In this article, I am going to take some of the most powerful cards from recent times and try to figure out what makes them tick. I will be studying SFM, BBE, and JTMS, 2 of which were banworthy and 1 of which was the key card in a deck that took a huge chunk of tournaments no matter what.
What made BBE so good? Tempo and card advantage at the same time. Bloodbraid elf enabled you to simultaneously build board position through getting a 3/2 haste for 4 mana, already making it a decent limited card, and getting a maelstrom pulse/terminate to kill an opposing permanent. This allowed you to build board position at a relatively low cost. Normally tempo-efficient cards like this will cost you card advantage, as is the case with force of will or chrome mox, but one thing that made this tempo card rather unique was its ability to actually gain you card advantage. This meant that control decks couldn’t just wait until you ran out of steam, and they couldn’t afford to trade you 1 for 1 with removal and the like. This is similar to other “value” creatures like manic vandal, gatekeeper of malakir, and acidic slime. What made BBE even more unique and made it superior against control decks was that you still got both card and tempo advantage even if it was countered. Even if your opponent canceled it, you still got the cascade and still got to blow up one of their permanents or force them to discard 2 and take 3. There was really no good way to answer bloodbraid elf, as you’d end up losing card advantage no matter what you did.
Now, let’s move on to SFM. sfm was an uninteresting junk rare for years. It hung out in the $1 boxes in stores and slept under a thick coat of dust in trade binders. It lay dormant until the release of sword of feast and famine, when it became a solid card in the famous “cawblade” deck. Then, sword of war and peace and batterskull were printed, and it quickly earned itself a place on the banlist. So, why did it see virtually no play for years? The simple answer is that there simply wasn’t any equipment worth fetching. Basilisk collar was good in a pinch, but not really worth fetching. Essentially, the card advantage produced by SFM was negated because the actual mystic was no threat given the lack of high cost equipment, and the equipments were not something that warranted removal. With the last 2 sets of the scars block, though, that changed. SFM’s miniscule body could still carry a sword that essentially gave a time warp every time it hit, and the ability to keep up mana to flash out a sword or play a mana leak was relevant. SoFaF created a decent tutor target and made the actual creature something warranting removal. Therefore, she became a 2 for 1. You lost CA if you killed her or if you killed the sword. With the release of NPH, things just got nuts. Batterskull was a card that was technically an equipment, but actually a powerful creature. It didn’t need another creature out on the battlefield to be relevant, and you could forget about bolting with an equip trigger on the stack. The best thing about it, though, was that sfm could flash it out. It made sfm a must answer threat, and by forcing them to waste a removal spell on her instead of just killing the equipment, it made her an excellent C.A. card. So, what made her so powerful? She created card advantage and was a must-answer threat as early as turn 2. Card advantage is a powerful tool, but players still have to remember that it’s possible to die with a full hand. She changed all that. She forced them to spend cards on her. You couldn’t just ignore an SFM and keep beating with aggro creatures, you’d just get a 4/4 lifelink vigilace dropped into the face of your alpha strike on turn 3.
JTMS: For about a year, every new player’s excuse for building a crappy deck was “you’re just saying it’s bad because it doesn’t have JTMS”. A while after the release of NPH, that excuse was taken away by a ban announcement. So, what made this card the bane of budgets, the decider of control mirrors, and one of the first cards to get standard banned in over a year? Versatility, self-protection, endurance, and the ability to safely tap out for it. I’ll go over these reasons one by one.
Versatility: JTMS was the first and only planeswalker to have 4 abilities. Each of the abilities saw extensive play. He could dig for answers while getting card advantage with a brainstorm every turn, or he could bounce creatures to protect himself and you and buy you time to find answers, and most importantly, he could lock your opponent down in topdeck mode while steadily moving towards his ultimate, which was a wincon. You were never sad to have jace in your opening hand, and you were never sad to topdeck him.
Self-protection: look at the 3 planeswalkers who actually see legacy play: ajani v., jtms, and elspeth 1. What do they all have in common? They can protect themselves. Elspeth can create a never-ending stream of tokens to block, ajani can lightning helix or tap down enemy creatures, and jace can bounce. This bounce will buy you the time you need to find a serious answer or just untap and drop a blocker. Planeswalkers’ biggest vulnerability is that you can just attack them and kill them. Jace takes care of that.
Endurance: Jace is virtually impossible to kill in a control matchup. O-ring and pithing needle had rotated out, he could bounce whatever creatures you actually managed to resolve, and if you used a burn spell or hexmage on him, he still got c.a. from having priority.
The ability to safely tap out: Jace’s -1 allowed you to safely tap out for him. Any creatures they resolved in the wake of that tapout could be dealt with by bouncing thems o you could counter them.
In conclusion, I would like to point to the 2 threads that have interlaced to from all of the powerful cards mentioned above: card advantage and tempo. Though many cards will force you to trade one for the other (divination, unsummon), these cards had a powerful feature: They were able to get both while diminishing neither. And THAT is what makes a good card.