Are Bonus Sheets Good for Limited?

Are Bonus Sheets Good for Limited?

Jacob LacknerDesign, Limited

Love them or hate them, bonus sheets have become a big part of Magic over the last couple of years.

In this article I’ll talk about the pros and cons of bonus sheets, especially as they relate to Limited. A “bonus sheet” is a curated collection of reprints that appears in booster packs for a set. Today’s Play Boosters have a dedicated slot for bonus sheet cards.

Bonus sheets have become such a big thing recently that Outlaws of Thunder Junction has two bonus sheets! Breaking News is the traditional one with a dedicated booster slot, but there’s also Big Score, which can appear in the “Card of any rarity” slot.  While having multiple sheets is only a one time thing, it is true that having a single bonus sheet has recently become the norm for Magic releases.

A Brief History of Bonus Sheets

While bonus sheets have become a big part of Magic l their history actually goes back almost two decades, to 2006. Time Spiral was a set about time travel, so they introduced the “Timeshifted” bonus sheet consisting of cards from Magic’s past. Just like today, this was a collection of reprints from throughout Magic’s history, with one card from the sheet appearing in each pack. 

For 15 years, it looked like this was a special one-time thing for Time Spiral. But then, we got another one in 2021’s Strixhaven. This didn’t instantly result in every set having a bonus sheet, but starting with 2022’s The Brothers’ War, every Standard set apart from Murders at Karlov Manor has had one.

Cards from today’s bonus sheets aren’t legal in Standard, Pioneer, or Modern unless they are cards that also appear in a Standard-release set. However, bonus sheet cards are all legal in Limited. Since one card from these sheets appears in every booster pack, they have a very real effect on Limited formats.

So, that begs the question – are bonus sheets good for Limited?

Mystical Archive: A Case Study of a Good Bonus Sheet

To discuss the pros and cons of bonus sheets, I’m going to use an individual bonus sheet as a case study, and then briefly discuss the others that have been successful or unsuccessful for the same reasons. In other words, I have concrete examples to draw off of when talking about the pros and cons.

Strixhaven’s bonus sheet may have been the first bonus sheet in 15 years, but somehow they really knew what they were doing.

The best bonus sheets have a theme that complements what’s going on in the main set and the Archive did exactly that. Strixhaven is the most spell-centric set we’ve ever seen. Every card in the Archive was an Instant or Sorcery. The Magecraft mechanic appeared across all five colors and all five archetypes, so seeding the format with extra Instants and Sorceries was a great way to boost the set’s synergy.

In addition to having an overall theme that supports the Limited format, it’s also important for bonus sheet cards to include iconic cards. This has less of an impact on a Limited format as a whole, but giving players the chance to play with Swords to Plowshares or Brainstorm in a non-cube 40-card format is something that will excite players about their Limited deck.

Swords to Plowshares | Brainstorm

While bonus sheets should certainly impact a Limited format, there is a “Goldilocks” zone that the best ones manage to achieve. That is, it doesn’t have too big or too small of an impact on a format.

It’s important to remember that bonus sheets don’t only exist for Limited. They also provide good reprints for people who play other formats. For that reason, it’s okay for a bonus sheet to have a few bombs and a few cards that are unplayable, but anything beyond a “few” in either of those categories can be a problem. 

For example, you’re never going to get Mind’s Desire to work in a Limited format outside of cube, and you’re also going to win tons of games where you’re able to cast Day of Judgment. Both of those things are okay. The Archive doesn’t have very many other cards that fall into these categories. It also helps to put these types of cards at Mythic Rare.

Lastly, good bonus sheets also include a couple of build-arounds. In other words, these are cards that are super powerful, but only if you draft the right deck around them. These can really contribute to a format’s replay value, since it lets you break free of playing the core archetypes in a format.

Strixhaven had two of these that were quite successful: Approach of the Second Sun and Mizzix’s Mastery. You can’t jam these into any old deck in the format, but in the right deck that are insanely strong. Approach needs a very controlling deck with lots of card draw, or you’re never going to draw it in time to win the game. Mizzix’s Mastery needs lots of mana and lots of spells in the graveyard, or you’re never going to go off. These were both viable strategies in the format

To sum up, here are the characteristics of a good bonus sheet, in order of importance:

  • It supports the synergies and themes of the main set.
  • It features some iconic cards that one doesn’t normally have the chance to play with in 40-card formats.
  • It has a few build-arounds.
  • It doesn’t have too many duds or bombs.

If a bonus sheet does have these qualities, it is absolutely good for the Limited experience. Since the Archive, I think the two best bonus sheets are The Brothers’ War’s Retro Artifacts and Wilds of Eldraine’s Enchanting Tales. They both follow this model.

As you can guess from their names, these were also bonus sheets made up entirely of cards from a single type. The two base sets they were part of also heavily featured those types. So, as with Strixhaven, it was great to seed the format with even more cards with an important type.

I want to take a special moment to talk about Hatching Plans from Enchanting Tales, because I think it did something awesome that I’d actually like to see more of on bonus sheets.

As an uncommon from Enchanting Tales, Hatching Plans showed up in pretty significant numbers in Wilds of Eldraine draft, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s a funny old card that doesn’t actually do anything until it gets sacrificed, at which point it becomes Ancestral Recall

No one had really found a way to use it effectively in any format in the 17 years since it had been printed, but Wilds of Eldraine had the perfect mechanic for it – Bargain. Sacrificing Hatching Plans to cards with Bargain was very strong and if your deck had a critical mass of cards with the keyword, it was a really fun and powerful build around.

If there’s one thing I might like to see more of on future bonus sheets, it’s more build-arounds at lower rarities. Even if they are powerful, paying the cost of building around a card like Hatching Plans keeps that from being too huge of a problem.

Multiverse Legends: A Case Study of a Bad Bonus Sheet

So, now we know the characteristics of a good bonus sheet. Since Strixhaven, most have at least checked enough of those boxes to be solid or better. But we do have one example of a failed bonus sheet – Multiverse Legends, from March of the Machine

So, how do you end up with a bad bonus sheet? By doing the exact opposite from what you did on the good ones. So, let’s take those points one by one.

Does it support the set’s themes?

Nope! Multiverse Legends is entirely made up of legendary creatures. The flavor there is actually pretty cool, since the idea is that as the Phyrexians are invading, these legendary creatures are rising up to defend their plane!

But legendary creatures have nothing to do with what’s going on in March of the Machine’s various Limited archetypes. 

Does it have iconic cards from Magic’s past?

No, not really. This is probably the most subjective of all of these categories, but unlike other bonus sheets which have famous cards from Magic’s distant past, Multiverse Legends just…doesn’t. It does have powerful cards, no doubt about that (more on that in a minute). 

However, the oldest cards to get a reprint in the set are Horobi, Death’s Wail and Seizan, Perverter of Truth. I don’t think anyone would argue either of those cards are even remotely close to iconic status.

This is made worse by the fact that they reprinted several very recent multicolored creatures. Cards that Limited players had played with within the last year, like Radha Coalition Warlord and Raff, Weatherlight Stalwart. This was a massive waste of potential.

Does it have only a few bombs and duds?

Nope! There are way too many bombs in the Multiverse Legends sheet. This is backed up by the data over on 17lands, which indicates that it had an outsized influence on the format. For example, Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite is the biggest bomb in the format, with a 67.5% win rate. Here’s a list of the other bombs from the bonus sheet:

The bonus sheet should not be a main feature of the format, but many decks in March of the Machine won games thanks to these powerhouses. What’s worse is, the set also had a significant number of duds. The following is a list of bonus sheet cards with a win rate below 50%

As you can see, Multiverse Legends definitely did not achieve a power level somewhere in the “Goldilocks zone.” Instead, many cards on the sheet were utterly game breaking or unplayable. 

Does it have any interesting buildarounds?

Yes! This is one area where I can give this bonus sheet a little bit of credit. Including the companions was a pretty cool idea, as they are pretty fun to build around and not completely insane in Limited because of the cost of building your deck around them.

Still, that means that Multiverse Legends has one of the four characteristics of a good Limited bonus sheet. And overall, it had a negative impact on March of the Machine as a Limited format.

Conclusion: Bonus Sheets are Good for Limited, but They Need to be Done Right

Bonus Sheets can be really great for Limited, and most of the time, they are. Multiverse Legends is the only time where I think the sheet was a complete failure. All of the others, including Breaking News have been solid or better. This is because they tend to follow the model of a set like Strixhaven. As a result, I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to see bonus sheets that are net positives for Limited formats.