I hope your day is going well.
Throne of Eldraine. Think about it.
It has cards that are intentionally designed to play into pop culture tropes and archetypes. And it's not the only set to have done so.
We had Pirates and Ninjas that play, not into the actual historical nature of the cards, but into the pop culture aspects instead.
In the real world, Pirates never hid their treasure and had maps. All of these tropes are from Robert Louis Stevenson's book Treasure Island. But they have come to define the tropes in pop culture, and Magic tropes play into that pop culture. Want another example? Sure!
Kraken are from Norse mythology and legends, not Greek. The Kraken was in a single Greek movie in the early 80s, and now most people today assume they are Greek in nature. They are not. But that fact didn't stop Kraken from appearing in the plane of Theros, based on Greek myth, did it?
In fact, I think their dedication to keeping Roman myths out and keeping it Greek only was silly if they were going to let in Norse myths instead.
But hey, that's pop culture! We have investigating clue-smiths over in detective world and Egyptian tropes over in Amonkhet, and neither of these are really happening, but tropes are going to be tropes.
Despite some successes at hitting flavor tropes, we've seen a lot of misses over the years. I want to consider some of the biggest misses.
In order to make this list, a card must be a clear violation of a major trope. For example, take the Crystal Ball:
Throughout various media and pop culture, the crystal ball is a central concept of auguring the future. It divines. It connects. In some stories, it will give you a future you cannot change, and others seek to be a method used to do precisely that. This card nails the trope. As it's a physical object, the artifact aspect works. As it augurs the future, the scrying part fits. The art and name are great and fit. Check. This card exemplifies the trope.
I don't care about how good or bad the card is on the battlefield. I only care about the flavor of the mechanics, card, concept, and more.
There have been a lot of flavor fouls over the years when a great trope was missed. Here are my choices for some of the worst.
All right let's do it!
10. Vampire Bats
The Vampire Bats are a great card. As a 1-drop that can swing in the air and be pumped-up to 2/1 with some mana, they are a great card. They were heavily played during their time! They inspired duplicate cards like Phyrexian Battleflies. They are a lot of fun and everyone wants to play them and toss them out there. Here's the problem.
The first name. If they had been called Swamp Bats or Dire Bats or something then they would have been fine. But the name Vampire implies that they are, in fact, Vampire Bats from myths and legends, and yet there is nothing here to suggest that.
Sengir Bats at least feels Vampire-ish. You can see how they actually show their concept. But Vampire Bats are just a generic flying dork with an limited Dragon Whelp inflated ability. The card worked mechanically, but never fit the flavor it was trying to.
Exorcist is a good card, and I can see where Wizards was going with it. Consider Northern Paladin, which already existed and could tap to destroy any Black permanent. So you make Exorcist that can tap to take out a Black dork and call it a day. But there are a few issues here. The Exorcist trope is big. It casts a huge shadow on popular culture, and there are books, YouTube videos, shows, movies, and an entire subgenre of horror dedicated to it. The Paladin tapping and taking out a Black enemy actually makes sense. Paladins are Knights, and they take out the enemy and come back home, but that's not what an Exorcist does. Instead, a Exorcist casts out a evil spirit from a person (or maybe a house or something in some versions of stories). That person is still there after the Exorcism. What you have done is deliver them from evil influence.
Here are a few ways you could have made the Exorcist more Exorcist-y. Give something protection from Black, or the color of your choice. Tap to destroy all opposing auras on a permanent. Exorcists protect and deliver, they don't run out and destroy. That's more of a Paladin thing. This should have been more like Miracle Worker.
In a set with White's holy anger such as Exorcist, Preacher, and Fire and Brimstone all White cards, why is this Black? But even if you flipped the color and mechanic, and made in a White card that smashed Black hands for 1 damage each, how does this represent the Inquisition? This feels like a swing and a miss for color, ability, and many other options out there.
7. Great Wall and Pyramids
The Great Wall is iconic. There are so many ways to make it fit and work in the scene. There are countless ways you could tap into it. But this?
Similar, the Pyramids of Egypt are just as iconic as the Great Wall, they are arguably the two most iconic man-made things in the world. And the best you can think of is a six mana artifact that can spend two mana to keep a land out or destroy an enchant land? That's the best you could think of?
Quick tip to any game developers out there. If you can think of a way to really make an iconic card like these click into your game smoothly and well, don't use them. Save them until you can.
6. Battering Ram
You knew that at some point in time we'd get a Battering Ram. It's such an obvious card that is heavily used in books, movies, comics, and games. It doesn't matter if our Ram represents how they were used in history, just the pop culture edition of the card. Does this? Consider the card. Artifact? All right, sure. Pre-equipment that would make sense, although it was in the first set with pseudo-equipment like Ashnod's Battlegear and Tawnos's Weaponry, so you could have given it that technology. It's not a creature. That feels like a miss. It's not like Urza and Mishra were animating them to attack on their own. But colorless? Yup, that's fine.
Banding is okay when it attacks, because you can gang up with the dork and spread the damage if you swing with more bands, or just one other dork. Banding is much better on defense, so the lack of it where it counts hurts. Destroying walls that blocked but letting them deal damage is all right although not amazing. But again, this feels like it's not really hitting the equipment you use to break into a castle.
As a reminder, this card existed:
You want to break in? I think you can see where I am going. But even if you decided that the light banding and wall-slaying were enough of a light shout out to the trope without really demonstrating it, making it a dork and not a pseudo-equipment in the set they are printed certainly is.
5. Standing Stones
Hello Stonehenge fans! I hope your day is going well! Here we have some Standing Stones that plays into the Stonehenge and standing stones tropes from many fantasy and real world legends. Stonehenge has fascinated people for a long time, so surely, Wizards could make a great version of Stonehenge that played into any of those tropes. Nope! This was printed instead! For your three mana investment, you could now spend a mana, tap this, lose a life, and then make a single mana of any color to your mana pool. You wash one colorless mana into the color of your choice, which also spending a life to do so, tapping this, and paying three mana to drop it. If you had dropped its cost to one mana, the mechanic might have been better received as a card, but it still has nothing to do with Stonehenge. The possibilities for this were endless, but alas, this was what was gotten.
The idea of the iconic City of the Dead is great! Think about the many ways you could take this and make it work? A land that lets you bring back dead stuff to your hand? An enchantment that you can use to bring stuff back? An artifact you can use to do the same? Why is this a five-mana Wall that's only 0/1, and only lets you exile your own stuff to pump its toughness. Why would this ever be something you'd want to run? This is one of the biggest missed opportunities of all time. No part of this card fits the Necropolis trope.
Compare it to this card that was released in the same era:
This is Necropolis of Azar that came out a little later. Here you put Husk tokens on it as non-block stuff dies. Then you can pull them off for five mana each iteration for a Black swampwalking creature with a random power and toughness between 1-3 each. You may not know this card because it's from the MTG game set on Shandalar, by Microprose. A fake card should not embarrass your real card.
3. Cosmic Horror and Elder Spawn
H.P. Lovecraft called. He wants his mythos back after these lame cards. Both of these cards seem from their names and concepts to be really cool. And you have to invest quite a bit of mana to drop them too, so you expect good stuff! The Elder Spawn is an incredible seven mana, three Blue. What do you get? A vanilla 6/6. Oh, and it can't be blocked by Red dorks, which makes no flavor sense at all. And you can to sac an Island each upkeep to keep it around.
How about something like this:
Trample, Elder Spawn can only be blocked by Blue creatures.
At least then you are doing something useful. How rare is that evasiveness? I'd rather have islandwalk and that's not a very good ability! Make it worth the mana and the land sacrificing. Compare it to Serendib Djinn that appeared earlier in the game. Here you have a cheaper four mana 5/6 flying that destroys a land each upkeep, and smashes you if you dare sacrifice a precious Island. But here the creature is cheap and useful and shows how to make a sacrifice-land ability work. They knew how to make a good Blue dork like the Djinn, but they... didn't.
And Cosmic Horror isn't any better. Six mana for a 7/7 First Strike is very inspired by the same size of Lord of the Pit. But the Lord flies and tramples and this just has first strike. Note that the Lord wants to sacrifice a dork, but if you don't, you'll take 7 damage, but you can swill swing and punch. This one? Fail to spend that mana and you take 7 and it dies. The Lord is a much better card! Since it was in the first set, they had the infrastructure to have made a much better Cosmic Horror! But they didn't and as a result, it joined the Elder Spawn as big, giant misses.
2. Fountain of Youth
Consider what a Fountain of Youth should be doing. Now, why is this that card? You spend 2 mana to tap it and gain a life? That's way too much mana and not enough stuff. This is a freaking Fountain of Youth - give me something. Even if you wanted to tether this to life gain, give me a lot more life! Give me some presence. This was the object of desire and quests all over, and all you do is tap for a single life?
Compare that to Ivory Tower, which gains tons of life without you doing anything else, and was restricted in Vintage for years. It's such a downgrade. Come on man!
1. Castle Sengir
Given that the Sengir Vampire and Baron Sengir are around this is basically Dracula Castle, and yet....this is all we get? Yup! Great art? Name? Flavor text? All hits! But that mechanic? Swing and miss. Swing and a miss.
And there you have it! What did you think of my list of trope cards that didn't quite hit the mark? Is there anything you would add? Anything you disagree with? Drop a comment and let me know!
As always, thanks for reading!