You can admit it. You’ve designed a card or two. Thinking about combo engines, or ways to utilize cards,
you’ve glanced at cards your opponents have, then idly speculated about cards that would interact. Magic is a game
about the way things interact, so it’s natural that after some time playing, you find yourself exploring those
interactions. Often, when glancing through a new set or seeing a new card, you’ll find yourself mentally painting a
picture in the space that card suggests.
That’s actually deliberate. A lot of good cards leave you with outlines, spaces you want to fill in with other
cards. The best cards leave multiple outlines. Mindslaver, for example, means different things to different people. Some
players think about using it as a control element – as a Time Walk in a deck that can generate the mana (and then go
about the business of finding pieces to generate that mana). Some think of it as a way of winning the game on the spot (and
since you can’t rely on your opponent giving you that board position, they go seeking things they can do to
make that board position and foist it upon their opponent). And some people see it as an attrition mechanism,
considering ways that they can recur and re-use the device (and lo, a Vintage archetype is born).
So it’s no surprise that when you see a new card, you think of “cards” that could interact with it.
Many of us have made hobbies of it – playing with the mechanisms of the game, creating under the umbrella of the
greater design of Magic.
It’s really a shame that a lot of us suck at it.
I’ve designed my own set. Or thought I had. Then I went back over, in a development process, and carved back some
cards that I thought were inappropriate. I thought they were overpowered, underpowered, uninteresting, pushed too hard, or
so on. At this point, the first block of my set is only about 40-50% complete, and doesn’t even have a real name yet.
Mark Rosewater does occasionally talk to the amateur designer, and I highly recommend you go read his archives as well
for any information on this subject. It’s a contentious subject a lot of the time, though, and disagreeing with Mark
Rosewater is why some people start designing.
When I started designing, I did not find much in the way of good resources on how and what to do. I blundered ahead and
produced a large volume of cards, but never really grasped the concept of designing well. There were no online resources. So
in the tradition of Internet blowhards everywhere, I’m going to tell you what I know and think and pass it off as if
Designing a set is a process that needs to be broken up into pieces. The approach I take is very structured, since I
find that’s the easiest way to avoid mistakes. Some people just make cards until they have enough, in a very organic
process. My problem with that style of development is that it’s tricky to get right. Very tricky – and
it can lead to schizophrenia in the set, a feeling that cards don’t really belong in the same territory as one
To summarize the steps of design; first, before you so much as make a single card, you want to make sure you have your
design themes laid down. This can best be described as the “what” you are doing. This is where you
decide what you want to encourage, what you want to discourage, the bits of design space you want to play with, and the
cards and effects you want to push. Then, the mechanics – knowing what mechanics you want to use ahead of time is
important, because it lets you design things that dovetail and relate to them. Then you want to look at what you’re
doing as a whole – decide how these things interact overall.
Then you actually make the cards.
Then, you go back over what you just did, burn half of it, carve off a third of it, and then maybe you have a
Something to bear in mind as I do this series is that I’m working with a handful of assumptions. They are as
Current Magic design theory is reasonably on mark.
Current Magic color pie theory is reasonably on mark.
You care equally about Constructed and Limited formats.
Your set has no particular place in Magic and is not designed to “fix” itself to a particular Standard
The ideal of appealing to a large number of people with different cards is worth doing. Annoying equally large groups is to
If you don’t agree with any of these, some things I say are going to come across badly. If, for example, you could
care less about those who play Sealed Magic, then it’s pretty self-evident that you don’t need to care so much
about your rarities and Kumano can be a common. Indeed, if you don’t care about Limited, you may as well not have
However, more important than knowing what you’re doing in this kind of design is knowing why you’re
doing it. You should do your best to only ever make informed, reasoned decisions. Humans suck at this, I know, but we
Part 1. Design Theme
Block summaries are remarkably easy to do sometimes. A lot of blocks are summarized as “The n
block,” and that summary is often sufficient as a starting point. When you start a block, you will want to choose
what themes to emphasize, what you want to do.
First, we’ll start by dismantling a set with a clear theme already in place. Given that Ravnica is quite old now,
it gives us a chance to look at it in light of this analysis. Ravnica on its own had a large number of themes
because the guilds held their themes close to their chests. To run down the “major themes” of the guilds (note
that, under these themes there are even more sub-themes):
Golgari – Exhaustion. The Golgari were willing to use the same threat over and over again, wanting to
grind out for a long game where they could claim inevitability. Big, ground-holding fatties, regenerators, dredge itself,
the Guildmage, and the like, they just wanted enough time to win the game. It’s ironic that they coupled with Ichorid
and wound up blowing all conventional definitions of speed out of the water. Savra is the poster child –
she’ll win the game for you if you can keep her fed. But she won’t do it quickly.
Selesnya – Overwhelming. The Selesnya’s theme was just force of numbers. Cards like Evangel and the
Guildmage, the Convoke Mechanic, and Crown of Convergence (which rewarded you for having lots of dudes on the table and in
your deck) all pushed you towards this theme. Another good example is Tolsimir, who rewards you for having a bazillion dudes
on the table.
Dimir – The Library. Dimir wanted to attack your library and hand, cards you hadn’t yet done
anything with. This expressed itself as milling cards, and cards like Dimir Machinations. The Guildmage can rip with your
hand and even mill you (slooowly). Some mono-colored and “unaffiliated” cards fit this mould (like the Vedalken
Entrancer), but they were very much designed to collaborate with the guild.
Boros – Simplicity. The Boros wanted to keep the other guilds honest. While the other guilds wanted to
slow the game down, Boros wanted to hit its curve and deal the twenty quickly. This is almost not a theme – but they
had it backed up with cheap, efficient creatures; good burn; and ways to go to the face both over and around blockers.
With those out of the way, onto what would be defined as the sub-themes:
Auras. The cycle of comes-into-play auras, wedded to those spells that could leap around (hi, Stasis Cell!) and
the creatures that liked being enchanted (Bramble Elemental) meant that while this wasn’t the full-blown love-fest for
Enchantress that was Urza’s block, there was still some nice stuff on hand, and it did interesting things.
This brings about seven to ten cards to the table. That’s about the size of a normal sub-theme.
Lifegain. You notice how much lifegain was floating around, pushed in its power level, in Ravnica block? Even
with just Faith’s Fetters and Loxodon Hierarch, we suddenly had multiple ways of gaining 4-12 life per game.
Depending on how loosely you define this, you could claim this as low as two cards, and as high as (Savra, Phalanx,
Fetters, Hierarch), four. This is about as small as a sub-theme should get.
Off-color activations and Bleed Spells: Bleed Spells weren’t really a theme – really, they were
representative of a very cute mechanic. A subtle one, too. But still, it was there – two spells in every color, with
some flexibility on costs and type, which rewarded you for playing with both colors they wanted rather than with just one.
These two worked together for Limited play – they meant that you were facing cards that could be decent flying solo,
but really shone when they had both colors to work with.
Except Votary of the Conclave. He just plain sucks.
That’s eight cards.
Easing Limited Sub-theme: This is almost a necessity. Because of the oddness of Ravnica as a Limited format, it
meant that Wizards had to put in some flexible, cheap ways in the common slot of easing mana. Having it so people
were unable to play their spells would waste all this multicolor fun. The Signets, the bouncelands, the hybrid mana
commons (notice how they all had only one hybrid mana symbol at the common level?), and the number of decent mana fixers
were a really good start.
Also, since two of the guilds in Ravnica were Green, Civic Wayfinder and Farseek would show up in half the Limited
decks, give or take.
This tallies up to about fifteen cards.
That’s a quick run-down of how big the various sub-themes in Ravnica were.
And Now For the Nonprofessionals
Now that we have a professional example of a very dense block, let’s move on to an amateur example. The block Fox
and I have started designing is currently referred to as Goodbye/Farewell/Amen. It should be noted that I’m going to
reference GFA a fair bit through these articles, because I feel pointing at other people’s sets critically would be
rude. We discussed at length between us what we wanted to emphasize in GFA, wanting to find something with lots of design
space while still being close enough to normal Magic that we’d be able to work with precedents. Given that Fox and I
are both creature-based players, it was suggested that the theme be “Combat Matters,” which we both liked.
It’s not super-duper original awesome, but it’s a starting point.
This design theme gives me a few quick ideas. For a start, the set would want to be careful with its rarities. After
all, if we want to make Constructed about creatures smashing into one another, that’s going to mean we want to print
some pretty pimp creatures. Those creatures, however, have a bad habit of making games of Limited extremely boring for the
guy who didn’t luck into opening anything broken. Anyone want an example of this kind of thing, search the Internet
for the discussion of Gruul Guildmage when he first showed up.
Second, it meant that removal would want to be ratcheted back, or creatures would want to be more resilient or
competitive. Combat tricks would be important. Creatures who carried combat tricks with them would be very
important! Control strategies would want to be creature-based, and combo would have to be oriented around creatures –
after all, you can’t have combat without creatures. This theme puts an emphasis on creatures, and means we want to
lean less on “pure” control strategies, the kind that win by milling.
The theme even applies to how we want to focus on the color pie. Given that most colors get some elements of control (do
you remember Big Red?), this means that some colors are going to be leaning away from spells like Wrath of God and
Counterspell and leaning more on creatures like Adarkar Valkyrie and Voidmage Prodigy. The elements can be there, they just
needed to be shifted around.
Also, if combat’s going to be important, avoiding combat is going to be even more important. A
format defined by ground stalls followed by someone topdecking their big dumb idiot who breaks the stall is not actually
that fun, except for the guy who rips the big dumb idiot. You want to reward playskill and clever play in any environment,
because randomness is only a niche interest.
That gives us a big, over-arching theme. We want to make combat important. That gives us space to explore sub-themes.
Some sub-themes that spring to mind under this overarching design theme are as follows. Note that a lot more did as well,
but I’m starting small here – smaller, less complex sets are generally easier.
Enchantments: Wizards already did a bit of this in Ravnica – making auras that tried to overcome their
native disadvantage – and it worked. A lot of auras were being picked high in Limited, and even some showed up in
Constructed. This is a theme that could be explored. If combat is going to matter, auras that influence combat can matter as
well. And in a format about combat, something like Molting Skin is going to be very impressive. Plus, this allows
the block to explore ideas that aren’t necessarily connected to combat but don’t feel disconnected. A theme like
this lends itself to a fair bit of design space – say, fifteen to twenty cards.
Creature Interrelation: Tribal themes were fun in Onslaught (feel free to disagree), but they were very linear.
They pulled together some nice, obvious cards and decks could “build themselves” even though they weren’t
designed to do that. The problem is, in that kind of format, it became anathema to suggest cutting goblins from the goblin
deck, even for things like Rorix or Flametongue Kavu – because they were just not as good relatively speaking
as Just More Goblins. Some creatures actually reached out of their own tribe – Skirk Outrider, Wirewood Savage, and
their kin – and these guys interested me. What if there were cards that were good on their own, and if you
could get other creatures out, fantastic?
This theme, however, shouldn’t be pushed too hard. We don’t want to make anything too obvious. A dragon in a
goblin deck is fine, a deck built around getting that dragon out, that’s a problem. So this should be leaned on less
– say as little as eight, or possibly even only five cards.
Transformation: I’m a sucker for this kind of effect. I love things that turn into other things (More
than Meets the Eye and all). This means that mechanics that let resources convert into others interest me. Flip cards and
threshold both spring to mind. But how good would threshold be without the enablers it had during Odyssey Block? Plus,
there’s a mechanical bias – Llanowar Elves are a crappy topdeck on turn 14… but Werebear has some guts to him at
that stage. Plus, this gives you a lot of direction for mechanics, with no less than four mechanics that leap to mind that
already exist and can represent transformation in a creature (threshold, hellbent, flip cards, and graft).
Legendary Creatures: Legends are a great bit of design space. They let you have redundant effects, or
potentially abusive-in-multiple effects. But it does make mirror matches random. Basically, legendary creatures are cool,
and I like the tension they give you in design and building. Plus, legendary creatures can have great flavor.
The thing is, legends can often gank up Limited, where their legendary status rarely means a damn thing. This means
they’re going to be at their best when they provide flexibility and aren’t outright bombs. This could be done
with say, a legend or two at uncommon and rare – so, that’d be about ten to twenty cards. Legendary cards
aren’t that major a theme unless they’re leaned on heavily, such as in Kamigawa, where several cards interacted
with the legend rule.
An Aside on Gerrard
This stage is where you should be thinking about story, if you actually want to represent a storyline, or area. Myself,
I opt for a plot you can find if you look for it to help explain or justify legendary cards, but don’t lean on it very
readily for other cards.
Supposedly, Magic didn’t excite players as much when the focus of the game was the strong storyline and crew of
the Weatherlight. I can understand that, in an absolute sense – I’d rather be the one casting the spell, not
using Sisay to do it for me. Let players be the stars, don’t lean too heavily on characters.
With your sub-themes and themes tabled and brainstormed, you should be quite happy to make more than you need. One big,
overarching theme is easy to concept but can often be difficult to implement, and when you go through your development
process, you will usually cull back a large quantity of what you’ve produced. This is because a lot of what people
produce needs culling. Generally speaking, aim to produce twice as much as you need, because you can always step back from
that point, when ideas are shown more clearly as “bad” ideas.
I’ve only shown four sub-themes here so as to not choke the readership. Again, starting small – going to the
full scale of Wizards’ themselves takes them a large number of people who are Quite Good at their jobs. We don’t
have that luxury at this point, being small, amateur designers.
Once we’re done with this stage of the process, we can move onto the kind of thing that people spitball all the
time. The “easy” stuff. Mechanics.
Just for those of you who are looking at this and going “Well, geeze, does this guy ever shut up?” You
have no idea.
This is going to be a pretty dense daily, but that’s because I feel while this is a subject heaps of
people care about, nobody talks about it. So, if you’re in the mood for some light reading, probably not the
best place to turn. In the true Twisp and Catsby vein, if you were looking for Zac Hill (p.s., he’s awesome) articles
and decide that you don’t like what I’m offering this week… well, it’s not for you.
Tune in tomorrow, where we talk about identity crises.
Hugs and kisses
Talen at dodo dot com dot au