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Power Equals Rarity
Let's face it: in Real Life, if a weapon is powerful, it's mass-produced. If an animal is powerful, it flourishes. If a nation is powerful, it can effectively Take Over the World.

That's not the case with games, though. Generally, for balancing purposes or Bribing Your Way to Victory, the more powerful an item/mon/etc. is in a game, the harder it is to find. While various reasons are given in the plot (if at all) as to why these things are so rare, in the meta-sense, it's for balance. If the player has unlimited access to game-changing stuff, then the game is tipped entirely in their favor.

This is seen most commonly in Role Playing Games, both tabletop and video, so that the character/party doesn't get so powerful the Big Bad is killed off as fast as a mook, and in collectible games, so that not every player has a game-breaker, and the number of game-breakers out there are limited. Sometimes, the rules of a game specifically will limit an item/mon/card/etc. to only one per player (often retroactively after that item is banned).

Even in games where the creators actively say that rarity means crap in relevance to power, many people will still associate rarity with overall power, even when it isn't. In certain TCG formats, the disproportionate distribution of power between the common and rare cards could lead to fake balance.

Interestingly, putting too much of the power in rare is actually extremely bad for a game, as it discourages newbies from buying into the game as they get beaten over and over again by people who own better cards than them, and discourages players from buying into the game in the first place.

The basic reasoning for this may come from, of all things, history and mythology, wherein the most powerful items, supposedly-magical or knowingly mundane, were of exceptional quality, but very scarce. This is understandable, though, because the time, resources, and skill needed to create any weapon beyond a sharp stick or axe was great, and an exceptional weapon like Excalibur could, realistically, be made only once in an artisan's lifetime (and was probably the most valuable item in a king's treasury for good reason). Another reason for an item's rarity might be that the owner has taken steps to ensure that its creator cannot repeat the work.

For a video game item (MMO's in particular) that's exceptionally rare and powerful, it has a chance of causing Loot Drama.

Contrast Junk Rare and Promotional Powerless Piece of Garbage for the "rare" and "promo" inversions of this trope. Compare Game Breaker for a retroactive application of this trope, for when something is so broken you might only be able to use one in a deck/army/etc. Often present in games with Level-Locked Loot. Related to Commonplace Rare, when a useful item that by all logic should be easy to get turns out to be extremely difficult. Subtrope of Quality Vs Quantity.

Has absolutely nothing to do with a certain fashion-designing unicorn.

Examples:

Anime and Manga
  • Invoked in Shaman King, when Mosuke forges Harusame. The Shogun has him killed in order to prevent him from making another sword, in order to maintain its scarcity value.
  • The Yu-Gi-Oh! anime takes power card scarcity to extremes. Pegasus kept one copy of Toon World for himself, as he found it too game-breaking to put into circulation, and created only four copies of the strongest normal monster in the game, the Blue Eyes White Dragon. Seto Kaiba, who had three cards, the maximum playable of any card in the game, tore up the fourth one so no one could play it against him, and he would be all but assured to have the strongest deck in existence. And outside of his dragons, Kaiba had even more rare power cards. Of course, all of this precedes the Egyptian god cards.
    • On the other hand, unspeakably broken cards like Mirror Force are found in pretty much everyone's deck, with nearly every character having used it at one time or another.
      • The logic seems to be that Spell, Trap, and Virus cards follow typical amounts of rarity; however, MONSTER cards can be absurdly rare, to the point of only a handful existing in the world (such as the God Cards, The Blue-Eyes White Dragon cards, and Yugi's own Dark Magician & Jonouchi's Red-Eyes Black Dragon). Originally, the monster levels were an indicator of rarity - since Blue-Eyes White Dragon was level 8 and only FOUR existed, while the God Cards are each level 10 with 1 existing, one can imagine that Dark Magician and Red-Eyes Black Dragon are nearly as scarce as Blue-Eyes (in fact, another of Yugi's go-to monsters, Summoned Skull, is apparently so rare it surprised even KAIBA that he owned one).

Film
  • In the Star Wars films, the Imperials favor Zerg Rush tactics with their starfighters, fielding the ubiquitous (and cheap!) but underpowered TIE fighters in mass numbers. Only a few VIPs like Vader are issued more advanced ships with survivability measures like shields. The Rebels, on the other hand, favor a small but Elite Army of X-Wings tricked out with shields and a more varied and powerful armament. The latter is Justified: less-advanced Rebel ships like the older Y-wings are destroyed early on, and unlike the Empire, the Rebels can't easily replace casualties of war.
    • Though it also applies to the Empire side as far as their Death Stars are concerned: in the decades that the Empire was in power, they only made two (and the second was incomplete).

Literature
  • The Dresden Files justifies this by using explaining that the more people use a certain ritual, the less power one can draw from it. The White Council often publishes texts like the Necronomicon for the sole purpose of robbing them of their power.
  • A Justified example in The Way Of Kings in the case of Shardblades and Shardplate. Both are ludicrously powerful Magitek, but nobody now remembers how to make them and there are a very limited number (such that a single Shard is worth enough to buy you a small country).

Tabletop Games
  • One of the best known offenders of this trope is the Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG. Generally, if something's even mildly useful, it's going to be rare or up. The gradations of rarity in Yu-Gi-Oh are many, and the most powerful tend to be the rarest, giving Yu-Gi-Oh the reputation of being a "rich man's game".
    • And sometimes, there were cards that were made useless. Harpy's Feather Duster and Gryphon Wing are a very egregious example. Harpy's Feather Duster is a pretty nasty card that wipes out your opponent's magic and trap cards. Gryphon Wing, meanwhile, counters it so that whenever they play it, it backfires and wipes out their own cards. Gryphon Wing came in a starter deck, whereas Harpy's Feather Duster usually came with Game Boy Advance game or from a promo... so what was the point of having Gryphon Wing?
    • The Crush Card Virus is almost synonymous within the community for it's rarity and power. It was so rare that in a booster pack with 3 guaranteed ultra rares, it was stated to only occur once in every 10 packs (and rumored to only being printed once every 75 packs). These packs were usually valued at 35 dollars as well, making it quite a stroke of luck to pull one of these. As for power? It could completely destroy your opponent's hand and field of any strong monster, for the next three turns for a comparatively tiny cost.
    • Polymerization was an interesting case in the early days of the card game. Fusion Monsters(monsters that were Special Summoned by using Polymerization and the appropriate fusion material monsters) were a part of the game's mechanics since the beginning. Some of the first sets included a large number of Fusion monsters that were easy to obtain, but Polymerization itself was a Super Rare card - not terribly to get a hold of, but it meant that using Fusions were not an option unless you got lucky with your pulls. This was later rectified when Polymerization was made a Common card in subsequent sets.
  • Usually in Battle Spirits this is played straight, with some of the X-Rares being so powerful you wonder how they're legal. One of the strongest cards in the game is the two-of-a-kind Amaterasu-Dragon. Though, it's worth noting that there are some pretty lethal common cards that could turn the game around, like Dream Ribbon and Angel Voice, the latter of which is one of the cards Amaterasu Dragon is weak against.
  • In Dungeons & Dragons, though the rules are set basically by the DM, there are a group of items called "artifacts" which are said to be very, very rare, and literally can warp reality. These are perceived as so rare that they don't have any effective gold piece value listed. In general, too, the more powerful items are limited by DM's so as to make sure the party doesn't go around killing Great Wyrm Red Dragons in a single turn.
    • Supposedly it's this way. In practice, many if not most of the "artifacts" are actually little more than decent but normal magic items with no real special effect. Many others can be replicated with existing spells, and most of those which are really unique are only a little more effective than a "normal" magic item counterpart.
    • In fantasy worlds in general, this trope often applies. This is because, unlike powerful technological weapons, magic weapons often CAN'T be mass produced. They take too much power and energy and effectively have to be hand-crafted.
    • In later versions, artifacts are often times sentient creatures. They have unique abilities when you pick them up, and depending on your characters actions or words the artifact may like you or not. The more it likes you, the more powerful it becomes. If it doesn't like you at all it can effectively try to sabotage you. Most artifact are designed for temporary uses, as they all have their own agenda and will try to get away from you if you don't seem to at least partly follow their plans.
      • Notably averted in the famous "War of the Lance" campaign for the Dragon Lance setting: it is possible for the party to come into possession of four Orbs of Dragonkind over the course of the campaign. Since each one is an incredibly powerful artifact, this has the potential to be a real Monty Haul campaign; on the other hand, they all do the same thing.
  • Magic: The Gathering has a complicated relationship with this thanks to their developing many different ways to play the game, called formats, where cards can be of completely different power levels. Wizards' official position is that complex and powerful cards are printed as Rare and Mythic Rares in order to ensure that new players encounter fewer of them when they open packs and so that the Limited format doesn't break or produce tremendously complex boardstates. Nonetheless most people believe that that powerful cards (particularly dual lands that are critical in Standard and Modern decks) are printed at high rarities in order to increase the amount of product sold.
    • For players who enjoy Limited, a format where your deck from a random or semi-random pool of cards, this is considered a legitimate concern (and because Limited is extremely profitable Wizards pays attention). Spells that require a specialised response are made rarer, so players who didn't get the needed answer to them aren't overwhelmed. Additionally some cards are immensely powerful in Limited but useless in constructed formats. For example: Hex had to be Rare because in Limited it can effectively end the game on the spot by killing all of the opponent's creatures, nonetheless the cards is worthless in most other formats.
    • One classic example of Rarity = Power is comparing the mythic rare Baneslayer Angel with the uncommon Serra Angel. At one point both were printed in the same set, highlighting the fact that although both are identical in cost and type the Mythic angel is vastly more powerful than the Uncommon angel.
    • In the very first editions of Magic, this trope did hold true because Wizards of the Coast, not yet realizing how popular their new game would prove, expected the average player to only buy maybe yay many cards ever and so rarity was indeed originally meant to help balance the power of certain cards — the idea that somebody might in practice be crazy enough to simply buy or trade for as many rare cards as needed to create a hypothetically conceivable abusive deck with them never really crossed anyone's mind at that point. History quickly proved otherwise.
  • Wizards of the Coast has been pretty good about averting this trope in their miniature games as well. Sure, Rare/Very Rare pieces are going to be the most powerful, but they are not necessarily the most efficient or the most highly sought-after. Discussion threads in both their Star Wars and D&D Minis forums had long lists of competitive armies that could be built using only Common and Uncommon pieces.
  • Enforced by the very nature of reality in ''Exalted: Humans are common and laughably weak, enlightened Mortals and Godbloods are rarer and stronger, Dragonblooded are more rare and powerful still, while there only 700 Celestials in all of Creation, and they're able to defeat small armies of Dragonbloods. Likewise, powerful Manses, Artifacts, Charms, Sorcery spells, et cetra are all said to be rare and hard to come by (though the design of PCs in any given campaign may or may not support this).
  • In Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, all magic items are pretty much unique due to time and labour expenditure involved in their creation: Rules for crafting 'generic' magic weapons appears in the Winds of Magic splatbook, where only dwarves can do it and it takes years of off-time to make a single one (and tradition forbids runesmiths from mass producing or making more than one of any particular magic weapon: Only one runesmith ever did it and was stuck with the epithet 'The Mad' for having performed such blasphemy). Even nonmagical weapons and armour tend to be rarer the more powerful they are, but in most cases it's justified by these being cutting-edge and not yet having entered mass production, or simply being unavailable for civilian purchase. Higher-quality versions of regular equipment are also harder to acquire, due to having been hand-crafted.
  • Played with in the Legend of the Five Rings CCG. While it is true that there are powerful rares, several of the most powerful cards in the history of the game actually were only available from starter packs as fixed cards. These generally include the Clan Champion as well as goodies like the Clan Swords. While you could certainly argue cost effectiveness, some of the biggest and baddest characters in the settings have been only available as a fixed card (ie always present in that starter) in their clan's starter packs.
  • The Dragonball Z CCG by Score Entertainment ran into this problem as the game progressed. Competing in tournaments was an extremely expensive endeavor, a problem even many Score employees recognized. Once the game reached the final set of the DBZ CCG and its GT continuation, it was not an exaggeration to say that some of the best decks could cost a few thousand dollars to build with all the hard to get promos and ultra-rares across 15 different card sets. Many of the most powerful cards in the game were Ultra-Rares which fit their name well; though the exact odds are unknown, many have estimated that your odds of pulling an ultra-rare from an entire 32 pack box were between 1:10 and 1:6(though GT made the odds much better). But much worse were the extremely powerful promos from obscure or cost-ineffective sources such as:
    • The later sagas had very rare "subset" cards as inserts(for example, the Buu Saga set contained the Broly subset).
    • A 38 card promo set only found 1 card at a time as inserts with $10-15 DBZ action figures.
    • Promos found 1 at a time as inserts into the Gameboy Advance port of the game
    • A 10 card set from a Kraft Cheese promotion only in Australia.
    • Top cuts in tournaments. Though some cards were later reprinted(at least once by accident) and made more common they still fetched extraordinarily high prices, many remained extremely hard to get. Score exacerbated this in GT by making more and more superpowered promos that were only available during big tournaments. An egregious example was Farewell Drill, a card almost every single deck would want to run and of which only 32 copies were printed and would sell for several hundred dollars.
    • One of the most expensive decks to play competitively was the Namekian style deck around the middle of the game's life. It required three copies of Goku's Blinding Strike(one of the aforementioned Ultra-Rares), three copies of the promo Namekian's Strike(these could go for over $100 EACH), and numerous other expensive promos.
  • Warhammer bases its army selection system on this trope. A player selects their army from their race's army list, which divides all the available troops, war engines, monsters etc. into three categories - Core Units, Special Units and Rare Units - and assigns points values to each entry based on how powerful it is. A player's army must contain at least 25% of its total value from the Core section, and cannot contain any more than 50% from Special and 25% from Rare. Character models - individual heroes, wizards, priests etc. - are likewise divided into two ranks - Heroes and Lords - and an army can have no more than 25% of its total points value spent on each.
  • World of Warcraft TCG veered towards this also in its later years. Whereas at common you have an Ally which cost 6 and has 6 attack and 5 health with no other ability, at rare and epic said ally that costs 6 with better attack AND health plus helpful ability. Like Magic: The Gathering, the limited format is generally the reason why these discrepancies exist.

Video Games
  • Pokémon: Mons you find a lot of in one place and/or in many places are weak. Ones which are relatively hard to find, only in a small numbers of places, or you are only given one of are stronger, and ones that you can only catch one of are much stronger.
    • The textbook examples are the Pseudo-Legendary Pokémon, which, as the name suggests, have stats that rival those of Legendaries. They can (most of the time) only be caught in their initial form, in one or two places in the world (and often right before Victory Road), and eat experience like few else. But once they reach their final stage...
    • In Pokémon Black and White, a number of Com Mons can eventually become quite powerful, like Darmanitan, which evolves from a common Pokémon found fairly early on, and Gigalith, the final form to this generation's answer to the ever-present-but-not-nearly-as-awesome Geodude.
    • Then there's the Master Ball, a Pokéball that has an absolute capture rate. It has 100% accuracy and is inescapable once thrown. Typically there is only one of these in the game and is to be saved for the most exclusive 'Mons (like Mewtwo at the end of R/B/Y).
  • This is present in two forms in the Pokémon Rumble series. Firstly, Pokemon that are rarer tend to have a higher power rating then common ones. On top of this, any Pokemon you obtain has a chance to possess a special ability that improves it in any of a number of ways. The best abilities are extremely rare and only found on around one of every hundred or even thousand Pokemon you obtain on average. This makes getting the ideal Pokemon extremely time consuming, as it can take dozens of trips through a level to even see some of rare Pokemon in the first place, then you still need to hope they have a good ability.
  • World of Warcraft has several Legendary Items, incredibly powerful items beyond the highest Tier, and incredibly difficult to attain (requiring, say, 40 rare drops plus drops from head bosses of the toughest dungeons of the game, or two very rare drops from different bosses plus crafting materials, or just being incredibly rare drops from a specific boss), so there are usually only a few on any given server.
  • Guild Wars averts this, as any Uncommon (read: moddable) can be made functionally identical to a Very Rare or Unique weapon. The real value of the Very Rare and Unique weapons are the skins.
  • City of Heroes has Regular, Uncommon, Rare, and Very Rare Invention recipes. They increase in power with rarity.
  • The Last Remnant features a number of weapons that there are only one of, and are incredibly powerful (most however are found in the course of the main story). Also, the most powerful non-Remnant weapons and accessories require a number of rare components to craft.
  • Borderlands: Rare guns are color coded and are supposed to be hard to find, but the way weapon generation works in the game's programming (especially if you are wearing an accessory that increases rare rates,) you'll be throwing away epic loot every fifteen seconds or so.
    • You can not-entirely-infrequently find the second best category of loot in stores. This makes some sense, if every other adventurer out there finds and sells as much blue/purple loot as you do...
    • The effects are much more pronounced in co-op play, possibly to cut down on infighting.
  • The same as above happened in Hellgate: London, although this was more of a case of 90% of the gear being worthless to you.
  • EarthBound has one particularly glaring one, the Sword of Kings, the only weapon Poo can use effectively can only be obtained from one enemy, which is only available temporarily, in one dungeon, and it has a drop rate of 1/128.
    • Less notorious but even worse to get is the Gutsy bat. 1/128 droprate dropped by the strongest single enemy in the game, the Bionic Kraken. Also extremely rare, spawns in only one place so you'll probably go through the entire game without seeing one, and so close to the end of the game that all you can use it for is the final boss. It is satisfying to see every other hit be a Smaaaaash! though.
  • Most weapons in the Disgaea series can be of common, rare, or legendary quality (The best weapon of each type is always legendary). The better the quality, the better the item's base stats will be, and the degree to which its stats can be boosted in the Item World will be much higher, as well.
  • Zig-zagged in Dragon Quest IX; just because a piece of equipment is the rarest in the game, it's not always the best. For example, the Infinity+1 Sword you get in the Post Game adds 180 to your attack, while a sword you can get just before the Final Boss can double it. The only reason you'd want to use the Infinity+1 Sword instead of the other one is because it has a surprisingly good chance of decreasing the foe's defense or if your base Attack is less than 180.
  • Like the above, Final Fantasy Legend II used this trope, although it also was combined with Too Awesome to Use.
  • Billy Vs SNAKEMAN has this, not at the level of individual pieces of equipment (The way equipment works in the game means that rare gear doesn't have to be any more powerful than common gear to be worth the extra effort), but in the kinds of bonuses that they give. A full set of equipment gives somewhere in the neighborhood of + 40-60 of the inherently diminishing rewards bonuses, but Strength, which can make challenges auto-win in great enough quantities, gets only +16, and Successes, an even more "Game Breaker in excess" bonus, has a mere + 3.
  • One of the draws of Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is collecting rare items. The best stuff is all mostly highly rare item drops from bosses (usually Hard mode only, but some are exclusive to Normal). Other good items drop from purple chests depending on difficulty, some having a tendency to be as rare as the boss-only gear (ie Shanoa's DLC glyphs, the Retro subweapons, and the Fuma gear).
    • Also of note are items that were rare boss-only drops, but became regular enemy drops in the DLC stages. These include Simon's Plate (previously exclusive to Hard mode Dracula, now available from the numerous and much easier Hellmont of Chapter 11), Berserker Mail, and Death's Robe. However, the latter two are still somewhat annoying to get because they drop from mini bosses on Chapter 10, and both are a ways into the level. Still easier than trying to get them from Hard mode Death, as the Chapter 10 versions also drop on Normal.
  • Einhänder has the Flash Weapon Pod, a Guide Dang It to obtain normally and can only be obtained twice in an entire game. It's one of the strongest weapons in the game, firing out a pink laser that penetrates enemies and does massive damage in general.
  • Jade Empire invokes this. Kang the Mad doesn't want to mass-produce the Marvelous Dragonfly, because as long as there's only one, it will be the greatest flying craft ever made. Make more and it will be merely average.
  • In the Mario & Luigi series, the more useful a piece of gear or item is, the harder it'll be to find or more expensive it'll be to buy (with some exceptions). Same with most of the Bros/Luiginary Attacks (minus the Slingsniper). And with rare Metal Slime enemies like the Gold Beanies in Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga and Mario & Luigi: Dream Team. Averted with badges in the latter though, you buy all of them (from most to least useful) from the exact same two shops.
  • 7 Days to Die has this with quite a few guns. Especially Rocket Launchers.
  • Hearthstone works like this — for instance, the Wolfrider costs 3 Mana, has 3 Attack, 1 Health, and Charge (meaning that it can attack the turn it's played), and is Basic — everyone has one. Leeroy Jenkins, on the other hand, is a Legendary (the rarest kind of card in the game), costs 4 mana, but has double the Attack and Health as well as Charge. (He also summons to 1/1 Whelps for the opponent, but that doesn't matter if the opponent is already dead).
  • Played with in Terraria. Every generated world has a handful of incredibly powerful weapons. The weapons themselves are guaranteed to be inside special chests which are always in a generated world. The keys for those chests are a different story and, while they can drop off any enemy in a given area, the drop rate is around 1 in 2,500.

Real Life
  • This actually comes in to play fairly often with bleeding-edge military technologies, because highly precise, sophisticated equipment often requires manufacturing processes which preclude effective mass production. There were, for instance, only 21 B-2 Stealth Bombers ever produced, each costing over $1.7 billion. They are, however, the most effective low-observability planes currently in existence. The F-22 is going a similar way, with its production currently capped at less than 200 planes, whereas cheaper, less advanced and effective planes such as the F-16 have had production runs of 4500 planes and counting.
  • The economics of war tend to have the standard issue weaponry made to the lowest bidder. This is good in that the most weapons can be produced for a certain price, but bad in that the quality of those weapons is mediocre at best. Given that militaries in many countries conscript poor people (or even children) with little training, it makes little sense to give quality weapons to those who will likely die anyway.
  • As Comrade Stalin says "Quantity has a Quality all its own."
  • Exemplified by the Tiger Tank which when it appeared in 1942 combined heavy armor with long range lethality to become an unstoppable killing machine. However there were only 1,347 examples produced (plus another 492 Tiger IIs) compared with over 50,000 T-34 and 40,000 M4 Sherman tanks.
    • The German wunderwaffen ("wonder weapons") program researched all kinds of Awesome, but Impractical weapons in the hope of uncovering the key to winning the war. Many reached the prototype stage but were never mass produced due to prohibitive cost and/or crippling flaws that rendered them unsuitable for use in the field.
  • Kevlar is fairly easy to make, but as someone demonstrated on the Discovery channel, heavier weapons (such as a rifle at close range) can pierce the fibers (making it really bullet-resistant rather than bulletproof). In order to really stand up to bullets, needs a Kevlar with ceramic plating woven in, but to do this sort of thing is more expensive (and the result is much heavier and in need of much more frequent repair), and thus more rare.
  • While stronger life forms tend to out-compete weaker ones within their own species (or niche), small species tend to be more numerous than large ones, and prey tend to be more common than the predators that eat them. This comes down to available energy. A general rule of only 10% of the energy that goes into an organism is transferred to the organism that eats it, the rest is used up by the prey species' own life processes. This limits the amount of energy available to predators thus reducing the possible number of the predator.
    • Indeed all apex predators are always very thin on the ground and thrive when their numbers are such that small prey animals on the scale of mice would be considered on the brink of extinction. Subverted by humans, if only because we're not so picky with our food.
  • True before mass production. There is a difference between a sword made by a master bladesmith and one made by a normal smith. Even a cheap effective sword was rare and expensive enough that weapons that needed less metal and less skill like spears and axes were more commonly used.
  • Nuclear weapons. Sure, there may be enough to scour the world clean a dozen times over, and nuclear proliferation is a big deal, but compare nukes to other weapons. Almost anyone can make a simple spear or knife from sticks, stones, or bones. Conventional explosives rain like water in some conflicts. And in 2012, enough bullets have been estimated produced in that year alone to put two in the head of every person on the planet, then let the last person commit suicide with extras to spare. Nukes are late-game Infinity Plus One Swords made from ultra-rare material drops and harvests in comparison.

Player ArchetypesGame TropesPrestigious Player Title
Conservation of NinjutsuQuantity vs. QualityQuality Over Quantity
Point of No ReturnRole-Playing GamePreexisting Encounters
Poisoned WeaponsWeapons and Wielding TropesQuick Melee
Plot-Powered StaminaAcceptable Breaks from RealityPuzzle Reset
Power EchoesPowerPower Fantasy

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