Custom Card Game Design

Exploratory Design – Into Infinity

An old idea

The first custom card I designed was a giant, broken black and white legendary angel that featured grandeur.  In that same week, I designed my first non-mythic planeswalker.  While the designs were terrible and cringeworthy, I’ve always wanted to make a legendary creature/planeswalker focused set work.  A few years later, I began working on my own ‘custom cube’, a project doomed to death by a thousand cuts.  I might do a post-mortem on my first attempt at a custom cube at some point, but the takeaway for our purposes today is that a big part of its design was around the theme of ‘legendary creatures an planeswalkers matter’.  More recently, when mapping out the overall story of where I was going with my custom sets, I decided to tackle the idea in the third, standalone set, of the Dareth  block.  A description of the story of the Dareth blog, taken from that post:

  • [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.

So…  Into Infinity will be a standalone set.  Technically part of the Dareth block, but not even taking place on the same plane.  The story is more or less set, but that isn’t the hard part.  MtG has already done a legendary creature block (Kamigawa) and it didn’t do too well.  Additionally, ever time I’ve talked about non-mythic planeswalkers on various card creation forums, I’ve been practically shouted down for breaking the rules. Knowing how hard the mechanics will be to get right, this is a perfect opportunity to utilize exploratory design to get the initial mechanics and ideas in place before work in earnest begins.

(This article is one in a series of articles I plan on doing about Exploratory Design – the very early, preliminary design that’s done to explore how much design space there is within mechanical and thematic parameters you define, and how well those initial mechanics/themes work together.  As such, even more than normal, the designs shown here are not finished, and have not been developed for polish/balance.)


One of the ideas I’ve wanted to play with in regards to planeswalkers, is the spark.  From a lore perspective, planeswalkers were born normal sentient beings with a latent ‘spark’ that could awaken at times of great stress, at which point they become a planeswalker.  When this happens, the spark is said to be ‘ignited’ (In fact the tagline of the newly announced Origins set is “Ignite your Spark”).  I’ve played with the idea of doublefaced cards, but in the end I like the idea of a cycle of auras like the one below:

Now, again, this is all exploratory design.  For one thing, before this reached a final form, I’d want an actual loyalty cost box instead of just the -3 text.  Additionally, the wording would likely need to change and be refined in order to make the effect more clear, and to make it work better within the rules. Finally, the cost on an effect like this is going to be hard to get right because there isn’t much of a precedent.  Still, all that is a developmental issue, or at least an issue for actual design.  From an exploratory design perspective, there are a few questions I would ask:

  • Does this type of card have enough design space?  I would say that it does.  At the last, a cycle of these spark cards could be very interesting in augmenting existing planeswalkers, and in a planeswalker-centric set also provide more opportunities for players to play with ‘planeswalkers’ in limited, making it that much easier to make cards at lower rarities that play with planeswalkers.
  • Is this type of effect interesting? Well…  I imagine that if WotC announced this type of card today, the MTGS forums would be on fire for at least a week and, once released, every format from the pro tour modern tables to the kitchen table would never be the same.  I’d say it’s interesting.
  • Does the card work? Is this type of effect playable?  It’s not so complicated, on its face, that it’s unplayable for casuals, and since everyone has creatures, this card isn’t something I’d consider very limited or parasitic.  I would say yes, this card works.

Verdict: Based on those criteria, this effect makes it through exploratory design and will be something considered during the design process.

Not so Special

One of the biggest problems this set will have is that it will be very hard to stand up to the rule “If your theme doesn’t exist at common, it isn’t your theme.”  Simply put, planeswalkers have always been Mythic Rare, so long as that rarity has actually existed.  Most would say this is an set-in-stone rule that can not and will never be broken.  I’m not one of those people – I think planeswalkers at lower rarities can, and will, work – and part of my goal with this set is to prove that.  So a cycle of non-unique, non-mythic planeswalkers are one of the starting points of this entire set.

Again, this card is very un-developed.  Unlike the card above, this card would not make it out of design.  It’s too much like Garruk for one, and too undercosted for its ultimate effect.  But, again, these are developmental concerns, and this card does do what we want it to for exploratory design.  This card illustrates the idea of a non-unique, non-rare planeswalker with simple mechanics.

  • Does this type of card have enough design space?  Undoubtedly so, in my opinion.
  • Is this type of effect interesting? Much like the previous card, if WotC announced this card or one like it today, MTGS would riot for weeks. Cards like this would be a casual favorite and, if tuned correctly, would be tournament staples as well.
  • Does the card work? Is this type of effect playable?  I don’t think there’s much else to say here but yes.  It’ll be a developmental nightmare to get right, but if you think of it as an enchantment that has two abilities, one that says “Do this, then put a charge counter on ~.” and another that says “Remove X charge counters from, then do something even more awesome”, it starts to look more workable.  Especially when you consider that planeswalkers are more vulnerable than enchantments in most environments.

Verdict: All the above considered, I think this idea makes it past exploratory design.

Geared for Battle

Planeswalkers are known for the equipment they bring to battle.  Liliana is known for her chain veil, Gideon for his sural, Sorin for his Parasite Blade.  One thing I wanted to explore was to see if there was a way to represent these items in a different way than WotC has done previously.

Oh, if only…   Very obviously, there are a few problems with this card.  First, from a realistic standpoint, Equip will never be changed.  It would require functional errata on so very many cards, for very little benefit.  I toyed with the idea of an equip variant with a different keyword that equips a player or planeswalker, but it’s too convoluted for too little benefit (might be worth exploring another time though).  Additionally, this type of card plays too much in the same design space as the spark enchantments, even after trying to differentiate the type of effect it provides.

  • Does this type of card have enough design space?  Maybe, but exploring that space in this set would take up far more of the complexity budget than it would be worth.
  • Is this type of effect interesting? Yes.
  • Does the card work? Is this type of effect playable? It doesn’t work.  Functional errata on an evergreen mechanic is a bad idea, and reworking this to be an equip variant on a player or planeswalker is too complex for a set that’s already doing a lot.

Verdict: This idea will not move past exploratory design.

Wrapping Up (For Now)

There’s a lot more to explore with Into Infinity.  I haven’t even touched on legendary creatures, or cards that care about legendary creatures or planeswalkers, but this post is already lengthy and so that will have to wait for another post.

To those reading, what do you think of this format?  Is reading about exploratory design and initial, undeveloped ideas, interesting?  As mentioned before, I’m thinking about doing this fairly regularly, and not always on sets that I’m currently working on, or even on sets that I ever plan on working on.


3 responses to “Exploratory Design – Into Infinity

  1. dan felder February 8, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    Does this legendary creature/planeswalker theme have to be the main theme? Can you make it more like the enchantment subtheme in theros, rather than trying to make it as heavy as mirrodin? That might help you with a lot of your problems.

    • adventmtg February 8, 2015 at 4:07 pm

      It’s looking like it will be somewhere in the middle. I feel like there’s a *lot* of space to play in, you just have to do it right. I’ve got some fun ideas for the legendary creature side of this and how to tie it all in at all rarities, I just didn’t go into it fully in this post since it was already a bit lengthy as it was – next post regarding this I’ll go into it there. When I do, I’d love to see what you think, if you think there’s enough there to pull it off for one large, standalone set.

  2. dan felder February 9, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    This will be interesting to watch, because you’re essentially “swimming against the current”. As you already know, trying to make a theme that exists at rare and mythic rare work at common is fundamentally difficult.

    Naturally, you’ll also have to be careful about not making planeswalkers and legendary creatures (not certain how those two themes tie together btw) less cool by being more common. Consortium Beastmaster, while a nice flavor concept, is in danger of undermining the uniqueness of planeswalkers.

    I’m sure you’ve already thought about these issues of course, and look forward to seeing your extended ideas.

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