Custom Card Game Design

Crafting Limited Archetypes

The Ten Color Pair Approach

Lately, on the MTGSalvation forums, there has been a greater focus put into designing for and crafting limited archetypes. The general consensus seems to be that each color pair should have a defined draft archetype. I’d like to share my thoughts on this and offer some counter-arguments.

While this approach is was somewhat used in the Tarkir sets, it was featured even more prominently in Magic 2015, which I think is the most convincing proof that this approach doesn’t necessarily work all the time. In Magic 2015, the archetypes felt very diluted, half-hearted, and the pay-off was often just not there. Sure, the Undergrowth Scavenger deck was great when it came together, but what about the other archetypes? You drafted blue/red artifacts and your pay-off is a 2/3 flyer for 3. Not very impressive. Blue/green bounce? While you’re spending your turns squeezing out some very minor value, your opponent just kills you with Triplicate Spirits.

Magic 2015 wasn’t a very pleasant draft experience. But Innistrad used the same concept and it turned out pretty well. So, what’s the difference? When you try to force ten different archetypes into a single set, you quickly run out of space to support all of them. But in Innistrad, the allied color draft archetypes were based on tribal synergies. This meant that many cards could do double-duty for enabling archetypes. For example, a Zombie that mills a player can enable your Spider Spawning, while the Zombie tribal deck just cares that it’s another Zombie. In addition, the pay-off cards were just much more powerful.

I intend to use this approach for my Overworld set, but a lot of tuning will be needed to make it work.

Build-Around Cards

You can save space in your set if you concentrate the pay-off for drafting certain archetypes into few, but powerful cards. These build-around cards have to be great when you draft around them, and terrible otherwise, so they don’t get picked by other players. In Innistrad, the black/green self-mill deck was called THE Spider Spawning deck because it was centered so much around that card, while in blue/red you drafted THE Burning Vengeance deck.

Concentrating the pay-off into these powerful cards meant that more slots could dedicated to “hidden gems” for certain archetypes. The numerous cross-interactions also meant that the different archetypes had a good amount of overlap. This is another problem with Magic 2015. Not only were the draft archetypes very diluted, but there was also next to no overlap between them.

To spice up the format, you can also throw in some build-around cards that don’t really go with any of the set’s themes. If a build-around card doesn’t demand anything from your deck that’s specific to a certain draft environment, you don’t have to spend any resources on supporting it. A card like Immortal Servitude comes to my mind. Is drafting around this card a very effective strategy? Probably not, but it’s certainly fun, and maybe that’s exactly what a player wants to do in a custom set draft.

In one of my Iamur drafts, one player had a lot of fun drafting around this rare.

Custom Set Audience

When you design your draft archetypes, you also have to keep in mind that your set probably won’t be drafted nearly as often as the official sets. This means that you have a higher percentage of players who draft for the first or second time and need more guidance during the draft. Build-around cards are great for this, because a new drafter can just first-pick them and then pick every card that goes well with it. This might not even be the right thing to do, but what I’ve found is that players find the draft experience frustrating not when they draft a bad deck, but when they didn’t draft a cohesive deck.

Esparand was my attempt at imitating the Innistrad draft format. I planned out many cool interactions and had cards that were “hidden gems” for a certain archetype. While some drafters surprised with their really cool, thematic decks, the majority of the players felt frustrated because they didn’t understand how the cards were supposed to interact, or their important cards got picked by those who didn’t really need them. I don’t think the format was bad at all, but this is something I definitely want to improve in my next set.

Siege of Ravnica

In Siege of Ravnica, all ten guilds will be present. So the “ten color pair” approach would make sense here. But the set is loaded with so much stuff already that I run into the problems mentioned above hundred-fold. Still, each guild should have a theme behind it or it wouldn’t be a Ravnica set, even when it’s being torn down. To make it work, I try to stick to the following guidelines:

  • The guild archetypes are optional. Some cards will reward you for committing to them, but you won’t have a bad deck if you elect to ignore them.
  • The pay-off cards are concentrated into very few cards that are useless to other draft strategies.
  • Most of the powerful enablers and pay-off cards are multicolored to further prevent them being picked by the wrong drafter.

The Selesnya draft archetype is based around Rally the Conclave. While many cards generate tokens at common, Harmonic Gathering is the card you want in this deck.

We’ll see how it turns out. My guess is that some guild decks will work, while others will just play as a pile of good-stuff.


How to craft the draft archetypes for a specific set is a very complex question, and there are many things to consider. While the “ten color pair” approach can work for some sets, it might not always be the best approach. When you’re crafting your archetypes, keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Try to craft overlapping archetypes. This makes the draft format much more interesting and less linear. Tribal synergies mixed with other themes are a great way to do that.
  • Don’t include “fake archetypes.” These are archetypes that appear to exist, but aren’t really supported at all, or only half-heartedly.
  • When you have enough space in the set, design as many cards as possible to support each archetype. If you’re running low, concentrate the archetypes into very few, but powerful, synergistic cards. Make sure they are useless to other drafters.

Do you want to defend Magic 2015 from me senselessly bashing it? Do so in the comments :).


4 responses to “Crafting Limited Archetypes

  1. Circeus May 9, 2015 at 7:59 am

    I think characterizing U/R as having a 2/3 flier for a reward is disingenuous given that the archetype’s actual high picks were Ensoul Artifact and Scrapyard Mongrel (with Glacial Crasher as an alternate finisher). I’m not particularly enamored of the set, but I thought it was a stellar improvement over the poorly defined draft environment of M14.

  2. antaresmtg May 9, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    I put Scrapyard Mongrel in the same league as Aeronaut Tinkerer (slightly undercosted if you have an artifact, slightly overcosted if you don’t). Ensoul Artifact was not playable most of the time, from my experience, only when you go really deep.

    M14 had its issues. The color imbalance was inversed and white was complete trash. Every second common was designed to combo with Angelic Accord, which is a weird design approach. But I think the draft archetypes were less watered-down than in M15. The black/red sacrifice deck was scary.

    And it had Opportunity. ’nuff said.

  3. udelude May 10, 2015 at 4:08 pm

    Hello! I’m Udelude, and I’m also an MTG custom set designer, like you.
    I’ve known your blog for quite a while and I really like your cards. As for this article in particular, I totally agree that this approach is necessary to enforce a less linear draft experience and to give more versatility to the archetypes.

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