Whenever I look at a new set spoiler, a bunch of neat cards jump off the page at me: Oh, wowie… that card is SWEET. I wonder if I could put it into a deck? For every ten exciting cards on a spoiler, only a handful actually make a large impact in Constructed.
The idea behind today’s article is an exploration of cards that I really thought would “be a big game,” but fell short of the limelight.
I’ve had about a week to mull over cards I thought were going to be a huge at the time but ended up having a much lesser impact than anticipated. My list is made up of cards that stood out to me, but I’m also excited to hear about the ones that stand out for you, the reader! I’d love to have some fun conversations in the comments about forgotten gems that never panned out!
Being that the subject is so huge and subjective, I’m sure that there will be plenty of great picks I completely forgot about. I’m looking forward to continuing this trip down memory lane.
Enough explanation. Let’s talk cards. (In no particular order.)
Let’s start by going way back in time to the days of Coldsnap:
#8: Ohran Viper
When this card was spoiled, I was completely blown away. A green Ophidian with deathtouch? Are they serious? Did they forget about how busted Ophidian was when it was in Standard?
Ophidian Viper may seem pretty tame by today’s standards, but there was a time when cards like Thieving Magpie and Ophidian absolutely dominated Constructed formats. The printing of Ohran Viper was not even that far away from cards like Ophidian being actively good in formats like Vintage and Legacy in Mono-Blue Control decks.
A better Ophidian (albeit, in a different color) was something people were very excited about.
The price tag on Viper reflected the hype and expectation. At a time before mythic rares, this creature came out of the gates with a whopping $25 price tag! I was working at a game store at the time and I remember that when Coldsnap was released we had a waiting list of people lined up to drop a hundred bucks on a playset.
The Takeaway: Just because a card is similar to a card that has been good in the past doesn’t mean it will be good in the present. Contexts change over time.
#7: Day’s Undoing
Did anybody out there suffer the misfortune of picking these up out of the gate at upwards of $30?
There was a lot of justifiable hype surrounding this card. It is basically a Power 9 card, Timetwister, with the added drawback of ending your turn upon resolution. A hefty drawback, but still a powerful effect for the cost.
Day’s Undoing was a card I actually brewed with quite a bit over the years and it just never quite worked out the way I’d like it to. I’ve tried this card in various flavors of Affinity and Erayo in Legacy with the idea of emptying my hand with lots of free permanents that have value in play: Baubles, etc. When it works, you win in a landslide. When it doesn’t work… it… doesn’t work…
The Takeaway: Consistency is important. It’s easy to be seduced by the raw power of imagining all of the sick scenarios where the plan comes together. But it is often the times when the plan is awkward that defines whether or not it is actually worth playing.
Let’s scroll forward and look at one that is a little more recent:
#6: Sram’s Expertise
I will say that it is a little bit less common these days for me to be surprised when a card I think is good doesn’t pan out. Maybe I’m better at evaluating cards? More likely, it has more to do with the fact that the gap between power level cards in new sets is so large.
When cards like Teferi exist, I have no reservations about being realistic that 99% of legal cards are simply borderline unplayable at best.
Sram’s Expertise is a recent printing that I truly believed was a powerful Magic card but never really got off the ground. Sure, it saw fringe play here and there, but I thought this was going to be a way bigger game than it turned out to be.
I was envisioning it being an awesome way to “double spell” on turn 4 and it also grants the ability to “free cast” suspend cards like Ancestral Vision or Restore Balance in Modern! Expertise even makes artifact tokens, which could be valuable in certain decks.
The Takeaway: Just because a card does a bunch of neat stuff doesn’t mean that it will be effective. In this case, the card does a bunch of interesting things but it doesn’t do them effectively enough for the card to really break into Constructed.
#5: Lotleth Troll
I cannot even begin to estimate the number of Lotleth Troll decks I built while this creature was legal in Standard. All of them were bad.
Yeah, yeah… I’m a sucker for a fun Zombie, but this is a good card. It has good stats, a competitive cost, and a great creature type.
I actually had my worst ever Grand Prix performance playing a brew I designed around this card. I went 0-9. Ouch! Regrettably, I talked Michael Jacobs into playing my Jund Zombie deck at the same Grand Prix and he didn’t do much better.
It wasn’t Lotleth Troll’s fault that my Zombie deck sucked, but it was Lotleth Troll’s fault that I played such a bad deck in the first place! I think there are plenty of Standard formats where this card would have been insane, just not the format it actually existed in.
The Takeaway: One card does not a deck make! Again, context is important. The supporting cast was never there to push this great card through, and the competition was stiff. Sphinx’s Revelation > Lotleth Troll.
#4: Realms Uncharted
It’s pretty easy to look back and laugh or scoff at this card, knowing what we know now, but there was significant hype for this card when it first hit spoilers. Lots of people, myself included, thought this could really take off.
It’s another example of a card that looks like a bunch of sweet old cards I loved casting. Intuition is great. Gifts is great. I love cards that let me search for a bunch of cards and put some into my hand and some into the graveyard. People also speculated that it would be sweet in a Life from the Loam shell.
First of all, Loam is already sweet. It doesn’t need a tutor to find lands because it finds them via Dredge. Second of all, there is a big difference between finding any cards and just land cards.
Simply being a green tutor effect was not enough to push this card into relevance.
The Takeaway: Don’t expect worse versions of busted cards to be great.
#3: Skaab Ruinator
Skaab Ruinator was one of the it cards when Innistrad hit shelves. It’s not a completely fair comparison, since Skaab Ruinator was mythic, but this card was selling for double the price of Snapcaster Mage at the time.
I’ll admit that I sort of bought into the hype. I was actually into it, but I felt like it was probably somehow busted even though I didn’t know exactly why. I thought: “I’ll wait until someone else figures it out.”
First of all, Ruinator is a flashy mythic with a bunch of crazy stats and abilities. It’s the kind of card where you look at it and are not sure what to do with it, but you’re positive there’s something you should do with it.
Unfortunately, the only effective thing to have done with this card was to immediately sell every copy you drafted before the rest of the world figured out that the card was 100% certifiable fool’s gold.
The Takeaway: Just because a card feels like it should be good doesn’t actually make it good.
#2: Ethersworn Adjudicator
I’m not even going to lie—when I saw this card I was pretty blown away. Wow. Look at all of the amazing things that this creature has to offer!
It’s big. The abilities are great. It flies. It’s blue. It’s efficient. It is the kind of card where you see it and think, “geez, I remember when Serra Angel was OP.”
Even outside of being better than Serra Angel (as most modern cards are), the fact that it is an efficient, blue finisher that has abilities that generate board and card advantage is pretty attractive.
The problem with this card was largely contextual. It was dropped smack dab into the middle of one of the most hostile Standard environments of all time right between U/B Faeries and Bloodbraid Elf Jund. There were a lot of neat cards during that period that never got their moment to shine since those decks were just so large and in charge.
Plainly stated, it was just a bad time to be a 5-mana flyer with a bunch of sweet value abilities. Too bad, so sad.
The Takeaway: Context. When “super decks” exist it is clearly not a good time to be a sweet fringe player.
#1: Spirit of the Labyrinth
My final card (and remember these are in no specific order) is one that I thought would be a huge player in Eternal formats.
When I saw this card on the spoiler it really resonated with me. It feels like a very good and efficient hatebear that could be easily put into several types of shells. Obviously, the ability is pretty amazing against Brainstorm and Ponder decks in Legacy.
The card has seen some fringe play in Legacy and Vintage but it never really caught on in a particularly meaningful way. I actually sleeve this card up more than I should probably admit, but not nearly as often as I anticipated when I saw it on the spoiler.
Who doesn’t want to Aether Vial this ghost down in response to a Brainstorm to say “BOO?” When I saw this card, I was envisioning a pretty significant shake-up in Legacy, but it ended up being barely a blip on the radar.
Hall of Shame
I hope you enjoyed today’s stroll down wash out lane. One aspect of Magic that helps to keep the game so fresh is that card and metagame evaluation is complicated and tricky.
Cards that look amazing or exciting can ultimately turn out to be completely non-entities on the tournament circuit.
I didn’t go super deep into investigating every single possible “bust” that ever happened. I picked cards that have really stuck with me from over the years, where I personally thought these cards would be high impact only to discover the opposite.
Understanding context is really important in terms of evaluation. Cards don’t exist in a vacuum, they exist alongside between 71 and 74 other cards in a deck.
Magic History is chock full of examples of this phenomenon. I’ve shared some of my more memorable swing and misses, and I’d love to hear about some of the cards that you were surprised to see belly flop in the metagame.
No judgment. Just fun. I went winless at a GP with a Lotleth Troll deck one time. These things happen…
“Let he without win cast the first troll.”