Why Are These Cards Good?

Posted in Learning Curve on February 19, 2003

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on DailyMTG.com, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

Today I am going to talk about some of the most powerful Magic cards that have ever been printed and why you can’t play with them! That’s not entirely true—you can play with a single copy of some of these cards.

All of the cards I am focusing on today are either banned in the Extended format or Restricted in the Type 1 format. It is impossible to talk about Banned and Restricted cards without talking about DCI sanctioned play so please keep in mind that this does not pertain to casual play. In fact, if you would like to drive a group of casual players crazy you might want to take a closer look at some of these cards.

The B&R List for the Extended format can be found here and Type 1 here. There are currently no cards on the Standard Banned and Restricted List. General deckbuilding guidelines for all formats can be found here.

Why does Wizards print cards that they aren’t going to let you play with? That is not their intention. Many of the cards that are found on the Banned and Restricted list are from the earliest days of Magic. Others had unforeseen interactions with other cards and still others just slipped though the cracks. I’m sure Mark went over this thoroughly in his Monday column so let’s not focus on that here today. Instead let’s look at what it takes to make a card so powerful that it becomes either Banned or Restricted and some decks that feature said cards.

Today's Lesson:
Why certain cards are considered "good."



The first card I ever saw a deck designed around was Balance. One of the most common misperceptions I have encountered with the game’s newer players is in regard to this card. “I don’t understand… We both have to sacrifice cards, lands, etc. The card seems fair.” How untrue. There is no card in the original Magic set more punishing than Balance. In his article about the all-time 50 greatest white cards, of which Balance was the hands-down #1 choice, Ben Bleiweiss included an Adam Maysonet deck that made use of four copies of Balance before it was restricted and I have included an approximation of a different Balance deck that tore up the East Coast during the earliest days of tournament Magic.

East Coast Balance

Download Arena Decklist

While both players experience the so-called symmetrical effect of Balance, the player whose deck is built to exploit it will come out on top. It was not unheard of for a deck to dump its entire opening hand onto the table and then Balance the opponent to zero cards, leaving him to die on The Rack. You should also remember that the player with Balance had the opportunity to cast Moxes and other artifact mana which will all remain in play. At the time, Force of Will had not been printed and there was no way to combat such an opening hand. Balance was the ultimate multi-tasker. If your opponent came roaring out of the gate with a menagerie of creatures you could wipe them all out with a single spell. Your opponent has more cards than you? Not a problem. Got off to a slow start developing your mana? Not a problem.

It quickly became clear that Balance was a problem and the card has been Restricted ever since. But if you ever have any doubt about the card’s power you need only watch a couple of games of Type 1 to see the power of the card. Time and time again you will see an aggressive creature deck come to a crashing halt as the control deck uses its other restricted cards like Ancestral Recall, Library of Alexandria, and Demonic Tutor to find the card they’re all in there to find—Balance.

Mox Pearl


This entry actually covers five cards—Mox Jet, Mox Ruby, Mox Emerald, Mox Pearl, and Mox Sapphire. Moxes appear so innocent when you first look at them. All they do is provide mana, right? Actually, what they do is violate one of the most basic principals of the game—that you can only play one land per turn. When Magic was first released, before there were banned and restricted lists—heck, even before there were four-copy-per-card limits—good players quickly figured out that Moxes were better than land. In fact, many players chose to forgo land entirely, playing only with Moxes—or "jewelry" as the cool kids called them.

Think about how powerful going first would become if you could play all your lands for free from your hand. By the time I learned of the four-copies-per-card rule the Moxes were already restricted to one of each per deck and they have remained a staple of Type 1 decks ever since. Even now, restricted to one each per deck, they regularly power up turn-one kills alongside the legendary Tolarian Academy and other fast artifact mana. Here is a recent Type 1 deck based around that combo—you can see that it replaces as many lands as possible with cheap artifact mana. While you’re looking over the deck, see if you can you figure out why the relatively low-powered Lingering Mirage earns a spot in the line up along side all the high-priced talent.

Matt D'Avanzo

Download Arena Decklist


I remember when Ice Age was first released, one gaming magazine listed Necropotence as one of the five worst cards in the set. It turns out they were right, but not in the way they originally suspected. Necropotence has been the single most dominant card in every format where it was allowed since it rose to prominence at the very first Pro Tour. The months that followed its coming-out party are known by us Magic geezers as the "Black Summer" because every deck that year either used Necropotence or was built to (allegedly) defeat it.

At first glance it seemed like the idea of trading life for cards was a poor proposition. Greed—which first appeared during Legends—had never emerged as a highly competitive card, so what made Necro any different? For one thing, Greed had a mana cost of attached to each card drawn. For another, Greed was aptly named at the usurious rate of two life per card.

Necro’s mana intensive mana cost was supposed to make it difficult to play. No one took into account that Dark Ritual was always in the format at the same time and allowed for a player to put the most powerful card-drawer Magic has ever seen into play on the first turn. At first Necro decks simply used the power of the skull to draw many cards—sometimes as many as 5 or 6 per turn—and power up giant Drain Lifes to recoup the lost life points and eventually kill the opponent. Later, Necropotence was used as an engine to power up any number of combo decks, often by drawing 16 or 17 cards at a time. Thinking that the problem with Necropotence-based combo decks was fast mana, the DCI banned Dark Ritual in the Extended format but left the skull alone. Another year of utter dominance finally convinced the DCI that Necropotence was indeed the problem all along and they banned it in Extended. It has also been restricted in Type 1.

Interestingly, there was an attempt to print a "fixed" Necropotence, Yawgmoth's Bargain, with a "prohibitive" six mana cost. It now resides alongside Necro on the Extended Banned List and Type 1 Restricted List.

Here is one of the earliest competitive Necro decks, which is filled with cheap spells to make the best use of all the extra cards drawn.

Pro Tour 96 Necro

Download Arena Decklist
Instant (5)
4 Dark Ritual 1 Dark Banishing
Enchantment (5)
4 Necropotence 1 Dance of the Dead
Land (23)
4 Strip Mine 2 Ebon Stronghold 17 Swamp
Other (1)
1 Jalum Tomb
60 Cards
Sideboard (15)
1 Serrated Arrows 1 City of Brass 1 Safe Haven 1 Apocalypse Chime 1 Feldon Cane 1 Jalum Tome 1 Meekstone 2 Nevinyrral Disk 3 The Rack 1 Ashes to Ashes 1 Stromgald Cabal 1 Torture

Yawgmoth's Will
Yawgmoth’s Will

Another card that was often found four-by-four alongside Dark Ritual was Yawgmoth's Will. The Will allowed you to play cards from your graveyard as if they were in your hand. A graveyard that was filled with Dark Rituals would have more than enough mana to play anything it wanted. One of the most famous decks that exploited this card was a Vampiric Tutor-based deck with so-called "Silver Bullets": single copies of cards that were good against specific decks and could be searched out with the Tutors. Later in the game Yawgmoth's Will would allow for a second board-sweeping Perish or critical Vicious Hunger needed to seal the game. Such a deck, used by Jon Finkel to win the US Nationals in 2000, is listed below.

Napster 2000

Download Arena Decklist

One of my personal favorite decks was a Yawgmoth's Will deck that used four copies of Urza's Bauble. The Baubles were there to thin your deck—replacing themselves with new cards in the process—and you could always replay them for free off of a Yawgmoth's Will drawing you as many extra cards as you had Baubles each time you cast the Will. It is because of decks like these that the Will was banned in Extended.

In current Type 1, lots of cheap mana sources (including Black Lotus) and extremely undercosted spells, like Ancestral Recall and Balance, can turn Yawgmoth's Will into in an almost instant-win. In fact, many players have nicknamed it "Yawgmoth's Win," and no one denies that it deserves its spot on that format's Restricted List.

Survival of the Fittest

Survival of the Fittest

Survival is an interesting card because it is banned in Extended but is currently running around unchecked in the Type 1 format. Many players feel it will be the next card restricted in Type 1 if it continues to dominant as it has recently (I am already girding myself for the onslaught of mail from Type 1 players partial to other decks, but I am only reporting back what I have heard form others).

Survival of the Fittest is like a Worldly Tutor on steroids. For one mana you can discard a creature to find another creature in your deck and put it in your hand. With a creature that returns to your hand from your graveyard, such as Squee, Goblin Nabob, you are virtually drawing an extra card per turn—a card which is incidentally whichever creature you need most. If you have a way to use your graveyard as a resource then this becomes even more devastating. At only two mana to play, Survival of the Fittest is able to hit play before opposing decks can do much to stop it. Once it resolves, the remainder of the player's deck is a toolbox form which he can pick and choose the specific creatures he needs to defeat an opponent's specific deck.

The first Survival decks to rise to prominence used Recurring Nightmare to exchange creatures in play for monsters in the yard. One of the most feared creatures in the deck was Verdant Force. In addition to being immense it also generated token creatures to feed the Recurring Nightmare every turn. Mercifully, once that nonsense began there weren’t many turns remaining for the player on the other side of the table.

In addition to one of the more famous Standard decks to exploit Survival, I have also included a Type 1 list.

World Championship Deck 1998

Download Arena Decklist


Download Arena Decklist

What can we take away from looking at this smattering of Magic cards gone awry?

  • Symmetry is not all that its cracked up to be. You can devastate an opponent if you have a deck prepared to take advantage of a symmetrical effect such as Balance. Wrath of God, Armageddon, Stasis, Winter Orb, and many other cards can be abused in this way.
  • Break the rules. Cards that allow you to violate the basic rules of the game, such as the Moxes, are powerful. Playing an extra land or drawing extra cards are good. No, I’m not telling you to cheat—just find the cards that make you feel like you are!
  • Life is overrated! It is always worth trading life for cards—Necropotence proved that. Don’t be afraid of that Graveborn Muse… put it to work for you.
  • Don’t be afraid of graveyards, they can be your best resource. Although Yawgmoth's Will is a little over the top, there are many other such strategies out there, whether you are reanimating Visara with Doomed Necromancer or giving your opponent Recurring Nightmares about Verdant Force.

Next week we’ll take a look at another aspect of the game just around the next Learning Curve.

Brian may be reached at brian@fightlikeapes.com.

Latest Learning Curve Articles

Daily MTG

December 23, 2004

Three Days to Go by, Brian David-Marshall

This article really set the stage for me to move on to The Week That Was. The news regarding the success of the Seething Song/Furnace Dragon sideboard from Japanese events was a major de...

Learn More

Daily MTG

July 28, 2004

Round and Round by, Brian David-Marshall

Something pretty unusual happened two weeks ago. I have spent so much time traveling around to do event coverage (I am in Malaysia as I write this) that I don't have much opportunity to p...

Learn More



Learning Curve Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All