The Tragedy Of Bad Rares (Or, Look At Me, I’m R&D!)

Bad Rares. It’s part of Magic, right? Sure it is, always has been. But should it be? I can remember a while ago, someone posted an article that talked about”skill-testing cards.” I think they were talking about in a Limited format, and how it takes some skill to see how good certain cards are; for…

Bad Rares. It’s part of Magic, right? Sure it is, always has been.

But should it be?

I can remember a while ago, someone posted an article that talked about”skill-testing cards.” I think they were talking about in a Limited format, and how it takes some skill to see how good certain cards are; for instance, something like Volcanic Winds is blatantly good, but Shoving Match might not be so easily recognized as a decent card. The same argument used to be made to justify bad rares for Constructed play, in that you could identify a scrub by the fact that his deck is packed with Shrieking Moggs and Blood Hounds. Eventually, said scrub realizes that there are better cards out there, starts putting better cards in his deck and ceases being a scrub.

I used to enjoy the challenge of taking”bad rares” and making good decks with them. Often, you could find rares that were universally disregarded, and make people look at them in another way. For instance, Firestorm was long dismissed as unplayable, and the better players used to laugh about how bad it was. Then one day I took a friend’s black Mirvlight format deck that used the graveyard as a resource (with Necratogs, Barrow Ghouls, and Buried Alive), pulled the Buried Alives and added Firestorms as an instant way to prime the graveyard, and creature removal at the same time. I took it to the qualifier and did pretty well with it, barely missing out making the top 8 due to a poor draw in the third game of the match. Not too long afterwards, Firestorm was”discovered” by Erik Lauer and helped propel Randy Buehler to fame at Pro Tour Chicago with a B/r Necro deck.

So, I really like the fact that there are some rares that take some time to catch on. To me, those card designs show real genius by making players invest deep thought and playtest work to discover their true power. Firestorm, Cursed Scroll, Opposition… these cards took some time to come into their own, and I feel they were well designed, in stark contrast to the blatantly abusive cards like Time Spiral, Tolarian Academy and Memory Jar, cards that should have never seen print. Sometimes the”bad cards” of today become the darlings of tomorrow’s decks. That’s one of the great highs of Magic, to”discover” these gems. The trick is that even bad rares need to be costed so that they are at least playable.

But there’s some really bad rares out there. The unplayable dreck that are a complete waste of money and aren’t worth the cardboard they’re printed on. Not even the boldest rogue deck builders can salvage them.

That’s just the way it is; sometimes you pop a pack and get the booby prize, right?

Jamie Wakefield once said that every Magic card should be constructed-worthy, and while I’d like to agree with him in sentiment, I recognize that it’s not entirely feasible when you have the constraints of making a set that is both good for Limited and Constructed formats. You can’t always please everybody. What I’d like to see, and what I think is possible, is for every card to be*playable*.

Playable! As in”able to be played.” Meaning it might actually get shuffled up in a deck or two and be worth the money spent on it. Maybe even win a game or two for you. Played!

That’s not to say that every card has to be a power card, and not every card has to be as good as any other; but, especially in the case of rares, every card should be playable.

Back in the good ol’ days, when we actually had a magazine firmly dedicated to bringing the Magic community quality information – the Duelist. In it, there would be a feature from time to time that showed how a card went through the R&D process, from it’s initial idea through to the final product we pop out of booster packs. I always found this article to be a fantastic source of information, because it allowed us a peek into the process of how a card ends up the way it does when the players of the world finally get their hot little hands on it. Of course, now even that tidbit of information is gone and we’re left scratching our heads wondering about many cards that are just horrible. We’re left with the nagging question WHY? Why did Wizards R&D make such a pile of useless cardboard?

A lot of heat has been brought to bear on R&D for the broken cards they release, but I think some attention should also be targeted to the other end of the spectrum. R&D is paid good money to come up with good playable cards. Producing cards that are so bad as to be unplayable is just as frustrating to the Magic world as producing cards that should have not seen print because they are too good.

Let’s look at a couple of cards I think are pretty much unplayable, and see what could have been done to make them worth trying out in a deck or two.

Food Chain
Enchantment 2G
Remove a creature you control from the game: Add X mana of any color to your mana pool, where X is the removed creature’s converted mana cost plus one. This mana may be spent only to play creature spells.

This looks like it might be interesting, but it’s actually pretty horrible. Clearly, R&D were worried about this being abused as some sort of engine, but… that’s the only thing it could have possibly been good for! If they didn’t want that to happen, why make it in the first place? They ended up adding so many drawbacks as to make it unplayable drek. The first drawback is that it’s redundant, in that any copies you draw after you’ve played the first one doesn’t add to your board advantage; it’s effect is not cumulative. The next drawback is that you’ve got to sacrifice a creature in order to activate the ability, and on top of that the creature is removed from the game! So, you can forget about using Food Chain along with graveyard recursion to get something going. Then, to top it all off, you can only use the mana to play creature spells, so you can’t use the mana to produce a huge fireball or Stroke or something. It’s these last two drawbacks together that pretty much eliminate this from actually being a useful card. Did anyone actually playtest with this final version and find it to be playable? I’d find it hard to believe. So, let’s pretend we’re an R&D department that cares and come up with something playable.

Food Chain (playable version)
Enchantment 2GG
Sacrifice a creature you control: Add X mana of any color to your mana pool, where X is the sacrificed creature’s converted mana cost plus one. This mana may be spent only to play creature spells.

Now, we’re cooking with gas! While I wouldn’t say this version is broken, I think it opens up some nice possibilities that are quite powerful. For one thing, you could generate an engine of sorts in combination with Weatherseed Treefolk, and basically be able to empty your hand of creatures, including maybe some really big monsters and put them into play. While this could be very fearsome for your opponent, the engine is limited to generating creatures, one of the most fragile permanents in the game, and it is very much in keeping with green’s them of mana production and big creatures. On top of it all, Food Chain itself is an enchantment and, in this environment there are tons of ways to get rid of enchantments – a timely Disenchant could result in some mana burn. This enchantment could have propelled Sneak Attack into a decent Type 2 deck again.

So, basically we drop one sentence, and the card becomes playable. Not broken, but actually pretty darn good. Was that so hard? Of course, if I was actually in R&D we’d need to playtest this exhaustively to make sure there’s not some combination from hell that I’m missing, but honestly, the fact that this an engine that spits out creatures makes that highly unlikely. This version is a fun card that I would have loved to pop in a pack and try to come up with some way to build a deck with it in mind.

Sivvi’s Valor
Instant 2W
If you control a plains, you may tap an untapped creature you control instead of paying the mana cost of Sivvi’s Valor. All damage that would be dealt to target creature this turn is dealt to you instead.

Can you smell that? That’s the stench of a bad rare. The idea here was pretty good, and the name warrants something much better. Sivvi’s Valor! What a great sounding card! But would you waste a card slot in your deck simply to save one creature from damage one time? Let’s make it playable.

Sivvi’s Valor (playable version 1)
Instant 2W
If you control a plains, you may tap an untapped creature you control instead of paying the mana cost of Sivvi’s Valor. You may redirect any damage that would be dealt to creatures you control this turn to you instead.

Alright, so here we’ve got basically a free Remedy, allowing you to tap out early to get creatures on the board, but enabling you to protect them from early destruction. For instance, after a Cave In, take the full 2 damage to protect your summoning-sick Mother of Runes, but only take 1 to save your Ramosian Lt., who can handle the other point of damage. Not exactly a broken rare, but it could see some play in the right metagame.

Let’s look at another bad rare and see what could have been done with it:

Pale Moon, 1U,
Until end of turn, nonbasic lands produce colorless mana instead of their normal type.

Wow, is this really bad. It isn’t like Type 2 is rife with nonbasics, especially since the recent sets have been forcing us towards mono-colored decks with no decent rainbow lands to be had. In Extended, why not just play Abeyance, since Pale Moon seems to be trying hard to be like an Abeyance? I really can’t think of a single reason to want to play this card. Let’s fix it.

Pale Moon,
Choose basic or non-basic lands. Until end of turn, lands of the chosen type produce a colorless mana when tapped instead of their normal color and amount. Draw a card.

This isn’t something to write home about, but it can act like an Abeyance of sorts in the right deck. Throw it in a mono-blue Extended deck and hose down your opponent’s dual land-filled deck, being able to counterspell their artifact if they try and cast one. In Standard, choose basics and get a near Time Walk against a mono-colored deck. This seems to be a playable card that’s at least got some interesting possibilities, and the Cantrip ability makes it almost never useless.

Let’s end on another green card that could’a, should’a, would’a been great! Or at least, a lot better than it turned out to be.

Green Creature – Lizard
Whenever a player plays a land, return Pangosaur to its owner’s hand.

Wow, a four-drop 6/6 who’s only drawback is relevant if you or your opponent is playing a deck that has lands in it. What a beating! I’m guessing whoever designed this had one or more of the following ideas in mind when they designed this card-

1) It could be good in a Sneak Attack deck. Sneak it out, then drop a land before the end of the turn and do it all over again next turn! Whoo-hoo! Problem is, there’s already a creature that does the Sneak trick better, and doesn’t require you to have a land to play… Weatherseed Treefolk. And it’s got trampling. And it’s good without Sneak Attack. Next…
2) It could be good in a Territorial Dispute/Pangosaur combo deck! Wow, no one plays lands after I cast this six cost enchantment, and I’ve still got a 6/6 fattie to beat you down with as my lands dwindle away! It’s even Masques Block ta boot! Eh… next…

When you compare this to the common Blastoderm, you can appreciate how truly pathetic the Pangosaur is. Let’s make this poor dino something to roar about.

Creature – Lizard
Trample. Whenever a player plays a land, return Pangosaur to its owner’s hand. You may return a land to your hand to counter this effect.

Now this guy is worth working into the right deck! First, adding trample makes it much more threatening on the board. The drawback is much more manageable and, while it could still be a problem by stunting your land development if your opponent starts playing a lot of land, you can turn the disadvantage around into an advantage a la the old Stampeding Wildebeest in Stupid Green. Cycle your depletion lands! With an Exploration out you can get double use out of your Cradle or other special land (tap the Cradle for a bunch of mana, play a Forest, return the Cradle to your hand and then play it again with Exploration). Add Trade Routes to the mix and just cycle that card away to draw another card. Hey folks, here’s a Masques block combo that actually seems kinda decent!

So, two little changes turn a trash rare into an interesting little gem that could very well prove to the backbone of a new deck type. And this was all just off the top of my head! Imagine what I could do if I was paid to sit around all day and do nothing but design cards? Holy Cool Cards, Batman!

I know R&D has a tough job, and there are considerations and stipulations they operate under that I have no clue about. But the fact remains that they are supposed to be professionals. They get paid to play games and develop product for the masses. When they produce garbage, whether it’s a broken rare that wrecks big events and formats and ends up being banned, or whether it’s a terrible, horrible waste of cardboard that never sees the light of day in a constructed deck, it’s a tragedy of wasted moments. What could we, the players, have done with the card if only it had been worth playing? The genesis of a new deck type, a cool win at a big tournament, generation of buzz across the internet heralding the arrival of new tech; bad Magic cards are a waste of precious time in a very busy world. We deserve better than that. Especially if they’re going to keep raising the cost of booster packs.

Bennie Smith