Custom Card Game Design

Annihilation – Initial Design Phase (Finally!) Over

Well, I’m two months behind schedule, but as of today the initial design of Annihilation is finished! (outside the 10 or so Eldrazi I intend to add eventually.)  Of the three sets in the block, this has by far been the most difficult to get to this point, and today I’d like to talk about some of the difficulty I’ve experienced up to this point and how I’ve dealt with it, and then finally talk a little about where I intend to go with the set from this point.

The Death of a Plane

For those who are just hopping into this, a few bits of information.  Annihilation is set 3 of 3 in my first custom block.  The block takes place on the plane of Caeia, a world where all colors of magic are heavily segregated (ie; a heavy mono-color theme), that is besieged by the Eldrazi after being released from their planar prison of Zendikar by a cult that worships them.  The primary theme of this set is the hopelessness of the situation…  because of the segregation of mana, and the prejudice and hatred between the major cultures of the plane that stemmed from that, the denizens of the plane are unable to unite together and mount an effective defense and are ultimately and utterly destroyed.

Putting this theme forth in the set proved to be challenge number one.  How does one design cards that represent entire cultures that are losing and being destroyed?  At the end of the day, I found several things that helped me with this.  First of all was art.  You’ll notice that almost all of my cards have art associated with them – I have a very difficult time posting anything without art.  This is because, to me, the art is part of the design process as a whole.  The art tells a story that the card alone simply cannot.   Finding art that portrayed characters who seemed to be in despair, or bleak and hopeless situations seemed to help.

The second method I found to portray the theme of loss and despair is to emphasize it mechanically.  One of the first mechanics from this set that was previewed is named Despair, and it appears on a 5-card cycle.  Although the mechanic could have easily been reworded to be a positive mechanic while remaining functionally identical, by wording it as a negative mechanic I was able to show the despair of the situation via the mechanics.

Third, I portrayed despair by portraying hope.  Not every denizen of Caeia is giving up…  many are fighting valiantly and inspiring hope where there would otherwise be none.

Finally, the fourth method of portraying the despair in the block is through the flavor text.  This is something that largely has not been done yet.  I’ve attempted to put flavor text where it quickly comes to me, but I have not yet put much time into coming up with flavor text, although I intend to once I’m putting the final ‘polish’ on the block as a whole.


One of the things that has surprised me the most throughout this entire process is how hard it is for me to design fortifications.  Many times I would set out to design a fortification and it would either end up being terrible, or not a fortification at all.  More often than not, designs that began as fortifications would end up making more sense as simply a nonbasic land or a global enchantment, or even a plain old artifact.  The ones that did still make sense as fortifications would end up being unplayed because they weren’t worth the mana.

I approached the fortifications in Annihilation very carefully, and provided this approach works out, I plan on redesigning the fortifications in the previous two sets to match this philosophy.  I gave myself the following guidelines to attempt to stay with (I strayed occasionally) when designing fortifications.  They were:

  • A fortification should not be something that could simply be replaced by a global enchantment.
  • A fortification can be something that could be replaced by a utility nonbasic land, and in fact the design of many fortifications should conceptually be ‘turn target basic land into a useful utility land’.
  • Fortifications that give creature based benefits should primarily be defensive, and should be either be worth the loss of use of their fortified land, or should have their effect in addition to the land’s mana producing abilities.

Taking this approach, many of my recent fortification designs I think are much better than previous.  Thematically, a lot of the new fortifications seem almost like ‘upgrades’ to a castle, like something you’d find in an RTS, and this is something I’m quite alright with.

Cthulhu (I mean, the Eldrazi)

Another difficulty has been that Eldrazi are hard to design.  You can only have too many big colorless fatties before they begin to become boring – in fact the fewer you have, the cooler the rest are because of their uniqueness.  Right off the bat, this caused me to design the Consume mechanic, as I wanted to make sure I had a way to present Eldrazi besides what had been done before.  However, Consume is terribly difficult to balance because of how punishing it can be to your opponent.

Similar to how I dealt with mill, I’ve tried approach this by giving players additional opportunities if consumption counters exist, rather than make it easier for them to add more consumption counters.  The card above, The Aeon’s Torn (not only a reference to Emrakul, but also the actual name for this peace of art) may not make the final cut, because of how difficult it is to use effectively, but concepts like this will be built upon until Consume is a valid strategy, but not too powerful.  Cards that get around the punishing side of Consume without hosing consume strategies completely are also in the set to hopefully keep it in check.

As an Eldrazi set, it’s very important that, by the end of it all, the Eldrazi in the block truly shine, and with this in mind I intend on expanding the number of cards in this set to include 10 more Eldrazi-themed cards, which will hopefully bring the right feel to the final product.

I’m a bad designer (sometimes)…

The final problem I had during this design process is that some of this stuff just sucks.  There are multiple examples of cards, like the one above, that are poorly though out, poorly executed, and just plain bad.  MaRo has said that he never gets designer’s block, and frankly I’m amazed.  It’s become very difficult for me, recently, to come up with solid designs that fit within the set flavorfully and mechanically.  I’m getting there, slowly, but there’s still a lot of stuff in the set file that’s simply terrible, and I don’t really have much of an excuse, except to say that these things will improve as the development process commences, and that nothing should presented today should be taken as being in any final form at all.

The Next Step…

So where do I go from here?  The plan is that, after a fairly brief development pass on the 3rd set as a whole, to extensively look over the entire block and redesign or develop as needed, to make the entire block more thematically and mechanically unified, as well more fun to play.  I’m going to look at each card in each set and ask the following questions:

  • Which player type is this card designed for? (all that apply) Timmy, Johnny, Spike
  • What deck types is this card designed for? (all that apply) Aggro, Combo, Control
  • Is this card playable in block constructed?  Is it playable in cube limited? (if not playable in either, scrap it)
  • Is this card irrelevant in cube? (ie; cards that react with multiple copies of themselves, etc.)
  • Does this card belong in the Caeia Block, or would it fit in a core set?
  • Is this card templated correctly? (specifics, such as keyword order, etc.)
  • Any grammar mistakes?
  • Is the artist credited as accurately as possible?
  • Where does this card fit in the overal CMC curve of its color?
  • For each color, is there an appropriate card type distribution?

There’s more that will be asked during this process, but this is just an example of how in-depth I intend to get during this final development phase.   After this is done, extensive playtesting will follow in which the cards will be tweaked to provide better gameplay.  While I’m not certain this set will ever be in a form that I consider 100% complete, my aim is to have this in a releasable ‘beta’ form by the end of this process, hopefully by winter of this year.

I’ve already received an amazing amount of feedback from many MTGS posters, as well as some posters here.  Not to mention the great amount of help that I’ve received from my friends locally.  In particular, I’d like to thank Antares (Apoquallyp on MTGS), Prophylaxis, and AranMagnus for their help in getting this far.  If I’m the ‘lead designer’ for this set, these guys can certainly be considered an integral part of the design team.

If you, reader, are interested in helping during this final phase of the development and playtesting, please respond here!  I need many people helping playtest, and I need people to help me just go over all the cards with a fine toothed comb looking for grammar and templating problems.  If you’re interested in helping in any way, please let me know! It looks like I’ll be at Comic Con Dallas in October, and I intend to bring the set in cube form (along with, most likely, some constructed decks) for playtesting, if anyone is going to be there and wants to help out!

As always, thanks for reading!


2 responses to “Annihilation – Initial Design Phase (Finally!) Over

  1. antaresmtg September 8, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    “Well, I’m two months behind schedule, but as of today the initial design of Annihilation is finished!”
    You always act like you have an impatient publisher in your back 🙂 Kinda funny.
    Comments on the set in your MTGSalvation thread.

  2. adventmtg September 8, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    Haha I know, I really shouldn’t apologize or anything, I just kinda feel bad that I haven’t been posting anything…

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