March 7, 2012
By Imshan AKA Sinis
I like playing bad cards. Almost categorically, the worse the card or mechanic is objectively, the more I am drawn to try to make said card or mechanic work. This isn’t restricted to EDH or Magic in general; I’ll try to play terrible cards in other card games, I’ll play dreadfully awful characters in MMOs, and I’ll generally pick the weaker side of an asymmetric board game if given the chance. This probably explains why I find spirit-craft and Kamigawa block mechanics and cards in general so appealing, despite their clear weakness when compared with cards from other blocks. This isn’t to say that I dislike good cards; I like Demonic Tutor, Necropotence, Primeval Titan and Consecrated Sphinx as much as the next guy, but the power of these cards are at least somewhat dependent on how good the cards you are tutoring, drawing, or ramping up to. If you’re using Black Lotus to power out War Elephant, the lotus is only as good as the pachyderm.
Why do I like bad cards? Objectively good generals or cards are boring. One can play Survival of the Fittest to gain a huge advantage without much thought at all. Once a player decides to break it, it’s off to the races; the possibilities are all clear and open to find creatures that enjoy being discarded, reanimated or have unearth, or cards that have threshold. Where’s the fun? The bad cards have the monopoly on that.
In season four of CommanderCast an entourage segment on Mistform Ultimus revealed at least a small subset of players who had already built a deck with the proto-changeling at the helm, who saw a blue War Elephant with all creature types and thought “Whoa! There are possibilities right there!” Of course, there are plenty of bad cards that I do not like. Gosta Dirk is an abysmal wretch that offers nothing. The cards I like need to be bad with a purpose instead of being cousins of Chimney Imp.
So, what does a fun, bad card look like? One of my first generals was Patron of the Moon. Why is it bad? Well, the power and toughness ratio to converted mana cost compares only slightly favourably to Gosta Dirk. Why is it fun? It’s the activated ability that’s interesting; one mana to put two lands into play tapped. It’s easy to see how this is unlike Survival of the Fittest; Survival has plenty of documented interactions. With Patron of the Moon, you need to find all those interactions yourself, and decide which ones are the most effective. The easy ones to spot are the Kamigawa Moonfolk (who are also handy for the Patron’s offering ability), but there are plenty of others, including Thwart and Flooded Shoreline. Part of the fun is hunting out interesting card interactions, but the other half of putting them into use and blindsiding opponents with them.
Bad cards also seem to enjoy the company of other bad cards. This belies a subtle point. Bad cards may be cards you would not ordinarily play. Because, you know, they’re bad. But, once you play them, you may find you enjoy their use. That Patron of the Moon deck was fairly good at its zenith, but it was mostly that there was a certain amount of fun playing with land-bounce moonfolk and assorted other cards, combined with landfall cards like Roil Elemental. It also made me give other generals a second look; everyone and their dog has at some point or another built and played a Teneb, the Harvester deck, but the same cannot be said for a general like Kyoki, Sanity’s Eclipse. Yet, there is potentially powerful territory with Kyoki. You could lock someone out of the game by playing Death of a Thousand Stings on a player’s draw step after they draw, exiling their just-drawn card with Kyoki’s trigger, preventing them from ever playing any non-instant cards unless they have a persistent draw source like Phyrexian Arena. Best of all, Death of a Thousand Stings recurs itself, cementing the lock.
In a format where we’re all trying to win, but have fun while we’re doing it, the cards that fall into the bad-but-fun category are the best way to keep away from playing the same cards in every deck. There are plenty of lists on the internet that can tell you the approximate 60 best non-land cards for your deck. “Goodstuff” is commonly considered a deck ‘archetype’, even though the only cohesive feature is playing the best cards in the available colours. Yet, it doesn’t seem right to play the exact same pile of cards for Homura, Human Ascendant that it does for, say, Ib Halfheart, Goblin Tactician. Obviously, this is an extreme example, but it bears mentioning; it is easy to fall into the trap of playing the same set of cards from each colour, and it is easy to be bored with the format as a consequence. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t play Primeval Titan, or other commonly played ‘staples’, but it does mean that we should think about it first, and whether that slot is best served by a card commonly thought of as good, or by a card that plays into a particular mechanic, even if it’s a ‘bad’ one. If you’re not one of the people who just has a stack of fifty cards from each colour that you shuffle between your decks, you’re already halfway there. Considering that by playing cards other than the ‘best’, you’re already playing sub-optimally and it’s a stone’s throw away to start playing truly terrible cards for… fun.
Finally, bad cards are cheap. If you want to build a spirit-craft deck, there’s a good chance that it will run you far, far less than your other decks. The Patron of the Moon example I cited earlier was worth less than one hundred bones even though it had a few goodies like Cryptic Command in it. Plenty of EDH decks run well into the hundreds of dollars, and the ‘bad cards’ are a great way to play on a budget while having fun.
Now, I’m not advocating that EDH players eschew all the good cards and scoop up as many Grizzly Bears variants as they can, or to start playing legendary creatures only from pre-Alliances. What I am saying is that if the format seems boring or stale, it might be because there are a lot of cards that are generally taken to be auto-includes. There are a wealth of cards that see very little play, many of them with mechanics as interesting as the cards that do see play. For every card like Zur the Enchanter, there are at least ten others like Kyoki, Sanity’s Eclipse or Chisei, Heart of Oceans. There are a great number of legendary creatures with real potential, like Ib Halfheart, Goblin Tactician, who most wouldn’t have looked at twice before the entourage segment that put him on the map.
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