Custom Card Game Design


Over the past week, the magic community has gotten a ton of information about where the game is going in the near future.  The first real spoilers for Khans of Tarkir have been shown at Pax (and as of this writing, spoiler season has begun), and MaRo dropped a bombshell on all of us by announcing the advent of a new block structure – the three-set block has gone the way of the dodo, as has the core set, and we are about to enter the era of two-set blocks twice per year.  I couldn’t be more excited!

The new block structure for MtG post-M16.

The Third Set Problem

The biggest reason for the change in block structure is something MaRo refers to as the ‘third set problem’.  Basically, by the time you get to the third set of a block, many of the mechanical ideas have already introduced and iterated upon, and the third set tends to be difficult to design – easily becoming underwhelming or overpowered as the pendulum swings too far to one side.  The MtG designers have tried this by varying up the third set of a block – Rise of the Eldrazi and Avacyn Restored were both self contained formats within their own blocks.  New Phyrexia saw the victory of the Phyrexians and a host of new themes and mechanics to go along with it.  And the most recent third set, Journey into Nyx, was solid only because the middle set, Born of the Gods, was intentionally held back so that the final set would have some potency.

This is something I experienced myself when trying to design Annihilation, the third set of my first custom block.  Although I had a definitive three-act story, by the time I began work in earnest on the third set, many of my mechanical themes had already been exhausted.  I had a lot of problems with Annihilation, and I’m still not 100% happy with it.  My current custom project was headed towards the same problem, so much that I had already decided to vary it up a bit (more on that later).  Future story was daunting to me because of the established three-set block structure.  This new block structure fixes all that.

The namesake for the third set of my custom block, Caeia. By far the hardest set of the block to design.

On Telling a Story

I (obviously) really enjoy custom MtG design, even if I’m not always that great at it.  As my first block began to take shape, I began to consider where I wanted to go and have had a roadmap of sorts that spans the entire story I want to tell.  Caiea, my first block, began design work around the time that Innistrad came out, and so at that point I decided that my custom multiverse and the MtG multiverse were separate – after the events of new Phyrexia the universe literally split and my custom sets exist within an alternate multiverse.  At the time, my stories and MtG’s stories didn’t conflict, so there wasn’t much needed to go into detail about this.  Khans is changing all of that.

When Khans of Tarkir was announced, we learned that it would be a time-travel story.  The story I have planned out is also a time-travel story.  Recently, it’s been determined that Ugin is a prominent story-point in Khans of Tarkir.  Ugin is a prominent character in Caeia.  There will soon be story elements within MtG that contradict my own, and so I’m taking this opportunity to lay out my ultimate plan (which may or may not come to fruition, given how my opportunities for custom design come in focused bursts with several months of inactivity in between).   I want to finish this story at some point, but I’d like to just put my outline out there now so that it can be seen where I’m going.  What follows is an outline, per block/set, of the story that started with Caeia that I eventually plan to tell.  Adjustments have been made to the plans post-Dareth, to accommodate the 2-set block structure.

Caeia Block (events occur in an alternate multiverse, following the events of New Phyrexia)

  • [Caeia] – A mysterious priest, known as Azam, travels to the plane of Caeia – a plane where colors of mana are highly segregated – and through a series of manipulations creates an interplanar portal, summoning the Eldrazi to Caeia.
  • [Eldrazi Unleashed] – The Eldrazi run rampant over Caeia, annihilating all in their paths.  Planeswalker and Caeia native Avienne Rumare joins forces with Gideon Jura and Koth of the Hammer Clan, attempting to unite the civilizations of Caeia together under one banner.  They fail – the people of Caeia are too set in their own prejudices – but meet the Order of the Silver Flame, a secretive group of beings who serve the Spirit Dragon, Ugin, who is another native of Caeia.
  • [Annihilation] – Realizing the plane is doom, the planeswalkers race against the clock to secure Ugin’s Door, a powerful interplanar portal constructed by the Spirit Dragon that they hope could serve as a means to evacuate the denizens of Caeia off of the plane.  They are harried by the planeswalker Aran Tohfar, a native of Kamigawa and an agent of Nicol Bolas.  Aran prevents them from securing Ugin’s door and the planeswalkers are barely able to make it off of Caeia with their lives.  Ugin leaves to confront Nicol Bolas, whilst Avienne, distraught, follows Gideon and Koth to Ravnica.

Dareth Block

  • [Generals of Dareth] – The plane of Dareth is caught in an ongoing war, but this is not a brutal and chaotic melee, but rather a coldly tactical and calculated chess game played between the Great Generals of Dareth – the brightest tactical minds of the plane.  The prize is an artifact, The Infinity Engine, rumored to hold the power to turn back time, allowing its controller to change the past.
  • [Battlefields of Dareth] – The war on Dareth is turned on its head when two new powers enter the fray.  Avienne Rumare has come to Dareth in search of the Eternity Engine, believing it to be a way to bring back her home plane by preventing the invasion of the Eldrazi in the past.  The two clash as the Infinity Engine is found, and during the confrontation it is learned that Nicol Bolas is trying to enhance his planeswalker’s spark, seeking to reacquire the godlike power he held prior to the Mending.  Avienne emerges victorious, and takes the Infinity Engine and the news of Nicol Bolas’ schemes to the the Infinite Consortium.
  • [Into Infinity] – Avienne arrives on Aranzhur, home of the Infinite Consortium’s Iron Tower.  The Consortium, having been disbanded by Jace Beleren, has spent time rebuilding itself and rebranding itself as a coalition of planeswalkers free from the manipulative touch of Nicol Bolas.  Avienne presents her story, and calls for the Consortium to aid her in fighting the Eldrazi in the past, but the Consortium is not eager to jump into a campaign against the Eldrazi.  Avienne decides to act on her own, activating the Infinity Engine shortly after the Iron Tower is besieged by forces loyal to Nicol Bolas.

Khemia Block

  • [Dunes of Khemia] – Meanwhile, the plane of Khemia is host to another refugee of Caeia, Elaara Bryne.  Khemia is a desert plane (inspired largely by ancient egyptian mythology) that is ruled by a pantheon of five gods, who are rumored to have once been mortal before their apotheosis. Elaara fled Caeia after its destruction, but unlike Avienne has no desire to change the past.  Having set herself up as the head of a new coven on Khemia, Elaara seeks to determine the source of the gods’ power.  Opposing her is Consortium member and Khemia native Amaryllis Detolle.
  • [Godfall] – The people of Khemia begin to revolt against the pantheon as it is discovered that they are, in fact, not divine.  The gods of Khemia are planeswalkers who have somehow retained much of their forgotten powere from the mending, using this immense power to set themselves up as gods to the people of Khemia.  Led by Amaryllis, the Pharaohs of Khemia are usurped and the worship of the gods ceases.  Elaara finds her way into the sanctum of the gods only to witness Nicol Bolas himself defeat the gods and steal the essence of their spark, regaining a portion of his pre-mending strength.

Zendikar Unsullied Block

  • [Zendikar Unsullied] – Avienne arrives on Zendikar, thousands of years in the past.   Shortly after arriving, she witnesses the Eldrazi crash into the plane, forced there by Ugin’s past self.  Avienne finds and meets with Ugin and the planeswalker Sorin Markov, and together the three concoct a plan to imprison the Eldrazi on Zendikar.
  • [Hedrons of the Lithomancer] – Since the destruction of Caeia, Avienne has intentinoally set out to learn about more colors of mana (having seen how the segregation on Caeia led to their downfall).  Now a student of blue and red mana, in addition to her native green, Avienne has become a skilled Lithomancer.  Raising massive hedrons across the entire plane, Avienne constructs a prison for the Eldrazi, while Sorin and Ugin lock the eldritch titans inside.  Bolas, empowered by the spark essences from the many planeswalkers he has consumed, reveals himself to Avienne shortly after the Eldrazi are sealed away and attempts to determine how this act was accomplished and how to free the Eldrazi.  The planeswalkers clash, and Avienne is far outmatched.  She summons one last burst of strength and banishes Bolas back to the present via the Eternity Engine, trapping herself on Zendikar in the past.

So…   it’s a lot.  And it’s not the most original story, it’s a standard time travel story in a lot of aspects.  But it’s the story I want to tell, and hopefully years from now I’ll be able to look back on this post as I put the final touches on Hedrons and be able to realize I finished what I set out to do.  We’ll see.

Thanks for reading!


2 responses to “Worldbuilding

  1. antaresmtg September 10, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    The problem here is that you end up with a total of three Eldrazi blocks, while still not having resolved the Eldrazi storyline as a whole, so you need a fourth one where they are finally destroyed/imprisoned. As I understand it, the Zendikar Unsullied block just lets us witness the imprisonment of the Eldrazi without changing anything in the timeline or introducing new plots.

    But I think it’s a great story. Letting us witness the imprisonment of the Eldrazi thousands of years ago sounds awesome. The story needs more time travel paradoxes, though.

    • adventmtg September 10, 2014 at 7:11 pm

      Well, two Eldrazi blocks, but you’re right that it doesn’t tie anything up. I’m ok with that, because I wanted it to be circular – but we’ll see as things progress.

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