Custom Card Game Design
After the train wreck that was Battle for Zendikar block, Shadows over Innistrad is shaping up to be a pretty sweet set. While I don’t think it will come anywhere near the original Innistrad, it’s still only a 2 on the normalized Return-to-Ravnica-Disappointment scale (which rates how disappointed you are with a return-to-set after the initial hype of returning to that plane, and on which Return to Ravnica is a 5), while Battle for Zendikar is at least an 8.
I have one problem with the set, though — the planeswalkers. Let me tell you why their designs suck:
It seems like Ob Nixilis wasn’t defeated by the Gatewatch; he merely took over Jace’s body. There seems to be a repeating pattern now that 5+-mana planeswalkers draw cards on their plus ability and remove threats on their minus ability. There is little room for variation left. At least the ultimate is different, but no one cares about that, because planeswalkers are always designed in a way that their ultimate is never activated ever. Why doesn’t Jace summon illusions for once? He does that all the time in the story. This incarnation is just boring.
Oh look, another planeswalker that draws cards on his plus ability, deals with a threat on his minus ability, and has an ultimate that is completely irrelevant. People seem to be hyped about this card, but I don’t know why. He doesn’t strike me as very constructed playable. He’s just mediocre, bland, forgettable, and has bad art.
Oh look, another planeswalker that draws cards on her plus ability, deals with a threat on her minus ability, and has an ultimate that is completely irrelevant. Ok, the ultimate is actually reached very easily, so maybe it could be relevant from time to time.
While Nahiri’s physical appearance inexplicatly didn’t change after centuries of being mortal, her spellbook changed quite a lot. I don’t mind that she got a new slice of abilities to represent her turn to the dark side, but she doesn’t feel like a Nahiri at all. It would have been nice if she had at least something to do with equipments, or artifacts in general.
The white in her also doesn’t really reflect in her abilities. The plus and the ultimate are both mono red, and only the minus ability is red-white. Despite all my criticism, I’m willing to give her a pass because the abilities do convey the story of Shadows over Innistrad very well.
“Hey, but what about Arlinn Kord? She’s pretty unique, right?” you’re saying. No, she’s not! She’s just another spin on a planeswalker template that’s also overdone by now: The four mana planeswalker that spits out 2/2 tokens on a zero-ability. The transform ability is very cool, but she has so much text on her and only so little of that text is relevant. The ultimate would allow you to kill your opponent in a slightly cooler way, but unfortunately your opponent is dead long before you reach it. The two plus abilities are unnecessary in my opinion; either make them identical to reduce the complexity or remove the plus ability of the transformed side altogether.
Yes, Arlinn Kord is very cool, but like with all of these four planeswalkers, there is something obviously flawed about her design, and I cannot understand why these planeswalkers got their stamp of approval the way they are. It really seems to me like the design phase of these cards lasted for about five minutes, and they used the first few abilities they could come up with, while the rest of the time was spent on development to get the numbers right. They may be very well tuned as a result — but their design is so damn flawed!
I thought that we would see new, interesting concepts, like the Magic Origins flipwalkers, more often, but instead Wizards of the Coast seemed to be content here with just iterating upon the templates that have “worked” in the past. Quote unquote because I feel like a flaw with many planeswalkers is that just repeatedly using the minus ability is almost always the right play.
Doing it better
I complain a lot, but I also think that I can do it better. Here are two planeswalkers from my Shandalar set:
Liliana uses the Chain Veil to temporarily boost her power, while the Raven Man is as elusive as he is in the story. He can never be killed in combat, but also doesn’t affect the board except for threatening to ultimate.
It’s entirely possible that these two planeswalkers wouldn’t be able to pass through development, but if not, I’m sure there are similarly wild designs that would.
When I first came up with the idea for Shandalar set, I envisioned a set based on a plane abundant with mana. Like Zendikar was the “land-set”, this would be the “mana-set.” Only later, I realized that Shandalar was the perfect plane for this set as it is described as exactly a plane abundant with mana. My initial concept had a strong multicolor emphasis, with exotic mana costs that you wouldn’t see anywhere else. Mana costs such as multicolor twobrid, tribrid, and mixed hybrids of all five colors. For a set based on mana mechanics, it would make sense that these exotic combinations are explored. But while this is a perfectly viable concept, it doesn’t work for Shandalar. In the recent core sets, Shandalar has been defined by five lands heavily aligned with a single color of mana: Thune, Evos Isle, Xathrid, Valkas, and Kalonia. It would feel wrong to depict these lands as anything else.
The focus of the set slowly shifted to monocolor, still with a heavy emphasis on mana mechanics, but with far less exotic mana costs. Although I want to push monocolor, multicolor should also be a viable archetype. Basically, you should be able to draft as few or as many colors as you like. Not an easy task to make this work, but I think it’s very much doable.
Each of the five colors should get cards that reward you heavily for sticking to only that color, as well as unique synergies and themes to prevent a “core-set feeling.” As of now, I have a concept that I’m happy with for Thune and Kalonia, and some rough ideas for the other lands. Here, I want to show off my concept for Thune.
Just like Bant, Thune encompasses basically all classic fantasy tropes associated with white: Wizards, knights, angels, and so on. So, that’s what you’ll get. The mechanical themes of Thune are a spin on the themes of the overall set. The first one is Inherit.
Inherit is a mechanic that appears in all colors. It allows you to “flashback” an instant or sorcery spell, but the twist is that you need a creature to cast it. The creature taps to allow you to cast the spell from exile once. You have to pay the mana cost, and then it’s put into your graveyard. Inherit is a spin on my Consign mechanic, and probably what Consign should have been in the first place, as the design space isn’t as constrained by the threat of repeatable game states.
I included Inherit in the set to capture that in Shandalar “the magical energy is so prevalent, that it all is sentient, and the common people use minor spells as an everyday convenience” and to synergize with the next mechanic, Wizardry.
Wizardry rewards you for having creatures that fling spells left and right. Because you can potentially trigger Wizardry multiple times per turn (just imagine a few Elvish Mystics in play), I have to be very careful with the effects I put on it. Plus one life doesn’t seem much, but it can add up. Paladin Aspirant also shows the spin white has on the set’s theme. While most of the cards in the other colors with Inherit are sorceries, for example Divination with Inherit, white gets mainly instant combat tricks. But having to tap a creature to recast the spell prevents you from attacking – unless the creature has vigilance. Therefore, many cards in white have or grant vigilance.
Lastly, some creatures have activated abilities themselves.
These creatures reward you for going into monocolor. A triple white cost at common probably isn’t a good idea, so the Crusader of Thune cycle is at uncommon. Sky Captain of Thune can be played in multicolor decks, but if you stick to mono white, you get the activated ability as a bonus.
Next time, we’ll travel to the forests of Kalonia.
My Shandalar set requires a lot of mana fixing, as it’s supposed to support monocolor as well as five-color archetypes. Of course, a monocolor deck doesn’t need mana fixing, but maybe you want to splash a second color. For both of those deck types, common dual lands are a welcome sight.
So, I designed ten ETB-tapped duals. Here they are:
Alright, basic duals . . . why?
Because they are possible now that Wastes are a thing and I believe they would do a lot of good for the game.
Basic duals communicate very elegantly that you can build multicolored decks, and you should play the appropriate basic duals to make your mana better, but playing multiple colors comes at a price. The duals aren’t very good. Unconditional ETB tapped is a huge downside.
Now that I’ve argued the positives, what are the potential problems with basic duals existing? Let’s look at their impact on each format:
Alright, I’ve made my case. Let’s talk about the actual implementation. Like Wastes, basic duals don’t have basic land types and have their mana ability written in the oracle text. And just like on Wastes, that mana ability is omitted on the card. The only visual clue of its mana ability is the semi-transparent mana symbol. I hope that this representation is clear enough. Of course, the ETB tapped part can’t be omitted on the card.
Then the names . . .
River: River combines water and plains. A perfect fit in my book.
Cavern: I don’t know an elegant word for “underwater cave.” Cavern was the closest option.
Chasm: Chasm is mountain-y and sounds evil.
Highland: A wooded mountain region.
Meadow: The options were Meadow or Glade. Meadow is closer to Plains than Forest, while for Glade it’s the other way around.
Desert: Nothing really that fits perfectly. Desert works, and if any of the duals is a desert, it should be the white-black one.
Falls: A waterfall is water on a cliff. Fits perfectly. Shorten it to Falls, because Waterfalls sounds awkward.
Jungle: Swamp is already a forest-y terrain, so finding something in between Swamp and Forest is hard. I think Jungle works.
Mesa: Obv . . .
Pond: The options are Pool, Pond, or Rainforest. I’m not sold on Pond yet.
Got alternate ideas for the names? Tell me in the comments!
In one of my earlier sets, Paiura, there was a mechanic which I called Paiuran mana. For each instance of Paiuran mana, you could pay any color of mana that was not spent already on another mana symbol in the spell’s cost. For example, a spell that costs 2x Paiuran + Blue could be cast by paying Red, Black, and Blue. It was a fun mechanic, but the cards did not have any unique identity. What can the aforementioned example spell do that a spell that costs 2U cannot do? I want to include new mana symbols in Shandalar, so I revisited the mechanic I designed three years ago.
It is important to find an identity for the cards that have this mechanic. With the “tribrid” spells, I already have spells that are customizable through the colors of mana that are spent on them, so maybe I could go into the same direction. Associating a unique effect with each color of mana is not feasible though, as the cards would get far too wordy. But: Each color has a unique keyword ability that is more or less associated with it, for example trample and green. Spells with this mechanic could always grant these keywords and they could be listed in the reminder text. After a player has understood one card with this ability, he would quickly grasp the next few. White gives lifelink and black gives deathtouch is not very hard to remember for any Magic player other than a complete rookie.
Then I realized that due to each color granting a new ability, the player would be rewarded for using different colors of mana anyway, and the original restriction of Paiuran mana was obsolete. A few wording alterations later I arrived at this:
The “five-color hybrid” symbol is called prismatic mana. It acts as an indicator for “You may spend any color of mana to pay this cost” and also as a function. It takes the color of mana spent to pay for it and returns a keyword that is associated with that color of mana. That keyword is referenced with “prismatic” in the card text. If the card has multiple prismatic mana symbols, the “prismatic” keyword returns multiple keywords.
Prismatic mana could lead to interesting deck-building decisions. You are playing an Evolving Wilds in your deck and two Breach of Sunlight. Is it worth to put a Plains into your deck, just so that you have the option to use the lifelink effect? Who am I kidding; in this format you play five-color anyway.
This is a very rough draft, and especially regarding the wording there are many alternate and maybe better ways to do it. So, I would like to hear your opinion on it. Next to Abundance, Prismatic is the second mechanic focusing on mana. The rest of the mechanics should go into different directions.
For a long time, I have had the idea to design a set focused on mana, with many different and unusual mana costs, but mana costs that would still make sense in the context of the card’s abilities. You could argue that any multicolor set is such a set, but I do not think of this set as just a multicolor set, although multicolor cards are very dominant. The plane of choice for this set could be Shandalar. As the MTGSalvation wiki states: “It [Shandalar] is a relatively small plane and incredibly rich in mana. The magical energy is so prevalent, that it all is sentient, and the common people use minor spells as an everyday convenience.”
So, it makes sense that a Shandalar set focuses heavily on mana, with many mechanics associated with it. Here is an example:
Abundance checks whether or not you have specific colors or amounts of mana in your mana pool, but it does not actually use up that mana, so you can easily chain multiple abundance spells in one turn. Is that potentially broken? Probably not. I mean, at best it is an Ancestral Recall; that seems to be acceptable these days. Some abundance effects could also just check for the amount of mana in your mana pool instead of the colors. Important is that the conditions are consistent within cycles, so that it does not become too confusing.
The set would feature new mana symbols, hybrid mana, gold cards, and heavy monocolored cards. All of this must be held together somehow; a set where you expect monogreen and five-color both to be viable, will certainly not work out unless the mechanics heavily support it. Cards like the “Word” cycle would help. They are my take on tri-color hybrid cards and can be played in many different decks, although they are best in a deck that can use all modes.
This is more of a theoretical project. I do not plan to make a whole set out of these ideas, but I want to explore what is possible with the themes and mechanics I have in mind. What would a set focused on mana look like? If you have ideas, I want to hear them as well.