Have you ever looked at the comprehensive list of Magic keywords and mechanics? If not, you may be surprised to learn that there are well over 100 different, unique abilities! In its decades of existence, Magic has grown and expanded to occupy tons of design space in its journey to become the most dynamic and complex game ever created.
Today I’ll be taking a closer look at the most insane keywords/mechanics ever printed on a Magic card and giving you my thoughts on the impact and legacy of these iconic designs. I’d also like to get people thinking about whether these are unsavory mechanics, or if a few bad apples (broken cards) spoiled the whole bunch.
With so many mechanics to choose from, I was a little surprised at how easy it was to focus my list down to just a handful of candidates. I’ve made a list of eight, and have two worthy honorable mentions.
Avacyn Restored brought us the miracle keyword. Basically, the idea here was to create uber powerful spells that got significantly cheaper to cast if they were the first card drawn for the turn. On the one hand, there was a “lucky topdeck” aspect to these cards. If you played Standard during this period, you’ll likely remember rolling your eyes when an opponent spiked a Bonfire of the Damned for 7 and the game ended.
Obviously, Miracles has been a steadfast force in Legacy for years and years now. While the mechanic does have a topdeck feel, there is also a cool dynamic of manipulating the top of your library to set these cards up with cards like JTMS or Brainstorm.
Good or Bad Mechanic? I’m going to go with “this is a bad mechanic.” From a gameplay perspective, I don’t like the weird tension between having to look at the card you are drawing and revealing it before it goes to your hand. I don’t like the weird tension between the card being in “miracle limbo,” where it can be Vendilion Clique’d out of a player’s hand before it is cast.
In a general sense, everything about this mechanic feels weird and non-intuitive, which simply complicates an already ridiculously complicated game for the average player. I like Terminus as a Legacy card and the way it pressures the format, but I could live without new miracles in the future.
Do you remember the banding decks that dominated the early years of Magic? Me either.
Banding is easily one of the most comically bad mechanics in the history of the game and not because it was broken. Imagine that you created an amazing new game that you wanted people to learn to play. I don’t know about you, but the first thing I would make sure to do would be to make a mechanic that was super complicated, non-intuitive, and worked differently depending on whose turn it was… also, I’d be sure to only put that ability on cards that are underpowered and teetering on the verge of 100% unplayable. I’d also be sure to to make a rare that is a color-shifted bad common with the same stats, cost, and ability.
Good or Bad Mechanic? Banding is the worst! I’m probably in the highest 1% of players who understand how banding works and I still have to go deep into the tank when somebody plays one of these annoying cards in MTGO Limited Masters Drafts. Ban the band. I’d love to see these cards never come back in any meaningful way ever again!
Banding is unique in the sense that it kind of sucks but I still feel compelled to hate on it just because it is so confusing and messy.
And Then There Were Eight…
These are the eight mechanics that are huge game-changers. Are they bad design, or victims of circumstance? I’ll give you my thoughts and my rankings, but would love to discuss and riff on these mechanics with you all in the comments. If you disagree, I’d love to know why. If you think I nailed it (or, even got close!) let me know.
Here they are: the eight you love to hate!
To affinity and beyond!
I’m a firm believer that the affinity mechanic severely damaged the credibility of Magic during Mirrodin block. The artifact beatdown deck was absurdly overpowered in a way that can only be described as comical. But does that mean that it’s a bad mechanic?
“Affinity” is a perennial tier 1 Modern deck despite the fact that it curiously lacks cards with the keyword “affinity.”
People also forget that there are cards with an “affinity for things other than artifacts.”
Was Affinity a Mistake?
Good or Bad Mechanic? Mirrodin and Darksteel 100% went out the door with some glaring problems, but I don’t think the “affinity mechanic” was necessarily one of them.
I’ll express the off-the-beaten-path opinion that affinity is actually a cool and balanced mechanic, and that the problem was 100% that artifact lands were too good in concert with specifically “affinity for artifacts.” Not only did artifact lands essentially halve the cost of affinity for artifact spells, but they also doubled (and even tripled!) as sources of damage alongside Disciple of the Vault and Arcbound Ravager.
I’d welcome the “return of affinity,” but rebranded. Affinity for lands, affinity for creatures, affinity for enchantments—explicitly anything other than affinity for artifacts in a set with artifact lands!
E = Metagame Impaired
Kaladesh block brought us energy, and there was unfortunately no way to get rid of it aside from some strategic Standard bans.
The idea behind the mechanic was to create an alternate resource that could be traded in to do various different things in the game. I’ll give credit for the outside-the-box-thinking behind this mechanic, but at the end of the day I think this was a failed experiment.
Good or Bad Mechanic? Awful. Terrible. Possibly cruel? Aside from giving points for trying something outside the box, I think this mechanic turned out to be just bad. It’s also impressive to me that I think this mechanic was bad on several completely different levels and axes, which I think is almost challenging to do!
First, it’s tedious. It’s another arbitrary thing to be constantly tracking over the course of a game. Magic is complicated enough without needing to track another resource! Secondly, it was oppressively powerful: the cost of generating advantage via the cultivation of energy was undercosted and versatile. Third, the “energy shell” was portable and could be abused with other powerful combos, primarily “Copycat” and “Aetherworks Eldrazi.” Even once those combos were banned the energy shell was still oppressive.
The positive spin is that none of these cards are likely good enough to exist outside of Standard, which means that I’ll never have to be pestered about the proper or improper ways of tracking my energy by a judge ever again. Why can’t I track it on the energy counter I got in my booster pack with a die so that my opponent and I can both see and agree on it? Oh, because it’s more awkward for us to both track it separately on our scorepads? Makes sense.
For all of these reasons I hope energy dies with Kaladesh.
Hexproof me wrong…
Hating on hexproof is a popular opinion that I 100% understand. Oh, I can’t interact with your card… oh, and now you are putting Auras on it. Oh, and now I’m dead because hexproof is obnoxious.
Back in the day, we had shroud and we were happy to have it.
Compared to the power of hexproof, the Mongoose is now loose…
Permanents, particularly creatures, that are immune to 99% of removal are clearly very powerful, especially in situations where those creatures can be further enhanced by Auras or Equipment. Shroud was already very good—did it need to be made even better?
Good or Bad Mechanic? Ultimately, hexproof is a good mechanic to exist, but in moderation. Magic needs foils to powerful strategies, and let’s face it, decks that kill everything have typically been very strong.
Personally, when it comes to hexproof I’d prefer a less-is-more approach. I think it detracts from the game to have ridiculous, giant Dragons that can’t be targeted appear with a high level of frequency. I’d even like to see a more balanced split between hexproof and the slightly less powerful shroud. Hexproof is a necessary evil.
Cruising toward the most broken mechanics of all time…
Delve certainly got some cards banned. Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time were clearly ridiculous Magic cards in Eternal and Modern formats. Tournament Magic is largely about finding ways to break parity between two powerful and synergistic strategies. The ability to transform something that doesn’t have intrinsic value (i.e., cards in graveyard, life total, or cards in library) into a tangible, usable resource is extremely powerful.
The delve spells start expensive, but if you can delve for maximum value (or even close to it) players can get extremely powerful effects for a modest investment of actual mana.
Good or Bad Mechanic? Great mechanic! I love, love, love Delve. But it will always teeter on the edge of broken. Dig and Cruise were science experiments that created a monster. In a Xerox shell that is already designed to churn through cards, the ability to generate huge card advantage for little mana is extremely efficient (since those decks are putting lots of cards in the graveyard already).
Fetchlands also present a big problem with delve in any format where they coincide, since these are free cards going to the graveyard to supplement mana cost. Delve is an elegant and intuitive mechanic, which is something I enjoy and would love to see return in future sets with the stipulation that future delve cards take to heart the lessons we learned about how delve works in Eternal and Modern. It almost feels impossible to design delve cards that could be competitive in Standard and not be completely broken outside of that format.
I’d love to see more delve cards with the understanding that it can’t really be pushed for Standard because doing so makes it too broken in other formats.
O.K.! We’ve made it to the top half of the list. These were tough to order because I know everybody has strong opinions about which cards and decks they love to hate the most! I did my best to make the list as legit as I could.
Spin the wheel…
Alara Reborn is one of the most forgettable Magic sets with a legacy of one of the most obnoxious mechanics ever designed. All of the cards were multi-colored and all of them were terrible except for the ones that had the cascade ability, and those ones were all broken in half.
I know I’m throwing the hate on cascade, but I’m going to go even further. I think cascade was not only a bad concept, but was also executed poorly.
Bloodbraid Elf was simply too powerful. It’s card advantage, raw power, and difficult to answer without falling behind. The rest of the cards with the mechanic were uninteresting, uninspired, and primarily functioned as enablers to “cheat-cast” Time Spiral suspend cards.
Good or Bad Mechanic? I’m going with bad on cascade. I wouldn’t bat an eye if there was never a new cascade spell ever again. With that being said, if cascade were to return I’d prefer to see it on more expensively costed cards as more of a Limited based mechanic.
If BBE and “3-mana tutors for Hypergenesis and Living End” didn’t exist and cascade was scaled toward the top, perhaps I would have a different opinion. Magic needs heroes and villains, and cascade is one of those keywords that I love to hate because it is so pushed past the brink of sanity.
“Bring out your dead!”
Dredge is an outrageous mechanic that made its first appearance as the Golgari-themed keyword from the original Ravnica set. I don’t think anybody could have foreseen the consequences that “Stinky and the Troll” would have on the future of tournament Magic…
Graveyard decks have always been a thing, but the dredge engine took that concept to a new level by fostering decks that simply played cards for free from the discard pile. In a Dredge deck, the graveyard is like a makeshift “hand” that generates tons of raw resources and plays.
I was shocked when I first saw this deck in action all those years ago, and it certainly changed the way Magic was played.
Good or Bad Mechanic? It’s hard to throw too much hate at the existence of these cards. I don’t think they came into existence with any inkling of what the archetype would eventually become. With that being said, while Dredge can feel obnoxious to play against, it is on a comparable power level to the other decks legal in Eternal formats and adds a completely unique dynamic.
Now that we’ve gotten to a point where answers have caught up to the raw power dredge presents, I actually enjoy dredge’s existence in Magic. It’s another scary deck that forces people to stay honest about how they build and tune their decks. I would even say that I wouldn’t be against seeing more cards with dredge printed in the future, with the stipulation that they are carefully designed and do not dredge for more than 2-4 cards.
Sure, dredge is broken but is it really more broken than the other stuff that people do in Eternal or Modern? It was a surprise pillar and it appears to have worked itself out over time. In the here and now, I’m glad that dredge exists.
Tendrils of Agony wants to join the X-Men. Sorry storm, but we’re renaming you drizzle.
Tendrils of Agony is clearly a mutant. It didn’t take long after these cards were revealed in Scourge for people to realize that they were absurdly broken. Mind’s Desire was restricted in Vintage before it was ever eligible for tournament play. I don’t ever remember that happening before or since.
Storm is a mechanic that was likely underestimated while being designed. It’ll be a challenge for people to cast 9 spells + Tendrils in a turn… right?
It’s also funny that the mechanic was brought back during Time Spiral block with some tamed down variants. It turns out that tamed down storm cards are still completely insane. The problem with storm lies in the fact that it is a perfect win condition for decks that want to draw cards and make mana, literally the two most broken things in the game! The drawback of churning through cards and drawing your deck is that you are not interacting with the board, a void that is completely offset by storm win conditions like Tendrils or Grapeshot.
Good or Bad Mechanic? I love playing Storm and so I’m glad it exists, but I cannot in good conscience say that it was a well-thought out or good idea. It’s a terrible mechanic to exist that facilitates decks designed to play solitaire! There’s no reason to ever make more storm cards, but the damage is already done: Eternal and Modern win cons already exist and Storm will prevail.
1. Phyrexian Mana
I hope that just seeing this list of cards will convince you why Phyrexian mana is the worst mechanic of all time. It’s a sprawling list of obnoxious, free, and banned cards!
One of the fundamental building blocks of Magic is that players need to produce mana to pay for the costs of their spells. While I can appreciate experimenting with various ways to supplement mana casts, simply paying life (especially for colored mana requirements) simply breaks too many rules of the game.
I know, I know… there are plenty of decks that cheat mana costs in various ways, notably Dredge, but remember that those decks need to jump through a lot of hoops in order to do it, whereas Phyrexian mana simply offers spells and effects to a wide array of decks that wouldn’t typically be able to “pay” for that effect with actual mana.
Mental Misstep and Dismember are good examples. Zoo decks that counter your removal without paying mana? Colorless decks that can play Dismember? I’ve gone on record saying that I’d like more diversity in terms of what abilities each color has access to, but here is an example of what happens when cards simply go way too far and take color commitment completely out of the discussion: you get bad Magic cards.
Good or Bad Mechanic? The worst! The worst! THE WORST! I hope Phyrexian mana is never revisited ever again, unless it is with regard to “Eternal only” printings in Commander, and even then I’d vote against it. The one place where Phyrexian mana belongs is in the next “Un-” set, because the mechanic was a complete joke!
This was a lot of fun to think about and write, and I hope that you enjoyed reading through my list and the observations I’ve made about some of the all-time most frightening keywords and mechanics ever to terrorize the MTG tournament circuit.
It was enlightening to break these concepts down and think about what made them work, or not work, given the context. It was interesting to me to look at a mechanic like affinity and realize, “Perhaps affinity is actually a good mechanic—just not with artifact lands in the same set!” Or, “As it turns out, maybe dredge existing has turned out to be a net positive for the game…”
It’s also interesting how one or two cards with a keyword strongly impact how we collectively feel and receive that mechanic in terms of tournament play. Miracles, for instance, is synonymous with Terminus these days.
Did I overlook any mechanics that deserve to be on this list? Do you have any pet peeve keywords that you’d like to give a shout out for? Do you want to go a different way on “good or bad?” on any of these selections? I put them up in an order that makes sense to me based on my experiences, but I’d love to discuss these crazy, game-changing mechanics.