#4 - "The price is right" (A custom card design guide: mana and mana costs)

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

The Lion’s Lair #4

“The price is right”

(A custom card design guide: mana and mana costs)


(This article was originally published here.)


The article index is always updated with the latest content.


Today we’ll talk about the mana system and its importance in the game, then we’ll take a look at how much mana some common effects usually cost and how we can estimate how much a new card needs to cost. Let’s start!

Some more gold

In my second article, I mentioned how the color pie is part of the so-called “Golden Trifecta”, that is the three ideas by Richard Garfield that are the foundation of the game. The mana system is also part of the Golden Trifecta, and this marks its importance in Magic. For the record, the third one is the “trading card game” genre.

The mana system is based on the idea of a resource (mana) that you need to cast your spells, but that is limited. This has many consequences. First, you can’t have infinite mana, which limits your ability to cast multiple spells all at once. Then, as you can normally play only one land each turn, it works as a sort of clock in the game, forcing you to wait until the late game to cast your most powerful spells and producing a window of time, the early game, when weaker spells can also matter. In this way, the mana system acts as a way to balance low-cost and high-cost spells: the former are weaker but they can be cast earlier, while the latter are more powerful but they can’t be cast until later in the game.

Another thing the mana system does is to introduce additional restrictions in deckbuilding, making it more meaningful: you have to decide how many lands and how many spells you want in your deck, and often that’s not so trivial. You can have the most powerful spells ever in your deck, but if you have only those and no lands in your deck, you will never get to cast them. At the contrary, if you only have lands in your deck, you will have no spells to cast. These are extreme cases, but they serve to get the point across. But even if you have the perfect mix of spells and lands in your deck, you won’t always draw those in the right order or in the right proportions. Thus, the mana system also introduces an element of randomness in the game, and randomness is important because it produces variance, making each game play differently from one another. This also generates mana flood and mana screw, which while frustrating are a necessary part of the game, both because they give the chance for a weaker player to sometimes beat a stronger player, making the outcome of a match less predictable, and because they are a scapegoat that weaker players can blame their losses on. These are all reasons why the mana system is so important in the game, and there are probably more that I’m forgetting right now.

Jack of all trades

One thing we should always remember is the difference between design and development, that is conveniently highlighted in the MCC rubric:

Design (X/10)This reflects the work put into the initial concept of the card.
Development (X/10)This reflects the execution of the idea, fleshing it into a playable card.

Design comes up with the initial idea, while development properly executes it. Card costing is more development than design, so it usually comes later in the card creation process. In fact, in the real R&D every card is costed to be playable in design, than development decides which cards to push and which need to cost more instead. The fact is that while WotC can afford having separate teams (and not only design and development, but also creative, editors, etc...), we as custom card designers don't have that luxury. We must do it all by ourselves. Each of us has to be designer, developer, creative, editor, etc... at the same time. In this, our job is even harder than that of a designer or developer in R&D, that can specialize more in a single aspect!

The MCC rubric correctly includes card costing in development, as the first question in “Balance”:

Balance – Does the card's cost match its power?

The way the question is posed reflects what I was talking about a few paragraphs ago: a card that costs more is more powerful but you need to wait more to cast it. This has an important consequence, that we can understand by asking ourselves: how much is a one mana difference in terms of turns? Which one is bigger: the difference between a one mana spell and a two mana one, or that between a seven mana spell and an eight mana one? Interestingly, they’re not equal. The former is smaller than the latter, and that’s because of how much it takes in the game to reach that threshold of mana. You will be always able to cast a one-drop on turn one if you have it in your opening hand (if you’re not able to do that, you have some problem with mulligans) and you will very often be able to cast a two-drop on turn two. At the contrary, it’s all but a given that you will be able to cast your seven-drop on turn seven. To do that, you need to hit all your land drops until turn seven, and while you could calculate the odds of that happening, it doesn’t take that to understand that it won’t always be the case. I think every player with a minimum of experience can observe it in the games he or she plays. And then, when you finally play your seven-drop, will you be able to cast an eight-drop right on the following turn? Most often it will take some more turns to find the eight land to do that. Those “some more turns” are exactly the reason why the difference between seven and eight mana is a bigger one than that between one and two mana. In general, we can say that the difference between N and N+1 mana increases with N increasing, while the probability that you will be able to cast a spell that costs N mana on the N-th turn decreases with N increasing. In practice, we can think that the mana cost of a spell answers the question: on which turn do we want this card to be played at the earliest (obviously without being overpowered)?

Order, not chaos!

Another important difference to understand is that between costs with different amounts of colored mana symbols. For example, how would you rank these mana costs from the easiest to the hardest to pay?

4, 3W, 2WW, 1WWW, WWWW

These are all four mana, but they are not the same. The more colored mana they require, the harder they are to pay (and thus the more they are worth), because they require you to have more of a specific land type rather than letting you pay for them with any kind of mana. So the list above is not in a random order, but we could say that it’s in increasing order:

4 < 3W < 2WW < 1WWW < WWWW

3W and 2WW are both four mana, but 2WW is worth more than 3W, because it’s harder to pay, so it has access to slightly more powerful effects. Multicolored (gold) costs are even harder to pay, because you need to find two different types of lands to pay for them, while hybrid costs are easier to pay, because you need to find one between two types of land that are both acceptable. So the following is an increasing order too:

4 < 3(W/B) < 3W < 2WB

All this helps us when we need a cost to be slightly higher or lower but with a difference lower than one mana, which is not little. Remember: one mana is a big difference, especially at high converted mana cost. To summarize, do you need to raise or cut a cost but not by a whole mana? You can increase or decrease the colored mana in that cost accordingly.

A final thing to understand about costs is that an activated ability needs to cost more than a spell with the same effect on its own. That’s because the ability is repeatable, but mostly because it doesn’t cost you a card.

So, in the end, if you have an effect that is overpowered at its present cost, what can you do?
• Increase the actual amount of mana in its cost.
• Increase the amount of colored mana symbols in its cost, without increasing the actual amount of mana it costs.
• Make it a gold cost, if possible.
• Add a drawback to the effect without modifying the cost. Examples of drawbacks include the following:
- being sorcery speed rather than instant speed;
- hitting only a subset of objects (for example, a burn spell that only hits creatures);
- having an additional cost;
- depriving you of life, creatures, cards, or mana;
- being legendary (only for permanents).

In the same way, if you have an effect that is too weak at its present cost, what can you do?
• Decrease the actual amount of mana in its cost.
• Decrease the amount of colored mana symbols in its cost, without decreasing the actual amount of mana it costs.
• Make it a hybrid cost, if possible.
• Add an upside to the effect without modifying the cost. Examples of upsides include the following:
- being instant speed rather than sorcery speed;
- hitting all possible objects (for example, a burn spell that can hit both creatures and players);
- gaining you life, tokens, cards, or mana;
- having an ability that lets you reuse the spell (flashback, buyback, etc...) or that enhances the effect (kicker, etc...).

Keep in mind that in both cases the listed solutions are not mutually exclusive, and that playtest has the final word on how much a card should cost. Unfortunately, not every custom card designer has the means to properly playtest his or her cards, so that’s not always possible. When it’s not possible, just try your best estimate given the guidelines above.
Also, remember that if you have both an upside and a drawback on the same card, sometimes they cancel out in regards of the cost and sometimes they don’t, depending on their relative strength: is the upside is stronger than the drawback, you need to raise the cost, and vice versa. If they are of similar strength, they can cancel out.
Finally, not always the sum of two effects costs the sum of the mana. Sometimes it does, but other times you can even take off some mana, especially at high mana costs. Instead, in the case of very strong synergy between the united effects, you may have to raise the cost past the sum of the costs. It's a thing of feel, experience, and, again, mostly playtest if possible.

Learning by example

Now that we know how to modify costs, the big question is: how much does my effect intrinsically cost? That’s a very difficult question, and the answer greatly varies depending on many factors. In any case, remember that Gatherer (or your preferred Magic card database) is your best friend! Search for already printed cards with an effect similar to yours and look at how much they cost, then consider the differences between your custom card and the real card to adjust the former’s costs accordingly (both its mana cost and all ability costs, if there are any), using the methods we’ve just seen above.

It’s impossible to make an exhaustive list of all possible effects in Magic and their costs. There are just too many possibilities and the same effect can be found at different costs because of different limited formats or other reasons. As an example, I’m going to consider just a few broad generic categories of effects and see the corresponding mana cost by searching for them on Gatherer.

These are the guidelines for instants that deal damage to "target creature or player":
• 1 damage costs less than one mana. To reach one mana you need additional upside (Geistflame, Gut Shot, remember that being able to pay 2 life instead of one mana is an upside, because it gives you flexibility, and this is true for all cards with Phyrexian mana costs).
• 2 damage costs one mana, with room left for an additional little upside (Shock, Wild Slash, Magma Spray, Mugging, Pillar of Flame, Tarfire, remember the Tribal card type is an upside because of tribal interaction). A classic example is the one mana burn spell that deals 2 or conditionally 4 damage (Burst Lightning, Galvanic Blast, Electrostatic Bolt).
• 3 damage costs two mana (Searing Spear, Lightning Strike, Incinerate). Lightning Bolt is an exception, all other cards that deal 3 damage for one mana have a drawback (Collateral Damage, Shard Volley, Lava Spike). 3 damage with upside costs three mana (Bolt of Keranos, Fiery Temper, Puncture Blast, Rift Bolt, Volt Charge, Annihilating Fire).
• 4 damage costs four mana (Lightning Blast), sometimes with upside (Stoke the Flames, but note the more restrictive mana cost). Flame Javelin costs three mana only when you pay RRR. Drawbacks can lower the cost (Char, Inferno Trap, Bathe in Dragonfire, Flame Slash, with the difference between the last two due to different limited environments and to the change of policy on removal, see later).
• 5 damage costs six mana (Explosive Impact). Drawbacks can lower the cost (Lava Axe hits only players, Turn to Slag hits only creatures and has a double colored mana cost).
• X damage costs XRR as an instant (Volcanic Geyser) and XR as a sorcery (Blaze and its many variants, for example Banefire, Crater's Claws, Demonfire, Devil's Play, Disintegrate).

• Draw a card. - This is found as a rider on many spells (called "cantrips") in all colors. As the only effect of a card, it costs one mana at instant speed (Reach Through Mists).
• Draw two cards. - This costs three mana at sorcery speed (Divination) and four at instant speed (Weave Fate).
• Draw three cards. - This costs four mana at sorcery speed (Concentrate) and five at instant speed (Jace's Ingenuity).
• Draw four cards. - This costs five mana at sorcery speed (Tidings) and six mana at instant speed (Opportunity).

• "Counter target spell." (so-called "hard" counterspells) - This effect is now considered overpowered at two mana (Counterspell), but too weak at three mana (Cancel). In fact, it often appears at three mana with a minor rider (Dissipate, Dissolve, Dream Fracture, Hinder, Stoic Rebuttal). When it appears at two mana, it needs a drawback (Deprive, Familiar's Ruse). Anything that has a significant effect in addition to this must cost four or more mana.
Also, always remember the unwritten rule of hard counterspells: they must always have at least two colored mana in the mana cost, one of which has to be blue. This means monocolored hard counterspells will always have UU in the mana cost, while multicolored ones can have WU, UB, UR, or GU (examples: Fall of the Gavel, Render Silent, Double Negative, Mystic Genesis, Plasm Capture, Psychic Strike).
• "Counter target [restriction] spell." or "Counter target spell unless its controller pays [some mana]." (so-called "soft" counterspells) - These effects cost less than three mana. Some examples: Essence Scatter, Negate, Annul, Dispel, Mana Leak, Spell Pierce.

4) CREATURE PUMP (at instant speed)
• +1/+1 costs much less than one mana, it needs additional effects to cost at least one mana (for example Veteran's Reflexes).
• +2/+2 costs less than one mana but not that much (examples: Barkshell Blessing, Gather Courage, Groundswell, Joint Assault, Might of Old Krosa, Mirran Mettle, Mutagenic Growth).
• +3/+3 costs one mana (Giant Growth).
• +4/+4 costs two mana (Titanic Growth).
• +5/+5 costs two mana as a sorcery (Phytoburst), it doesn't exist yet as an instant, but if it did it would need to cost at least three mana.
• +6/+6 doesn't exist yet (Become Immense has delve, so it can't be used as a reference for cost).
• +7/+7 costs four mana and it's rare (Might of Oaks).

5) VANILLA CREATURES (with square stats)
• A vanilla 1/1 can cost zero (Memnite) or one mana. Green and white also can get a 2/1 for one mana at uncommon (Elite Vanguard, Dryad Militant is not vanilla but shows that green can have a 2/1 for one mana with additional upside, so it could surely have a vanilla one).
• A vanilla 2/2 costs two mana in white, black, and green. Blue and red get a 2/1 for two mana (Silvercoat Lion, Runeclaw Bear, Walking Corpse, Coral Merfolk, Goblin Piker).
• A vanilla 3/3 costs three mana in green and four in all other colors (Nessian Courser, Hill Giant, Giant Octopus, Shu Elite Infantry is old but it’s the only existing example in white).
• A vanilla 4/4 costs four mana in green and five in all other colors (Rumbling Baloth, Bonebreaker Giant).
• A vanilla 5/5 costs five mana in green (Hollowhenge Beast, Silverback Ape) and doesn't exist yet in other colors, where it would probably need to cost at least six mana.
• A vanilla 6/6 costs six mana in green (Kindercatch) and seven mana in all other colors (Trained Orgg, Vizzerdrix).
• A vanilla 7/7 costs at least six mana in green at uncommon (Vorstclaw, Enormous Baloth).

This is kind of a delicate topic, and that’s why I want to talk about it. Policy on removal spells has changed over the last few years, so you have to decide if you want to stick to the old system or follow the new one. Of course, if you want to create cards that WotC could actually print today you have to keep up to date with Development’s policy, but if you don’t care about that you can choose to ignore the change and use the old policy. Note that I’m not advising that for the contests held here, do that only if you’re designing custom cards seriously but just for fun.

The old policy was to have universal creature removal for three mana (Murder, and also spells like Rend Flesh and Eyeblight's Ending in practice), and conditional removal for two mana (examples: Terror, Go for the Throat, Doom Blade, Smother, Terminate, Ultimate Price, Victim of Night) or in extreme cases even one mana (examples: Deathmark, Vendetta, Bone Splinters).

Instead, the new policy has Flesh to Dust as its most basic form, and gives us things like Liturgy of Blood, Reach of Shadows, and Sip of Hemlock (which in practice is Hideous End for double the cost). The two mana removal under the new policy, in the rare occasions when it still exists, looks much more conditional, see Feast of Dreams for example. It hits much less creatures than its old counterparts did. Valorous Stance is conditional too, even if it's quite good anyway. Good removal now is uncommon (Murderous Cut) or rare (Hero's Downfall). Doom Blade, when it was still printed, went from being a common to an uncommon, just as the common Oblivion Ring was first "upgraded" to uncommon, then substituted with Banishing Light, which is also uncommon.

-X/-X effects are involved in this change too, as under the old policy we had Disfigure, Last Gasp, and Grasp of Darkness. Under the new policy, an effect like this last card (“Target creature gets -4/-4 until end of turn”) goes from two to five mana! See Throttle, and Lash of the Whip. There are very few exceptions, like Bile Blight, which are very good these days, and certainly not by chance. By the way, note that it's an uncommon, while under the oly policy cards like these were common.

From what I wrote I guess you can see which system I prefer (hint: it’s the old one by far), but as a custom card designer I have to keep up to date with Development’s policy and abide by it when I’m designing cards for contest or as they would be printed for real. When I’m doing it just for fun, I admit I still do it the old way and I like it.

Signing out

I hope this article helped giving you some guidelines in how to cost spells and effects. It’s far from an exact science, but with a bit of experience and good will I’m sure you’ll get better at it.

Until next time,