Combing through Gatherer in search of worst cards ever printed, even a chronic caviler such as myself has to admit that Magic’s design has come a long way. Modern sets are laid out with some care, feature tight mechanics, and are supported by solid creative foundations that most audiences recognize and enjoy.
Ryan Stiles, famous for his Griselbrand
But gather round, if you dare, and listen to tales of darker days, when men were men, women were women, and hedge funds were a good idea. Sets were filled to the brim with inexplicable dreck like Search the City
I know — you don’t have to say it. Adam Sandler movies still make money. Well, so did Magic, despite many of its early designs going straight from an Edward Lear fever dream to the printing press:
“Sleight of Mind
Ladies and gentlemen, name that card!
Improbably, that facetious figment contains 39 fewer characters than the original rules text for Balduvian Shaman
Thankfully, it’s not just individual card design (and spelling
Of course, it’s easy to poke fun at bad old cards and sets. Magic went through some undeniable growing pains, but aside from various soul crushingly awful design contests, the game’s much better now than it was 10 or 15 years ago. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to consign the past to the past, and simply enjoy the modern game for all it has to offer.
Still, it might be fulfilling to find a way to appreciate terrible cards, not just for laughs, and not because of their historical context as part of a larger phenomenon, but for what they are, and what they do — if not exactly as their designers intended, well, as close as you’re likely to get. Why not do it three cards at a time?
Three Card Magic
“Three cards ought to be enough for anybody.” — Bill Gates
Yes, yes, we all know Bill Gates didn't actually say the quote I'm bastardizing. You're so clever.
Three Card Magic is a delightful casual variant, and an easy way to play a quick game of Magic (or something like it) with a group of friends. As an added bonus, it will often expose you to cards you’d forgotten about, or never even knew existed.
To play, two or more people think of decks with only three cards in them, and then all the decks are pitted against each other in a round robin. Games are played under essentially the same rules as normal Magic, though with some necessary modifications:
- Rule 120.4 (“A player who attempts to draw a card from an empty library loses the game the next time a player would receive priority”) is ignored.
- At the start of each game, each player draws a hand of three cards, and mulligans aren’t allowed.
- A match consists of two games. Each deck will be on the play once and on the draw once.
- Any random abilities you control (like coin flips), if any, always go in favor of your opponent.
- Players must play optimally and with perfect information. This means that, in effect, players don’t actually “play” at all. You’re really just figuring out how each deck performs against each other deck when played perfectly.
Games are generally scored 3 points for a win and 1 point for a draw (with the winning deck being the one with the highest aggregate score in a round), but that’s really up to you and your playgroup, as are any number of other possible rules and restrictions, such as maintaining a running banlist of the cards from each round’s winning deck (excluding certain mana sources, if you want.)
Even with just three cards, there are untold strategic depths to be plumbed. Chancellors, pitch spells and free spells, Black Lotus
If your banlist grows too restrictive, you can let the winner of each round unban a card. Or you can change formats (eternal, block, standard, pauper, Commander, etc.), or make up entirely new rules, for example: spells cost X less, all mana costs are colorless, mana pools don’t empty, any deck that can win unopposed before turn Y is illegal, creatures can’t attack, or anything else you can think of. The point is just to have some lighthearted fun, and it’s free and easy, as well.
Now, if you’re thinking half the potential cards I rattled off sounded like some of the best cards ever printed, well, fair enough. Three Card Magic, like regular Magic, tends to be dominated by decks full of awesome cards that do awesome things. (Though one of my favorite decks, Karakas
Good Decks Gone Bad
“Have you heard that it was good to gain the day? I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.” — Walt Whitman
One hilariously askew variant of Three Card Magic (loser’s 3CM, or “crapdeck”) turns the concept of victory on its head. The goal in crapdeck is to make the worst possible deck that nonetheless has the capacity to win. That is, your deck must be able to win, but the last thing you want is for it actually to do so. Scoring is reversed in loser’s 3CM, so the champion deck is the one with the lowest score in a round.
As before, rule 120.4 is ignored, matches are two games apiece, and players are still obligated to play perfectly. Additionally, it makes sense to reverse the randomness rule, specifically, any random abilities you control, if any, always go in your favor.
But what does it mean for a deck to have the capacity to win? This is a thorny issue, though one that can be satisfactorily resolved, I think. The most sensible idea I’ve encountered is that a deck must meet the following two criteria:
- It beats an empty chair.
- It wins at least one game on the play or on the draw against at least one other legal deck.
Here are some examples of decks that fail to meet one, the other, and then both of those criteria:
- Black Lotus
- Darksteel Citadel
The initial instinct most people have when putting together their first crapdeck is to make use of an exceptionally slow two or three card combo. You’ll find out quickly that’s rarely (if ever) the best strategy. The best loser’s decks tend to feature obscure combinations of cards that interact with opponents in unusual ways, and the merely slow decks often play into the hands of various weirdly interactive strategies all too easily.
But what makes for poor strategy in loser’s 3CM is nonetheless — I hope you will find — an amusing Magic: The Puzzling sort of exercise. And besides being an interesting challenge, this and similar mental excursions will likely make you a more creative thinker, perhaps even a better player and designer.
Merely Slow Decks
“It is also slow play if a player continues to execute a loop without being able to provide an exact number of iterations and the expected resulting game state.” — Magic Infraction Procedure Guide
The two most important factors for slowdecks are time and mana inefficiency. You want to approach a win condition at a snail’s pace, pay lots of mana to do it, and gather that mana as slowly as possible. Even a lowly 1/1 is an absolute powerhouse when you’re trying to drag out a game. Memnite
102 mana is a tidy sum, but there are combos with even greater mana requirements. Sand Silos
An important tool for even slower decks is the combination of colored mana requirements and an inefficient mana filter. The worst mana filter combo I know of is Springjack Pasture
Replacing Illusionary Presence
Lamentably, both Illusionary Presence
So 1 power creatures are a bust, but there is a 0 power creature with cumulative upkeep: the exceptional Sustaining Spirit
But it turns out 20 turns of cumulative upkeep 1W is just enough to make up for losing the goat multiplier. There are lots of ways to increase Sustaining Spirit's
As far as I know, there’s no way to surpass 487 turns with Sustaining Spirit
Halls of Mist
One Bad Turn Deserves Another
“Things are never so bad they can’t be made worse.” — Humphrey Bogart
So where do we go from here? Having, to the best of my knowledge, exhausted three card slowdecks, it’s natural to think of doing the same analysis for four card decks, or five. But when do you stop? You could spend a lifetime searching for the slowest decks of increasing numbers of cards, but it’s not a terribly compelling task, at least to me.
What about the slowest deck with any number of cards, though? Of course, if you truly allow yourself arbitrarily large numbers of cards, you can make a deck that takes an arbitrarily large number of turns to win. For example:
2x Heartless Summoning
2x Heartless Summoning
… takes about a million turns to win. Stick in a billion Swamps
Or said in another way, with a similar (but not strictly equivalent) question, what’s the highest turns to cards ratio that can be achieved? That gives us something easy to measure, and by that metric, the Heartless Maniac deck is terrible, with a ratio of approximately 1. The Broodstar
It’s certainly possible to keep improving that ratio by adding cards to complicate the execution of the cumulative upkeep decks, and there are even ways to make decks that exhibit cubic growth instead of quadratic. But we can do drastically better with an entirely new approach, and we need look no further than Magic’s own head designer for inspiration.
No, we’re not going to print Markov Patrician
“It is awfully hard work doing nothing.” — Oscar Wilde
It’s not immediately obvious how any of the true doubling spells could be of any help, but the halving spells are fairly straightforward, and introduce a powerful idea: using your own life pool as a resource. None of the “pay half your life” spells do anything else relevant, but as we saw previously, Leyline of Lightning
Beyond that, all this concept is missing is a way to actually recur the Death Wish
“Pound of Flesh” (5 cards)
Leyline of Lightning
Leyline of Lightning
This surprisingly compact deck takes approximately 2^14 (16,384) turns to deal 20 damage, with a ratio of about 3,277. (You get 2 free Leyline procs from Panoptic Mirror
The important thing to realize with a “half your life for 1 damage” combo is that it takes around 2^n turns to win (assuming you gain 1 life per turn), and the exponent is based on your opponent’s life. Thus the most straightforward way to further inflate the turn count is clear: force your opponent to gain life!
You can’t just throw a few Healing Salves
Of course, there’s a small problem. It’s not immediately obvious why a deck with the goal of repeatedly casting Death Wish
We need a way of cleanly segregating a deck into two stages: the setup stage, where you assemble the combo and increase your opponent’s life total, and the execution stage, where the combo is carried out until the opponent is dead. Remarkably, there’s a singular card that readily enables such strict separation between stages: Celestial Dawn
What do I mean by bootstrap? Well, we can borrow a trick from the Heartless Maniac deck to force certain cards to be played in a particular order. If Serra's Sanctum
“Simo Häyhä” (14 cards)
4x Grove of the Burnwillows
2x Hidden Path
4x Grove of the Burnwillows
2x Hidden Path
… which lasts ~2^23 (8,388,608) turns and has a ratio of ~599,186. At first blush that seems spectacular, but it’s no surprise the ratio improved so much. Every time the exponent increases by just 1 (that is, for each 1 life your opponent gains), you’d have to more than double the size of your deck before your ratio took a hit.
Given that, a simple turns per card metric doesn’t seem entirely sensible for comparing 2^n decks. It values huge, unwieldy decks over the truly elegant and aesthetic. Even though at this point we’re really just engaged in mental masturbation, it would be disappointing if the best deck were so large it could only be purely theoretical.
So, for 2^n decks, it’s better to examine the ratio of the exponent to the number of cards in the deck. (In essence, calculating how effectively the deck increases the opponent’s life total.) By that measure, Simo Häyhä fares rather poorly, as the deck has 14 cards but only manages to bump the opponent up to 28 life (23 adjusted), for a “log ratio” of 23/14, or about 1.64. Pound of Flesh’s log ratio of 14/5 (2.8) is a tad more impressive, but is ripe for improvement.
A Gauntlet Is Thrown
So what’s the best log ratio that can be achieved? I don’t really know, but I encourage you to adapt and extend the tools in this article to build your own slowest combo. (Hint: Serra's Sanctum
Or if you hate puzzles and just want to be told The Answer, come back later, when I’ll reveal two truly insane decks with algorithmic complexities of 2^n^3 and 2^2^n, both of which you can fit in your pocket, but would take longer than the heat death of a million billion trillion quadrillion qui—well, you get the picture—universes to play out.