Advanced Design: Emphasis and De-Emphasis
By Shylo Elliott on June 19th, 2007 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
Okay, so you've created several dozen cards and you've posted them on the Custom Sets & Cards forums. You've even received praise from the forum-going populace. However, you want to do something on a grander scale. You've decided that you want to create a set. You've been plugging cards into your set, and you have quite a collection of them. However, you look at your set one more time, and you see that it is very disjointed. It doesn't have enough of a focus. Or maybe you've already created the set, but when you have people play it, they don't like it because you've crammed one theme down their throats, and they're sick of it. In the first case, the set designer didn't have enough of an emphasis; in the second case, the set designer had too much of a singular emphasis. What the designer didn't know is how to use emphasis and de-emphasis to make the set more playable and enjoyable.
As you might know, a set is a collection of 165-422 cards in which a single overarching theme and storyline. Sets are often collected into "blocks," a collection of three (or more, if Lorwyn speculation is true) sets that share the same themes and storylines. If you've never designed a set before, you might want to start with Alacar Leoricar's two columns about the basics of set design (as opposed to the basics of card design), which are located here: Putting Your Eggs in Your Basket and Putting Your Eggs in Your Basket: A Follow Up. Even though there is usually one overarching theme to a set, there are usually several different elements to that theme. For those of you who enjoy such, think of your favorite soap opera. It cuts to several different pieces of storyline throughout the same show: Two people are about to get married, one character is plotting to kill another one, or one character is cheating on his or her spouse. It's similar to something like the Odyssey block, whose focus on the graveyard also featured a greater emphasis on discarding cards and milling. As sets within blocks share the same themes, I will be talking about blocks as if they were one set. Designing a standalone set is much different than designing a set to fit within a block, although a good designer takes care to allow a standalone set to fit in with the blocks designed to be played with it.
As card designers or Rumor Mill watchers may know from designing cards or seeing that 100th artifact from Mirrodin being spoiled, each set has to have an emphasis. Of course, some points of emphasis are more obvious than others. For example, the artifact theme in Mirrodin is an example of a primary emphasis. It is the overarching theme of the block, and almost every card in that block had to do with the theme of artifacts— there were only a few rare cases that a card was not an artifact, affected artifacts, or had artifacts affect them. Similarly, Odyssey block's main emphasis was the graveyard.
You might know all of this, but did you know that blocks have secondary emphases as well? For example, Bill Rose, when he was head designer of Magic, had an on-again, off-again policy on the use of cantrips. For the purposes of my article, I define a cantrip as "a spell that lets its controller draw a card when it resolves or a permanent that lets its controller draw a card when it comes into play." (Because of this definition, cards like Chromatic Sphere and Savage Gorilla aren't counted as cantrips.) Mercadian Masques had a grand total of zero cantrips. Conversely, Invasion had forty-three cantrips. Odyssey block did not have as many cantrips as Invasion block, due to the policy at the time on cantrips; according to Mark Rosewater's article, Cantrip Down Memory Lane, Odyssey wasn't supposed to have any cantrips at all. However, he recognized that cantrips "played well" with the theme of the graveyard and persuaded Bill Rose, the head designer at the time, to allow cantrips for that block.
Black mages rejoice! Another example of subthemes working for the main theme of the set can be found in Torment. The set's focus was Black. Black plays well with the theme of the graveyard in four ways:
1) One of the most well-known facets of Black's color pie slice is the ability to make other players discard. In fact, in concert with the explosive mana-producing capability of Cabal Coffers, Mind Sludge was one of the most powerful discard spells during the time Odyssey was legal in Standard. It was reprinted in Eighth Edition, although without the Coffers, it didn't pack the same punch.
2) Black is also one of the top three colors with the most activated abilities that say "Discard a card:". (Surprisingly, if you count "Discard a random card:" as "Discard a card:", Red has the most activated abilities that say "Discard a card:". However, I did not take into account spells with an additional cost or effect that included discarding cards or cards that required discarding more than one card or a specific type of card, such as Anurid Brushhopper or Neurok Prodigy.)
3) Black has plenty of cards that use the graveyard as a resource. Cards like Cabal Surgeon provide an interesting tension to threshold.
4) Black's buddies are Blue and Red. They also like to discard cards for nifty effects, and they are also good for putting cards in the graveyard: Skywing Aven is one of the best cards in Odyssey Block limited for its evasion and extreme difficulty in being killed. If a card is being put into a graveyard by a Blue deck, it is either being done so by a counterspell or a milling spell. If a card is being put into a graveyard by a Red deck, it is being done so by a burn spell, either way, you are disrupting your opponent and filling your graveyard at the same time. Quite the bonus!
Carrying Out Emphasis
Luckily for the budding set designer, carrying out emphasis is one of the few aspects of set design that is extremely easy. Early on set design, before you make any cards, decide what the main focus of your set is going to be. A main focus can be anything as long as it is sufficiently broad: A color, card type, aspect of a card, game zone, or even a resource. The amount of cards in your set determines how wide the scope of the focus of your set has to be.
Keep in mind that the focus of the first set in your block is going to be the focus of your block, so don't make the focus of your first set (or any set, for that matter) the post-combat main phase. Because focusing on a color tends to be narrow than the other types of focus, the only time Wizards has used a theme based around a single color was for the 143-card first expansion to Odyssey, Torment. Card types, game zones, aspects of cards, and resources tend to be reserved for large sets. Time, the forgotten resource, was one of the major themes for Time Spiral block (the other one was nostalgia, which manifested itself as much in flavor as it did in function, if not more so).
If you choose to do a color emphasis in a second or third set, make sure that the color you choose to emphasize works well with your set's theme. For example, if your major block theme was having cards in hand, you might want to focus on Blue, as it is the most reactionary color, and tends to keep cards in its hand until it wants to use them. Blue is also the top color in card drawing. Having an opposition force to your theme is also important. Green played an important role in Mirrodin as the number one anti-artifact color. In the proposed cards-in-hand set, Red is the impulsive color that wants to act quickly. Red would be one of the main hosers of the set's theme (along with Black). If you do a color theme, you may have to counterbalance it with a set based around its enemies. For example, Torment's focus on black was counteracted by Judgment's focus on green and white. After you have the big Blue card-draw set, you may want to do a set based around Red and Green, as they are Blue's enemies and the colors that tend to deploy their cards most quickly.
The main way of carrying out a primary emphasis is simply in numbers. Make as many cards as feasible that interact in the theme in some way. For example, if your theme were enchantments, you would print more enchantments and Auras, and non-enchantment cards that dealt with them. Cards that improved with the number of enchantments you controlled. Cards that punished players for not playing enchantments. You would also improve the inherent drawbacks of certain types of cards. For example, one of the mechanics I've been playing around with allows you to play Auras without a target so that you put a token into play and attach the Aura to it, reducing the chances of losing the target in response to the Aura. Another way to "legitimize" your theme is to create a mechanic that may or may not be directly related to the theme. For example, in Mirrodin, imprint, which didn't have to be on artifacts; and affinity, which didn't have to be for artifacts, were included mostly on artifact cards, and affinity was mostly for artifacts.
Once you have your primary focus down, creating a secondary focus is simply either doing something that reinforces the main theme, or doing something that plays well with the main themes of the set, or do something different but that can still be tied into the main theme. One thing that you do want to make sure to do though is that you need a main theme. Mercadian Masques block was poorly received because it had few keyword mechanics, the cards were too weak, and there wasn't an overarching theme. Rebels, Mercenaries, fading, and the tapped/untapped land dynamic led to too many "secondary emphases" but nothing bringing the block together. An example of one of the best-executed secondary emphases is the use of +1/+1 counters and charge counters in Mirrodin block. It was the culmination of Wizards' efforts to condense the amount of types of counters used, and it worked well. It also played into the "artifact" theme of the block because the modular and sunburst mechanics of Darksteel and Fifth Dawn were featured on artifacts only.
Mass removal kept in check by hasteIn carrying out a theme for your set or block, it is okay to bleed the color pie, but never to break it. For example, if I wanted to create a block in which permanents (of all types) were the main theme, even though white permanents rarely sacrifice other permanents, it would be okay to make a white card that allowed you to sacrifice permanents other than itself. However, if I wanted to make an enchantment block, it would never be okay for me to make a card that cost black and/or red mana and didn't cost green or white mana to destroy only an enchantment. It would be okay for me to make a card that hurt the owner of the enchantment for having it in play, but not for Red or Black to destroy it outright. Keeping this in mind, I would make sure not to make an enchantment that unfairly hosed black and/or red because they can't deal with it.
Finally, you can over-emphasize something if it would be very weak in the block or environment you're planning out. For example, Void, Magus of the Disk, Damnation, Desolation Giant, Sulfurous Blast, Fiery Justice, and Molten Disaster are all mass-removal spells in Time Spiral block. I don't recall that many different sorcery-speed mass-removal spells in any block before that (I know Sulfurous Blast can be cast at instant speed). In Standard, a deck can have eight copies of "Wrath of God"! How can this be acceptable? The answer is that Time Spiral block has an insane amount of haste. The suspend cards gain haste when they are done lounging in the removed-from-game zone, Green received more haste cards, and Deepcavern Imp represented a non-suspend use of the mechanic in Black. Not only that, but there was a greater emphasis on flash due to it becoming a keyword. Flash is similar to haste in that a creature with flash also tends to get at least one swing in before sorcery-speed removal can deal with it.
Having described over-emphasis, it is now natural to move on to its opposite: De-emphasis.
De-emphasizing the Situation
At least Wizards waited untilIf you emphasize something in your set or block (and you will, if you don't want another Mercadian Masques on your hands), you must de-emphasize something else. This isn't seen by most Magic players, as emphasizing something is much more visible than de-emphasizing it. However, it is important not to put powerful hosers to the main theme of your set in the same set. Thankfully, this is as simple as figuring out what hurts the theme of your set and doing it as little and/or as inefficiently as possible. When you are forced to hose your own theme, there are two roads you can take to print hosers that don't crash your set.
Legions to print Withered Wretch.
1) Print weak cards that hose the theme of your set. Mirrodin had several cards that stopped artifacts. Most of them were weak (see the puny Inertia Bubble) or the expensive (Altar's Light, which was also a result of Wizards' reshuffling of the color pie, putting White behind Green in artifact destruction). Wizards also reprinted Core Set stalwart Shatter, which was the best thing that ever happened to the card, because during the time Mirrodin was legal, it was top-pick status in Limited and even saw some play in Constructed, despite the fact that strictly better alternatives have seen print (Shattering Pulse in the past and Ancient Grudge and Fury Charm in the future).
2) Print more expensive cards that have bonuses. A 1/1 for is usually better than a 1/2 for as long as it has the same abilities and creature type, for example. A counterspell is much better than a counterspell with a slight bonus. In Onslaught block, one of the themes of the block was huge, expensive spells. Cheap counterspells would make the sets unplayable in Constructed and leave a sour taste in players' mouths. There were a few counterspells printed in Onslaught block, but they were too weak and expensive to see play. The Core Set standards of Mana Leak and Rewind ruled Standard, and Blue was almost non-existent in Block Constructed until late in the season.
Creating a set is a long-term project; there is no way you can crank one out in two weeks or even a month. Remember, Wizards has a team of professionals working on the flavor and design of each set, while most amateur designers work on their own sets on their lonesome - don't expect to achieve the same results. The main thing, though, is to have fun, both while playing and designing!
By Shylo Elliott on June 19th, 2007 · Filed in General Magic · Comments not available just now
About Shylo Elliott
Shylo has been posting almost exclusively in the Custom Sets & Cards forum since joining MTGSalvation in January 2005. He is currently attending Middle Tennessee State University and would gladly give up eligibility as a player to work for R&D.