I've been playing Magic: The Gathering for some time, and today I want to share my tricks.
Why Are There Still Bad Cards in Magic: The Gathering?
Bad cards are one of the biggest issues that fans of Magic: The Gathering complain about, and this discussion comes up frequently in the Magic player multiverse. (Some other common discussions are "Is MTG dying?" and "Is MTG a pay-to-win game?", given how Magic is a very expensive passion to play at competitive levels and therefore only favors those who have a lot of money to burn.)
Many players believe that bad cards keep being printed due to the unwillingness of the Magic set design teams or because they are used to make money on the sale of booster packs. I have never worked for WotC, and I don't have access to their most secret data, but I think this is only one possible side of the coin. I'll take a look at some other reasons below.
What Is a "Bad" Card?
For the purpose of this article, we will consider "bad" cards as follows, using common MTG slang:
- Vanilla Creatures (e.g. those without abilities)
- French Vanilla Creatures (e.g. those with only evergreen abilities, such as Trample)
- Virtual Vanilla Creatures (e.g. those with only ETB effects, which "run out" after the first use)
- Various cards printed at different rarities with effects that are clearly below expectations
Are There Good Reasons for Printing Bad Cards?
I think there are a few good reasons for these cards, and I'll explain them in detail below.
1. They Give Colors a Mechanical Identity
One of the most important reasons is that bad cards are used to give a mechanical identity to colors. Every new Magic player has found themselves opening a booster pack for the first time ever, and the first cards they will most likely see will be common cards of little competitive value but with high "educational value." In fact, those cards are used to ensure that novice players can become aware of how the various colors interact with each other.
For example, Green creature cards will generally be larger than others, while White creature cards will be smaller in size. Blue creature cards, in contrast, will be less present in the booster pack (they have a slightly lower probability) and will usually be of low quality and often with Toughness values higher than Power values. This is just the opposite of Red cards, which usually have creature cards (or spell cards) that favor the Power values.
Likewise, they introduce us to evergreen abilities such as Trample, Lifelink or Flying which further accentuate these differences between the playing styles of the different colors.
All this information is used to make sure that our brain can train itself to find patterns that consolidate over time. Eventually, these patterns become so consolidated that after a while we don't even notice them anymore. We just know.
Bad cards in a booster pack therefore contribute to the mechanical identities of the colors and provide a sense of familiarity when we open any set because, most likely, these color differences will continue to exist.
2. They Create a Baseline for Less Common Cards
The second purpose of having the bad cards at the beginning of the booster pack is to create a baseline for the less common cards that follow them—first with the uncommon and then with the rare or the mythic rare. This also increases our desire to find out which rare card we will have as a reward at the end of the pack.
Bad cards are therefore a "touchstone" that lets us immediately evaluate the gold card (or the mythic rare card) at the bottom of the booster pack and evaluate its possible impact in the expansion (for example, in a draft). Could the same thing be said if the rare card was the first in the pack or if the ordering of the cards in the booster pack was random?
Furthermore, after seeing several bad cards, we'll be more appreciative to get a card in the rare slot that exceeds expectations, and this will leave us with a good memory of the experience, enticing the player to repeat the purchase.
3. They Convey the Draft Mechanics
Remaining on the theme of cards with lower rarity (mainly the common and uncommon), these are particularly important in order to give the mechanical identity to the elements of the draft of the set so that all players can understand the main themes of the expansion. So, these elements serve both to convey the idea of what Magic is as a whole and, at the same time, of how this expansion can be compared with others previously played.
An example of this could be the comparison of the Zendikar/Worldwake draft format compared to the subsequent Rise of the Eldrazi draft (for those who were not lucky enough to play them at the time, the Zendikar draft was extremely fast while that of Rise of Eldrazi was much slower). A more recent example is how the Strixhaven draft was different from that of Kaldheim or Ikoria.
4. They Keep the Game Accessible for New Players
An element that often angers players is the reprinting of the same card or extremely similar cards in a short time. As proof of this, we can look at the abundance of "Colossal Dreadmaw" in the days of Ixalan or the "Throttle"/"Flatten" cards printed in the Tarkir set, but the same can be said for other cards such as "Duress" or "Negate" that have been reprinted many times. A similar issue is the excessive use of vanilla cards in a Set.
This is often seen as excessive laxity by developers, but at the same time it can help new players not to be "overloaded" with information and to ensure that they can have points of reference between the various sets without having to start all over again.
Keeping complexity low (or "manageable") at lower rarity levels is very important to ensure that the game does not become too complex for new players and does not become an insurmountable obstacle for them. To stay "alive," Magic needs the number of players to constantly grow, and therefore managing the game's general complexity is very important (so much so that, in the past, WotC with the NWO has reduced the complexity of the common and uncommon).
This does not necessarily mean that playing draft necessarily means playing with bad cards (as the spendthrifts who only play constructed formats think), but that a different gaming experience is favored.
5. They Help Manage Power Creep
I think being able to reuse some cards in different sets (or functional reprints) is also a help for the developers not to consume too much design space and to help the general longevity of Magic and also to be able to help them manage the power creep of the cards. The bad cards save the good cards from power creep by helping them to stay “nice” over time.
Strange to say, the ability to continue using bad cards to fill certain roles in Magic sets helps make sure that you don't always have to raise the bar on every single Magic set. If the power level were to rise recklessly with each new set, perhaps there would be no formats like Legacy or Modern (probably only Standard would be played at crazy costs), and this would also lead to the collapse of the value of the secondary market of Magic: The Gathering.
6. They Convey the Flavour of the Set
Another important factor of the lower rarity cards (and especially in the vanilla cards) is to have a lot of space inside them to convey the elements of flavour in the set. Illustrations, creature types and flavour text greatly enrich the immersion of a set and allow the player to grasp details that are otherwise impossible to see through the mechanical elements of the set alone.
These cards can therefore help to better tell the settings of the different worlds of Magic: The Gathering, the destructive effects that sometimes fall on them (such as the release of the Eldrazi on Zendikar or the Maelstrom on Alara), the events of the main storylines, as well as additional texts on the deeds of the main characters, lore or historical elements, comic moments or more.
© 2021 Christian Allasia