Custom Catering: A First Taste

Designing custom cards is a fun and interactive way to put your hands on Magic. Making your wildest creations and midnight ramblings into the rarest powerhouses or the lowliest commons can sometimes be more fun than drawing an identical card that was made by someone else. Normally this is the point where I tell you how to properly balance, word, or even cost a card, but this is not your average article and I am definately not your average person. Today I am here to answer some questions about the single most often abused part of custom Magic card design: Flavor.

What is Flavor?

Every part of every card you make should have flavor built into it. If it doesn't, people will infer flavor of their own which may or may not match your vision for your card. Flavor, quite simply, is the relation of the physical card to a story, character, spell, ability, or place attached to it. In other words it is the relation between the function of the card and the idea of the card.

Why Should We Have Flavor?
Flavor is for those individuals who look at a card as a window to the designer's fantasy world. A player should be able to glance at any set or block and notice some cohesion; custom sets are no exception. If a player looks deeper, he or she should see the designer's links and bridges between cards, characters, and places. If the designer has done an exceptionally thorough job, the player should be able to reach into the game world and extract a wealth of peoples, places, and events with stories of their own. In other words, flavor is meant for those players who want to see a full and believable world behind each and every Fireball.

How Does Flavor Fit Into Power/Cost?

Remember how I said I was not going to talk about these things? I will talk about these from the standpoint of flavor only. Instead of telling you that card X should cost Y less because card Z has been printed with a similar ability, I'm going to tell you that card X should be called card N because it has a game altering effect and calling it N will make it stick out in a crowd of Xs, Ys and Zs.

Fitting power/cost to flavor is not something we normally take into account when we make a custom card. Most custom cards are made on the spot, from start to finish when the idea first pops into our head. There is nothing wrong with spontaneously creating cards, but sometimes important design steps get skipped, neglected, or overlooked. This is one of the most often "overlooked" steps in designing a well-rounded card.

Events, items, people, places and things that are earth-shattering or awe-inspiring in your storyline should not be 1- or 2-mana spells. This is obvious on the larger scale, but when you start balancing the function of the card against the idea of the card it becomes a precise art. Don't be afraid to knock down that finisher to a cantrip to complete your idealistic world or make that Lava Spike into a Searing Wind. Since power and cost should go hand in hand, make sure the power and cost are still balanced after your card passes any flavor-tweaking.

How Do I Make Flavorful Abilities?
I will not talk about balance, function, or even originality of an ability. What I care about as far as abilities are concerned is that it matches the permanent or spell that it is representing. This, in many ways, is often a color pie issue, but flavor must also be taken into account. Does Heartless Hidetsugu’s ability fit in red? Sure. Does that ability make sense on Akki Avalanchers? Not really. When you are fitting abilities and linking these together with naming you need to make sure there is some cohesion. In the Kamigawa block the Akki seem to care a lot about land (Akki Avalanchers, Akki Raider, Ben-Ben, Akki Hermit, and Akki Blizzard-Herder all deal directly with your land) and thus their abilities all go together, but this doesn’t have to be true for every card. Goblin Cohort was reprinted in Kamigawa and thus is an Akki by artwork and flavor, but it cares about having creatures played often. Ishi-Ishi, Akki Crackshot is an Akki by name, but his abilities are different, yet they retain a very Red feel to them. Once you create a certain amount of similarities you need to make some things that don’t fit the mold. Although it is important to have a standard, it is equally important to deviate from that standard if you want to avoid having your set look formulaic and boring.

What Flavor Should Mechanics Have?

Over the time that I have spent making cards and writing things for different message boards, I have heard many arguments over the keywording of mechanics. I will not spend any time on this, as it is an issue on which you will have to form your own opinion. If you choose to leave all abilities non-keyworded, no matter how repetitive, that is your preference. However, keywording certain abilities in your set can be a very useful flavor tool. The clearest current example of this is the mechanic Bushido in the Kamigawa block. Bushido has been criticized as a boring, uninteresting and useless keyword, but from a flavor standpoint it shines brighter than Sunburst. Bushido goes right out and dips into the flavor of the block. How Bushido relates to the abilities on the card, along with the actual name of the mechanic, make it worth the extra word and tilted lettering.

What name should I have for my mechanic?
Your mechanic, should you choose to make it into a keyword, needs to be one, or very rarely two words that tie function and flavor into the web of your world. Although it is sometimes hard to see how Bushido {#} and {When this blocks or becomes blocked it gets +#/+# until end of turn} relates function-wise it is easy to see the flavor behind it. The thought the designers meant to impress on the players is that Samurai, or the creature with bushido, becomes stronger and harder to kill in combat. When you think about the fighter’s society in which the block is taking place this makes perfect sense.

Names for mechanic do, however, have to relate to the ability or function. Bushido, as some may know, is a Japanese code of honor or conduct that governs the way a samurai should live their lives (Actually I have done quite a bit of reading on this subject and there is more to it than this, including the fact that it was not meant exclusively for the samurai, but this is a fair approximation.) The most known and discussed part of Bushido are the rules that govern how a samurai should fight with honor. This is the link we needed. The name is referring partially to something that governs combat and it is a combat ability. Sometimes you can make it that vague and have it work wonders, although you may end up getting more flavor than function out of this name. Many times, that is all you need.

What Artwork Should I Use to Make it Flavorful?

This is, by far, the hardest topic. It has been proven through polls that people remember the pictures above all else. When players go to recognize a card or an array of cards, they quickly spot pictures they know. However, we generally do not have the luxury of making all the cards in our set look alike, and thus have to settle for getting close when it comes to artwork. Some people choose to not have artwork with their cards, which is perfectly acceptable, but others choose to use it when they playtest or display their sets for all to see. This following is for more artistically inclined readers.

How Do I Choose Flavorful Art if it is Not Done for My Card?
The most crucial aspect of this process comes to most designers intuitively. You want the artwork to look like the spell, effect, or creature that it represents, but there are a few pitfalls in the realm of card art. Here are a few topics and questions to ask yourself when looking for artwork. Read more about this topic here.

Resolution: Is this picture large enough so that when I put it on the card it will not get pixelated? What about if I crop out all but a small part; is that part pixelated?

Size: Is the artwork, or part of the artwork I want to use going to fit in the 2” by 1½” box that I'm putting it in? How much of that long, snake-like dragon can I fit on the card and still make it look good?

Colors: Does this use the colors that are easily associated with the color of the card I am putting the picture on? If not, is there a reason?

Note: Remember one of the major functions of the flavorful picture is to be easily identifiable. This, in terms of function, can speed up gameplay and deckbuilding. In terms of flavor, cards with cool pictures that fit the card are collectable.

Focus: Is the player's attention drawn to the part of the picture that relates it to the card? When the players look at this card will they notice the part of the picture that I want them to notice?

Throughout the article I have talked about a "storyline" that is taking place in a "world" behind the cards. Before I get to the most often seen part of flavor I'll stop and take a look at the story behind the cards.

I have this idea for a world with all these unique creatures, places and a whole story that I want to make for my set. How do I make my story fit the color wheel?

This is sometimes very easy, but sometimes it is very hard. What you need to remember is that both the color wheel and the story should be very flexible. There is a limit to how much you can twist the color wheel, and it is not something I can easily define and describe. Maybe I will do that in weeks to come, but to say the least the color wheel is something to be respected when making a set. The story’s limit is simple: believability. You want to make the story of a set somewhat plausible, with complex and interesting characters, or nobody will care. In truth, many people will still not care, but those compliments you get for writing a flavorful set from the happy few will far outweigh any ignorant people. The more believable the characters, the less stereotypical they are, the harder they will be to fit into the color wheel. But fear not. This is something that will provide the depth and linkage you need between characters. Seeing the twists in the characters in your stories through flavor text is the fun part. If you didn’t have any twists the characters would be unilateral and boring. Don’t be afraid to tweak the wheel for the sake of the story or completely rewrite the story to fit the wheel.

How do I make divisions in my world between the colors?

Part of this lies in the philosophies of the character, but the easiest thing to do is to divide the colors into countries, groups, or races. This is entirely up to you, but clear divisions in the storyline are much easier to adapt into the color wheel than divisions that are more abstract. One can easily see why Maga and Masumaro might not be the best of friends, but knowing that Nikko-Onna and Yuki-Onna are enemy-colored is a little harder to determine when Rending Vines is neither color. Make your lines clear or give a reason why the lines are obscure. If the entire plane is a giant struggle between two diverse enemies (Kamigawa), then you will need to design around this idea.

How Much Flavor Should I Make for a Set?

The answer to this is simple: as much as you want. There is a certain amount of flavor that is necessary to show that you put some work into it. Sometimes people write entire books, or giant stories about different characters, and the story of the people of the world in which the set takes place. This is something that is entirely up to you. This, in the end, is all meant for fun, so make this set yours. Are you the type of player who likes to see the rough lines drawn and then let the functions and the mechanics of the set churn into a complex metagame that can survive on the minimum flavor? Are you the type of person who will spend fifteen minutes on the hair colors of the different races and the religions of the different regions? I, personally, am a flavor writer and I will get into what flavor writing really means in a moment. You can have as much flavor as you want but make sure you follow these simple rules:

1) Do not make all the print on your cards tiny for the sake of having flavor text on each one. Sometimes flavor text just isn’t supposed to go on a card; sometimes flavor text is the only thing there. Never leave a blank box.

2) Have at least minimal flavor. Make things match in name, type, color and ability if nothing else. If there is no plot, make them think there might be a world in there somewhere.

3) Do not hide the cards. One of the key mistakes that flavorful set writers make is hiding the cards from the people. This is a bad plan. There are three generally accepted means for which flavor writing can be presented:

Method 1: The Setting Method
This method tells the person what they need to know about the set’s storyline and flavor right up front so that they can delve right into the cards. This is accomplished by putting all your storyline material first. There is a golden rule to keep in mind when using any of these methods: Do not separate the story from the set and do not delay release of the set until after the story. This is common in the second and fourth types of flavor writing.

Method 2: The Breather Method
This method does not have to start at the beginning. Basically the breather method is a hybrid of the In-Text and Setting methods. Generally cards will be accompanied with an outline or part of the story, but the focus is clear separation.

Method 3: Case-by-Case Method
This method is similar to the Breather method. In this method the focus is on explaining where the card’s flavor is coming from directly instead of inferring it or explaining it through text. The card is used as a base point and the flavor is explained using it. This will look like the reverse of the earlier methods.

Method 4: The In-Text Method
The In-text method is common in the third type of flavor writing. Basically you tell the story through the eyes of the characters and then introduce the cards as you go along. The key to this type of writing is making clear distinctions between the story and the card. I use italics to separate the two as well as a space. There are many advantages to this method, and this is the one I recommend. It appeals to people who want to read the story by itself who can just skip the cards, it appeals to those who want to read the cards who will skip the italics, and it appeals to those who enjoy seeing both.

What is Flavor Writing and What Are the Different Types?

Flavor writing is extra writing that has nothing to do with how the game functions. The most common and known flavor writing is flavor text. This writing can take the form of small quotes linked to characters and only in the flavor text. It can also be in summary or story form. I will list the methods in order of difficulty, and thus frequency.

Method 1: Straight Flavor Text
This is the easiest and quickest method. All you need for this method is cohesion between your races, classes, and colors. Relating things through flavor text is secondary to making it sound and look cool to the casual flavor reader. When you make a set like this you don’t have to make the depth as apparent, because there may not be the depth of some of the other types of sets. This is fine, but your set will be a functional set, more than a flavorful set.

Method 2: The Glossary or Outline
This method tends to be most often used by groups of designers and often by Wizards themselves. Instead of explaining yourself in a literary way you can list the important events, characters, places, and terms so that people can look up what you mean by them. This helps get an idea of a world, and an elaborate Glossary or Outline can have as much depth as the next two methods. If you want to make your world and let the imagination of your readers develop the mindsets of the people from the information, then this is your method.

Method 3: The Story
Currently seems to have fallen in love with this method. For examples see “Meet the Champions,” “Meet the Betrayers,” and "Meet the Saviors." The story version shows the world of the set through the eyes or lives of some of the characters. Commonly this will be a collection of stories from several different people, with several different writing styles. Sometimes however this can be an elaborate, almost novel length story that explores the entire world. If you like showing off your literary talents, use this method. Giving excerpts from the lives of the people of your world and their heroes can be an effective way to show how much effort you put into their cultures.

Method 4: The Full Text
This is the hardest and most rarely done version. Although some sets have half-text versions, it is rare to see someone go into the depth that can be really achieved with this method. The Full Text is an in-depth account of the storyline and world of your set. If you are using this method then you are trying to live up to the books about actual Magic: the Gathering worlds. This is a mixture of the second and third methods. While the story will be influenced by the personal feelings of the character and the outline can seem impersonal, the full text is putting the two together to get the best of both worlds. This will be, basically, a historian’s account of the world. Although it will be in the form of an outline, the historian will place emphasis on the parts that he/she finds the most pertinent to the section or topic being discussed.

Now that I have covered the things that most people don't think twice about, let's talk about the first thing the general Magic public thinks about when I say the word "flavor".

How do I Write Flavor Text?

You know that little italicized text at the bottom of the card that many people think is for “coolness”? In actuality that little blurp on the bottom of the card is the flavorful set designer’s most useful tool. Some flavor texts you just have to remember after you read them, like Only in mirrors do heroes find their equal. and Rise like the sun, stand like the mountain, charge like the lion, die as a hero.. These quotes stick out in your mind and you remember the card and/or feeling of the card because of it. The flavor text is the set designer’s bridge, their gateway, between card and our world, between card and card and even between the physical card and the idea of a card.

Rules for Flavor text:

1) Be succinct. Try to keep your word count to a minimum. Sometimes you need more words to convey what you are looking for, and this is fine, but do not let your ambitions for displaying the world you spent so much time on get the better of you. Do not try and write a novel through flavor text. Remember, we want people to remember your flavor text and one or two lines is easier to remember than ten as well as being easier to read on the card.

Ogres use the blood of the onis whom they serve to cast spells. They can, however, use the blood of other things if available. You just so happen to be available.

Can be edited to:
I prefer to weave my magic through oni blood, but yours will do in a pinch.

Sometimes long quotes are good. If you have enough room to use a large quote that will truely show the world, use it. A good example of this is Yukora, the Prisoner.

2) Set the Mood. One thing you need to decide about different cards and their flavor text is the mood. Is this world a dark and serious world, fraught with danger and evil? Does everyone speak like they are reciting Shakespeare or Dr. Seuss? You can make this serious, facetious, or a mixture. Having a mixture is a delicate balance and one to not be taken lightly. While a plethora of funny, non-serious quotes can turn normally serious quotes silly, the same is rarely true for the inverse. A multitude of serious quotes will serve to accentuate the non-serious quotes in the set, should you choose to use them.

3) Make it Flow. Make sure the words you use make the reader want to read the text. Often you will want to use the exact words you used for a reason; make the reader believe that. If you write quotes that either flow off the tongue, or, in rare cases, throw the speaker off completely, it will be much better than anything in between. Editing is your weapon of choice here.
She rides a beast she borrowed, and wears another’s armor, but she is brave just the same.

Can be edited to

Her armor and steed were borrowed, but her courage was hers alone.

4) Tone it up a bit. When you write your flavor text, remember the color wheel. You want to convey the color’s values through the cards. What may seem like a great quote for the thing represented on the card may not fit the color or the philosophies behind that card’s color or alignment. Do not make a Black card with Blue flavor text. Remember when creating a set we will be expanding and defining the color wheel, so choose carefully.

When it’s finished, all that’s left of you is a ripple on a still pond.

Is made into

When it’s finished, all that’s left of you is a ripple on a still pond.

The example I choose was chosen for a reason. I discussed this particular example with someone who works at Wizards and it shows something that can be stretched into either color normally, but really defines a color and the flavor of a set when used correctly.

Notice that even the Genju of the Fens' artwork contains a pond.

5) Consistency; stir out the chunks in the color pie. All the cards in a specific color need to not only fit the color’s philosophies, but the philosophies of the color in the set, and thus each other. When you make a “group” of people, make sure that they go together. Great examples of this are the black and red Ogres. All the Ogres have abilities and text that more or less fit into one another. Your flavor text should fit together as well as your names and abilities are grouped together, although in a completely different sense.

What are the Types of Flavor Text?
1)The “Real” World Quote (Naturalize, Boomerang)
Wizards is moving away from this avenue for flavor reasons. The only place that real world quotes will be printed from this point on is in core sets. When you make a set you want to make it new, unique, and interesting. Although a quote from the real world may fit, it would seem odd to have it in a completely different world. In contrast it is really cool to notice some classic lines fit with something that it was obviously not meant for. Since we aren’t Wizards we can make the choice, whichever you choose will not be wrong. I prefer to not use Real World Quotes.
2)The “Setting” Quote (Bloodscent, Plated Slagwurm)
These show the attitude of a nation, organization, race, or place. Bloodscent shows in a non-serious way the danger of creatures in the tangle while Plated Slagwurm’s quote shows a very serious implied danger. Some people will enjoy the less serious quotes like Bloodscent, others will want many of the Plated Slagwurm’s more serious side. This all fits into how serious you are making your set.
3)The “Tome” Excerpt (Mark of the Oni, Scourge of Numai)
Referring to things in books or in speech makes the world seem more real. “The History of Kamigawa” part of these quotes makes you infer that people must have written these histories. This technique gives the designers a “one-step removal” from the actual words. In other words, it makes it seem to the reader that you are showing them this rich, pre-created world instead of making it up as you go along.
4)The “Character” quote (Glissa Sunseeker, Hero's Demise)
You will have heroes in your world and these heroes will do and say things that define them. These heroes will most likely fall into an archetype right away and you can use the quotes to break them away from the archetype and make them have more depth than they would otherwise. We know from these quotes that Glissa is truly searching for something more than the sun and that Sensei Hisoka worries about appearing arrogant.
5) The “Twist” Quote (Creeping Mold)
There are many examples of a “twist” quote and they can easily fall into another category. Twist quotes are often the most fun. All you need for a twist quote is an inferred idea or allusion that is changed in the text. Creeping Mold starts to make you think that it will talk about something like a Slagwurm, since those are obviously dangerous, but switches to the “smallest organism,” or the mold, which links the text to the card. Twist quotes can also be plays on words or other small literary tricks.

Starting to get a little more into the Flavor of things? Well I guess it is time to dig really deep and show the Flavor of things through each type of card. My favorite type of
**Insert random computer error sound**

Well, ladies and gentleman, that was the 50 word warning bell for this article. I guess it is time for me to go, but I shall return with more flavorful nonsense in Custom Catering: After Taste.

Until next time, may all your hero's tell epics and all your stories spawn cards.


(I'm such a rebel, I used 51 words after the warning.)
Editing by Goblinboy and Binary
Banners and art by Overlord UNKNOWN and iloveatogs


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