Custom Card Game Design

On Playtesting

Today, I want to talk about my favorite part of custom set design:  Playtesting.  Most custom sets, maybe even as many as 9 out of every 10, never make it this far, but for those few who have I’m willing to bet their creators would tell you it was the most rewarding part of the entire process.  There’s something inherently awesome about playing with a cardpool that you created yourself and finding combos that you had never intended or even thought of.  Seeing your cards play well together, even better than you expected, is a feeling that you just don’t get in other facets of MtG.

Meet Grillek.  Grillek is my favorite legendary creature of the block, and arguably my favorite card from the block.  In Block Constructed playtesting, decks built around Grillek are a dominating force, yet are not grossly unbeatable.   This is not by mistake, however.  Grillek has gone through more testing and more changes than any of the cards in the block.  The goal with this entire process being the creation of a healthy and diverse environment for both block constructed and cube limited, it is important to me that we eliminate problematic cards to avoid having a single deck dominate the format (CawBlade, I’m looking at you.)

So, since Grillek has gone through extensive playtesting, let’s take a look at where we started, what changed throughout the process, and how we got there.

…yeah this is fair.

During the design process of the 2nd set, as is my custom, I designed some broken cards.  This isn’t entirely on accident – as I’m designing the basics of the set, I often simply fill in my design skeleton with rough thoughts, in this case the thought being ‘a goblin that grabs weapons and armor from anywhere he can find it’.  Not knowing exactly how to balance this, but knowing that it was likely very broken, I decided to let it slide until playtesting, and once we got the playtesting phase I learned two things.  First, the card was broken as hell (notice that, at this point, the card wasn’t legendary).  Second, and more surprisingly, it was the most entertaining card I’ve ever played with.

This discovery took me back a bit…   I’d intended for this card to simply be a powerful rare aggro creature, and yet it was a ‘build around me’ card that was basically the collective wet dream of both Johnny and Spike (and Timmy liked it too after seeing just how big it could become.)  What was even more surprising was that I had perfect support for this kind of card already in the set, with cards like Goblin Looter setting things up perfectly by dumping equipment cards into the graveyard while generating card advantage, and cards like Gideon, Hopebringer able to seal the deal by fishing up whatever you needed.  Knowing this, I set out to balance the card.


This is the second iteration of what would become Grillek, and it was almost completely unplayable.  You’ll notice a few things…  first of all, his converted cost was raised from 2 to 4. Second, we removed the haste component, and last we made him legendary.  While the effect still seemed theoretically powerful enough, the constructed decks built around this card refused to get off the ground, and in limited he was an extremely low pick, and almost never played.

The biggest point to make here, however, is that there is much more to take into account than the card itself.  In a format with the Mirrodin Swords cycle available, even this last version of Grillek is completely unprintable.  As it stands, the current version of Grillek (the one at the top of the post) is still extremely strong, because of the sheer effectiveness of its support.  Reviewing and discussing this card on forums wasn’t enough to figure this out – in fact it was never even commented upon.  It had to be played to determine it’s power level.


So, there’s a bit of insight into what the set goes through during playtesting.  For those of you working on your own sets who want to start playtesting, here are a few pointers:

  • Print proxies of your cards and take them everywhere.  It’s like .35 per sheet (each sheet being 9 cards) to print these at Kinko’s or the like, what I do is print them, cut them, and stick the paper proxies in sleeves along with bulk cards, to get the weight ‘right’ (they’re going to be heavier than normal).  Because they’re heavier, be sure to print basic lands also, for uniformity’s sake.
  • Create plugins for everything you can think of.  Magic Workstation, Lackey, Cockatrice, etc.
  • Consider what format(s) your set is created for.  For instance, my sets are intended only for cube drafting and block constructed play, cube because it’s very hard to organize a truly random booster draft with a custom set, and block constructed because allowing your cards to interact with 20 years worth of WotC cards makes playtesting and balancing a nigh impossible task.
  • Get creative!  Need to test limited but only have one other person available?  Do sealed, Winston, or Winchester!
  • Ask for help.  The MSE2 forums, the MTGS forums, twitter, and reddit are all great places to find like-minded people who might b interested in helping to test.   By advertising in this way, I was able to get a lot of playtesters for my first set, including what has been my best playtest group – a group of seamen from the U.S. Navy who drafted Caeia on their downtime.

Hopefully, this article was entertaining and these pointers were helpful.  Have any other pointers, or any questions?  Leave some comments!

Until next time, thanks for reading!


3 responses to “On Playtesting

  1. antaresmtg July 25, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    for me, playtesting is the most nerve-racking part of designing. that’s partly because I am used to most people giving feedback not in a very constructive way.
    on grillek: i think, if you’d make him a 2/1 he would be golden for standard.

  2. Prophylaxis July 25, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Grillek’s power is very much dependent on the environment – you can’t rate him in a vacuum.

    What sorts of equipment is he picking up?

  3. adventmtg July 25, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    Nothing too fancy… Grillek is from the second set (Eldrazi Unleashed), and you can see the equipment from there in the set file. There’s one equipment, a mythic (Aegis of Ugin) that most likely will be changed because it’s pretty back breaking, but even that has stayed so far.

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