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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    wizards.com/Magic/magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtgcom/daily/mr5 - I doubt you'll be able to get a better answer than MaRo's. Mar 13, 2013 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, 2013 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, 2013 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, 2013 at 17:06
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    There are some very good arguments as to why all but three of the reasons Mark Rosewater gives for having bad cards are bad arguments, even from other game designers, but this isn't really the place to argue that. The only answers you can get to your question are the things the Magic devs themselves say, or money. You will never really know for certain, because this is a question about intent. If you don't like it, all you can do is make/hope for a game that doesn't have bad cards and is still considered well designed. Mar 13, 2013 at 22:49

6 Answers 6


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, 2013 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? Mar 13, 2013 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, 2013 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, 2013 at 21:59
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    @AlbeyAmakiir No, not exactly. As Maro points out Terror is a better card than Shatter. But Terror was put in the Mirrodin block, which makes it a horrible card because almost everything is an artifact. He did this specifically to make people realize that they have to actually think about the cards. He printed a bad card not just to have a bad card but specifically to make them learn.
    – corsiKa
    Mar 15, 2013 at 15:19

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? Mar 13, 2013 at 22:18
  • I can imagine... it is called powered cube 😊
    – Neil Meyer
    Aug 19, 2017 at 5:36
  • An updated link
    – ojchase
    Jun 29, 2022 at 0:43

It might be worth noting that Archangel's Light was specifically designed to be at a "safe" power level because it was designed very late in development, to replace a card that was turning out to be rather broken and couldn't be salvaged. R&D don't have an infinite amount of time to balance each set, and they'd rather leave some cards at a safer power level than risk pushing them up to a level where they can't tell if it might be bad for the health of the constructed format.

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    Apparently Archangel's Light wasn't so much broken as simply "didn't work" within the rules framework (e.g. created rules inconsistencies that would cause serious issues for the overall game). But this is a really good answer. Apparently the current head developer has cautious attitude to "pushed mistakes", preferring unplayable to HELLA BUSTED.
    – deworde
    Jun 17, 2014 at 12:35

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.


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.


The vast amount of MTG packs are cracked for limited play, because of this the vast amount of cards are designed for the format that cracks the most packs, ie limited.

Only a handful of cards in regular release sets are designed with constructed play in mind, if you look at it from WOTC point of view constructed play just simply does not promote the cracking of packs in the same manner that limited does and it is in the cracking of packs that woTC makes money.

With that in mind you should realise what the charm of limited play is really. Limited is a format where you are confronted by a selection of bad and mediocre cards and are expected to make decks from a weak selection of cards. You have to make good decks from bad cards. This is both hard and very rewarding and brings a depth of gameplay that many other tcg's lack.

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