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I've often heard it said that the Urza Block (Urza's Saga, Urza's Journey, Urza's Destiny) was the most powerful, broken block in Magic history, with decks able to win on turn 1 or 2. I also saw it stated (in some MaRo article) that something like 20 cards were eventually banned from that standard format in an attempt to restore balance. However, I've never seen a good, detailed explanation of what, exactly, went wrong, which cards were to blame, and how the uber-powerful decks of that era actually worked. Can anybody here offer an explanation or a link to an external source?

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look up the land card: tolarian academy. –  Colin D Dec 21 '12 at 13:57
I know about Tolarian Academy. But one land by itself does not break a format---I'm looking for a more wholistic view. –  JSBձոգչ Dec 21 '12 at 16:05
I think it has to do with the volume of "rule-breaking" cards and the fact that they were designed more-or-less independently from each other. I'll try to elaborate, but that's a long post that requires doing some research on card lists across different sets... –  Alex P Dec 21 '12 at 22:28
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4 Answers

up vote 25 down vote accepted

Preface: I've been drafting this for a few days now. I focused on the cards that were banned, because those were the most broken. I'm sure there were dozens of other combos not included here, and this is by no means giving the fullest extent of how the cards could be used to maximize their broken-ness.

The first step is to take a look at what cards were available at the time. Mirage had just rotated out, which leaves us with the Tempest block and of course Urza's block. This leaves us with some very powerful 0 and 1 mana artifacts: Lotus Petal, Mox Diamond, Ornithopter, and to a lesser extent, Spellbook.

Note that with Lotus Petal and Mox Diamond, you have yourself 2 mana available on your first turn without playing a land. (To be fair, both of those are part of Mirage, not Urza's.)Those mana can go into a Grim Monolith, which in turn gives you 3 mana when tapped. Make your land drop a Tolarian Academy and suddenly you have 6 mana available on your first turn, and you only needed four cards to do it. I think we can agree that 6 mana on the first turn is broken in an innumerable number of ways. This led the Academy to be the first to be banned.

Along with the Academy was Windfall. This was broken for a couple of reasons. First, consider a card like Divination, which has a card advantage of 1 for 3 mana at sorcery speed. (You draw two cards, but you had to spend 1 card to do it). When you also consider Azure Mage it becomes clear that in blue, 3 or 4 mana is appropriate for 1 in-hand card advantage. Now, consider how fast you blow through cards here: you dropped four cards (lotus, mox, grim, and academy) as well as any other 0 drop artifacts, and use a Windfall. You discard your 0 or 1 non-playable cards and pick up 7 more. Your opponent dumps all 7 of his and draws 7 more. You just gained 6 or 7 card advantage for 3 mana. That just isn't competitive.

The other aspect of Windfall is that your opponent is also playing combo. It was not uncommon for people to mull down to 4 to get their combo. While this will lower the card advantage you get from Windfall, it essentially wastes your opponent's mull! He now has to settle for whatever 4 or 5 crap cards are on the top of his deck. If you went first, then your opponent has not had an opportunity to play, but now is facing you with at least 6 cards on the battlefield, the ability to generate 6 or more mana a turn, and to top it all off, you just gave him a complete crap hand instead of the one he mulled to get. Bummer. So understandably, those were the first two to get banned.

In the next round of bans, you see Dream Halls get the axe. Now, without Academy and Windfall to pump up your early mana, this isn't as effective. It was costed such that you can't use it until turn 5, and you have to use two cards to do it instead of one. So since they were expecting you'd use this on turn 4 or 5, it would end up being very damaging. And under normal circumstances, it is. But there's one small problem. You discard that other card instead of paying the cost. This is supposed to make it so you can't use it. But Yawgmoth's Will made it so you could use it. If you Dream Halled two cards, you could cast the other two cards with Yawgmoth's Will. And with all the mana you have and card draw available, it's reasonable to pull this off.

Another one that was banned was Earthcraft. This card used to look like this:

Creatures you control have: T: untap a target basic land.

However, it was decided that splicing text onto cards was a bad thing. So it was changed to

Tap an untapped creature you control: untap a target basic land.

in the name of being easier to work with. Unfortunately, it had the side effect of making creatures with summoning sickness able to tap for mana, which is decidedly overpowered.

Fluctuator was banned because there's about 40ish legal cards with cycling, and they're all (Cycling 2). So they all basically let you loot them for free to burn through your deck. Cycling for free is broken. This combo didn't take much to come together.

Lotus Petal was banned for the combo listed out above, and I'm sure there were dozens of variants of it.

Recurring Nightmare was banned because three mana and a creature (probably 0 mana) was too little to return a creature from the graveyard to the battlefield, considering it goes back to your hand, not the graveyard (even if Yawgmoth's Will is active). It's even worse when the cards coming back are Great Whale, which yields infinite mana (although the infinite mana combo requires four lands on the board, and most games didn't last even that long!)

Time Spiral was the last of the second round to be banned from standard. It had the same problem windfall did, where you got to draw seven cards (including spells you've already played! How convenient!) and get the massive card advantage. Now this is 6 mana, not 3, and we know there's a gigantic difference between 3 and 6 (way way way more than twice as much). But as we've established, you can get 6 mana on your first turn... And to top it all off, you get to untap 6 lands. Umm, yes that's just a little too powerful.

The next big card to get the axe is Mind over Matter. This is simple: you discard (which we've established there's already massive card advantage here, which lessens the penalty...) and you get to untap an artifact (with academy, mana, or the mana artifacts themselves), creature (with earthcraft, mana, or Birds of Paradise), or land (mana). So you get even bigger mana amounts.

Memory Jar was so broken it was the only card to get an emergency ban. Basically you get to draw and play with 7 cards. As we've established your hand empties faster than a AK with a 14 round clip, you're going to get most of those cards out the turn you play it. And since 5 mana isn't all that much to get on turn 1, you might end up with this on turn 1, which when combined with another draw combo will give you access to 20 or more cards on turn 1. Broken? Yep. Unlike windfall, this doesn't kopper your opponents starting hand, as he'll get it back at the end of the turn. But you'll have another 4 or 5 permanents on the board, so what's he really going to do to you at this point anyway?

Like I said, these probably have even better ways to get the most out of them. But hopefully this gives an idea of exactly how these things were broken, and why Wizards reacted the way they did with all the bans. For what it's worth, this is the first genuine test of Wizards reacting to the fan base, and I would go so far as to say their biggest mistake up until that point and even to this day (needless to say they learned many lessons from it!)

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I think many would say that Affinity and artifact lands eclipsed this, and were there biggest mistake to date. –  user1873 Dec 24 '12 at 18:05
Mirrodin was another broken block, for sure. But for the most part you had to build your deck around a select card or two's brokenness. With Urza's block, you had a number of immensely powerful cards that could slide into any number of decks to make them broken. The only thing that might make Mirrodin's sins worse than Urzas' is the notion that after ten years of making cards, you'd've expected less brokenness. –  corsiKa Dec 24 '12 at 19:31
This is exactly the kind of answer I was hoping to see! +1 –  SevenSidedDie Dec 25 '12 at 19:39
Free (or nearly so) mana, cards, creatures, spells, etc. are almost always the source of brokenness. This answer illustrates that very well. –  Brian S Nov 19 '13 at 15:48
It's also worth noting that there were other cheap power cards like Dark Ritual and Vampiric Tutor that were underestimated at the time. In some cases the banned cards just turned out to be the best things to do with the real broken cards; history has shown that Mind over Matter isn't that bad when you don't have a Tolarian Academy to untap with it. –  Chad Miller Feb 20 at 14:53
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There have been several times in MtG history that the game was broken for a while. Black Summer, with the proliferation of Necropotence decks, Affinity decks that abused cheap artifacts and artifact lands, and Combo Winter that resulted in the largest number of bannings. Mark Rosewater discusses why cards get banned and restricted. While not all the cards are from Urza block, about half are, and Mark includes some interesting information about the prototype versions of some of the cards and why they are broken.

Lotus Petal (banned in Extended, restricted in Vintage) – This card shows how crazy Black Lotus is. During Tempest design, I thought it would be flavorful to make new “fixed” Black Lotus. Since I liked the idea of a 0 cost artifact, I lowered the number of mana it produced. The development team even questioned if it was too weak. In the end though we felt like the card might find some use in a very niche deck. I guess the niche decks were degenerate decks.

A timeline of DCI banning/restrictions is available if you just want to know the timing of the various bannings. This article has some nice background on Combo Winter, some examples of Pro Tour decks, and links to tournament reports of what decks were being played at the time. It has an interesting piece from Randy Buehler on why Memory Jar was emergency banned, the first and only card to be banned before its release. If memory serves, Wizards even offered replacement packs if you opened a Memory Jar, because it was unplayable.

“The one card that was ever subject to an emergency ban was Memory Jar, which has the unfortunate text “draw seven cards” on it. However, the power of Memory Jar itself isn’t why the DCI broke with its normal policy of quarterly changes. The only reason the DCI chose not to wait until the next regularly scheduled dates was because the very health of the Magic game was being threatened by “Combo Winter.” Urza’s Saga was four months old when Memory Jar came out in Urza’s Legacy. During those four months, there was a large and loud public outcry about the way the game was being ruined by all the “broken” cards in Saga. Since Saga was affecting all Constructed formats, not just Extended, there wasn’t anywhere for Magic players who didn’t like combos to go. They either played against a steady stream of combo decks, or they didn’t play at all. The DCI’s first round of bannings in December 1998 didn’t fix things and players began leaving the game in droves. It was vitally important to the health of the game to clean things up before too many more players walked away, so quite a large number of cards were included in the DCI’s March 1, 1999 announcement, which would become effective April 1 of that year. Players were optimistic that Combo Winter was finally going to end.

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This is interesting, but doesn't ever answer the question. It doesn't explain what specifically caused Combo Winter, in terms of broken cards and combinations in Urza's block. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 21 '12 at 18:06
@SevenSidedDie, yor probably right. More could be said about what broken means. Buehler's comment hint that during Combo Winter the only viable decks were combo decks. Like with Affinity after it, the decks warped the format. You eith played combo, or played decks specifically to beat combo. It probably isn't enogh to mention that most combo decks play cards with a mana generating engine, card drawing engine,etc. I will have to list why each card is broken and how/which decks used it. –  user1873 Dec 21 '12 at 18:18
That would be great. An explanation of Affinity brokenness would have to at least mention the artefact lands, the Disciple, and maybe the Arcbound Ravager, or go further and explain their interactions and their enabling context. I was hoping for details like that since I too have heard about Urza's and wondered exactly what was wrong. I know why it was bad for the game, and how R&D messed up and learned a lesson, but not what it actually looked like in cards and combos. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 21 '12 at 18:51
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I am certainly no guru, and I play MTG very casually compared to some. I think the reason the Urza block got mixed reactions was the introduction of some powerfully good cards, and the number of these cards, that these days (certainly in modern format that my group plays mostly) probably aren't that powerful at all! The game of MTG has changed over the years.

My group have fond memories of that block! Gaea's Cradle. Serra Avatar. Defence of the Heart. Congregate. Crazy days!

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Not sure what you mean by this, " that these days (certainly in modern format that my group plays mostly) probably aren't that powerful at all" Do you mean that the cards from Urza aren't that powerful when compared to Modern cards of today? –  user1873 Dec 22 '12 at 13:37
Welcome to BCG! Can you add some specifics? Which cards are you talking about? –  Monica Cellio Dec 23 '12 at 0:25
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I realize I'm a year and change too late, but for anyone who stumbles across this post, just run a few games with the following list and you'll get it:

3 Dream Halls

4 Mind Over Matter

4 Grim Monolith

3 Thran Dynamo

4 Voltaic Key

4 Lotus Petal

3 Mox Diamond

4 Windfall

3 Turnabout

4 Tolarian Academy

12 Island

4 Memory Jar

4 Time Spiral

4 Stroke of Genius

Your sideboard would essentially be:

X Phyrexian Colossus

X Masticore

X Phyrexian Processor

X Morphling

As alternate win conditions.

X Counterspell

X Quash

X Dismiss

X Defense Grid

For the Stroke mirror and the counters of any Counter-Phoenix or Counter-Slivers or Counter-Troll or Counter-whatever.

X Hibernation

X Evacuate

For the Gaea's Cradle decks. Nobody else had a chance of racing you, so nobody else deserved sideboard slots.

As for the main deck, there were, of course, variations. Maindeck Masticores and shaving numbers on Thran Dynamo and the enchantments to include Evacuation or Counterspell was common, but generally a bad idea. With a deck like this, you should be all-in. I experimented with a list that played Skyshroud Forest for Crop Rotation. If you didn't find Mind Over Matter yet, you could sacrifice an Academy to go get another Academy. I was super pissed when they banned Memory Jar because I had just spent all my money on a pre-order playset at age 10 as soon as the card was spoiled in Scrye or The Duelist or whatever magazine. Then they proceeded to ban the whole deck and all the trading and buying I had done for the past year.

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You're not really answering the question as it was asked. Why were certain cards or combinations of cards game breaking? –  bengoesboom Feb 20 at 16:48
@bengoesboom I think the answer is trying to show rather than explain. It can be difficult to explain why something is busted, but it becomes apparent the moment you see it in action. The first time I looked at a storm list I didn't get it. Then I played it. I got it lol. –  Cruncher Feb 20 at 20:00
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