#1 - "Welcome home!" (A custom card design guide: introduction)

(The banner is my own elaboration. The original image is by Holly Chaffin and is released in the public domain.)

The Lion’s Lair #1

“Welcome home!”

(A custom card design guide: introduction)

(This article was originally published here.)



The article index is always updated with the latest content.



Alright, so I’ve finally decided to take matters into my own hands, as the saying goes.

Introductions are in order

I guess I should start by introducing myself. My username here on MTG Salvation, and also on almost every other Internet site on the face of the earth, is bravelion83. I have British origins but I am Italian, so I’m a native Italian speaker and English is only my second language, so I apologize in advance for any mistakes I might make. I’ve been born, I’ve always lived and I still live near Florence. I’ve been a Magic player since October 2005, when original Ravnica was the most recent set. In fact, my first deck ever was the Boros preconstructed deck from that set, which I soon tried to adapt to Kamigawa/Ravnica Standard.

Then, Time Spiral came out, and it was a blast for me! I had been playing for just a year, but man, did I love that block! The reasons were mainly two: all the intricacies of the design (you can see I’m an almost pure Melvin), and the fact that by bringing so many keywords back, it let me get up to date with most of Magic’s past by playing it with my own hands. In that period, I went to what has been my only major event to this day: GP Florence in 2007. A Grand Prix took place right in my hometown: how could I not go? I went there with a friend I had back then and an horrible monogreen deck (I hadn’t much of a competitive mindset yet at that time). Anyway, I had a lot of fun at that event, and now I’m looking to go to the next Grand Prix in Florence, which will take place next May, in just a few months.

In Lorwyn/Alara and Alara/Zendikar Standard I played the infamous Jund deck with Bloodbraid Elf and Blightning, and up to this day it was my favourite deck ever to play in Standard, and I liked it so much that I actually enjoyed also playing against it. As you can see, I’ve never been a control player. Trust me, I’ve tried, and it’s just not my style. Usually, I’m the one who wants to attack and be proactive, that’s just the style of playing that I’m naturally inclined towards. My first prerelease was for Morningtide, and my last for Avacyn Restored. I’m talking about paper Magic, after AVR I played almost exclusively online, which I still do when I can (and guess what my username is on MTGO too).

Now, I would like to point out right away that I’m NOT in any way a professional game designer. I’ve been studying chemistry for twelve years, getting a certificate and two degrees in that area, so technically that’s my field. I’ve learned most of what I know about game design, and MTG design specifically, from Mark Rosewater, reading his column regularly each Monday since shortly after I started playing, reading Blogatog, and listening to Drive to Work. I’ve learned the rest from direct experience, both playing actual Magic and designing custom cards and a few custom sets for fun in my spare time since I started lurking these boards, which is when Time Spiral was the most recent set. Then in 2010 I signed up, because I wanted to check some threads in the Market Street subforum, which in the meantime became visible only to members, but I didn’t actively post until a few months ago.

I want to stress this again: I have no school or professional title whatsoever in game design. All I have is a victory in the MCC last October, if you want to count that, followed by three months as a judge (November, December, and now January) and one as organizer (December). Thus my opinions, which I am going to explain in this series, are just my own and come from the experience I just talked about. I apologize with the professional game designers which I know frequent these boards if sometimes I may say something stupid or just flat wrong. I’ll do my best. Again, this is not my job, it’s just my passion, and I very much respect the word of those more experienced and qualified than I am. I want this to be very clear before I start. Which brings me to my next point.

Why am I doing this?

One could say: if you’re not a professional game designer, than who are you to say how custom card design should be done? And the answer is simple: I’m nobody. I’m just an ordinary person who, also in real life, craves structure and tries to apply his own logic and intelligence in every situation, and by using those means I realized something. By the way, I wasn’t the only one to notice what I did. In fact, the user Doombringer wrote this in a thread in Custom Card Creation a few weeks ago:

Quote from Doombringer »
I've recently been realizing that the community here is in need of more guides, primers and articles dedicated to custom magic card design as I feel like the range of knowledge in the community has this huge gap between the long time designers and those who have fun making and commenting on cards but often find it difficult to find info on things like playtesting, creating commons and set skeletons.

I found this while looking for a place to post what eventually became this very article. As I read this, I saw that I wasn’t alone in noticing that “huge gap of knowledge”, to quote Doombringer’s words. I didn’t notice it much while lurking. It was doing critiques for the CCL and mostly being a judge in the MCC that made me see it very clearly: the huge gap between experienced custom card designers and those doing it “just for fun”. That’s what prompted me to ask myself what could I personally do to help with that, and I came up with the idea of writing something myself. Then, a couple discussions via pm with two members of these boards (they know who they are) led me to think there may actually be some interest in this.

In practice, me and Doombringer came to the same exact conclusion: “the community here is in need of more guides, primers and articles dedicated to custom magic card design” because “knowledge in the community has this huge gap between the long time designers and those who [do it just for] fun”. This led both of us to do something about it: he did a podcast, and I’m doing this. By the way, this may be a good place to mention “Re-Making Magic”, Reuben Covington (Doombringer)’s and Dan Felder (Stairc)’s podcast that I’m talking about. I can’t recommend this enough to everyone even remotely interested in custom card design (what I’m going to talk specifically here), and also just generic game design. In fact, they chose to talk about broader topics ranging everywhere about game design, alternating them with more specific custom card segments. That’s a very good approach, and I like it, but that’s better suited for professional game designers, which they are. I wouldn’t be able to do something like that myself. I’m going to follow a different approach here.

Splitting hairs

Starting with the realization above, I thought to split the whole group of all custom card designers into three subgroups:
• The experienced custom card designers, or “long time designers” as Doombringer defined them. These don’t need articles and guides to get better in something they are already very good at.
• The less experienced custom card designers that would like to get better, but don’t have or can’t find the resources to do it. They will be the ones most interested in such articles and guides.
• The less experienced custom card designers that do it just for fun and don’t care about getting better. Since those don’t care about getting better, they don’t either care about articles and guides meant to help you get better.

If the first group doesn’t need it, and the last group doesn’t want it, I’m left with the middle group. They are those I’m doing this for. They are the intended audience for this series. This is for those that would like to get better but have no idea how to do it.

Given this, I’m going with a different approach: I’ll be focusing mostly and specifically about custom MTG card design. I don’t have the competence and expertise to do anything more. If you’re looking for something broader about game design in general, I strongly recommend you to check out Reuben and Dan’s podcast or other resources that may be available online. If instead you’re looking for something specific about custom card design, welcome home!

A warning for more experienced custom card designers: sometimes I’m going to say or explain something you may already know. I apologize, but that’s inevitable given my intended audience. They may not know what you already know. Well, maybe I don’t even know myself something you already know.

The contests

I’m sure everyone here is familiar with the contests held in this subforum, but let me reiterate that to make sure everyone is on the same ground, even those who may have arrived here by chance. In the Custom Card Creation forum, two main things happen: people design single custom cards (Custom Card Creation) or whole custom sets (Custom Set Creation) and are looking for feedback about them, and custom card contests are held (Custom Card Contests and Games, CCCG for short). While single designs can be very interesting, they may have a lot of different goals and I will not be focusing on those to start. Contests necessarily have more of a defined structure. They also have a competitive approach: who designs the best card wins. But here we come to the first point: how can a custom card be determined to be better than others? Each of the three main contests has its own way. I’ll list them here from the one with the loosest criteria up to the one with the strictest:

• The Daily Card Contest (DCC), where anyone can post one card each day while at the same time voting for two of the cards posted the day before. Here the criteria is simple: “I like this card more than the others”. Everyone can vote for the cards he or she wants for the reasons he or she wants. In fact, you’re not even required to give a reason for your votes. There’s nothing wrong with a system like this, but it’s very subjective and thus not fit for a discussion that looks to be the most objective possible.

• The Card Creation League (CCL), where you design cards for a specific challenge and are judged by (usually) six other people among the participants themselves. You will judge six other cards and your card will be judged by six other people. You critique the cards you’re assigned to judge and then rank them into a top 3, from which total scores are determined. That’s more of a defined structure, but still vague, as it’s open to the subjectivity of players in the critiques.

• The Monthly Card Contest (MCC), where you design cards for a specific main challenge and two additional challenges (also called “subchallenges”) and are judged by people who volunteered to judge but do not play. Those judges follow a specific rubric in their judgings, which is very detailed and, while still leaving some subjectivity to the judges, is the most objective thing that exists here for judging custom cards.

The rubric

For these reasons, and also because that’s where my experience is stronger, I think the best thing to do is to take the single points from the MCC rubric and use them as the starting point for a discussion as deep and thorough as I can about the Magic design concepts they’re based on. I’ll try to explain my views and advice about them, also taking inspiration from what I’m usually looking for in them as an MCC judge. The rubric, for those that don’t know it, is as follows:

Design (X/10)This reflects the work put into the initial concept of the card.
Creativity – How original or innovative is the card? Does it present an old idea with a new twist? Does it employ an entirely new mechanic?
Elegance – Is the concept easily understood at a glance? Does the design just 'click' with the flavor?
Potential – Will different player demographics (Spike/Johnny/Timmy) find a use for this card? Does it stand out as a card to build a deck around?

Development (X/10)This reflects the execution of the idea, fleshing it into a playable card.
Viability – How well does this card fit into the color wheel? Does it break or bend the rules of the game? Is it at the appropriate rarity?
Balance – Does the card's cost match its power? How balanced are its interactions with other cards? Can it be played in constructed, limited, or multiplayer without breaking any of those formats?
Creative Writing – Does the name sound like it fits on a card? Does the flavor text feel natural and professional? Does the combination of name, flavor text, and card concept make Vorthos spout poetry?

PolishThis reflects the finishing touches made to the card, polishing it to an end product that could see print.
Challenge (X/2) – One point awarded per satisfied challenge condition.
Quality (X/3) – Points deducted for incorrect spelling, grammar, and templating.

Total: X/25

Analyzing these points and questions is a very good starting point to talk about a lot of MTG design concepts, all of which will help you get better as a custom card designer, if that’s what you want to do (and if you read up to this point, I assume and hope you want to do that). In fact, “Potential” gives us the opportunity to talk about the player psychographics, “Viability” about the color pie (which effects belong in which colors and at which rarity, which colors are primary, secondary and tertiary in an ability, and so on), “Balance” about costing spells and abilities, and “Quality” about proper templating. I won’t necessarily follow the order of the rubric, that’s just meant to give us a good starting point for our discussion. Also, for the moment I’m going to focus on single cards, as the design of a whole custom set is a different and much more difficult topic. I don’t exclude to write about that too in the future, but not for now.

The first lessons

Also note that this rubric, while born for the MCC, is good for evaluating every custom card, not only those posted in the contest. Obviously you’re not giving points and scores in that case, but the questions proposed there are a very useful guide for that purpose too. I actually think they may be very helpful also in evaluating new real cards as they’re spoiled, as it’s happening with Fate Reforged right now, even if I feel there is another problem there.

Often, in discussing new cards, disagreements can arise, and most often will. This happens a lot in the Rumor Mill, obviously. But I think that in those cases it’s often a problem of basing your opinion on certain assumptions without explicitly making them clear. For example, let’s say a new card is spoiled and it’s very good in Limited but bad in Standard. If person A simply says “this card is very good!”, he or she could receive answers from person B going anywhere from civil answers like “what are you saying, this card is not good at all” up to outright trolling. And all of this because person A was talking about Limited without saying it, and person B was talking about Standard without saying it. Each of them assumed the other was evaluating the card in the same exact way and for the same exact format he or she was thinking about (without saying it). Do you notice anything here? But yes, the “without saying it” part! This applies very often to discussion about new cards: one talks about Limited and the other about Standard, one about Commander and the other about Modern, one about Legacy or Vintage and the other about casual kitchen play, but everyone without saying it. This brings to our first lesson, which applies to custom card design too (just check out “Balance” in the rubric): card evaluation is very dependent on the format you’re considering. That’s why under “Balance” you can find explicit mentions of Limited, Constructed, and multiplayer formats.

It’s not easy to design a card that’s playable in all formats, and in fact it may not be possible at all. But anyway, it’s not what you should aim for. Not every real card is designed for Constructed, and in fact usually only a tiny percentage of the cards in any given set gets played in Standard, let alone bigger formats. While we naturally tend as custom card designers to want our cards to be big and splashy, so that they can easily catch other people’s attention, there’s also a lot of value in designing a nice, simple common card with an effect that doesn’t already exist by itself on a card. For example, did you know that this card:

Sorcery (C)
Each player discards a card.

doesn’t exist yet? The closest is Delirium Skeins. I discovered that lately in a contest, I can’t remember which one, and I was impressed. I think we’ve got another lesson here: a custom card designer should not only be able to design big and splashy cards, but also simple cards with a low word count.

Signing out

And speaking of word count, I’ve almost reached the limit I was aiming for. I’m taking the word count of MaRo’s Making Magic articles as a reference, which I’ve determined to be around 3,000 words (thanks Word!). By the way, the articles from MaRo are an excellent resource that you should definitely check out if you want to get better at Magic design, and that obviously includes custom card design. Next time (whenever it will be, I have not yet decided how often to make these), I will start analyzing in detail some meatier topic taking inspiration from the MCC rubric (probably the color pie).

Until next time,


(It’s the first time ever I’m doing something like this and I’m doing it with the best intentions. Please be nice...)