Last updated on January 17, 2022
Counterbalance | Illustration by Joseph Meehan
Balancing a game is hard. If you’ve ever played League of Legends and called out “OP!” at your screen after some champion just facerolled their keyboard and killed you, you’re probably intimately familiar with game balance.
One of the many ways Wizards chooses to tackle balance issues is through changing how cards work, whether it’s through rules changes or just a clearer interpretation of how the card is printed. This is generally known as “errata,” and it comes in a few different forms.
Let’s talk about that.
Change of Fortune | Illustration by Sam Guay
Errata are changes to rules text or type line on cards that comes directly from WotC themselves. This is usually to clarify a card’s effects or fix its functioning as things change in Magic and something needs to be modified.
I wasn’t able to find a concrete answer to how Wizards defines errata, but they’ve been changing how cards work since the start of the game.
When a card gets errata, it doesn’t always mean it’s a negative change. Creature types being added or updated also count as errata.
Balance | Illustration by Kev Walker
Whenever Wizards issues errata that changes the function of how a card works, it’s known as “rebalancing” or “functional errata.” This is usually a pretty big step in terms of changes and doesn’t happen very often.
Recently, we’ve seen Wizards take change the actual rule that affects the card (like the companion mechanic) instead of tampering with individual cards.
This term is a sort of neologism that has lately been applied in the MTG Arena era to refer to digitally fixing play balance design mistakes.
On the other hand, when Wizards directly changes the text on a card so that it works differently, this is known as “power errata.” WotC tends to stay far away from these kinds of changes but did it pretty often back in the early days of Magic, mainly in the jump to Sixth Edition where a lot of cards were simplified.
These changes can be huge, like how Rukh Egg used to make a 4/4 whenever it went to the graveyard, not just when it was in play. So you could discard it or mill it and still get a 4/4 for free.
Another great example is Flying Carpet, which was changed so that you don’t need to sacrifice it if the targeted creature dies this turn.
You See a Guard Approach | Illustration by Mila Pesic
Wizards only recently shied away from making errata changes. In this piece by Sam Stoddard, he talks about how they’d errata cards a lot between printings as well as during Urza’s Saga with the cycle of cards like Palinchron and Great Whale. Sixth Edition was also a huge change in errata since a lot of older cards were changed to reflect Magic’s new rules.
In 2007, Wizards updated over 1,200 cards with new creature types in their “grand creature type update” to fix older cards with the new format of “Race and Class” creature types, as well as changing cards that were missing creature types. It was a pretty big change and the internet didn’t take kindly to it. WotC later said that the update was a mistake but the changes stuck, and they did it again in 2021 with the “great Phyrexian update” for the release of Kaldheim.
2010 saw another huge errata change, though this one was meant to clarify game states and how cards should be interpreted. Wizards updated the text on thousands of cards at once with only a few changes:
- What used to be “in play” (and other ways of wording it) became “the battlefield,” meaning things would now “enter the battlefield” instead of “come into play.” This clarified confusing wording on some cards.
- “Playing” spells was changed back to “casting” spells, an update that came with Sixth Edition.
- “Removed from the game” was changed to “exile,” which actually did change some rules. Instead of cards that could fetch cards from outside the game or cards that were removed from the game (since they were now outside the game), they were put into a zone called “exile” that would be in the game, but not part of the game.
- “At end of turn” effects became “at the beginning of the end step” to clarify how phases and the end step worked and allow better templating for cards.
This was a huge change and came with some crucial rules updates like deathtouch and lifelink being changed, as well as mulligans and damage on the stack being modified. RIP to the best 1-drop, Mogg Fanatic.
Remember the companions from Ikoria? These creatures with deckbuilding restrictions made a huge impact on the game across every format they were legal in. It was such a huge problem that Wizards had to errata the original rule to its current incarnation, making it a lot more lackluster and bringing the power level down pretty significantly.
It now costs to put a companion card in your hand, and it can also be interacted with there. Quite the difference!
More of a really unfortunate timing thing than Wizard’s R&D team shooting themselves in the foot. The Godzilla variant of Void Beckoner was originally named “Spacegodzilla, Death Corona” in honor of the kaiju’s breath weapon “corona beam.”
But the pandemic came around way too late for Wizards to stop the printers, so the first batch of Ikoria had copies of the card with this name. It was immediately renamed to Spacegodzilla, Void Invader in later reprints and everyone chuckled softly.
Old Lion’s Eye Diamond was quickly errata’d so that players wouldn’t be able to use the mana from the artifact to pay for cards in their hands before the cards were discarded. You can see how the text was changed between its original printing and its later printings on Magic Online.
Little things sometimes sneak past the proofreaders over at Wizards and some cards get printed with incorrect text. Here are a couple of examples in recent sets:
Zaffai, Thunder Conductor is named “Thunder Collector” in the text box.
Corpse Knight was printed as a 2/3 and not a 2/2 in some printings of Core Set 2020.
These are pretty rare and Wizards is usually fast to catch it to let players know long before the set releases.
Remember how I talked about the grand creature type update that happened in 2007? Well, Wizards did a tiny one in 2017 to better shape the dinosaur creature type for the incoming Ixalan set. This wasn’t nearly as impactful as the previous updates, but it happened nonetheless.
Y’all remember this card type? It was originally cards that would resolve before anything else in the “batch,” the precursor to what we now know as the stack. This also included the card type “mana source,” which was only found on Dark Ritual and Culling the Weak. With the change to Sixth Edition, interrupts and any references to them became instants and the batch became the stack.
Artifacts used to be much more complex and difficult to use in sets before Revised Edition. Each supertype was intended to let the player know how and when they could use artifacts. It also was paired with a rule that said that artifacts wouldn’t have abilities when they were tapped until they were untapped.
The supertypes for enchantments were dropped in favor of “auras” to better explain how these cards worked when played.
With the release of Dominaria and the planeswalker-heavy War of the Spark on the horizon, Wizards changed the rules on how damage is dealt to planeswalkers. They also needed to change how cards were templated to suit this new change.
Cards that said, “target creature or player” became “any target” and other cards were updated to include rules on planeswalkers where applicable.
There have been a lot of rule changes over the years as we saw with the big changes in 2010. These usually come with card errata that don’t actually change the game, just how cards are written for their syntax.
2018’s Oracle update for Dominaria had a few changes I can use as examples, like changing “he or she” to “they” and using “this spell” instead of referring to the card by name. These changes might affect how cards are worded but don’t actually change any specific aspects of the game.
Gyruda, Doom of Depths | Illustration by Jesper Ejsing
Hearthstone came out in 2014 and changed how digital implementations of card games worked for the rest of history.
Nope, that’s it.
Why are you still here?
Digital-only card games were nothing new, but making them competitive and with a budget that Activision Blizzard brought to the table with their newest game skyrocketed the market from almost nothing to a huge powerhouse for several years. So what happens when you make a digital implementation of a physical game? If a card is imbalanced in Hearthstone, they can just change it. But how do you change a game that also has physical components?
The same year that Hearthstone was released, Sam Stoddard from R&D mentioned that he was proud they couldn’t go back and just “patch” cards and that it made design so much better when they could look back and see the mistakes they made. This bright light of design would sadly be dimmed with the release of Jumpstart: Historic Horizons, the first set with cards that were designed for digital play and would never exist in paper Magic.
But before that, Wizards tested the waters with a couple of “rebalanced cards” for the Historic environment with a special event that allowed all cards to be used, with previously powerfully unbalanced cards being rebalanced.
Vesperlark | Illustration by Raoul Vitale
A few weeks after the release of the first set to include designed-for-digital cards, players realized they could create a combo with Vesperlark that forced games to draw as the loop of abilities didn’t end.
They also used this opportunity to change a few cards to make them better picks overall by updating base stats or ability costs. Only five cards saw rebalancing in this set, but it set a precedent that the door is wide open for more changes like this to happen as more designed-for-digital cards are released.
Fast forward to December 9, 2021, when Wizards released a brand-new digital-only format called Alchemy on MTG Arena. It plays quite a bit like Standard, only it features a modified card pool with rebalanced cards and digital-only cards. Along with its release, several cards were rebalanced for their digital-only form. This means even cards that have been physically printed (such as Omnath, Locus of Creation) can now have digital-only versions on MTG Arena’s Alchemy that are balanced and more fun to play against.
Tale’s End | Illustration by Randy Vargas
Balancing games is nothing new to the scope of game design. In fact, it’s been a part of game design for as long as games have existed. And while Magic is no stranger to unbalanced cards, they’ve also made great strides in making the game less complex and easier to digest for new players as well as keeping cards readable as the rules change. These errata are a core part of the game and are something we’ll always see as long as MTG lives.
What are some of your least favorite errata? How do you feel about the changes to designed-for-digital cards? Who else really misses Mogg Fanatic absolutely slaughtering board states with damage on the stack? Let me know in the comments, or reach out to us on Twitter to let me know how wrong I am.
Keep the good times rollin’ and your cards sleeved. I’ll see you later!