Twenty years of living on the razor's edge of flavor and design.
Casual formats like Cube, Commander and Kitchen Table all have something in common - They like to build splashy decks that do things that they are just not supposed to. Wizards has a safeguard for this - the color pie. a division of abilities that define what each school of magic can do. Unfortunately the folks at Wizards are human and like everyone else they make mistakes. What happens when a good card goes bad? What happens when we spoil the pie? While it can lead to a disaster in the competitive arena, it leaves the rest of us with hidden gems that are perfect for our builds. Let's take a look!
The most obvious category of cards - these cards just flat out do things that the color isn't supposed to do. You would think over the last 20 years Wizards would have figured this out, but for ever reason whether to balance Standard, to hit a flavor note in the story or just a straight out whiff - these mistakes just keep happening.
Mark Rosewater called Anarchy the single biggest color pie break in mono-red. It doesn't get much crazier than "Destroy every white permanent in play". How this isn't in every mono-red EDH deck I don't know, but it is an old school secret that control builds hate everywhere. Even at a CMC of five.
The Gate to Phyrexia can be excused for being a very old card before they really solidifies the color pie, but black with a recurring ability to destroy artifacts seems to be a bit overpowered. This card is one Breeding Pit away from completely shutting down a huge swath of decks and is a commander nightmare as games go long.
Honestly... there is really no excuse for Imprisoned in the Moon. It's like all of R&D took a color pie vacation on this card. "What a great plot point" should not equal "give Blue more tools outside their slice of the pie". However, this is a thing that now exists, and the king of counter magic now has a way to deal with creatures and planeswalkers that manage to slip through their fingers the first time. This card was a slam dunk in cubes everywhere - splashable for a single blue and two colorless. It has earned its spot in the Hall of Fame of Wizards' bad ideas.
Planar chaotic evil.
Another category of color pie madness came when Wizards decided it would be "neat" to make a set with an "alternate take of the color pie". I totally get that Time Spiral block was wildly popular with enfranchised players, but I find it really hard to believe that no one in R&D raised their hand in a meeting and said "Hey folks.. you know we have eternal formats, right?". Breakibg standard for 18 months is one thing, but the eternal formats are forever. Cards from this set are still some of the most sought after in existence.
Well Damnation. That was something my Grandfather used to say when he was upset, but it was more like "Daaamnnnation". It is also the poster child for Planar Chaos' color pie fiasco. Straight up Wrath of God reprint in black, Wizards has backed themselves into a corner with players demanding a reprint of this very expensive single. Inevitably it will get shoehorned into some supplemental product where it can do the least amount of format bending damage.
While Damnation was the worst offense of the block these two were standouts as well. Harmonize gave straight up card draw to green - because the words "Draw three cards" have never gotten Wizards in trouble at any mana cost. Mana Tithe gave a pretty great counterspell to.... white? Maybe that is why Emrakul went to "Moon jail".
To the face.
If there is one slice of the pie that has always been understood by Wizards of the Coast R&Ders and players alike its been burn, right? I mean its simple direct damage that belongs in red and a splash of black if the cost is life. Such an easy line in the sand not to cross.... Psionic Blast an Alpha original tried to explain this card through "mind damage" but there is no covering up this snafu. Luckily, they will never make a flavor mistake like that aga.... whoops. Hornet Sting brings the damage in green through the "sting of an insect". These two cards are great includes in commander, but Hornet Sting is becoming harder to find as Mark Rosewater continues to pay penance for letting this through on "Core Set Color Pie Watch" buy buying out the card on the secondary market and burning all the copies.
As an aside, before you forgive Wizards for a mistake in Limited Edition Alpha (reasonable), lets all take a moment to remember they reprinted it on the time-shifted sheet in Time Spiral making it legal in Modern. Nice job, team!
Phyrexia don't care.
Wizard was getting better with the color pie and learning from their mistakes. After all Time Spiral was long past and they knew better than to sacrifice the color pie again for the sake of theme, right? Wrong. fifteen sets later and fifty four sets after Alpha we were back into the mess with New Phyrexia. Heard inside the pit - "Here's a great idea - lets take spells and give them a traditional casting cost or you can spend two life to get around each color requirement and cast it for a reduced cost - completely outside of your color pie!" "Fantastic" screams the pit as everyone packed up and took the rest of the week off.
Phyrexian mana was crazy and these cards continue to menace the competitive formats while being a staple for casuals that want everything out of every color. Dismember will kill just about anything in a competitive format for four life and a colorless mana. Gut Shot will do a point of direct damage for two life and Mental Misstep will counter a spell with a casting cost of one for that same cost. Over and over spell cost reduction has bitten Wizards in the rear, but when you combine it with breaking the color pie it becomes a disaster.
Don't think a color pie break is that bad? That there are really no long-term consequences to them? This happened when I was finalizing this article.
Finally there is a category of cards that Wizards said "F#c! it" and gave a color the ability to take a permanent out regardless of the pie. Chaos Warp has become the savior of mono-red and is the least of the color breaks in the category at least giving the opponent a chance it is replaced with something better. Pongify not so much. This card and its brother Rapid Hybridization justify their color pie break with a "consolation prize, like a year's supply of Turtle Wax. Then there is Desert Twister the card that Richard Garfield said "Green can kill anything as long as it is a act of nature". In short, "Destroy target permanent" and any phrase that gives a similar result is probably not something a game designer should consider, but we seem to find ourselves back here every few years.
Spoiled Pie? Let's eat!
So that is my run down of cards that break the color pie. Overall, Wizards does a real good job keeping the game on the rails - but it's pretty fun to poke them at some of the mistakes though! The game would be far worse if they "played it safe" and never pushed the boundaries - these are exciting cards and the game needs that to stay fresh. Cards like this are fantastic for the more casual formats, and many of the ones that I have mentioned are some of my very favorites - let's face it - everyone loves a broken card when they are playing it.
If you liked this article let me know and i'll try and dig up another article worth of Wizards biggest blunders! Until next time, grab a slice the color pie and dig in!