Since Magic’s twentieth anniversary is fast approaching, many players are getting nostalgic and looking to the past, glancing back on what the game has accomplished since 1993 and all the radical changes it’s undergone. But there have always been the game-breaking cards, and the almighty strategies made possible by them. In every era of design and gameplay, every color and color combination has had at least a few metagame-warping cards, and just as I did last time for the earliest white cards I’m going to continue looking chronologically at what cards defined each era of Magic for better and worse.
Picking only a handful of cards for the blue section of this time period proved an almost impossible task. There is a reason that for the first few years of Magic’s history blue was known as “the most broken color.” Things have certainly gotten a lot more balanced since then, but jokes are still made that 80% of the player base would cheer if Island were not reprinted in the next core set. To put this list into perspective: Counterspell didn’t even make it on since there were just so many cards so much stronger than it.
To start, let’s go with the how-did-they-not-see-that-coming most broken one-mana spell of all time. The funny thing about Ancestral Recall was that it was part of a fairly tight cycle, of one-mana instants that had effects centered around the number 3. Two of them – Dark Ritual and Lightning Bolt – are very powerful but not absurdly so and received many a reprint each. One of them – Giant Growth – has always been a Limited staple. Healing Salve is considered the unfortunate stepchild of the group, but far and away Ancestral Recall is the most powerful. It has, for good reason, never been reprinted in a “real” set since Unlimited.
A supposed weakness of blue, to compensate for its absurd strengths in countermagic and card advantage, was that it was the worst color when it came to creatures. Lord of Atlantis was the first sign that, in practice, this wasn’t really true. But along came The Dark and handed blue the biggest creature in the entire game, gave it trample, and made it – technically – undercosted. Ice Age one-upped even that with Polar Kraken and it wasn’t until Mirage’s notorious Phyrexian Dreadnought that the creature with the highest stats was nonblue.
Literally either half of this spell – Counterspell or adding a spell’s converted mana cost to your mana pool during your next main phase – would be very good at UU. Heck, Cancel proves that the former is playable at one colorless mana more than that. This was the spell that resulted in R&D declaring that all of its members would have to be hit by a bus before they would reprint it, and I think that about sums up how broken this is.
This is going to sound very strange to some of my readers, but once upon a time, blue was as much the color of direct damage as red was. The idea behind cards such as Mind Bomb, Psychic Allergy, and Psychic Purge, to name a few, was that blue could use mind magic to fry its opponents’ brains psychically. Usually, however, this flavor required a drawback such as the controller of these spells taking damage as well. Still, that hardly excuses blue getting one of the most efficient burn spells in the game, which was just as strong when it was reprinted as a red card named Char.
Illusions of Grandeur
Technically, this card didn’t really start to become mega-powerful until a few years later when Urza’s Destiny brought us Donate. But it’s the functional half of one of the most mind-boggling combos ever to be put together. The interaction should be obvious: You cast your Illusions and gain 20 life from it, and on your next turn pay its cumulative upkeep, cast Donate, and hand it off to your opponent, who stands to lose 20 life if he or she can’t keep up with the ever-increasing cumulative upkeep. I couldn’t not include Illusions of Grandeur since it’s part of one of the first ever “what-the-hell” combos.
When Arabian Nights came out, every color but white got a Djinn and an Efreet, all of which were designed to have high power and toughness for their cost but to have some kind of supposedly-crippling drawback, representing the risks that a summoner took with the capricious mystical entities of Rabiah. The designers figured that any card that damaged its controller would be written off as terrible, or at best a niche card. They were terribly, terribly wrong. Serendib Efreet and its notorious black cousin Juzam Djinn were the kings of beatdown for a short time, because the amount of damage they put out more than made up with the amount they did to their controllers.
This is easily the most despised card in Magic, bar-none. Nothing could inspire as much revulsion as Stasis does, because even the most brutal lockdown decks allow their opponents to mount some kind of resistance against them. Stasis shuts everything down. Want to play spells? Too bad, your lands won’t untap and you don’t get mana. Want to attack? So much for that, your creatures are all tapped down too. That’s even disregarding the bizarreness of the art. Every control deck owes a debt to this one, insanely broken, enchantment.
This is the other hyper-broken card in Alpha that costs 1U and has really, really trippy artwork. The fact that there are enough of those to make a distinction between two of them says something about what Magic was like when it first started. This is a simple effect – an extra turn – that just about every turn-based game has a version of, so what could go wrong with the execution? Well, for one thing, it quickly became apparent that two mana was far too little to pay for this in Magic. Even at 3UU, as Time Warp, it’s still very good.
And this is the other blue sorcery from Alpha with “Time” in its name that was absurdly overpowered and that saw its effect reproduced much later on a card with a higher cost that was still strong. Seeing yet another theme here? Timetwister’s reset button was supposed to allow your opponents to gain some advantage from it as well, but if you could empty your hand before setting it off it just resulted in you drawing seven cards and getting all of your best spells back in the process. As Time Reversal it now costs 3UU and mercifully exiles itself.