Custom Card Game Design

Shadows over Innistrad Planeswalkers

After the train wreck that was Battle for Zendikar block, Shadows over Innistrad is shaping up to be a pretty sweet set. While I don’t think it will come anywhere near the original Innistrad, it’s still only a 2 on the normalized Return-to-Ravnica-Disappointment scale (which rates how disappointed you are with a return-to-set after the initial hype of returning to that plane, and on which Return to Ravnica is a 5), while Battle for Zendikar is at least an 8.

I have one problem with the set, though — the planeswalkers. Let me tell you why their designs suck:

Jace Nixilis.

It seems like Ob Nixilis wasn’t defeated by the Gatewatch; he merely took over Jace’s body. There seems to be a repeating pattern now that 5+-mana planeswalkers draw cards on their plus ability and remove threats on their minus ability. There is little room for variation left. At least the ultimate is different, but no one cares about that, because planeswalkers are always designed in a way that their ultimate is never activated ever. Why doesn’t Jace summon illusions for once? He does that all the time in the story. This incarnation is just boring.

Sorin, Cookie-Cutter

Oh look, another planeswalker that draws cards on his plus ability, deals with a threat on his minus ability, and has an ultimate that is completely irrelevant. People seem to be hyped about this card, but I don’t know why. He doesn’t strike me as very constructed playable. He’s just mediocre, bland, forgettable, and has bad art.

Nahiri, Mending Denier

Oh look, another planeswalker that draws cards on her plus ability, deals with a threat on her minus ability, and has an ultimate that is completely irrelevant. Ok, the ultimate is actually reached very easily, so maybe it could be relevant from time to time.

While Nahiri’s physical appearance inexplicatly didn’t change after centuries of being mortal, her spellbook changed quite a lot. I don’t mind that she got a new slice of abilities to represent her turn to the dark side, but she doesn’t feel like a Nahiri at all. It would have been nice if she had at least something to do with equipments, or artifacts in general.

The white in her also doesn’t really reflect in her abilities. The plus and the ultimate are both mono red, and only the minus ability is red-white. Despite all my criticism, I’m willing to give her a pass because the abilities do convey the story of Shadows over Innistrad very well.

Arlinn, Wall of Text

“Hey, but what about Arlinn Kord? She’s pretty unique, right?” you’re saying. No, she’s not! She’s just another spin on a planeswalker template that’s also overdone by now: The four mana planeswalker that spits out 2/2 tokens on a zero-ability. The transform ability is very cool, but she has so much text on her and only so little of that text is relevant. The ultimate would allow you to kill your opponent in a slightly cooler way, but unfortunately your opponent is dead long before you reach it. The two plus abilities are unnecessary in my opinion; either make them identical to reduce the complexity or remove the plus ability of the transformed side altogether.

Yes, Arlinn Kord is very cool, but like with all of these four planeswalkers, there is something obviously flawed about her design, and I cannot understand why these planeswalkers got their stamp of approval the way they are. It really seems to me like the design phase of these cards lasted for about five minutes, and they used the first few abilities they could come up with, while the rest of the time was spent on development to get the numbers right. They may be very well tuned as a result — but their design is so damn flawed!

I thought that we would see new, interesting concepts, like the Magic Origins flipwalkers, more often, but instead Wizards of the Coast seemed to be content here with just iterating upon the templates that have “worked” in the past. Quote unquote because I feel like a flaw with many planeswalkers is that just repeatedly using the minus ability is almost always the right play.

Doing it better

I complain a lot, but I also think that I can do it better. Here are two planeswalkers from my Shandalar set:

Two planeswalkers from Shandalar.

Liliana uses the Chain Veil to temporarily boost her power, while the Raven Man is as elusive as he is in the story. He can never be killed in combat, but also doesn’t affect the board except for threatening to ultimate.

It’s entirely possible that these two planeswalkers wouldn’t be able to pass through development, but if not, I’m sure there are similarly wild designs that would.



Red’s Affection

Pia and Kiran Nalaar has to be the card in recent years that has the greatest disconnect between the flavor and its mechanics.

On the picture we see a man hugging his wife as they look over the streets of Kaladesh where their Thopter creations are buzzing through the air. In the story, Pia and Kiran are depicted as the loving parents of Chandra, who sacrifice themselves so that their daughter can survive. Like all other Kaladesh artificers in Magic Origins, Pia and Kiran Nalaar create Thopter tokens. And like many of the artificers, they have an additional artifact-related ability. In fact, the only thing that differentiates them from Whirler Rogue is a different activated ability. And what did they choose as the unique ability of Chandra’s loving parents? They throw their Thopter creations at your face…

An ability that is completely disconnected from their flavor — it’s just what red does, and so they got this ability. Even if you ignore the “loving parents” part and only focus on the “ingenious artificers” side of Pia and Kiran, why would they blow up their creations, which I assume they are quite fond of, to hurt you? I for one never throw my self-made cards at my playgroup.

In recent years, Wizards tried to depict the colors less one-dimensional (“black is not necessarily evil!!!!!”). With Drana, Liberator of Malakir they succeeded in making a black hero character into an elegant, flavorful card. But for Pia and Kiran this was impossible, because there is just no way to depict love and affection in red mechanically. That’s also why Chandra is still depicted as nothing more than “the angry pyromancer.”

So, how about we expand red’s color pie (again!)? One possibility I see is giving red a small share of defensive spells:

A defensive red spell.

But it would be important to differentiate red creature protection from those of other colors. Here’s how it could be done:

  • White doesn’t need to sacrifice anything to save your creatures. Defensive Magic is part of their color pie and a white mage can just create an invulnerability shield.
  • Black doesn’t save creatures. The creatures save themselves. Vampires, demons etc. sacrifice the pawns to regenerate.
  • Red doesn’t have access to defensive magic, so when someone throws a fireball at his friend, the red mage can’t just create an invulnerability shield. He has to throw himself before the fireball to save the friend.
  • Big green creatures are just naturally indestructible.

Of course, this is only one possibility. These red defensive spells would only appear from time to time, and like Protective Instinct, they wouldn’t be too playable. Still, I have reservations about this addition to red’s toolbox and would prefer a solution to red’s one-dimensionality that fits better into its slice of the color pie.

If we choose not to expand red’s color pie this way, would Protective Instinct be fine as a one-time thing?

The Armies of Thune

When I first came up with the idea for Shandalar set, I envisioned a set based on a plane abundant with mana. Like Zendikar was the “land-set”, this would be the “mana-set.” Only later, I realized that Shandalar was the perfect plane for this set as it is described as exactly a plane abundant with mana. My initial concept had a strong multicolor emphasis, with exotic mana costs that you wouldn’t see anywhere else. Mana costs such as multicolor twobrid, tribrid, and mixed hybrids of all five colors. For a set based on mana mechanics, it would make sense that these exotic combinations are explored. But while this is a perfectly viable concept, it doesn’t work for Shandalar. In the recent core sets, Shandalar has been defined by five lands heavily aligned with a single color of mana: Thune, Evos Isle, Xathrid, Valkas, and Kalonia. It would feel wrong to depict these lands as anything else.

The focus of the set slowly shifted to monocolor, still with a heavy emphasis on mana mechanics, but with far less exotic mana costs. Although I want to push monocolor, multicolor should also be a viable archetype. Basically, you should be able to draft as few or as many colors as you like. Not an easy task to make this work, but I think it’s very much doable.

Each of the five colors should get cards that reward you heavily for sticking to only that color, as well as unique synergies and themes to prevent a “core-set feeling.” As of now, I have a concept that I’m happy with for Thune and Kalonia, and some rough ideas for the other lands. Here, I want to show off my concept for Thune.

Just like Bant, Thune encompasses basically all classic fantasy tropes associated with white: Wizards, knights, angels, and so on. So, that’s what you’ll get. The mechanical themes of Thune are a spin on the themes of the overall set. The first one is Inherit.

Two instants with inherit.

Inherit is a mechanic that appears in all colors. It allows you to “flashback” an instant or sorcery spell, but the twist is that you need a creature to cast it. The creature taps to allow you to cast the spell from exile once. You have to pay the mana cost, and then it’s put into your graveyard. Inherit is a spin on my Consign mechanic, and probably what Consign should have been in the first place, as the design space isn’t as constrained by the threat of repeatable game states.

I included Inherit in the set to capture that in Shandalar “the magical energy is so prevalent, that it all is sentient, and the common people use minor spells as an everyday convenience” and to synergize with the next mechanic, Wizardry.

A creature with Wizardry and a spell to synergize with it.

Wizardry rewards you for having creatures that fling spells left and right. Because you can potentially trigger Wizardry multiple times per turn (just imagine a few Elvish Mystics in play), I have to be very careful with the effects I put on it. Plus one life doesn’t seem much, but it can add up. Paladin Aspirant also shows the spin white has on the set’s theme. While most of the cards in the other colors with Inherit are sorceries, for example Divination with Inherit, white gets mainly instant combat tricks. But having to tap a creature to recast the spell prevents you from attacking – unless the creature has vigilance. Therefore, many cards in white have or grant vigilance.

Lastly, some creatures have activated abilities themselves.

I remember saying there wouldn’t be any exotic mana costs.

These creatures reward you for going into monocolor. A triple white cost at common probably isn’t a good idea, so the Crusader of Thune cycle is at uncommon. Sky Captain of Thune can be played in multicolor decks, but if you stick to mono white, you get the activated ability as a bonus.

Next time, we’ll travel to the forests of Kalonia.

Basic Duals

My Shandalar set requires a lot of mana fixing, as it’s supposed to support monocolor as well as five-color archetypes. Of course, a monocolor deck doesn’t need mana fixing, but maybe you want to splash a second color. For both of those deck types, common dual lands are a welcome sight.

So, I designed ten ETB-tapped duals. Here they are:

Alright, basic duals . . . why?

Because they are possible now that Wastes are a thing and I believe they would do a lot of good for the game.

  • Basic duals give a clear signal to newer players that you can and should build multicolored decks. You associate mono-red with Mountains, mono-green with Forests, but there’s nothing that represents the two color combinations, which have become more and more important since basic lands were invented.
  • Basic duals can be reprinted to be kept in Standard instead of having to invent new duals, such as Cinder Barrens, every set. The reprints can have a new art each time, just like normal basics, and players can collect and play with the ones they like the most.
  • Basic duals allow you to build budget multicolor decks. The price tag is especially a problem in Commander, a casual format, where people often don’t want to spend as much money on their decks, but where the mana base alone can cost more than 100$. That is, unless you want to fill up the deck with an unreasonable amount of basics and be color-screwed every game.

Basic duals communicate very elegantly that you can build multicolored decks, and you should play the appropriate basic duals to make your mana better, but playing multiple colors comes at a price. The duals aren’t very good. Unconditional ETB tapped is a huge downside.

Now that I’ve argued the positives, what are the potential problems with basic duals existing? Let’s look at their impact on each format:

  • Standard: You can balance basic-fetchers in Standard around the existence of these duals. No damage is done.
  • Modern: Basic duals would have a significant impact on Modern. You can make yourself immune to Blood Moon if you want to, which I think is a very good thing (**** Blood Moon!). They can be fetched with Search for Tomorrow and Sakura-Tribe Elder and therefore be played in Scapeshift decks. But that’s a minor upgrade the deck would get, and wouldn’t throw things out of balance.
  • Legacy/Vintage: No chance. They’re too bad.
  • Commander: Here, the basic duals would have the most impact. Now you can build budget multicolor mana bases, and you can even improve the mana bases of non-budget decks significantly, by cutting traditional basics for these new duals. Remember, in Commander you have to play a lot of basic lands, so that your land fetchers are never dead. I play about twenty basics in my Mayael Commander deck and I get color screwed frequently. Basic duals mean less mana screw, and more fun.

Alright, I’ve made my case. Let’s talk about the actual implementation. Like Wastes, basic duals don’t have basic land types and have their mana ability written in the oracle text. And just like on Wastes, that mana ability is omitted on the card. The only visual clue of its mana ability is the semi-transparent mana symbol. I hope that this representation is clear enough. Of course, the ETB tapped part can’t be omitted on the card.

Then the names . . .

River: River combines water and plains. A perfect fit in my book.
Cavern: I don’t know an elegant word for “underwater cave.” Cavern was the closest option.
Chasm: Chasm is mountain-y and sounds evil.
Highland: A wooded mountain region.
Meadow: The options were Meadow or Glade. Meadow is closer to Plains than Forest, while for Glade it’s the other way around.
Desert: Nothing really that fits perfectly. Desert works, and if any of the duals is a desert, it should be the white-black one.
Falls: A waterfall is water on a cliff. Fits perfectly. Shorten it to Falls, because Waterfalls sounds awkward.
Jungle: Swamp is already a forest-y terrain, so finding something in between Swamp and Forest is hard. I think Jungle works.
Mesa: Obv . . .
Pond: The options are Pool, Pond, or Rainforest. I’m not sold on Pond yet.

Got alternate ideas for the names? Tell me in the comments!


An Update long overdue: Siege of Ravnica

First, I couldn’t think of anything to write about. Then I didn’t have the time. And then I didn’t care.

But, new year’s resolve: More content again! (mainly because Doombringer constantly bugs me 😛 )

Let’s start with some updates long overdue. This time, Siege of Ravnica.

The Eldrazi

Siege of Ravnica underwent a lot of conceptual changes since my initial design, and it should be ready now for the next design wave. But, since I started with the set, Battle for Zendikar block happened. The question now becomes, how much should I let Siege of Ravnica be influenced by it? Like many people, I didn’t like Battle for Zendikar very much, and I think the Eldrazi were executed very poorly in the block. So, I’d rather cherry-pick the few good things from that block and ignore all the rest. Where are we at?

  • Devoid is terrible. No devoid in Siege of Ravnica. Never! Devoid didn’t happen! I can’t hear you! Lalalalala!
  • True colorless mana on the other hand is a very cool mechanic, and something that I’m considering using. However, my Eldrazi Spawns (Broods they are called now) actually make mana of any color, to help with the multicolor theme of the set (although it’s against the flavor of the Eldrazi). Introducing colorless mana would have to entail significant restructuring of the set.
  • I planned for all three titans to show up in Ravnica. But in Battle for Zendikar, Ulamog and Kozilek are killed off. Only Emrakul’s whereabouts remain unknown. This could be an opportunity to tie in Siege of Ravnica’s story with the current storyline: Emrakul escapes from Zendikar and goes straight for the main course of a city plane abundant with life. But at some point, we will deal with Emrakul in the official story, and Siege of Ravnica will again be a “parallel universe.” So, I’m only buying maybe two years.
  • While in Rise of the Eldrazi, the three titans just destroyed without reason, in Battle for Zendikar, the three Eldrazi titans were all given a unique identity. Ulamog was born from an insatiable hunger and has to consume endlessly. Kozilek is the master of time and space and reshapes the planes into his twisted vision of what the multiverse should look like. And Emrakul? It is the Titan of Corruption, twisting, corrupting, and consuming only living matter. This concept could be incorporated into Emrakul and his brood, or it could just destroy everything like it did in Rise of the Eldrazi. I actually liked that.

The current version of Emrakul.


The next big topic are the planeswalkers. I planned for planeswalkers to be at common, but due to a lot of negative feedback, and space-issues in the set skeleton, I plan to remove them, or at least change the approach drastically. Currently, I’m toying with the idea of making a set like Zendikar Expeditions called Across the Multiverse that will feature many planeswalkers, old and new, and spells from the home planes of these walkers. One Across the Multiverse card will be inserted into every or every second (or so) Siege of Ravnica booster, replacing the basic land. I want planeswalkers to be a major part of the draft format. I think it’s doable, but it has to be done right.

Two cards that could appear in Across the Multiverse.

New mechanic: Escort

Escort (An escort may protect another creature as both attack unpaired. The pair is blocked as a group and the protector is assigned combat damage first.)

Escort is a mechanic that I’ve been toying around for a while now, and one that I wanted to put into many sets in one form or another. As Duet, it allowed creatures to attack in a pair. In addition, upon attacking, you declare which creature is assigned combat damage first, and which second. With Escort, I simplified the mechanic even further, and made it mandatory that the escort is assigned combat damage first.

Two creatures with escort.

I really like Escort because it takes the good ideas of banding (bear with me) and removes everything that’s so confusing about it, both on a comprehension level and on a board complexity level. It forces the attacking player to declare the combat damage order immediately. This way, it is very easy for the defending player to discern how combat will turn out. It doesn’t do anything on defense, so there’s no risk that the attacking player runs into a chump-attack.

Only the wording is a bit tricky. In four lines or less, the reminder text has to convey that…

  • …you can’t have a creature be escorted by two escorts. This is what the “unpaired” phrase is for.
  • …the characteristic of having to be assigned combat damage first is separate from being an escort. If two escorts attack paired, you choose which one escorts the other. This is what the “protector” phrase is for.
  • …if two escorts attack paired, the protector has to be chosen upon attacking.

Did you think these corner cases were supposed to be handled this way based on the wording?

New mechanic: Deadlock

Deadlock — At the beginning of your upkeep, if no creatures attacked during each player’s last turn, {effect}.

Deadlock replaces Breach, which was an ability word that gave you a bigger pump spell if you cast it during your main phase. Both play into the siege theme of the set, but I think Deadlock is more interesting mechanically.

A “deadlock breaker” and a “true deadlock” card.

Deadlock creatures can break open stalled board states (Siegebreaker Wurm) or entice the opponent to break it open (Vizkopa Aristocrats). Although these cards use the same mechanic, they should play out very differently. While the Orzhov and Azorius guilds are good fits for the “true deadlock” mechanic, Gruul and co. really like attacking, so they should get more of the “deadlock breaker” cards.

On the surface, Deadlock seems like a mechanic that entices board stalls, but that’s only true on a deck-building level. If you play Vizkopa Aristocrats, you’ll want to make sure you can prevent your opponent from attacking favorably. But once the board stalls, the Aristocrats ensure that the game is coming to a conclusion. The opponent has to act.


How would you represent the brood of Emrakul, the titan of corruption? Should Emrakul stay true to its Rise of the Eldrazi depiction or should it get a unique shtick like the two smaller titans?

Next time, an update on Shandalar!

Overworld Limited Guide

If there is anything that is a constant in my custom set drafts, it’s that people always complain that their decks are bad and incoherent (even if it’s far from true). Let’s hope that this guide can alleviate that!

Full Card List


Wanderlust (Whenever this creature attacks, look at the top card of your library. You may put it on the bottom of your library. If it’s a land card, you may put it onto the battlefield tapped.)

Wanderlust is a mechanic that encourages you to attack, even in slow ramp or control decks. Wanderlust creatures generally have a smaller body and need help to be able to attack. Chump attacking to get a wanderlust trigger is almost never a good strategy. Wanderlust comboes with cards that manipulate the top of your deck.

Vessel (Whenever this creature attacks, do something to other attacking creatures.)

The Vessel ability word appears on Ships, which are colored artifact creatures. Vessel is another mechanic that encourages you to attack, although, unlike Wanderlust, only aggressive decks will be interested to use it most of the time.

Riposte {cost} (You may cast this card for its riposte cost if a creature is attacking you.)

Riposte is a mechanic that encourages you to defend and balances out Wanderlust and Vessel. The mana discount allows you to keep up combat tricks more easily on your opponent’s turn.

Growth {cost} ({Cost}: Put a +1/+1 counter on this creature. This costs 1 more to activate for each +1/+1 counter on it. Grow only as a sorcery.)

Growth is a generic mana sink mechanic appearing on sea monsters. Many of the sea monsters with Growth have an additional mechanic that triggers whenever they attack and have the greatest power among creatures on the battlefield. Growth helps you achieve that condition, but also pump spells, or Equipments can help out.

Tip: You can respond to an opponent’s attack trigger with a pump spell to counter it, even using riposte. The power check is performed only upon resolution of the trigger, so you can attack first, then respond with a pump spell to meet the condition.

Quest hub (When this enchantment enters the battlefield, draw a card. You may complete each quest once. When you’ve completed both, sacrifice this.)

Quest hubs are enchantments with “quest abilities.” These are like normal activated abilities, but can be activated only once. Each quest hub costs two mana, draws a card when it enters the battlefield, and has two quest abilities with varying activation costs. Quest hubs act as mana sinks in the lategame that have a relatively low opportunity cost – you can cycle them early and ignore them until later in the game. Most quest hubs are very strong, but there’s a limit to how many you should play because you’ll never find the time to complete all quests if you play too many.

Tip: To represent the state of a quest hub, put a dice on it. On 1, the dice indicates that the first ability has been activated. On 2, the second.

Gold tokens (Put a colorless artifact token named Gold onto the battlefield. It has: “Sacrifice this artifact: Add one mana of any color to your mana pool.”)

Some cards produce gold tokens, similar to those in Theros block. Gold tokens can be used for ramping, to keep up combat tricks, and for mana fixing. There are also cards that use artifacts as a resource.


Overworld has a significant tribal component. On a scale from Innistrad to Lorwyn, Overworld is somewhere in the middle.


White-Blue Adventurers

While all colors have access to quest hubs, blue and white are the only colors that have cards that specifically synergize with them – in the form of the two uncommons Elvish Adventurers and Errant Adventurer. The low density of those pay-off cards means that this archetype can’t be forced. However, Errant Adventurer is a very powerful card in a deck with many quest hubs and allows you to pick them much higher.

The adventurer deck can play the control game and outvalue the opponent with the plethora of quest hubs, or use the mana advantage generated by Errant Adventurer to play the tempo game like many white-blue decks in Limited. As both adventurers have a relevant creature type, Elf respectively Pirate, they blend well with tribal archetypes.

Blue-Black Pirates

The blue-black aggro deck relies on otherwise mediocre cards such as Thirst for Treasure, that suddenly become very strong when combined with Captain’s Parrots and similar creatures. As Pirates are secondary in blue, the Pirate synergies can be implemented, but it isn’t essential. Blue-black can also be built more controlling, but many commons in these colors support a tempo strategy better.

Red-Black or Grixis Pirates

Red-black Pirates are a typical aggro deck with a few tribal synergies. Jacon’s Recruiters is a very high pick in this deck. Due to the gold tokens that are available in those colors, it is not unreasonable to play straight three-color. The third color will most likely be blue, where you can pick up additional Pirates. Southsea Sky Pirates is generally too cost-inefficient to make the cut, but with enough Recruiters, it becomes quite good.

Green-X Sea Monsters

A green-based ramp deck exists in the form of sea monster tribal (Kraken, Leviathan, Octopuses, and Serpents). As sea monsters appear in all colors save white, the second color is free to choose. Each of those colors has one common that supports the sea monster tribal. In addition, there is Culinary Ogre at uncommon, making red-green a slight favorite as the choice of color combination. However, this archetype can make use of the powerful fixing in the format and easily go three-color. Iyori Deepspeaker is a very crucial common for this deck.

Green-White Elves

In the green-white pair, you can draft the elves archetype. Like a typical elves deck, you swarm the board and attack the opponent with an overwhelming force. A clear signal that elves are open is Elvish Reveler, as it is a great, efficient pay-off card for the deck. Elves can be combined with sea monsters to round out the deck with some heavy hitters.

Green-Blue Turtles

Turtles are centered in green and blue. The deck is based around the powerful pay-off cards Limestone Tortoise, Torta’s Warleader, and Keeper of Chronicles. Most turtles have a lot of toughness, and block very well, but to win the game, you need some additional finishers. As a control-ramp deck, it can put the most expensive sea monsters, costing up to eight mana, to use.

Red-White Conquistadors

While Ships appear in all colors save green, Ship synergy only appears in white (with the exception of one uncommon in red). Ships are at their best in a red-white aggressive token deck with a lot of pump effects. Iyori Port is a premium common for that deck. If you see a late Lecadian Conquistadors, read it as a signal that this deck is open.

Black-Green Voodoo

The black-green archetype is a secondary archetype, which isn’t as heavily supported as the other ones. The deck attempts to grind out the opponent, or get an early sea monster onto the battlefield with Return from the Deep. This deck lends itself well to splash multiple colors. The black-green deck is a valid back-up plan if the deck you’re trying to draft isn’t coming together.

White-Black Lifegain

Another secondary archetype. You can try to go into the lifegain deck, if you can pick up one or two of the pay-off cards Herald of Autumn and/or Malevolent Hosts early. Herald of Autumn is also a very good card in the elves deck, and will be contested heavily by other players. Malevolent Hosts, however, can be picked up late.

Draft Strategy

You can and often should commit to a certain archetype very early. Powerful, non-commiting cards dry out very quickly and you’re left with either picking mediocre cards or cards that are only viable in a certain archetype, such as tribal cards. Therefore, it is important to know which archetypes you can go into based on your first few picks, and to identify the signals when you should change gears and commit to a different archetype. To showcase this, let’s take a look at an example booster:

(Click to boost size)

In this pack, Cataclysmic Tide and Ruthless Strike are the outstanding cards and either could be the first-pick.  Dance of Tides is another solid pick. Beyond those three, all cards in this pack are either unexciting or commit you to a certain archetype. Keeper of Chronicles is one of the main reasons to draft Turtles, and Bloodsail Captain is just as powerful in the Pirates deck, and if you’re already commited to the respective deck, they outclass all other cards in the pack. Keeper of Chronicles, unlike Bloodsail Captain, is a fine card on its own though.

Overworld is a pauper format, meaning that rares don’t have as much impact as in most other draft formats. Sure, you can open the occassional slam first-pick bomb rare, but most rares are either situational, deck-dependent, or merely “good.” Powerful uncommons, and the high synergy commons, should have much more impact on your decision of where to go with your deck. During the draft, look out for these cards and then commit to the respective archetype early. If you read the signals wrong, and the deck isn’t coming together, a possible course is to pick up a lot of mana fixing and go into a multicolor good-stuff deck. When you have access to many colors, you can pick up solid cards that aren’t deck dependent more reliably.

Yes, we really named her Liliana. No, not after the Planeswalker :)

Liliana the Newborn

I’ll be posting more when this one lets me 🙂

Meet the Torians

Note: This post is about my card game Conquest of Orion. Find some additional infos here:

Meet the Torians

In Conquest of Orion, we follow the path of humanity as they explore and colonize the Orion sector, a wonderful, and mysterious corner of the galaxy. During their journey, they come across life forms so bizarre they challenge the notion of what exactly life is. But nothing could have prepared them for their encounter with the Torian race.

The storyline of the game is segmented into three sagas. Each saga consists of three sets and features two races, of which one are always the Humans (during deck building, you must limit yourself to one race).

The first saga features several nonsentient species capable of interstellar travel. Although seemingly different species, ranging from insects and space whales to fungal life forms, they all seem to share common ancestry, and were grouped under the simple term “Alien.”

A century later, several full-blown colonies have been established in the sector and the humans come in contact with the Torians for the first time, the race featured in the second saga.

Now, space whales, that’s easy stuff. They’re a part of mainstream culture just as much as zombies or angels. Space insectoids? That’s like the Zerg, right? But what is a Torian, you ask? Is that some kind of Surrakar? Not exactly, so here’s a rundown of what the Torians are, and how they are represented in the game.

A Torian voyager.


Torians are a sentient, humanoid species resembling humans in most of their basic body structure, but they are taller and slimmer, often with underdeveloped extremities due to severe underuse. They have a blue to purple complexion resulting from pigments in their skin used for photosynthesis. Although their stature appears to be that of a female to the human eye, Torians are in fact genderless.

The Torians would have evolved very similar to humans, wasn’t it for the fact they possess the ability to exert control over the forces of the universe with their mind. This ability allows them to easily achieve what humans can achieve only through the use of technology, including interstellar travel. Although extremely powerful, Torians are no gods. Far from it, they have finite lifespans and can be killed if their fragile bodies are damaged. However, doing so requires to pierce the barriers that Torians surround themselves with to prevent hostile environments (such as outer space) from harming them.


Torians range in character just as wide as humans do. They don’t possess a hive mind, or a leadership that makes decisions for the entire race. Each Torian acts individually, and while some are sympathetic towards humanity, others are not. Most Torians are solitary, traveling the stars to explore the universe and find their calling. Some spend their lifetimes building planets, each a unique expression of art. These are the architects, and they are accompanied by the designers, who create life forms to inhabit those planets. The voyagers do not engage in craftsmanship, but instead admire the works of the universe and their kin. Regularly, they hold contests where the architects’ creations are rated as works of art.


Voyagers seek out and find inspiration in cosmic events, such as supernovae or rare planetary alignments. These are represented by Abilities, so the voyager keyword cares about those. Attunement gives the unit +1 damage and +1 shield until end of turn whenever you play an Ability, and is therefore the Conquest of Orion version of Prowess.

Trigger attunement by playing cheap ability cards such as Nebulas. Abilities are sorceries in Magic, and fast abilities are instants.


The architects build planets, so their eponymous keyword is very straight-forward. An architect enters play accompanied by its own planet. You begin the game with three basic planets, and you can conquer additional unique planets throughout the game, for example Toria. Architects are the only way of getting new basic planets, so there will likely be synergy cards that are based around basic planets.

Architects create additional planets and increase your resource income. There might also be Torian cards that care about basic planets.


Designers constantly invent and nurture new life forms. In the game, exoplanet wildlife is already represented as neutral “Critter” cards, and are expanded upon in the sets that feature the Torians. In those sets, you may see creatures that mother nature could never come up with. The designer keyword should encourage you to play with those neutral cards, and thus cares about Critters. When a Designer enters play, you flip cards from the top of your deck, much like Cascade in Magic, until you flip a Critter that you could play on your current Tier (“researched”) and that you don’t control already. So, designers demand that you play a variety of Critters, and not just invent the same species over and over again.

Designers reward you for playing with neutral “critters,” cards that otherwise would only be considered limited fodder.

Interaction with Humans

The Torians did not suddenly arrive in the Orion sector out of nowhere. During the first saga, while the humans established their colonies, they were there. They simply chose not to reveal themselves.

An engineer believed that her friend and co-worker was replaced by an alien impostor prior to an incident that destroyed a colonial satellite.

Embedded into the Torian’s genetic code is a warning about an ancient race bent on undoing the work of their creators and destroying all life in the universe. Not much else is known about these destroyers, but that they would find them in the Milky Way eventually. When the humans entered the sector, many Torians believed them to be the race they were warned about. They witnessed the human’s ruthlessness, their willingness to destroy other life in their path of conquest, and figured that they fit the description. But most Torians were skeptical and prefered to simply observe the intruding race for now.

Torians is the human term for the race, as they were encountered first on the world Toria, whose name and location was transcribed from the records in an ancient alien archive. When the human explorers reached the Distant Realm, where the Torian homeworld is located, a small group decided to act against the majority and attacked and murdered the expedition teams that were exploring their world. Soon, more hostilities ensued and people of both races were killed. This caused the hostile-minded Torians to gain more and more support. Meanwhile, those who were more on the side of diplomacy established contact and tried to prevent further aggressions, but that proved to be very difficult. The exchanges were complicated by the human’s fear of the Torians, a race which they didn’t understand. In particular, they blamed the entire race for the actions of a few.

While the human leadership waged war, the citizens of the colonies demanded peace.

But eventually, the two races began to understand each other and the hostile Torians lost the support among their kin entirely. In the following sets of the saga, the two races work together to learn more of their origins. Do they both share common ancestry? How is it that every alien and its grandmother can bend the universe with its mind, but the humans lack that ability?

In celebration of their friendship, humans were invited to judge the planet creation contest held in year 2420.

Conquest of Orion Reimagined

Note: This post is about my card game Conquest of Orion. It’s not a prerequisite, but if you want to read more about the game, you can browse the posts under the category “Conquest of Orion.” However, most of it is heavily outdated. I also prepared a new document that serves as an early overview. You can find it here.

Conquest of Orion is a game I have been working on for many, many years now. I put the game to rest several times, picking it up again years later, after I had increased my design skills and after I had learned lessons that I could apply to improve the game further. With each iteration, the rules changed significantly, as did the appearance of the cards. When I look back at my old Conquest of Orion cards, I cringe just as much as when I look at the first Magic cards I created. Let’s see them!

The first iteration

A planet from the first iteration of Conquest of Orion. Background art by Jeff Michelmann.

The first iteration of the game could be described very accurately with “Magic in Space.” I must have been a teenager back when I created these cards, and I didn’t have much experience with TCGs or game design in general. And when you don’t, you lack the insight to know what’s possible, what you can do differently, and what you probably shouldn’t do differently. Just like in Magic, there were five resources generated by five different planet types, and those resources would empty at the end of turn.

But at least combat was a bit different. Each planet could be attacked individually and units (creatures) could defend a planet or, when you’d rather keep the unit, escape from the planet when it was attacked. The combat system could be described as a hybrid between the Magic and Hearthstone systems. In Magic, you can’t attack a specific creature. You simply attack the opponent and he or she has full control over the creatures he or she controls that are entering combat with the attacker. The Hearthstone system is the polar opposite: You can attack minions directly and the opponent is unable to do anything about it.

Both systems have their strengths and weaknesses. In Magic, you sometimes end up with board stalls, which can never happen in Hearthstone, and you sometimes lack the ability to do anything about a problematic creature. Hearthstone, on the other hand, is the most frustrating game to play when you’re behind. Every single minion you play gets taken out and there’s little you can do about it.

The Conquest of Orion system tries to find the middle ground between those two extremes. You can attack a planet which is defended by a unit that you want to take out, and the defending player can evacuate it, but doing so comes at a cost.

The second iteration

During the second iteration, I kept the combat system but I changed the resource system significantly. In Conquest of Orion, you don’t play the resource cards from your hand, but you conquer planets to gain resources – and you have to defend them. The amount of planets you control doesn’t necessarily increase throughout the game, so copying the mana system from Magic won’t work.

The resource system was scrapped in favor of a different system of progression. Now there were two resources (blue crystals and gold gems), which had a slightly different purpose. Crystals were accumulated faster and used to pay for low-tech “bread-and-butter” cards. Grizzly Bears would have costed two crystals. Gems, on the other hand were accumulated slower and used to unlock more powerful cards, which also require gems to be played. An Inferno Titan would cost say three crystals plus three gems. Cards also had a Tier requirement. You start at Tier 1, and you can pay a gem-heavy cost to advance to the next Tier, unlocking more powerful cards.

With only a single resource, too much strain would be put onto that resource. While you spend your turn advancing to the next Tier, your opponent just plays more low-Tier units and runs you over.

A card from the second iteration. Not even I know what this card does.

The cards also received some visual changes. The disproportionate card frame from the older version was replaced with a much slimmer and well-proportioned one. Still, I created them using primitive software and the formatting was a mess. Add that you couldn’t decipher some of the card texts even if you knew the rules by heart.

The third iteration

The game engine worked quite well by now. The game just needed to be cleaned up – heavily.

A card from the third incarnation. Created with Magic Set Editor.

Luckily, I learned to use a very potent program for designing cards and card sets by then – Magic Set Editor. The card renders looked a lot more polished, although the template resembled the Magic template a lot since it was based on a few small edits of the Modern Magic template.

Gameplay wise, the third iteration largely focused on simplifying things and making them more intuitive. I think that “simpler is always better” is one of the most important lessons you have to learn as a game designer, and it takes a long, long time before you’ve learned to fully live by this rule. You’ll say: “But… but I want it to work that way so that in this super-narrow corner case X that comes up every ten years, you can have this cool interaction Y.” I have fallen into that trap many times, and I have seen plenty of other designers fall into it before. And it doesn’t only apply to game design: Frequently, I hear talks where the speaker presents a graph on which ten different data sets are plotted, and he or she talks about them in a blistering speed, while I sit there trying to figure out what’s actually plotted on the x-axis.

The fourth iteration

I made some desperately needed simplifications, but I was still too attached to many of the rules that were just not necessary to exist. I tried to come up with solutions to rules problems that were more intuitive, instead of getting rid of the problematic rules altogether. It is useful in such a situation to let the project rest for a while, so you can get a more objective view on it. You have to identify what doesn’t work and forego your emotional attachment to those parts so you can throw them overboard.

So, this leads us to the fourth and current iteration. I tried to move the cards away from these complex interactions, to simple and (hopefully) interesting combat-based keywords and I’m currently working on the batch of evergreen keywords for the game.

A card from the fourth incarnation (Click for a HQ version).

Meanwhile, I gave the card frame a few minor changes. I try to move it away from the Magic frame and give it its own style. The power/toughness box was replaced with icons representing damage, health, shields, and more. I’m not completely happy with it yet; I’d like to have them blend better with the rest of the frame, but I’m no graphic designer, so my amateurish attempts didn’t turn out too well so far.

Tell me what you think of this frame design and whether you want to hear me talk more about Conquest of Orion. Otherwise, I have plenty of Eldrazi and Pirates to show you. Here are some more cards:

Two Human cards, an Alien, and a Torian. During deck building, you must commit to one race.

[Story] Khemia – A tale of the gods

Khemia is a top-down design that has been in the making, off and on, for a few years.  As I move deeper into the set and begin to focus on it as my current custom MtG project, I find myself more focused on world-building which, in turn (I hope), will help with design.  I’m no writer, certainly no fiction writer, so be gentle.  Below is the first in a series of posts that should flesh out the plane of Khemia, and provide some insight into the conflict between the Pharaohs, who believe they are anointed by the gods to rule over the ‘lesser folk’, and the Freesand’s Rebellion, who believe all Khemians should be equal and free.  Specifically, this post is a bedtime story told by the Pharaoh Khura to his daughter, Princess Raelia, who will one day grow to be the leader of the Freesands Rebellion, who seek to usurp the Pharaohs. (Art credit to Lee Reex, El Grimlock at, Saad Irfan, Hector Herrera, and Julian Peria.)


“Tell me a story, Father” the princess said.  The Pharaoh, of course already knowing the answer, asked “A story of what, my lotus flower?”.  The girl flashed her father an impish grin. “A story of the gods!”, she replied as she drew her blankets closer, the night breeze from the river,  an-Nil the Great, cooling the young princess’s open-air bedchamber. The Pharaoh smiled down at his daughter, and heir, and begin to recite the tale. “Long ago, the people of Khemia were all the same.  Petty and corrupt, they bickered for cattle, bickered for honey, bickered for water.  A Khemian could kill another and there would be no justice, for there was no law.  Then May’et, goddess of truth and judgment, came to them and showed them a better way.  The greatest were elevated to their rightful place, and these were the first Pharaohs.  They brought law to the lawless, justice to the lesser folk, and proclaimed May’et’s truth to all of Khemia, for they were the Pharaohs.”


Ma’yet, Truth and Judgment (art by Lee Reex)

“Long ago, the people of Khemia were all the same. Dull and slow-minded, they knew not the secrets of Sphinxes, knew not of the secrets of Mana.  The riddles and tricks of the dunes were cruel enigmas that bested them all.  Then Sehtar, the trickster, came to them and showed them a better way.  The greatest were reminded of their great intellect and wit, and these were the first Pharaohs.  They tricked the Sphinx into sharing its secrets of mana, and the desert bloomed.  They tricked the lesser folk, who became their slaves, and the great Pyramids were built for their great glory, for they were the Pharaohs.”


Sehtar, the Trickster (Art by El Grimlock)

“Long ago, the people of Khemia were all the same.  Frail and mortal, life was merely a short breath before they returned to the sand in death.  Short were their lives, and final was the grave.  Then Ossurian, sovereign of life and death, came to them and showed them a better way.  The greatest were shown that they have power over both life and the afterlife, and these were the first Pharaohs.  Death was merely another step in their existence, a place where they would bring the lesser folk to attend them as they supped in Ossurian’s halls, for they were the Pharaohs.”


Ossurian, Caretaker of the Dead (Art by Saad Irfan)

“Long ago, the people of Khemia were all the same.  Cowardly and weak, they were the prey of the crocodile, meat of the harpy.  A Khemian knew not the ways of the spear, or the power of the flame.  Then Amunaht, the sun’s fire, came to them and showed them a better way.  The greatest remembered their strength, and conquered the dunes with fire and iron, and these were the first Pharaohs.  The lesser folk trembled at their might, and hid their eyes from the radiance, for they were the Pharaohs.”


Amunaht, the Sun’s Fire (Art by Hector Herrera)

“Long ago, the people of Khemia were all the same.  Hungry and sick, the hot winds parched their lips and the sands choked them.  The dunes were all they knew, save for the mirages sent by the Sphinxes to toy with them.  Then Tefeneta, mother of Great an-Nil, came  to them and showed them a better way.  The greatest remembered the river, remembered the rains, and found a fertile delta.  The lesser folk sang their glories, and erected great temples upon the water in acknowledgment of their glory, for they were the Pharaohs.”


Tefeneta, Who Brings the Rain (Art by Julian Peria)

“So sleep well, my princess,” Pharaoh said to his daughter, “for you are one of the greatest.  The gods have chosen you to rule over the lesser folk, to show them the justice of May’et, the cunning of Sehtar, the life of Ossurian, the boldness of Amunaht, and the abundance of Tefeneta. You are my lotus flower, my Raelia.” Khura, Pharaoh of Khemia, bent down and kissed his daughter’s forehead.  The young princess, however, was already fast asleep.

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