I remember the first time I discovered that some MTG cards were banned. I had just learned about Black Lotus, discovered how powerful it was, and was wondering why people weren’t playing it (besides the card being so expensive!). This led me down a rabbit hole of discovering all sorts of cards that were banned. Some of these cards were obviously powerful, but others just looked like regular MTG cards.
Why were seemingly normal cards banned from tournament play?
The whole process behind cards being banned is actually quite complicated. Some cards are obviously too powerful to see competitive play, while others look innocent at first glance. This guide will shed some light on the mysteries behind card bannings.
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Formats and Legality
Before you ask which cards are banned, you first need to know about formats. While Magic has a set of universal rules that we all learn when we first play the game, each format is like a game mode of Magic that has its own subset of rules.
Take Standard, for example. Standard is a format where you can only play cards from certain sets that were printed in the past two years. Sometimes, when new sets are printed, old sets will no longer be legal in that format, and you’ll have to update your deck if you still want to compete in Standard tournaments. This ensures that Standard always feels like a fresh new format and never feels too repetitive.
Other players prefer a steadier, more consistent format. Legacy is a different format that allows all cards that have been printed in Magic’s history, with the exception of cards that are on the banned list, which I’ll go over next.
What Is a Banned List?
Almost every format has a banned list. This is a list of cards that aren’t allowed in tournaments of that format. You can click here for the official Magic list of banned cards for every Magic format.
Honestly, it’s not much more complicated than that. If you want to play in a certain format and you see a card on its banned list, don’t play that card!
Banned vs. Restricted
You may have heard about banned cards before, but what about restricted cards?
“Restricted” is a term used exclusively for Vintage. You see, Vintage is a special format where (almost) all cards from Magic’s history can be played in some form or another. If a player has a Black Lotus in their collection, they’ll want a format where they can play it. This is where Vintage comes in.
In Vintage, cards are hardly ever banned and are instead restricted. This means that each deck can only contain one copy of a card on the restricted list, as opposed to the usual four copies of a single card that a deck can have.
For example, I can have four copies of [mtg_card]Lightning Bolt[/mtg_card] in my Vintage deck, but only one copy of [mtg_card]Black Lotus[/mtg_card], because it’s on the restricted list. The same goes for any other cards on the restricted list.
Why Are MTG Cards Banned?
Of course, cards in MTG aren’t banned for no reason (although the [mtg_card]Look at Me, I’m the DCI[/mtg_card] Magic card above makes a joke about how random the process may seem). Every single banned card has a unique story behind it. That being said, I think the reasons for a card being banned can be broken down into two main categories:
- A card is too powerful on its own and almost every deck has to have it to be good.
- A card has a combo with other cards which makes a particular deck too powerful.
Don’t worry if these categories seem vague. I’ll go over a few examples of why some specific cards have been banned:
Treasure Cruise + Dig Through Time
[mtg_card]Treasure Cruise[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Dig Through Time[/mtg_card] are examples of cards that were individually too powerful for Modern (amongst other formats). Instead of paying the full mana cost, you could put a lot of cards in your graveyard (which many competitive decks tend to do) and pay the minimal cost for each of them.
[mtg_card]Treasure Cruise[/mtg_card], for example, could be played for one mana, essentially making it like [mtg_card]Ancestral Recall[/mtg_card], perhaps the most powerful card in Magic’s entire history! Before these cards were banned, virtually every Modern deck was playing Treasure Cruise, Dig Through Time, or both.
[mtg_card]Mycosynth Lattice[/mtg_card] is an example of a card that is not individually powerful. In fact, for the longest time, it wasn’t banned in Modern. This all changed when this card was printed:
Notice [mtg_card]Karn, the Great Creator[/mtg_card]’s ability that says “Activated abilities of artifacts your opponents control can’t be activated.” If you have Karn and [mtg_card]Mycosynth Lattice[/mtg_card] in play at the same time, all cards become artifacts, so your opponent can’t activate abilities of any of their cards. This includes their lands, so your opponents lose their ability to create mana.
Not very fair, right?
If you’re taking a look at the Modern banned list, then these artifact lands might be the most surprising to see. After all, they’re just lands, right?
As it turns out, artifact decks are already powerful, and if all of an artifact deck’s lands are also artifacts, then the deck as a whole becomes too good.
This goes to show that a card can be banned for synergizing too well with a deck as a whole and not a single card in particular.
Can Cards Be Unbanned?
That’s right, cards can be unbanned!
Sometimes, a card that was once deemed too powerful for a certain format will no longer have the problematic impact it once had. This is usually because other decks have become more powerful and are now capable of dealing with the banned cards.
There was a time when [mtg_card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/mtg_card] was banned in Modern. Individually, it was too much of a powerful card, especially for control decks. Over time, Modern decks became faster and capable of winning on earlier turns. Now, some Modern decks can win the game before most decks can even cast Jace, so it was only fair that this planeswalker was unbanned.
Errata and Rebalancing
As if things couldn’t get any more complicated, some cards have actually been changed after they were printed!
In paper Magic (as opposed to online Magic), this is a rare occurrence and something that those in charge of Magic’s rules tend to avoid. An example of such a change would be where all creatures with the Wall creature type were given the defender keyword if they didn’t already have it.
For online Magic, where changing a card can be done by altering some lines of code, this is much more common. Cards can be changed if they’re too powerful (either by having a higher mana cost or by having abilities removed) or if they’re not powerful enough (either by having a lower mana cost or by having abilities added). Like [mtg_card]Teferi, Mind Binder[/mtg_card] for example.
Racially or Culturally Offensive Cards
According to Magic’s official site:
“Cards whose art, text, name, or combination thereof that are racially or culturally offensive are banned in all formats. This list is a work in progress.”
This is to say that some cards in Magic’s history have not aged well. For obvious purposes, I won’t show any examples, but if you’re curious as to which Magic cards are banned for this reason, the official Magic site has a list here for you to check.
Most card bannings are often the result of a mistake from Magic’s design team, and these cards are no exception. I think it’s a good thing that Magic and its employees are capable of owning their mistakes and doing their best to fix them.
How to Check Card Legality
With all these rules and exceptions, it almost feels like you need a lawyer to make sure your deck is tournament-legal. Thankfully, this is not the case. Checking whether a card (or an entire deck) is tournament-legal is actually easier than you think.
For checking a single card, you go to gatherer.wizards.com (the official MTG card database) and type in the name of your card. Then click on “Sets & Legality” (which I’ve highlighted in the screenshot).
You’ll then see a list of all the formats where your card is legal, banned, or restricted. If the name of the format doesn’t show up, you can assume that the card isn’t legal for that format.
How to Keep Up with Card Legality Changes
I’ll be honest: there’s no easy answer for this one. Following Magic-related social media and news is probably the only way to guarantee that you’ll know about card legality changes when they happen, but most MTG players are hobbyists and not diehard fans.
The good news is, you don’t have to stay up to date with everything in Magic all the time, even if you’re showing up to a weekly tournament at your local card store. If it’s your first time competing in a tournament, I would definitely double-check the legality of all your cards, but otherwise, take it easy! Unless you’re playing a super high-level tournament, people won’t make a big deal about you making a little mistake.
After all, Magic is all about having fun, and you shouldn’t stress out too much about whether your deck is legal. Just go out there and play!
Conclusion – MTG Banned Cards
Hopefully, I’ve answered all your questions about what banned cards mean in MTG. Magic is full of unique interactions and mechanics, and sometimes these interactions lead to decks that are too powerful for a format!
Even if you’re a casual player who doesn’t compete in tournaments, I think banned lists are a great way to learn more about the game and discover just how creative the deck-building process can be if you think about how two cards can interact with one another. For inspiration on your own decks, see Fun MTG Deck Ideas and Themes to Inspire You and How to Build an MTG Deck – Full Guide!