At this point, Magic has been around for long enough to experiment with a ton of different mechanics. In the name of keeping things fresh, WotC are always expanding the design space of the game, pushing the boundary of what we think is possible with every new set.
But sometimes, they cross over that boundary. Not just with one card like Oko or Uro, but with a whole mechanic. While the problem cards draw a majority of complaints, a troubled mechanic is often much more impactful long-term — it’s harder to ban a whole mechanic, for one thing.
But if we put down the pitchforks a moment, it’s clear that WotC doesn’t pull the trigger on these mechanics without reason. Most of the game’s most infamous mechanics are also bold and evocative additions to its design; they were high-risk high-reward, and even the least popular ones usually gave us a few diamond-in-the-rough cards to enjoy fairly.
So what if we took those positive examples, learned our lessons, and tried to rehabilitate these mechanics through new sets? Would we be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past? Or can we improve them…
May as well start with a robust proof of concept, right? Storm is one of the most famous broken mechanics in the history of Constructed, enough so that the scale by which we rank volatile mechanics is named after it! And unlike some other entries on this list, storm has a multitude of problem cards associated with it across every format it’s legal. It’s the definition of busted… but also, for many players, close to the definition of fun!
Even I have to admit, storm represents a platonic ideal of how combo decks should work in card games. Instead of hinging on a specific A+B combo kill, the sheer open-endedness of storm (it synergizes with uh… spells) allows for flexible, improvised lines, where even the person going off isn’t sure at the start of the turn how they’re going to end. It’s certainly more skill-testing and exciting than a pre-memorized sequence of plays that always ends with the same two cards.
Unfortunately, any long-time opponents of storm can tell you how tricky it usually is to find an out against the fast-moving pile of spells. The wording of the storm trigger to put copies on the stack without needing to wait for resolution means that only a few specialized counterspells are capable of providing counterplay. Still, as we print more Whirlwind Denials over time, our chances of one day reviving storm safely seem much brighter!
Balancing storm for Constructed is a complex equation that has as much to do with controlling mana rituals as it does storm payoffs. But putting the mechanic on reactive/interactive cards has been a home run nearly every time. Storm becomes a reward for bluffing and sequencing rather than a fixed condition solved by deckbuilding. On the flipside, Mind’s Desire is the most fair storm win condition — it’s very hard to make deterministic, and building your deck to do so is often at odds with generating a high storm count.
Another common top pick for “most broken mechanic” is the perennial graveyard enabler. More so than storm, dredge seems relatively balanced just on its face, and I’m sure that’s down to how R&D envisioned it. You have to play some mostly-mediocre cards, you have to get them into your graveyard to start with, you have to replace a draw to get it back and mill yourself… and there we have the crux of the problem.
Dredge’s undeniable status as one of the most busted mechanics in Magic reminds us of two design truths about the game. Firstly, the Magic’s graveyard blurs the lines between “things go here as a cost” and “things go here as a reward.” With a surfeit of explosive graveyard synergies, any mechanic that reliably loads up the ‘yard for little to no mana must be viewed with suspicion, regardless of its intended use. It’s very telling that the playability of dredge spells — even competitively pushed ones like the recent Shenanigans — is closely correlated to how high their “dredge number” is.
Secondly, replacement effects are extremely volatile in their own right, particularly when they replace something as open-ended and common as “drawing a card.” I’m sure nobody at WotC thought through the future implications of “Cathartic Reunion, discard Grave-Troll, dredge 18” during Ravnica design, and it’s not realistic to expect them to. But a game like Magic needs a bit of future-proofing, and making such open-ended synergies as this is, like we saw with storm, extremely dangerous. I think a return to dredge is more plausible than most might expect — we just need to balance it like its “cost” is the replaced draw, not the self-mill.
This card is a sweet little package, and if it were the only time you’d ever seen dredge, there would be no stigma around the mechanic. Dredge should be more transmutation of 4/4’s into unknown topdecks and back, less Prized Amalgam setup.
An interesting and even controversial choice for the “most powerful mechanics” debate, this one has never broken a format the way storm or dredge seem to on an annual basis. Only Terminus can even be argued as a metagame influence, and after Thunderous Wrath, Bonfire of the Damned and Entreat the Angels, we quickly run out of miracle spells which have even seen play. In terms of play experience, the inherent variance of a topdecked miracle can lead to a pretty big feel-bad for opponents, but often, this is just something the miracles player sets up. Players enjoy that kind of payoff a lot, and I think miracle is completely fine at a casual level… but the implications for competitive play run far beyond a bit of extra RNG.
Miracle is a rare case of design that is broken in theory, rather than on the cards where it appears — the opposite of dredge, in fact. The idea of “first card you draw each turn” requires weird gymnastics to play correctly in a strict competitive setting, since you don’t usually look at each card you draw before putting it into your hand. But the letter of the rules says that as soon as you unite the freshly drawn card with the rest of your hand — even if you immediately call it out — that’s too late to legally use its miracle ability. It’s the only way to ensure sleight of hand and angle shooting didn’t make Bonfire of the Damned even more devastating than it already could be!
The implications of adding a mechanic like this are more far-reaching than R&D may have realized at the time. If you’ve ever seen players reaching down to brush a card on the table before it reaches their hand, it’s because that’s the accepted legal way to check for miracle draws. Avoiding cheating in your miracles deck is one thing, but in order to not give away information, competitive players must now draw every card like they might stop and cast a miracle — even if there’s zero in their list. From this, to companions, to snow-covered basic lands, mechanics that alter the basic procedure and assumptions of playing or deckbuilding are guaranteed to create more subtle friction with players than they are worth.
The issues with miracle are inherent to how its rules are structured, so fixing it would essentially mean creating a new mechanic with similar gameplay. Since miracle is at its most interesting as a payoff for topdeck manipulation, I would make it an activated ability — you pay the miracle cost to guess the top card of your library, and if you guess right, cast your miracle for free.
For all that the current player base has gone through with bannings and balancing in recent sets, it must be noted that many of the most powerful mechanics in the game are at least a decade old, closing in on two! But energy is the exception: a high-minded, high-potential idea which fell from grace over the course of the 2016-2017 Standard season.
People were initially excited about energy and the vast new design space opened up by a totally fresh resource. It seemed like it should be easy enough to balance, since you’re dealing with a cost and resource which only appears in the present set, and which you can thus tightly control, right? Wrong.
Having one universal energy resource shared across all colors (and almost no colored mana costs on energy abilities) made it hard to pin down a reasonable rate for things. If one creature uses an energy to get +1/+1 until end of turn, how many +1/+1’s is “draw a card” on a different energy creature worth? How many is “deal 5 damage” worth? It’s obvious that storing energy counters on individual cards would have been too much to track, but the idea that every energy spell had to also be balanced as fuel for the very strongest ones was inherently risky.
All these factors compounded to create an era of energy hegemony in Standard. It’s not just that you “had to play” 4c Energy because it was the best deck. All the best cards were energy cards, so regardless of strategy, you would want to play some of them. To fuel those, you had to play as many other energy cards as possible. There were only a handful of efficient, playable energy spells that could generate the resource; this is where Attune with Aether and Rogue Refiner became infamous.
All these lists were guaranteed to look basically the same, and their compounding advantage made it impossible to move away from the blob of identical decks as it consumed Kaladesh and Amonkhet Standard. I think this experience was a big contributor to the rapid banning of the Omnath Adventures deck after the ZNR release — WotC had learned their lesson about rainbow-color synergy piles too recently to test the waters again.
But even after “Energy Winter,” the idea of adding non-mana, non-card resources to Magic is a compelling design idea. How could we do it better on the second try? It’s possible you could simply make fewer strong energy cards to avoid a critical mass, but that would probably just make them all unplayable.
My choice would be to limit the mechanic to being a one- or two-color theme. White’s focus on doing things with on-board permanents and lack of mana ramp mean that it would love an extra resource like this to track and spend; you could flavor it around white’s “faith” instead of pseudo-electrical power. This would give white decks strategic diversity, even a way to mimic “ramp” decks, without actually ramping mana in a too-green way. Keeping things to one color would check the threat of a one-deck format, but proliferate and other generic counter-based synergies means there’d still be meaningful ways for Wx decks to differentiate themselves.
More than the rest of the mechanics on this list, I hope WotC makes an effort to revive a “third resource,” because it really has a lot to offer the game if they get it right.
In addition to being an underrated Commander powerhouse, Demon of Dark Schemes showed how even an extremely impactful energy effect — with its own built-in source of counters! — could avoid being sucked into the Standard Energy morass. Gating off more of those cards with colored activation costs could have allowed them to be more individually powerful.
LEARNING FROM HISTORY
Magic’s long-term health depends on design improving over time, and revisiting some of the game’s most powerful mechanics can help R&D to stay bold in their new creations without repeating their previous mistakes. But the wider community also has something to learn by reexamining the Storm Scale with a less judgmental eye. It’s easy to adopt a consensus opinion when you’re learning the game, and it’s not even wrong to do so — but it is good to plumb a bit deeper as to why or dredge is okay on some cards and deadly on others. Even if you don’t use that refined awareness to design a Cube or custom cards of your own, the Magic hive mind does eventually percolate in strange ways, and our criticism — justified or otherwise — can and does influence the future of the game.
Tom’s fate was sealed in 7th grade when his friend lent him a pile of commons to play Magic. He quickly picked up Boros and Orzhov decks in Ravnica block and has remained a staunch white magician ever since. A fan of all Constructed formats, he enjoys studying the history of the tournament meta. He specializes in midrange decks, especially Death & Taxes and Martyr Proc. One day, he swears he will win an MCQ with Evershrike. Ask him how at @AWanderingBard, or watch him stream Magic at twitch.tv/TheWanderingBard.