Custom Card Game Design

Category Archives: Caeia


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!


Revisiting Caeia

EDIT: There were a few glaring issues in the original plugin.  I’ve re-uploaded a revised version, which can be found at the same link.

It’s been about 2 and a half years since I started work on the Caeia block – my first custom MtG block – and recently, several things have come up that have made me want to revisit it.  When I finally ‘finished’ the block, I had vowed to come back to it at some point, and indeed I plan on coming back to it many times in the future, so my revisiting it now comes as no surprise to me, and frankly it kinda helps get past the designer’s block I’ve been having on my custom cube.

Meet the new art, better than the old art

Now, at some point I intend to go back and do a big revision, making large scale design changes to push or reign in certain strategies, as needed.  This revision isn’t like that.  Instead, I’ve made small changes, mostly to the number of cards per set and the rarity breakdown – I’ve cut a card from Caeia to bring it to 249, as opposed to 250, and I’ve changed the rarity on some cards to make the rarity breakdown match the standard that WotC has set.  I’ve made similar changes to the other two sets in the block.

One of the new cards added to Caeia to correct the rarity distribution.

There are very few ‘new’ cards in the block, and the cuts I’ve made were weaker cards that never felt right to begin with.  There have also been slight grammatical and templating fixes, and some slight tweaking of casting costs and effects to make certain keystone cards viable (see: Summon the Masters).

Finally, I’ve compiled a new cockatrice plugin for the set.  You can download it here, and if you’re interested in playing let me know.  I’ll also be putting together a new plugin for Antares’ set Iamur, which I can say from experience is a blast to play.  I’m sure he’ll put up a link for that plugin once it’s finished, and I’m certainly interested in playing it as well.  (NOTE: The plugin removes your current card database and replaces it with the database for Caeia.  To restore your original database, run the uninstall program shortcut that should have been put on your desktop by the installer)

Thanks for reading, and don’t be afraid to leave comments!

Annihilation – Initial Design Phase (Finally!) Over

Well, I’m two months behind schedule, but as of today the initial design of Annihilation is finished! (outside the 10 or so Eldrazi I intend to add eventually.)  Of the three sets in the block, this has by far been the most difficult to get to this point, and today I’d like to talk about some of the difficulty I’ve experienced up to this point and how I’ve dealt with it, and then finally talk a little about where I intend to go with the set from this point.

The Death of a Plane

For those who are just hopping into this, a few bits of information.  Annihilation is set 3 of 3 in my first custom block.  The block takes place on the plane of Caeia, a world where all colors of magic are heavily segregated (ie; a heavy mono-color theme), that is besieged by the Eldrazi after being released from their planar prison of Zendikar by a cult that worships them.  The primary theme of this set is the hopelessness of the situation…  because of the segregation of mana, and the prejudice and hatred between the major cultures of the plane that stemmed from that, the denizens of the plane are unable to unite together and mount an effective defense and are ultimately and utterly destroyed.

Putting this theme forth in the set proved to be challenge number one.  How does one design cards that represent entire cultures that are losing and being destroyed?  At the end of the day, I found several things that helped me with this.  First of all was art.  You’ll notice that almost all of my cards have art associated with them – I have a very difficult time posting anything without art.  This is because, to me, the art is part of the design process as a whole.  The art tells a story that the card alone simply cannot.   Finding art that portrayed characters who seemed to be in despair, or bleak and hopeless situations seemed to help.

The second method I found to portray the theme of loss and despair is to emphasize it mechanically.  One of the first mechanics from this set that was previewed is named Despair, and it appears on a 5-card cycle.  Although the mechanic could have easily been reworded to be a positive mechanic while remaining functionally identical, by wording it as a negative mechanic I was able to show the despair of the situation via the mechanics.

Third, I portrayed despair by portraying hope.  Not every denizen of Caeia is giving up…  many are fighting valiantly and inspiring hope where there would otherwise be none.

Finally, the fourth method of portraying the despair in the block is through the flavor text.  This is something that largely has not been done yet.  I’ve attempted to put flavor text where it quickly comes to me, but I have not yet put much time into coming up with flavor text, although I intend to once I’m putting the final ‘polish’ on the block as a whole.


One of the things that has surprised me the most throughout this entire process is how hard it is for me to design fortifications.  Many times I would set out to design a fortification and it would either end up being terrible, or not a fortification at all.  More often than not, designs that began as fortifications would end up making more sense as simply a nonbasic land or a global enchantment, or even a plain old artifact.  The ones that did still make sense as fortifications would end up being unplayed because they weren’t worth the mana.

I approached the fortifications in Annihilation very carefully, and provided this approach works out, I plan on redesigning the fortifications in the previous two sets to match this philosophy.  I gave myself the following guidelines to attempt to stay with (I strayed occasionally) when designing fortifications.  They were:

  • A fortification should not be something that could simply be replaced by a global enchantment.
  • A fortification can be something that could be replaced by a utility nonbasic land, and in fact the design of many fortifications should conceptually be ‘turn target basic land into a useful utility land’.
  • Fortifications that give creature based benefits should primarily be defensive, and should be either be worth the loss of use of their fortified land, or should have their effect in addition to the land’s mana producing abilities.

Taking this approach, many of my recent fortification designs I think are much better than previous.  Thematically, a lot of the new fortifications seem almost like ‘upgrades’ to a castle, like something you’d find in an RTS, and this is something I’m quite alright with.

Cthulhu (I mean, the Eldrazi)

Another difficulty has been that Eldrazi are hard to design.  You can only have too many big colorless fatties before they begin to become boring – in fact the fewer you have, the cooler the rest are because of their uniqueness.  Right off the bat, this caused me to design the Consume mechanic, as I wanted to make sure I had a way to present Eldrazi besides what had been done before.  However, Consume is terribly difficult to balance because of how punishing it can be to your opponent.

Similar to how I dealt with mill, I’ve tried approach this by giving players additional opportunities if consumption counters exist, rather than make it easier for them to add more consumption counters.  The card above, The Aeon’s Torn (not only a reference to Emrakul, but also the actual name for this peace of art) may not make the final cut, because of how difficult it is to use effectively, but concepts like this will be built upon until Consume is a valid strategy, but not too powerful.  Cards that get around the punishing side of Consume without hosing consume strategies completely are also in the set to hopefully keep it in check.

As an Eldrazi set, it’s very important that, by the end of it all, the Eldrazi in the block truly shine, and with this in mind I intend on expanding the number of cards in this set to include 10 more Eldrazi-themed cards, which will hopefully bring the right feel to the final product.

I’m a bad designer (sometimes)…

The final problem I had during this design process is that some of this stuff just sucks.  There are multiple examples of cards, like the one above, that are poorly though out, poorly executed, and just plain bad.  MaRo has said that he never gets designer’s block, and frankly I’m amazed.  It’s become very difficult for me, recently, to come up with solid designs that fit within the set flavorfully and mechanically.  I’m getting there, slowly, but there’s still a lot of stuff in the set file that’s simply terrible, and I don’t really have much of an excuse, except to say that these things will improve as the development process commences, and that nothing should presented today should be taken as being in any final form at all.

The Next Step…

So where do I go from here?  The plan is that, after a fairly brief development pass on the 3rd set as a whole, to extensively look over the entire block and redesign or develop as needed, to make the entire block more thematically and mechanically unified, as well more fun to play.  I’m going to look at each card in each set and ask the following questions:

  • Which player type is this card designed for? (all that apply) Timmy, Johnny, Spike
  • What deck types is this card designed for? (all that apply) Aggro, Combo, Control
  • Is this card playable in block constructed?  Is it playable in cube limited? (if not playable in either, scrap it)
  • Is this card irrelevant in cube? (ie; cards that react with multiple copies of themselves, etc.)
  • Does this card belong in the Caeia Block, or would it fit in a core set?
  • Is this card templated correctly? (specifics, such as keyword order, etc.)
  • Any grammar mistakes?
  • Is the artist credited as accurately as possible?
  • Where does this card fit in the overal CMC curve of its color?
  • For each color, is there an appropriate card type distribution?

There’s more that will be asked during this process, but this is just an example of how in-depth I intend to get during this final development phase.   After this is done, extensive playtesting will follow in which the cards will be tweaked to provide better gameplay.  While I’m not certain this set will ever be in a form that I consider 100% complete, my aim is to have this in a releasable ‘beta’ form by the end of this process, hopefully by winter of this year.

I’ve already received an amazing amount of feedback from many MTGS posters, as well as some posters here.  Not to mention the great amount of help that I’ve received from my friends locally.  In particular, I’d like to thank Antares (Apoquallyp on MTGS), Prophylaxis, and AranMagnus for their help in getting this far.  If I’m the ‘lead designer’ for this set, these guys can certainly be considered an integral part of the design team.

If you, reader, are interested in helping during this final phase of the development and playtesting, please respond here!  I need many people helping playtest, and I need people to help me just go over all the cards with a fine toothed comb looking for grammar and templating problems.  If you’re interested in helping in any way, please let me know! It looks like I’ll be at Comic Con Dallas in October, and I intend to bring the set in cube form (along with, most likely, some constructed decks) for playtesting, if anyone is going to be there and wants to help out!

As always, thanks for reading!

Back in the Saddle

I’m back!   At least…  for a little while.   I’ve unfortunately fallen quite a bit behind the schedule that I had set for myself on the design phase of the Caeia block – by this point, my plan had been to be finished with the design of Annihilation and working on developing the entire block as a whole, before releasing the whole thing for playtesting.  However, one has to pay the bills, so I’ve been traveling a lot on business.
Now that I’m back, I’m going to try and get back into the design of Annihilation.  It’s becoming a slow process, in part because it’s hard to move ahead when, looking behind, you see the issues that need to be resolved.  Taking into account playtesting from Caeia and Eldrazi Unleashed, there are some definite weak points that need to be addressed:

  • Fortifications, one of the intended strong points to the block, just aren’t working.  The mythic cycle in Caeia are extremely powerful, but outside of that there are few fortifications in either set that are worth playing, and they always are the last picked in every format.
  • The ‘Battlecruiser Magic’ feel of the set is muddled. Limited is still a very slow format, but there aren’t enough high end mana sinks that break the early game stall.  Eldrazi, Variable cost spells, and Multickicker were all intended to fill this role, but the only success there has been variable cost spells.  Multikicker is so absent that it’s regarded as out of place when it pops up, and the Eldrazi have yet to make a big impact.
  • Speaking of Eldrazi, the sets don’t feel like an Eldrazi set at all. ‘Eldrazi Unleashed’ is supposed to highlight the appearance of the Eldrazi, and while there certainly are many Eldrazi cards, there aren’t many that make an impact.

This isn’t to say that it’s all bad…  there are a lot of things that feel incredibly right at this point.

  • Purity.  Regardless of the naysayers when the set was first announced, Purity works, and works well.  It’s had a interesting effect on limited…  you can go in any of the 5 colors for purity, in which case you tend to pick on-color cards, usually with purity, and pick up colorless cards of cards with prismatic if needed.  If you don’t go in purity, you usually go in a typical two color combo and usually you aren’t having to fight for the cards you need, because two color strategies tend to be quite different than the mono-color strategies, making for a rather diverse limited format.
  • Constructed is a fun format, and fairly varied.  The only dominant deck that has cropped up in testing so far is a RW equipment deck that still isn’t so unbalanced that it’s impossible to win against.
  • Multicolor.  This one has thrown me for a loop, but this block has somehow managed to encourage monocolor while still providing ample support for multicolor.  I’ve been very pleased with Prismatic.

Today, I resume the design process on Annihilation, trying to keep these things in mind as I move forward.  Once I’ve completed the initial design phase, I’ll be going back and looking at the block as a whole, hopefully fixing the problems listed above, plus many others, while strengthening what’s already working.  In the meantime, I leave with one quick look at the redesign and development process.

This is Avienne, or at least this was Avienne.  Avienne was one of the first cards designed for Caeia, and is still arguably my favorite (being a Green Ramp player at heart).  If you’ve read up on planeswalker design at all (and if you haven’t, I highly recommend checking out Antares’ article here.) you’ll notice the problem.  While her +1 and -2 abilities work very well together, allowing you to fish up the creature you need one turn, then generate the mana to pay for it the next, her ultimate makes her +1 completely obsolete.

After going back and looking at the set, I’ve finally revisited Avienne and changed her ultimate.   While it is, mechanically, a nerf to the card, it makes the card more flavorful and synergetic.  I think I can safely say that, barring anything unforeseen, this is the final version of Avienne:

time to get to work on Annihilation!  Until next time, take care!

On Playtesting

Today, I want to talk about my favorite part of custom set design:  Playtesting.  Most custom sets, maybe even as many as 9 out of every 10, never make it this far, but for those few who have I’m willing to bet their creators would tell you it was the most rewarding part of the entire process.  There’s something inherently awesome about playing with a cardpool that you created yourself and finding combos that you had never intended or even thought of.  Seeing your cards play well together, even better than you expected, is a feeling that you just don’t get in other facets of MtG.

Meet Grillek.  Grillek is my favorite legendary creature of the block, and arguably my favorite card from the block.  In Block Constructed playtesting, decks built around Grillek are a dominating force, yet are not grossly unbeatable.   This is not by mistake, however.  Grillek has gone through more testing and more changes than any of the cards in the block.  The goal with this entire process being the creation of a healthy and diverse environment for both block constructed and cube limited, it is important to me that we eliminate problematic cards to avoid having a single deck dominate the format (CawBlade, I’m looking at you.)

So, since Grillek has gone through extensive playtesting, let’s take a look at where we started, what changed throughout the process, and how we got there.

…yeah this is fair.

During the design process of the 2nd set, as is my custom, I designed some broken cards.  This isn’t entirely on accident – as I’m designing the basics of the set, I often simply fill in my design skeleton with rough thoughts, in this case the thought being ‘a goblin that grabs weapons and armor from anywhere he can find it’.  Not knowing exactly how to balance this, but knowing that it was likely very broken, I decided to let it slide until playtesting, and once we got the playtesting phase I learned two things.  First, the card was broken as hell (notice that, at this point, the card wasn’t legendary).  Second, and more surprisingly, it was the most entertaining card I’ve ever played with.

This discovery took me back a bit…   I’d intended for this card to simply be a powerful rare aggro creature, and yet it was a ‘build around me’ card that was basically the collective wet dream of both Johnny and Spike (and Timmy liked it too after seeing just how big it could become.)  What was even more surprising was that I had perfect support for this kind of card already in the set, with cards like Goblin Looter setting things up perfectly by dumping equipment cards into the graveyard while generating card advantage, and cards like Gideon, Hopebringer able to seal the deal by fishing up whatever you needed.  Knowing this, I set out to balance the card.


This is the second iteration of what would become Grillek, and it was almost completely unplayable.  You’ll notice a few things…  first of all, his converted cost was raised from 2 to 4. Second, we removed the haste component, and last we made him legendary.  While the effect still seemed theoretically powerful enough, the constructed decks built around this card refused to get off the ground, and in limited he was an extremely low pick, and almost never played.

The biggest point to make here, however, is that there is much more to take into account than the card itself.  In a format with the Mirrodin Swords cycle available, even this last version of Grillek is completely unprintable.  As it stands, the current version of Grillek (the one at the top of the post) is still extremely strong, because of the sheer effectiveness of its support.  Reviewing and discussing this card on forums wasn’t enough to figure this out – in fact it was never even commented upon.  It had to be played to determine it’s power level.


So, there’s a bit of insight into what the set goes through during playtesting.  For those of you working on your own sets who want to start playtesting, here are a few pointers:

  • Print proxies of your cards and take them everywhere.  It’s like .35 per sheet (each sheet being 9 cards) to print these at Kinko’s or the like, what I do is print them, cut them, and stick the paper proxies in sleeves along with bulk cards, to get the weight ‘right’ (they’re going to be heavier than normal).  Because they’re heavier, be sure to print basic lands also, for uniformity’s sake.
  • Create plugins for everything you can think of.  Magic Workstation, Lackey, Cockatrice, etc.
  • Consider what format(s) your set is created for.  For instance, my sets are intended only for cube drafting and block constructed play, cube because it’s very hard to organize a truly random booster draft with a custom set, and block constructed because allowing your cards to interact with 20 years worth of WotC cards makes playtesting and balancing a nigh impossible task.
  • Get creative!  Need to test limited but only have one other person available?  Do sealed, Winston, or Winchester!
  • Ask for help.  The MSE2 forums, the MTGS forums, twitter, and reddit are all great places to find like-minded people who might b interested in helping to test.   By advertising in this way, I was able to get a lot of playtesters for my first set, including what has been my best playtest group – a group of seamen from the U.S. Navy who drafted Caeia on their downtime.

Hopefully, this article was entertaining and these pointers were helpful.  Have any other pointers, or any questions?  Leave some comments!

Until next time, thanks for reading!

Announcing: Annihilation (Set 3 of 3 in my custom block!)

Hello again, internet!   I haven’t posted in a few weeks, obviously.  Hectic changes at work left me unable to put time into custom design for a little while, which is a good thing in and of itself, as I think taking a break every once in awhile to clear your mind and perform a mental reset, so to speak, is a good thing for creativity.

That being said, I am back, and for those who might be following my threads on MTG Salvation, the first thing I did when I was back was complete several balance passes for Eldrazi Unleashed.  The set itself has come along rather nicely, I think, and it’s been rather fun to playtest with friends of mine.  This weekend, I’ve asked the MTG Salvation community to, if they feel so inclined, help me with playtesting in any number of ways, and I’ll echo that request here.  If you are interested in helping playtest, here are a few guidelines:

  • First, don’t use any cards other than what are included in sets 1 and 2 (Caeia and Eldrazi Unleashed). These cards are not meant to be played with the existing WotC card pool and are not balanced to that end in any way.
  • If you play limited, try to do it in a singleton format. The idea is, these are meant specifically to be drafted in cube (or cube sealed).
  • If you play, post your decklists! A big part of the playtesting phase will be identifying archetypes, and this helps tons.
  • Finally, if you’re in the greater Oklahoma City area and are interested in testing in person, you can email me at and I’d love to set up a time in person.  I’m also working on potentially setting up a casual event at a local game store where you could actually receive Planeswalker points by helping me playtest! (more info to come on that one)

All that said, with Eldrazi Unleashed in playtesting now, it’s time to focus creative efforts on the finale of the block:  Annihilation.  A quick rundown of what the set will contain and what I hope to accomplish with it.

  • Annihilation, abbreviated ANN, is set 3 of 3 in the Hubris of Caeia block.
  • The set will contain 150 cards with a standard rarity breakdown.
  • Along with returning mechanics such as Fortify, Purity, Prismatic, and Garrison, the set features several new mechanics such as Epitaph and Consume (featured on the preview cards found below).
  • As some may have guessed from the title, the story concerns the final days of the Eldrazi invasion of the plane of Caeia.  As planeswalkers Gideon Jura, Avienne Rumare, and Koth have been unsuccesful in rallying the different cultures of the plane, the outlook is bleak as the world around them dies.
  • As with the rest of the block, supported formats will be block constructed, cube draft, and cube sealed.  Multiplayer variants such as Planechase, Archenemy, and Vanguard are possible post-release inclusions.
  • Playtest is set to tentatively begin 08/12

Preview Cards:

New Mechanic – Consume

As the Eldrazi Invasion has progressed on the Plane of Caeia, the invaders have begun to consume the plane around them.  This is a slightly different aspect of the Eldrazi than has been put forth before, lending itself to a more control feel instead of a ‘ramp to something enormous and smash your face’ feel.  The fact that many of the strongest strategies in the format rely on a high number of colored mana costs, this effect can be devastating.

New pseudo-dual lands

As mentioned previously, this cycle of lands will be present in the set.  They’ve already undergone a lot of redesign, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they are changed more and more throughout the development process.

Another cycle that has  been discussed previously, this 5-card cycle will be the only place where the Despair mechanic is used.  Although it may not be popular to use negative mechanics, I have just felt like this conveys the flavor so strongly that I’m willing to overlook it (and the people I regularly play with tend to agree.)

Meant as both a mana fixer and a foil to consume, the Pathfinder cycle will be present in all 5 colors.

Another exampled of the Epitaph mechanic.  As their world crumbles around them, the denizens of Caeia take inspiration from their fallen comrades.

Of course Bolas had to be involved.  From the start, I’ve intended that set 3 will feature a bit of a side story that would tie Nicol Bolas’ machniations to the plane of Caeia.  Bolas has shown strong interest in releasing the Eldrazi, and has clashed offscreen with Ugin (who, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is a native to Caeia and the founder of the Order of the Silver Flame) at least once.

The planeswalker itself is designed by MTG Salvation user AranMagnus, my best friend IRL and the primary playtest and creative support I’ve had on this project.  The card may very well see some development, but the basic idea is likely to remain intact throughout the process.  As a side note, it’s a bit obvious from his art that he’s not native to Caeia – this is intentional.  He’s supposed to be a clashing entity.


And that’s it!  Again, if you’re interested in assisting with playtesting, please let me know, and as always please leave some comments if you like what you see!

Catering to Casual

I’ve never played Planechase or Vanguard, my Archenemy experience is limited to Duels of the Planeswalkers, and the only Commander I’ve ever played are a few 1-on-1 duels using the pre-cons.  This makes me a bit sad.  Last night, I started delving into the rules for each of these game types, and I liked what I saw. As these are all casual formats, and custom set design is (in my opinion) the ultimate casual format, I’ve decided that all my sets need to be accompanied with some cards that support these formats.  Now, the cards I’m about to link are rough ideas that have never been playtested.  In fact, as said before, I’ve never played these formats so I don’t know what the correct power level should be, rather I’m basing it off of what I see online.  But here are some rough ideas…

This would represent the most basic facet of the plane Caeia – colors of mana are segregated and don’t mix at all.  The formatting on this card seems a little off, visually, which is something I’ll have to play with, but the concept should be obvious.  Playing this in your planar deck definitely helps you (assuming you’re playing a Purity deck, which if you’re playing this you should be), allowing you to ignore the drawback but seeing it potentially hurt your opponents.  The Chaos ability might be a bit over the top, if it ever gets to be playtested we’ll adjust it accordingly.

Archenemy is a fun prospect, suited perfect for the character of Elaara (the Vampire Planeswalker from the first set).  Of all the casual formats, this is the one I most hope to test.  I’m not sure if I’ll develop Schemes for anyone other than Elaara, but I have some fun ideas with Elaara.  Creature destruction, Mind Control effects, 1/1 black vampire creature tokens, and discard effects would all fall within her formidable arsenal, and I can see her being quite a challenge to take down.  Sounds like fun to me.

The last casual format I intend to design for is Vanguard.  As I understand it, Vanguard is the oldest of these formats, dating back almost to the beginning of the game.  I’ve seen the Vanguard cards on MTGO but never paid them much attention.  Of all these formats, Vanguard is the one I’m most unfamiliar with, and the card above may range anywhere from insanely broken to so underpowered in the format that it will never see play.  Still, it looks like a fun casual format, and the one that’s arguably the most accessible.  I’m not sold on the frames, as these haven’t seen updates for the modern era.  I might do some digging at the MSE2 home page and see if there are any updated templates that I might use.

This card is representative of the green planeswalker from the first set, Avienne, Greenspeaker, and the ability on this card links closely to Avienne’s +1 ability as well as the signature ability of Aldrean Greenspeaker.  The Greenspeakers are a sort of druidic order that serve Emriss, the Grovetender, and cultivate the forests on Caeia (namely the forest of Aldrea).  Avienne is my favorite card from set #1.


That’s all for today.  I keep seeing hits on the site, so I’m going to keep posting.  If you like what you read, or have any suggestions or input, leave some comments!

Eldrazi Unleashed – Phase 1 Complete

Phase 1 of my current project, Eldrazi Unleashed (Previously Amaretto, Set 2 in my custom block ‘The Hubris of Caiea’) has been completed!  You can find .PDF files, MSE set files, and MWS plugins on this page (along with files from the first set in the block – Caeia)

I approach design in three large phases: Design, Development, and Playtesting.  I’m not entirely sure of the inner workings of WotC, but my understanding is they approach things the same way.  This first phase, or the design phase, consisted of filling my design skeleton with cards that were functionally and flavorfully more-or-less what I wanted to see.  This isn’t to say that I won’t cut some cards, add some card, or redesign come cards (hell, this is still happening with set 1), but the majority of these cards should functionally remain the same.

I’ll be moving on to stage 2 of the process, in which I rely on many posters on as well as any friendly reader here to provide feedback.  I’m a terrible developer and I won’t be surprised if there are a lot of broken things I’ve done here.  As mentioned in previous posts, development is a bit easier here due to my design philosophy.  This set exists for two formats alone – block constructed and cube drafting.  Therefore the cards don’t have to be balanced around eternal formats and the set doesn’t have to be balanced around booster draft.   I’m not sure how long this process will take, but I’m sure it will be rather lengthy and will overlap with phase 3.

Phase 3 is the most entertaining phase of the design process for me:  Playtesting.  I’ve primarily playtested via Winchester Cube draft via printed proxies, and block constructed via printed proxies and MWS.  I much prefer the proxies method and if you’re in the Oklahoma City area and would like to participate in playtesting, please contact me here or on twitter @RussHenderson and we’ll set up a time to sling some spells.

All in all, this set has been very entertaining and I can’t wait to slog through design to get to the ‘fun part’.  As always, please comment, spread this around on Twitter, etc.!

Emerging Archetypes

Eldrazi Unleashed, or Amaretto, had some major work done on it this weekend.  All told, the design-phase for the set is about 85% complete (After design comes development, then focus playtesting).  Per my previous post on this blog, my design focus has changed and that has in many ways freed up a lot of design space.  To give a brief summary, I’m no longer designing with the intent of making this a WotC style set.  Instead, I’m completely ignoring booster draft and designing solely towards two formats: Cube draft and block constructed.

In many ways, the effects of this philosophy change won’t be immediately felt for me.  The first set is already finished from a design standpoint, and the second set is 3/4 of the way there.  This means that, in both sets, there are ‘filler’ cards that aren’t playable in constructed or in cube drafting, but are necessary for booster drafting (a format in which the block will never see play).  While it’s still early enough in the process for set #2 that I can still make changes, I’ve decided not to go back and rewrite history in regards to the first set.

That being said, I still have a lot more freedom from this point forward.  Though I’m still going to be sticking to traditional rarities for the remainder of this block, I’m much less tied to them (Since rarity exists for 2 reasons – balancing booster draft and selling packs).  I also get to stop adding ‘filler’ cards for booster draft, allowing me to accomplish the same effect per set with fewer cards.  Finally, I can continue to design cards without regard to any eternal format (From the beginning, I decided to ignore standard, modern, and legacy/vintage in my designs, as it takes WotC a team of people who do this professionally to get things right, and I’m only one man), allowing me create cards like today’s offering.

First off, let’s get the obvious out of the way.  This guy would (probably) never see print.  In a world where the swords cycle, argentum armor, and a dozen more hardcore equipment cards exist, this dude just gets nuts.  I say probably, because WotC has done stranger things and while this guy is good, I don’t know the Modern, Legacy, or Vintage formats to know if he’s any better than some of the silly decks that exist out there.   He’d definitely never see print in a standard or extended environment that included SoM block.  In any case, I have the luxury of not having to worry about this, and what results is a very entertaining card.

Even though the set isn’t even completely designed, much less developed, a friend and I went ahead and printed out proxies for a few constructed decks using cards from set 1 and cards that we had from set 2.  One of the decks I put together was a red/white deck that focused on playing Grillek here and filtering for some equipment.  Goblin Looter (also from Set 2) was a powerhouse in the deck, and I think R/W Grillek would definitely be a constructed archetype.  However, we also found that there enough answers for it in just about every color that it really didn’t feel overpowered.  One exception to this was this card, from set 1, but we determined that the issue was really the equipment and not Grillek himself (The equipment was on our watch list anyway).  It’s since been cut from the set, and I think we’re better for it.

Random Card – 4/13/12

 When I began working on Caeia, the first set of my first block, I knew I wanted to do a strong mill theme in blue, but I didn’t want to make it overpowering (Too much mill makes things far too strong in limited, where you’ve got 20 fewer cards to worry about milling.  This is something I still worry about, at least until we get further playtesting done).   So I wanted to try and come up with a way that mill could win the game without decking an opponent without breaking the colorpie too much.  Of course, Innistrad block does this by pairing blue with Zombies, and including flashback, but I began working on this before anything in Innistrad was spoiled, and the zombie theme wouldn’t work here anyway.

In my setting, the Merfolks of Telvan surround their home with a mystical haze that acts as their defense – stealing away the memories of those who are unfortunate enough to wander in.  They call this area the Blinksea, because when you walk in, you seemingly walk right out in the blink of an eye (because you have no memory of what happened inside).   This memory theft is represented by the mill theme, and opened up design like this card.  Typically, black is the only card that interferes with the graveyard, so this seems like a stretch of the color pie at first glance.  My justification for this is that blue is primarily interacting withnon-creature spells in the graveyard, something blue has shown some slight affinity for in the past.

When we first started playtesting this card, it cost much more to both cast and to activate.  That was quickly determined to be to ineffecient and the card was never played.  This current version is costed fairly aggresively, but early playtesting has shown that it’s right on the money.  There’s something uniquely fun about milling your opponent’s red deck and then hitting them with their own burn spell for lethal.

Thanks for reading!  If you like what you see, or you’re simply interested in giving feedback, leave some comments!

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