#8 - "A rare occurrence" (A custom card design guide: rarity)

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The Lion's Lair #8

“A rare occurrence”

(A custom card design guide: rarity)

(This article was originally published here.)



The article index is always updated with the latest content.


Today we'll talk about rarity. We'll first examine each rarity that exists in Magic, going from the highest (mythic rare) to the lowest (common). Then, while talking about common we'll have to talk about “New World Order” (NWO), that many people actually misunderstand. But first, as always, let's see where this concept is in the MCC rubric:

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?

Rarity is featured as the second part of “Viability”. I've already talked about the first part (the color wheel) in my second article: #2 - "A slice of pie" (A custom card design guide: the color pie). But how can you know what rarity is the most appropriate for your custom card? To understand it, let's start our “Journey Into... Rarities!” (Entering Nyx is indeed a rarity in Theros...)

Mythic proportions

Mythic rare (unofficially also just called “mythic”) is the highest level of rarity in Magic. It was first introduced in Shards of Alara together with a general redesign of set sizes and rarity distribution.

To understand the mythic rarity well, we must first get rid of the most common misconception about it, that comes from a quote by MaRo that you can find in this article where he introduces the new rarity for the first time in detail (emphasis mine):

Quote from MaRo »

How are cards split between rare and mythic rare? Or more to the point, what kind of cards are going to become mythic rares? We want the flavor of mythic rare to be something that feels very special and unique. Generally speaking we expect that to mean cards like Planeswalkers, most legends, and epic-feeling creatures and spells. They will not just be a list of each set's most powerful tournament-level cards.

We've also decided that there are certain things we specifically do not want to be mythic rares. The largest category is utility cards, what I'll define as cards that fill a universal function. Some examples of this category would be cycles of dual lands and cards like Mutavault or Char.

The bolded sentence may be one of the most misunderstood in Magic's history. A lot of people read it as “There won't ever be powerful tournament-level cards at mythic rare”, but that was just their wishful thinking, and that's not what MaRo wrote. What he actually wrote is that not all “powerful tournament-level cards” would have been automatically mythic, and that doesn't exclude the presence of “powerful tournament-level cards” at mythic at all. In theory, those are supposed to be spread out among all rarities. Note that mythics have reached Titan level of goodness (some may say brokenness), but also Archangel's Light level of badness.

But this is not the only thing we can learn from that quote. It teaches us at least two other important things: first, that utility cards are NOT supposed to be mythic, but regular rares. In addition to the examples MaRo himself gives, we can see that the fetchlands in Khans of Tarkir, the scrylands from Theros block, and the shocklands from Return to Ravnica block are all regular rares, and dual lands are the main example of utility cards.

Then we also get to answer the question: so what actually makes a card mythic?
• Splashiness: a big creature with an awesome effect or a big spell that massively affects the board is what we're talking about here. These are cards that are so splashy that they make you go “Wow!” when you open one of them in your booster pack. You see it and it gives you a breathtaking moment.
• Potential: this doesn't mean “Potential” as in the MCC rubric. Here it means the potential to create memorable and awesome stories in gameplay. For example, Empty the Pits may give you just a few Zombies on average, but you'll remember for a long time that one game where it gave you fifteen Zombies thanks to a massive delve and they won you the game attacking en masse the following turn.
• Being a planeswalker: if a card is a planeswalker, it's automatically a mythic. That's not true for all other card types and supertypes. Legendary creatures are often mythic, but not always (see for example the cycle of guild champions in Dragon's Maze and those of old khans and dragons in Fate Reforged, that are all regular rares).

Note that “raw power” is not included in those criteria. Sometimes it can happen that a card has to be mythic because it's so powerful that it would warp the game in limited even at regular rare. But power shouldn't be the determining factor to decide if a card is a mythic or a regular rare.

A gem of rare beauty

Regular rares still make up the vast majority of cards in the rare slot of a booster pack. You'll open one of them in seven out of eight boosters on average, even though they are only half as rare as mythic rares (that's because of the different numbers of rares and mythics in a set).

But let's come to the part that most interests us now. Why does a card need to be rare? Conveniently, a list of reasons exists, and it's included in this other article by MaRo. It's from 2002, but despite thirteen years have passed, the reasons he gives appear as valid now as they were back then. The only things that may have changed are their relative importance and the introduction of mythics, which didn't exist yet in 2002. So, without further ado, these are the reasons why a card can be rare:

Complexity: as we will see later, complexity is not wanted at common, and that's the whole reason NWO exists. Uncommons are allowed a little complexity, but really complex cards should be rare.
Rules complications: in this case the complexity is due to the card's interactions within the rules, but similar reasons apply. A card that has unintuitive or complicated rules interactions has to be rare.
Wordiness: if a card is so wordy that it needs to have its font size reduced, it must be rare.
Big creature or spell: big creatures and spells with a big effect need to be rare to be kept special.
Uniqueness: cards with unique effects also need to be rare to be kept special.
Narrow cards: narrow cards designed for constructed are put into rare to keep them from appearing too much in limited, which is not their intended format.
Limited warping: cards with effects that are disruptive to limited or warp it too much are also put into rare to keep them from appearing too much there.
No room: cards that may either be uncommon or rare are sometimes pushed into rare because there's no more room at uncommon.
Cycles: high profile cycles are normally rare (for example, again, the cycles of old khans and dragons in Fate Reforged).
Balance among rarities: some cards are made rare to keep a balance of good cards in all rarities.

Nowadays, the most important reasons among these are limited balance and complexity. But all others are still valid anyway.

An uncommon name

Let's make another step downwards in rarity. Strangely, there is no specific source of information about the design of uncommon cards. The only existing article about uncommons is this very recent article by Sam Stoddard about their development. But despite the scarceness of information on the topic, we can deduct a list of typically uncommon cards out of the linked article. The list goes like this:

Constructed cards: cheap powerful constructed-level cards that have strong synergies or are hard to cast. The charm cycle and Murderous Cut are examples of such cards from Khans of Tarkir
Large evasive creatures that provide a clock for limited games. Serra Angel and Air Elemental have been presented as examples of this category of cards.
Powerful one- and two-drops are put into uncommon to avoid them being potentially too oppressive in limited if opened and drawn in multiples. Recent examples are Elite Vanguard and Tormented Hero.
Strong removal is at least uncommon. That is considered to be anything that says “destroy target creature” and costs three mana or less.
Stall breakers: these are cards that break a creature stall in limited. Examples are Overrun, Sleep, and even Blaze.
“Build-around-me” uncommons: these are cards that you can pick in your first picks of a draft and that can be an incentive for you to draft an unusual strategy, usually taking advantage of their high synergy with other cards that are normally late picks. A recent example is Spider Spawning.
Sideboard cards: they are powerful against certain strategies but useless against the majority of the field. Deathmark and Back to Nature are examples of this kind of cards.

Common practice

You may have noticed that in our trip downwards in rarity, concerns about limited have progressively grown. This trend is not by chance, and it shouldn't surprise you that common is the rarity most focused on limited. That's logical, as commons are about two thirds of the cards contained in each booster pack, and this means that they make up the vast majority of cards you open in your limited pool. And not only that, they will also be the cards that gives you the first impression of a set (that's why the saying goes “if your these isn't at common, it isn't your theme”) and that form the majority of a beginner's collection. This last point makes us understand the importance of commons for beginners and less experienced players, that has been one of the driving forces behind the introduction of “New World Order” (NWO).

But before we talk in detail about NWO, let's first close the generic discourse about commons. The points in the last paragraph come from this article by MaRo. In it, he remarks how commons are the hardest cards to design compared to uncommons, rares, and mythics. Because of this, he gives us some practical advice on how to design a good common card: it should be simple, short, flavorful, and relevant to the set. This last point, in particular, means that a common card should either be necessary for the set to make it work, or be part of the set's theme.

Now we're ready to discuss NWO. First of all, I suggest you to read this primer by Doombringer, where he goes into deep detail explaining everything about it. Here I'll just make a summary meant to be a short introduction to it for those that may have never heard of it or know little about it.

NWO is a mechanism created to keep complexity at common in check. Please note that it only applies to common cards, and it has nothing to do with cards that are uncommon or above. Also note that it has nothing to do with the power level of the card.

NWO works through a process known as “redflagging”, where you mark any common card in your set that breaks one of the criteria (“red flags”) below:

• The card can affect other permanents on the battlefield.
• The card has four or more line of rules text.
• The card is so complex that it needs to be read more than once to be clearly understood.
• The card creates card advantage while affecting the battlefield. A card like Divination that does so while not affecting the battlefield does not count here and thus is not redflagged.
• The card can destroy multiple permanents at once.
• The card can create a loop.
• The card is problematic in multiples.
• The card mentions complex Magic terminology such as “converted mana cost”, “stack”, “planeswalker”, “emblem”, etc...
• The card uses nonstandard counters (example: Briber's Purse).

After checking all your commons, the number of redflagged cards must not exceed the 20% of all the common cards in the set. Redflagged cards above this percentage should either be bumped up to uncommon or cut from the set. In addition to that, you must make sure that every redflagged card you keep in the set is necessary for the set's theme or limited environment.

To know more about NWO and see some examples of what counts and what not for each red flag, refer to Doombringer's primer. It's really well done.

Signing out (this time with something extra)

This article is a little shorter than usual, but I'm closing it here as I don't really have anything more to add. As with the last article, in this one too there's nothing new, I've just summarized in a single place information coming from different sources to try to make it more digestible for less experienced custom card designers. Then, after this introduction, they will be able to get deeper reading the linked articles and checking out all available resources on the Internet.

The “something extra” I'm alluding to in the section title is a request to all of you. I have a list of article topics, and it's running out. I think I have subjects for one, maybe two articles if I stretch it out, and no more for now. So, if there is one or more topics you would like me to write about, please reply here and let me know. Keep in mind that for now I still want to talk about individual custom card design and not about custom set design, as that would be nothing more than me copy-pasting MaRo's articles about design skeletons and such, and I feel I'm practically doing that already in this article and the last one. When the list runs out, this series will stop for the moment and additional issues will come occasionally, without any regularity.

Until next time,