Rules exist in all forms of games for a reason, but in competitive trading card games, the concept has to go further. While video games release patches to buff characters, TCGs have to remain the same, for the most part. What can happen to broken cards? In many cases, the ruling body of their scene can ban them. This is often the creator of the game but could be a community leader. Let's discuss banned cards.
Before we start getting into the details of banned cards, it would be wrong of me to ignore a special kind of card. These are cards made for fun, for promos, or for anime references that have no place in the game.
Oops, No Balance!
Ancient Mew is one that a lot of people know. Wizards of the Coast released it in 2000 for people attending Pokémon: The Power of One in cinema. The card sports a nifty gold-and-purple holographic design and a special reverse. Also, the entire card uses Futhark runes, a language that hasn't existed for 1200 years.
Despite this, Ancient Mew is only banned in Europe and American regions. It’s legal in Japan and nearby areas as long as you have your deck sleeved so the back doesn’t show, as well as a translation. The card received a reprint in 2019 in Japan and some nearby countries. This was to coincide with the movie Mewtwo Strikes Back - Evolution, and allowed more players to use it. It's also the only Pokémon card to appear in the anime, although that was an accident, according to the director. It's also not a very good card, with 30HP and a 40 damage move.
Another example is the entire subset of Magic: the Gathering cards called the Un series. The set consists of Unglued, Unhinged, Unstable and Unsanctioned. All these cards are completely intended to be unplayable, and they all are. Squirrel Dealer summons a 1/1 Squirrel if you ask someone if they like squirrels (and they reply yes). Alexander Clamilton gets more powerful depending on how complicated your cards are. Half-Kitten, Half-Kitten is a single kitten that stretches over two cards.
In real play though, cards get banned for one of two reasons. The first is that they are skewing the play environment. This means that either a player is playing that card, or has to base their deck around countering that card.
In late 2019, Wizards of the Coast banned the card Oko, Thief of Crowns from Magic the Gathering Standard. In January 2020, he was also banned from Modern, making him illegal in 2 of the most popular rulesets. At Oko's peak, 40% of all decks in the play included the crafty fairy, and his strongest combination held a 55% win rate. This, along with his survivability, meant removing him from play was the only option. Luckily for the Oko fans out there, the character is still legal as Oko, The Trickster.
A Horrible Knight To Have A Curse
The second reason is that a card could have unforeseen consequences with another. This is what happened with Butterfly Dagger - Elma and Gearfried the Iron Knight in Yu-Gi-Oh. The Dagger was fine on its own; it was an equip spell card that returned to the player when destroyed. Gearfried by himself is also fine. When you use an Equip Spell Card on him, he destroys it.
The issue comes with the fact that, unlike many other card games, using a spell does not count as a turn in Yu-Gi-Oh. You could sit there, placing and removing the Dagger on Gearfried, and it was completely legal.
Until Yu-Gi-Oh banned the Dagger, of course.
A Swift Clamp To The Back Of The Head
Then there’s the rarer, third type: when a card is completely broken and has to go. All major card games have an example of this. One simple example is Yu-Gi-Oh’s Pot of Greed, which allowed you to draw two cards for free. Meanwhile, Pokemon’s Archeops could remove your opponent’s ability to evolve, potentially ruining decks! But near and dear to a lot of TCG players' hearts is Skullclamp, the worst mistake Magic: The Gathering ever made.
MTG is no stranger to the kind of cards that come out of a mistake in the drawing-room. Cards like Treasure Cruise, a cheap card that every deck ran, have caused issues in the past. Jace, the Mind Sculptor was the first Planeswalker banned from Standard. Birthing Pod allowed players to win in 3 turns. But even among banned cards, Skullclamp has a special history behind it.
Skullclamp was among the first equipment cards in the game and had another ability early on. On equip, it would grant the creature +1 attack and +1 health, and when they die you draw 2 cards. Being a colourless common and costing 1 mana, this was pretty broken, and the team at Wizards of the Coast noticed. At the last minute, they changed the effect of +1 attack and -1 health. The idea behind this was simple: Now you can't use it on a 1-health creature to get a good power spike early in the game.
The issue is that if you do put Skullclamp on a 1 health creature, you get to draw 2 cards. Lowering the health to 0 kills it, letting the Draw effect take place. It’s the same issue as Pot of Greed, except Magic has even worse things it can combine with. Combining with this, many cards in the game have abilities that activate when they die. Skullclamp could allow Fireblade Charger to deal 2 damage and summon 2 cards. Garrison Cat's ability means that you would draw 2 cards and get a 1/1 creature. And that’s only cards that are currently legal in Standard!
Back when Skullclamp came out, there were even crazier combinations. Cards could summon 1/1s every turn as their ability, and Skullclamp could run away with it. Skullclamp is a card people weren't sad to see go, but is still a favourite.
R&D Missed This One
For one of the more "out there" examples, let's go back to Pokémon. _____'s Pikachu, also known as Birthday Pikachu, let the player write in their name on the card. If the game is being played on a player's birthday, Birthday Pikachu gets to deal either 30 or 80 damage. If it's not, it deals 30 instead. This caused it to get banned because people would lie about their birthday to get the extra damage.
For a more recent banned cards story, we have to go to Yu-Gi-Oh and the strange card that is Yu-Jo Friendship. This spell card allows you to offer your opponent a handshake. Firstly, if they accept, the card equalises your life points. If they don’t, nothing happens. If you have another card in your hand, Unity, they have to accept the handshake. During a global pandemic though? Not the best idea.
Banned Cards - The Future...?
Banned cards have been a point of contention in the trading card games community for years. While there will always be people who disagree, this could be about to change. Flesh and Blood, the current new kid on the block, is banning cards in a very interesting way. In order for a ban to come into effect, a card has to achieve "Living Legend" status. This is only possible by winning 10 events worldwide. At the moment, the highest is Bravo, the Guardian, with 3 wins. But who knows what will happen? Anyone could win the next tournament with any character!