Throughout MTG’s history, there have been plenty of times where there were arguably errors in design. In some instances, these involve mechanics that were overwhelming or much more abusable than initially planned. In other cases, there are individual cards where intentions didn’t match how the cards actually played out. Today, we will be looking at some of the biggest MTG design mistakes ever.
Notably, we are taking the time at which the card or mechanic was released into account. For example, cards like Black Lotus were clearly too powerful by today’s standards, but there was very little way for the designers to know that at the time of release or know how MTG would evolve as a game. Therefore, more recent mistakes where the designers have had time to learn and adjust from previous mistakes may be higher on this list for that reason. Without further ado, here are the MTG top 10 worst design mistakes of all time!
Modal Double-Faced Cards are extremely unique and interesting additions to the game of MTG. The idea behind them is that they give the player the option of two entirely different effects to utilize. In some cases, these cards have a spell on the front and the back, and you choose which side you wish to cast. In other instances though, the card can either be played as a spell of as a Land. These Modal Double-Faced cards in particular theoretically should add a neat element to games of MTG.
Much like cards with Landcycling, you have the option as the player of whether to utilize the card to hit your land drop or cast it later if you have enough mana already. This creates cool decisions in deckbuilding regarding how many normal Lands to play, and sometimes like the case with Sea Gate Restoration in Legacy Temur Rhinos, the card gives you the option to pitch it to cards like Force of Will because it’s blue. All this sounds reasonable, so what’s the problem?
The issue is that these cards singlehandedly created some extremely toxic archetypes. Even in Pioneer, these cards forced Balustrade Spy and Undercity Informer to be banned. Because these “Land drops” aren’t technically Lands in your deck, you can simply cast Spy, mill your deck, and win with Thassa’s Oracle. In Modern, this upgraded the Goblin Charbelcher deck for this same reason. These Lands were never intended to be used this way, hence why they make the list at number 10.
#9 Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis
Hogaak individually was a pretty big design flaw considering the circumstances. It came out in the first Modern Horizons set, which as the name suggests, was specifically designed with that format in mind. While lots of interesting and powerful cards were released in the set, tons were overshadowed by Hogaak until its banning soon after the Modern Horizons Pro Tour. The idea behind Hogaak was to make the card difficult to get onto the battlefield by forcing players to cast it by other means than spending mana. The problem has been proven in the past with cards like Treasure Cruise that Delve is super easy to achieve, especially with Fetchlands involved.
From there, all you needed to do was play Creatures that milled you that could Convoke Hogaak out, and you’d be rewarded with an eight power Trampling monster. Cards like Grafdigger’s Cage weren’t even super effective, as the card could still be cast from hand, not just the graveyard. This card was way too easy to get on the battlefield, earning it a spot on this list.
Read More: Best MTG Arena Decks: August 2023
Ante was an extremely strange part of card design on cards very early on MTG’s history. This “mechanic” if you want to call it that, was very akin to gambling. Certain cards like Amulet of Quoz only became relevant if playing for Ante. The idea was that players would set cards into the “Ante zone” as necessary, and the winner of the game would receive ownership of any cards put into this zone.
Obviously, this practice not only is a major feels-bad for the player that loses, but it also could force official tournaments to legally be recognized as gambling. The last Ante card was printed in 1995, and, rightfully so, all cards referencing Ante have been banned from sanctioned tournament play across all formats. This is clearly a huge mistake in design but given that it was introduced back in Alpha and has never been utilized in the past 28 years, I’ve put it a bit lower on this list at number eight, assuming Wizards of the Coast has adapted correctly.
Skullclamp is a classic example of a card where if one number or two on the card were changed, the card would not be banworthy. In this case, the powerful Equipment gives a Creature plus one-minus one, Equips for one, and has the powerful ability that whenever the Equipped Creature dies, you get to draw two cards. The rumor is that this card was originally supposed to give the Creature plus one-plus one instead, but this was deemed “too powerful.”
The problem is that, instead, we now have an Equipment that automatically kills one-toughness Creatures when Equipped, which churns out card advantage as a result. If this card simply didn’t reduce the Creature’s toughness by one, it would be significantly less abusable, even if it was still very strong. As you will see later on this list, this isn’t the only card that could’ve been heavily improved by changing certain numbers around.
#6 Cheap Eldrazi
Before the Battle for Zendikar block, Eye of Ugin was a very reasonable MTG card. It would sometimes see play in mono-green Tron decks as a way to tutor for big haymakers when out of gas. Even as a Land that reduced the cost of Eldrazi by two, this wasn’t problematic at all given the high mana cost of all the Eldrazi. This was, of course, until cards like Eldrazi Mimic were printed. From there, all hell broke loose. The upcoming Pro Tour even featured six of eight players playing Eye of Ugin in the top eight!
The ability to play multiple Eldrazi turn one and Thought-Knot Seer on turn two relatively consistently was way too problematic and resulted in Eye of Ugin rightfully getting banned. Still, between Eye of Ugin and Eldrazi Temple, printing lots of cheap Eldrazi was not ideal, and the devastation caused by Eldrazi Winter earns them a spot at number six on this list.
#5 Cascade+Valki, God of Lies
While we have already mentioned MDFCs and some of the issues that they caused, we felt that this interaction deserved its own spot on the list. Under original rules, casting a three-mana Cascade spell, such as Violent Outburst, would allow you to Cascade into Valki, God of Lies, yet choose to cast the seven-mana Tibalt side of the card. This is yet another issue with MDFCs, but this interaction was so toxic for Modern gameplay that Wizards of the Coast took it upon themselves to make a rule change within a few weeks!
The rule change would alter how Cascade worked specifically. The change involved adding that you could cast the new spell without paying its mana cost only if its mana value was less than the Cascade spell. This wasn’t just limited to MDFCs though. For example, the new change would also effect cards with the Adventure mechanic. Still, this specific interaction involving Cascading into Tibalt created one of the most toxic Modern environments ever, and therefore earns a spot in our top five worst design mistakes.
Read More: Top 10 MTG Most Expensive Mythic Rares
#4 Phyrexian Mana
Phyrexian mana isn’t necessarily a huge problem. After all, there are plenty of cards like Moltensteel Dragon that are perfectly reasonable designs. However, there are two major problems with how Phyrexian mana plays out. First and foremost, cards that only cost one Phyrexian mana are almost always cast for free. Paying two life is simply not a high enough cost for cards like Gitaxian Probe and Mental Misstep. As a result, they become overly homogenous and too powerful, hence why both those cards are banned in multiple formats.
The second issue is that Phyrexian mana completely breaks the color pie. Take Dismember for example. The card is black, yet the decks that tend to play the card are almost always non-black decks that don’t have access to top tier removal spells in their colors. This is because black is filled with solid removal, but colors like blue and green aren’t. Yet decks like mono-green Tron in Modern get to free roll Dismember with the expectation of just paying four life. In this sense, Phyrexian mana is heavily unbalanced towards encouraging players to pay life rather than mana, earning it a spot at number four on this list.
#3 Storm Payoffs
Storm is a difficult mechanic to evaluate. There are Storm cards that are outrageously powerful, like Mind’s Desire, but there are also Storm cards that are completely reasonable, like Scattershot. The problem with Storm as a mechanic is that a lot of the best Storm cards all win the game when you reach a high Storm count. A high storm count is quite easy to achieve when built around, and cards like Tendrils of Agony and Brain Freeze then become extremely powerful and reliable win conditions.
Storm cards that outright win the game have created a lot of problems in different formats, but perhaps none more than Pauper. Basically every single Storm card that can win the game has been banned. Even a card like Chatterstorm was outrageously powerful and was banned in short order. Both Scattershot and Weather the Storm remain fine additions to the format, however, as they don’t outright win the game on their own. Storm win conditions generally were unbalanced, hence why the Storm mechanic is high on the list.
Read More: MTG Best Instants of All Time
#2 Oko, Thief of Crowns
Much like Skullclamp, Oko is a completely unbalanced card resulting from specific numerical issues. In this case, Oko could be significantly more balanced if the numbers of the Loyalty abilities were adjusted. What makes Oko so outrageously strong is that the first two abilities result in Oko gaining Loyalty. Oko starts at four Loyalty, and it gives you the chance to turn any Artifact or Creature into a three-power Elk with no abilities immediately. The problem is that this also moves Oko’s Loyalty up to five, making it difficult to attack back down. You can even make a Food token and put Oko’s Loyalty to six, which is quite high. At only three mana, this makes it nearly impossible to deal with Oko in combat.
Yet, if the ability to turn something into an Elk resulted in Oko losing a Loyalty counter instead of gaining it, Oko would be down to three Loyalty counters and could simply be attacked by the Elk to finish the Planeswalker off. In its current form, Oko ends up sticking around for far too long and generating way more value than a three-mana Planeswalker ever should. Oko singlehandedly warped Standard so heavily around it that players felt pressured to play extreme hate cards like Noxious Grasp in the maindeck at the Pro Tour just to deal with the menace.
Ironically, even Wizards of the Coast’s design team was asked about what the heck happened with Oko. In their words, Wizards of the Coast heavily underestimated using Oko’s +1 ability to transform opposing creatures into 3/3 Elks, sealing away their abilities forever. In their minds, the +1 ability was mainly supposed to be used to turn the Food he generates with his +2 into threats.
Oko was clearly flawed in design, but it has nothing on our number one design mistake.
#1 Original Companion Rules
At the top of the list by a wide margin, we have the Ikoria Companions before the errata to make them cost three mana to put into hand. The problem with these cards was that they allowed you to virtually start with an extra card at all times. That is, of course, if you met the deckbuilding restrictions. While some of the cards provided deckbuilding restrictions that took a lot of effort to meet, such as Keruga, the Macrosage, others were quite easy to meet.
For example, Lurrus of the Dream-Den required you to play with cards with mana value two or less. Given that lots of decks in Eternal formats met this requirement or came close to it even before the printing of Lurrus, using Lurrus as a companion was easy and provided a huge bonus of power and consistency to the decks using it.
It’s difficult to describe just how absurd many of these Companions were. Even with the three-mana tax added on, Lurrus, Yorion, Sky Nomad, and even Zirda, the Dawnwaker remain banned in either Modern, Legacy, or both. There’s a solid argument that before the rules change, Lurrus was the best card ever printed in the history of MTG thanks to its banning in Vintage! Having access to a powerful extra card 100% of games you play that is immune to discard spells like Thoughtseize is so immensely strong, and the consistency it adds is unfathomable. These Companions as originally printed absolutely deserve the top spot of MTG worst design mistakes of all time.
Read More: MTG Best Sorceries of All Time