Black Lotus is perhaps the most famous and powerful card in Magic: The Gathering. It is certainly the most valuable, with the average asking price for a mint/near mint copy being in the ballpark of $2,000. Printed in the Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited sets, it is among the illustrious Power Nine. Here are the card’s stats:
Name: Black Lotus
Casting Cost: 0
Type: Mono Artifact
Artist: Christopher Rush
Rules Text: Adds three mana of any single color of your choice to your mana pool, then is discarded. Tapping this artifact can be played as an interupt.
Oracle Text: Tap, Sacrifice Black Lotus: Add three mana of a single color to your mana pool.
Flavor Text: None
It is difficult to convey to the uninitiated why this card is so powerful and cool, and even more difficult to get such people to care. Admittedly, it’s just a piece of cardboard that was printed in the early ‘90s that updated versions of D&D geeks play an obscure game with. The recent resurgence in the popularity of wizards notwithstanding, no one is winning over audiences talking about how awesome a pretend magic spell is (or was).
But the Black Lotus is cool. More than that, it is a great example of why the whole game is cool, and what makes it appealing to nerds and geeks of all stripes.
First off, the card doesn’t do anything to your opponent on its own. It just makes mana, which is your primary resource in the game. You need mana to play spells, and you need spells to hurt your opponent. The Lotus makes three mana of any color, once, for free. On its face, this doesn’t seem too impressive, especially when big, opponent-killing spells can cost three or four times that amount. Ten years ago, I agreed. What’s so great about three mana?
Well, as it turns out, three mana can be a lot, if it’s on your first turn and it can be of any color. Magic is inherently about resource management. It is designed so you are not able to do everything you want, when you want it. The rules demand that your basic mana production grows (roughly) arithmetically, one a turn. Plus, there are five flavors of mana. Being able to consistently produce the right amount (and right color) mana for the spells you want to play is the principle hurdle to overcome in a game of Magic, and is the rules of the game tend to bolster that hurdle.
The Lotus breaks those rules magnificently.
Having access to three extra mana of any type on the first turn led to a variety of first-turn kills. Getting a god-draw (which almost invariably included a Black Lotus) meant an instant win. This generated a backlash as matches became completely non-interactive. Eventually, the card was banned in all tournament formats, except vintage, where it is restricted to one per deck.
This is why Magic is cool. At the beginning, Garfield and Friends didn’t know how successful Magic was going to be, and probably didn’t pour hours of testing to see if certain cards, like the Lotus, were “broken.” It took the collective consciousness of new found cardboard crackheads to discover and implement its usefulness.
Even now, when Wizards of the Cost employs legions of R&D people to ensure that new cards aren’t ridiculously overpowered, similar situations are played out every time a new set is released. Darksteel’s killer app, Skullclamp, is a profound example of how this process has evolved. While WotC’s R&D budget has expanded since the days of the Lotus, the intercommunication and distributed computing between players has far outstripped it. As soon as the card was available, every deck ran it. Now it is banned, alongside the Lotus.
Skullclamp and Black Lotus weren’t overpowered simply because they broke the rules (about access to card-drawing and mana-fixing, respectively). Magic is an expansive game because cards break the rules all of the time (when the wording on a card and the wording of the rules conflict, the card always wins). The problem was they were universal. Any deck could be improved by including as many of them as possible. This was anathema to the appeal of Magic. The sheer volume of choices on how to construct a deck, how to fix your mana curve, how to ensure a win condition, etc., demands a high level of lateral thinking, and allows for personal style and flavor. A card so ubiquitous is bad for the metagame.
Magic's longevity can be attributed to the fact that it rewards creativity, as well as victory. There is enough lebensraum in Magic's design to allow for experimentation, and the inevitable Eureka! moment when such experiments (or accidents) work out beyond your wildest dreams. There is even the possibility, after sufficient mental masturbation, that you will push the game further than its designers intended. While that is pretty neat, it can also be degenerate, as was the case for the Lotus aficionados (and other members of the power nine club). The overall effect was a shrinking of the game's experimental space, which runs contrary to the desire to test the limits of its design.
While the original Lotus is gone, it’s left an indelible mark on Magic. Lotuses crop up occasionally on cards that produce mana, or otherwise help speed up your mana production. More interestingly, it is an iconic and powerful representation of an addictive pastime. The allure of the Lotus is inescapable. Why else would someone waste so much nodespace talking about a $2,000 piece of cardboard?