I’ve always been a customizer. As a kid, I actively searched for video games that had level editors, because I was so enamored with the idea of making a game myself. Sometime in college, I discovered Magic Set Editor, and very quickly set to making my own Magic: the Gathering cards for fun.
It’s been a long time now since I’ve played a game of Magic, and probably even longer since I tried to seriously design a card, but the design of Magic is still something I find fiercely interesting. I read Head Designer Mark Rosewater’s weekly columns about design, and subscribe to the /r/custommagic subreddit, where I see a dozen amateur designs a day.
After browsing /r/custommagic for so long, I’ve noticed some trends among newbie designers. Just like everyone falls a couple times as they’re learning to ride a bike, damn near everyone makes these mistakes when they first start designing their own Magic cards. There’s no shame in it, but if you’re actually interested in learning to be a better designer, it’s important to understand what these mistakes are, why they’re mistakes, and how you can avoid them.
“But I Don’t Care About Design!”
Not everyone who designs custom Magic cards cares about game design. I get that. Sometimes, you want to make a silly joke card, or hash out a cute idea, and you don’t really care if what you’ve made is printable.
But I believe those designs are actually in the small, small minority. After all, most designers of custom cards make an attempt to cost their cards fairly, as if they were going to be played. Most designers try to give their cards appropriate rarities. Most designers play with tropes and standards already established within the canon of Magic design.
Most designers, consciously or not, are inclined to create cards that seem somewhat realistic. After all, that’s the fantasy—create cards you could actually play with, alongside official Wizards sets.
So even if you’re just a “kitchen-table” designer, I encourage you to look these over. Even if you’re not about to compete in the next Great Designer Search, I think they’ll help improve your custom commanders and playgroup-specific answer cards.
Lesson #1: The Color Pie Exists for a Reason
There’s a reason my user flair on /r/custommagic includes the term “Color Pie Police”: I care a ton about the color pie. The color pie is such a goddamn elegant system, both philosophically and mechanically, that I’ve enthusiastically written an essay nearly 500 words long about it, just ‘cause I got excited.
So it absolutely kills me when I see cards like this:
No. Nononono. Bad.
The Mistake: Putting abilities or effects on cards that are entirely outside the realm of what the colors have access to
Why We Do It: It absolutely blows to feel like you don’t have answers. If you’re playing mono-red, it can seriously cramp your style when your opponent drops an enchantment on the table and there’s nothing you can do about it. Why not just design yourself up an answer?
Why It’s Wrong: The color pie exists for a reason. Every color is defined by what it can do, but also by what it can’t. Weaknesses and inabilities make the game dynamic, and prevent any one color from being objectively superior (while also encouraging multi-color decks).
After all, this feels okay:
but these absolutely don’t:
It doesn’t matter how good your flavor is. It doesn’t matter how expensive you cost it, or how rare you make the card. Each color has some things that it just does not do. That’s what gives each color its identity. Blurring those lines may be fun in a vacuum, but from a game design perspective, it’s a bad, bad, baaaad path to go down, because it compromises an integral part of Magic’s design for the sake of a single card.
Also: The advanced level of this mistake is combining two or more abilities normally within a color’s wheelhouse to achieve an effect that’s decidedly not. I think the poster child of this would have to be this card:
Yes, you’re very clever, and we’re all very proud of you. But that’s still a blue Murder, and that’s still not something blue gets to do. Them’s the breaks.
(Of course, I’m always fascinated to see the way people achieve cards like this. It’s really neat as a creative exercise—just don’t go putting these cards into any serious design.)
How to Avoid It: Learn what each color can and can’t do. Look at the cards that have been printed—flip through your collection, or go to Gatherer and surf the “Random Card” link for an afternoon. Alternatively (or additionally), teach yourself to use the magiccards.info search, and rely on it as a resource for what’s been done before. That’s the best way to acquaint yourself with each color’s mechanical and philosophical identity.
Lesson #2: Planar Chaos Isn’t Canon
“But Spencer!” you’re quick to shout in defense of your tomfoolery with the color pie, “Planar Chaos did it!”
Man, that is the worst defense you could use.
The Mistake: Relying on cards from Planar Chaos to justify color pie violations
Why We Do It: “Spencer, you just said to look back at previous cards to get a feel for the color pie. Are you even paying attention to yourself?”
Why It’s Wrong: Planar Chaos was the single set with the most color pie fuckery in the history of Magic. Planar Chaos is a set where black and white got counterspells, red got reach, and blue got mana acceleration (albeit slightly wonky mana acceleration). If ever there was a set not to point to as an example of what the color pie should look like, Planar Chaos is it.
To be fair, there was a little more nuance to Planar Chaos’s design than most people give it credit for. All of the color pie-bending was done with strict adherence to the colors’ fundamental philosophies—representing what could have been if Magic had developed slightly differently. (Note that for all the crazy mucking about in the pie, we didn’t see an unconditional counterspell outside of blue or a Bolt/Shock outside of red—it wasn’t balls-to-the-wall madness.)
And furthermore, some of the wonkiness of Planar Chaos was actually good for the game. Prodigal Pyromancer first showed up in Planar Chaos, and although it was hardly the first pinger in red, its appearance as a colorshifted version of Prodigal Sorcerer established that pinging wasn’t blue’s trick anymore. Similarly, Gossamer Phantasm took the once-black Skulking Ghost ability and paved the way for an iconic blue tribe today, Illusions.
But on the whole, if you’re citing Planar Choas cards to defend your design, that typically means something needs to be changed. Planar Chaos, and to an extent, the entire Time Spiral block, was a massive example of indulgent design, where the primary focus was less on creating fun, realistic cards and a good gameplay experience, and was instead far more on being clever. It’s masturbatory and not good design. Even Mark Rosewater has said it was a mistake.
Also: The advanced level of this mistake is citing cards from New Phyrexia, Innistrad, Dark Ascension, or anything from the really early days of Magic. New Phyrexia, Innistrad, and Dark Ascension all pushed colors’ identities slightly more toward black than normal—blue typically doesn’t get life loss, for instance.
Let me be clear here: I’m not saying New Phyrexia, Innistrad, or Dark Ascension were color pie mistakes. Just know that they aren’t sterling examples of what each color can normally do.
As for older cards, it took a while for the color pie to establish itself. After all, Char existed as a blue card long before it was red. Keep that in mind when you’re reviewing cards from further back in Magic’s history.
How to Avoid It: It’s simple: treat Planar Chos like that one-off comic you really liked that totally fucked up all your favorite characters’ story arcs. It’s fun, but it sure as hell ain’t canon.
More generally, avoid extrapolating from small sample sizes. A really good sense of the color pie should come from examining multiple cards from multiple sets across a long span of time. With a foundation like that, not only will you understand what specific effects belong in each color, you’ll also understand why they do, which will help you make more educated guesses when you’re designing your own cards.
Lesson #3: Keep the Kitchen Sink in the Kitchen
There’s a place for splashy, powerful creatures in Magic, and claiming otherwise would simply be foolishness. Lately, R&D has been deliberately trying to ramp up the power of creatures to make them a more integral part of the game. Big powerhouse bombs exist, and they’re fun.
But, look, dude, there’s a line in the sand, and across this line you do not cross.
The Mistake: Making powerful cards by piling on keyword after keyword
Why We Do It: Big splashy creatures are fun. We all dream of dropping a bomb on the table and just wrecking face. Designing our own cards gives us the power to indulge that fantasy.
Why It’s Wrong: First off, complexity. You probably have a better brain than me, but I can only handle about three or four abilities before I lose track of them all (and yes, this does mean that I have an embarrassingly hard time with Akroma). Players only have so much brainspace, and stuffing it to the brim is a great way to make them feel mentally exhausted, in a very un-fun way.
But more than that, it’s wrong because these cards tend to be woefully one-sided. It’s like piloting a 300-ft shark mech with death rays and fire breath—yeah, it’s fun for you, but not for anyone on the receiving end. More often than not, your enemies are just going to surrender, because they have no hope against your clearly superior force.
As a game designer, your goal is to craft an experience not only for the winning player(s), but for the losing player(s) as well. Scooping because your opponent just played a fire-breathing death ray shark mech is not a fun way to go.
Bombs are fun, but if you make one too big, you’re not playing a game anymore—you’re playing nuclear holocaust.
How to Avoid It: Remember that you’re designing for every player—the ones who play your cards and the ones who have your cards played against them. Your job is to make a fun gameplay experience for everyone involved.
But in more practical terms, playtest. Make mockups of your cards, build decks, and play them with some friends. Then pay attention. How do people react to your cards? Are they having fun? Pay attention to your players—when they’re playing with your cards, you’re responsible for their experiences. If something’s not working, that’s your cue to change it.
Lesson #4: It’s Magic, Not Solitaire
On the tail of the “making bonkers cards by adding ALL THE ABILITIES” trend comes this one, where newbie designers instead make bonkers cards that have practically no answers.
These often come with super-high price tags—things like steep color commitment, big life payments, high CMC, or legendary status, to name a few. Which, y’know, demonstrates a commendable level of awareness, but doesn’t change the fact that these types of cards are fundamentally un-fun.
The Mistake: Designing cards that completely abolish interactivity
Why We Do It: Again, because we’re fulfilling our power-trip fantasies. Who doesn’t wish they could blow their opponent away with a card like this?
Why It’s Bad: Most of this is covered in the section above. Cards like this are un-fun for anyone on the receiving end. If you manage to cast them, hoo boy, you get a real power trip—but your opponent is almost guaranteed to scoop, because the cards create such a non-interactive lock on the board state.
Take the black Curse above. Yeah, it has a CMC of 7 and costs 10 life, so you probably wouldn’t ever see it played. But if it did hit the field? It’s so goddamn restrictive that if your opponent doesn’t have a damn good board state, they’re done. There’s next to nothing they can do about it—they are helpless. Helplessness is not fun.
Or look at the Wall, which has the “can’t leave the battlefield” clause so many newbie designers want to include. Are you playing a creature-heavy strategy? Welp, too bad, ‘cause this card fucks that up. If your opponent made the mistake of depending on creatures for victory, this reads “5WWUU: You win the game in the most un-fun way possible”.
Ironically, we tend to design these cards because we dream of playing them, but if we were to actually cast them in a game, the game would be over, giving us little opportunity for enjoyment. (Fundamental truth of wish-fulfillment here: it’s almost always more satisfying to fantasize than it is to actually achieve your fantasy.)
I almost named this section “If You’re Going to Masturbate, Do It in Private,” because in the end, that’s what this type of unanswerable board lock is—masturbation. It’s self-indulgent pleasure. Multiplayer games rely on interactivity, and if your design doesn’t allow that, then you’re just playing with yourself.
How to Avoid It: Everything I said in the section above. Remember that you’re designing for all players at the table, and playtest, playtest, playtest.
Lesson #5: Don’t Make Me Do Math, Dammit
I know we’ve already established that I have a puny weakling brain, but even accounting for that, this sort of stuff is almost always a bad idea:
It doesn’t even matter that the math is relatively simple to figure out (although I’ve seen cards that would have required me to pull out my old TI-84). Throwing X’s into a card already causes the complexity to spike, and by the time you start combining power and toughness or performing arithmetic on X, you’ve gone from “Magic card” to “story problem”.
The Mistake: Designing cards that require anything more than extremely simple arithmetic
Why We Do It: Playing with numbers is fun. Some of us, at least, really appreciate the elegance of mathematical functions and how they can distill complicated concepts into graceful expressions.
Also, not to rely too heavily on stereotypes, but I imagine there’s some significant overlap between people who love Magic and people who have always excelled at math and/or computer science. Not because liking one makes you predisposed to like the other, necessarily, but rather because of the ways subcultures work.
Why It’s Wrong: I don’t care how cool the effect is, too much math makes a card an absolute pain in the ass to figure out.
I didn’t struggle with math until college. I was always a year or two ahead of my class—algebra and calculus, for the most part, make total sense to me. And yet, my brain still begins to gibber when I read Comet Storm’s text box. I know I could sit down and figure it out, but dammit, that takes work, and I’m in the middle of a game!
Your average player is not going to want to make back-of-the-envelope calculations in order to play a card. Complexity is a real barrier to enjoyable gameplay, and math is a surefire way to add complexity.
How to Avoid It: If your card requires multiple variables or more than one operation of arithmetic, stop. Reexamine your life. Recognize that Magic is supposed to be fun, and for most people, algebra is not fun. Then rework your design, or, if you can’t bring yourself to simplify it, consider looking for a career teaching math.
Lesson #6: Understand Hybrid Theory
I don’t think many newbie designers fully understand just how tricky a tool hybrid mana is. All too often, I see cards like this:
Pop quiz: What’s wrong with this design?
The Mistake: Using hybrid mana inappropriately
Why We Do It: Hybrid mana is sexy. The beautiful multi-colored card frames and the flexibility in costing makes it such an enticing tool to use. Is it a red card? A black card? ¿Por qué no los dos?
Why It’s Wrong: Hybrid mana may be sexy, but if you aren’t careful with how you use it, it’s very easy to not only add a ton of complexity, but also completely screw with the color pie. (Look, I’ve got to earn my Color Pie Police title somehow.)
Did you figure out why that example card above was wrong? What if I did this?
See, when you’re designing a two-color hybrid card, you’re actually designing two cards with the exact same text box. Every hybrid mana symbol should be replaceable with either of its component colors and the card should still work.
In the case of my example card, lifelink makes total sense on a black card, but the pinging effect is very much not-black, and vice-versa for red. And yet, you could play the original hybrid card in a mono-red deck and get lifelink. Lifelink! In mono-red! What the hell?
Also: You’ll notice I kept saying “two-color hybrid”. That’s because when you play with more than two colors in hybrid, things quickly get even more out of hand.
This presents so many goddamn problems.
For starters, what color is it? I don’t know, and it doesn’t know either. It’s a little bit of everything. But it’s also a 3/2 little bit of everything that could be played with RRW. Or UGB. Or almost—but not quite—any combination of colors. There are eight different possible color permutations here, and I guarantee you that at least seven of them make absolutely zero sense with these abilities and P/T.
It’s impossible to design a card that simultaneously works with eight different color identities (by which I mean “identity” broadly, not the specific rules term “color identity”). Well, okay, it is possible, but we call them “artifacts”, and don’t bother using hybrid mana to create them.
But beyond this card’s identity crisis, there’s another problem with stacking hybrid mana like this: complexity. Holy shit is it hard to parse that cost. Quick, tell me, if you have an Island, a Swamp, and a Plains, can you cast this puppy? How about two Mountains and a Forest? Yes, you can figure it out, but it takes a ton more brain cycles than it’s worth. Hell, I even have trouble with the “Blade” cycle from Alara Reborn.
Once you move beyond two-colored hybrid, you get into the realm of silliness. Tri-color hybrid takes a serious deftness with design to make it work, and I’m not entirely convinced it’s possible. Almost always, the results are a little wonky and end up more like gold cards than hybrids. And four- and five-color hybrids aren’t ever worth the headache.
How to Avoid It: If you’re making hybrid cards, make sure you can replace every hybrid mana symbol with either of its constituent parts and the card still makes total sense.
I won’t say “don’t ever try tri-color hybrid,” because maybe you’ll be the one to make it work. But don’t try it unless you have a firm grasp of the color pie and understand how to minimize complexity.
Lesson #7: Exile is Supposed to Be Hard to Deal With
Yeah, it sucks when your opponent Unmakes your Blightsteel Colossus, or casts Deicide on your Athreos. You see that card set aside, out of reach, and you wish there were just some way to keep that from happening to you. So you fire up Magic Set Editor, and come up with cards like these:
Turns out there’s a reason you don’t see cards like this.
The Mistake: Making cards that treat exile similar to destruction and the graveyard
Why We Do It: It sucks to lose your toys.
Why It’s a Mistake: There’s already a zone in the game that’s an interactive place for things that “die”: the graveyard. For some decks, the graveyard is an untouchable dumping ground for the things you lose, but for others, it’s a resource to be exploited. We have a keyword that largely prevents things from going there—indestructible. There’s a pretty well-defined realm of mechanics surrounding destruction and the graveyard.
When you start making cards that retrieve things from exile willy-nilly, or giving permanents immunity to exile effects, you’re essentially transforming exile into Graveyard 2.0—a zone that is a resource for some decks, but untouchable for others. That’s a path R&D tries very hard to avoid (and the joke behind the Unhinged card AWOL). Exile is supposed to be distinct from the graveyard, and part of that mechanical distinction is its general untouchability.
How to Avoid It: Recognize that there are already answers to exile, at least of a sort. Shroud, hexproof, protection, and counterspells all serve as preemptive answers to many of the effects that could exile your stuff. Making exile-specific answers when those already exist dilutes the zone’s mechanical identity, and that’s not good for the game.
Lesson #8: Flavor Isn’t a Trump Card
Ever since Innistrad and Theros, “top-down design” has been a popular term when talking about Magic design. The idea is seductive—rather than starting with mechanics and creating flavor to fit, you start with a creative idea, like “a Gothic horror set” or “a card that turns you into a dragon,” and build mechanics around that.
When done right, it can lead to very resonant, fun cards. But newbie designers often get caught in the flavor trap, and use “but it’s top-down!” as an excuse to make cards like this:
Flavor only goes so far, my friend.
The Mistake: Using “but flavor!” to defend poor designs
Why We Do It: Coming up with a rich, flavorful design isn’t easy. It’s even harder, once you’ve put in all that energy, to let go and scrap some or all of your design. It’s far easier to simply say, “No, this totally makes sense and here’s why,” than it is to accept your mistakes and rework your design.
Why It’s Wrong: Design is a human-centered endeavor. When you design something, you’re designing it for an audience. The graphic designer crafts a reader’s experience. The industrial designer shapes how people will use a product. As a game designer—even an armchair one—you’re shaping the experience of your players.
Your responsibility is to your players, not yourself. There’s no room for ego in design. Clinging steadfastly to a confusing, complex, or un-fun design because it’s your baby is practically a cardinal sin. Don’t put your feelings above the experience of your players. That’s not how you design a good game.
(This is another great example of irony—if you sacrifice a card’s grokkability for flavor, players are going to pass it over and probably relegate it to the shit pile. It doesn’t matter how flavorful a card is if it’s not being played.)
How to Avoid It: Be willing to kill your babies. Recognize that your whims and feelings play second fiddle to the needs of the game and the experiences of your players. If a card isn’t working, either rework it now or take it out and file it away in the “to revisit later” folder.
Are these the only mistakes newbies make? Of course not. I’ll probably write another piece sometime on common templating mistakes, for instance. But if you can wrap your brain around these eight lessons, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a much better designer.
And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t emphasize that the main reason for making your own cards is to have fun. Keep these lessons in mind, but of course, do what you want to have fun. After all, that’s what games are all about.