Custom Card Game Design

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An Update long overdue: Siege of Ravnica

First, I couldn’t think of anything to write about. Then I didn’t have the time. And then I didn’t care.

But, new year’s resolve: More content again! (mainly because Doombringer constantly bugs me 😛 )

Let’s start with some updates long overdue. This time, Siege of Ravnica.

The Eldrazi

Siege of Ravnica underwent a lot of conceptual changes since my initial design, and it should be ready now for the next design wave. But, since I started with the set, Battle for Zendikar block happened. The question now becomes, how much should I let Siege of Ravnica be influenced by it? Like many people, I didn’t like Battle for Zendikar very much, and I think the Eldrazi were executed very poorly in the block. So, I’d rather cherry-pick the few good things from that block and ignore all the rest. Where are we at?

  • Devoid is terrible. No devoid in Siege of Ravnica. Never! Devoid didn’t happen! I can’t hear you! Lalalalala!
  • True colorless mana on the other hand is a very cool mechanic, and something that I’m considering using. However, my Eldrazi Spawns (Broods they are called now) actually make mana of any color, to help with the multicolor theme of the set (although it’s against the flavor of the Eldrazi). Introducing colorless mana would have to entail significant restructuring of the set.
  • I planned for all three titans to show up in Ravnica. But in Battle for Zendikar, Ulamog and Kozilek are killed off. Only Emrakul’s whereabouts remain unknown. This could be an opportunity to tie in Siege of Ravnica’s story with the current storyline: Emrakul escapes from Zendikar and goes straight for the main course of a city plane abundant with life. But at some point, we will deal with Emrakul in the official story, and Siege of Ravnica will again be a “parallel universe.” So, I’m only buying maybe two years.
  • While in Rise of the Eldrazi, the three titans just destroyed without reason, in Battle for Zendikar, the three Eldrazi titans were all given a unique identity. Ulamog was born from an insatiable hunger and has to consume endlessly. Kozilek is the master of time and space and reshapes the planes into his twisted vision of what the multiverse should look like. And Emrakul? It is the Titan of Corruption, twisting, corrupting, and consuming only living matter. This concept could be incorporated into Emrakul and his brood, or it could just destroy everything like it did in Rise of the Eldrazi. I actually liked that.

The current version of Emrakul.


The next big topic are the planeswalkers. I planned for planeswalkers to be at common, but due to a lot of negative feedback, and space-issues in the set skeleton, I plan to remove them, or at least change the approach drastically. Currently, I’m toying with the idea of making a set like Zendikar Expeditions called Across the Multiverse that will feature many planeswalkers, old and new, and spells from the home planes of these walkers. One Across the Multiverse card will be inserted into every or every second (or so) Siege of Ravnica booster, replacing the basic land. I want planeswalkers to be a major part of the draft format. I think it’s doable, but it has to be done right.

Two cards that could appear in Across the Multiverse.

New mechanic: Escort

Escort (An escort may protect another creature as both attack unpaired. The pair is blocked as a group and the protector is assigned combat damage first.)

Escort is a mechanic that I’ve been toying around for a while now, and one that I wanted to put into many sets in one form or another. As Duet, it allowed creatures to attack in a pair. In addition, upon attacking, you declare which creature is assigned combat damage first, and which second. With Escort, I simplified the mechanic even further, and made it mandatory that the escort is assigned combat damage first.

Two creatures with escort.

I really like Escort because it takes the good ideas of banding (bear with me) and removes everything that’s so confusing about it, both on a comprehension level and on a board complexity level. It forces the attacking player to declare the combat damage order immediately. This way, it is very easy for the defending player to discern how combat will turn out. It doesn’t do anything on defense, so there’s no risk that the attacking player runs into a chump-attack.

Only the wording is a bit tricky. In four lines or less, the reminder text has to convey that…

  • …you can’t have a creature be escorted by two escorts. This is what the “unpaired” phrase is for.
  • …the characteristic of having to be assigned combat damage first is separate from being an escort. If two escorts attack paired, you choose which one escorts the other. This is what the “protector” phrase is for.
  • …if two escorts attack paired, the protector has to be chosen upon attacking.

Did you think these corner cases were supposed to be handled this way based on the wording?

New mechanic: Deadlock

Deadlock — At the beginning of your upkeep, if no creatures attacked during each player’s last turn, {effect}.

Deadlock replaces Breach, which was an ability word that gave you a bigger pump spell if you cast it during your main phase. Both play into the siege theme of the set, but I think Deadlock is more interesting mechanically.

A “deadlock breaker” and a “true deadlock” card.

Deadlock creatures can break open stalled board states (Siegebreaker Wurm) or entice the opponent to break it open (Vizkopa Aristocrats). Although these cards use the same mechanic, they should play out very differently. While the Orzhov and Azorius guilds are good fits for the “true deadlock” mechanic, Gruul and co. really like attacking, so they should get more of the “deadlock breaker” cards.

On the surface, Deadlock seems like a mechanic that entices board stalls, but that’s only true on a deck-building level. If you play Vizkopa Aristocrats, you’ll want to make sure you can prevent your opponent from attacking favorably. But once the board stalls, the Aristocrats ensure that the game is coming to a conclusion. The opponent has to act.


How would you represent the brood of Emrakul, the titan of corruption? Should Emrakul stay true to its Rise of the Eldrazi depiction or should it get a unique shtick like the two smaller titans?

Next time, an update on Shandalar!


Crafting Limited Archetypes

The Ten Color Pair Approach

Lately, on the MTGSalvation forums, there has been a greater focus put into designing for and crafting limited archetypes. The general consensus seems to be that each color pair should have a defined draft archetype. I’d like to share my thoughts on this and offer some counter-arguments.

While this approach is was somewhat used in the Tarkir sets, it was featured even more prominently in Magic 2015, which I think is the most convincing proof that this approach doesn’t necessarily work all the time. In Magic 2015, the archetypes felt very diluted, half-hearted, and the pay-off was often just not there. Sure, the Undergrowth Scavenger deck was great when it came together, but what about the other archetypes? You drafted blue/red artifacts and your pay-off is a 2/3 flyer for 3. Not very impressive. Blue/green bounce? While you’re spending your turns squeezing out some very minor value, your opponent just kills you with Triplicate Spirits.

Magic 2015 wasn’t a very pleasant draft experience. But Innistrad used the same concept and it turned out pretty well. So, what’s the difference? When you try to force ten different archetypes into a single set, you quickly run out of space to support all of them. But in Innistrad, the allied color draft archetypes were based on tribal synergies. This meant that many cards could do double-duty for enabling archetypes. For example, a Zombie that mills a player can enable your Spider Spawning, while the Zombie tribal deck just cares that it’s another Zombie. In addition, the pay-off cards were just much more powerful.

I intend to use this approach for my Overworld set, but a lot of tuning will be needed to make it work.

Build-Around Cards

You can save space in your set if you concentrate the pay-off for drafting certain archetypes into few, but powerful cards. These build-around cards have to be great when you draft around them, and terrible otherwise, so they don’t get picked by other players. In Innistrad, the black/green self-mill deck was called THE Spider Spawning deck because it was centered so much around that card, while in blue/red you drafted THE Burning Vengeance deck.

Concentrating the pay-off into these powerful cards meant that more slots could dedicated to “hidden gems” for certain archetypes. The numerous cross-interactions also meant that the different archetypes had a good amount of overlap. This is another problem with Magic 2015. Not only were the draft archetypes very diluted, but there was also next to no overlap between them.

To spice up the format, you can also throw in some build-around cards that don’t really go with any of the set’s themes. If a build-around card doesn’t demand anything from your deck that’s specific to a certain draft environment, you don’t have to spend any resources on supporting it. A card like Immortal Servitude comes to my mind. Is drafting around this card a very effective strategy? Probably not, but it’s certainly fun, and maybe that’s exactly what a player wants to do in a custom set draft.

In one of my Iamur drafts, one player had a lot of fun drafting around this rare.

Custom Set Audience

When you design your draft archetypes, you also have to keep in mind that your set probably won’t be drafted nearly as often as the official sets. This means that you have a higher percentage of players who draft for the first or second time and need more guidance during the draft. Build-around cards are great for this, because a new drafter can just first-pick them and then pick every card that goes well with it. This might not even be the right thing to do, but what I’ve found is that players find the draft experience frustrating not when they draft a bad deck, but when they didn’t draft a cohesive deck.

Esparand was my attempt at imitating the Innistrad draft format. I planned out many cool interactions and had cards that were “hidden gems” for a certain archetype. While some drafters surprised with their really cool, thematic decks, the majority of the players felt frustrated because they didn’t understand how the cards were supposed to interact, or their important cards got picked by those who didn’t really need them. I don’t think the format was bad at all, but this is something I definitely want to improve in my next set.

Siege of Ravnica

In Siege of Ravnica, all ten guilds will be present. So the “ten color pair” approach would make sense here. But the set is loaded with so much stuff already that I run into the problems mentioned above hundred-fold. Still, each guild should have a theme behind it or it wouldn’t be a Ravnica set, even when it’s being torn down. To make it work, I try to stick to the following guidelines:

  • The guild archetypes are optional. Some cards will reward you for committing to them, but you won’t have a bad deck if you elect to ignore them.
  • The pay-off cards are concentrated into very few cards that are useless to other draft strategies.
  • Most of the powerful enablers and pay-off cards are multicolored to further prevent them being picked by the wrong drafter.

The Selesnya draft archetype is based around Rally the Conclave. While many cards generate tokens at common, Harmonic Gathering is the card you want in this deck.

We’ll see how it turns out. My guess is that some guild decks will work, while others will just play as a pile of good-stuff.


How to craft the draft archetypes for a specific set is a very complex question, and there are many things to consider. While the “ten color pair” approach can work for some sets, it might not always be the best approach. When you’re crafting your archetypes, keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Try to craft overlapping archetypes. This makes the draft format much more interesting and less linear. Tribal synergies mixed with other themes are a great way to do that.
  • Don’t include “fake archetypes.” These are archetypes that appear to exist, but aren’t really supported at all, or only half-heartedly.
  • When you have enough space in the set, design as many cards as possible to support each archetype. If you’re running low, concentrate the archetypes into very few, but powerful, synergistic cards. Make sure they are useless to other drafters.

Do you want to defend Magic 2015 from me senselessly bashing it? Do so in the comments :).

Announcing: Across the Multiverse

Legions was the all-creature set, and Alara Reborn the all-multicolor set, carrying their respective block’s themes to extremes. The Siege of Ravnica block’s focus are planeswalkers, so the logical conclusion of the block is an all-planeswalker set. In Across the Multiverse, the second set of the Siege of Ravnica block, every card is a planeswalker. While the fight against the Eldrazi continues, we explore the multiverse with the help of planeswalkers to find the Ravnicans a new home.

To make the set’s theme work, the basic effects, such as counterspells, and combat tricks, must exist in the form of planeswalkers within the set.

A basic planeswalker design acting as a Divination.

Of course, some planeswalkers will have more than one ability, especially at higher rarities.

Activating your planeswalkers every turn should grant you enough invetitability to close out any game. You can attack with the tokens they produce, or with the direct damage they can inflict. Still, some planeswalkers have to throw themselves into the fray to allow for more complex combat situations.

A white filler planeswalker.

A planeswalker could become a 2/2 creature, a 2/4 creature, or even a 5/5 creature with trample. The design space here is limitless, and I really look forward to exploring it.

The Guilds United

If nothing else can get you to work together, maybe the end of the world can. In Siege of Ravnica, the guilds don’t get their own mechanic each. Instead, the guilds get a shared mechanic called Guildpact and each of the guilds will have a minor theme that can be built around. Guildpact is an ability word that counts the number of colors among permanents you control.

Two creatures with the Guildpact mechanic.

In many multicolor formats, you can try to draft five-color, but the results may vary. In Siege of Ravnica, you are directly incentivized to do so. You pick the best card from each pack, pick up the Guildpact cards when you can, but you are also smart and pick mana fixing over them! The Guildpact cards aren’t as good in two- or three-color decks, so you can pick them up later.

Similar to Khans of Tarkir, ten dual lands at common help with the mana fixing.

There are also some cards in the set that synergize well with Guildpact. For example, the “multi-guild hybrid” cycle. These creatures have a cost similar to the “Shardblade” cycle from Alara Reborn and can increase your color count drastically.

Gold hybrid cards have two guild affiliations.

In addition to the synergy they provide with Guildpact, the hybrid cards tie together the multicolor environment of the set. Each of the two- or three-color combinations should be draftable and having flexible cards goes a long way in supporting that goal. The “guilds working together” theme could be expanded even more with true tri-colored cards at rare that have the watermarks of all three included guilds, but giving these cards a flavor that represents all three guilds reasonably well might prove to be too difficult.

Eldrazi in the Streets

Getting the Eldrazi right was the most difficult task when I started designing Siege of Ravnica. I believe many designers who, before me, brought the Eldrazi back can attest that finding a fitting mechanic is not a trivial task. Do you reuse Annihilator? That’s certainly not optimal, but if you don’t, where do you go from there? The mechanic must satisfy the following main criteria:

  • It must be scalable, so that it can be used on common Eldrazi as well as rare Eldrazi, or even the Titans. For example, Doombringer suggested his Eradicate mechanic “Eradicate X (Whenever this creature becomes blocked, defending player sacrifices X nonblocking permanents.)” I believe that this mechanic disqualifies, because it does not scale very well. That is, unless you intend to use it only for lesser Eldrazi, and have bigger plans for the titans. In that case, it’s perfectly reasonable.
  • It must feel colorless.
  • The flavor as well as the gameplay must fit for the Eldrazi. Basically, it must involve destroying or consuming stuff. I considered a mechanic that gave the Eldrazi +1/+1 counters when the opponent spent mana, representing the Eldrazi’s nature to devour the mana of the plane. Although this fits the Eldrazi flavorfully, it doesn’t fit them mechanically: Eldrazi don’t sit back and wait until they’re strong enough to attack.

The second Eldrazi mechanic from Rise of the Eldrazi were the Spawn tokens, and here I think it’s reasonable to bring them back. But I changed them a bit, so that they better fit into the environment.

An Eldrazi drone from Siege of Ravnica.

Spawn tokens now produce mana of any color. Although this is a bit out of flavor for the mostly colorless Eldrazi, it’s a necessary change to make them fit into the multicolored environment. Maybe the brood lineages mutated after the titans devoured the incredibly rich mana of Zendikar. This upgrade entails that you will see less Eldrazi spawn tokens created per card, and Kozilek’s Chrysalis is as far as they will be pushed — no strictly better Emrakul’s Hatcher!

For the greater Eldrazi, I eventually came up with the ability word Consume. An extremely loosely defined mechanic, Consume signals an ability that inflicts something harmful onto an opponent and grants the inverse beneficial effect for you. The Eldrazi trigger this effect when you cast them, as well as whenever they attack, combining the when-you-cast triggers from the original titans with the whenever-it-attacks trigger from Annihilator.

Two greater Eldrazi from Siege of Ravnica.

Consume fits all the criteria mentioned above: It is scalable, it feels colorless, although most of the effects you can put on it will be associated with a specific color, and it feels Eldrazi-esque in both flavor and gameplay. It has very limited design space, but barely enough so that you can fill in the handful of slots for the Eldrazi in the set, and it reads very weird if you’re unfamiliar with the original Eldrazi. It’s not perfect, but I think the perfect mechanic is a very tiny spot in the room of all possible mechanics, and that spot would be incredibly hard to find. Verdict: Good enough!

Here is the new Emrakul featuring the Consume mechanic. As I mentioned when discussing the Emrakuls of other designers, I believe that there is no design space for a new Emrakul at 15 mana. The original Emrakul reads “I cast this card and you die.” Any other Emrakul that doesn’t just outright kill the opponent will just feel woefully inferior and obsolete, while an Emrakul that does can’t feel different enough to warrant a new card. So, the Emrakul you see here is cheaper and less powerful, so that it can fill a new role.

“Baby Emrakul.”

Thanks for reading!

Siege of Ravnica

Yet again, I started another project. It is called Siege of Ravnica and I have already posted it on the MTGSalvation forums.The Shandalar concept turned out to not have that much design space, so I looked for something else. This time, I crammed everything I wanted to design for quite some time into a single set:

  1. A multicolor set.
  2. An Eldrazi set.
  3. A planeswalker set.

The setting of Siege of Ravnica is that after draining and destroying Zendikar, the Eldrazi headed straight for the city-plane Ravnica, beginning to consume it as well. The Ravnicans are completely overwhelmed by the Eldrazi brood. Only when the guilds join their forces they are able to halt the advance. Meanwhile, the planeswalkers involved in the original Eldrazi storyline send out a rallying call across the multiverse, invoking planeswalkers to travel to Ravnica and fight the Eldrazi. Ravnica was already a hub for planeswalkers in the past, but now planeswalkers from even the farthest corners of the multiverse arrive.

So, basically this is Michael Bay: The Set; the ultimate over-the-top showdown. And that is kinda what I feel like designing right now. So, let go of your expectations of realism and appreciate this set for what it is trying to be.


First things first: This set has planeswalkers at common. And judging from the MTGSalvation thread, this seems to be a very controversial inclusion. There are two different points brought up:

Flavor concerns: Planeswalkers are supposed to feel powerful and unique. Making them common takes away from that uniqueness and is a severe flavor violation. This is, of course, a valid point.  However, planeswalkers at common is a one-time thing, justified by the flavor of the set, and after this set, planeswalkers would go back to being mythic only again. The common planeswalkers are not Jace or Chandra, but planeswalkers that we have not met yet, who do not have such an eventful past that everyone tells stories about. There’s a precedence: A nameless planeswalker appears in the Garruk storyline and is being killed by Garruk only a few lines later.

I would just find it unfortunate if planeswalkers were always restricted to Constructed and we could never draft with them outside of Cube. That there will be a large quanity of them opened and thrown into the trash like other commons is an unfortunate side-effect.

Development concerns: There are several points made for the development issues regarding planeswalkers. One is that planeswalkers break limited and just don’t work. I say that this is complete nonsense. You can design planeswalkers so that they don’t warp the game completely around them, but are still viable. The other is that planeswalkers take away a lot of the complexity budget, and leave very little room for complexity beside them. With this I can agree, and you will see that the remaining mechanics of the set are very simple as a result.

So, how do common planeswalkers look like? Well, first off, they don’t have unique names. The flavor isn’t that Jace duplicated himself a thousand times and you see him running around everywhere. Each planeswalker is still unique, but there are so many of them, that you can’t remember all their names. As a consequence, they have no planeswalker types and you can have multiple copies of the same card on the battlefield at the same time. In addition, all non-mythic planeswalkers have only two abilities, where most forgo their ultimate, although you’ll see some that have a single plus ability and an ultimate at uncommon.

The naming template for all planeswalkers: {Home plane} {Class}

The lack of an ultimate is crucial to making these planeswalkers work in limited. Usually, commons are supposed to trade 1-for-1 in limited, and not run away with the game. Because of that potential, planeswalkers are viewed as the ultimate bombs in limited, although most creature mythics are better picks as they are more consistent. For example, let’s take a look at a recently printed planeswalker, Sorin, Solemn Visitor. What are possible outcomes when you play him in a limited game?

  1. He makes a Vampire token and then dies, effectively gaining you some life. That’s not really a good deal and something you could see at common.
  2. He makes a Vampire token and another one on the following turn. Ok, that’s a Talrand’s Invocation, not bad. That’s a reasonable effect for an uncommon.
  3. He makes a Vampire token and then trades for another card, for example a burn spell. Same as above.
  4. He uses the plus ability and gains a ton of life in a racing situation, but dies without trading for a card. This could be printed at common, although the ability to gain ten, or even twenty life is usually not found at common.
  5. He stays on the board for several turns, making several Vampires and gaining a lot of life. Repeatable card advantage is something you see rarely at uncommon, but it’s doable. Still, I’d rather see it as rare.
  6. You play him, the opponent doesn’t have an answer. You ultimate him and win the game in short order. That’s what a mythic does!

To make a common planeswalker work in limited, we have to remove the outcomes 5 and 6, and tone down the abilities just slightly so that the other outcomes are suitable for a common. You can see this applied in Ergamon Wildcaller. What can you do with her? At worst she’s a three mana Rampant Growth that gains you some life. That’s not exciting, but playable. She has the potential to do much more if she sticks around, but will she ever dominate a limited game? Unlikely.

A Siege in Flavor and Gameplay

“I need to defend my planeswalker.”

The planeswalkers aren’t just there to cram more awesome stuff into the set; they are supposed to play very well with the rest of the mechanics of the set. The design goal is that the limited format should feel like a siege in gameplay. You build up a massive defense and the game stalls for a bit, and then a giant Eldrazi crashes in, sweeping through most of your forces. Planeswalkers give you something that you want to protect next to your life total and induce a much greater tension into the slower, more grindy gameplay.

“I don’t care how many walls you have on the board. Your planeswalker is dead!”

Next time, I’ll show more of the set, talk more about the mechanics, and all that jazz. You can also check out my thread on MTGSalvation and see everything I have so far.


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