You just got janked, bro
Why Hearthstone lacks the kinds of cards that make Magic: The Gathering great
For as long as there have been collectible card games, there has been jank. Though once used as a catch-all to describe cards or decks of dubious effectiveness, the enduring and seemingly inexplicable obsession that players tend to have with “bad” cards has led to a propagation of the term “jank” as something a little more specific. On one side of the spectrum of “bad” cards, we have the straightforwardly weak and/or boring stuff, but on the other, we have jank: bloated, complex, and/or generally silly pieces of cardboard (and/or digital representations of cardboard) which have the wielder jumping through more hoops than a show dog — all while slowly losing the game.
To any outsider, the continued printing of jank might seem like a strange, backwards way to produce a card game — but in the realm of Magic: The Gathering, playing with jank is a fundamental part of what it means to engage with the game as a whole. Here, janky cards are those with (usually) a lot of text, plenty of hoop-jumping, and/or “big”, exciting abilities — the one thing they tend to have in common with one another is that they don’t often immediately help players do what they’re “supposed” to be doing: killing the opponent. Nonetheless, their unique qualities have been inspiring players for decades to craft personalised deck-machines that might not win games, but imbue them with a kind of fun that I feel is completely beyond the reach of Hearthstone.
While Hearthstone does certainly feature its own brand of jank (we’ll get to that later), compared to Magic: The Gathering, Blizzard’s efforts are nothing more than child’s play. Forget your Gahz’rillas and your Trade Prince Gallywixes — in MTG, this is what real jank looks like:
Even if you don’t have much experience with MTG, I’m sure you can come to some understanding of what each of these cards do (or rather, don’t do). One makes doves for your opponent to whack you with, one makes you play a game that isn’t Magic: The Gathering while you play Magic: The Gathering, and one is definitely a rectangle with a picture and some writing on it. That last one, Trading Post, can do a lot of stuff (four stuff to be precise, which is two or three more stuff than your average MTG card), but whether or not any of this is useful stuff is always going to be contingent on the rest of the deck — and since most MTG game formats don’t reward durdling around with Goat summoning and the ritual sacrifice of those very same Goats, T-Post isn’t much useful in even the best of situations.
None of these cards, however, can even touch Search the City. This card, perhaps the most enduring piece of MTG jank, was printed as a rare, and has attained legendary status within the player community on account of its sheer awfulness.
For those of you who can’t quite follow the jargon on the left, here’s how Search the City works: when it is played, the player removes the top five cards from their deck face-up. Then, if that player manages to play another copy of one of those cards (in MTG, players can field up to four copies of each unique card), they get the removed card back, and once the fifth and final card is taken, the player “wins” an extra turn.
Search the City and other similarly-wordy pieces of jank are often referred to as “noob traps” due to how their initial complexity and powerful effects can make them seem like very useful pieces of cardboard indeed. Taking extra turns in most CCGs is obviously a big deal, but only if you have something worth doing on that extra turn. Inexperienced players tend to grasp the first part relatively quickly (more cards and mana than your opponent = good), but not the second —extra turns are cool and all, but what use are they if you’re no closer to beating your opponent? And you better believe it: in a Search the City deck, that extra turn is good for nothing (I’ll explain why in a bit).
To exemplify the kind of reputation Search the City has within the MTG community, here are a couple of posts straight from the popular /r/magictcg subreddit:
Reasons why Search the City is not good:
At five mana, it’s too slow. What are you going to do? Play this on your fifth turn, then spend another five turns hoping to draw the cards you need? Plenty of decks can kill you or have you on death’s door by turn four, my guy.
Any deck that works to achieve the extra turn isn’t going to be doing anything worth doing with the extra turn, because the deck works to achieve an extra turn instead of doing useful things with turns.
Good MTG decks minimise variance. By forcing the player to rely on variance, this card does the opposite.
As an enchantment, it needs to stay on the board for its effect to remain in play. If you play the card and then your opponent removes it, then there’s no way to get the removed cards back without the use of other cards.
Playing single or double copies of cards is basically a no-no for obvious reasons, even in cases wherein a one- or two-of might otherwise be appropriate. In order to not get completely screwed over by your own Search (because let’s be honest, you’re already a little bit screwed by virtue of playing the card in the first place), you should be playing three or four copies of everything.
But then if you play four copies of Search the City, which you should be doing in a Search the City deck to maximise the chances of drawing Search the City, you might end up hitting Search the City with your Search the City, which means you’re going to have to Search the City again to get the extra turn, but the second Search the City might exile cards that you needed for your first Search the City, and now you’re totally and thoroughly boned. And hoo boy aren’t you going to have fun if your Search the City hits two copies of Search the City. Though if your Search the City hits the other three copies of Search the City, then congratulations, you just improved your deck.
Keep in mind that this isn’t unwieldy criticism of any old bad card. There are plenty of “bad” cards in MTG that don’t attract any attention at all — the point here is the kind of card that Search the City is. This thing is complex, it does stuff that no other card does (at least not in a single package), and importantly, its significance is artificially inflated by its taking up of the single rare slot in any given Return to Ravnica booster pack.
Players pay attention to these kinds of cards.
All of this therefore raises the question: why was Search the City printed? And for that matter, why does jank like this exist in the first place?
Many MTG players will already know the answer to this question, but for Hearthstone(rs), the answer may appear less obvious — even though it can certainly apply to both games.
This answer comes from a bloke named Mark Rosewater, who’s been designing MTG cards for two decades. Consider him the Jeff Kaplan of fantasy trading card games: he’s hilarious, he’s always engaged with the community, and importantly, he’s never afraid to shy away from tough questions. On two separate occasions he has addressed the question of why do you print bad cards? It’s the kind of minefield-esque and interrogative query that might have any regular, breathing employee grasping for the nearest set of earplugs — but not Mark, who lays out seven unique and incredibly thorough points as to why a game like MTG is so keen on having its player base Search the City.
Of his massive, seven-pronged answer, this is my favourite part:
…Humans have a soft spot for imperfections. Aesthetically, we’re drawn to the same things — symmetry, patterns, etc. — but a little part of us wants to find something that is uniquely our own. It goes to the root of our psyche and our need to feel that something about us is one-of-a-kind. This phenomenon has different names but the most common one is “guilty pleasure”. There’s an innate human desire to embrace something that “no one else really gets”.
As such, humans seek out little things to call their own. This desire transfers easily to games and especially easily to Magic. Why are bad cards important? Because every player, whether they are even aware of this phenomenon or not, wants to find pieces of any game — cards mostly for Magic– that they can personally connect with, something that they can call their own. Popular cards don’t tend to fill this need because people want to love something that has a personal feel. Everyone knows that this card is bad but down deep you secretly like it. Maybe it’s not even that big of a secret.
Bad cards are chock full of imperfections and do a wonderful job of allowing players to make this connection. In fact, notice how many players publicly have pet cards that they identify with along with the caveat that it’s not good, it’s just something they like. Bad cards (and by bad cards, I really mean “cards that other players perceive as bad”) do an excellent job of fulfilling this need.
With this in mind, one can consider jank a key element of excellent game design. Not everybody likes ‘bad’ cards, but that’s fine, because there are plenty of good cards out there that we can be playing with anyway. The attractive flaws of jank, on the other hand, can kickstart creative players into building weird and wonderful decks which bring to the game a kind of variety which otherwise might not be there.
Despite Search the City’s reputation, I still love the card. It’s a fantastic example of the important-ness of ‘bad’ cards: part of playing MTG is finding a card you love, and spending an entire night (or more) trying to make it work. I guarantee there were players who saw something in Search the City when it was released five years ago, and who did exactly that — heck, there might be a kid right now opening a pack to find this molten piece of putrid trash occupying the rare slot, and deciding then and there that this is the card for them. (It gives you an extra turn!!)
Although I can’t say that I’ve ever spent much time crafting Search the City decks, janky cards nonetheless click with me in far more effective ways than competitively-geared printings (see below).
The process of deckbuilding in MTG is just as important, engaging, and enjoyable as the actual playing of the game itself. It’s not something we spend a few minutes on before heading off to play with friends — no, thanks to the 16,000+ available cards, the process of deck construction (in many play formats) might never end — though it always rewards. Crafting that “perfect” (whatever that means to the player in question) deck is the puzzle of MTG itself, and for me, the perfect deck is one that takes a janky card that I love and that nobody else plays, and finds a way to make it not so bad after all.
I never did much like Search the City — so instead, let me tell you about Conjurer’s Closet.
First things first: Conjurer’s Closet, like Search the City, is nigh-unplayable jank in most formats. It sucks harder than Sagittarius A*, though certainly not harder than Search the City. To be more specific: it sucks, but it doesn’t suck so much that I feel there’s no hope for it, and cards like these are my favourite kinds of cards.
Here’s how the card works in simpler terms: at the end of my turn, I get to pick a creature that I control, remove it from the game, and then put it back in play. I don’t have to physically do this with my hands, of course — all I have to do is notify my opponent which card will be, uh, Closeted. In MTG, this is called a flicker effect, since the card is being “flickered” in and out of the game. There aren’t really any cards in Hearthstone that do this, though one can achieve the same effect by using cards like Shadowstep to return cards to our hand for immediate re-casting.
Flickering is its own thing in MTG and there are plenty of cards, much like Conjurer’s Closet, which are used to flicker others.
Flickering is usually performed to achieve a repetition of whatever “enter the battlefield” or “ETB” effects the creature in question possesses — this is the same thing as Hearthstone’s Battlecry, except the effect is activated regardless of how the creature enters play (although there are methods of “playing” a creature without triggering these abilities, they are so few that they aren’t worth going over here). As such, the power of Conjurer’s Closet is entirely contingent on the ETB power of the creatures in one’s deck and, importantly, whether they’re even in play at the same time as the Closet.
That last part is one of the major reasons why Conjurer’s Closet sucks entire swathes of balls: it requires a second card to be in play for it to be able to do literally anything at all. Therefore, if I’m playing a Conjurer’s Closet deck and I have no creatures in my hand or in play, the last card I’ll want to draw at the start of my turn is a copy of the Closet.
Additionally, Closet is what you might call a “win more” card. For the card to be effective, it needs to take effect of powerful ETB abilities, but if you’re already playing a suite of creatures with powerful ETB abilities, then the copies of Closet might be considered an excessive waste of slots in a deck that can win games without it. If you already have a field of powerful creatures in play by the turn you play the Closet, then chances are you’re probably winning the game anyway. And there’s more: the ETB abilities that one has access to are likely going to vary, and if you’ve got Closet and a creature in play, that creature might not be the one you really want.
I’ve been underselling Closet up until now, so let me go ahead and rectify this by explaining the kind of dumb fun that a Closet deck can provide. The following is the first card I ever “abused” using Conjurer’s Closet:
You might be asking yourself: but if you take their creature at the end of your turn won’t you have to give it straight back? That’s right, but you’re not thinking with portals here. Playing Zealous Conscripts while the Closet is in play means I’ll be able to flicker the stolen creature, and since the process of flickering a creature erases all effects currently applied to that creature, it no longer has to be returned to its owner, because the effect of Conscripts has been nullified.
Hence, I drink your milkshake. Repeatedly, if I draw additional copies of Zealous Conscripts.
Unfortunate disclaimer: even though I once thought of myself as a brilliant, unstoppable genius for figuring this all out on my own, as it turns out in, this combo sits somewhere between “crappy” and “lame” on the scale of MTG combo-ing. You might be playing against decks which play very few creatures, or creatures that aren’t really worth the effort of stealing. You might be playing against decks with creatures so powerful that you’re going to need a better plan than crossing your fingers and hoping you draw enough copies of Conscripts to consistently steal them. You might be playing against a deck that kills you before you can even play the Closet in the first place. And last but not least, the fact that the combo doesn’t pay off until one’s next turn is bad for reasons any Hearthstone player will understand.
Even though I was a new player, it didn’t take me long to figure all this out (a lot of consecutive lost games will do that, usually), and so I came up with a more fully-fledged, multicoloured, toolbox-style Closet deck which could surely deal with any opponent. This thing can kill your mana base, shoot you in the face repeatedly, draw cards, find mana, birth wildebeests, give me life, and nick your stuff. With this collection of mighty creatures along with the Conjurer’s Closet “engine”, I knew I would be unstoppable.
To the Hearthstone players unfamiliar with MTG: this deck is not good.
To the MTG players familiar with MTG: stop laughing.
As a new player, I nonetheless felt incredibly proud of the list, and even though it still wasn’t much to speak of competitively, it is by far one of the most fun decks I have ever played — on those few occasions wherein I didn’t die prior to getting everything up and running, that is.
I still come back to Closet every now and then just to see what I can come up with. I’ll always browse new card sets with Closet in mind, hoping that maybe there will be a new card that works perfectly alongside it —something that completes the puzzle, so to speak. So far I’ve had no luck crafting something that could be described as “kind of consistently effective, sorta”, though I can say with certainty that every deck I’ve made has at least been fun, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process of making them.
I wish I had a good reason for my ongoing make-Conjurer’s-Closet-great-forthefirsttime project, but to be completely honest, I don’t. The only reason I have such an affinity for this card is that it was the first rare I ever opened — and that alone is enough for me to spend so much time on it. This might seem silly, but remember, players like flaws, players like to be challenged by ‘bad’ cards — players feel attached to cards for their own reasons. In a game like MTG, where there are thousands of available cards, it feels great to have that one card to call your own.
Hearthstone’s brand of jank is, obviously, somewhat different to that found in MTG. That’s not to say there isn’t jank in Hearthstone, it’s just that, comparatively, it’s more of a ‘jank-lite’ or ‘I can’t believe it’s not jank’ kind of jank.
Let’s start with the biggest thing that’s preventing Hearthstone from incorporating the kind of brain-exploding jank we find in MTG: Blizzard aren’t fans of card text — that is, they aren’t going to squeeze whole technical operations manuals on one their cards anytime soon, whereas Wizards have entire store rooms full of encyclopedias to tape onto new cards (see left). As a result, even MTG players with decades of experience still end up arguing over how complex cards like these interact with the minutiae of MTG’s Lord-of-the-Rings-esque rules tome, which says a lot about how difficult it can be to approach the game as a newbie.
Short, sharp, easy-to-understand card effects make Hearthstone the brilliantly accessible game that it is today, but it also means that even its most janky cards are without that layer of technical obtuseness that makes the MTG equivalent so dumb and exciting.
Obviously, Hearthstone cards don’t need as much text in the first place since much of what they do is automated by the game client itself. There’s no need for instructional text concerning where players should be putting their cards after all is said and done, for example. Nonetheless, MTG on the whole is (with its additional card types, card abilities, turn phases, etc) the more complex game — even if one removes the extraneous card text, one will find that jank here is more laborious and detailed than its digital counterparts.
This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy playing with cards like Lady Naz’jar or Madam Goya, but unlike with MTG’s 16,000-strong card library, I don’t ever get the feeling that I’m all that special just because I’m playing them. While of course it would be silly of me (for obvious reasons) to criticise a game for not having enough cards, the problem with Hearthstone is that the card pool will always feel much smaller than it really is due to the class limitations which constrict deckbuilding possibilities.
Look at something like Gahz’rilla, for example: how long do you think it’s going to take to craft a deck for that guy? All it takes is a brief stroll through the neutral and Hunter sets to work out what’s going to work or not. Sadly, it’s not going to even see three-quarters of the rest of the cards in the game, unlike in MTG, where the five ‘Colours of Magic’ aren’t artificially separated and I can experiment with cards that have absolutely no business being together.
As with the game’s relatively small card population, this problem will be solved with time and patience. But to me, Blizzard are missing out on an opportunity to open their doors to the jank-minded by allowing its players a format in which to experiment without class limitations. Standard and Wild are both excellent formats for competitive play, and Wild is increasingly suited to those jankier decks as more and more sets are released — but given the success of MTG’s casual eternal formats (ie, formats with loose rules regarding deck limitations and/or where most or all available cards are permitted), I have no reason to believe that an ‘open’ Hearthstone format wouldn’t be a brilliant success.
This is just wishful thinking on my part — but I know for a fact there are Hearthstone players out there who love jank just as much as I do. Right now, Wild is the place for us, and as I said, it’s only going to get better with time.
But what I wouldn’t give to put Gahz in a mage deck.
Finally, the biggest roadblock for jank in Hearthstone isn’t accessibility or class limitation — rather, it’s about how the game works, generally speaking. This one might take some explaining, which is why I’ll let somebody far more eloquent and knowledgeable than myself do the legwork.
The following is from a HearthPwn forum user named Droptimal, who a few years back posted an excellent run-down of the roles played by luck and skill in MTG and Hearthstone. I recommend giving the whole thing a read (it really is quite interesting and informative), though the section below is what I’m most interested in sharing:
Since you’re drawing less options [in MTG], cards have specific uses, and resources are limited, there’s only a finite amount of practical plays. Many cards won’t have context to the game state, you can’t play with current resources, or are an autoplay such as a land (in most cases). It usually comes down to “can answers be played to key threats and do you have and can play counter answers”. There’s skill in weighing those decisions, but rarely does every move become a deeply layered decision of consequences. You either provide a solid answer or you don’t…
…In Hearthstone, nearly every card has a context that interacts with the game state. Beyond a few spells, you aren’t limited by case specifics. You can play things to help later or forego a battlecry for a body on the field. You also have constant targets for most spells because they are less situational. Since everything has decaying health, the game state advances with every move. You can’t counter spell or keep blocking with the same body forever to keep maintaining the same board state till you win; threats are vulnerable and will be answered eventually, so planning on how you use cards becomes more important. Every decisions is small wins with a limited timeframe of dominance in that board state. If you win the board with a trade, you don’t have a full health creatures to keep driving the win, you have a weakened ones that can still be taken out by subpar top deck options. Last but not least is the Hero Power once again preserving card uses and always being available. You never have a dead play in Hearthstone, you will have many in MTG.
The overall point being you tend to have more choices in Hearthstone, whereas in MTG you play with the hope that you achieve two things: firstly, that you draw the requisite cards for your deck to achieve its win condition, and secondly, that your win condition beats your opponent’s win condition. Although there are choices to be made in pursuit of these things, they’re far fewer in number than those in your average game of Hearthstone.
So what does this mean for jank?
It simply means that jank is less impactful in Hearthstone than it is in MTG. The former is a game without ‘sticky’ cards or specific deck engines — each turn is a puzzle, usually for board dominance. Decks have a variety of possibilities, cards have a variety of uses, and games will play out in a variety of ways. Sure, I might find a janky three-card combo, but the variety inherent in the game means it’ll only be a small part in a far bigger deck.
In MTG, on the other hand, is completely the opposite. When I build a jank deck, I want my nine cards to have a specific purpose — I want them to do something singular, and something cool. If I don’t draw the cards I need, then my deck probably won’t win. But if I do draw the cards I need, then I’ll be able to show of my unique creation and have it do amazing things.
If you’re a Hearthstone player who has never touched MTG, I suspect you might be questioning at this point why anyone would ever bother themselves with jank, much less try to use it as a selling point for a more obtuse, luck-based game. Competitive MTG certainly features far less finger-crossing and much more choice than kitchen table jank decks — but see, I’m trying to sell you on that which Hearthstone doesn’t have, not something that it shares with MTG (and does far better, IMO).
Part of what makes Magic: The Gathering so great isn’t its gameplay. While perfecting a janky deck and finally drawing those right cards and pulling off whatever dumb crap the deck is supposed to do is absolutely a grand old ball of fun and the end goal of any jank-related pursuit, the puzzle-esque deckbuilding experience leading up to this is usually just as satisfying.
In MTG, it’s very possible to fall in love with a card that nobody else plays. And with such a massive library of cards to choose from (especially within casual formats), you’re going to find so many things to do with that card, especially when it comes to jank printings. With cards like Conjurer’s Closet, Trading Post, and Search the City, the process of deckbuilding is one of investigation, discovery, and sheer enjoyment.
And hey, maybe you’ll be the first person to find that Search the City isn’t so bad after all.