Custom Card Game Design

Bottoms Up!

If you’ve been following Magic: the Gathering’s design over the past three or four years, you’ve probably seen the term ‘top-down’ an awful lot.  Put simply, top-down design is a method of design that starts with the flavor – the story, the aesthetics, etc. – of the set, and then assigns mechanics based on that flavor.  A great example of top-down design is the Innistrad block, where the designers started about by saying ‘this is supposed to be gothic horror’, and thus had cards like laboratory maniac which started out their design with the well known horror trope of the mad scientist, and then assigned mechanics to fit that idea.  Another great example of top-down design is the forthcoming Theros block, which is a top-down design based around greek mythology.

This certainly isn’t a top-down design…

Bottom-Up design is the complete opposite.  Cards are designed with function alone in mind, with flavor and aesthetics added after the fact.  There’s not a great example of bottom-up design in MtG recently, because it’s something they’ve moved away from (as top-down designs are certainly more resonant, and their design teams are top-notch, able to take the flavor they work with and mix it in with awesome mechanics to create a compelling game environment.)

Another example of a bottom-up design

My first block, Caeia, was a top-down design.  The very first idea for that block was the simple story premise – a mysterious priest who deals in colorless magic travels to a highly segregated plane and pits the inhabitants against eachother in a plot to summon the Eldrazi.  Most, if not all of the cards in the Caeia block, started as thematic ideas rather than mechanical ideas – and I think this was a success in many ways.  I personally feel like the Caeia block is one of the more flavorful custom set out there, and I’m pretty happy with how the story translated to the cards.  However, there were problems with this approach – developmental problems where cards that were designed for flavor purposes don’t quite mix well within the game (think Homelands), and I still struggle with these issues every time I play with the block.

Credit for the original idea for Vanguard goes to MTGS poster Lord of Atlantis

My follow-up to Caeia (a three set block code-named ‘Veni‘, ‘Vidi‘, and ‘Vici‘) will be a bottom-up design.  I know the mechanical themes of the block (creature combat matters) and have several mechanical interactions in mind already, but I have no idea what the aesthetics of the block will be, no idea what the setting or story will be.  It’s a design strategy that has it’s own pitfalls, but as my intent through all of this is to better myself as a designer, I want to experience those pitfalls for myself.

Another mechanic from Veni (Borrowed from my modular cube project which is currently on hold.)

So I’ve set out to make this set, where tactical creature combat is at the core.  To me, this has already meant a few things.  First off, I’ve set a hard rule for myself – no creature removal at common.  Nada.  Zip.  If you want to be rid of a creature, at common, you’re going to have to do it while in combat.  I’ve also increased the number of combat tricks that each color will be receiving, and the mechanics of the cards will often deal with attacking creature, blocking creatures, or both.  As you can see by the pictures found throughout this post, I’ve not settled on any card name, no art, no flavor text, and no class.  The cards are all coded, and their names are simple descriptions of their mechanical functions.  This will remain true throughout the entire design process.  We’ll see where it goes.


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