Custom Card Game Design

A better limited environment (pt. 1)

Limited Play Matters

Limited magic is far and away my favorite way to play.  Given the popularity of sealed deck, draft, cube draft, and other limited variants, I’m obviously not alone.  I read a statistic  recently that said more than 70% of all new packs are opened during and for limited play.  I have no way to verify this stat, but my assumption is that it is close to accurate.  The popularity of limited has very obvious implications for design, and if you look at just about every set in modern, you can see that many specific design choices were made with limited in mind.

So how do you design a good limited format?

Zac Hill has an excellent (if rambly) article addressing the subject that doesn’t get enough attention in the design community, often overlooked because it isn’t part of the ‘making magic’ series of articles by MaRo (which are, to be fair, far and away the best resourcers a designer could have).

I’ve had two projects, one very recent, be shelved due to poor limited play.  The first, ‘Crucible‘, was meant to be a powered, modular custom-cube.  The second, and more recent, is ‘Generals of Dareth‘, the beginning of a more traditional block that nonetheless began to stall out the minute it began playtesting and played very poorly in limited.  As my previous posts have indicated, I’ve begun working on another project (‘Khemia‘) rather than remain stalled on Generals.  However, in an effort to keep some forward momentum going on Generals, I’ll be working periodically to try and fix how it plays in limited, and I’ll start doing so by applying Zac’s article to the set.

Lesson #1 – All Cards Must Serve a Purpose

A fun card, but one that has no place in the set

From Zac’s article: “One of the most vital skills a developer can cultivate is the discipline to ‘put a card off’—to realize that even though a card is sweet, it doesn’t quite fit in the current environment“.  This is one of the pitfalls I have quite often.  I’ll often come across a very cool piece of art and design a card specifically around that art, or I’ll come up with a very odd-ball idea that I think is cool.  Then I try and stick that concept in whatever project I’m working on.  Case in point, the card seen above (Capacitance Golem).

Capcitance Golem is a card that I designed because I love manipulating counters.  Proliferate is my favorite mechanic of all time, and I’ve had a ‘Planeswalkers matter’ block planned for quite awhile, so I tend to try and toss this kind of effect in just about every project I work on. My thinking at the time was ‘this is a fun, build-around-me card that has large implications in standard’.  The problem is, there isn’t enough support in the set to really build around it.  There are enough cards that give -1/-1 counters to make it seem desirable, and of course it can occasionally be very powerful if you have a planeswalker on the field, but by and large this is a card that looks cool but doesn’t really have a place in the set.  It helps to make the environment un-fun by tempting players with the idea of a fun counter manipulation deck but very rarely, if ever, being able to follow through.

This card will be removed in future iterations of the set, to come back in a project that makes more sense for it.

Lesson 2 – Each color/color-pair needs a dedicated strategy

A strategy defining card from GEN

This point should be simple to understand.  The article suggests having a primary and secondary strategy for each color or color pair supported in the environment.  The lack of a defined strategy for each color is the biggest single problem that Generals has.  Taking each card on its own, I’m pretty happy with how the set looks, but take a look at the big picture and it suddenly becomes disjointed.

Generals has a focus on creature combat and supports enemy color pairs.  One big hindrance to having more clearly defined strategies for each color is the fact that these color pairs are so loosely defined, mechanically speaking.  The new mechanics in Generals are not specific to the different color pairs ala Ravnica.  Instead, of the three new mechanics, each is present in all colors save one, and each has a ‘primary’ color.   The next set is planned to have two new mechanics which will follow the same rule which, when put together, will have all mechanics primary in one color, absent in another color, and present in the remaining three.

This makes for a pretty lop-sided distribution of mechanics, and will possibly need to be changed.  However, the new mechanics aren’t as narrow as guild mechanics from Ravnica, and this is where the saving grace for this set may lie.  I don’t believe each color needs an equitable distribution of new mechanics, they just need defined strategies.

So, applying the articles lessons to Generals, and keeping in mind that these strategies can be anywhere from “narrow” to “robust”, I’ve loosely outlined the following strategies for each supported color pair:

  • White/Black
    • All out attack using efficient creatures supported by vanguard ‘tanks’
    • Control the battlefield by punishing attackers/tapped creatures whilst blighting your opponent with -1/-1 counters
  • Blue/Red
    • Reverberate spells onto stealthy attackers
    • Counterburn behind a wall of defensive creatures
  • Black/Green
    • Using vanguard creatures, force your opponents into blocking creatures with deathtouch or that give -1/-1 counters to blockers.
    • Utilize sac/reanimate effects to abuse the graveyard
  • Red/White
    • Arm your creatures with equipment tokens to overwhelm your opponent
    • Build up an army of medium sized creatures, using unity to use activate their abilities for free to gain the advantage.
  • Green/Blue
    • Use auras with “sacrifice this aura to give target creature _____” to offensively adapt your creatures
    • Utilize unity to control the battlefield and ramp into a win condition

These strategies are loose, but defined enough that it lets me start narrowing down cards that need to change.

Happily, having gone through the set as it stands, it isn’t in as terrible a place as I had previously expected.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll be refining the set based largely on these ideas, and I’ll be posting part two of this article along with, if all goes to plan, a video of GEN limited testing.

Thanks for reading!


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