The 5 Scariest Design Mistakes in Magic History

With this being Halloween and all, I thought I’d get in the spirit a little bit. Spirit, as in ghosts 😉 (And what’s the deal with airline food?). Not everything that Wizards of the Coast has printed for Magic been perfect. There have been a ton of mistakes that have haunted the game (stop my puns if they get too much). Those mistakes were horrible at the time and have even driven away people in droves, but hopefully their lessons have been learned and not to be repeated.


As you’ll see I left out singular cards, but one is heavily implied. I didn’t feel it fair to blame one card out of several hundreds from the same set or situation.

5 – Only the Shadow Knows

Shadow, in and of itself, is not a totally bad mechanic. Introduced in Tempest (The second “Real” block), it enabled players to have another type of creature to attack and defend with. We can almost forgive this mistake early in Magic’s history if it wasn’t brought back during Time Spiral.

Why is it on here? Today, Magic is encouraged to be interactive. Yes, swinging in with creatures does create interactivity, but it’s weird how Shadow doesn’t really promote that. Reread Shadow’s reminder text:

This creature can block or be blocked by only creatures with shadow.

Either you have to race the creatures, have shadow creatures in your deck, or ways to handle creatures. How is this any different than creatures with flying? That’s exactly the point: you have to now worry about creatures with Flying AND creatures with Shadow. If the game evolved to where Shadow was a major player, then I don’t think it would be as much as a problem because there would be more ways to handle it. One major form of evasion is perfectly fine, but when you add another main one in there it adds complexity.

This is different than Unblockable in Blue only because it can block if needed. I get the flavor behind Shadow, but the fact that it can only block other Shadow creatures means it takes interaction from your opponent’s side as well too because it makes the decision of attacking that much easier. Horsemanship fits in this category as well, but with only one set that it’s been printing in, it’s not as bad.

4 – Arcane is Forever Alone

Everyone loves card advantage (except Red Deck Wins and White Weenie players). It seems that Pro Players and PTQ grinders would love cards that stayed in your hand for an extra cost. Splicing is a neat idea to make your spells “customizable.”

Why is it on here? This is the very definition of a “Parasitic” Mechanic; it needs other arcane cards for it to operate. With arcane only appearing in one block, you have cards that can only work with each other. The idea is pretty cool, and I think Wizards misunderstood why people didn’t like the block until recently (ignoring power level complaints). Splice is the part that everyone loves, but it was put on too little of a subset of cards that nobody can play with. If I want to play Evermind, I have to play with other Arcane spells to make it work, severely limiting my deck building choices.

And this is something that I see a ton of amateur designers do when I lurk around on card creation forums and areas. They create this new subtype of card and try and shove it down our throats trying to get us to play it. Their logical conclusion might be, “If WotC has done that with Arcane, and Traps and now Curses, why can’t I?” It’s because WotC learned from Arcane. Traps and Curses have a small subsection in the sets they’re now in.

Number of times that “Trap” was used outside of the subtype in Zendikar block? Two: Trapfinder’s Trick and Trapmaker’s Snare. One was a tutor, the other a discard/safety card. In Innistrad with “Curse”? Two: A tutor (Bitterheart Witch) and a safety card (Witchbane Orb, which can also double as a non-curse card).

How many non-Arcane cards reference Arcane? 57. There were 93 Arcane cards and 27 Splice into Arcane cards. That may seem like a lot. But considering that out of the thousands of Magic cards out there, you can really only build a few Arcane decks that have to work together means it’s a very limited base to design from.

3 – Coldsnap Needs to Grow Up

If you loved to draft, this was your set. Pretty much tailored to give one of the best drafting environments ever, Coldsnap was giving nostalgia a modern update. Everything everyone loved about the Ice Age block (Snow-Covered lands, Pitch spells, dual colored lands) was going to be back and more with this singular set.

Why is it on here? Besides the fact that it had a hugely parasitic mechanic (Snow), overly nostalgic mechanics no one really liked (Cumulative Upkeep and “Slowtrips”), the real problem was the set size. “But Robby,” those of you who like to ask questions out loud when the author isn’t present, “it was a third set. What did you expect them to do?”

True. Without Coldsnap we wouldn’t have had Rise of the Eldrazi. Look at the similarities: both are the “third” set of a block designed to be drafted exclusively. They were both experiments to see if a heavily draft-able set could work. Rise was extremely successful and beloved by many a limited player. I have yet to run into a player who remembers Coldsnap fondly (as players were complaining that it was just a money grab in a year where they weren’t releasing four sets a year to that point).

When Rise was announced, it was a huge surprise that it was going to be a “large set” instead of the normal third set size. The set had more time to breathe and figure out what it actually wanted to be. Coldsnap relied too heavily on the nostalgia as the goal of that set was to “finish” an uncompleted block. Could the set have benefited from a little more space in the cards? Yes, I believe so. But the idea of making a huge set caused a stir at the time, making hard at that time to swallow even more.

2 – When the Planeswalkers Roamed Wild

No, it’s not about the card Jace itself. While there are some broken things with it, I don’t think it was the problem in general. Being banned in Standard is a huge deal (Stoneforge will get her shout out soon), but the fact that this was banned has more to deal with its environment than the card itself. Ok, the card was a problem too, but more of it dealt with getting rid of it.

Why is it on here? Planeswalkers are now 4 years old, but we’re still learning on how to handle them in the game. There are four ways Planeswalkers leave the battlefield: A creature/damage knocks their loyalty counters down to zero, the Planeswalker uses its abilities to go down to zero, another Planeswalker with the same name enters the battlefield, or it gets destroyed/bounced. It’s this last group that we’re concerning ourselves with mostly.

Here are the ways to get rid of a Planeswalker from Lorwyn to M10 (Bounce is in italics):

  • Archon of Justice
  • AEthersnipe
  • Banishing Knack
  • Boomerang
  • Capricious Efreet
  • Celestial Purge
  • Cephalid Constable
  • Child of Alara
  • Consign to Dream
  • Cryptic Command
  • Deny Reality
  • Disperse
  • Girxis Charm
  • Kederekt Leviathan
  • Legacy Weapon
  • Lightwielder Paladin
  • Maelstrom Pulse
  • Nevermaker
  • Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
  • Oblivion Ring
  • Planar Cleansing
  • Primal Command
  • Reaper King
  • Resounding Wave
  • Rootgrapple
  • Scourglass
  • Surgespanner
  • Violent Ultimatum
  • Warp World
  • Wild Swing
  • Woodfall Primus
  • Worldpurge

Zendikar to Mirrodin Besieged (Bounce is in italics):

  • Admonition Angel
  • All is Dust
  • Argentum Armor
  • Aether Tradewinds
  • Celestial Purge
  • Devout Lightcaster
  • Disperse
  • Elspeth Tirel
  • Into the Roil
  • Lux Cannon
  • Mold Shambler
  • Quicksilver Geyser
  • Ratchet Bomb
  • Regress
  • Spine of Ish Sah
  • Steel Hellkite
  • Terastodon
  • Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre
  • Vampire Hexmage
  • World Queller

New Phyrexia to Innistrad (Bounce is in italics):

  • Archon of Justice
  • Beast Within
  • Bramblecrush
  • Brutalizer Exarch
  • Celestial Purge
  • Exclusion Ritual
  • Hex Parasite
  • Karn Liberated
  • Lost in the Mist
  • Oblivion Ring
  • Worldslayer

In just three sets, we have as many ways to deal with a Planeswalker as the previous six. Looking at most of the cards in the second group, they seem pretty soft when it comes to handling Planeswalkers. In the age of Jace TMS, there was hardly any good way of dealing with him in a non-creature fashion. He already has a leg up since he’s in Blue (countering, bouncing, stealing, outdrawing), and his third ability didn’t help. If you wanted to brute force attack him, the Jace player could bounce the creature for free, and leave mana untapped to counter it again.

Once it became apparent to WotC that Jace was going to be too good, it started printing ways to get rid of it. Look at the ways New Phyrexia has to deal with Planeswalkers:

  • Beast Within
  • Brutalizer Exarch
  • Exclusion Ritual
  • Hex Parasite
  • Karn Liberated

Any deck can use two of the cards while Green has the splash-able Beast Within. However, there is one card on the first and last list that doesn’t appear in the middle one:

Oblivion Ring.

Sometimes the threat of an answer is a great answer itself when it comes to deckbuilding and metagaming. WotC knows from the past that it needs reset button in case things get too far out of hand (Creeping Corrosion in an artifact block). The lack of great answers to a Planeswalker might have been the whole problem; it lead to the Superfriends deck and ultimately Jace’s rise and eventual banning. I honestly believe that if there would’ve been more (playable) answers provided, Jace wouldn’t have overrun the environment. He still would’ve been good, but not as good.

1 – Getting Something for Nothing

Sometimes Wizards just doesn’t learn. This could’ve been a whole article just on this section; in fact when I was writing this list I noticed that a majority of my choices fit into this category. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As I said before, players love card advantage; if there’s a way of skirting the cost of something, players will figure it out and abuse it.

Why is it on here? Here’s the list I came up with that fits in this category:

  • Urza’s “Free Spells”
  • Affinity
  • Rebels
  • Storm
  • Cascade
  • Mental Misstep
  • Tinker
  • Stoneforge Mystic

When you mess around with the mana system, you get burned. Affinity, Rebels and Storm ended up being way too good as a linear mechanic. Urza’s “free spells” was a neat mechanic done wrong in a color that should’ve have not gotten it in the first place. Cascade has the potential to be the most “fun” out of these mechanics since it was “random”, but hugely broken when you take out that random factor. Mental Misstep was printed with the wrong wording (I would’ve love to have seen a Nix variation on it) and given to every color. Tinker, well, Artifacts weren’t completely broken back then; just an 8/8 creature was the worst that could happen. Stoneforge tutored up an equipment and threw it onto the battlefield at the end of the turn, bypassing a normal mana requirement.

Each time that Wizards has tried to do more with less, it blows up in their face. Free mana, casting things for free, and putting objects onto the battlefield without issue are all dangerous aspects of the game. Players want to do powerful things, but in a capable player’s hands it’s like giving a machine gun to Rambo: the normal person will flair around and think it’s cool, Rambo will spend no time killing everyone in sight.

But here’s the thing: I don’t want them to stop doing effects like this. If you don’t test out new waters, the game becomes boring. Is Phyrexian Mana broken? No, it’s the cards they put it on like a free counterspell that hinders early game development. Can Affinity see play again? Yes, but this time without all the enabling lands and creatures.

On the other hand, I think we might have seen the last of Storm.


3 thoughts on “The 5 Scariest Design Mistakes in Magic History”

  1. I don’t know; MM didn’t strike me as that bad. It’s not some threat you have no defense against, and it doesn’t enable such threats (the typical threshold for banned status). It’s an uncommon answer to a lot of threats.

    Dismember is a similar issue. If I’m playing infect, Dismember is bad fo rme; it turns my creature into four I can completely ignore this since life totals don’t exist for an infect player. But in any other deck, it’s basically a Goblin Grenade to the face, except I don’t lose any card advantage. He loses a card, I lose a creature no bigger than an X/5 (unless it’s already been damaged or about to be). No biggie.

    Of course, that’s just from a balance perspective. Phyrexian mana, especially Dismember, is very flavorful, but I’ve never seen “color pie issues” as a bannable offense.

    Yeah, with types, though, you have to be careful. I can cycle for a supertype or subtype, but (say) instantcycling gets ridiculous. It’s one of the big balance issues in amateur set design.

  2. Liquimetal Coating is half an answer to planeswalkers (or any permanent) as well. Of course, I’ve only sideboarded it as an answer to planeswalkers and enchantments in a deck that already had four Manic Vandals, or used it in a Commander deck with a lot of Manic Vandals, Devout Witnesses, and the like.

    Yeah, I don’t know what they were thinking with Coldsnap. The storyline felt tagged on, like season 5 of Babylon 5, the last two episodes of Evangelion, the last two seasons of Supernatural, any attempt to expand Degrassi: The Next Generation after season 5 (or season 6, but 100 episodes is a nice round figure, and much of season 6 has “bad fanfic” written all over it), or much of the Star Wars novels. And it’s not like the Ice Age block had that many good mechanics anyway: It’s mostly known for “ban everything but” Necropotence. (How it got into Fifth Edition and Serra Angel and Lightning Bolt didn’t, I’ll never know.) Ice Age block mechanics:

    Multicolor: Not as much as Legends. But it’s still here. And it’s still popular, despite being mostly a drawback (and costed as a feature), so I’ll give them this one. Where multicolor is a plus, in mana, we already had Modern-legal painlands in Ninth Edition. (Please no Modern-legal depletion lands.)
    Cumulative upkeep: Okay, MAYBE with Hexmage. Maybe. With the new “age counter” rules. Also, could we fix to let me say cumulative upkeep, Rootwater Thief, and a whole bunch of other words without the stars?
    Snow: The mechanic with more hosers to it in my collection than actual uses for it. I think I have Goblin Ski Patrol and Goblin Snowman. Seriously, this is zany even for goblins.
    Pitch: Actually, I like these. But I do consider Force of Will a necessary evil in Vintage and Legacy games, because of all the other broken cards floating about. Though today Contagion wouldn’t see printing because of the bizarre -2/-1 counters. Make them two -1/-1 counters or just one.

    Ice Age also introduced the idea of red and white as the “good colors”, since Lim-Dul was manipulating the Balduvians and Kjeldorans the whole time.

  3. I would completly agree with Shadow and Coldsnap. However I disagree on your other three points. Kamigawa’s big issue was not splice, it was the power level. If most, if not all, Arcane spells had been on the power level of Evermind, then competative decks could have been built from such a mechanic. I agree Arcane and Spirits probably could’ve been handled better, but you said it yourself: 90 Arcane cards is a lot.

    Jace’s big issue isn’t that he had no answers, rather that he is broken. There is no discussion on that point. JTM is broken. It doesn’t say anything about 4-ability Walkers, blue Walkers, or not having enough answers for Walkers, simply JTM is broken.

    While I would agree on the point regarding free stuff in Magic (that it tends to be overpowered and broken), I disagree with Metal Mistep specifically. Considering that MM was designed almost exclusively for Eternal formats in which lots of powerful 1-drops exist, I can see how it can be overpowered. But those formats are overpowered already, I honestly don’t know why Wizards keeps trying to print cards to protect them.

    I agree on Storm (good riddance), but I disagree on Affinity. Affinity is not a broken mechanic. It was cards like Arcbound Ravager, Skullclamp, and Disciple of the Vault, that made Mirrodin decks so busted and uniform. Yes the artifact lands probably should have entered the battlefield tapped or been legendary, but I don’t think they themselves are outright broken.

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