There are countless formats and ways to play Magic: The Gathering, and there are just as many different ways to participate in amateur/custom Magic design. Some people enjoy designing single cards. Some people enjoy participating in design challenges. Many embark on the journey of creating an entire custom set. But strangely, few custom designers focus their energy on creating one of the best tools to develop design skills: the Duel Deck.
Why should I design a duel deck?
- Duel Decks focus your designs.
You don’t have to worry about supporting various or multiple archetypes when designing for a duel deck - you’re only concerned with designing to create synergies for the specific decks in mind. This also allows you more freedom to think of various ways to create synergies that you may have missed doing a larger project.
- Duel Decks are a small body of work.
While designing a full 200+ card set is quite a daunting task, duel decks require only around 72 card slots on average, with reasonable opportunity for single designs to occupy multiple slots. This makes the step of actual card design a much faster process.
- Duel Decks are immediately testable.
As soon as you’ve completed design for a duel deck, you have a game you can try out right away. There are no logistical hurdles like creating a sealed pool or finding a drafting solution, or dealing with people’s hesitance toward deckbuilding. It’s as simple as finding another player and handing them a deck, or goldfishing against yourself if you can’t wait.
- Duel Decks provide many of the design lessons of a large set.
Reading about custom Magic is a great way to become a better designer, but some lessons you have to learn through experience. Things like editing down your designs to fit in the appropriate card slots, or balancing a selection of cards with varying power level, or finding a healthy mix of mechanics are all things that require deliberate practice. While those skills can be improved upon by doing set design, duel decks allow for much more rapid turnaround on those same skillsets.
Next, you’ll want to look at possible skeletons for your decks. Most of the time, you’ll want to identify the broad strokes of around 36 cards that will comprise the nonland cards in each deck. Each project is different, but unless there’s a specific reason not to, I recommend having around 22 of those slots populated with creatures and the remaining 14 slots filled with noncreature spells. If you’re using Magic Set Editor, create two card files with 36 slots each. In the notes section jot down if a card is meant to be a small, medium or large creature, a spell, or any other identifying features or roles you want that card to fulfill.
Do some brainstorming to figure out what kind of mechanics you want to include in your decks if you haven’t already. Some mechanics want to show up in higher frequencies than others, so try to aim for the frequency that you think is correct. Don’t worry too much about frequency though - one of the advantages of duel decks is that you can iterate and change them much more rapidly than larger projects. It’s also worth noting that you don’t need to have named mechanics at this stage, so long as you know what kinds of themes your cards are encouraging.
Once you have your design goal, deck skeletons, and mechanics, you’re ready to do the fun part - designing some cards! Keep in mind that Wizard’s duel decks formula uses 1 mythic rare, 5 rares, 11 uncommons, and 19 commons. As always, you don’t have to follow this structure if you have a reason to break away from it, but it’s a good starting point to balance between complexity and power.
Hurray, I made my decks. What now?
- Paper playtest with a friend.
Print out the card images of your designs, cut them out, and sleeve them over some junk cards. You can bring these decks to a friend, or to your LGS to see if anyone has some spare time to play a game or two.
- Online playtest over Cockatrice.
Create a package of card images and a cockatrice set .xml file of the cards in your decks. You might have trouble with special characters, but there are additional resources available that can help walk you through this solution. Once you have your decks in Cockatrice, finding another player to play them against you is the last step.
- Solo Testing.
This method is nice in that it doesn’t rely on having to find another person, but it does limit the type of feedback you get about your project. Getting fresh eyes on your cards is really useful, but you can still learn a lot just by playing both sides of the matchup and seeing how the cards interact in-game. A lot of the time, mechanics or cards will surprise you!
- What was really fun?
- What was actively not fun?
- What was boring?
Where do I go from here?
Once you accomplish your design goal, there are a few different “next steps” you can consider. There’s always the option of creating a new set of duel decks using the lessons you learned to make an even better result the next time around. If you feel like you’ve struck gold, you can also look into expanding your duel deck into a full fledged set. No matter what you do from there, you can and should continue to enjoy and play the decks you created. It’s an awesome achievement - within the Magic game engine you’ve created a brand new game!
About the Author
Jake "Piar" Mosby has been involved with various custom Magic communities since the second Great Designer Search. He's facilitated several community projects including MTGSalvation's monthly "You Make The Card" contests. Beyond several personal custom Magic projects, he recently started designing other board games as well. He hosts the custom Magic podcast Cardography, which is available on iTunes and SoundCloud.