Custom Card Game Design
Just a random card today. I haven’t posted in awhile and want to, but I can’t seem to find the time to sit down and actually write something more in depth. While Generals of Dareth is in playtesting/development, I’ve been shifting my design focus to Battlefields of Dareth, the second set of the block. If I’m to be honest, it’s not really where my heart is, designwise. I keep coming up with ideas for the third set, Into Infinity, that I think are going to be a ton of fun. However, I don’t want to skip over set #2 and straight into set #3, even if set #3 is a standalone set.
This card (or a version thereof) will appear in Battlefields of Dareth. Avienne, first seen in Caeia, has traveled to Dareth in search of the Infinity Engine, the fabled Darethan artifact that is said to be able to undo one point in time. She wishes to use it to undo the destruction of her home plane of Caeia, however she finds that the the great Generals of Dareth are already locked in a struggle for the Infinity Engine. If the idea of a planeswalker going back in time to change the past sounds familiar, all I’ll say is I began work on this and posted bits of the planned story far before Tarkir block was announced. :p
Avienne coming from Caeia means that she grew up in a world where colors of mana were completely segregated. Caeia’s inability to unite to fight the Eldrazi being the primary reason the plane fell so quickly, she feels a deep motivation to branch out from her native green mana. Given that she strives to undo the past, her first forays into non-green magic have been experimenting with blue time-magic. That said, she still has ties to who she was in the past. Her +1 ability here mirrors Avienne, Greenspeaker‘s +1 ability (which in turn mirrors Aldrean Greenspeaker‘s ability, given that Avienne was a Greenspeaker of Aldrea before her ascension as a planeswalker), while embracing her newfound multicolor identity. The templating for the +1 ability is, obviously, something not done in printed Magic. I feel (strongly) that this is a better way of templating this type of effect, as it saves rules text space and is more aesthetically pleasing. So there she is – what do you guys think?
Legend- wait for it…
It turns out, I couldn’t wait to write the follow up to my first Into Infinity exploratory design post. As I mentioned before, it’s an idea I’ve had kicking around for several years, and so the prospect of actually seeing it come to fruition excites me, gets my brain working. Thus, I’m back at it again today.
As mentioned in the previous post, Into Infinity is a standalone set (ala Rise of the Eldrazi) that finished out the Dareth block. The theme is ‘legendary creatures and planeswalkers matter’. Why legendary creatures and Planeswalkers? Well, the real theme is ‘leadership’, or perhaps ‘leaders and followers’. The story of Into Infinity will see the Infinite Consortium, an interplanar organization of planeswalkers, come together and summon an army led by some of the most talented generals in the multiverse, in order to combat an enormous threat. The planeswalkers of the infinite consortium are obviously represented by the planeswalkers in the set; their generals are the legendary creatures.
If your theme is not at common, it isn’t your theme. One of the biggest problems with having a planeswalker-centric block is that even if you can justify a planeswalker at rare, it’s one hell of a stretch to put one at uncommon, and an almost insurmountable task to justify putting a planeswalker at common. Stretching the theme to planeswalkers and legendary creatures helps me bridge that gap to common.
“Legendary creatures matter” has been tried in MtG’s history in the past, in the Kamigawa block. While the block has a bit of a cult following, it was largely considered a failure. Limited could get very klunky and multiple copies of the same legendary creature clogged up your hand.
Grandeur, a mechanic seen thus far only in Future Sight, helps to relieve that issue. By having a common cycle of legendary creatures with grandeur abilities, there is no worry about having them as ‘dead cards’ in your hand. Of course, given that they are common, they’ll need to be carefully balanced. This isn’t development, so I’m not too worried about numbers and balance at this point, and yet these cards need a bit more consideration in that regard to know if they’ll work at common. Raising the cost of this card by 1 could be considered, though having it at 3cmc makes the card seem tailor made for a beginner’s Tiny Leaders deck. (EDIT – Apparently I should read more. Tiny Leaders being a singleton format means that this effect is useless there)
The effects of leadership
Obviously, the set can’t be completely legendary creatures or planeswalkers, but if that’s going to be our theme, how do we enforce it?
Leaders need to have followers, subjects to lead. And this takes us into territory that will be less controversial. Embolden is an ability word that you can get a lot of mileage out of, I think. It works best on creatures, but can go on just about anything, permanents and non-permanents alike. And the complexity isn’t high, and we need something lightweight on the complexity scale.
The trappings of office
The last card I’ll work with today is one of a possible two or three card cycle of uncommon equipment that transform a creature into a legendary creature. Again, the effect itself is what we’re looking at here, not specific numbers.
So… there are a few problems here. First off, it doesn’t quite feel elegant. Not exactly brute force design, but not very smooth either. Second, the legend rule not applying is necessary for this kind of card to work, yet inadvertently has the unintended effect of allowing you to have two of the same legendary creature out. Maybe not game breaking, depending on the cost, but something that will have complexity and balance considerations.
A cycle like this is great for our theme, because it turns all of your creatures into potential embolden enablers, but the complexity it brings to the table is a hefty price to pay.
Of course, a set with legendary creatures and planeswalkers as your theme will feature other cards that play with the mechanic. “Counter target planeswalker spell”, “Destroy target legendary creature or planeswalker”, etc. are things I would expect to be considered during design.
I’m trying to contemplate what the as-fan of legendary creatures/planeswalkers would need to be in order to make this theme work – I’d love some feedback, not just on that but on all the designs here and the theme in general.
The above concepts, and the ones from the previous post, all just serve to illustrate some of the ways that this theme can be pulled off, and all said I’m pretty confident about it. In fact, it’s got me excited enough that I’m really tempted to just go with it and work on this set in earnest, and come back and finish sets 1 and 2 at a later time.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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:
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!
Announcing: Dareth Block
Set Name: Generals of Dareth
Block: Set 1 of 3 in the Dareth Block
Number of Cards: 249
Estimated Release: June, 2014 (Beta)
Three Letter Code: GEN
Theme: Tactical Creature Combat
New Mechanics: Vanguard, Reverberate, Unity
Returning Mechanic: Cycling
Several months ago, I began talking about a new project meant as a follow-up to my first custom block, Caeia. Together with Caiea and my customer core set, this block would bookend my own custom standard. As an exercise in design, I resolved to build this block from the bottom up – designing the mechanics and card interactions fully before assigning flavor. This design process has recently drawn to a close.
It’s taken quite a while, primarily due to my busy work schedule which has made it difficult for me to stay active within the card creation community, but with the the design process done I can begin to assign flavor to the cards. I am currently in the process of providing a name and artwork for each card in the set, and in doing so am also setting the stages for the story.
The bottom-up philosophy makes adding flavor to the cards an interesting challenge. I’m finding that, whilst many of the cards from the Caeia block had plane-specific names, the cards in the Dareth block, so far, have had fairly generic names, or at the least non-specific names. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and overall I’m fairly pleased with how the process is going.
The Dareth block will, unsurprisingly, egin on the plane of Dareth. Dareth is a faily standard fantasy setting – initially I had hoped to do something a bit more thematic, perhaps Norse Mythology, but I found fairly quickly that it was hard to assign specific flavor like that in a bottom-up environment. The titular generals are 6 beings represented on 5 different cards (three legendary creatures and two planeswalkers) that have turned the plane of Dareth into a living chess board – directing their armies in calculated strokes and counterstrokes against eachother. The prize at stake? An ancient artifact said to grant its possessor with the remarkable ability to change time itself – specifically, to change one (and only one) event in the past.
Their motives a closely held secret, each general now enacts the final phase of their respective campaigns. This August, hopefully with the help of friends and community members, the Dareth campaign will begin on cockatrice as Generals of Dareth releases in Beta form and the development phase begins.
If you like what you see, and if you would like to be a part of the development process for Dareth, please leave feedback. This will be my last post for a little while – I’ve been kinda spamming lately. But, when I post again, there should be a PDF file for an entire set.
As always, thanks for reading.
In the spirit of trying to post more regularly, and because I’m nearing the end of the design phase of Veni and I’m fairly excited about it, here is another random example from the set. Nothing on the card is final, and this one will obviously require some testing for balance purposes. Thoughts?
EDIT: If any are interested, the full design of Veni has been updated. The full PDF can be found here. Flavor, including story, artwork, and the full name of the set, should be coming soon.
Because it just felt too darn good posting the other day, another post! This is a random card that may or may not appear in the current set I’m working on. I know it’s hard to judge outside of its intended context, but regardless I’m here to show it off because I like the concept so much, and I’m also hoping for some feedback on the wording.
Several months ago I posted about a new MtG project I was working on – a set built around tactical creature combat and built from the bottom up. As a refresher, bottom-up design is an approach to design in which you build a set based on mechanics and synergies, ignoring flavor elements like story and art. This is in stark opposition to the top-down design philosophy that WotC has used to great effect since Innistrad.
Although I’ve been fairly inactive online over the past several months, I’ve not ignored the project and I am fairly close to being done with the initial design phase (That is to say, I’m almost to the point where every card in the set’s skeleton has been initially designed, even if that design may change greatly during the development process). Looking ahead, within the next month or so I will need to begin building flavor for the set and that’s where this post comes in. I’ve been building a set that I feel will be fairly enjoyable to play, but I have no idea what the flavor will be. I have no story, no setting, and no general art style to aim for as of this point, and I was hoping for some input.
I’m not ready to release the whole set file just yet, but these pics should give a decent idea of where I’m going with the set. I’m looking for feedback from anyone willing to give it on what kind of setting the set should be based in. Anyone have any ideas?
If you’ve been following Magic: the Gathering’s design over the past three or four years, you’ve probably seen the term ‘top-down’ an awful lot. Put simply, top-down design is a method of design that starts with the flavor – the story, the aesthetics, etc. – of the set, and then assigns mechanics based on that flavor. A great example of top-down design is the Innistrad block, where the designers started about by saying ‘this is supposed to be gothic horror’, and thus had cards like laboratory maniac which started out their design with the well known horror trope of the mad scientist, and then assigned mechanics to fit that idea. Another great example of top-down design is the forthcoming Theros block, which is a top-down design based around greek mythology.
Bottom-Up design is the complete opposite. Cards are designed with function alone in mind, with flavor and aesthetics added after the fact. There’s not a great example of bottom-up design in MtG recently, because it’s something they’ve moved away from (as top-down designs are certainly more resonant, and their design teams are top-notch, able to take the flavor they work with and mix it in with awesome mechanics to create a compelling game environment.)
My first block, Caeia, was a top-down design. The very first idea for that block was the simple story premise – a mysterious priest who deals in colorless magic travels to a highly segregated plane and pits the inhabitants against eachother in a plot to summon the Eldrazi. Most, if not all of the cards in the Caeia block, started as thematic ideas rather than mechanical ideas – and I think this was a success in many ways. I personally feel like the Caeia block is one of the more flavorful custom set out there, and I’m pretty happy with how the story translated to the cards. However, there were problems with this approach – developmental problems where cards that were designed for flavor purposes don’t quite mix well within the game (think Homelands), and I still struggle with these issues every time I play with the block.
My follow-up to Caeia (a three set block code-named ‘Veni‘, ‘Vidi‘, and ‘Vici‘) will be a bottom-up design. I know the mechanical themes of the block (creature combat matters) and have several mechanical interactions in mind already, but I have no idea what the aesthetics of the block will be, no idea what the setting or story will be. It’s a design strategy that has it’s own pitfalls, but as my intent through all of this is to better myself as a designer, I want to experience those pitfalls for myself.
So I’ve set out to make this set, where tactical creature combat is at the core. To me, this has already meant a few things. First off, I’ve set a hard rule for myself – no creature removal at common. Nada. Zip. If you want to be rid of a creature, at common, you’re going to have to do it while in combat. I’ve also increased the number of combat tricks that each color will be receiving, and the mechanics of the cards will often deal with attacking creature, blocking creatures, or both. As you can see by the pictures found throughout this post, I’ve not settled on any card name, no art, no flavor text, and no class. The cards are all coded, and their names are simple descriptions of their mechanical functions. This will remain true throughout the entire design process. We’ll see where it goes.