About Card Design and... Nephilim

Stop laughing!
Yes, exactly what the title said. This article is about card design (you know, that forum somewhere near the bottom) and in casu, about that cycle of four-colour creatures we all hate to open, while the laughing (former) friend next to us shows us his third Stomping Ground. That's probably a strange enough subject that it needs an introduction of its own.

As far as I know, there hasn't been an article about Custom Card Design yet on this site. Now, for a first article about this subject, you'd probably expect some sort of introduction to card design. Like this:

A Card Design Manual

Except I don't feel like doing that. Maybe someone else will do that later. But I feel that wouldn't be all that useful. Sure, there are a lot of hints I could give to beginning card creators. But I don't believe those are what would get the juices flowing. Therefore, I will use a "case study" instead - the aforementioned Nephilim. My second reason for setting it up this way, is to avoid alienating most of my public. Because, you know, the Nephilim already exist. So for those people who don't care about custom card design, I'll first talk about the design of this cycle of weirdos. Actual cards will hopefully interest that part of my audience too.

So what's up with those Nephilim?

First of all, they suck. Playability-wise. There's an obvious reason their prices can't break the 1$-treshold: they require a very specially adapted manabase, but they don't offer enough power to compensate for that. After all, we already had one four-colour creature in Etched Oracle and it was a 4/4 with a powerful ability. The design of the Nephilim however is "challenging." That is, it invites Johnnies to have a go at them because they're hard to get to work. Unfortunately, there was already an implicit challenge in getting them into play, located somewhere in the upper right corner.

So I have to play a Gro-like deck to abuse Witch-Maw Nephilim... but first I have to play a ton of mana-fixers? I want crazy combos with Ink-Treader Nephilim but it would be nice if they also worked with Sakura-Tribe Elder and Izzet Signet? I need to find ways to cast Dune-Brood or Glint-Eye Nephilim and to make them connect? I need to somehow manage a mana cost of :symw::symu::symb::symr: for Yore-Tiller Nephilim while getting creatures in my graveyard and then I need to make sure that 2/2 doesn't just get killed before it does anything? Oh, next turn I want to attack with it too... and I'd like him to survive that attack, otherwise I could have saved myself the whole trouble and just Zombified it.

There's only so much trouble I want to go through.

And I suppose even such an uber-Johnny card is cool every once in a while. A whole cycle of hard-to-cast, hard-to-use guys is er, pushing it a bit however.

Here's what Aaron Forsythe said about their power level:

Quote from Aaron Forsythe »
The Nephilim started out pretty darned ridiculous. One iteration that I can remember included an 8/8 with protection from white for :symu::symb::symr::symg:. After all, casting a creature with four colors has to be difficult, right?

In any block other than Ravnica, I imagine we could have gotten away with making the Nephilim a lot more powerful, but they fell victim of being in an environment that enables them far too easily. Between Birds of Paradise, Farseek, Sakura-Tribe Elder, and any number of Signets and dual lands, playing a four-color card on turn 3 is easier than it has ever been in Standard, so we had to account for that.

Late in development, Crystal Seer was
toned down a bit.
I just wanted to point out how amusing this is. The question asked was: why are they 2/2? The answer: We tested them as 8/8 and they were too strong. So, if you wondered why Crystal Seer is so weak: they tested it as an 8/8 and it was too strong.

Anyway, enough whining about the power level. After all, Wizards will make bad cards, like it or not. I can accept that. My real concern leads me back to card design.

Interesting Abilities

Quote from Aaron Forsythe »
Development's two goals for the cycle were (a) they had to cost "CDEF," as anything else would not be cool. (...) And (b) the abilities needed to be the cool part, not the size.

So, did they succeed in this part? At first glance, yes. I think the abilities are very interesting and unique. Unfortunately, this is a case of good design on the wrong place. It looks like they thought up five cool mechanics, then slapped them on the four-colour Nephilim rather randomly, then called the result "finished cards". To put it simple: all five Nephilim would have made cool cards... but not as Nephilim. They simply aren't four colours.

Not naturally White.
Glint-Eye Nephilim would have made a great Green-Blue card... but he's neither Red nor Black. At all.
Dune-Brood Nephilim could have been Green or Green-White... But Black?
Ink-Treader Nephilim uses a mechanic only seen in Red, but would make sense as Red-Blue too. He's about as naturally White as Michael Jackson though.
Witch-Maw Nephilim is a successor to Quirion Dryad. Just Green.
Yore-Tiller Nephilim is an example of an awesome Black-Red card. Except they made him White and Blue too.

This brings me back to my last point. Printing these cards in the colour combinations they had to be in in the first place would have made everyone happier. They are still hard to use, and need decks built around them. Cards like these are what Johnnies enjoy. Unfortunately, it's a lot less fun to build decks around these cards when every single of those decks has to be filled with duals, Birds and other mana-fixers. Only to watch those miserable 2/2 Nephilim die to the first removal spell.

To sum it up:
  • The Nephilim are cool, rather hard to use Johnny cards that need a deck built around them.
  • But they were simply given four mana symbols that didn't fit them at all and made them totally unplayable. These cards should have been printed at the mana cost they deserved.

If they didn't have space for these cards anymore, they could simply have saved them in their design files and used later, at an appropriate time, in the right colour combination. But what with the cycle they had to make in the first place then? Their goal was, after all, a cycle of four-coloured creatures. Well, they could have made... Real Nephilim.

Real Nephilim

And that's how we end up at custom card design. How should the Nephilim be designed? This is how I'd start:

  • The cost remains the same (CDEF).
  • All four colours must fit the card. Very important, cause it's my main critique about the Nephilim.
  • However, to avoid the not-so-elegant "one ability of each colour" the card should have no more than two abilities.
  • The card should somehow feel "opposite" of the fifth colour. I decided that my Nephilim would be "lacking" the goal of the colour they were not.
  • The interesting part of the card should still be the abilities, not the size. (However, I'd make them a bit bigger than the real Nephilim.)
  • I want my Nephilim to be playable, but not broken. (This was clearly not a priority for the original Nephilim.)

As you see, I put a bit more constraints on my design than R&D did. Without further ado, here's the first of my proposed Nephilim.
Restless Nephilim :symu::symb::symr::symg:

Creature - Nephilim

Whenever Restless Nephilim attacks, draw two cards.
Sacrifice two lands: Regenerate Restless Nephilim.


White's goal is peace. Therefore the nonwhite Nephilim is never at peace. The card is very dynamic, never at rest. I believe the card is balanced because the regeneration ability is expensive (especially if you want to accelerate this guy out on turn three) and he's quite vulnerable, making it hard to get card advantage out of him. Moving on:
Primeval Nephilim :symb::symr::symg::symw:

Creature - Nephilim

You may divide Primeval Nephilim's combat damage as you choose among defending player and/or any number of creatures he or she controls.
Pay 1 life: Primeval Nephilim gets +0/+1 until end of turn.


Blue seeks knowledge and long-term advantage. This guy is to-the-point and needs none of that. His abilities are combat-oriented and while they may not look too spectacular, he's quite hard to stop.
Selfless Nephilim :symr::symg::symw::symu:

Creature - Nephilim

Selfless Nephilim is unblockable.
Whenever Selfless Nephilim attacks or blocks, target creature other than Selfless Nephilim gets +3/+3 and gains first strike until end of turn.


Black looks only after its own power. The nonblack Nephilim helps his teammate in combat. He also has a "balanced" feel about him (and I'm not talking about power level now), as opposed to black's inclination to unbalance things.
Restraining Nephilim :symg::symw::symu::symb:

Creature - Nephilim

Whenever Restraining Nephilim deals combat damage to a creature, gain control of that creature at end of combat.
Sacrifice a creature: Put a +1/+1 counter on Restraining Nephilim.


Red wants freedom, so this Nephilim limits it. He captures opposing creatures and will even sacrifice them for his own long-term gain. He's defensive and discourages action. And finally:
Stagnant Nephilim :symw::symu::symb::symr:

Creature - Nephilim

Whenever Stagnant Nephilim deals combat damage to a player, destroy target permanent that player controls.


Green's goal is growth, and therefore this Nephilim is destructive. He inhibits evolution, doesn't allow expansion. He's also the smallest of the bunch. His effect is very powerful but it should be offset by the hardest mana cost (nongreen) and his fragile body.


I'm not claiming these are the perfect Nephilim. Some may not represent their colours perfectly, some may be too strong or too weak. After all, I didn't get to playtest them. I do claim though, that these are better designed than what Wizards came up with. I feel Design and Development had a collective off-day when they made the Nephilim.

This was the story of the great idea to make a cycle of four-colour creatures that was wasted, and five very cool cards that got wasted, just because they were put together. And it was the story of what could have been. Thanks for joining me.


Thanks to iloveatogs for the banner.
Thanks to Goblinboy for editing.


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