SCG Daily – The Fine Art of Doing It Yourself #2

For those of you who just tuned in, yesterday I insulted basically everyone who does amateur card designs and set myself up as an authority enough to tell them how to do it right. Surely nothing bad could come of this degree of hubris.

For those of you who just tuned in, yesterday I insulted basically everyone who does amateur card designs and set myself up as an authority enough to tell them how to do it right. Surely nothing bad could come of this degree of hubris.

Today, we’re going to talk about a bit of a big subject. Simply put, you can’t just leap into making mechanics unless you want things to be unfocused and fuzzy. If you design organically — just moseying along, making cards until you have a full set — sure, fine, but a lot of organic designs suck, as do most organic designers. So before we talk about mechanics and how to design those, we’re going to talk about the identity of each of the colors.

Part 2.1 Identity
Before we can talk about mechanics, we need to discuss what each color is going to be doing in your set. Color identity, in my opinion, is as important, if not more so, than the mechanics you’re choosing to use in a set. So before we start examining the mechanics, let’s start with color identity.

Color Identity
During Onslaught Block Constructed, Red was The Beatdown. In every matchup, Red held the inalienable role of Cracker Of Skulls, turning little men sideways. During Mirrodin Block Constructed, however, Red was a control color, that picked away threats, swept the board occasionally, then won with a fat man and a little fire to the face to seal the deal — all while garnering card advantage. Yet both decks were within the paradigm of Red. These two decks — Big Red and Goblins — had different game plans, because the two blocks that made them up were distinctly separate. Mirrodin Red had a powerful control identity — with a number of fantastic fatties and a brutal suite of expensive, yet effective, burn. In Onslaught, though, Red had an army of tiny men who wanted to crawl into the red zone and even got benefits for doing it.

This is what I refer to as the color identity. You should decide before you begin the block, based on the themes and sub-themes you want to explore, what you want each color to be. Generally speaking, this relates to the Metagame Clock — you will want to stress and aggressively cost things that fit with the identity of the colors as you want them in the set. If you wish to encourage Green to go into Midgame strategies, you will want to print good, flexible utility creatures in the early mana cost slots, creatures that can garner card advantage in some manner or other, and then in the later slots, of four mana and above, creatures that offer size and resilience, able to act as “virtual removal” by forcing opponents into chump blocking, after the early utility creatures have traded with opposing early rushes.

You also don’t want to make an identity too obvious. That makes it feel like you’re building people’s decks for them, and that ticks people off. Speaking broadly, if half the cards in a color pull towards the color identity you want, that’s enough… possibly even too much. A third of the set’s cards pulling in that one direction should do a fine job of focusing attention on the identity.

As a bonus, by not focusing too intensely, you’ll be surprised. You might see decks spring out that you had no idea were there, and that moment rules. Seeing someone use the handle of the hammer you gave them to lever something up is pretty neat, especially if you’d never considered it.

With this in mind, we’re going to go through the identities we’re using in Goodbye, Farewell, Amen. The set wants combat to be the main path to victory, using creatures to beat people’s heads in, and that’s going to disadvantage Blue and Black in particular. With that in mind, we should look at history, to see what kind of style of card we want to print.

Blue Skies
Blue is the least creature-oriented color in the game (which makes its ownership of two of the best creatures ever printed humorous), and prefers to screw up an opponent, prolonging the game and avoiding “normal” creature combat. To keep true to that idea without avoiding the Combat Matters theme, Blue would want a sub-theme of creatures who interact with combat while not necessarily getting involved. Fish, a tempo-based blue beatdown deck, is a good example, leaning on cheap threats that let you win the game after you put them down.

That said, what let Blue Skies compete was the presence of Daze, Gush, Thwart, and Foil, with Quash for backup. Being able to curve out fliers, starting with one-drop into two-drop into three-drop, then spending your time countering attempts to stop your threats, was important — but you needed some way to protect yourself in the early game as well. That’s a serious concern. Free countermagic is always going to make people leery. Goodbye is supposed to be a reasonably uncomplicated set with lots of flashy, smashy effects. This means that either countermagic will have to be remarkably good, or, very situational.

Blue is going to get the best pure evasion creatures. Unblockable men, for example, are not out of place in Blue. But creatures are fragile at the best of times — Blue lacks for Red’s burn. A way to win through a stymied ground, and a way to stymie the ground to keep your opponent from winning is important.

Clever Green
Green has always had Giant Idiots in the common slot, and it’s not likely a block focusing on combat is going to change that. But Green is also one of the worst colors at breaking ground stalls because it has little evasion — its main option then is to make something enormous and swing for the fences with it. Then lose when your opponent kills it. Big isn’t clever — Green would want to be clever, so ground stalls are navigated around with skill rather than with power.

That said, Green is going to get a few Giant Idiots. They’re fun. They gave us Silvos in Onslaught, and he wasn’t broken. Hell, he wasn’t even all that good. So what does it matter if we wind up putting in some totally ridiculous bombs for those who like such cards?

It matters for Sealed. Draft, too, to an extent. Check how many people who didn’t open a Silvos and faced him on the other side of the table felt about him after the Onslaught prerelease. Being careful is important. We don’t want to make a super-duper Sealed rare — and a totally colossal trampling idiot like Silvos is a fine example of that. Compare Kamigawa to Onslaught. Lots of bomby rares in both, but there was a metric ton of removal in Kamigawa at the common level — all capable of dealing with a dragon, for the better part.

The higher you climb in the mana curve, the more of a discount you get on a creature. Panglacial Wurm and Plated Slagwurm are both larger than their mana costs would allow them to be if you “scaled them down,” as it were. Plated Slagwurm does not indicate that Green should be allowed to get, say, a 6/6 untargetable for five, or even a 4/4 untargetable for three. Because the Slagwurm costs seven, it’s only able to come into play once opponents have gotten some of their own resources online. Hell, Slagwurm was terrible when he was Standard legal. There were better fatties to puke into play via Tooth and Nail, and there were far better creatures to hard-cast (they mostly cost 1GG). And in Limited, there are tales of people who have beaten Plated Slagwurm.

Not when they were wielding Loxodon Warhammers, I expect, but let’s not dwell on that subject.

Also, Green should be able to curve out with threats that also accelerate your mana, or at least smooth it.

Long-Game Red
I liked Big Red. I liked it a lot. Arc Slogger is one of my favorite creatures of all time (though Fox hates him, being one of those people who like their library to remain intact). Mirrodin Block Red was able to milk card advantage from its burn — with Barbed Lightning, and Forge[/author]“]Pulse of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author], and an acceptable bit of “virtual” card advantage in Beacon of Destruction. Fireball could reach across the table for the face, and even wipe out multiple opposing creatures in a display of careful pinpoint removal.

To this end, the identity of Red in GFA is going to be focused on mid-range creatures, with its little creatures offering more utility than power. I want to encourage Red to control the game, giving it resilient threats whose ability to endure is generally more important than their pure face-hitting power.

I’d be tempted to speculate about a phoenix of some variety. But that’s for later.

Board Control White
If the Red in GFA wants to blow up the world, lay a fatty, and win from there, White wants to clog the board with little, clever men. Ben Bleiweiss‘ recent Azorius Ascendant Precon experiment is a perfect example of this style, full of clever little creatures that control the board, improve your draws, and slow the game down. This style of play fascinates me, and I love the idea of a White control deck that doesn’t reach straight for Wrath of God.

Once you’ve got the game controlled, however, you need some way to win it! Little White guys are not renowned for their evasion in histories past. Though who knows, perhaps a handful of Leonin Skyknights will do the trick, smashing your opponent in the nose. That aspect requires more thought.

Part of all this, however, involves controlling combat. If the game is about combat, these little White guys can’t stop combat from happening — though they can quite easily discourage your opponent from turning men sideways. Something to bear in mind when you design cards.

Back In Black
Black’s very independent. It gets lots of removal normally, and it doesn’t benefit from a swarm the same way the other colors do. Cards like Bad Moon feel like a design mistake to me — Black spells generally shouldn’t benefit creatures on some kind of egalitarian level. Creatures in Black should be self-motivated, in my mind, and often greedy.

Black’s idea of Suicide Fatties, with unreasonably large men for small costs with big drawbacks, appeals to me. Black’s creatures should want to eat all your resources while you have them.

Lands And Artifacts
Lands are a tipping point. If you put in a good set of multicolor lands, like the Duals in Ravnica, you strongly encourage people to go into two or three colors. If you go without, you’ll see a lot of mono-colored decks, and Green-base multicolor decks. That’s the most obvious thing. Utility lands are also quite popular — consider the love many people still have for Treetop Village and Fairy Conclave. Heck, Mouth of Ronom already has people drooling, and it’s effectively six mana for four damage to a creature!

How much do you want to use artifacts? If you’re doing a multicolor environment, or an environment where you want people to ramp up to big spells, having artifact mana accelerators can actually be very good. If you want to stagger early rushes, artifact creatures like Steel Wall can find a home in your set. Equipment has become a casual staple after only three years, and a mechanic that hasn’t been well-explored yet.

In Goodbye, we want to use some equipment, make some cheap uncommon mana accelerator in the vein of Mind Stone or Darksteel Ingot, to give people more chance of getting to bigger spells if they’re not playing Green. Signets are awesome — totally, totally awesome.

Will you use gold cards? Do you want them in the set? They’re generally popular, but they also blur identities. If there’s a lot of power concentrated in the gold slots, it discourages mono-color play, and encourages people to step into these multicolor messes that run “the best ofs” in the format. Worse, too much multicolor can cause the colors to blur together, prompting a kind of gray soup where the color wheel is effectively irrelevant.

This relates to the lands as well.

In Goodbye, we’re going to have a small number of gold cards — a cycle of allied-color split cards (because they’re cool), two gold uncommons, and a gold rare, all in the allied colors. Hybrid colors have an additional concern; there aren’t as many effects that are “fair” in two allied colors at the same mana cost as you’d think, and generally those effects that do fit generally short-change one of the two colors. We’re going to see if we can concept effects that fit well in those places.

Part 2.2 Mechanics
People talk about mechanics all the time — the casual discussion in a thousand card shops, constantly alive with people mentioning their favorite mechanics. Some newer players pipe up, curious — “What’s Cycling?” they ask, as the old hands nod and smile, fondly remembering the cards that made those mechanics real to them. They’re all broken. They’re all crap. Such is memory, really.

An aside, briefly, on memorable mechanics: one common complaint I remember cropping up amongst friends was that Affinity was awesome, and that Spellshapers sucked. People often seem to equate the power of the cards associated with a mechanic with the mechanic itself. Consider, if you will:

Mechasquire — 6
Artifact Creature — Squire
Affinity for Squires

Compared to

Well-Remembered Ancestor — U
Creature — Spellshaper
U, Discard a card, T: Target player draws three cards.

Now, one of these is obviously more powerful than the other. The two mechanics are really not all that special or awful. They’re defined by what you do with them. Ideally, you strike a balance with any mechanics you design. But just as important as the mechanics you’re going to use is the colors you’re hanging them on.

Defining Mechanics
This is really something basic, but something you should have done ahead of time. Specifically, ask the question of yourself: What is a mechanic?

A mechanic is any ability you can use on multiple cards. That actually means that every set has billions upon billions of permutations of mechanics in it, with every single aspect of a card, even those that aren’t referenced by the card (such as the collector symbol) being a “mechanic” of sorts.

You’re going to develop a lot of mechanics, and often they don’t actually have any application in anything other than the one card you make ‘em for. Sometimes you just make cards by rolling a roulette wheel of two mechanics and cramming them together.

However, this overly open mechanic doesn’t have a lot of actual application. Cute definitions like this rarely work. With that in mind, for the purpose of this discussion, a “Mechanic” is a repeatable mechanic you’ve designed and intend to use frequently across cards. Keyworded mechanics fall in this category, as do un-keyworded mechanics like Split Cards, Flip Cards, or Spiritcraft Triggers. These are things you intend to use to hang the flavor and the feel of the setting on.

Reinventing the Wheel
First and foremost, there’s no shame with reusing mechanics that already exist. Some mechanics that deserved a lot of exploration never got the opportunity, or Wizards are waiting to reuse them. Coldsnap’s Cumulative Upkeep cards are a fine example. Consider that your average block gets ten keywords at most, with Kamigawa block’s nine-odd mechanics being about as dense a set as Mark Rosewater is willing to let out the door.

The set with the fewest keyword mechanics in modern magic is Mercadian Masques, with no actual keywords. Yet it had at least five major mechanics — the Howling Wolves, Rebels, Mercenaries, alternate play costs, and Spellshapers. These mechanics had a lot of depth to them (though not too much; they were generally very well-explored in Masques, though not very pushed very aggressively).

Don’t go reinventing the wheel. There was a time when I had a card designed thusly:

Meeting of Minds
At the beginning of your upkeep, put a Charge counter on ~. Then, sacrifice it unless you pay 2 for each Charge counter on ~.
When ~ is put into a graveyard from play, draw a card for each Charge Counter on it.

Why bother wording it in this mouthsome fashion? It’s just got Cumulative Upkeep. Bringing in Cumulative Upkeep for a single card is a bad idea, but at the same time, this card idea is not so important to a set that it can’t wait until you’re willing to use Cumulative Upkeep, nor is it so uninteresting that you’re going to not use it when you get the option to use Cumulative Upkeep in a set.

Consider how Cycling looked the second time Wizards decided to touch it. That mechanic got such an incredibly interesting revitalization. There’s no shame in using old mechanics, and there’s no need to make a so-very-similar effect with a slightly different name.

Mechanic Options
For mechanics, totally new ideas are incredibly hard to come up with, and I don’t have many of them scribbled out. Note that in addition to providing an idea about the mechanic, I’m also trying to give an as-close-to-proper wording for the rule in question. This is important — the rules are pretty tight and powerful when you design within them, so having a good, hard definition, even if you intend to change it, is important. Going back to cards that already exist is actually as good an option as anything else to explore for new stuff.

Reminder text is also important. Cool mechanics are good and all, but you don’t want to have to reference other sources when you can go with reminder text. As a rule of thumb, a common should have reminder text, an uncommon can go without it for the sake of other mechanical text, and rares don’t need it unless you have the space going spare. That’s just a rule of thumb, though — as Ninth Edition showed with Trample, sometimes sufficient space is the important thing.

Also, try and avoid any mechanics that unnecessarily involve the term “stack” or “resolve.” There aren’t a lot of mechanics that use them and it’s often because, at the low-end level of the game, when people are reading reminder text, the two concepts rarely ever show up.

It’s a matter of some debate as to whether or not they should. I’m in the camp that the current level of information is okay, and whether or not people can handle a more complex “basic” game is secondary to whether or not we should take advantage of that. This means that I will be keeping my mechanics less sophisticated than normal.

Evolution: I liked the feel of Offering, but I felt it could have been explored better. In order to give it a different feel, what if the Offered card was put on the bottom of the library instead of into the graveyard? And could the offered creature put its counters and enchantments onto the other?

Current Wording: You may sacrifice a creature as an additional cost to play ~. If you do, ~’s mana cost is reduced by the mana cost of the sacrificed creature, and all auras and equipment are attached to ~ instead of being put into the graveyard.

Spellborne: Creatures that replicate spells are cool — I started playing during Onslaught and have fond memories of Krosan Tusker and his morphy brethren. I wanted a mechanic that could give a creature a resource that could be expended in order to make those spells limited, so as to avoid having to overcost such abilities into uselessness.

A creature who can cast Stone Rain every turn is very un-fun, but a creature that can cast it once, then is just a generic beater is less of a concern.

Current Wording: ~ comes into play with X Spell Counters on it.

Armament: In the vein of Spellborne, expendable resources that don’t cost you cards are, in my mind, very cool. Unfortunately, bookkeeping kills a lot of spells and abilities that want to do “long term” things. What if there was a way for creatures to play “pass the parcel” with a benefit?

Current Wording: Armament: ~ comes into play with an Arm counter on it if no other creature you control has an Arm counter.

You could then do things such as thus:

Pikeman Armorer — 1W
Creature — 1/1
W: A creature you control with an Arm counter on it gets +1/+1 and First Strike until end of turn. You may move the Arm counter from that creature to another creature you control.

The problem with this ability as it’s worded is that it’s a little confusing. The idea of only wanting one Arm counter in play has another possible problem — what if you steal a creature that has one on it?

The name is very clunky at this point. Possibly it’d be better to represent this as a style of mystic union, a linking or ritual magic, rather than physical weaponry.

Hellborne: A very stupid name for a very simple effect, Hellborne came as I speculated a way of using resources in a non-conventional way. Of course, with a name like Hellborne, chances are it’d be Red or Black — but hey. What if you could sacrifice permanents instead of pay mana costs? Convoke gives us an easy template too!

Current Wording: Hellborne (Each permanent you sacrifice while playing this spell reduces its cost by 1 or by one mana of that permanent’s color.)

The fact that it cares about the color of the sacrificed permanent is a feature, not a bug. This means you can’t get totally free spells. Lands can only be sacrificed to reduce colorless portions of spells, not to make a spell totally free. This means some particularly potent Hellborne effects could be printed — they’d just need to be intensely colored. Consider.

Hellborne Raider – 2RB
Creature – 3/3
You may play ~ during combat.

Hellborne Necro — BBB
Skip your draw step
At end of your turn, you lose 2 life and draw 2 cards.

Hellborne Demonfire OF DEATH — XR
Spend only Red mana on X.
~ deals X damage to target creature or player. ~ can’t be countered by spells or abilities.

These are just ideas at this point. Hellborne could even be reflavored in some fashion. Perhaps the flavor could of deconstructing objects and turning them into magic, which would fit in Blue quite happily.

(It should be noted that Spellborne and Hellborne should not coexist with their current names for obvious reasons.)

R&D: This is just a bit silly, and a fine sign of a design name that can’t really stick. But with the idea of an army that develops over time in mind, it had me thinking about things that escalated.

Current Wording: Whenever another creature comes into play, put an R&D counter on it if it hasn’t got an R&D counter already.

Relay Officer — W

Relay Commander — 1WW
Creatures with R&D counters on them have First Strike

This idea stemmed from Armament. It’s not a problem if you do that — having mechanic ideas that chain out of others. Whole mechanics have been spawned by chaining off old cards, so daisy-chaining a mechanic into another, better mechanic isn’t a problem at all.

Exploring Evolution
Sometimes though you have to look at a mechanic and start hacking bits off it. Evolution, presented above, is a fine example of something that can’t handle itself normally and needs a bit of judicious hacking.

Initially, when designing the ability Evolution, I wanted to see if I could represent the creature changing wholesale. To this end, I wanted, ideally, it to be used as a combat trick. Starting with the greediest design I could, this is what I wound up with:

Evolution X (You may play this card at any time you could play an instant by putting an X you control on the bottom of its owner’s library and paying the difference in mana costs between this and the sacrificed X. Mana cost includes color. Put all counters on that creature onto this creature. Attach all auras and equipment attached to that creature to this creature.)

That’s an awful mouthful. While the flavor is good — it’s that one creature turning into another one — it’s problematic in its own way because it can lead to oddness. To be truly thorough, we’d have to word it so that the creature is also found to be blocking the creature the original creature blocked, or being blocked by the creature the original creature blocked. And that adds another layer of text to the card. This is getting rapidly more complicated, all to preserve an issue of flavor.

But that issue can be solved reasonably easily. The revised version of the ability:

Evolution X (You may play this card by putting an X you control on the bottom of its owner’s library and paying the difference in mana costs between this and the sacrificed X. Mana cost includes color. Put all counters on that creature onto this creature. Attach all auras and equipment attached to that creature to this creature.)

Now that you can’t work it at instant speed, you can’t have the flavor of a creature Hulking Out and smashing the snot out of an opponent’s creature, but you still get the feeling that it’s the same creature that you had in play originally. Auras on the first one remain on the second one, and you don’t have to pay equipment costs.

Is this worth the wad of reminder text, though? Consider that with this much reminder text, for such a complex ability, you’re going to have to assume that any common (!) or uncommon creatures with it are going to have no other abilities. That’s not very cool. Vanilla creatures have to be remarkably special to really earn a place (Isamaru, Savannah Lions).

Well, sadly, we might just have to let go of the auras, equipment, and counters. What if we do that, then?

Evolution X (You may play this card by putting an X you control on the bottom of its owner’s library and paying the difference in mana costs between this and the X. Mana cost includes color.)

This is just something you want to take into account for your mechanics. How it reminds people, and how it reads. Cool mechanics can’t carry cards on their own. Cards that don’t do anything at all kinda suck.

Mechanic Distribution
Not all mechanics show up in all places. Some mechanics are nice and even-handed in their flavor, and others show up in more discerning ways. From observation, there are four ways to do this.

The Even Wheel
These mechanics show up everywhere. Period. No color has a bias towards these mechanics, no color falls short. Such mechanics aren’t that common, actually — rarely is a mechanic introduced for a wheel. In Kamigawa, you have an example of Flip Cards or Offering. These cards showed up in all five colors, with the exact same distribution in all of them.

These effects are ones where the mechanic is actually either not that dense on flavor (like Ripple, the Karoo, and so on). More rarely, you might see a mechanic like this which is this way because its utility is so universal that you don’t want to hold then back from anyone — the Karoo being a good example of that as well.

The Biased Wheel
As an even wheel, the mechanic shows up in all colors, but isn’t actually equally represented. An example of this would be Cycling, or Threshold. Threshold only appeared on two Blue cards — an understandable thing, because Blue could best capitalize on the mechanic with its cantrip engines and constant access to discard.

Another example would be Splice. There are 28 cards with Splice, but of that, nine are Blue, and seven are Red — giving twelve cards to the other three colors to fight over, who only get four each. Red gets almost twice as many, and Blue does get twice as many and some change. That makes sense — Red and Blue, as colors, are the two who interact with spells the most.

Kicker, another example, is here, rather than an Even Wheel. It’s easy to think, given how much work was put into Kicker, that it was more “even.” Not so — Green and Red own the lion’s share of kicker cards.

The Special Trick
This is an effect that just doesn’t make sense in other colors. At the risk of using a broken period of Magic as an example of design, consider Echo. Green and Red alone had echo — with a lone White card showing up with the mechanic.

These mechanics are best reserved for things that don’t have much depth. Mechanics that aren’t worth keywording, for example, can often be stuck here, showing up here and there.

The Greedy Patron
Rare to see a keyword mechanic under this heading — most often you’ll see mechanics like the Carrion Rat/Carrion Wurm in this field. These are most often made into vertical cycles rather than heavily distributed. In some rare cases though, a mechanic gets given exclusively to one color and frequently used. Such as the “free” mechanic from Urza’s Saga, which was exclusively Blue, and pretty common (nine cards, about as many as Blue got of Splice).

Greedy Patron mechanics aren’t that common. Sometimes a mechanic has a lot of design space but not a lot of flavor space, and in those cases a Greedy Patron mechanic can be used to define a color for a set. This keys into Color Identity, as I mentioned it before.

Alright. For those of you who are still here after all that, good work. Your homework for tomorrow is to come up with five even wheel mechanics that have been used in the past of Magic, ideally ones that have a minimal amount of mechanical flavor.

Hugs and Kisses
Talen Lee
Talen at dodo dot com dot au