There’s hue and cry about the newfangled double-faced cards, the special group of 20 Magic cards to have a checklist representative in unsleeved decks due to having a nonstandard back. The hue and cry has mirrored several things in Magic’s past, though it’s taken odd turns that make it clear familiarity breeds approval; despite flip creatures being rulesy, annoying, and compared to Yu-Gi-Oh! in their day, these creatures are considered rulesy as opposed to flip cards, annoying as opposed to flip cards, and compared to Yu-Gi-Oh!.
But even as double-faced cards threaten some annoying “oh yeah”s and “hold on; gotta get this out of the sleeve”s in the next few years, I’m unconvinced it’s as bad a game-slower compared to many other cards and concepts. For historical perspective, here’s my take on the worst offenders. This isn’t intended to be a deep article; it’s just some sample size for the nerd rage.
Alpha: All sorts of things
Kudos to Garfield and friends for ambition. Dekudos for making some cards that make no sense outside their flavor. First, there’s banding. Banding’s relatively simple as it’s currently worded – roughly, if you accept the drawback of attacking or blocking with a glob of creatures that all can be stopped by a single creature, you get the benefit of distributing combat damage in your favor. While weak, it theoretically has its uses, primarily anything that triggers when your creatures become blocked, as a blocked band makes every creature in the band become blocked. But it has a lengthy history as a rules headache, in large part because combat already has tons of moving parts before you get to banding.
But don’t think that’s the only rules headache the game started with. Camouflage’s current wording probably doesn’t fit on a card. Cyclopean Tomb didn’t have a mana cost. Clone and Vesuvan Doppelganger made sense as flavor, but copy effects weren’t fully cleaned up to easily understood standards until this millenium. And Raging River isn’t the simplest either. The flavor shines through, but it adds extra text that impedes the resonance the card ought to have had. That’s the underlying problem with complex Alpha cards: you can see precisely why a card was written and conceived as it was, but that doesn’t make you want to play it, because it’s too much work for its effect or coolness to matter.
Arabian Nights: Shahrazad
One of the few cards banned for being too annoyingly complex. It took longer than you’d think to get to that point, though. Few cards rival Shahrazad for being famously finicky. It would be incredibly difficult to make something this annoying again.
Antiquities: Tawnos’s Coffin
This isn’t the first appearance of the ability, but any time you have to, as Oracle now says, “[n]ote the number and kind of counters that were on that creature,” you’re asking for trouble. The Coffin, like other cards in the set such as Priest of Yawgmoth, have reasonable enough rules text but a lot of it and in an unhelpful order. You find out at the end information you wanted at the beginning. Templating has improved so much since this set, but it couldn’t have gone down without losing all syntax and structure.
Normally I’m choosing just one card or mechanic per set or block. Here, I can’t decide. Falling Star gets into odd questions of how much you can manipulate things apart from the flip; does the opponent get to put creatures under the table, blow at the card to move it away, or any other gamesmanship? Is moving around one’s creatures a special action or a response? Tempest Efreet is confusing enough without ante; not only is exchanging ownership of cards and putting them into your hand weird enough, but the ability’s being counterable by paying 10 life doesn’t show up until well after you’re instructed to put the random card into your hand. As for the Trench Gnomes, the classic line “Use counters” has no obvious connection to the ability it’s on. Oracle doesn’t even tell you to use counters anymore because the ability’s creating a colorless-making Plains for the rest of the game. “Use counters” comes off as an advertisement from the Gnomes. Gnomes have some wicked sales tactics.
The Dark: Frankenstein’s Monster
Depending on how many things you exile when it hits the field, you can give it +2/+0 counters, +1/+1 counters, and +0/+2 counters in any combination you like. If the Monster is getting +4/+4 off its counters, there are three ways to make it happen! If you’re trying to break this card, it’s going to be a hassle and a half figuring out its power and toughness, particularly if the board state gives you some reason to vary your counters. I understand the want to change the power and toughness up in different ways, but that’s a lot of counters that can add up to the same thing, even as it probably doesn’t play out that way too often.
Fallen Empires: Ebon Praetor
The whole set’s pretty reasonable for rules as it turns out. The Praetor’s still keeping track of -2/-2 counters and +1/+0 counters, which is odd, but it rarely does this. Compare it to Frankenstein’s Monster and you can see things might be getting better.
Homelands is an urban legend. It isn’t a real set. Cut open a Homelands card and you’ll find government recording devices. I’m sure I read that somewhere.
Ice Age block: Chaos Moon
Ice Age had a lot of finicky text that normally involved you being unable to do something to a newly summoned creature, but that’s easy enough to understand and can be ignored pretty quickly. Ice Cauldron takes forever to read and explain, but once you see it in action it’s relatively straightforward. Chaos Moon is never straightforward. There’s a bonus to all red creatures and Mountains if at the beginning of a player’s upkeep the amount of permanents are odd. If the amount’s even, those red creatures and Mountains suffer. This is in a long line of cards that are semi-okay in duels but take minutes per multiplayer turn to sort out. It happens every upkeep, needs to know the exact amount of permanents, and is global. Such fun. Or not. It takes something special to beat Ice Cauldron, but Chaos Moon takes it.
Mirage block: Phasing
Phasing nowadays is easy to understand. Things go away or come back in when you untap, and they also go away when phasing out. It took a decade for the cement to dry on clean phasing text, and in between all sorts of nastiness reigned. When I joined Magic in 2002, phasing out triggered leaves-play effects but phasing in didn’t trigger comes-into-play effects. Why? No idea, but it broke Wormfang Manta. Phasing allows for some cool things and flavor, and it’s all right in 2011, but not so when it was designed, and newer players might not understand from just the rules how annoying phasing could be and why older players complain about it.
Tempest block: Licids
Again, there’s been some cleaning up in the area that allows Licids to be mostly understandable, but you have to know what they’re trying to do before understanding them off the card. The Oracle text makes them work but is harder to understand as a concept. Why does this creature talk about an enchanted creature’s controller? What happens to damage on a Licid? Does paying mana to end the effect count as an activated ability, a special action, or what exactly? Neither the card nor its Oracle text tell you. I can’t find where the rules tell you. I can’t find where a rules forum tells you. It looks like you can do it any time you would have priority. But all that wrangling tells you how hard these things are to figure out.
Urza block: Waylay
The block doesn’t have a lot of complexity, just broken cards. Waylay has simple text on the card and in Oracle, but it’s gone through multiple changes because the intended use of the card didn’t match its wording, and the difference was exploited mightily in tournament land. Waylay was designed and flavored as a blocking trick rather than a way to make hasty tokens for the next turn (as an “at end of turn” trigger can enable), so its wording has changed to match the intent rather than what you’d expect just from reading the card. Check out this Mike Flores article from 2006 if you want the full story. Note that in that article the Waylay wording is different than its printed or current Oracle text. Oddly enough, the card has waylaid many a judge and player. It looks so innocent…
Neither are difficult to understand; the block isn’t unless the whole fading thing is annoying (specifically that it goes down to 0 counters and is sacrificed next upkeep). As WBM alluded to, Rhystic Study is just a pain to remind everybody of, and that makes it take a lot longer to use than it’s probably worth. Thieves’ Auction doesn’t cause much brain melting, but like Rhystic Study it takes forever to do its thing; it just does it all at once – a very long once. I’ve seen it cast once. It wasn’t fun. But this isn’t bad compared to most blocks; it’s merely cumbersome.
Invasion block: Split cards and Goblin Game
The basic workings of split cards are easy to understand. As a normal card in a normal deck, there’s no problem. But what’s a split card’s converted mana cost? (Depends on what ability is asking.) What’s its color? (Depends.) What on the card tells you how to use it? (Nothing.) And how much did Mark Rosewater love it and push it through the initial skepticism? (A lot.) Split cards interact in a less-than-intuitive way with the rest of Magic, and while most of the answers are easily learnable, it’s not clear when someone should be asking the questions.
As for Goblin Game, read the Gatherer rulings to get a sense of the problems this card creates. It’s just a stupid and time-consuming card. I’ve wandered around my apartment in search of objects to hide. No Magic game should involve wandering around my apartment.
Odyssey block: Madness
It’s a popular, fun, and tournament-strong mechanic. It’s also historically a rules annoyance. There used to be some sort of window where you cast them; from the Torment FAQ, a madness card went from your hand to exile, asked if you wanted to cast it, then went to the graveyard if you didn’t. Today’s madness wording doesn’t jerk the card around zones so much, but in the mechanic’s prime you could pull some counterintuitive tricks, and its tournament prominence exposed the rules issues.
Onslaught block: Storm
Although Onslaught had unusual mechanics like morph and storm, they weren’t that difficult to process. Storm’s main rules hangup is that you copy a storm spell for each spell cast before it that turn, not each spell that’s existed on the turn. If a spell is cast and then two storm spells are cast in succession, the copies from the first storm spell don’t factor into the second storm spell at all. It’s minor relative to other things on the list, but it’s also easy to forget and can cause a number of “okay; let’s back that up”s in a multiplayer game.
The card’s fine in the abstract but extremely difficult to process in a range-of-influence game. How does a Grand Melee/Battle Royale game get affected? Emperor? The stacking of multiple turns gets confusing quickly. Just trust me on this one; it isn’t worth the trouble.
Kamigawa block: Flip creatures
You’ll read in rantings on double-faced cards that flip creatures were just fine. At the time, they were considered terrible, ruining, and the doom of Magic, as it was turning into a kiddie game. Today, the biggest confusion regarding them is whether you flip them when the condition at the end of the various abilities is fulfilled (you don’t; you have to have used the ability that puts that text at its end before you can flip it), with secondary confusion over what’s even going on in the artwork and text boxes (flip creatures tend to look very cluttered and busy, which no doubt informed Innistrad design). I liked them but their form limited their function in ultimately frustrating ways. Regardless of your take on them, this article is hilarious.
Ravnica block: Haunt/Graft
Neither are too bad, but haunt has some odd interactions with death replacement effects, while graft is annoying in a Rhystic Study way if something rules-sticklerwise is forcing you to say “no” to grafting onto any of your opponent’s 50 new Saprolings. Magic Online asks you for each of your opponent’s creatures since it has to, which makes graft basically unplayable given the time limit. I think they’ve cleaned some of that up now, but when it came out it was extremely annoying. With actual cards it’s a lot easier.
Time Spiral block: Overload
As Magic’s rulesiest, textiest block, there wasn’t anything singularly complex, not even around suspend, which had a lot of moving parts and could have gotten weird. But the cards pulled in so many different directions that teaching a new player from the block had the potential to stall the game at each new card. Future Sight introduced tons of keywords for just a couple cards each, and their rules interactions aren’t always covered well outside blurbs in the Comprehensive Rules that basically restate the reminder text. Time Spiral’s my favorite block by far, so I don’t think this is all a bad thing, but it is a lot of words.
Lorwyn-Shadowmoor block and Alara block: Planeswalkers
The ever-controversial planeswalkers were introduced as a card type here. Unlike the other card type introduction (Equipment) planeswalkers had few existing parallels, and there wasn’t aesthetic space or text box room for an explanation on what they did. They’re a staple of the brand now, but there’s still pretty much nothing on the cards to tell you what they do, and the sorcery speed once-on-your-turn activation isn’t even hinted at. And while the planeswalker uniqueness rule is intuitive now, it wasn’t when its first main problem came up: Ajanis Goldmane and Vengeant. I watched a tournament game at my LGS where both were out; the players involved were quite competent and even very good with rules, but the rule just never got invoked before. They were happy to bin them when I pointed it out, but it was still odd. From their initial printing to the forgetfulness Ajani Vengeant could cause, planeswalkers took awhile to catch on, and inexperienced players still need thoroughly solid explanations to know what to do with them, which is a problem because they look so cool that they tend to get used automatically.
Zendikar block: Nothing!
Landfall and allyfall were both extremely easy to understand. The biggest thing is when people don’t remember that level up creatures start at level 0, not level 1 (since the printed levels aren’t significant in the rules, being shorthand for “as long as this card has X level counters on it, it does or has this ability”). But this is one of the clearest blocks ever, and maybe that’s a reason it was so popular.
Scars of Mirrodin block: Still nothing!
Phyrexian mana’s spelled out on the card well enough. Proliferate can slow a game down, but usually everybody knows beforehand what permanents are about to be proliferated; the game state is a dead giveaway. Infect can be weird at first, but wither cleared some of the mental space for infect. I guess living weapon might be weird at first, but Germ tokens help with that.
So excluding the recent brand of core sets, that brings us to the double-faced cards. The checklist and sleeve-swapping don’t seem nearly as bad as half the things I’ve mentioned; aside from morph interactions, they seem pretty intuitive. I also think the no spell/two spell thing will be fairly easy to keep up with even if you have to check a lot in multiplayer (basically, a lot of the creatures don’t seem strong enough for multiplayer anyway). If you’re using sleeves, just take the card out of the sleeve for easy manipulation. If you’re using a checklist or proxy, you’ll have the card nearby, and that’s no more cumbersome than bringing out a token card. The biggest difficulties appear to be from the night side having a converted mana cost of 0, which isn’t fully obvious given the comparison to flip creatures, and the color dot signifying night color, which hurts the color-blind in an odd way given that Phyrexian mana has its reminder text because of the color-blind (I’m not finding the article at the moment, but that’s my remembrance of a WotC article).
Here’s where I think the true backlash is arising. First, it’s been awhile since we’ve seen something this complex. There’s been plenty of rhetoric and effort to match regarding the streamlining/simplification of Magic. I’m not a fan of the idea per se, but they’ve given some flavorful sets recently to make the cards feel good. Ultimately, flip creatures and planeswalkers have been the only tough things since I started playing. But they point out the real problem: Wizards is branding and selling Innistrad largely on the basis of its strangest and most complex cards. They did this with planeswalkers and they did it with flip creatures. As with double-faced cards, planeswalkers and flip creatures came in highly flavorful sets, giving them a sympathetic backdrop, but the feeling of the advertising could give curmudgeonly Magic veterans the idea that the game wasn’t being made for them or with them in mind anymore. Scrambleverse is an incredibly annoying card, but it wasn’t a banner card of M12, either; it was for a specific audience who presumably lapped it up.
Double-faced cards, on the other hand, are in every booster and plenty of advertising; you literally can’t miss them. The weirdest, toughest thing some players have handled is in their face, and they basically have to learn the rules before playing the cards. Magic players as a rule don’t like to be told what to do, and they certainly don’t want to pay money to be told what to do. I think the concerns boil down to these issues more than the card mechanics themselves; it’s the branding and the forcing that new players don’t like.
But after looking through these other cards and mechanics, double-faced cards have nothing on what they’ve previously designed. They certainly interact more intuitively with the rest of the game than split cards do, and the card’s easier to understand on its face than a planeswalker (even as there’s no Magic back to orient you, the normal card face going one way, along with that you’ll open a booster and have the day side going the same direction as all the other cards, will alert you decently).
If you’re still figuring out your reaction to double-faced cards, hopefully this historical background, culled partly from what I’ve read/heard about and partly from experience, will help you. Magic’s done tougher and weirder things than this and everyone’s survived, so I’m optimistic about this new thing, even as it’s certainly more complex than what we’ve had in awhile.