Game By Design

Whenever Jeremy and I break open our packs from a booster box of a new set, we always stop to take a look at the new cards at least once so that we can get a real appreciation for them. We examine the art, the name, the quality of the card stock, the flavor text, etc.; I mean everything. Of course, we like many others review the spoilers as they trickle into our feeds, but having that very real, tactile moment with them allows us to really appreciate the effort and work it goes into to make our game.

I fancy myself as an amateur card designer. At one point I was designing my own set and had come up with some really interesting mechanics for it. Throughout that process, I gained an even greater understanding of the difficulty of designing well balanced cards so that they fit together and don't destroy the set or the format, let alone previous formats like Modern, Legacy, or more casual formats like Pauper or Commander. I took the time to research how card designers organize their thoughts and designs, and how they go about designing their cards.

It was also an exercise in language and syntax. When you are designing a card, you have to be extremely particular about how you would word it's effects. Even simple errors in the card's wording can completely change your original intent on how the card was to be played and destroy proper rulings from judges.

So I just wanted to take a moment to break down some of my most favorite card designs and why I think they are quite elegant for their place in the game. Not all of these cards will have seen Standard play, or even play in other formats outside of Limited or Sealed. However, I think it is important to look at these cards for their merits and to see what we can learn from them.

While never seen in constructed, Eternal of Harsh Truths during its time in Standard was one of the most well designed cards in the block, and even today it still holds a special place in my heart as one of the best card designs I've seen yet. There is a certain elegance in its overall balance. Typically a 1/3 for 3 mana is outside the range of what we want to pay for. We are used to seeing a 1/4 body, typically with some sort of enter the battlefield in order to make it an uncommon. However, this 1/3 comes with 2 very important abilities. First, is Afflict 2, an ability found within the Hour of Devastation set which allows our measly 1/3 to force our opponent to lose 2 life if it becomes blocked. And if it isn't blocked, you get to draw a card.

There are a few things that I love about this card that just makes it sing for me. Eternal of Harsh Truths forces your opponent to make a choice. You either draw a card or your opponent loses more life than Eternal of Harsh Truths power. Not only that, but both the Afflict trigger and the draw ability occur before combat damage is dealt. Afflict can kill your opponent before lifelink can save them from an otherwise lethal attack. In addition, since the draw a card triggers before combat damage is dealt, you have the possibility of drawing into removal or a pump spell or something. So, by effectively giving us a 3 mana 2/3 that will or a 1/3 that will draw us a card, Eternal of Harsh Truths hits that sweet spot of being a beautifully designed card and fits perfectly within its rarity power level.

Now, let's get into some of the newer cards that we can find actually in our format. Experimental Frenzy is another one of these beautifully designed cards that is so unique that it really speaks to me. Not only is it fake card draw in Red, but it also has the same type of a flavor as what Red would want given the philosophy behind the color. Red, by its nature, is the color of passion and energy; it is unrestrained and reckless; it is aggressive but can be punishing to itself. Experimental Frenzy perfectly embodies that mentality.

Whenever it is in play we can always look at the top card of our library and we can play the top card of library any time the card could be played. For those who have never played with or against Experimental Frenzy, when built right, you can have turns where you just systematically blast through 5 or 6 cards in a row before stalling. This insane amount of card advantage is exactly how Red wants to interact with cards. A "you play it or you don't play" type of mentality. On top of that, the explosive turns that can occur with this card further solidifies it within the passionate, aggressive, and unrestrained mentality that Red occupies. Then by forcing us to only play cards from the top of our deck, it can punish us by having to destroy our Frenzy to play the cards in our hand or to time walk ourselves as we wait for action. Experimental Frenzy is a beautifully designed card, and I can't wait for future crazy Red enchantments to get behind.

Speaking of card advantage, Dead Man's Chest is another one of those card's that gets the gears turning for me. It is an extremely powerful card, that is extremely dependent on the game's board state and your ability to control the game. For only two mana, you have the ability to draw upwards of 12 cards (or even more) of your opponent's library in Standard (assuming this Aura attaches itself to a Ghalta). Its effect can even be doubled up when paired with Teysa Karlov. This Aura allows us to exile the top of our opponent's library, allowing us to cast their spells at any time we normally could for any color of mana.

This card fits into two different types of strategies: Control and Mill. That's one of the things I find so interesting about this card. We can use it as a mill spell, perhaps pairing it with a card like Font of Agonies or Bedevil or Mortify to better control our opponent's board, gain access to their spells and mill the top of their library by just doing what we normally would want to be doing. By playing that control game, we are able to refill our "hand" with our opponent's best threats while also maintaining our card advantage.

It isn't without its risks. Countering it, killing the creature before the Aura can become attached, your opponent's giving their creatures hexproof, etc. can really blow you out. I still just love the flavor of the card and its incredibly unique abilities. We don't get to see things like this often, and its awesome to be seeing it a little more frequently as of late.

Another card that I just have to admire the design on is Dawn of Hope. White has been getting a lot more support recently by gaining the ability to more easily ramp or draw cards, something it has struggled in for a very long time. Dawn of Hope is one of the first pieces of that recent support package.

Dawn of Hope comes down as early as turn 2 in Standard (even sooner in formats like Modern) and gives us the ability to pay 2 generic mana to draw a card whenever we gain a life. Already in Standard, this card pairs beautifully well with Fountain of Renewal as a turn 1 and 2 combo to gain us life and draw us cards as early as turn 3, shirking past many of the control decks in the meta. On top of that, Dawn of Hope can even slot perfectly inside a control deck that wants cards in hand and to fuel itself with its second ability of paying 3W to get a 1/1 with lifelink. This additional ability is what seals the deal with Dawn of Hope that makes me love it for its design. We can now save up our counter magic, and then at end of turn create a threat that will fuel our card draw. I love it.

Speaking of self-fueling specials, take a look at Biogenic Ooze. By the end of the turn Biogenic Ooze gives us a total of 6 power and toughness spread across 2 bodies for only five mana. At our end step, we are placing a +1/+1 counter on each ooze we control. There aren't a ton of oozes in Standard, so being able to pay 1GGG to get another 2/2 ooze is just what a card like this needs.

What I love about this card is that it can fit into many differeny archetypes. It can be in Mean Green, a sideboard card against control strategies (if you can stick it) or go into a Gx control deck with counter control or instant speed kill spells as your finisher. By being able to hold up your mana at the end of your opponent's turn, you can save the cards in your hand and still not time walk yourself by creating another ooze. In addition, we do have a card like Wilderness Reclamation (which is right on curve) that allows us to untap our lands at our end step. This combination of cards can allow us to not only create a ton of oozes to but allows us to utilize our turns efficiently and then still hold up mana to control the board. Biogenic Ooze is an extremely flexible card and its got a wonderfully powerful, but balanced design.

If I were to ask you, "what is the bane of aggro," I'd probably would get a few answers back: counter control, kill spells, and enchantment removal. Cindervines is a perfectly designed sideboard card for our aggro decks to get some reach against those various strategies. The reason why I think this card is designed so well is that it gives us the flexibility to play it as an answer to a variety of match ups. And because it is so cheap to cast, Cindervines can often come in before our opponent's have counter control ready for it.

Even if we never get more than one Cindervines down at a time, the constant sting of 1 damage for each counter spell or kill spell is just beautiful. By also pinging our opponents whenever they cast cards like Ixalan's Binding or Conclave Tribunal, Cindervines allows us to deal upwards of 3 damage to our opponent that turn and destroying their enchantment (which likely would have been targeting Cindervines itself). Having our opponents playing on the backfoot against this card while we swing in for more and more damage is just a perfect example of an evenly balanced card with true staying power in, at the very least, the sideboards of many decks.

The last card I want to talk about is another red spell. The balance in this card is in how much we have to pay for it to make it worth it. However, Electrodominance is an extremely potent card that has some really interesting text. At instant speed, we get to pay XRR to deal X damage to any target, but we also get to cast a spell without paying its mana cost of X or less. So for 7 mana we can kill our opponent's Lyra the Dawnbringer, and lay down a Hellkite to swing in for a hasty 4 damage. Or even better, when our opponent full swing attacks us, we can kill our opponent's creature and cast our own Lyra the Dawnbringer to block and gain 5 life. Or perhaps at our opponent's end step we cast this for 4 mana to kill a creature and Chart a Course.

Electrodominance's unique design allows us to circumvent timing restrictions. A card that lets us do that is extremely powerful and should be scrutinized for ways to break it. Perhaps it can't be broken in Standard (although I have a feeling it can), but what about Modern? Casting spells like Ancestral Vision for free to refill our hand? That is extremely power and is a really interesting take on a Red X spell with upside.

In this list, I tried to stay away from just "cards that are powerful" and instead tried to showcase some of the more interesting cards that are not only designed well but could be or should be played in Standard. It is incredibly difficult to design cards that are interesting, powerful, and balanced; it can be sometimes difficult to find a few out of the bunch when we get overtly pushed cards like Nexus of Fate, Spawn of Mayhem, Bedevil, Assassin's Trophy, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, etc. But as you crack your packs, start looking at your commons and uncommons because even at those rarities there are real gems that can stand out to you and speak to the Magic player within.

So what do you think? Do you agree with me that these spells have unique card designs? Were any of the ones I chose too powerful? Did I miss something that you think should be in here? Lets keep the conversation going in the comments down below. And until next time, play a land and say, "Go."