I've been playing Magic: The Gathering for some time, and today I want to share my tricks.
Why does WOTC keep printing bad cards?
This is one of the biggest complaints that often come back in the multiverse of Magic: The Gathering players along with other questions like "Is Magic: The Gathering dying?" or on 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 (is Magic a pay to win?).
The main points of the accusation on the subject of bad cards are that the bad cards are mainly 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.
For the purpose of this article we will consider as "bad cards" all the cards that are defined "Vanilla Creature" (ie those without abilities), the "French Vanilla Creatures" (ie those with only evergreen abilities, such as Trample), the "Virtual Vanilla Creature" (ie those with only ETB effects, which "run out" after the first use) and the various cards printed at different rarities with effects clearly below expectations.
So are there any good reasons why you need to print bad cards?
One of the most important reasons is that bad cards are used to give a mechanical identity to colors.
Every new Magic player in his life has found himself opening a booster pack for the first time ever and the first cards he 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, just the opposite of Red cards which usually tend to have creature cards (or spell cards) they 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 and are recognized more and more quickly by our brain and 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 as, most likely, these color differences will continue to exist.
The second purpose of having the bad cards at the beginning of the booster pack is to create a baseline for the cards that we will be able to see in the following rarities, first with the uncommon and then with the rare or the mythic rare, and to increase the 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" to be able to immediately evaluate the gold card (or the mythic rare card) at the bottom of the booster pack and to be able to 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 will appreciate even more having 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.
Bad cards as a way to 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 also 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) or how in more recent times the Strixhaven Draft is different from that of Kaldheim or Ikoria.
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 take for example 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" reprinted many times) or 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 that the total number of its players is always growing and therefore for this reason the management of the general complexity is very important (so much so that in the past the 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 spendthrift who only play constructed formats think) but that a different gaming experience is favored.
Bad cards as a way to convey the Flavour
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.
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 Flavor in the set.
Illustrations, Creature types and Flavor text greatly enrich the immersion of a Set and allow the player to grasp details 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