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