Thirst for Knowledge – On Planeswalkers and Set Design

Wednesday, September 22nd – Let me tell you the personal experience that I recently had with a fledgling custom set and the observations I made playing with it.

Normally, when you click on one of my articles, you expect something about Standard, Extended, a tournament report, or perhaps a new set analysis. This week, however, I thought I’d venture a tad off the beaten path and delve into something I tend to shy away from: design theory.

Now, don’t get too scared: I won’t lecture you on card design or explain how it works. If you wanted that, you’d no doubt head over to Wizards.com and read something from, well, a Magic set designer. What I

bring you, though, is a personal experience that I recently had with a fledgling custom set and the observations I made playing with it.

A few weeks ago, my good friend Joe Karel asked me to come over and draft his custom set with him and a group of our friends. Up until that point, I was unaware that he even

a custom set, but I was more than game to head on over and give drafting it a try. I had seen this type of thing done before, and I definitely wanted to see what it was like to be one of the guinea pigs getting their hands dirty with fan-made cards.

As I’d anticipated, it was quite an enjoyable time. Some of my other anticipations held true as well — like the absurd power level of some of the cards and the imbalance between the colors. But I couldn’t possibly hold this against anyone. The balancing and tweaking process of Magic sets is easily the hardest part, and is exactly the reason a typical Magic set has a

of designers as opposed to one or two friends living in a random city somewhere.

Still, the set’s themes and mechanics held together well, and they were fun to play with overall. That, to me, is how you should measure your initial success when designing something yourself.

The first obstacle I had to overcome personally when participating in this event was to understand that the set was designed

for Limited. The cycle of dual lands in Joe’s set should definitely have been rare in any normal set, but since he was making the set strictly for Limited play, you’d obviously want these lands to be a part of the available mana-fixing. Otherwise, you’d probably just omit them, as Wizards most certainly doesn’t design rares with the intention of their being key players in Limited — least of all mana-fixers.

The issue I ran into, however, was that I’d see uncommons with powerful effects attached to them that had no business being uncommon. No matter how you try to make sense of it, you just can’t use the same logic that we used for the dual lands in this situation. These powerful effects — no matter how powerful or mechanically fitting they are — just won’t work at uncommon.

This, in my opinion, is probably the greatest challenge of all when undertaking such a project. The concept of rarity in Magic has one general function: to control the Limited formats. In Joe’s set, he wanted his dual lands to be readily accessible in order to make his underlying multicolor theme easier to draft. That was the same reason Alara block featured two cycles of tri-color lands, as well as Obelisks and other such mana fixers. In other sets, like M10 and M11, we see the dual lands at rare — because they aren’t needed to make the commons and uncommons function correctly and are more or less either for Constructed or too powerful to be uncommon.

Now, keeping this in mind, think of a typical rare — say, Day of Judgment. Why is it rare? It obviously has an effect that’s much too good to be uncommon by our standards — but what’s the real reason? Well, if that card were uncommon, you’d have a fair chance of seeing one in every draft, but a Day of Judgment is a very rare sight. It doesn’t take much research to understand why having every other draft feature a Day of Judgment or two is an issue for game play. These types of cards need to be rare to contain and control the impact they have on Limited play.

For an example of the type of card I had an issue with, take a look at this card:

Sudden Upheaval


Instant (Uncommon)

Return all attacking creatures to their owner’s hands.

This card, in all likelihood, could never exist. The only card I can truly compare it to is Evacuation, and it’s not hard to see why that card’s a little bit fairer than Sudden Upheaval. Evacuation costs more mana, and it also affects both players. Generally, if a card has a powerful effect, we can reduce the mana cost or other costs by making that powerful effect affect both players. Duality, after all, is one of the greatest tools a designer has, and taking advantage of that tool has often led to broken decks and cards in the past.

However, when talking about this card, there’s no duality. The card costs

than Evacuation, and doesn’t present a drawback to its caster.

It costs more

mana to cast, and past articles have shed light on just how much an additional colored mana symbol

costs — adding a stricter color requirement can virtually increase a card’s casting cost, even though it doesn’t increase the converted mana cost.

The question, then, is: does making this card cost three blue mana make it balanced? I say definitely not. Well, at least not as an uncommon. I still believe it’s way too good — even at rare — but at least as a rare, you wouldn’t see one so often in eight-man queues.

For this particular card to see print, I expect the proper change to be to increase the converted mana cost to six and make it 3UUU, or at the very least 2UUU. Oh, and of course make it rare.

Now keep in mind that this isn’t me bashing on my friend’s design. This is, in fact, me doing what he asked me to do: play with his set and offer feedback. For two years now, it’s been my job to write about Magic — and in that time I must admit that I’ve grown overly critical of not only the cards themselves, but of Magic design in general. Throughout all my articles and research, I’ve also gained a fair bit of knowledge on the dos and don’ts of the trade. Making that card an uncommon at such a low cost is definitely a don’t.

Joe did, however, hit the nail on the head in a lot of ways.

His set featured a number of cycles. One was a set of “adepts” that were ally-colored Grizzly Bears and reduced the mana costs of their allied color pair. He had a number of mono-colored creatures that pumped and triggered an effect when you did something their color wanted to do.

Cycles are probably the most important part of a set outside of its core mechanics. Cycles are — from what I’ve observed from my years in Magic — a tool that designers can use for a multitude of useful things. The first is building familiarity. When you see a card with a specific word in its title or a keyword mechanic in its text (for example, you know that a Quest is going to involve counters and conditions in Zendikar), you can better remember the text on those cards. As a result, you’ll more easily be able to evaluate draft packs and overall make the learning process of the format much faster.

Next, cycles allow a sense of structure to set in. When designing a set, it’s important to preplan your color numbers and use cycles to help support the balance of your set. So when you give red an instant with your set’s primary mechanic at the common rarity, giving each

color a similar instant with a color-appropriate effect cleverly structures your set around your newly-introduced mechanics. It also allows you to find new design space in each color’s natural traits.

While we’re on the topic of mechanics, I should stress their importance when making a set. The bottom line is this: make the mechanics first. I’m not certain if Joe did this or not, but I’m under the impression that he did. It’s definitely clear that he put a great deal of work into making the mechanics play well with the final product, and I’d say that he had the mechanics at the project’s outset and worked the set around them.

For example, one of his set’s mechanics is called ravage, which was a keyword for creatures. Take a look:

Ravage X (
When this creature deals damage to a creature, put X blood counters on that creature. At the end of any turn, if a creature has three or more blood counters on it, that creature’s controller sacrifices it.)

Most of Joe’s set is based on this concept. There’s a removal spell that places a blood counter on a creature every turn, creatures that ping with ravage, etc. My favorite card in the entire set, however, is this brilliant card:

Bleed to Death



Put three blood counters on each creature.

I mean, sure, it’s really just a Damnation variant that requires you to sacrifice all of your creatures rather than just destroy them… but the part that I really liked about this card was that it expertly showcased the theme of the set and used a mechanic in a familiar yet creative way. It’s my belief that this is what keeps Magic a fresh game, and you can see this type of design at work with each release from Wizards every few months.

Joe’s set also featured the “blinkstrike” mechanic, which basically just tacked Arena onto creatures with the keyword. This allowed a lower removal count in the set overall. (However, I stand by my assessment that white had far too little removal — but that’s just going to get me into more trouble if Joe’s reading this!) It also allowed some clever usage of the set’s mechanics in conjunction. I’m not sure if a card like this actually existed in Joe’s set, but I’d say this is exactly the kind of design that would fit well into future iterations.

My suggestion:



Creature — Horror

Blinkstrike, ravage 2

This, in my opinion, is the point where your set begins to make sense thematically and starts to come together in terms of playability. These two mechanics make sense together and complement each other well. It should be your goal when making a set to design cards with these types of interactions and use your own mechanics in clever ways, and this specifically holds true in expansions within blocks.

Now I could easily go on for much longer about the types of cards that Joe had in his set and what I liked, disliked, and would do differently — but I really want to discuss something that caught my eye when playing with his set: the planeswalkers. His set featured six, and most of them seemed either way too powerful or just kind of awkward. I questioned him on some of his choices, but ultimately I realized that maybe designing these things is just incredibly hard. I tried to think up some of my own, and I found that

, indeed, it was.

To get things rolling, Joe’s green planeswalker:

Green Planeswalker


Planeswalker — 3 loyalty
+1: Elf creatures you control get +1/+1 until end of turn.
-2: Search your library for up to two basic lands, reveal those cards, and put one into your hand and the other onto the battlefield tapped. Then shuffle your library.
-4: Something Elf-related.

I don’t remember for sure what the first and last abilities were, but they aren’t actually important. What’s important is to look at the card’s abilities and see why they don’t make any sense. To get a better idea of what I mean, let’s look at the abilities one by one.

The +1 ability, whether it’s exactly as I’ve written it here or not, is something green likes to do: make its creatures bigger and more aggressive (and in this case, Elves specifically). I don’t have any qualms with this ability, as it’s a legitimate, offensive, and in-color +1.

The -2 on this card is Cultivate, which I really love as a green planeswalker ability. However, I have two problems with it on this card. First of all, if I’m spending three mana to play this, why wouldn’t I just play Cultivate? I mean, yes, you’re going to have the planeswalker stick around afterward, but you’re also paying an additional green mana to do it.

This, of course, brings to light the larger issue: the first and second abilities have no synergy whatsoever. Now, if I spent 1GG on a planeswalker that Cultivated and then had a +1 ability that was desirable after Cultivating, we’d be making progress. I mean, how many Elf decks want to Cultivate and then pump their dudes? Wouldn’t we rather play a ton of guys out, and then use the Glorious Anthem effect? Just how often are we going to actually want to Cultivate?

My solution was simple: don’t make the planeswalker conflict with itself. If you’re going to make a narrow planeswalker like Nissa Revane, something like this is a bit more structured:

Elf Planeswalker
Planeswalker — 2 loyalty
+1: Target Elf creature gets +3/+3 and gains trample until end of turn.
-1: Add G to your mana pool for each Elf you control.
-4: Elves you control get +2/+2 and forestwalk until end of turn.

This version of the card has an offensive ability that will be easily the biggest draw of the card, and it also has a negative ability that will no doubt have its uses but is

just boring and something you won’t ever use. The last ability is also very desirable, and a great way to complement the first ability.

However, even with this reimagining, I still find an odd problem with it: what if you don’t have an Elf in play? What, then you just can’t up the counters? Is that okay? Is it a design flaw?

The problem is that we know too little about planeswalkers. With only a few blocks’ worth of the card type, I don’t think we as players knows what’s standard for planeswalkers… and that’s assuming that Wizards does!

Here’s another planeswalker utilizing the Cultivate ability:

Land Planeswalker

Planeswalker — 3 loyalty
+1: You may play an additional land this turn.
-2: Search your library for two basic lands, and put one into your hand and the other onto the battlefield tapped.
-7: Lands you control become 3/3 green Elemental creatures. They’re still lands.
I’m actually really proud of how effective this planeswalker is. I mean, it probably could cost three; I obviously haven’t tested with it yet or anything. I’m just trying to showcase what I mean when I talk about complementary abilities.

If you played this on the third or fourth turn and Cultivated, you could untap and use its +1 ability to make use of that extra land you tutored for (given that you had a land drop anyway), and then keep upping the counters to eventually make your lands into beaters for the kill. Each ability on the card works into the planeswalker’s end plan, which is ideal. If you search for lands, you add to the number of lands in play for the last ability — and if you do lots of searching then you can make use of the “extra land” effect to dump them into play quickly. Alternatively, you could just add a land every turn in conjunction with, say, the card Cultivate itself and have a powerful ramp engine.

The secret to this style of design for planeswalkers is ensuring that the first ability is desirable, but not so good that you’ll never want to do anything else. Let me illustrate my point:

+1: Target creature gets +3/+3 and gains flying until end of turn.
+1: Target creature gets +3/+3 until end of turn.

This is a simple and probably really dumb example, but it makes my point. Why would you ever want to use the second ability? To play around Plummet? Is that really the kind of “situational” abilities we want? A good example of a “double +1” model planeswalker is Elspeth, Knight-Errant because she has two abilities that function as both offense and defense. If you’re winning, you can pump a dude and smash. If not, you can make a blocker and stave off the assault.

I think balancing offensive and defensive abilities on these cards are key. And, barring that, the negative abilities need to at least do something very worthwhile to sidetrack you from getting to the ultimate.

Before I move onto the analysis of the new Scars planeswalkers, I’d like to make a special note about Elspeth, Knight-Errant. Although she is an ideal example of the perfect balance of offense and defense, she is a

example of the other aspect of planeswalkers: making the ultimate good. Now, her ultimate has its uses (I’ve used it once in two years), but generally it’s better to just pump your guys or make dudes. Moving forward, I hope we see more planeswalkers that don’t make the “do I keep upping my planeswalker or use the ultimate?” decision so simple to make.

Now that we’ve taken a look at the challenges when designing planeswalkers, let’s use what we’ve learned to analyze the three that Scars of Mirrodin has to offer.

First and foremost: Elspeth Tirel.

Alright, so what do we have here? Her first and second ability play well together — especially if you use the second one first and then the first multiple times in succession. Then, after that, you can use her ultimate, which benefits from the usage of the second ability (since all your guys live through it).

She’s also got enough loyalty to use her second ability twice without needing to up her at all, so if all you want to do is make dudes for Honor of the Pure beats, then she’s your lady. If you just want her to be a Planar Cleansing, she can also be there — since her +1 doesn’t require you to actually gain any life or have creatures in play.

Is she any good? I personally feel like that is directly related to how good white-based aggressive decks are in Scars Standard — but I’d say she’s a forerunner in that strategy for sure, and she’s certainly not bad as a Planar Cleansing/win condition in a future version of U/W Control either.

Since I’m not really talking about Standard and more just about the design of the cards, let’s look at Venser, the Sojourner.

Venser is an example of a “build around me” card. He’s in two colors that don’t normally like to attack when combined, yet his second ability still mimics many blue cards. The first ability is clearly just Momentary Blink, and that really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the second ability. In fact, not of his abilities seem to actually work well together at all, so in that sense he’s somewhat of a mess mechanically.

He’s still

, however, since we all know how absurd Momentary Blinking your own planeswalkers to reset them or creatures you control that have powerful enters-the-battlefield abilities. It also works well within the context of the set due to the ability to knock off, say, -1/-1 counters from your creatures, and the unblockable aspect of the card also plays well into the idea of ensuring that your proliferate or infect creatures get their damage through.

So although Venser doesn’t make much sense based on our planeswalker-building exercise, he checks out in terms of decent design because he is a mechanic-driven planeswalker. He may not showcase any of them by name, and his abilities may not play well together on their own, but the complete package is more than good enough. The whole picture is needed on this one for sure.

Still, no “bigger picture” is needed for our last planeswalker: Koth of the Hammer.

This is the best-designed planeswalker currently in the game. I mean, yes… that’s just one man’s opinion, but from a design standpoint this card is just expertly done. It embodies red in a way that Chandra could only hope to, and all of the abilities share the same theme (Mountain) and play well together.

I mean, sure, the second ability doesn’t necessarily need to be used on this card, but that isn’t a requirement for a good planeswalker — it just needs to be an ability that is attractive enough to be used when the time was right. In a mono-red deck Koth could be virtually free, and later in the game he could fuel a huge Fireball effect, which is right up red’s alley (and those types of X spells are usually ineffective in an archetype that tops out at four or five lands). Koth’s +1 ability allows you to put on early pressure, mana-ramp if needed, and then just blow the game wide open with the ultimate.

Red planeswalkers are

hard to design in particular because of the low curve of most red decks, but mostly because picking abilities for them is very challenging. Think about it: what does red do? It burns people, creatures, destroys artifacts, and rituals. If a planeswalker destroyed artifacts it’d be somewhat narrow, and Chandra already burned a

of stuff… twice. How much more design space is there in red? Koth takes the “use an existing card as an ability” idea and makes it a little less cookie-cutter and creates a great effect.

As far as how good or bad he is in Standard, well… let’s just say I’m going to be playing red. And for those of you who know me, that’s very, very odd. He’s

that good. Better than Jace, the Mind Sculptor? No, Jace is off the charts in terms of power level — but I’d make an argument that
in any format in which Brainstorm is not legal, he’s easily one of the top three planeswalkers, period.
(Considering he’s being used a lot in Vintage, I’d argue he’s one of the top three in formats with Brainstorm — T.F.)

All right folks, I’ve talked your ear off long enough. I clearly have lots of say on the subject of card design and theory, but I’ve gone for awhile already.

I know this is a little different than what you’re used to from me, but I hope this was an interesting departure from the norm. I also hope you learned something, and that you’ll be encouraged to try your hand at set design. Feel free to use the forums to share your ideas!

Until next time,
Chris Jobin
Team RIW
Shinjutsei on MTGO