by Dr. Tom and Goblinboy
Over the years, thousands and thousands of cards have rolled off the presses. Some of them have been powerful, some of them have been best used as bird cage liner. A smaller number have been powerful to the point where the player community has questioned the sanity of the folks in Wizards R&D. Skullclamp and Umezawa's Jitte would be two recent examples. Today, we're looking at the other end of the spectrum. We're searching for cards which are especially well-designed. They won't be broken and they won't be junk; they'll fall somewhere in between, but the elegance and overall quality of their design will be obvious.
Let's get it started. These are listed in no particular order.
Whoa, the first card, and already the hate mail is flowing in! Really, though, Circular Logic is done well . The ability is well-crafted, fits in with the block's theme, and was the first to get what it was doing right. A scalable "soft" counterspell is something that has been tried multiple times, starting way the hell back with Spell Blast. Logic's graveyard-counting mechanic, as opposed to in the casting cost, was a reasonable number to count. The opponent could pay for it in the early game, but only if he was careful, and by the late game it essentially became a hard counter, like a good late-game counter should be. The card was effective in both parts of the game, but overpowering in neither.
Along with the two game states of Logic came the two costs, and , respectively. While the was usually what got it into a competitive deck, the accessibility of is what makes it a well-designed card. Psychatog and Wake both used Circular Logic, and neither could use the Madness all that often. Madness was a tool, not a gimmick, and for this, I commend the designer. Were Logic printed in Kamigawa Block, the hardcast would have been and relegated to gimmick status: powerful, but only existing for the gimmick. Now that's a sentence you can flame me over.
Also, who doesn't love a careless opponent not noticing that your Logic is for 0?
The Ravnica Shocklands
I wrote an article about these right after they had been revealed, and my opinion of them hasn't changed: they're still very good, they're still very expensive, and they're still very well-designed. So what's well-designed about them? Multi-color land cycles are a dime a dozen, but even Wizards has a hard time finding a balance for a land that isn't too good (original duals), or not good enough (hurrrr). They've gotten it about right once before with the Ice Age/Apocalypse painlands, which were also very well-designed. What the Ravnica shocklands do, however, is approximately match the power level of the Ice Age lands while giving the player a new way to look at their mana.
The choice that these lands give you when they come into play rewards the good player. The good player will know better whether to play the land tapped or untapped (like with any choice made in the game), and making the wrong choice can mean the game in the appropriate context. No, giving choices isn't the be-all, end-all of good Magic design, but it certainly doesn't hurt. Also, the Forest/Mountain/Plains/etc. subtypes that the lands have simply changed the way the game was played in Extended, combining with the Onslaught fetchlands. So why aren't the Onslaught lands on here instead? The world may never know.
Duplicant is a weird card. A very weird card. It's a Dark Banishing for ! It's a Clone . . . but only halfway! It's a bird, it's a plane! However, it also played an important role in keeping Mirrodin Block and Mirrodin-legal Standard honest, filling an important role. Colors aside from Black aren't really supposed to have Dark Banishing, so you've got to be careful when making a card like this, but Wizards did it right, or as right as you can get when releasing a broken block.
Probably created as a way of dealing with the as-of-yet unreleased indestructible creatures, Duplicant found a much larger niche in a format that really, really didn't want to play Black. In its use we saw that it was actually a decent way to do colorless removal. It found a design space relatively unfilled at the time (removing creatures from the game) and combined it with a pretty interesting way of utilizing Imprint. A+, guys, A+.
Probably the most annoying card on the list, but that doesn't make it a mistake. Duress is the finest discard spell ever crafted. [As long as we're ignoring Hymn To Tourach, that is. -Ed.] It's far too powerful against poorly-made decks that rely too much on one spell, but punishing bad deckbuilding is fine by me. What Duress does is even the playing field really well. Coming down on the first turn (like good disruption should), the presence of Duress makes people think more carefully about their mulligan decisions and their deckbuilding decisions. But what makes Duress really special is the designer's choice of omissions - creatures and lands.
What this omission does is prevent the really devastating disruption. Nabbing a counterspell is aggravating, sure, but in the end it's just a 1-for-1. What would make the card too powerful would be disrupting the aggro deck's tempo by removing the one-drop, or one of a control deck's four win conditions. Would Duress have been more powerful if it switched out sorceries and instants for the chance to force creature discards? Maybe; it's hard to tell since the cards would be so different. However, it would have been a design disaster.
Seal of Fire, Cleansing, Removal, Doom, Strength. It's a simple cycle made of a simple derivation, but it's an important one. By shifting the method by which these fundamentally "instant" spells were played, Wizards messed with both the fundamentals of tempo and surprise, and it worked! These cards gave us a new corner to play in, and elevated the power level of all of the spells the Seals copied to a tournament level (except Seal of Doom, of course).
Magic is a game of simple actions. Sometimes we forget that even those simple actions have a new place they can come from. The Seals were a genius idea which capitalized on that.
In the days before Jon Finkel won the Magic Invitational, players the world over were fond of turning Ophidian sideways. “Ophie, the Card-Drawing Snake” would net them a card, keeping their hand full of permission spells. This was the basis of the classic “Forbidian” deck, combining the drawing power of Ophidian with the recurring countermagic of Forbid. It wasn't a hard lock, but it was pretty close.
The problem was, Ophidian wouldn't deal any damage when you drew a card with it. The card-drawing ability was powerful, but the opponent was never on a clock until the game had been virtually decided. The printing of Shadowmage Infiltrator changed all of that. “Johnny Magic” had the same basic stats as Ophidian (a 1/3 for three mana), but it had two very important distinctions:
1. It had an evasion ability, ensuring it a good chance to get in there for damage.
2. It actually dealt damage while drawing you a card.
Despite its excellent design, Shadowmage Infiltrator has never seen a great deal of serious tournament play. It was an extremely popular card soon after its release, even combining with another Invitational card, Meddling Mage, in “Finkula” decks. Unfortunately, Control, which was the deck best suited to what the Shadowmage brought to the table, found a much more useful creature in Psychatog. Instead of bleeding for a point at a time, the Control player could stabilize the board, then kill his opponent with one swing of an arbitratily large Tog. The rise of Wild Mongrel also blunted he Shadowmage’s effectiveness. “Discard a card, make my Mongrel Black. Block your Finkel.” Suddenly, a common was keeping what was a chase rare out of the tournament scene. Shadowmage Infiltrator still turns up here and there in decklists, but its level of play has never matched its elegance of design.
Red has historically played one-drop creatures that lent themselves to an aggressive deck. Jackal Pup started attacking for 2 on the second turn, and Red mages never looked back. Even a Jackal Pup with a worse drawback, Goblin Cadets, got sent into the red zone plenty of times. Grim Lavamancer doesn’t fit the same mold as those creatures – it’s not nearly as aggressive, and in fact, lends itself more to the long game. But it is both powerful and well-designed.
Odyssey Block was centered on the graveyard. Many cards worked better when you were able to get threshold, and flashback cards encouraged you to find ways to dump them into the graveyard. Grim Lavamancer removed cards from your graveyard. That is part of the beauty of its design: it has anti-synergy with the two enduring mechanics from its block, but the power of a Shock sitting on the board every turn cannot be denied.
Eventually, the Onslaught fetchlands would be printed. While they obviously lend themselves well to multicolored strategies, Red mages soon realized one important thing about them: they were disposable cards in the graveyard. Red Deck Wins, in pre-rotation Extended, played eight fetchlands. Not only did they allow the deck to run as if it had fewer lands, they were Grimmy food. You didn't have to worry about removing something valuable, like a Lava Dart or a Firebolt, as long as there were fetchlands aplenty. Grim Lavamancer continues to be played in Extended, and is one of the classic Red creatures this game has seen.
We all know the concept of the natural order: the strong prey on the weak. Sharks devour schools of fish everyday. Lions hunt down weaker animals, stalking them and then dragging them down to be dinner. This age-old concept is brought to cardboard life nicely on the card Natural Order. You sacrifice one creature for another. A small creature dies for the benefit of the larger one.
The most famous use of this card came in the Secret Force deck built and played by Jamie Wakefield. The “King of the Fatties” would play Natural Order, sacrificing a small Green creature like Llanowar Elves to search out the Best Fatty Ever Printed. That was (and is), of course, Verdant Force. And while the idea of an Elemental devouring an Elf isn’t quite as savagely elegant as a lion killing a deer for a meal, it works in the land of Magical spells. The small being sacrificed for the sake of the strong, perfectly in tune with the card name, make this a design winner.
Admit it: a lot of you thought this card sucked when you first saw it. I’ll freely raise my hand and say I was one of them. And at first glance, this card does suck. It’s a 1/3 for 3 mana, so its power-to-cost ratio is inefficient. Then, it has an ability which can do 2 damage to anything, but deals 3 damage to you. So you can Shock anything you want, as long as you don’t mind eating that Bolt to the face. Is it worth taking 3 damage to do 2 damage to something?
In a word: yes. Orcish Artillery taught all Magic players two important lessons.
1. A card that looks terrible at first can turn out to be good later.
2. Your life total is a plentiful resource. If you can use it to your advantage, you should.
Killing a 2/2 and taking 3 damage in the exchange saves you all the damage that 2/2 will deal – and it would probably be a lot more than 2. A 2/2 flier isn’t easily blocked by Orcish Artillery, after all. This card showed off Red’s ability to control the board. Also, you’re playing Red, so you have efficient creatures and burn spells. You should be ahead in the life race, so trading 3 points of your life for 2 of your opponent’s is worth it – life is a scarcer resource for him than you. This card is well-designed because it’s quintessentially Red – impulsive, damaging, and damn the consequences.
Some players may still laugh at Orcish Artillery, but they’ll learn. And like everyone else did, they’ll learn it the hard (and painful) way.
Wrath of God
The original Magic Player’s Guide said that creatures were the most consistent way of dealing damage to your opponent. Burn spells hit once and then go to the graveyard. They can be powerful, but their effects are fleeting. Creatures, however, remain in play, and if they go unanswered, they’ll smash you into submission. For almost 13 years now, Wrath of God has been the classic answer to the problem of creatures.
Card advantage wasn't known as a theory of this great game of ours back in the day, but everyone understood that killing multiple guys with one spell made Wrath of God a powerhouse [well, once they got past the, "it kills my guys too!!!!" stage -Ed]. Power-wise, it was a winner. Flavor-wise, it was easy to understand. A vengeful, angry god destroys the creatures below. Anyone who grew up knowing the Bible knows the story of the Great Flood. They can relate Wrath of God to the wrath of their god as described in their holy book. No not only was the card powerful, but the idea of the card was easy for everyone to conceptualize. (You think this is always the case? Kindly tell me what the devil a Zur’s Weirding is, then.)
Nothing says more for the quality of Wrath’s design, however, than the fact that it has been included in every basic set of the game’s release. It started in Alpha, it continued through 9th Edition, and it shows no signs of being retired for one of its many imitators. Over the years, the folks at WOTC have learned a lot more about card power and overall design and development. They've given their seal of approval to Wrath of God every time a white-bordered set his the shelves. If you’re looking for good design, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better metric than that.
And there you have our list of 10 well-designed cards from across the history of Magic. This wasn't meant to be a definitive Top 10 list, so no gnashing of teeth if your personal design darling wasn't listed. These are just cards that jumped out at us when we were looking for elegance and quality in design. Feel free to share the cards you think stand out by these criteria.