This is the final of the development articles I will release on the home made cube. I actually wrote it second but kept putting it off as I didn't want to showcase the dirty cards contained within! That is because this article is all about how to design cards with effects people dislike on them, or making use of bad mechanics. Given than several months have now passed since first writing this most of the cards have changed, which I at least have found somewhat interesting. These all changed pre-printing, there are now also plenty more cards I want to tweak post testing them. I am about 8 events in and I have a folder of about 80 cards with proposed changes. Mostly nerfs, the odd buff and about a fifth of cards with grammatical or aesthetic issues. Suffice it to say there will be some results and conclusions articles to follow, and of course the cube itself at some point!
There are some aspects of magic that not all players like. Typically the receiving player is not a fan of a fairly broad spectrum of effects that stop them playing the game. This can be mana denial stopping them from casting their things, permission countering them, discard plucking them away before use, or a selection of tax effects bogging down the game. Certainly people don't like to lose but there are good ways and bad ways to lose. In no surprise at all cards that people don't like line up neatly with these bad ways to lose. The majority of that is the feeling you didn't get to play. Fine, if your deck did its thing and got beat, but if you didn't do anything there is very little to take away. Below is a card that shuts down a commonly used avenue to victory and is not much of a good time. This is fortunately not how it went to the printers and was made a little more palatable!
There are only two classes of hated card that really falls outside this category of cards people don't like for stopping them playing. The first of those are things that allow you to beat people with their own cards. Either you steal them and play them or you just wait till they play them and steal them then! It just feels rough somehow. Your Control Magics and Gonti's. The other group are the free spells, or specifically the gotcha ones, be they removal or counter magic. People don't like being caught off guard or always having to be aware of something. People like the comfort of a tapped out situation. A free spell is something that should be approached with caution, not just from a mechanical point of view but also a compassionate one too! I have a smattering of both such types of cards but they are generally at the lower end of my power level range, and typically designed to afford as much counter play as possible. My zero mana spells tend not to be doing disruptive things or affecting tempo, this keeps them on the safe side of things. As for the other group, if you are going to steal people things, make them pay for it. Allow the ability to get it back. Don't let them do it at sneaky instant speeds bypassing potential interaction there either. Below is what I think is about as fair as it is possible to make a broad spectrum and playable Control Magic. Not the most exciting but certainly representative of an element of the game. This doesn't have obnoxious scaling, can be undone, and can be played around to some extend as well.
I was trying to design a fun format that eschews away from "bad" design however I was also trying to do a tribute to Magic and showcase the breadth of the game. You can't do that without including some of these "bad" effects. Some you can tone down by playing fewer of them, such as the stealing effects, however you can't really just not have counterspells as that is a big part of what blue is about. You are being unfaithful to the game, but also giving yourself an impossible task of filling the gap left by countermagic. Where you cannot calm with reduced numbers you can at least calm with power. The countermagic suite is one of the few areas where my homemade cube is below the power level bar compared to most other cubes. I have no free counter magic that is for sure! The counter magic I do have I have tried to keep reasonable.
Another strategy I have used to tone down disliked mechanics is a spreading out and tucking away kind of affair. I had only two cards capable of destroying a basic land and both only do so once. No Armageddon here! No Strip Mine Crucible of Worlds nonsense. Having just two effects is certainly pretty toned down but it is not the only length I have gone to. Both cost five mana which is fairly tucked away. Cheap land destruction is the most egregious. I have moved it up the curve to take the sting out of things but I have added it to other things so as to keep the power level somewhat attractive. Even with all that the card below has not faired well in testing. It wasn't fun or appreciated. The issue is simply that it is green and thus quite easy to play this on turn three. On the play that is way too oppressive, not to mention tempo and value all at once. Rather than try and fix this I am liable simply to cut it all together. It is not like I need things to kill basic lands.
The last thing I did, the spreading out, is about playability. Both my five drops that could kill a basic land are gold cards, in this case ones that share no colours at all. It is going to be pretty hard to fit them both into a deck and abuse a mana denial strategy. Indeed, just by being gold we are going to be seeing less of the card assuming it is of comparable power level and playability otherwise. This is an approach I have taken repeatedly, the hiding of the less loved effects in gold, up the curve, spread about the colours, and in short supply. As it turns out I have since nerfed the Angel below to only hit non-lands. It didn't seem like it was a good thing to have on the card. It is plenty powerful enough already and while it isn't in the colours of other land destruction effects it is in the colour of flicker effects and that would be a miserable way to lose. I was trying to evoke the spirit of Vindicate but in practice exorcising the ghost of Stone Rain losses is a more valiant calling. It turns out you don't need to have a land destruction theme for it to be egregious, just one well timed hit is all it takes. And so with that fall all the means of attacking basic land and total mana production present in my cube. Sure, they might be aspects of the game but I am not so into a tribute that I am going to harm the playability of it to represent.
At this point we start to move into territory I was reserving for a different article although they both concern "bad" elements of the game. This is a more general one about types of effects people don't like and isn't so much to do about things that are mechanically poor. There are actually a bunch of things that are technically quite poor mechanically but that people like or enjoy. There is just something to the gamble of a cascade that is fun! Hard to call it a good mechanic from a design point of view but the people like it and so there we are! With effects like cascade I have simply tried to include them in the most safe and contained manner possible. Obviously it is much easier for me to do so not having to worry about no mana suspend cards in the format. Designing without the baggage of pre-existing cards and formats is certainly making my job a lot easier!
There are other "bad" mechanics that are not necessarily loved by players but that are highly flavourful and feel important to reflect in a tribute to magic. First strike is a good example of this. Not hated or anything but not something that is great for the game as it can shut things down in combat a bit defensively and make tricks all a bit too risky to play into. First strike is most egregious when you start to stack it up. As such the first port of call was turning as many of my designs for cards where I had used first strike into something else, be that vigilance or lifelink or whatever felt appropriate. Thinning it out over the colours a bit more. The next thing to do was more nested in the design of the cards themselves. Making it only apply when attacking is a trick wizards have been using themselves for a while and solves the problems with the ability. The cost is a little added complexity and noise on the cards but this is exactly what it should be used for. The art of keeping designs clean and simple is in part so that you have the space to fix things when needed without winding up with a mess of a design.
I find I am not compelled to slap loads of examples of these kinds of thing as they tend not to be my favourite of cards. They are more like the blemishes in the set I am trying to cover up. Yes, they are parts of the whole but they are getting more attention from the makeup bag than other areas of the face! Dark Knight is a nod to Black Knight, but protection is horrible design and so became ward. Deathtouch was granted to make the card relevant and interesting and sufficiently powerful in the modern game, and so the first strike needed to receive that common fix. The classic but ungainly Black Knight has a makeover and becomes presentable! I don't like it but I like it more than the original, and I feel like it is about as close as I am getting to a Black Knight without straying into the realms of bad design.
One final means of reducing hated effects I have found myself using a lot is the application of phyrexian mana instead of normal mana to some of the tax effects. Normally I dislike giving my opponents choices but on tax cards it goes down very well. It takes that oppressive cornered feel out of it a little. The card below manages to evoke the flavour of Tabernacle without stinking the whole room out. It also does this by being a creature and also an artifact as well making it far more easily removed. This is what also happened with the gold Ghostly Prison/Propaganda card I showed off first. That will have to do for bad cards for now!