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R&D’s Top 10 Biggest Design Failures

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Wizards has to pump out a lot of cards every year. Most of the time, they get it right. This article is dedicated to the times when they got it wrong. I'm not talking about getting it wrong like with weird Johnny cards like Shape Anew or seemingly unplayable cards like One with Nothing. These are things that, for one reason or another, should never have happened.

Honorable Mention: Rehiring Rebecca Guay - This has nothing to do with R&D, which is why it's only honorable mention. Also, I understand that Wizards commissions freelance artists and all sorts of other legal mumbo jumbo that means she was never technically fired. Even so, I will be so happy if I never see another stupid piece of Rebecca Guay artwork. Why, you ask? Because every single thing she draws is a self portrait. Even the guys. I know that every artist on the face of the planet includes some of their own traits whenever they draw a person, but this isn't even remotely subtle. Of course, I'd find this behaviour 100% forgivable if Rebecca Guay was hot, but she's not. Not even a little bit. I await your hate mail.

10. Substance - Unless you've ready my article on Sydlexia about the 10 Worst Magic Keywords of All Time, there's a really good chance you've never even heard of they keyword "substance." In Mirage, Wizards introduced "enchantstants": enchantments that could be played at instant speed and were sacrificed at end of turn. Unfortunately, this didn't work properly with the Classic Sixth Edition rules changes. You could play the cards during the end phase to get the effect on the following turn, and, even worse, an enchantment that pumped a creature like Armor of Thorns would go away before damage was cleared off the creatures. This was a nightmare, and creating substance was the best way they could come up with to fix it. Anytime a keyword exists that never appears on a card I think we can agree that it's the result of an epic failure.

9. Not having artwork guidelines - Back in the day, artists received a card name, text, and flavor text and were told to draw. This worked well for the most part, but not always.  You'd get cards like Whippoorwill that depicted a flying creature (Because it's a real type of bird; what else would you draw?) but didn't have flying. You would also get an artist like Richard Thomas that doesn't realize that a "lemure" is not the same thing as a "lemur", in which case you get the [card Hyalopterous Lemure]cutest mistake ever[/card]. The final problem that this created? Renegade artists who refuse to play by the rules. Waiting in the Weeds was originally supposed to make squirrel tokens, which would have been a boon for all those squirrel enthusiasts (and would have made sense as it Mirage block had [card Liege of the Hollows]another squirrel token generator[/card]. The story goes that Susan van Camp knew it was supposed to make squirrels, but deliberately opted to draw cats instead. Frankly, I'm happy with the change because cats are awesome.

8. Lich - Lich was an ambitious card. It was extremely flavorful, but any card that lets you draw en mass has the ability to be horrifically broken. They did a good job balancing this card; in fact it's actually very underpowered. Why is it a failure then? Lich sets your life to zero, makes you sacrifice permanents for every damage you take, and lets you draw cards instead of gaining life. The problem, and it's a big one, is that they forgot to print the words "You don't lose the game for having 0 or less life" on the card. Naturally it was errata'ed, but even though Lich is just an enormous block of text all it really says is "You lose the game. Oops!"

7. Goblin Game - The first time I saw Goblin Game I thought it was fake. It was in someone's trade binder, and I didn't play during Planeshift because my Magic friends and I were all at colleges in different states. The first thing that threw me off with this card was the use of the word "objects". It is the only card to have the word "objects" in its rules text, and I was baffled. I finally read the card a few times over and discerned what it did, which is terrible. I don't know what The Pit is like at Wizards HQ, but apparently they think that Magic players are all as senile as Bingo players and that we all have an army of miniature troll dolls sitting on the table next to us when we play. Also, how am I supposed to keep it secret how many things I'm hiding? Unless I hide them up my ass before the start of the game, I'm pretty sure my opponent is going to see how many I hide. Needless to say I run Goblin Game in EDH, and I sit very uncomfortably until I draw it.

6. Ceasing use of anagrams - Everyone loves anagrams. Finding out that Telim'Tor is Mr. Toilet is hilarious. And Mangara being an anagram of the word anagram? Brilliant! I was heartbroken to discover that their official policy was to never do this again (Although like all rules, R&D broke this with the villainess Liliana Vess). Magic is a game; let's have some fun with it! I want card names like [card Matopi Golem]I am pot[/card] or [card Nevinyrral's Disk]Larry Niven's Disk[/card] to entertain me, as well as flavour text like that on Reparations and Sneak Attack. If that's wrong, then I don't want to be right. Of course, anyone who's talked to me knows that I'm always right, ergo that can't be wrong.

5. Cold Storage - This is a pretty intuitive card. You can put cards on Cold Storage, and, when you're ready, take them off. "Cold storage" is a real thing that we're all familiar with, so it's not hard to figure out. Problem is, R&D was a little too familiar with the term. So familiar, in fact, that they forgot that being "on Cold Storage" doesn't have any rules relevance. Lich may have been a huge mistake for killing you when you cast it, but at least it did something. Other than physically moving your cards for no actual effect, Cold Storage doesn't do anything at all as printed. Ironically, when Tempest was released my friends and I played Cold Storage correctly without even realizing that it needed an errata, let alone knowing about the correction.

4. Archenemy - I loved this idea when it was announced. Most of our multiplayer games result in one person versus everyone, and that one person is normally me. As such, this is the sort of product that would naturally appeal to me. There are two problems, however. The first is that the schemes are broken. I flipped a turn one Perhaps You've Met My Cohort and dropped Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker into play. Through his ability to destroy lands, I had already removed one opponent from the game and threatened to steal their creatures or wreck their worlds. That was the only game of Archenemy we ever played. The other problem? No one wants to play unless they're the archenemy.

3. Skullclamp - If you don't know the R&D story of Skullclamp then you're probably an idiot. Let me educate you: Skullclamp was originally going to give equipped creature +1/+0. Development discovered during playtesting that this card was far too powerful and couldn't be printed. Unfortunately, they didn't find out with enough time to design and playtest a new card before having to send the set to the printers. Designs solution? "Hey, let's make it give +1/-1 instead. That should make it fair...right?" Wrong! Much like with heroin (which is super-concentrated opium) which was created as medicine to cure opium addiction (and it technically worked!), the cure is worse than the disease. I'm really curious what standard would have looked like if they didn't "fix" Skullclamp, though apparently it would've been banned anyway.

2. Unhinged - This entire set was an unmitigated disaster, with the sole exception of Super Secret Tech. Unglued was funny and fun to play. Unhinged was neither. I can see the pitch meeting  now: "I know we've run into a wall trying to figure out what tribe we can use to top the clams from Unglued, but here me out. My kid got in trouble for swearing in school yesterday. When I went to reprimand him, he informed me that, get this, 'ass' actually means 'donkey' so it's not really a swear. It's even in The Bible! Gentlemen, this thing's gonna be bigger than curly fries!" Dedicated a huge portion of a set to ass jokes is not only unfunny, it's really lazy. Not only did it fail on the humor front, but the "Gotcha!" mechanic was horrific. R&D must have decided that Magic players are entirely too social, and we all need to be punished for opening our mouths. When you're designing cards explicitly for the purpose of making people laugh, trying to make them sit in silence is a bad place to start.

1. Assuming that symmetrical cards are fair - Whether you agree or disagree with my other choices, this is irrefutably the worst decision that R&D ever made. It took them years to figure it out, but putting an enormously powerful ability on a card and then assuming that it's automatically balanced because it's symmetrical is not only lazy and stupid, but it is responsible for some of the most unbalanced cards ever printed. As I mentioned in a previous article, a turn one consisting of "Mox, Mox, Mox, Mox, Mox, Rack, Balance, go" is not even remotely fair. Spending your first three turns emptying your hand of white weenies and then casting Armageddon is not fair. Emptying your hand of burn spells and then casting Wheel of Fortune to refill your hand of burn and another Wheel is not fair. Printing Wildfire in a set full of ridiculous artifact mana and [card Covetous Dragon]Junk Dragon[/card] that conveniently has 5 toughness is not fair. And I'm not even gonna touch Time Spiral or Windfall. While Wizards has learned their lesson and these cards are now few and far between (and normally with unwieldy casting costs), they were the most vicious plague that Magic players have had to endure. Had R&D not learned their lesson, this game surely would have died.

And there you have it, design's ten biggest mistakes to date. God willing, there will never be a mistake like any of these again and I will never have to update this list.

40 thoughts on “R&D’s Top 10 Biggest Design Failures

  1. Hi, Rebecca Guay signed some of the best artworks in Magic. I lack her a lot and you obviously could be good at playing cards but maybe you can't tell a good artwork from a bad one. I know you've been ironic, but the artist is so good. I wonder what could you think of the ugly monstruosities painted by the Fojo duo…

  2. They've printed anagrams as recent as Enatu Golem (though I grant you that's not nearly as much fun as something like Mr. Toilet, as it's just Mega Onulet). I have read an article on R&D wanting to stop the anagrams before Mirage block, but then the card namers snuck in a few anyway, most importantly Mangara being an anagram of anagram itself. Are you sure they actually have a policy against anagrams? If so, could you maybe link to it?

  3. My favorite was always Pemmin's Aura. When asked who Pemmin was, the designer just said "I don't know, the guy who made the aura"

    I am superman remains one of the best references to player slang in magic history.

  4. At least 7 of these have nothing to do with Design. Only the Archenemy and Unglued ones are actually issues with design, and if we really want to stretch it, Cold Storage, since they made a card TOO intuitive, which is in some very loose sense a design mistake. But the other 7 are development or Brand issues.

    So, pull your head out of your ass, you failure.

    1. I don't think you understand what design does, as every one of these is a design issue. You could make an argument that #1 is strictly development, not design, but I'd be inclined to say you're incorrect. Either way, I appreciate your brilliant insight that you have stated so eloquently.

  5. What about affinity? (and mirrodin block)
    Almost all the cards about it were banned, artifact lands, ravager, aether vial, etc.

    I think that was the wors R&D mistake ever.

      1. The ability was a disaster. The only cards that had affinity and was close to fair were the ones that were affinity for lands, and those saw zero play. Affinity block saw more players quit than at any time before or since.

        1. The design behind affinity is good. Making the majority of affinity cards have affinity for the same thing (in many cases themselves) and printing artifact land was what ruined it. Affinity could be done very well, and I'd like to see them do it someday.

      2. yes, your're right about the vial, but don't forget disciple of the vault and skullclamp (you mentioned this one already).

        Thing is, the ravager deck was so broken, that it felt unfair playing against it, no matter what ended up banned, then a new tool would arise (even cranial plating on a thopter was hard to deal with).

        The deck was so sinergistic, that it could recover even from an akroma's vengeance (thanks to Nexus! The tools just kept coming…)

        The affinity mechanic of reducing costs had the potential to put 2/2 and 4/4 for free, tell me that's not broken…

        You pointed the artifact lands were the main culprit and I agree, but everything summed up, i don't understand how R&D couldn't see that all those pieces together formed such a monster of a deck, that destroyed each other archetype (even in extended… with a standard deck…).

        So final point is, R&D committed their biggest mistake in making the pieces for the Ravager affinity deck.

        1. Artifact lands were culprit #1, but free spells were culprit #2. I actually wrote a whole article on why affinity is a good mechanic and how they could use it properly. All design did was build an affinity precon deck though. It's definitely development's fault for not realizing that that precon would dominate the format.

  6. So for R&D's top ten design failures, you have five things from the earliest days of the game, three casual cards/products you didn't like (and thus were probably not aimed at you), an artist you don't like, and Skullclamp.

    Good to know.

    1. Are you saying that mistakes made in the earliest days of the game get a free pass? These cards still exist and are legal. I don't control when they screw up. When I did the list of the top 25 Simpsons episodes of all time, there was only ONE episode from the last decade. Just because the show kept going doesn't mean I'm obligated to put new episodes on the list, much like just because Magic is still going doesn't mean I'm obligated to have the entire list be from the past 3 years. Simply put, R&D doesn't screw up the way they used to, and I'm not going to pretend they do just so you can feel like this list is more contemporary and meaningful.
      Also, Archenemy and Unhinged were aimed at me. I loved Unglued, but Unhinged was an abomination. And if you read my description of Archenemy you'd realize that I was the exact person it was aimed at.

      1. I guess I just don't get the point of this list. You start off saying that one of the biggest design failures is re-hiring a beloved artist, and then daring people to flame you. Why would you do that? Why alienate a good chunk of your readers? I get that it's your opinion, but it sure is an awfully abrasive way to start an article.

        Then you go into a list which could be better titled, "Things that randomly piss me off about Magic." I mean, seriously? Gobin Game is a top-ten design mistake? You're not going to mention the 'Free' mechanic from Urza's block? Memory Jar – a card that had to be banned before it even saw play? The affinity decks from Mirrodin that cut FNM attendance in half?

        Also, your critique of Archenemy is based on ONE game? Seriously? If you were really that excited about it, you would have at least given it a second look.

        In terms of putting the early mistakes on the list, yeah, I feel like that's a completely different playing field. When Richard Garfield designed Balance, he was breaking new ground with a whole new kind of game. If you're going back that far, why not Shaharazad? Or the 'boon' cycle? The underprinting of Legends? The Chronicles debacle? The overprinting of Fallen Empires that nearly costs Wizards the game?

        1. Fact checks: Jar wasn't banned before seeing play (except maybe in block constructed or something), and Fallen Empires wasn't overprinted. Previous sets were underprinted and were heavily allocated, so stores ordered 10 times what they wanted in the hopes of getting enough. Wizards was able to increase production starting with Fallen Empires, and everyone suddenly found themselves getting their full orders. It's hardly Wizards' fault that people were ordering more than they wanted. I knew I would somehow forget something though, and Chronicles should definitely be on this list.

  7. I didn't know the anecdote about Waiting in the Weeds! I met SVC at a convention awhile ago; if you see her, I heartily recommend meeting her. She's kind of batty and she'll sign your Old Man of the Sea and Jackal Pup. She's also got pictures of like, cats with fairy wings and stuff; it's totally disjointed from what Magic art looks like. I believe 100% that she just said "forget this, I'm drawing CATS."

  8. This entire article is basically a rant that would be better titled "the top 10 things I hate about Magic's history." I mean, really, the people above me covered several examples of things that are far worse than what you listed… Also, apparently Lich is "incredibly broken." LOL

  9. Jeebus, you remind me of Howard Stern… half the people read you because they enjoy it, the rest for the opposite reason but they're all reading! 😀

    For the record, I generally like Guay's art here and there, but some of it is godawful. There's that one fairy-looking thing from Ravnica block that looks like it came from her sketchpad, one of the worst card art pieces ever.

  10. Apparently now templating errors are design mistakes. Good to know! Somehow you missed most of the actual giant design errors:
    Rarity used as a Constructed balance tool, e.g. Ancestral Recall
    Banding, including the hideous design on those Legends rare lands
    Phasing, an ability both completely flavorless and completely pointless, while causing a thousand rules complications
    Homelands, the entire set
    Urza's Free mechanic, and Memory Jar
    Prophecy, the entire set
    Affinity, which is yet another 'free' mechanic
    Sweep, Soulshift, and other terribad Kamigawa mechanics, especially the "don't ever bother with me again" genius that was the pair of Arcane and Splice

    Oh, and the whole Faerie tribe design of putting flash on everything, particularly on a BLUE tribe… wow. This is such terrible design that various R&D experts eviscerated one of the GDS2 submissions for doing just this, pointing out all the stupidity that results from getting rid of turn structure. What's particularly incredible is the way they threw flash onto a bunch of creatures as a free bonus, as if the ability wasn't worth extra mana.

  11. Rebecca Guay is one of the artists that keeps the folklore alive as well as the true un-digitized way of drawing a magic card and of "drawing" things in general. I like robots, strange manga crap and colorful computer psychedelia as much as any other guy but I don't think that's not the soul of magic art. It's the folklore, the magic and soul that breaths from the drawing (and if drawing herself most of the times, although that's not entirely true, brings out the life in those cards, so be it).

  12. "In Roman mythology, lemures (singular lemur) were shades or spirits of the restless or malignant dead, and are probably cognate with an extended sense of larvae (sing. larva = mask) as disturbing or frightening. …" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lemure)
    When looking for word definitions I suggest writing "define" before the chosen word – brings up better results and direct definitions

  13. Rebecca Guay is one of the artists that keeps the folklore alive as well as the true un-digitized way of drawing a magic card and of "drawing" things in general. I like robots, strange manga crap and colorful computer psychedelia as much as any other guy but I don't think that's not the soul of magic art. It's the folklore, the magic and soul that breaths from the drawing (and if drawing herself most of the times, although that's not entirely true, brings out the life in those cards, so be it).

  14. They've printed anagrams as recent as Enatu Golem (though I grant you that's not nearly as much fun as something like Mr. Toilet, as it's just Mega Onulet). I have read an article on R&D wanting to stop the anagrams before Mirage block, but then the card namers snuck in a few anyway, most importantly Mangara being an anagram of anagram itself. Are you sure they actually have a policy against anagrams? If so, could you maybe link to it?

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