A primer on set skeletons, archetypes and mana curves.
This is a primer on Set Skeletons and Set Architecture to help inform magic players and custom card creators what these concepts are and how to apply them.
My aim is to make this guide necessary reading for anyone starting a new custom set to help avoid common pitfalls that even experienced designers can miss.
This guide may still be a little rough so feel free to ask questions, give suggestions or point out any errors.
I started writing this primer while taking a short break over the christmas period on my current custom set Dreamscape of Noctus. During this time I was both looking back at the problems from my earlier project Coins of Mercalis as well as providing a lot of feedback to members of this forum that were posting up large amounts of commons for critique.
What I noticed as the biggest failing aside from NWO issues (that I covered in my previous primer) was a lack of mana curve and draft archetypes among the colors, leading to very haphazard draft environments that often missed something as simple as having a two drop creature in white.
While seemingly minor mistakes when reviewing a set, this lead to a incredibly disappointing gameplay during both mental and physical playtests.
So then what is this primer?
Its a guide to applying a sophisticated design skeleton to your custom that not only deals with card numbers and color balance but also addresses archetype, mana curves, and much more to drastically improve both the quality and organization of your next custom card set project.
Q: What is a design skeleton? A: Basically a blueprint for your set, to organize and plan out all the details that go into such a significant undertaking.
Mark Rosewater (The Head Designer of MTG) goes into detail about design skeletons in his Nuts and Bolts article.
Ok well how do I create one?
You don't have to!
A big part of what I wanted to do with this article is create a design skeleton template that has all the basics (and more) to allow you to design better sets.
BLANK LARGE MAGIC:THE GATHERING SET DESIGN SKELETON
A useful guideline to creating your own custom magic set
This resource is tailored for a Mono colored set, rearrange accordingly for sets with higher multicolored or colorless components.
Contact Reuben Covington:
Red Flag Reminders
- Does it affect other permanents?
- 4 or more lines of rules text?
- need to be read twice?
- Card advantage
- Multiple card kill
- Do you create a loop?
- Needed in numbers?
- rules issues
//What draft archetypes are each color aiming for? Archetype Overview:
//Each color wants to have a certain number of common creatures
//Below is the RECOMMENDED number of common creatures for each color and CMC slot.
//Defenders or zero power creatures DO NOT occupy creature slots.
//Spells that create creature tokens DO occupy creature slots.
How do I use this?
The rest of this primer will be dedicated to walking you through each section of my set skeleton.
Note that any line starting with "//" is a comment or heading.
Also note that this example design skeleton is for a simple monocolored set and will require modification for more heavily multicolored/colorless sets.
If you would like me to provide different version of this skeleton let me know and I'll consider making a few variations.
Mechanics Overview: The core of a lot of sets is the new mechanical keywords and ability words. This top section provides a quick reference to your mechanics and the colors they belong in.
For example in my Dreamscape of Noctus Design skeleton I have the following.
This allows me to quickly check that the primary colors for each mechanic have at least 1 or 2 cards at common.
Red Flagging Overview
This provides a quick checklist of red flagging conditions without having to reread my NWO primer or other references.
Making sure you apply this checklist against EVERY COMMON will save you a lot of mistakes and criticism when showcasing your commons.
This also allows you to keep track of the number of red flagged cards to stay well within your complexity budget.
Draft Archetype overview
Ok now we start getting to the important stuff.
Unless you have a extremely warped color environment (such as KTK not supporting allied color decks) you should have a rough idea of the archetypes for EVERY TWO COLOR PAIR.
This is a large part of maintaining a fun and repayable limited environment and helps cut down on new player confusion by leading them down pre-arranged paths that you have hopefully guaranteed are fun.
Now these can be as simple as W/U tempo (as showcased in a recent Dreamscape Thread) or as complex as the Red/Green storm/Suspend deck found in modern masters.
For examples of some different archetypes from previous sets check out My Coins of Mercalis overview, the Modern Masters articles (part 1 & part 2)
So how do I create these archetypes?
Creating archetypes comes down to a few mains things:
Supporting the Archetype at Common
Have cards that the archetype wants a lot more than other archetypes
Creating powerful or splashy cards at uncommon that reward the archetype.
Having playable cards on the mana curve.
To support your archetypes you need commons. Just like set themes, developmental themes simply don't work if not at common.
This means if you have a two color pair such as Red/White you want at least three commons spread over those colors.
Now the important part is to try and create at least 1 card at common that is good in that archetype but isn't as good elsewhere. This is so that is doesn't get picked up early by other drafters.
You can do this crudely with cards such as Agent of Horizons that simply uses off color activations or as subtly as a card like Satyr Wayfinder helping Red/Green monster decks.
Next you want to have uncommons that are obvious build around or support cards for an archetype to allow for players to pick it up early and use that to make a decision to go into the archetype. Examples are multicolored cards like Chronicler of Heroes or Chief of the Edge, off color cards with crazy interactions such as the famous Spider Spawning or cards that explicitly reward certain behavior such as Burning Vengence or Flamespeaker Adept.
Finally a deck doesn't work without a decent mana curve. We need to recognize this and make sure the cards that our archetypes want are spread out along the mana curve and can create a really fun series of plays if we do curve out perfectly. Something like the black/white warrior deck in KTK can quickly cast Mardu Hateblade into Chief of the Edge and finally Mardu Hordechief to create a devastating play that is extremely fun, thus rewarding the player for playing that archetype.
Note that not all curves need to start at 1 cmc. Your more controlling decks may not have any amazing cards until turn 3 but be aware that you don't want an archetype to live or die off of their 5 or 6 drops. Instead focus on the cards in the 1-4cmc range as this will allow for the most consistent plays.
Note that not all archetypes need to be equally supported. Some will be stronger that others. If you are finding this the case maybe think about adding one or two sideboard cards that can allow crafty limited players to combat this and thus keep the limited environment fresh.
Similar to how you need to worry about creature curves for each archetype. Each color needs a certain number of creatures and for those creatures to create a mana curve. If white has no two drops it is unlikely to be very fun to play. While if green has too many 5 or 6 drops then it can find itself scarce on options during the draft.
In my set skeleton I've provided a recommended curve, size and number outlines for each color created by looking at some of the recent sets such as Theros and RTR as well as some of the best draft sets ever such as Innistrad.
Notice that each color has a different number of creature slots in total. This is normal and is a fundamental part of showing the color pie in limited environments.
Also be aware that if you have alternate cost or cost reducing mechanics such as Delve or Kicker then you will need to take this into account when planning your card mana curves.
Just a reminder on creature sizes
Small: 0/1 -> 2/3
Medium: 3/3 -> 4/5
While the total slots and the number at each mana cost shouldn't be tampered with too much unless you know what your doing the recommended sizes can vary a bit based on the mechanics and needs of your set. Eg: Theros tends to have slightly more large and medium creatures in green and red to support the R/G monsters theme.
Total card mana distribution
Similar to the creature slot mana curve considerations except that non-creature spells have more leniency in where you place them. Having a good creature curve is vital. Having a good spell curve isn't. This is due to instants, enchantments and similar effects are not played straight away. Often you are waiting for the correct time to get the most value or need to play a creature before you can play your combat trick etc.
However if you mana costs are very different to my guidelines then this should set off warning bells that you may not have otherwised notice.
The actual skeleton part
Finally the last half of the design skeleton template is a full ready to fill out design skeleton for all your commons.
For more information on filling this out reread Mark Rosewaters articles of the subject.
If you have filled out the previous sections this should be a simple copy paste job of the names of your cards and maybe what archetype they belong in and what size and abilities they have.
I hope that this is a useful tool to help organize your next custom set and hopefully give you a better understanding of mana curves, archetypes and how a set sekelton can help,
If you have any questions/commons let me know.
I'd love to hear if you use this for any projects.
Also would you guys like me to post the a filled out example such as my Dreamscape of Noctus design skeleton?
One extension to this primer that would be nice is if it also included a small set skeleton. I've seen a lot of large set skeletons in the past, but very little talk is devoted to small sets. Obviously the aim is to keep ratios as similar as possible, but a lot of sections ride the edge between .4 and .6 in hard calculation. I spent a bit of time after reading this primer to create set skeleton files in MSE2, one for large sets and one for small sets. I've included the raw forum exports for those below on the offchance they'll help anyone (colors are in alphabetic order instead of WUBRG). If anyone notices an error in them, I'll happily correct it.
Tables work and look best. So it's easier to work with spreadsheet editor. You could even have multiple sheets, one for cards, one for skeleton, and have them link to each other via functions and macros.
http://www.magicmultiverse.net/ also lets you make skeletons for your set. It even has some sample skeletons from real sets. So you get a good base to start from.
One thing that really raised my eyebrows: Why wouldn't Archer's Parapet take up a creature slot? It is a keystone creature in an entire archetype (more than one, actually) and it even deals damage to players. Why would Triton Shorethief take up a slot, but parapet wouldn't?
While Archer's Parapet can deal damage to players it cannot deal damage while blocking AND it can't join in on an attack due to having defender. To be able to apply for a creature slot you need to roughly:
Be able to attack
Have at least 1 power (when attacking)
Have at least 1 power (when blocking)
The important part here is Interaction. Creatures are the most interactive and decision dense cards in magic which is what you want to capture in these creature slots.
This is awesome and I know it will be super useful! Thank you very much for all of the hard work you did in putting this together, Reuben!
About what percentage of creatures are you aiming for in this skeleton? In his Nuts and Bolts article, Maro says that a set should be around 50% creatures, but it looks like the creature percentage in your skeleton is a good bit higher that. I'm not criticising this discrepancy, I'm just curious regarding your thoughts on that. (Also, I would like to note that the article I mentioned is over 5 years old this point, so I wouldn't be surprised if it's dated now.)
I can't find the exact article right now but a more recent article had updated percentages. (I think it was a development article)
I also looked at the more recent sets to double check the numbers.
I should probably mention that the slots in my design skeleton are for the number of creatures but not the number of slots that count as creatures.
Eg: A wall like Wall of Swords is a creature in the set skeleton but not a creature slot in the mana curve. While Raise the alarm is an instant but counts as a creature slot for curve considerations.
I'll update the primer with more final numbers and an explanation when I get time.