Custom Card Game Design

Tag Archives: MtG Design

Shadows over Innistrad Planeswalkers

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:

Jace Nixilis.

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.

Sorin, Cookie-Cutter

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.

Nahiri, Mending Denier

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.

Arlinn, Wall of Text

“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:

Two planeswalkers from Shandalar.

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.



Red’s Affection

Pia and Kiran Nalaar has to be the card in recent years that has the greatest disconnect between the flavor and its mechanics.

On the picture we see a man hugging his wife as they look over the streets of Kaladesh where their Thopter creations are buzzing through the air. In the story, Pia and Kiran are depicted as the loving parents of Chandra, who sacrifice themselves so that their daughter can survive. Like all other Kaladesh artificers in Magic Origins, Pia and Kiran Nalaar create Thopter tokens. And like many of the artificers, they have an additional artifact-related ability. In fact, the only thing that differentiates them from Whirler Rogue is a different activated ability. And what did they choose as the unique ability of Chandra’s loving parents? They throw their Thopter creations at your face…

An ability that is completely disconnected from their flavor — it’s just what red does, and so they got this ability. Even if you ignore the “loving parents” part and only focus on the “ingenious artificers” side of Pia and Kiran, why would they blow up their creations, which I assume they are quite fond of, to hurt you? I for one never throw my self-made cards at my playgroup.

In recent years, Wizards tried to depict the colors less one-dimensional (“black is not necessarily evil!!!!!”). With Drana, Liberator of Malakir they succeeded in making a black hero character into an elegant, flavorful card. But for Pia and Kiran this was impossible, because there is just no way to depict love and affection in red mechanically. That’s also why Chandra is still depicted as nothing more than “the angry pyromancer.”

So, how about we expand red’s color pie (again!)? One possibility I see is giving red a small share of defensive spells:

A defensive red spell.

But it would be important to differentiate red creature protection from those of other colors. Here’s how it could be done:

  • White doesn’t need to sacrifice anything to save your creatures. Defensive Magic is part of their color pie and a white mage can just create an invulnerability shield.
  • Black doesn’t save creatures. The creatures save themselves. Vampires, demons etc. sacrifice the pawns to regenerate.
  • Red doesn’t have access to defensive magic, so when someone throws a fireball at his friend, the red mage can’t just create an invulnerability shield. He has to throw himself before the fireball to save the friend.
  • Big green creatures are just naturally indestructible.

Of course, this is only one possibility. These red defensive spells would only appear from time to time, and like Protective Instinct, they wouldn’t be too playable. Still, I have reservations about this addition to red’s toolbox and would prefer a solution to red’s one-dimensionality that fits better into its slice of the color pie.

If we choose not to expand red’s color pie this way, would Protective Instinct be fine as a one-time thing?

The Armies of Thune

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.

Two instants with 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.

A creature with Wizardry and a spell to synergize with it.

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.

I remember saying there wouldn’t be any exotic mana costs.

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.

Basic Duals

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 give a clear signal to newer players that you can and should build multicolored decks. You associate mono-red with Mountains, mono-green with Forests, but there’s nothing that represents the two color combinations, which have become more and more important since basic lands were invented.
  • Basic duals can be reprinted to be kept in Standard instead of having to invent new duals, such as Cinder Barrens, every set. The reprints can have a new art each time, just like normal basics, and players can collect and play with the ones they like the most.
  • Basic duals allow you to build budget multicolor decks. The price tag is especially a problem in Commander, a casual format, where people often don’t want to spend as much money on their decks, but where the mana base alone can cost more than 100$. That is, unless you want to fill up the deck with an unreasonable amount of basics and be color-screwed every 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:

  • Standard: You can balance basic-fetchers in Standard around the existence of these duals. No damage is done.
  • Modern: Basic duals would have a significant impact on Modern. You can make yourself immune to Blood Moon if you want to, which I think is a very good thing (**** Blood Moon!). They can be fetched with Search for Tomorrow and Sakura-Tribe Elder and therefore be played in Scapeshift decks. But that’s a minor upgrade the deck would get, and wouldn’t throw things out of balance.
  • Legacy/Vintage: No chance. They’re too bad.
  • Commander: Here, the basic duals would have the most impact. Now you can build budget multicolor mana bases, and you can even improve the mana bases of non-budget decks significantly, by cutting traditional basics for these new duals. Remember, in Commander you have to play a lot of basic lands, so that your land fetchers are never dead. I play about twenty basics in my Mayael Commander deck and I get color screwed frequently. Basic duals mean less mana screw, and more fun.

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!


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!

Overworld Limited Guide

If there is anything that is a constant in my custom set drafts, it’s that people always complain that their decks are bad and incoherent (even if it’s far from true). Let’s hope that this guide can alleviate that!

Full Card List


Wanderlust (Whenever this creature attacks, look at the top card of your library. You may put it on the bottom of your library. If it’s a land card, you may put it onto the battlefield tapped.)

Wanderlust is a mechanic that encourages you to attack, even in slow ramp or control decks. Wanderlust creatures generally have a smaller body and need help to be able to attack. Chump attacking to get a wanderlust trigger is almost never a good strategy. Wanderlust comboes with cards that manipulate the top of your deck.

Vessel (Whenever this creature attacks, do something to other attacking creatures.)

The Vessel ability word appears on Ships, which are colored artifact creatures. Vessel is another mechanic that encourages you to attack, although, unlike Wanderlust, only aggressive decks will be interested to use it most of the time.

Riposte {cost} (You may cast this card for its riposte cost if a creature is attacking you.)

Riposte is a mechanic that encourages you to defend and balances out Wanderlust and Vessel. The mana discount allows you to keep up combat tricks more easily on your opponent’s turn.

Growth {cost} ({Cost}: Put a +1/+1 counter on this creature. This costs 1 more to activate for each +1/+1 counter on it. Grow only as a sorcery.)

Growth is a generic mana sink mechanic appearing on sea monsters. Many of the sea monsters with Growth have an additional mechanic that triggers whenever they attack and have the greatest power among creatures on the battlefield. Growth helps you achieve that condition, but also pump spells, or Equipments can help out.

Tip: You can respond to an opponent’s attack trigger with a pump spell to counter it, even using riposte. The power check is performed only upon resolution of the trigger, so you can attack first, then respond with a pump spell to meet the condition.

Quest hub (When this enchantment enters the battlefield, draw a card. You may complete each quest once. When you’ve completed both, sacrifice this.)

Quest hubs are enchantments with “quest abilities.” These are like normal activated abilities, but can be activated only once. Each quest hub costs two mana, draws a card when it enters the battlefield, and has two quest abilities with varying activation costs. Quest hubs act as mana sinks in the lategame that have a relatively low opportunity cost – you can cycle them early and ignore them until later in the game. Most quest hubs are very strong, but there’s a limit to how many you should play because you’ll never find the time to complete all quests if you play too many.

Tip: To represent the state of a quest hub, put a dice on it. On 1, the dice indicates that the first ability has been activated. On 2, the second.

Gold tokens (Put a colorless artifact token named Gold onto the battlefield. It has: “Sacrifice this artifact: Add one mana of any color to your mana pool.”)

Some cards produce gold tokens, similar to those in Theros block. Gold tokens can be used for ramping, to keep up combat tricks, and for mana fixing. There are also cards that use artifacts as a resource.


Overworld has a significant tribal component. On a scale from Innistrad to Lorwyn, Overworld is somewhere in the middle.


White-Blue Adventurers

While all colors have access to quest hubs, blue and white are the only colors that have cards that specifically synergize with them – in the form of the two uncommons Elvish Adventurers and Errant Adventurer. The low density of those pay-off cards means that this archetype can’t be forced. However, Errant Adventurer is a very powerful card in a deck with many quest hubs and allows you to pick them much higher.

The adventurer deck can play the control game and outvalue the opponent with the plethora of quest hubs, or use the mana advantage generated by Errant Adventurer to play the tempo game like many white-blue decks in Limited. As both adventurers have a relevant creature type, Elf respectively Pirate, they blend well with tribal archetypes.

Blue-Black Pirates

The blue-black aggro deck relies on otherwise mediocre cards such as Thirst for Treasure, that suddenly become very strong when combined with Captain’s Parrots and similar creatures. As Pirates are secondary in blue, the Pirate synergies can be implemented, but it isn’t essential. Blue-black can also be built more controlling, but many commons in these colors support a tempo strategy better.

Red-Black or Grixis Pirates

Red-black Pirates are a typical aggro deck with a few tribal synergies. Jacon’s Recruiters is a very high pick in this deck. Due to the gold tokens that are available in those colors, it is not unreasonable to play straight three-color. The third color will most likely be blue, where you can pick up additional Pirates. Southsea Sky Pirates is generally too cost-inefficient to make the cut, but with enough Recruiters, it becomes quite good.

Green-X Sea Monsters

A green-based ramp deck exists in the form of sea monster tribal (Kraken, Leviathan, Octopuses, and Serpents). As sea monsters appear in all colors save white, the second color is free to choose. Each of those colors has one common that supports the sea monster tribal. In addition, there is Culinary Ogre at uncommon, making red-green a slight favorite as the choice of color combination. However, this archetype can make use of the powerful fixing in the format and easily go three-color. Iyori Deepspeaker is a very crucial common for this deck.

Green-White Elves

In the green-white pair, you can draft the elves archetype. Like a typical elves deck, you swarm the board and attack the opponent with an overwhelming force. A clear signal that elves are open is Elvish Reveler, as it is a great, efficient pay-off card for the deck. Elves can be combined with sea monsters to round out the deck with some heavy hitters.

Green-Blue Turtles

Turtles are centered in green and blue. The deck is based around the powerful pay-off cards Limestone Tortoise, Torta’s Warleader, and Keeper of Chronicles. Most turtles have a lot of toughness, and block very well, but to win the game, you need some additional finishers. As a control-ramp deck, it can put the most expensive sea monsters, costing up to eight mana, to use.

Red-White Conquistadors

While Ships appear in all colors save green, Ship synergy only appears in white (with the exception of one uncommon in red). Ships are at their best in a red-white aggressive token deck with a lot of pump effects. Iyori Port is a premium common for that deck. If you see a late Lecadian Conquistadors, read it as a signal that this deck is open.

Black-Green Voodoo

The black-green archetype is a secondary archetype, which isn’t as heavily supported as the other ones. The deck attempts to grind out the opponent, or get an early sea monster onto the battlefield with Return from the Deep. This deck lends itself well to splash multiple colors. The black-green deck is a valid back-up plan if the deck you’re trying to draft isn’t coming together.

White-Black Lifegain

Another secondary archetype. You can try to go into the lifegain deck, if you can pick up one or two of the pay-off cards Herald of Autumn and/or Malevolent Hosts early. Herald of Autumn is also a very good card in the elves deck, and will be contested heavily by other players. Malevolent Hosts, however, can be picked up late.

Draft Strategy

You can and often should commit to a certain archetype very early. Powerful, non-commiting cards dry out very quickly and you’re left with either picking mediocre cards or cards that are only viable in a certain archetype, such as tribal cards. Therefore, it is important to know which archetypes you can go into based on your first few picks, and to identify the signals when you should change gears and commit to a different archetype. To showcase this, let’s take a look at an example booster:

(Click to boost size)

In this pack, Cataclysmic Tide and Ruthless Strike are the outstanding cards and either could be the first-pick.  Dance of Tides is another solid pick. Beyond those three, all cards in this pack are either unexciting or commit you to a certain archetype. Keeper of Chronicles is one of the main reasons to draft Turtles, and Bloodsail Captain is just as powerful in the Pirates deck, and if you’re already commited to the respective deck, they outclass all other cards in the pack. Keeper of Chronicles, unlike Bloodsail Captain, is a fine card on its own though.

Overworld is a pauper format, meaning that rares don’t have as much impact as in most other draft formats. Sure, you can open the occassional slam first-pick bomb rare, but most rares are either situational, deck-dependent, or merely “good.” Powerful uncommons, and the high synergy commons, should have much more impact on your decision of where to go with your deck. During the draft, look out for these cards and then commit to the respective archetype early. If you read the signals wrong, and the deck isn’t coming together, a possible course is to pick up a lot of mana fixing and go into a multicolor good-stuff deck. When you have access to many colors, you can pick up solid cards that aren’t deck dependent more reliably.

A Set of Dream and Fantasy


Eternity is finally completed! Check out the full spoiler here, or take a look at an example booster. But now for something completely different:

Dreams and Nightmares Come to Life

I have been brewing up a new set lately, a set based on dream, nightmare and fantasy. It will be another top-down set, similar to Iamur. It does not have a name yet, so I will just refer to it as ‘Dream’ for now. The setting is a plane where the dreams of its people manifest in the physical world. I started with developing a mechanic for nightmare creatures, and then wanted to see where this leads me to. On this plane, dreamborn creatures are living enchantments, similar to the celestial creatures of Theros. This is portrayed in the ‘Nightmare’ mechanic:

Nightmare {cost} (You may cast this spell for its nightmare cost. If you do, it isn’t a creature until you manifest it.)

Nightmare is only found on enchantment creatures. It allows you to pay an alternate, cheaper cost for the spell. However, you must then manifest the creature and allow it to enter the physical realm. Otherwise, you only have a useless enchantment. Whether or when a creature manifests is usually up to your opponent. The fear of your lurking monster will force the opponent to play differently, or otherwise it will manifest. Here is a very simple example:

A common nightmare creature.

Many nightmare creatures demand a toll from the opponent to keep them from manifesting. In fact, I am considering that all common nightmare creatures share Stirring Fiend’s template and drain the opponent’s life to keep the complexity low. But there are many more possibilities at higher rarities. Some will trigger when an opponent performs a certain action:

An uncommon nightmare creature.

At rare and maybe uncommon, I consider creatures that already have an effect on the game while they are only an enchantment.

So, an Enchantment Set it is!

The nightmare mechanic went through various iterations before I arrived at the current version. When I did, it became clear that this is going to be an enchantment-focused set. However, to differentiate it from Theros, in ‘Dream’ you will not build your own battleships with Auras and Bestow creatures, but play global enchantments and build your own world. I tried to convey this with the ‘Fantasy’ mechanic. Fantasy is an ability word found on enchantments:

Fantasy — At the beginning of your end step, {action X}. Then if {condition Y}, sacrifice this.

A dream often has no coherent plot, but continually gets weirder and weirder, until eventually you wake up. A fantasy enchantment performs a certain action repeatedly, until the “wake-up condition” is met, at which point it will sacrifice itself. Before I show you an example though, let me state something important that I want to convey on these cards: Dreams do not make sense! They are surreal, paradoxical and incoherent. To uphold this is even more important in a fantasy-game like Magic. Dreams cannot be just about giant spiders and wurms, because they already exist! That being said, here is a fantasy:

A fantasy enchantment.

Some of these fantasies allow you to play in a way so that you never meet the “wake-up condition,” just like you can sometimes keep yourself in a dream willingly. Others will sacrifice themselves inevitably. I might want to create cards with effects that do not trigger at the beginning of the end step, so it is possible that the ability word is changed to include those cards as well.

Supertype Inflation

Many people complained about Theros, that it had too many types artificially attached to various cards, such as “Legendary Enchantment Artifact.” This will be true in ‘Dream’ as well. There will be creatures that do not have Nightmare but are still enchantment creatures. These represent dreamborn creatures that did not spawn from a nightmare. But the enchantment type must make sense from a mechanical point, too. I think Theros’s method of putting global effects on enchantment creatures (Cyclops of Eternal Fury) works very well.

An enchantment due to its enchantment-esque effect.

Similarly, I cannot make an enchantment out of every monster. There have to be commons that do simple things, yet still represent nightmarish creatures. Maybe these creatures walked the physical plane long enough that they stopped being tied to the dream from which they spawned?

Unlike the elf, this creature clearly spawned from a nightmare!

Nonenchantment mechanics

The set still needs one or two more mechanics which do not deal with enchantments, as they are covered sufficiently already. Scry will return in ‘Dream’, but will not be as prominent as in Esparand. I am thinking of something instant- and sorcery-based as the last mechanic.

That is all I have come up with so far. As always, you can check out a preview of the set under Our Projects. Let me finish this post with another preview card from ‘Dream.’ A… basic Swamp!

The surreal nature of dreams will reflect in the art I choose for the set.

Revisiting Iamur

Iamur has by far been my most popular set. Although I feel like I made many mistakes back then, the unique setting and top-down design must be what people love about Iamur. Well, I guess there are at least some people out there like me that just have a great love for the underwater realm.

I have been asked often if I was still working on the Iamur block and if I will finish it at some point. I always intended to go back to Iamur, but I did not have the inspiration to do so. But now I want to tackle some of the flaws in the set and make Iamur into the best set it can be. So what are the problems?


Duet was an ability word that was used mainly on seahorse creatures. It gave you a bonus if you controlled exactly two creatures. This mechanic originated purely from top-down design, and didn’t fit into the other set’s mechanics at all. It played terribly. White had creatures that forced you to play with only two creatures but also cards that created tokens or heavily relied on them. Surely, there must be ways to design this mechanic with the same flavor, but so that it works better with the rest of the set.

A while ago, I worked on a mechanic called ‘Guardian.’ It gave a creature the ability to protect other creatures while attacking or blocking by forcing your opponent to assign damage to that creature first. Now, that sounds an awful lot like Banding. But I like the basic idea of Banding, and I wanted to make it much more intuitive and less complex. From this mechanic arose the new Duet, which is currently worded as follows:

Duet (You may attack with this paired with another creature. The pair is blocked as a group and you choose which creature is assigned combat damage first.)

This duet creature will be the protector more often than not. Others have more power and rather want to be protected.

Duet only works while attacking. As you declare attackers, you can pair a creature with duet with another creature. If both creatures have duet, they cannot be in multiple pairs. If you do, you also declare which creature is “protected” by the other. Both creatures are blocked as a group. That means, if one is blocked, the other is automatically blocked as well, even if it could not be legally blocked otherwise. The protected creature must be put behind the other when the combat damage assignment order is declared.

One of the improvements over banding is that it works only while attacking and right when you attack, you announce which creature is protected, so it is much easier to process what blocking the pair would result in.  There is no “Oh, you can do that, too…” Also, bands are limited to pairs of two creatures.

I think this new Duet is a bit wordy, but relatively easy to grok. It is awesome in Iamur with all of its giant sea monsters: They blank the smaller creatures very quickly, but now they can still attack protected and get their damage in.

Creature type mess

In Magic, Kraken are… things, but not giant octopuses as you would expect. So, classifying all the kraken monsters in the set as “Kraken” was incorrect. Now, they are correctly classified as octopuses.

A point of debate was the Mermaid creature type. I changed it to “Nixie” to convey the same meaning, but to differentiate it more from “Merfolk.” As you can see above, I intend to change it back to Mermaid. It is just not the same with this weird type “nixie”, and a good portion of the flavor gets lost due to it. It is clear what is meant with each of the types as soon as you see it on the cards: Merfolk are the fish-people from Dungeons & Dragons, and mermaids are the fish-women from classic mythology.

Scry in Iamur?

A ramp card that also digs you to your monsters.

I added Scry in Esparand with the intention of using it in all of my future sets, upgrading it to an evergreen keyword. The question now is if this should be retroactively applied to Iamur? Scry would improve the gameplay experience as the set plays out very swingy, as you would expect from a “ramp into big monsters” set. But the problem then becomes the complexity of the set. With Duet now being a full keyword, alongside Swallow, Melody, Talisman, Bloodlust, and the returning mechanic Level Up, the set has already more keywords than any reasonable Wizards set would ever have. At this point, is the right thing to do to completely forfeit Wizards standards for complexity as the set is beyond redemption anyway? Well, if it means improving the gameplay experience, then yes. Although the set has extremely many keywords, they should all work together nicely once Duet is fixed.

Bloodlust is the first candidate to cut if the complexity has to be reduced. It could also just be unkeyworded, with the cards retaining their functionality.

8/8 Wurms instead of 7/7

This seems like a trivial change, but one that will have great impact on the limited environment. Previously, all wurms in green were 7/7 because wurms are always 7/7, right? I wanted to differentiate them from the blue and black kraken which all have power 8, and therefore trigger the “power 8 or greater matters” cards. But I find these now to be very weak reasons to implement such a weird non-interaction into the set. Now, the green monsters are just as big as their blue and black counterparts, which they really should have been in the first place.

No constructed playable cards

One of the few cards for constructed: A new merfolk lord for Modern and Legacy.

If you were to play a Iamur-Esparand constructed format, you would quickly notice that Iamur basically offers nothing interesting at all. There is a counterspell, a black removal spell, and maybe a few melody creatures. And that is it! Some of the artifacts and of course the dual lands are great, but nothing to write home about. That is something I want to change. Many of the cards are extremely narrow and only make sense in the context of the Iamur mechanics. On top of that, many of the rares just suck.

I designed Iamur as a pure limited set, but I think it is perfectly possible to juice it up a bit without hurting the limited environment at all.


That sums up about everything I want to tackle. I hope that some of the Iamur fans out there read this post and have some thoughts to share on it. Next time I will return to more Esparand and all that stuff. Until then!

Referenced keywords

Presenting Beginnings

I have not updated much lately, and most likely will not update much in the near future, as I am working on something else which I am not ready to share right now. But I still plan on finishing my Esparand block. Here, I want to present the first preview of ‘Beginnings’, the reboot of the second set of the block. You can find it here.

Keep in mind that the set is currently a conglomerate of ideas, so it might seem a bit cluttered. I am still uncertain as to which mechanics I want to have in the final set. At this stage, I am focusing on getting the flavor right and designing some random cards. Here are some of the preview cards (previews of the preview so to say):

The new mechanic in Beginnings is Paradox. I am still using my original version, but it might still change during development:

A paradox creature.

Most cards will have the same atmosphere as in Esparand. The plane is ravaged by the storm, and most of the land is transformed into a lifeless desert. However, the desertification is still ongoing and many islands of green are still left.

White gets to search out Plains from time to time.


Many cards will deal with transcending time, mortality and all that stuff:

With logic forfeit, everything is possible.

Another new mechanic are the split creatures. They represent two versions of the same character existing at the same time due to time travel paradoxes. These are potentially a very bad idea, but also potentially awesome!

You can cast either half of this card from your hand. On the battlefield, only the one you cast exists.

Esparand – Design finished!


I’ve finally got around to finish my ‘Esparand’ set. You can find it under ‘Our Projects’ or you can check out an example booster here.

During the last stages of the design process, I actually revamped a good part of the set. Here are some of the last design decisions I made and the thought process behind them.

Steer Fate

Some mechanics, those that rely on synergy, have the tendency to snowball. Evolve is almost always a powerful ability for a creature to have, but it becomes even better if you can curve perfectly. Battallion does nothing unless you have a creature heavy draw. These mechanics make Magic interesting, because they allow you to build your deck around them, but they also tend to make the game more swingy. In order to compensate, each set needs a variance-smoothing mechanic. The development team of ‘Theros’ realized that and added Scry to the set. I think it would be a good idea if Scry was made an evergreen mechanic and put into every core set (in addition to the returning mechanic).

But Scry was added to ‘Theros’ because a heroic deck needs to find a good mix of targets and enablers, which is not consistently possible without card selection. ‘Esparand’ does not demand that from your deck. Therefore, I was more interested in helping each player develop their game plan without getting flooded. I implemented a mechanic that is similar to Scry, but specialized at digging for lands or spells.

Steer Fate (Choose land or nonland, then reveal cards from the top of your library until you reveal a card of the chosen kind. Put it on top and the rest on the bottom in any order.)

Two common cards with the Steer Fate mechanic.

I decided that, while there should be some expensive cards with Steer Fate, most cards should cost 2-3. Both cheap and expensive cards are able to dig for spells in the late game, but only cheap cards are able to dig for lands in the early turns, and I’m more worried about the second scenario. One of the most frustrating things in Limited are the two-land opening hands with a three drop as the first play. You never mulligan these hands if they are reasonable and you’re right not to, but in about 10%-15% of the games in which you keep such a hand you just die without ever doing anything. That is just not fun.

While balancing the cards, I treated Steer Fate as a “Scry 1.5”.  This is the reason why Channel the Storm is a common, as opposed to Magma Jet. It has to be tested how Steer Fate interacts with the milling theme of the set: Whenever your opponent can mill you at instant speed, all your Steer Fate is useless. This might be a frustrating interaction and I’ll keep an eye on it.

Colorshifted cards

Some cards had to be cut to make room for the Steer Fate mechanic. For that reason, I decided to cut all the common and uncommon colorshifted cards. Many did not recognize that I made, for example, the white version of Favorable Winds, because they did not remember the original card and were confused why it was printed in a colorshifted frame. The theme was never very consistent to begin with, because whenever I thought of a colorshifted card to implement, I scrapped it only days later as it didn’t fit the set mechanically.

Now, the craziness is limited to the rare cards. Hybrid cards, colored artifacts, futureshifted cards, colorless cards, and manlands all make an appearance. Players should be able to recognize the more iconic cards that are being colorshifted, as opposed to stupid Midnight Haunting. Limiting this theme to rare cards offers something for players who can appreciate these designs without confusing too much those than can’t.

Somewhere in the distant future, the Eldrazi will visit Esparand.

Pushed uncommons

Variance in the power level of the booster packs makes drafting much more exciting. I was missing that a bit during our first Esparand draft. During the design of the set, the natural tendency is to make every card “good,” but sometimes it’s correct to make one card “too good” and one card “not good enough.” As long as no card becomes a dominating as Opportunity in M14, you should be fine. Therefore, I decided to fill the last uncommon slots with some really juiced-up creatures.

“How are these still in the pack!?”

If only something like Descendant of Sethek would be printed! It would make my Prophet of Kruphix, Sphinx’s Revelation deck so much better (nice Polukranos you got there!).

More graveyard interactions

Esparand is supposed to be a graveyard-based set. While blue and black already supported graveyard-based strategies very well, green was a bit lacking. I implemented more cards that care about creatures in the graveyard.

One of the cards that should reinforce self-milling strategies.

I also added some more fatties as potent reanimation targets. It was critiqued that it’s too hard to pick up enough targets for a dedicated reanimator deck.

Storm of Chaos Preview

To finish things off, here’s a new card for the second set, ‘Storm of Chaos.’ Yes, I’m aware that everyone except for me thinks that the idea of split creatures is terrible :(.

Too cute for its own good.

The legendary split creatures represent two versions of the same character, brought together by time paradoxes, which are the main theme of the set. These are the rules associated with them:

  • You may cast either half of a split creature card as a creature spell. If you do, on the stack and on the battlefield, the creature which you did not cast does not exist.
  • When a split creature enters the battlefield from anywhere but the stack, you choose which of the two halves enters the battlefield. For example, you can target Princess Mina // Shadow of Mina with the Soulshift ability of Thief of Hope, because one half (Shadow of Mina) is a Spirit creature card with converted mana 2 or less, then you may choose to have Princess Mina enter the battlefield instead.
  • You may use a split creature card as your commander. Its color identity is the union of the color identities of both halves.
  • You can control one copy of each half of a legendary split creature card at a time.
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