The Good, the Bad, and the Powerful – by Michael Sheng

Many of you have heard the words “good” and “bad” to describe cards, and then there are those who use the word “powerful” as a substitute for “good”. What I would propose is that there are actually two different scales for evaluating cards, a good-bad scale and a powerful-weak scale. It’s important to differentiate these two scales so let me define my terminology and give some examples.

A powerful card is a card that has a game changing ability. It either has the ability to drastically change the board state or has some very swingy effect on the game. For example, Sphinx’s Revelation is a very powerful card. For the most part, WotC has figured out that powerful cards should be Mythic Rares because of the insane impact that they have on the Limited format where just casting one of these is probably going to end the game.


A weak card is something that, at the extreme, literally does nothing. For example, Darksteel Relic is the epitome of a weak card. Yes it has some applications because it’s an artifact, but it literally does nothing by itself. Cards like Squire and Mons Goblin Raiders are also weak cards for those that actually remember these cards being legal.

Can you feel the power?!

Cards are fairly easy to place on the powerful-weak scale as it should be pretty obvious under which category they should fall just by reading the card. On the other hand, the good-bad scale is much more subjective and requires a lot more understanding of the situation. Simply reading a card often won’t tell you if it’s good or not. It is important to note that powerful and good are not synonymous and that powerful cards can sometimes be terrible.

So what makes a card good?

Playability is the first thing that we should look at. If there is no deck that wants the effect of a particular card, it’s bad in the context of playability; obviously this is very format dependent. For example, Liliana of the Dark Realms is currently quite bad in Standard. She’s a powerful card as most Planeswalkers are, but no deck right now wants to play her (There’s even a mono black deck in Standard!). On the flip side, Deathrite Shaman is also quite bad in Standard (with the exception of the BG ‘Dredge’ deck) but was so good in Modern that it got banned. It’s important to revisit these things with the release of every new set though because there might be some card(s) that make these once terrible cards into very good cards and possibly vice versa.

Another thing that should be considered is how playing a card changes your deck. The easiest way to determine this is by asking yourself: “What does this ask me to do?” or “What does this make me do?”. For example, lets look at Snapcaster Mage. What does Snapcaster make you do to make it good? Well it makes you play Instants and Sorceries; if you’re not playing Instants and/or Sorceries, then you’re just playing Ambush Viper without Deathtouch; pretty bad. If you’re not willing to do whatever the card asks of you, then the card is bad in your deck. Snapcaster is terrible without Instants and/or Sorceries, however, every deck that actually wants to play Snapcaster is going to want to play Instants and Sorceries regardless, therefore, Snapcaster really doesn’t ask you to do anything that you weren’t going to be doing anyway. This is an example of a universally good card; it doesn’t make you do anything differently.


The last thing that I would like to mention is that cards do not have to be powerful in order to be good. Let’s take a look at my new-found-love: Elixir of Immortality; by all rights, this card is very weak. It does not affect the board state and playing a reverse Lava Axe is not something I’m usually interested in doing. However, in the context of Standard, the card is very good. Recycling your library is a very desirable effect in a format where you want to be able to continually cast Sphinx’s Revelations into Sphinx’s Revelations; alternatively, if Snapcaster Mage was in the format, shuffling your graveyard into your library might even be considered a downside! Good-bad is all relative.

“How many cards in your Library?”

So I’ve spent some time explaining what makes a card good, but instead of explaining what makes a card bad, I’m just going to save some time and explain it this way: If a card isn’t good (ie: asks too much of you and/or doesn’t sufficiently reward you), it’s probably bad. There are varying degrees of good and bad but it should be fairly straightforward once you’re used to thinking in this way to identify the difference between “marginally good” and “marginally bad”.

Another important thing to realize is that, unlike the powerful-weak scale, the good-bad scale is relative to the rest of the format. A bad card can suddenly become very good in a different format with a different card pool; that’s why it is important to re-evaluate cards whenever a new set is released or whenever a card is reprinted. The opposite is also true; a good card can suddenly become much much worse with the rotation of a set and this should be kept in mind as well.

Hope this changes how you evaluate cards or at least gave you something to think about.


Article submitted by Michael Sheng

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *