviously a bad strategy for experienced players, it's nearly the single most compelling strategy for beginning players. They are afraid of risk and endangering themselves by playing cards, and these cards let them have the fun of playing something, while still protecting themselves. Even fun ways to win, like dealing damage, mean putting a target on yourself and opening yourself up by spending mana to be aggressive rather than to be defensive. It's the same reason that, in my experience, low-skill players often just do not attack until they have a completely overwhelming amount of creatures. They are afraid to commit and put things at risk, usually. Unfortunately, the effects that remove risk often are the effects that make for unfun Magic, so they get weakened.

    1. Any other thoughts? I still am circling back to "why print Demolish in a set"... I defended it myself, but I just don't find Demolish a compelling enough card to see it as tradition, and yet we still see it so often... any other really compelling reasons beyond "because it's a staple card for red at common"?

    2. For Demolish, I'd say it's about sideboarding. If your opponent is playing some bomb artifact, (or land, in Ixalan) sometimes it's your best shot at answering it. Disclaimer: not a Play Designer, etc etc.


    3. And a related, but perhaps even more important aspect here is the feeling of agency. Games don't tend to be made more fun by someone playing land destruction, but losing to a powerful land over and over again tends to be more fun when you feel like there's something you could do about it, even if you never actually use that option!


  2. Great analysis, thanks!

    I think of the strictly-better-or-worse cards in Sushi Go as actually creating *harder* decisions. It's a set-collection game, so the value of any given card varies depending on your strategy and how committed you are. The 1/2/3 point cards constantly ask you "OK, exactly how much do you value this other card?" If it were all 1's, all 2's, OR all 3's that would be a much easier question to answer.

    1. If you have several maki rolls of different values (or nigiri of different values) in your hand, you've basically written off the worse ones because if you're going to take one of those types of cards you're going to take the one that's objectively the best.

      It's true that they make the latter parts of the round more textured, though, I hadn't thought of that.