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I understand that there needs to be a wide variety of power levels in Magic: The Gathering. Even bad cards will see play in limited formats, some because they fill a specific niche (flying removal, fat colorless flyer, providing a counter to certain decks), and others because those decks can't afford to be too picky. However, some cards are just unforgivably terrible. I'm talking about cards that you would only run in sealed if you had absolutely no other options:

Mindless Null: Black 2/2 for 3 with a big disadvantage

Defensive Stance: literally does nothing in exchange for you getting card disadvantage

Merfolk of the Depths: Would still be bad if it only costed 5...

Archangel's Light: 8 mana just to gain some life and put cheap cards back into your deck. And it's a mythic rare....

There are many more examples, but I think these best illustrate my case. Obviously I'd rather have these cards in the game than not have them at all, but I feel like Wizards of the Coast could have made Magic a more enjoyable game just by keeping the flavor and making all of these cards a tiny bit better...yet they didn't. Why?

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Part of me feels that while this may not be an exact duplicate, it touches on the same issue boardgames.stackexchange.com/questions/6352/… –  SocioMatt Mar 13 '13 at 14:54
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wizards.com/Magic/magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtgcom/daily/mr5 - I doubt you'll be able to get a better answer than MaRo's. –  thesunneversets Mar 13 '13 at 15:30
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Besides general reasons, it's been explicitly stated that Defensive Stance (and Evil Presence) were included in New Phyrexia because Blue and Black were doing a little too well for R&D's tastes. –  Circeus Mar 13 '13 at 15:49
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For commons and uncommons of any 'modern' set the answer will pretty much always be "that color was too good in draft testing" –  Affe Mar 13 '13 at 17:00
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Defensive Stance exists as infect-hate. A lot of infect creatures are 1 power pingers. –  corsiKa Mar 13 '13 at 17:06
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I already posted a link to Maro's article, but here's his summary:

  • By definition, some bad cards have to exist. (The most important reason.)
  • Some cards are “bad” because they aren’t meant for you.
  • Some cards are “bad” because they’re designed for a less advanced player.
  • Some cards are “bad” because the right deck for them doesn’t exist yet.
  • “Bad” cards reward the more skilled player.
  • Some players enjoy discovering good “bad” cards.
  • Some “bad” cards are simply R&D goofing up.

I agree with his "most important reason" very strongly. If all cards were created equal or almost-equal, then skill-intensive deckbuilding formats such as draft would come down to the luck of the draw, rather than card-analysis skills, a lot more often than they should.

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Missing one important one: "Some bad cards teach players about bad cards" - which is different than ones for bad players. –  corsiKa Mar 13 '13 at 17:05
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@corsiKa I don't think those are different at all. What other purpose would bad cards serve for a less advanced player than teaching them what cards are bad? –  Gordon Gustafson Mar 13 '13 at 20:59
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@CrazyJugglerDrummer They're very different. Some are actually meant to be bad cards. Others are meant to actually give players that "aha!" moment as to why they're bad. The two are very different with very different intentions. –  corsiKa Mar 13 '13 at 21:54
    
@CrazyJugglerDrummer I should note that the idea of a "learning card" came from a conversation with MaRo that occured over a decade AFTER he came up with the list that ended up in sunneversets' post. Whether he just forgot about it at the time, or came up with the idea afterward I don't know. I've asked him if he knows the example he gave me then; I don't recall exactly which one he gave. –  corsiKa Mar 13 '13 at 21:59
    
@corsiKa That's a cyclic argument. We put X in the game to teach people that X exists in the game. That's bad design. –  AlbeyAmakiir Mar 13 '13 at 22:40
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Tom LaPille, When Cards Go Bad, Part 2, a followup to the first When Good Cards Go Bad article thesunneversets linked, has a few more points that haven't been fully explored yet.

Some cards aren't fun when they're good.

Here he uses the example of Scrambleverse, which has really cumbersome and complicated mechanics, explaining that it is costed very high so that it doesn't get played often. The only people that play it are the people that really want to.

Limited needs to be balanced.

I think Limited play is the biggest reason there are "bad" cards in modern MtG. From the article:

…there was a meeting when both blue and black were doing much better than we wanted in our playtests. Lead developer Aaron Forsythe decreed that we needed a weak blue card and a weak black card. None of us came up with a blue card that was weak enough, so Aaron created Defensive Stance to fill the hole.

So while Defensive Stance does have some narrow infect-hosing mechanic, it was basically created just to keep blue drafters in New Phyrexia in check.

Draft needs to be human-processable.

Drafting is a complex enough task already without every card being extremely close together in power, so we include plenty of cards of widely differing power levels so that the right answer can be a little bit less ambiguous. This doesn't simplify the task of correctly identifying those power levels—a challenging task in itself!—but it does make deciding between correctly-identified power levels a little bit easier.

Imagine if every card in a pack had the same power-level. I have a hard enough time deciding between two or three similar power-level cards in a draft. If all cards had a similar power level, each decision becomes stressful and agonizing. Drafts would slow to a crawl. If there are some "last pick" cards and definite common "bombs", it makes the draft a bit more smooth and manageable.

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"Imagine if every card in a pack had the same power level" - I think anyone who's cubed can empathize with this agony. :-) Which do you pick: Ancestral, Mox Ruby, Tinker, or Library of Alexandria? –  Steven Stadnicki Mar 13 '13 at 22:18
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Unforseen interaction. I have looked at the comments on gatherer for each of your examples and have come up with specific instances where they would interact positively.

Defensive stance seems to work pretty well with: Aura Gnarlid
It could be useful against weenie infect/wither/deathtouch creatures

Mindless Null: is immune to lure/forced blocking and at the same cost as scathe zombies.

Merfolk of the Depth: Suprise blocker that can trigger your evolve cards.

Archangel's light: I can see this really pissing off someone playing a mill deck. It would also combo decent with threshold cards.

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Woo! Scathe Zombies. What an awesome card... </sarcasm> –  ire_and_curses Mar 13 '13 at 16:15
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@ire_and_curses And Walking Corpse laughs manically. Not quite as much as Diregraf Ghoul but close!! –  corsiKa Mar 13 '13 at 17:31
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In addition to the other answers, most cards are designed with limited in mind. Creatures are never dead cards in limited, especially if you are short on creatures in your Simic deck (in Gatecrash limited) or don't care about blockers (i.e. the mindless null).

We can also see that certain cards are played in Wizard's Future Future league, where they playtest standard decks with the sets that haven't come out yet and those "unplayable" cards have homes there, but when they release to a wider audience find that the power level they thought was there, just wasn't with the wider sample size.

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