Custom Card Game Design
yesterday we got a few people together to play Paiura and I had the first chance of testing an actual draft with the set. I was a bit anxious going into it, knowing that there will be many issues and having bad experience with how people react to issues in my designs. Unfair or unfun designs were seen as a personal insult to the player, unless of course it’s in his or her favor – in that case, the foreshadowing of possible fixes to that design is seen as the insult instead. I was thrilled that it didn’t turn out that way this time. I received a lot of constructive feedback and made my own conclusions based on the observation of the games. This is what I learned:
What to do
in a previous article I looked at planeswalkers from a design perspective. Here, I want to talk about balance considerations on planeswalkers.
The era of planeswalking is over!
This is only my opinion and you may disagree, but it seems that Wizards has dismissed planeswalkers as a card for casual players. None of the planeswalkers currently legal in standard are played all that much. It’s all beatdown – playing dudes and smashing in. And that is one of the problems planeswalkers currently face: The planeswalker removal in standard is just too strong right now. That would of course be creatures. As long as these freakin’ guys are legal, I don’t see how you can play a planeswalker and expect him to live a turn.
What are you talking about? Planeswalking is the coolest thing in the world!
The reason I’m saying this is because I like to rant (obvs), but also because planeswalkers are viewed as innately more powerful, just because their card type. This most likely is a result of the state of standard about 1-2 years ago, where planeswalkers completely dominated the format. When there were only few planeswalkers printed, Wizards definitely wanted to make all of them awesome. Now, that there are more than 30 out already, it isn’t a big deal if one of them doesn’t get played that much and development is now more cautious than before. I’m fine with that, but I think it would be a pity if planeswalkers would fall out of competitive play entirely.
However, people haven’t caught up to it yet. They still seem to overvalue new planeswalkers or bash on designs of custom planeswalkers because they are overpowered, when in fact they are entirely unplayable. It seems to be a common theme with humans in general that we are reluctant to adjust our mindset, and then do a complete flip-flop when the old mindset can no longer be upheld.
I’m taking away your planeswalking, for good!
When evaluating a planeswalker, or any card, a very important concept is ‘expectation value’. What is the average value you get out of this card in an empirical number of games? A planeswalker shouldn’t have a higher or lower expectation value than another playable card (the “It’s a mythic – it should be more powerful!” fallacy), but should have the potential to be more powerful than those cards – something the opponent has to deal with eventually. A planeswalker grants you versatility at the price of vulnerability. Sometimes you can defend it and it will be awesome, but sometimes you can’t and you would rather have another card.
However, if you sometimes feel like you just skipped your draw, the planeswalker isn’t playable. You should always at least get some value out of it. Let’s compare two planeswalkers: Ajani Vengeant and Chandra, the Firebrand. Both Ajani and Chandra have the potential to win you the game. Ajani by blowing up your opponent’s lands and Chandra by wiping one side of the board or by twincasting an insane spell. But this isn’t likely to happen. More likely your opponent will stop you from that plan and it now becomes more imporant what else your planeswalker can do. Planeswalkers that can defend themselves are generally viewed as more powerful (Elspeth, Knight-Errant for example) and almost no thought is wasted on the strength of their ultimate.
Ajani can defend himself by tapping down a problematic permanent or you can just cash him in for a Lightning Helix. If that was the only thing he could do, then you’d rather play the Helix, but the potential of killing multiple guys or the ultimate make him an interesting choice. Chandra worst possible value is a Gut Shot that gains you some life – not exactly what you want for four mana. Her best line of play? Untapping with her and twincasting a Sorin’s Vengeance. But how likely is that? Most likely her planeswalking will be taken away from her before you can untap because she can’t defend herself.
But not every planeswalker has to have the ability to defend itself. The Firebrand could have worked out if her starting loyalty was increased (maybe 5, with the abilities +1, -3 and -8) or by reducing her cost to one colorless and two red.
When you adjust the numbers on your planeswalker, keep in mind the ‘expectation value’ in comparison to the mana cost and what else you could be casting. Also, consider that a low cost planeswalker generally faces down less creatures on the board and is more likely to survive. In your head, go through some possible sequences of play and ask yourself if your planeswalker is totally bonkers or ‘meh’ in any of the situations that arise from those sequences.
Plane I: Blue
I definitely should have followed that last advice when I designed this lovely girl here:
I suspected that she would be overpowered, but wanted to have our playtesting confirm it before I made any changes. And boy, she’s the jaciest Jace there is. Her on an empty board is just as game over as the good old Sculptorino. You can’t keep up with the mana required to get through spells and soon you’ll be facing a wall of counterspells and have no option but to concede. And even on a filled board she is decent. Bouncing a creature or just using the plus ability, taking some hits for a turn and then wiping the board on the next turn are all possible sequences of play.
Fixing her with that ability structure seems difficult – there is no fraction of a mana. So I restructured her while keeping with the idea of the counterspell enchantment:
This planeswalker has a lot going for her. Turtles are awesome, the “+1: Put a chump-blocker into play” ability was done before and is known to be balanced on a four mana walker, and she has additional control utiliy that isn’t too oppressive.
Plane II: Red
I’m running down Chandra so much, but I don’t hate her. Rather, I hate the fact that Wizards still hasn’t managed to make a competitive version of her. So I made my own version that I’d like to see in Return to Ravnica (no idea if it even makes sense for her to be there, probably not). Here is what I came up with:
I started with the mana cost: Obviously two red and a colorless. “(number) damage to target creature or player” can’t be balanced as a plus ability on a planeswalker in my opinion, so I made it the new “red looting”. I knew she had a thing for phoenixes, something that wasn’t done on any of her versions yet, so I made her summon Chandra’s Phoenixes. Of course, it wouldn’t be Chandra if not at least one ability would deal direct damage to something. I made it not hit players so that the ability doesn’t compete with the zero-ability for damage to the face.
The -X ability allows her to act as a Forked Bolt for three mana at the least, which isn’t too bad. The zero-ability is awesome in aggro decks and can also be very good in a control deck (equip a sword to it?). The plus-ability is obviously also very good in control decks.
She is definitely very pushed. Is her -X too strong when you can ramp her loyalty up that quickly? You play her on an empty board and she becomes a repeatable Pyroclasm on demand. The first ability should probably be +1. Discard, then draw is not really a powerful effect, so the first ability should just be used to up her loyalty in order to drain it with her -X, which I think is interesting.
One of the things I like to mess around with when I’m not designing a set are planeswalkers. You get to mash multiple abilities together and have all these crazy ideas that would look awkward on creatures. But you can still make many design mistakes and create a planeswalker that’s just as awkward or simply unplayable. So, here I want to talk about how to design planeswalkers.
A good planeswalker is good in both design and power level. A well-designed planeswalker is flavorful, has abilities that are simple to understand and doesn’t create awkward game states. But what is the power level we should set as a goal? I personally think that all planeswalkers should be constructed playable. Of course, we don’t want another Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but I think Tamiyo, the Moon Sage is just the right power level.
Let’s start with the most common mistakes done:
1. The +ability has to be usable at all game states:
This is the most important rule when trying to design the planeswalker’s abilities. The ability “+1: Tap target creature. It doesn’t untap during its controller’s next untap step.” sounds very solid on paper. However, what if no creature is currently on the board? The planeswalker would then be unable to use his loyalty increasing ability and just sit there until someone plays a creature A possible way to avoid this issue is the wording used on Ajani, Caller of the Pride. “Up to one target creature” means that you can also choose no target and just get one loyalty. Note that “You may put a +1/+1 counter on target creature.” doesn’t work because you still have to target a creature to activate it – you just get to choose whether to put a counter on that creature when the ability resolves.
The “up to one” wording on Ajani is a bit clunky, but it’s bearable because he’s only a three mana planeswalker – you don’t get too upset when he doesn’t do anything for a turn. Never do this on a six mana walker!
You can assume that there are lands on the battlefield and cards in player’s libraries – everything else isn’t guaranteed.
2. Never make any other spells obsolete with your planeswalker:
This is a frequent argumentation I come across: “It’s a mythic, so it’s ok that it’s more powerful.” What? No… A planeswalker being mythic doesn’t justify it being more powerful than another spell. A planeswalker for let’s say two colorless and a black that can make an opponent discard two cards on the turn it entered the battlefield would never be printable, because it would make Mind Rot obsolete. This is also true if activating the ability kills your planeswalker – you still get a Mind Rot / planeswalker split card.
Instead, why not make the planeswalker cost two black and two colorless and have him or her survive that line of play. Would people argue that it’s more powerful than Mind Rot? Probably, but it’s not strictly better, which is the key point. You can make Bountiful Harvest obsolete, because that card was designed to be bad, but you get the general idea.
These two are what I would refer to as rules of planeswalker design, everything from now on is more of a guideline.
3. Don’t get too cute on synergies:
Another thing that stuck out to me is that people get too focused on having synergies between the different abilities. It is far more important for a planeswalker to be versatile in his abilities than synergistic. Look at the planeswalkers Wizards printed until now and look for synergies between their abilities – there are hardly any. Sure, if they can get them in, they do it (Tamiyo, Gideon Jura), but they don’t seem to prioritize it.
Let’s look at Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker in particular. He has the most simple concept of versatility – his minus ability deals with creatures, his plus ability with everything else. None of the abilities have any synergy, not even the ultimate. On an eight mana planeswalker, having synergy on an ultimate is kinda meaningless. You just expect to kill your opponent right away – do you want it to do in an even more cruel way, because you did something else before?
Versatility is also the reason behind the ability structure “plus, minus, ultimate” on most planeswalkers. When casting a planeswalker, you might face a favored or even board. But there are also situations where you know you won’t be able to defend your planeswalker for a turn. A minus ability gives your walker a way to directly grant you a powerful effect that was worth trading a card for, whereas the plus ability is more controllish or gains you only a minor advantage (Ajani Vengeant). The ultimate gives you a winning condition, otherwise your opponent might just ignore your planeswalker for the remainder of the game. Of course, this is not the only ability structure you can use. Elspeth, Knight-Errant uses “plus, plus, ultimate”, which works because she can take good amounts of damage. Her versatility is having a defensive and an offensive ability.
If you focus too much on synergy, the pattern in which you have to use the planeswalker’s abilities becomes too inflexible. Inflexibility is why for example Chandra, the Firebrand is so bad. Most of the time the only play you can make is “deal one to the face” and then cross your fingers that you can untap with her at least at three loyalty.
4. Your planeswalker is casting spells just like you:
Never forget that this is the flavor behind planeswalkers – they are another player. While planeswalkers can come up with their own spells, it’s not a bad design to let them cast for example Killing Wave (on a new Liliana) or Remember the Fallen (on a new Elspeth).
5. Keep the abilities simple:
While a multicolored planeswalker should have a reason to be either color, don’t just put a ton of color-specific keywords onto the ability to justify making him or her multicolored. For most of the two-color combinations, there is something that is characteristic for these colors that doesn’t just consist of mashing those two together (blue/red: returning instants and sorceries from the graveyard). The triple-color combinations are very loosely defined and you can put your own flavor into them if you like. You don’t need to have your walker create 2/1 blue, red and green Elemental creature tokens with trample, haste and “Whenever this creature deals combat damage to a player, draw a card.” This is true for any multicolored card, but it is sometimes especially difficult to come up with good ideas for multicolored planeswalkers.
Applying these guidelines:
For this article, I designed a planeswalker and I want to show the thought process behind the abilities. The planeswalker I made is based on the character Mayael from Alara, one of my favorite characters. In a set myself or anyone else may or may not create, there could be a story where she ascended to a planeswalker – maybe Nicol Bolas is responsible (turns out he’s responsible for pretty much everything). Here she is:
Of course her iconic ability should be reflected in some way on the card, but copying it seemed like a bad approach. If the ability could be used right away, her mana cost would have to be absurdly high (6 when you kill her, otherwise 7). Using it on the ultimate also seemed misplaced, considering how bad you feel when you ultimate a planeswalker and whiff. So I kept the basic flavor, but changed it to putting it into your hand. This allowed me to put it on a plus ability, making her a really potent card advantage engine.
The next step was to figure out the numbers on the card – starting loyalty, cost, how much plus on the first ability… Digging for a fatty every turn on a plus ability seemed like something that a five mana planeswalker would do, so the mana cost was locked to two colorless plus Naya. To figure out what the other numbers should be, I first had to decide on a second ability. I chose not to do anything outside-the-box and stuck with the “plus, minus, ultimate” structure. A good planeswalker has a way to protect itself, so making tokens or killing stuff would be a good idea for second ability. But it didn’t make sense to me that Mayael generates any kind of token – and killing stuff is completely misplaced.
So, I went into another direction. Instead of the versatility being “card advantage / protection”, I changed it to “fatties to spend mana on / mana to spend on fatties” by making her second ability generate mana. What’s better than finding your Godsire with the first ability and then playing him by using the second on the very next turn? Her way of protecting herself now would be a high amount of loyalty, so I set her starting loyalty to 4 and made her first ability +2.
Now to the ultimate! Her abilities seemed powerful, but from a five mana planeswalker with such a heavy multicolor requirement, you still expect more. So the ultimate should be a spicy one. I searched the gatherer for iconic Naya-cards I could use or reference, and Titanic Ultimatum immediately caught my eye. It was perfect – you play dudes and then you kill them with said dudes. I initially had the cost at 9, but I wanted to really push it, so I moved it to 7 (which is also the converted mana cost of Titanic Ultimatum!).
I think she turned out to be a nice planeswalker for the Mayael Commander decks (if you can avoid getting a flavor disqualification that is). People might argue that downgrading Mayael’s ability takes away her uniqueness and that’s a valid point. I don’t feel that way, but I can understand if other people do.
Here is another planeswalker from Unification, the third set of my Paiura block. This one is more designed with the Spikes in mind. She is based on the character Kiora Atua, but she has been transformed into a vile Naga in the story-line:
Next time, I’ll be continuing my introduction to Conquest of Orion, so stay tuned. If you didn’t check it out yet, click here.