Putting Your Eggs in Your Basket: Designing a Custom Set
By Christopher French on August 28th, 2006 · Filed in Casual · Comments not available just now
People say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If so, then Magic must be pretty darn well flattered. People have been making custom sets for the game for its entire lifespan. There is little wonder why the Custom Sets & Cards section of MTG Salvation is one of the most popular. With over 20 sets fully published already on the site, and numerous others being posted, worked on, and critiqued, it's no surprise that people have come up with ways of making a whole set of cards.
First, let me introduce myself. The name's Christopher French. Known across the forums as Alacar Leoricar, I'm responsible for one such fully completed set, Academy. Both as a shameless plug (gosh, you must've seen this coming) and as a bit of evidence to what I'm about to explain, I urge you to check out my set, Academy.
It's been a while since Academy was completed, but that's only because I'm working on sets 2 and 3 in the block, Gauntlet and Discord. The set's power curve is a little high, but it's generally high throughout the set, so Block Constructed is more balanced than it looks.
How Do You Even Begin to Make a Set?
There are several different ways you can approach your set, but this seems to be one of the more solid methods. Feel free to expand on each idea in any way you see fit. As with the Pirates' Code, they're more guidelines than actual rules.
1. Template, Template, Template!
Printed sets have text spoilers that usually have a line like this:
Before you do anything for the set, you've got to figure out how big it's going to be. Most sets are either 306 cards or 165 cards, as Wizards has been doing for the past few blocks. The point is, make a template of empty cards first. This makes it far easier to know how much room you have in your set to design cards for each color and it keeps the color levels balanced. You can slice the color pie any way you want, but you should try to keep the five colors equal in number of cards, unless you're going for a Torment variant.
306 cards, 42 white, 42 blue, 42 black, 42 red, 42 green, 18 artifact, 38 multicolor, 20 land, 20 basic land.
This should be a no-brainer, but it's often surprising how people forget the breakdown of sets.
Large Set: 306 cards; 88 Rares, 88 Uncommons, 110 Commons, 20 Basic Lands
Small Set: 165 cards: 55 Rares, 55 Uncommons, 55 Commons.
Of course these are just the bases for something bigger. If you want to go the route of Time Spiral, it's 80 rares, 80 incommons, 121 commons. Feel free to edit the layout of the sets, but it's a general consensus that in a larger set, there are more commons. In a smaller set, they are equal. Don't forget the 20 basic lands!
The next step in designing a template is one that people can skip. I've personally found it to be a lifesaver. Assign card types to a majority of the cards. This is a good way for you to round out the set, figure out how many artifacts, artifact creatures, creatures, instants, sorceries, enchantments, and auras will be in the set. Try to keep the same or similar numbers for each color. If you do this, please try to leave open, typeless slots for cards that pop into your head but don't fit into the set.
The template is all well and good, but what good did a pile of empty cards do for you?
2. Live in Your World. Play in Your Set's
After designing how big your set needs to be, you need to figure out how to approach the set and what it's all about. Since Invasion, it's been about themes. "X Matters" themes. Multicolor in Invasion block, graveyard in Odyssey, creature type in Onslaught, and artifacts in Mirrodin. These days the themes are a little more broad. Kamigawa block was Japanese-flavored; Ravnica block was all about the ten two-color pairs. Time Spiral looks to be a trip down memory lane.
Whatever your theme, be sure to find a way to translate it to the set. This is easiest and best done by using a keyword. But, and I cannot stress this enough, a keyword does not a set make. As one example, I'm going to borrow from my pet, Academy. Look at the main keyword in the set:
A sample critter with Experience.
The idea of that was that a creature gets experience from the battlefield, and thus"'levels up." There's a lot one can do with experience counters, but it wasn't the be-all and end all of the set. Another theme was removing cards from the game, and also a large contingent of multicolor cards. Much like Odyssey, which had a big emphasis on how you can use the graveyard, Academy uses experience to its fullest.
Experience (When this creature deals or is dealt combat damage, put an experience counter on it.)
To plan a whole set, you need to ask yourself, "What can I do with Magic that hasn't been done before?" Whether you're making a realistic set or one based off of popular culture, your set has to be able to stand out. Of course, your main theme can have a keyword marquee, but also back it up with other mechanics and keywords to reinforce the set's themes.
Some more tips on designing mechanics and keywords:
- Don't make too many! A set can usually get away with two to three keyworded mechanics. Some can get away with more (Ravnica) but in a custom set, you'll want to try to push the set's themes more than try to use every cunning idea in your head.
- Remember, a mechanic is not necessarily a keyword. If the cards can get away with not including another word to be added to the dictionary, then more power to you.
- Make the keyword synergize. This is plainly obvious, but people often go too far in one direction with a mechanic that they don't let the non-keyworded cards work with the ones that are.
Now that you've got a clever idea for a set and have its themes and mechanics in place, how do you translate that into a world? Lots of ways. The Multiverse is a vast place, and you can either borrow off of what we have, or make something wholly new. Magic is a game about conflict and competition. Try and make this translate over. More often than not a block consists of a world that starts on the brink of conflict, and the chaos only continues as the block does. Planeswalkers, calamities, experiments, heroes, and villains. This is where the designing should pause and the creative storytelling begins.
3. I Saw Design (And It Opened Up My Eyes)
Now that you've got ideas for the world in which your set is based and how that translates to the cards and their mechanics, it's time for the bulk of the design. This can be the easiest part, or the hardest part, depending on how you handled the set's research. You're bound to have some idea of where to go next, as well as have a handful of preliminary cards designed for ideas on where to go.
Since you can go a million different directions with actual set design, here are some tips:
Broken everywhere else, but not so
much in Block constructed.
Design is one of the longest parts of set creation, if not the longest. If you're doing it by yourself, it's a bit easier, since you have total creative control. However, this also means that you don't have a second opinion and may overlook a possible route to go with some cards. If you work with a group, try to assign duties for the set's design and get them all to fit. Consistent communication is key in such a process. Wizards R&D is blessed with the Multiverse, a tool that lets them see all submitted cards and comments on them. Unfortunately, you'll have to come up with a different method.
- Learn from the past. Look at the staples of Magic design and how each color works and make your own spinned variants of them. Exalted Angel was the Serra Angel of Onslaught. Cabal Ritual was an on-theme Dark Ritual.
- Follow your template, but don't be a slave to it. Oftentimes you can get away with changing a card's type if it fits what you want the card to do.
- Don't be afraid of simplicity. Too often players muddle up their cards by trying to make them do too much. Sometimes a vanilla creature is fine.
- Keep in mind that this is a custom set, and as such, don't meta too much. Sure, you'll want to take into account the current situation in Standard, or how broken a card could be were it released in Vintage, but more often than not, if you do play with the set using Magic Workstation or Apprentice, you'll be playing Block Constructed or Sealed. This all depends on how you want the set to fit in the current scope of Magic. Alacar Leoricar is a broken card in Vintage and Legacy, but in Academy Block Constructed, he's just a 2/2 powerhouse.
- Sometimes you'll be stuck on one particular card, be it a legend or that one Red uncommon enchantment that you can't figure out. This is fine. Ask around for suggestions, or just scrap the type and make something else uncommon and Red.
- Try to do preliminary playtests, whether with pen and proxy or online with Magic Workstation, or even in your head. Try to see how the set works as a whole.
- Limited is a popular format. Remember to keep in mind which cards would be considered a "first pick."
- Try and design the set to have cards that appeal to Timmy, Johnny, and Spike, but in its own way. Spike loved Cranial Extraction. Timmy loved Kodama of the North Tree. Johnny loved One With Nothing.
- Your template is not set in stone. Feel free to muddle the numbers or even expand and retract the set's size if you feel you need more room for the set to breathe.
- Cycles are in every set. In Academy alone, there are 14 cycles. Try to design some beforehand so you can show the mechanics in a different light. Some will come to you during and after design.
People design in many different ways and make different cards for different reasons. Maybe that Blue creature is utility. Maybe that Red burn spell is for the Timmies. Maybe that legend is your main character. Maybe that enchantment is a major plot point. Maybe that artwork looks just plain too cool not to use. Whatever the reason, make sure it works.
Help! I'm Designing and I Can't Get Up!
Some frequently asked questions and concerns about making a set:
I can't design <such and such card>. Help!
Don't rush yourself. Take your time and be patient. Sometimes, the ideas will jump out at you when you least expect it. Don't design too much, too quickly. Stick to your plan, and look over older, printed cards. Ask for help and suggestions.
I can't write flavor text/come up with a card/Legend name!
Switching gears between designing a card and its abilities to design for flavor is a challenge. In short, don't push it too hard. Stop designing for a while and ponder the flavor, then fill in the gaps.
I can't find artwork!
At this point, your set should be looking pretty polished. If you're worried about art during design, then you're pushing yourself.
After you've got every card in the set designed and in the template, it's time for development of the set. This is a slightly easier stage where a rough draft spoiler should be made. You can playtest with it, tweak it, and change names, add flavor text, artwork, and re-design some cards that don't fit the mold just yet. Development should run slightly abreast of design, picking up the pieces after you're done. This is also where you should try to flesh out the creative side of the set's plot and world, and develop at least a backstory for the events in the set world.
The hardest part of development has to be looking for the artwork. 306 cards means 306 pieces of art. While there are quite a few good places to find art on MTGSalvation, it can be daunting to find an image describing exactly what you want a spell to do. To this I can only say that unless you have a piece in mind, try not to make the demands of the card's art too high. Keep the descriptions short and generic, and you'll find artwork that, at the least, keeps true to the idea of the card, even if the character in it is a little misplaced.
If you do use art from the internet, I urge you to try and find the name of the artist on the piece. Also, include a disclaimer on your set: if an artist doesn't want you using their work, take it down, even if the card remains blank until you can replace it.
We All Go Through Our Phases
Your own personal R&D.
To sum up what I recommend:
Phase 1: Research
Work on a template for the set. Assign rarities to each color and then types. Plan the set's mechanics and keywords, and work on the set's theme and initial ideas for how it translates into flavor and plot.
Phase 2: Design
This is the brunt of the work. Design and test cards. Ask opinions. Take your time and be sure to give your cards a second look once in a while. Try to find a way for each color, type, and rarity to somehow use the theme or support the flavor of the set.
Phase 3: Development
This is all about making the cards click. Work on flavor text, names, and playtest the cards. Tweak and edit and change anything that irks you. Find artwork for the cards. Edit them as the art fits in.
Phase 4: Polishing and Release
This is the easiest part. Finalize your cards and get them out there. Use full images if you can. Put them up on a website for all to see.
Dying is Easy; Designing is Hard
Making a set is hard work. It takes months for R&D to finish a single expansion, so don't expect to be able to pop out your own in a few weeks. As with any project, you have to remain fully dedicated to the set to get it to work. If you can't get the set to work, file it away and let it sit until your muse strikes you again. Keep trying. A work in progress is just that. Even after Academy has been released, I am always looking for ways to update it. When your set is complete, you could consider turning it into a block, or maybe just making an added expansion.
I wish you all luck, and I can't wait to see what you come up with.
By Christopher French on August 28th, 2006 · Filed in Casual · Comments not available just now