Today I’m going to be counting down my top 7 hardest Magic cards to play. In general, Magic is an incredibly challenging game to play and even more challenging to play well, especially against other dedicated, talented opponents.
The cards I’ve selected for today’s article are all cards I’ve played with in tournaments over the years that have really put my skills to the test! I think there are different reasons and qualifications a player could use to say a card is “hard to play,” but for me what makes a card challenging to play with strongly correlates to how many options, opportunities and intricate decisions a card can facilitate in a game of Magic.
The more choices a card opens up for a player to make, the more opportunities there are for a player to make the wrong choice. In my opinion, the “hardest to play” cards are often among the best and most impactful cards in the game strictly because they do provide so many options and players have a lot of opportunities to make mistakes.
These are archetypes of cards I didn’t want to put on my list but are dynamics worth mentioning.
“Unplayable cards are hard to play.”
Seafarer’s Quay and thousands of other underpowered cards are among the hardest cards to play because they’re simply not competitively powered and worth inclusion in one’s deck. I’d like to focus on cards that people actually play that player’s are likely to find challenging rather than cards that have never seen play.
Way back in the day, there was a famous deck called “Wandering Ones.”
It was actually a 250 card Battle of Wits some players sleeved up for high-level play and included a copy of Wandering Ones in their sideboard. It was sort of pre-meme, meme Magic in competitive play. An homage to how difficult it would be to build a deck that actually played the card Wandering Ones – if you build a 250 card deck that doesn’t really use its sideboard, it’s theoretically possible to put Wandering Ones in the sideboard for a high level tournament and not lose too much equity for the style points!
Speaking of deck building challenges that make cards hard to play:
“Cards with mana restrictions can be hard to play in the sense they are challenging to build optimized decks around.”
Sometimes the biggest challenge isn’t what to do with one’s card in a game, but rather how to properly build the deck in the first place!
I do consider building and tuning decks to be part of “playing the game,” and so I’m making note of it in the honorable mentions. Some of the hardest Magic decisions relate to deckbuilding and mana bases and take place before the tournament even starts.
Let’s get to the more obvious examples. Cards that are hard to play, in an actual, competitive game of Magic.
I have no issue saying that this Pauper card is one of the hardest to play spells I’ve ever cast. In particular, I find it hard to play on MTGO. The decks that typically utilize Ghostly Flicker intend to loop it over and over again to gain incremental advantage.
There are definitely some tricky sequences with Ghostly Flicker but the thing that makes it a particularly hard card for me to play is how it drained my MTGO clock! The redundancy of clicks simply adds up over time and puts a lot of pressure on an online player to sequence lots of clicks and triggers against the game clock.
In a sense, Ghostly Flicker is so hard to play for me as a non-MTGO player trying to enjoy Pauper during the pandemic that it wasn’t a viable deck choice for me until I improved my ability to play fast on MTGO.
I also think that storm cards that require various targets like Flusterstorm and Reaping the Graves are challenging to play on MTGO because of the way the triggers appear in a confusing and non intuitive way. These are cards with intricate or complicated abilities that are much more difficult to represent online than paper.
Fetches may seem like a weird or contrarian card to put on this list but I honestly considered putting them much higher because of how often they create situations that are difficult for players.
Developing and sequencing one’s mana is everything in a game of Magic. It’s the underlying baseline that dictates which spells you can play and when you can play them.
Fetchlands are particularly difficult to play in the early stages of the game when a player may not know exactly which colors they’ll need down the line. Should you fetch a dual land or a basic land? How much are a few life points worth when deciding to fetch a shockland tapped or untapped against an opponent?
What you do early with a single fetch land can end up being a decision that ultimately decides the outcome of a game (as you look at a shockland that could have been a basic against a Blood Moon deck).
Few individual cards create so many choices at once as Gifts Ungiven.
Not only does the caster need to search their deck for four different cards, but the opponent chooses which two cards go to the graveyard – meaning the player needs to anticipate how the opponent is likely to split the given pile when selecting cards.
There’s also some neat minutiae, such as searching for only two cards and forcing an opponent to Entomb it for you.
Bluffing also comes into play, as it may well be the case that how you craft the pile can signal what you need or don’t need. So, there’s a lot of not only decisions, but decisions that are related to what you think an opponent is likely to do or not do. It’s certainly a hard card to play!
Goblin Welder may be a niche card today, but it was a format-defining strategy in Vintage Magic for many years. Mark Biller won the 2008 Vintage World Championship with Control Slaver and it unseated Psychatog as the de facto best creature in Vintage – a trend that lasted for many years.
Goblin Welder created a ton of sequencing possibilities and tactical options and its role changed as the game progressed. It could be utilized for mana production early in games (by welding Moxes in and out), it could be used to attack an opponent or planeswalker’s loyalty and it could be used to set up devastating plays by welding in expensive bombs.
However, the real challenge of playing Goblin Welder and getting the most out of the card was often related to using it defensively to weld in and out opposing threats against Mishra’s Workshop decks. The dynamic became even more complicated when both players were using Goblin Welders.
The “weld” effect happens on resolution of the ability and is an “exchange” of an artifact in play and graveyard. So, if you try to tap your Mox to weld your Mox into a Sundering Titan, I could respond by tapping my Goblin Welder to weld your Mox into a different Mox – and thus fizzling your attempt to weld. These intricate welder dances were among the most challenging Magic I’ve ever played, since the outcome of any single weld resolving had such capacity to end a game.
Sylvan Library is not only hard to play, the card itself is extremely confusing. Not only is it confusing as written on the card, but many older versions of Sylvan Library are worded in a way that doesn’t quite sync up with the newer oracle versions.
The real issue is that Sylvan Library allows a player to draw cards into their hand and then decide whether to pay life to keep them or put them back. So, these cards always need to be tracked and kept separate until the stack resolves, costs are paid and everything clears.
The wording of the card also specifies that a player can return two cards “drawn this turn,” which further complicates the matter. In fact, Sylvan Library actually facilitates some lines of play that actually require a judge to be present to resolve!
Before a player enters their draw step, that player could cast Brainstorm and crack a fetch land before moving to the draw step and putting Sylvan Library onto the stack. The cards that have been drawn from Brainstorm are technically cards that have been “drawn this turn” and are thus legal options to put back to satisfy the cost of Sylvan Library. The issue is, how does an opponent know which cards were actually drawn from Brainstorm? It’s an incredibly hairy situation that actually does come up in games of paper Legacy, and is a situation where typically a judge needs to be called to watch and make sure it’s done properly.
Sylvan Library is a difficult card to play not only because it creates a lot of choices and involves stacking the top of one’s deck and remembering what’s up there, but also because it’s just an extremely confusing card with regard to what it does and how it’s worded.
I don’t think anybody would object to Brainstorm being on a list of the hardest to play cards. First of all, it’s an incredibly good card that everybody has played with or against at some point (if they play formats where it’s legal). It’s ubiquitous.
If you Brainstorm’s allowed, it tends to be everywhere because the card is so darn powerful, but the true power of the card is in the flexibility of options and utility it provides. It lets a player see a lot of cards for one mana.
It also plays into the dynamic of stacking or setting cards on the top of one’s deck and having to remember what they are there! I mentioned this dynamic in the Sylvan Library entry but it also applies to cards like Sensei’s Divining Top.
I was going to have Top and Brainstorm as number one and two, but over the course of writing the article, I actually realized I had a different number one that I felt was a hard lock and so I’m conflating Sensei’s Top and Brainstorm because they are hard to play well for similar reasons. Also, I ran out of room on the list.
Both Brainstorm and Sensei’s Divining Top not only provide their caster with a ton of strategic options, but getting the timing right is also a huge issue.
When is the right time to fire off a Brainstorm or spin a Top is just as important as how what you keep or how you stack the cards when you put them back.
There’s also incentive to put cards back on top in specific orders to trigger miracle at a later moment of the game. A card like Brainstorm can also be used to respond to a Duress or a Thoughtseize to hide or protect an important spell on top of one’s deck where it cannot be selected. Not to mention there’s a strong synergy between putting cards back with Brainstorm and then cracking a fetchland to shuffle unwanted cards off the top of one’s deck.
I could go on and on and on about different small relevant synergies that cads like Top and Brainstorm are able to create in games of Magic and the fact that these cards provide such an abundance of options and interactions is what makes them hard to play. It’s easy to put Brainstorm or Top into a deck and have those cards be great, but getting the maximum return out of properly sequencing these cards is a huge skill tester that makes them hard to play.
This card is literally so difficult and skill testing to play that I’ve never sleeved it up for a competitive tournament in my entire life! When cast, Doomsday creates a scenario where a player essentially needs to decide what all of their lines of play for the rest of the game will be based on all possible options in their deck!
There are clearly Doomsday piles that “win the game” on their own when properly selected, so doing “the combo” against a goldfish is easy. The issue that makes it difficult to execute against a skilled opponent is that Doomsday’s caster needs to take into consideration all of the possible counterplay and how it might impact the Doomsday stack.
Which cards does my Doomsday stack beat and which cards disrupt my stack? Also, how can I shore up my Doomsday pile to beat cards my opponent is likely to have?
Essentially, when casting Doomsday, a player dictates what the entire rest of the game will be on the spot and has to account for everything when selecting and stacking a Doomsday pile. The other thing that makes Doomsday hard to play is that it’s not a forgiving card at all. If you make the pile wrong – you’re dead. If an opponent has a card you didn’t account for – your dead.
You’ve paid half of your life and most of the cards in your deck to make the Doomsday stack and that’s it – there are no more lucky top decks or ways to draw out. Either it works or you die!
Doomsday is essentially an entire endgame of Magic all stuffed into a single card and, for that reason, I believe it’s the hardest Magic card to play. So hard in fact that playing the deck in a tournament was never an option that appealed to me as a competitive deck choice.
Obviously, there are more than just eight cards that put Magic players to the test. I’d love to hear which cards you’d add to my list of challenging to play cards. I’d love to hear more about your picks in the comments below or you can tweet them @briandemars1. There are tons of great cards in Magic but some cards take more work and skill than others to truly unlock their potential.