Custom Card Game Design
Khemia is a top-down design that has been in the making, off and on, for a few years. As I move deeper into the set and begin to focus on it as my current custom MtG project, I find myself more focused on world-building which, in turn (I hope), will help with design. I’m no writer, certainly no fiction writer, so be gentle. Below is the first in a series of posts that should flesh out the plane of Khemia, and provide some insight into the conflict between the Pharaohs, who believe they are anointed by the gods to rule over the ‘lesser folk’, and the Freesand’s Rebellion, who believe all Khemians should be equal and free. Specifically, this post is a bedtime story told by the Pharaoh Khura to his daughter, Princess Raelia, who will one day grow to be the leader of the Freesands Rebellion, who seek to usurp the Pharaohs. (Art credit to Lee Reex, El Grimlock at Deviantart.com, Saad Irfan, Hector Herrera, and Julian Peria.)
“Tell me a story, Father” the princess said. The Pharaoh, of course already knowing the answer, asked “A story of what, my lotus flower?”. The girl flashed her father an impish grin. “A story of the gods!”, she replied as she drew her blankets closer, the night breeze from the river, an-Nil the Great, cooling the young princess’s open-air bedchamber. The Pharaoh smiled down at his daughter, and heir, and begin to recite the tale. “Long ago, the people of Khemia were all the same. Petty and corrupt, they bickered for cattle, bickered for honey, bickered for water. A Khemian could kill another and there would be no justice, for there was no law. Then May’et, goddess of truth and judgment, came to them and showed them a better way. The greatest were elevated to their rightful place, and these were the first Pharaohs. They brought law to the lawless, justice to the lesser folk, and proclaimed May’et’s truth to all of Khemia, for they were the Pharaohs.”
“Long ago, the people of Khemia were all the same. Dull and slow-minded, they knew not the secrets of Sphinxes, knew not of the secrets of Mana. The riddles and tricks of the dunes were cruel enigmas that bested them all. Then Sehtar, the trickster, came to them and showed them a better way. The greatest were reminded of their great intellect and wit, and these were the first Pharaohs. They tricked the Sphinx into sharing its secrets of mana, and the desert bloomed. They tricked the lesser folk, who became their slaves, and the great Pyramids were built for their great glory, for they were the Pharaohs.”
“Long ago, the people of Khemia were all the same. Frail and mortal, life was merely a short breath before they returned to the sand in death. Short were their lives, and final was the grave. Then Ossurian, sovereign of life and death, came to them and showed them a better way. The greatest were shown that they have power over both life and the afterlife, and these were the first Pharaohs. Death was merely another step in their existence, a place where they would bring the lesser folk to attend them as they supped in Ossurian’s halls, for they were the Pharaohs.”
“Long ago, the people of Khemia were all the same. Cowardly and weak, they were the prey of the crocodile, meat of the harpy. A Khemian knew not the ways of the spear, or the power of the flame. Then Amunaht, the sun’s fire, came to them and showed them a better way. The greatest remembered their strength, and conquered the dunes with fire and iron, and these were the first Pharaohs. The lesser folk trembled at their might, and hid their eyes from the radiance, for they were the Pharaohs.”
“Long ago, the people of Khemia were all the same. Hungry and sick, the hot winds parched their lips and the sands choked them. The dunes were all they knew, save for the mirages sent by the Sphinxes to toy with them. Then Tefeneta, mother of Great an-Nil, came to them and showed them a better way. The greatest remembered the river, remembered the rains, and found a fertile delta. The lesser folk sang their glories, and erected great temples upon the water in acknowledgment of their glory, for they were the Pharaohs.”
“So sleep well, my princess,” Pharaoh said to his daughter, “for you are one of the greatest. The gods have chosen you to rule over the lesser folk, to show them the justice of May’et, the cunning of Sehtar, the life of Ossurian, the boldness of Amunaht, and the abundance of Tefeneta. You are my lotus flower, my Raelia.” Khura, Pharaoh of Khemia, bent down and kissed his daughter’s forehead. The young princess, however, was already fast asleep.
It seems my modus operandi is to do a lot of custom design over the course of a few months, followed by almost nothing on custom design for a few months. Work, family, all of that keeps me busy sometimes. That said, I’m back in the saddle for a little while and rather than continue to slog through Dareth block, I’m taking a detour and working on Khemia instead.
I’ve put out a few posts about Khemia and one of my biggest problems is making the worship mechanic work. I had a few goals with worship –
I’d previously not been able to accomplish this. After last night, I have what I believe will be the final version of worship. Using Soulbound as a template, I’m bypassing memory issues by basically pairing the worshiped with the worshiper. Behold (as always, the numbers don’t matter and need to be developed upon):
Instead of an “activate this ability only on your turn” clause, I’ve made it be a tap effect, which means it can be used during your opponents turn to befuddle combat math, but I’m ok with that. Also, while the worship doesn’t last the entire game, it does last as long as you control both the worshiped and the worshiper, so that’s fun.
And like I said, it opens up design space elsewhere. Such as this card (whose numbers would of course need tweaked before deciding on a final version, but you get the idea):
So, I feel like worship is at a very good place and I’m excited to move forward with Khemia. I’ll be putting up more posts as the design of the set continues. If you’re reading this, is there anything during the design process you’d like to see talked about?
Thanks for reading!
Work continues on Generals of Dareth, as I endeavor to improve its limited game. After Generals of Dareth, I’ll be moving on to Battlefields of Dareth, the conclusion of Dareth story (but not the conclusion of the block, as I have a third set, Into Infinity, planned for the block’s conclusion and my last three-set block. Ambitious, maybe, but as I’ve lined out in previous posts, I like to plan ahead.)
However, Khemia, my first two-set block, is still being worked on as well, and I’d like to focus on some of the exploratory work being done on the set. (I should note, as with most everything I post, nothing is final – the focus here is on broad themes and feel, to be refined and developed later)
A long time ago, on a plane far, far away…
Khemia is being built around an Ancient Egyptian Mythology theme. Much like Innistrad and Theros, design of the set is being influenced by pop culture tropes rather than any attempt at a realistic depiction. As such, the set will have pretty much what you’d expect – mummies, scarabs, ancient gods and goddesses, etc. However, woven throughout these themes is a deeper story.
Prior to the Planar Mending, five ancient planeswalkers traveled to the plane of Khemia and set themselves up as gods. Each of these planeswalkers chose a champion, one who embodied their ideals, and these champions were the first Pharaohs. As time has passed, the ancestors of these original Pharaohs have continue to rule Khemia, but have turned their backs on the ‘gods’ who put them there. Those they favor, prosper. Those they disdain are forced into a dismal life of servitude.
Though not all the Pharaohs are cruel, the Freesands Rebellion makes no distinction. Raelia, daughter of the Pharaoh Khura, founded the rebellion after growing sickened by the atrocities and injustices she witnessed from her father. With the help of the nomadic clans of Khemia, the rebellion has now truly started to take hold, and the plane of Khemia is quickly plunging into war.
A New Hope
A classic tribe from the history of MtG, Rebels will be featured prominently in Khemia, albeit with some new twists. Mechanically, the conflict of Pharaohs versus Rebels will be play out as Converted Mana Cost 5 or more (Pharaohs) versus base power 2 or less (Rebels).
One of the things I want to hit early on is the ‘Rebel’ mechanic. Although not all rebels feature the mechanic, rebel cards are best known for being able to pay a colorless activation cost to tutor up and put onto the battlefield a rebel card with a converted mana cost greater than theirs by one. This is not a mechanic I want to revisit in this set, for a few reasons, but I do want to riff on the mechanic, which leads me to cards like Freesands Deathsword. This card, and others like it, will present a condition that, when met, allows you to tutor up a rebel card with converted mana cost greater than theirs, by one. However, instead of putting the card into play, it’s put into the hand.
Not all creatures with base power 2 or less will be Rebels. The Pharaohs need creatures they can drop earlier in the game, and the worship mechanic (which is meant to play well with the Pharaohs) only works on smaller creatures. This is emblematic of the Rebels struggle – though they fight for all of Khemia’s lower class, not all those they fight for support them, and some even blindly worship the Pharaohs in hope of being granted their favor. Raelia however, being the founder of the Rebellion, is able to recruit even the worshippers of the Pharaohs to her cause.
The Empire Strikes Back
The rebels may be formidable, but the Pharaohs are worshipped as the chosen of the gods. They command legions of soldiers they view as disposable, and many possess magic that guarantees that not even death can stop them.
There are those of the lower class in Khemia who serve the Pharaohs, in the hopes of finding a place of favor. Mechanically, these are repsented in creatures who have abilities that care if you have a creature with converted mana cost 5 or more on the battlefield. Though some of these cards will be strictly for limited play, there may be some tuned well enough for constructed. I imagine the black Pharaoh will experiment with sacrificing some of its own worshippers for gain.
And then, there are the Pharaohs themselves. Imbued with ancient Khemian magic that allows them to transcend death, they are formidable beings in their own right. The rebellion has a difficult task ahead of it if it plans on succeeding in toppling them.
Return of the Jedi
…I’m sorry. I just had to go with the Star Wars references. Because, you know, reasons.
Anyway, the wild call in the Freesands Rebellion is the ‘gods’ themselves. Their true identity as planeswalkers unknown to the majority of Khemians, these beings are still called upon by many on both sides of the conflict. Some of the rebels believe the gods can be convinced to come down and smite the Pharaohs, who have turned their back on the gods. Others among the rebels see the gods as simply another example of oppressive authority.
Worship is a mechanic that works well with the Pharaohs, but is meant to symbolic of the third side to the conflict, the planeswalker/gods of Khemia. Worship is the first mechanic developed for the set and has, by far, been through the most changes. It’s a very wordy mechanic, and as such is difficult to justify on commons, and is difficult to find much design space with as the rest of your text box aftr reminder text is very limited. Still, I’m very happy with how it’s turned out so far and am looking forward to see how it plays.
That’s it for today. Thanks for reading, and I’m sorry again for the goofy Star Wars reference.
…Actually, you know what, I’m not sorry. 🙂
Per my previous post, I’m shelving Generals of Dareth and working on a different project for awhile – Dunes of Khemia, a top-down set based around Egyptian Mythology. Today, I’m continuing to look at potential mechanics for the set and I’d like to post some up here and get some feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of each mechanic.
A big theme I want to explore in this set is the difference between the lower class, peasants and laborers, and the upper class, pharaohs and the gods. I’m currently playing with two themes here, that aren’t completely symmetrical but may still work well together. Cards that target or affect the ‘upper class’ will seek out converted mana cost 4 or more. Cards that target or affect the ‘lower class’ will be power three of less. One of the first mechanics I’m playing with that explores this is Worship:
No set that features ancient gods and goddesses would be complete without a mechanic symbolizing worship. Theros did it with Devotion, but wisely named the mechanic in a way that it can be used later on, which was a good call. I’ve had this mechanic in the wings for a few years now, and it’s gone through several iterations. It still isn’t perfect, but there are a lot of things I like about.
As previewed last week, as well as below, one big part of the set is going to be a cycle of ‘gods’ that must first be summoned from their temples by placing loyalty counters on them. This mechanic plays into that beautifully, I think.
The mechanic has its downsides, however, mostly regarding its complexity. First off, it’s wordy, and that means less space on the rest of the card for more mechanics. Secondly, it mentions three different types of counters. While +1/+1 and loyalty counters coexist easily, ‘worship’ counters make things more confusing as it’s a second type of counter on creatures with a completely different meaning. Another option would be simply to remove the ‘worship counter’ and instead have it be a transferrable +1/+1 counter, though I’m not a huge fan of that solution.
It’s basically impossible to have an Egyptian Mythology set without mummies. This isn’t necessarily because true Egyptian mythology featured reanimated mummies all over the place, but rather because that’s how Egyptian mythology exists in pop culture. One of the lessons learned by MtG after Kamigawa is that a top-down design needs to address expectations over attempting to stay true to source material.
Given that there are two other cycles in the set that use the double faced template, I felt that representing reanimated mummies was best done in this way. This card also speaks to the high converted mana cost vs. low power conflict I spoke about previously.
Mummify is almost too simple to be a new keyword, however. There are only two arguments I can make for making it a keyword – First, it makes it easier to drop the reminder text later on to save on space. Second, it feels better in a sort of intangible way. Pretty weak arguments in favor of this being a keyword, so that may not make it (as a keyword – I like the mechanic itself) in the final draft.
Sidenote – a change I might make to this card, at least the front side, is to make it care about base power, so you can still pump your weenies without worrying about them being destroyed. Lastly, once flipped these cards have a converted mana cost of 0, which makes the ‘converted mana cost 4 or more’ interactions not apply to them. This could be interesting, or it could be unintuitive.
As previewed last week, this set will have its own take on ‘gods’. There will be five gods in the set, one for each enemy color pair, each based on a different Egyptian god.
A few tweaks to the Temple/God cards have been made since the last post, thanks to the feedback in the comments. First, the artifact’s ability can only be activated at sorcery speed, and second the transfor trigger is not state-based and non-optional.
This card is based on the Egyptian god Osiris, their god of the dead. The planeswalker itself is absurdly powerful, appropriately (in my opinion) godlike. However, summoning him will take some doing, requiring 8 loyalty counters before begin able to transform the temple, making summoning the planeswalker require dedication. Of course, the tap ability itself on the artifact is very powerful, as expected on a 5cmc mythic.
One last thing to mention about the ‘gods’ being Planeswalkers. The Theros gods weren’t Planeswalkers intentionally – planeswalkers and gods are different things. The same is true here – these cards are planeswalkers, intentionally, and planeswalkers and gods are still different things. A big part of the second set of this block is the common people finding out that the ‘gods’ actually aren’t gods at all. But we’ll get into that another time…
Looking for feedback
As always, I very much want your feedback. Ideas you have to improve these themes, mechanics, and specific cards. Ideas you have to make this blog more interesting to read. Really, any discussion is welcome.
Thanks for reading!
So I’ve not done much custom card creation in several months, but I’ve been eager to get back to it. Every now and then I get a message on twitter, reddit, or MtGS asking where I’m at with GEN and I have to say – I’m nowhere. I like the idea of the set, it’s just one that I’ve hit a pretty solid block on.
So… rather than continuing to beat my head against GEN, I’m shelving it for awhile. Not forever – it’s definitely a salvageable project – I just need to set it aside and let it marinate for a bit.
In the meantime, I’m going to be playing around in an entirely new project for awhile. Dunes of Khemia will be the first set in a 2-set block themed around Egyptian Mythology. Nothing is set in stone at the moment, but I have a few ideas for mechanics and how the block will play out. It’s going to have a theme of the lower class (pauers and peasants) versus the upper class (Pharaohs, nobility) that will hopefully play out as low CMC vs. high CMC. There’ll be a decent Exploration subtheme, and of course, gods.
The ‘gods’ of Khemia are actually planeswalkers who have set themselves up as ‘gods’. They require worship before intervening directly in the affairs of Khemia, and much of the story of the block will involve the downfall of these ‘gods’ as the people realize they are anything but.
I’m playing with transform mechanics in this set, and these is one of the more extreme ways of doing so. The set will have five planeswalkers set up like this – one for each enemy color combination. Each Temple will have a powerful activated ability as well as the opportunity to add loyalty counters by tapping creatures, and will transform into a planeswalker once it reaches the stated threshold.
Each planeswalker will have a powerful static ability, A decent + ability (that will usually be more than +1) and a powerful but costly ultimate. All this balanced around the fact that it takes jumping through so many hoops to get the Planeswalker out.
Oases will be another use of the transform mechanic in the block. This is a top-down design that tries to encapsulate the scarcity of resources in the desert. I think there’s some space to play here, though I haven’t expounded upon it too much.
That’s all I’ve got for today – I’ve got some ideas for how Khemia can come along, but want to see what the response to it currently is. If you’re reading and like what you’re reading, leave me a comment.
Finally, I hope you all have a happy New Year!
While Generals of Dareth is playtesting, I’ve found myself distracted from designing the second set of the Dareth block. Instead, most of the design I’ve been playing with lately is in regards to an Egyptian-themed block that a friend from work has asked me to work with him to design as his sort of entry point into custom MtG design.
This is one of the random planeswalker designs I’m playing around with, one that may not make the cut when all is said and done, as the set is already heavy on Walkers. This is the second version of this character that I’ve attempted, the first being rather lackluster and begging for a redesign. I’m much happier, already, with this iteration of the character, although it isn’t without its problems (the first two abilities are very control-oriented, while the ultimate works better in an aggro deck). The set this card would theoretically go in has a running theme of low mana cost vs. high mana cost, which should help explain the last two abilities.
What do you guys think?