Saturday, May 14, 2011

21 Ways to Design a Card: Part 1 - Improve a Card You'd Never Play

We each have our tendencies as card designers — I like creatures, and if left to my own devices I tend to design too many cards that modify creatures or affect creature combat. In order to diversify our designs and avoid focusing too much on our habitual space, writing out a list of techniques for coming up with card ideas can be helpful since it lets us design from many angles.

I will make this a weekly series. The number 21 is a placeholder. I have no idea how many ways to design a card I'll be able to find or reference. And it's like the number of oceans or continents in the world - there are different ways of counting the same thing. If I manage to reach 21, I'll keep going on.

#1: Find a card effect that you don't want to play.

Pyretic Ritual is one card I'd almost never play. For a card that only gets something out one turn earlier, the loss of card advantage is huge.

I do think it's good that it's underpowered. Mana costs are one of the greatest balancing factors that hold the game together. Some of the "overpowered" cards of the past were only overpowered because of the mana rituals existing at that time and they've been reprinted (sometimes in slightly adjusted forms) with no problems at all. (I am thinking of Hypnotic Specter and Mind Twist/Mind Shatter) Also, those "All-In" ritual decks that pack every ritual spell available along with some storm cards are fun the first few times but turn stupid rather quickly.

At the same time, it's kind of sad that Pyretic Ritual is probably just there in M11 because there weren't enough other effects to give Red at common, the way bad land destruction spells are in every set. If I'm burning up one card, I want my fatty to enter the board at least two turns earlier.

So how do I make a ritual that puts you two turns ahead when casting a creature, without giving +2 mana to broken combo decks? This was what I thought of.

My answer was to give the summoned creature haste. In the set with this card, I intended to include some temporary creatures that shrink over time so that the haste mattered even more.

I've had the above card for a while on the GDS2 wiki, but while writing this post a second card came to me:

This is an approach where you only get +1 mana, but the card gives you an additional effect so that you don't feel you wasted a card. I realized that this one would become bonkers if you draw multiples, so I made the token legendary. I like how the token has firebreathing and "sacrifice this at end of turn" without explicitly stating it. 

It's too complex to be common, but I'm glad that I came up with it.

Some thoughts on this:

  • Summoning a legendary token for just one or two turns might work as a Common outlet for activating legendary creature triggers (etc...) in a legendary-focused set.

  • The recently printed ritual (Geosurge) is a great hit for me. It simply bans casting non-creature, non-artifact spells with the produced mana. This simple answer did not occur to me when I was designing the first ritual. This is a case of how the way I phrase my questions is important. I started by thinking "This card must not be good for spell combos" but as long as I was thinking, "How do I get value without producing +2 mana," I'm not likely to stumble onto the solution.

Another card I don't want to play is Tome Scour. Don't get me wrong, I like the existence of this card. I always appreciate having alternate directions I could go into in draft,  but I think the design could be better.

First of all, even if it works, games would be un-interactive. It is like trying to draft as many copies of Lava Spike or Lava Axe as possible and winning by doming the opponent. If you get enough copies to do that every turn, the result of battle is virtually determined by the time you finished drafting. When you don't get enough copies to do that (which is usually the case), every time you draw one of these, you might feel torn because that's one less card you drew that can control the board and buy enough time for you to achieve your goal.

I think it's fun for these weird decks when you have to manage resources, think hard about what to remove and counter, and try to contain the opponent's actions just long enough to achieve your goal. Such a style of survival and control by the nick of your hair was very achievable, though difficult, in Shards of Alara block. 

Second of all, Tome Scour often requires an all-or-nothing approach during the drafting stage, where you go for it without knowing if the archetype is open or not. When you do manage to pull it off, it feels like it was blind luck - nobody else was drafting it, but you didn't know that when you made the lunge for it. I'm sure there are times when you can see that the coast is clear and sidle into that archetype intelligently instead of blindly, but those times are few and far between.

So, I want to design something that you aren't afraid to draft when you don't know if you want to go all-in on a mill strategy yet. Here are two cards I posted on the GDS2 wiki before:

Hmm... now that I look at them again they're kind of wordy for common cards....

I also wanted to make a card for after you've committed to the strategy. It may not mill as many cards as Tome Scour, but helps you keep stalling.

I think it will be fun to give the opponent a dead draw while milling him/her for 3. 

So those are my thoughts on using cards you don't want to play as a starting point. I think cataloging these starting points will be useful, but to be honest, I do think multiple lines of thought tend to converge when we design a card, and it's never a single method.

I got the idea for Censor Memories while thinking of a card for my other blog, playing Magic in Japanese. I wanted to design a card that you want to play during the upkeep (so you can become familiar with the word upkeep in Japanese), and the thing I could think of was messing with the top of the library. That converged with my desire to make a more strategic mill card.

The Phoenix ritual card was inspired by the art, which I'm sure I'll make a topic for this series some time. I was looking through my art collection folder for art that might look like a mana ritual and that phoenix art got me thinking.

I think any methods I manage to list will be useful more as a starting point for germinating a card idea. They are like Rorschach tests. You start typing out card text open-mindedly based on this starting point, then you look at it and think, hmm, what could this turn into. And as you're doing that, all the design issues, card needs, and types of fun that you've thought about have a chance to connect to it.


  1. I really like Censor Memories. That's a clean, versatile card that I can see being great cast on your opponent as well as yourself depending on context.

    Faerie Dream-Thief is a decent solution to the commitment problem, assuming there are other dedicated mill cards in the set: If it's the only one, it's always going to be better to deal damage with it. That said, I think this is a case where a strictly better card reads worse to a lot of players (compared to just a 2/1 flier).

    Sift through Memory looks terrible to me as a player whether cast on myself or my opponent.

    I like Ritual of Enervation. I'm a big fan of the mana-producing spell that alters what you cast with it. It should probably be a sorcery since it's built for creatures and most creatures don't have flash.

    I don't like Call upon Phyrul just because it's not clear whether I'm playing it for the bird or for the mana. You have some clever solutions in there, but perhaps too clever: The bird will die when you enter your attack step because all the mana will drain from your mana pool when you end your first main phase. (Personally, I think mana shouldn't drain until EOT, but hey.)

    I def enjoyed the article and I'm looking forward to the rest.

  2. Nitpick: "Enervation" means taking away the energy from something, making it a poor fit for a spell which gives energy to a creature.

    I agree that the Phoenix spell is far too clever for its own good.

    Faerie Dream Thief is fine as a Viridian Betrayers equivalent for mill. Censor Memories is elegant and flexible, a great design. Sift Through Memory is just plain yucky.

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys.

    The idea with Sift Through Memories is that you can activate it multiple times in one turn, so that if you're not afraid to mill yourself for a card while you set up, you can draw 2 cards for 2UU or 3 cards for 3UUU, a fair deal in limited. When cast on the opponent, you can finish off the opponent in the end game by milling for 5 cards for 5UUUUU or something. Maybe I should make it "sacrifice at the beginning of the end step" so that it is more abusable, if you activate it during the opponent's end step. It won't appeal to most players (since most players don't like milling themselves) but it could be a tricky Limited-Johnny card.

    I didn't realize the Phoenix would die. The spell needs a clause saying "your mana pool doesn't empty at end of phases until the end of this turn." There will be less tension because you'll be able to both attack with the phoenix and cast whatever you want to afterwards. That would make it even wordier, of course...

  4. The trouble with Sift is that it's a terrible draw spell for yourself even without the milling. Everybody loves card drawing but not enough to pay 1U * (x+1) for x cards. Against your opponent, it's really slow milling and its secondary ability is only useful on the last turn (and still underwhelming).

    What about

    SANDS OF TIME (unc)
    Whenever enchanted player draws a card, he or she puts the top card of his or her library into his or her graveyard.
    XU, Sacrifice CARDNAME: Enchanted player draws X cards and puts the top X cards of his or her library into his or her graveyard.


    At the beginning of enchanted player's upkeep step, each player draws a card.
    Whenever enchanted player draws a card, he or she puts the top card of his or her library into his or her graveyard.

  5. I like Sift-style cards... also, Sands of Time is already a card.

    Dream Thief is a nifty concept. I'd like to see mill enabled in a set using an ability sort of like a cross between infect and Szadek, where creatures deal damage to players in the form of cards milled.

    1. See the mechanic Mindstrike from

    2. How to design a card, Part 0 (optional but recommended): ask the artist permission for using their art for your card.

      Listen, here's the thing. Most artists, myslef included, have nothing against their art being used for something non-commercial so long as credit is given. But they might, and they have the right to. Some might object to the cropping and modification that happens when artwork is used like this. Some may want to limit the appearance of their art on places where they didn't personally publish it as much as possible without taking it off the internet entirely. There are different reasons. So for someone who relies on using someone else's art for their hobby, in this case, custom card design, it should be second nature to ask for permission to use artwork for a card. 99% of the time the artist will say yes, but it's important to ask. Besides, this way, you find out their preferred way to be credited, for example by username or by real name. A little gesture of acknowledgement for the fact that there are people behind the art goes a long way. :)