Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Zeffrikommons, Part 1: Common Red Creatures

Here on GA, we tend to put a lot of focus on designing individual cards and mechanics. This is great for the feedback we provide and encourage, and I think that it's a great set of development tools for all of us, especially those of us planning on competing in the next GDS. In fact, the types of designs we spend most of our time on here pushes the skills MaRo & Co. were looking at when selecting the finalists for GDS2. After the essays and the test, we had to design 10 cards that would be used to showcase a set during the course of a preview week. The emphasis was on designing one card to fill one slot that appealed to a particular type of player/reader.

But the very first round of GDS2 tested an entirely different set of skills. Knowing how to show off an array of splashy designs for a set of single slots isn't the only thing R&D wants to see. The first test was to design all the commons (18) for one color of your set. This is a very important skill for all designers to know and work on, and one that doesn't get a tremendous amount of time in the spotlight here. Making a large batch of cards with similar parameters is a very different beast.

I've been radio-silent for a little while due to a combination of work and home stuff keeping me very very busy, but even though I haven't been posting I have been working on building the commons for Zeffrikar. So far I've sketched out my ideas for red and green, and most of white. Today I'll be going through the red creature ideas I've written out for Zeffrikar, and provide some running commentary about my design process along the way. This is far from the only way to design commons, but it's the way that I do it.

As I'm working on this, I'll probably make some edits to my pages, and I'm sure that the comments here will generate several new ideas as well.

This is where I start. I find it hard to focus on creative stuff while using a laptop, so I go old school with pen and paper.

Before anything else, I write out all the block's keyword mechanics and any mechanical focuses I suspect I'll be using. Here's the block keywords and rules text written out:
  • Moonburst (This enters the battlefield with a +1/+1 counter on it for each colorless mana spent to cast it.)
  • Ghostfire -- Whenever your cast a colorless spell, [effect].
  • [Excavate] When ~ ETB, excavate N (to excavate N, put an excavation counter on each of N target lands you control that don't have an excavation counter on them) // Whenever you excavate, [effect].
  • Trap
  • Landfall
  • Quest (Enchantment) - Whenever [cause], sacrifice ~ and [effect] (slightly different from original quests)
  • Bravado N (Whenever this creature blocks, becomes blocked by, or fights another creature, it gets +N/+N until EoT)
  • Milldrazi N (Whenever ~ attacks, defending player puts the top N cards of her library into her graveyard.)
  • Eldrazi Spawn (not a keyword - shorthand for "put an 0/1 colorless eldrazi spawn creature token otb with "sac: add 1 to your mana pool")
  • Equipment matters
  • DFC
  • Colorless matters
Some quick notes here before we move on. These are all the mechanics I have so far that I'll be testing out for the set, at least for common. I will probably add more later as I carve out some more draft archetypes (I've only figured out about half so far). Although most of these appear in Red, not all of them do (like milldrazi). I still list them at the top because while I'm making a red common, I might think of a good blue or black one too.

Also, there's no reason to start making a large batch of commons unless you've already figured out 4+ keywords you can use at common that you want to playtest. Most of your common design is going to be riffing on the keywords and unnamed set mechanics in some way.

The next thing I do is go to gatherer, filter for standard red commons (excluding monocolor), and write down all the standard veins of design space that red commons mine:
  • Haste
  • Trample
  • First/Double Strike
  • Menace
  • Prowess
  • Fight
  • Direct Damage
  • Target creature(s) can't block ueot
  • red looting
  • threaten
  • Destroy land/artifact
  • tokens
  • firebreathing
  • +X/+0
If you look at that little circled note and attempt to decipher my handwriting (don't do that), you'll see that just literally writing down recurring effects from gatherer opened up an interesting design question: What color or combination of colors gets "destroy target colorless permanent?" It's a very narrow design space, but one that can be explored in Zeffrikar. My gut reaction is to say red (of course my gut reaction is to say red - duh), the color that already destroys your usual colorless permanents like lands and artifacts, and has a history with colorless maters abilities. Is it a color pie bend or a break to allow red to outright destroy creatures and enchantments if they fit this narrow parameter?

In any case, that effect is probably uncommon, and not a creature, so we're shelving that discussion for the time being.

Onto the list!

  • ~ is colorless
  • 1: ~ becomes colorless until eot
  • ~ can only be blocked by colorless creatures (maybe U instead of R)
1) Normally I hate posting cards that aren't rendered, even if it's without art, but for the sake of converting my quick notes into a typed list for this piece, I'm just copying directly from my list. I'll throw in a few renders here and there, but most of these are shorthand text.

2) At this stage, I'm only looking to draft rules text. I'm not trying to cost the card, assign p/t, or name it. Once I have my large pool of commons to pick from, I'll start fitting these proto-cards into a design skeleton, at which point I'll cost them and give them stats. For now though, I'm just coming up with as many ideas for common rules text as I can.

3) Regarding these three in particular, Red used to be the color of becoming colorless. It hasn't been an ability R&D has messed with in something like 15 years, so I don't know if it's still Red or not. For my purposes, it strikes me as a red and blue kind of thing in a set that cares about it, so that's where these cards will reside. The UR draft archetype is tentatively "colorless matters," so these are some of the first cards I came up with.

4) The first two would never exist in the same set in the same color, but at this point I'm putting as many variations of similar cards down on paper as I can. When I get to the design skeleton, I'll figure out which pulls more weight in the context of the rest of the set.

  • Moonburst, menace
  • Moonburst, trample 3RR 3/1
1) Let's start digging into the process a little more. Once I have pretty much all the mechanical space available to me listed out, I start glancing over it. I'm starting with creatures, with a goal of making 20 or so common creatures. Of all the colors, red is the one I have the best sense for Zeffrikar's draft archetypes (RW equipment matters, RU colorless matters, and RG eldrazi ramp), so that gives me a good sense of what I'm going to want to stress in the commons.

2) As an aside, I've settled on non-colorless Eldrazi being Primary RG, Secondary in U and possibly B.

3) Back to the commons. I know colorless is something that will matter in this set, especially in red, so I came up with red cards that feed that space. Once I had a few of those, I moved onto the first mechanic, Moonburst, which at least at this stage is exclusively a creature mechanic. I want moonburst in red, but I want the swingier versions of it in green and colorless, so I only made a few of these here. It's possible and likely that I'll want an uncommon red card with the mechanic, but I'm not up to that yet.
  • As long as you control a colorless creature, ~ gets +2/+0 and has haste (or variations)
Back to colorless matters. "As long as you control a colorless creature..." could be a half (URG) or full horizontal cycle. Threshold checkers like that make for good commons.

  • Ghostfire -- Whenever you cast a colorless spell, ~ gains first strike until eot.
  • Ghostfire -- Menace until eot
  • Ghostfire -- fights target creature
  • Ghostfire -- red loot
  • Ghostfire -- target can't block until eot
Since red is going to have both colorless matters and equipment matters, ghostfire should have its highest volume here. I made a bunch, literally just going down the list of standard red effects and writing down whatever seemed like it would be interesting. I suspect only two or three commons will be available here, but when I'm filling out the skeleton, I can pick the ones serving it the most.
  • Ghostfire -- Threaten or direct damage (uncommon)
If I'm listing out variations for an ability, and I have a good sense for a design that belongs at a higher rarity, I'll write it down and note that it's uncommon. I don't count it towards my goal of at least 20 creatures, but I won't forget about it down the line either.

  • When ~ dies, eldrazi spawn (vert. cycle)
Spawn are going to be important for red, but more important for green, so I'm putting in a common enabler here and noting I want a vertical cycle out of it. When I'm filling out the design skeleton, the number of spawn it makes can easily shift, so I'm just leaving it blank for now.

  • Bravado/Haste 1/1
  • Bravado/Trample 5/2
  • Bravado 3/3 (uncommon version with double strike)
Bravado has been changed to be less conditional (it used to only trigger off of interaction with something bigger than it). It's updated Bushido now, and that makes for some better commons. For now I'm leaving it as Bravado N, which serves the needs of this set more, but it could just naturally grant +1/+1 and skip the variable. I don't know the value of the variable at this point, so I'm leaving it blank until its time to put it on the skeleton.

  • Etb target creature is colorless until eot
  • etb destroy target nonbasic land
When doing your common creatures for a design skeleton, make sure you do some french vanillas and virtual vanillas. You're also going to want to do a cycle of actual vanillas. I'm saving the discussion of french and virtual vanillas for when I'm actually doing the skeleton. Virtual vanillas for our purposes are going to be the etb effects. Each color should have a few of these ready to slip into the design skeleton. I'm not yet sure how much relevance turning a creature already on the battlefield colorless will have yet, but it might, so it will stay in for the time being. Destroying a nonbasic will probably make a big difference in Zeffrikar.

There are a thousand different etb effects you can do, but at this stage I'm trying to use them to poke at the mechanical areas the set wants to emphasize.

  • ETB Excavate 1. Whenever you excavate, target creature can't block until eot.
  • Whenever you excavate, target creature gains haste until eot.
I wanted to give myself some excavate commons to playtest (if I'm ever able to playtest this thing). I'm currently putting excavate in all five colors, although more emphasized in green and black, which is where landfall is pushing.

  • 1/1 when equipped, transform // 2/2 first strike as long as equipped
DFCs do a fantastic job of selling adventure. Common DFCs can be somewhat tricky, especially when you don't have a unifying mechanic for transformation like the werewolves in Innistrad did. 
  • Whenever you excavate, transform // 0/8 wall
Aside from adventure, DFCs are going to want to counter larger eldrazi (similar to level up in Rise).

  • Prowess (probably Unc.)
  • */1 Haste, sac at eot, * = number of mountains you control (Unc.)
Prowess is secondary in red, so it could be common or uncommon. I'm pushing it to uncommon for now so I can pair it with something interesting (it doesn't really have much direct interaction with any of my sets abilities (other than traps))

The last card hits on the "lands matter" that Zeffrikar wants. It's not played up in red, so I'm putting it at uncommon. Blue and White will probably also see a single "Plains/Islands" matter card at uncommon.


And that's it! I now have twenty red common creatures to pick and choose from when I'm going through the design skeleton. That doesn't even include the vanilla and french vanillas I'm going to make sure to have. Since I'll only need 10-11 to fill the needs of a design skeleton, I'm really able to figure out which of these designs is best serving the needs of the set overall, rather than trying to design to fit each individual slot as I'm building the skeleton.

Let me know what you think. Critique and suggestions are welcome, and if you have specific questions about my process or commons in general, I'll do my best to answer. I'll be following this up soon with the common red noncreatures, and going through the rest of my notes.



  1. Great article. It was wonderful seeing your thought process.

    I agree that being able to design batches of commons is a vital skill. Commons require skill and creativity, as they need to remain simple yet interesting, and often strive for elegance over excitement. At the same time, they also are the most importance piece of the set in promoting its themes, mechanics, flavor, and setting. Commons are absolutely vital to know how to design, and it's especially important to be able to design a large variety of them to fit a large variety of needs.

    Your thought process - outlining all the possible mechanics and things you might want to use - is actually really similar to mine! : ) I like working within a 'system', with a lot of parts that I can combine to make new things, so I often start a new game or custom Magic project by just 'laying out on the table' all the tools I have at my disposal. It's like making stuff out of LEGO from a bucket, rather than sculpting it yourself. Sure, it's a little restrictive, but those restrictions are a great way to find inspiration.

    Having all your 'tools' immediately visible also helps you design large batches quickly, which is another vital skill. The more time you spend trying to remember what effects red gets at common and at what cost or whatever, the less cards you're going to be making and less time you'll spend playtesting. For this reason, I also typically open up a few 'reference' sets of commons. I find sets with a similar Limited format to the one I'm working on, and use those as a reference for my cards.

    In addition, having a set skeleton is a good idea. Over at Magic Set Editor forums, and I think MTGS at one point as well, there was a project to find every 'archetypal' common card. Stuff like "the blue tap-down spell", "the red burn spell", "the green pump spell", etc. Having a 'checklist' of frequent, simple effects to use or put a spin on is great.

    Lastly, you want to have an idea of your archetypes before you start designing commons (in my opinion). Knowing you need a couple cards in each color for each of its archetypes is good, as it gives you yet another 'toolbox' you can use as inspiration.

    Basically, all these tools are a way to change your perspective from "I need to make 20 red commons" to "I need to make a red common burn spell, a red common that fits into the {R}{G} archetype, a red card with my marquee mechanic..." and so on, which makes the task a lot less daunting.

    I really encourage everyone to try to do design exercises for designing commons - especially batches of them - to a need. Over at Magic Set Editor forums, there's a game called "Make a Mini-Set", where players have to make 5 commons and 1 uncommon to represent a set with a specific challenge. Over at /r/custommagic, zarepath has a nice series called 'Forty-Five Friday', where he designs 45 cards - many of them commons - to represent a hypothetical set. And over at MTGS, MOON-E started his Miniverse project, where he made 51 commons to represent a 'half-size' set.

    Each of these are fun and interesting exercises, and they're relatively easy to do quickly once you get the hang of designing to your specifications and to a set skeleton!


    Anyway, here are a couple questions for you, Zefferal!

    Why do you like laying out all your mechanics at the beginning? Similar to my reasons, or do you have your own?

    When do you figure out your archetypes? I try to do it after the mechanics, and sometimes I do it as I begin work on the commons - though usually I start before I work on the commons at all. Agreed?

    You didn't refer to a set skeleton at any point. Is this intentional? Do you save that for later, after you've figured out the large batch of viable red common creatures you ended the article with?

    1. If I have set mechanics in column A, and typical color mechanics in B, then I can literally go down the list in column A one by one, see which mechanics in column B combine well or make for interesting interaction, and have a common (or uncommon). It's formulaic, but if you look at any set's commons, that's the majority of them.

      As far as archetypes, I figured out a few of them as I was coming up with mechanics and emotional themes. I do need/want to finish them out, and I should have done so before starting to go all in on commons, but the timing when I work on Zeffrikar is hard to predict. I'll probably have the rest figured out soon.

      I mention the design skeleton a number of times here. I'm going to be finishing my common pool of mechanics before I start applying it to the design skeleton.

  2. Yes, this is basically what I do, except I don't usually get as far as actually designing a set, yours is much more comprehensive. I used to design individual cards, but now I appreciate just how much of a cards design is defined by the set its in, and I find designing commons much more interesting than designing rares. (Something like, it's easier to design a common AT ALL, anything with few lines of text could be a common, but its hard to design commons WELL :))

  3. I enjoyed reading your first steps in BFZ here. I agree this is definitely a good exercise for anyone who wants to practice for the next GDS, and I definitely agree that design is about a lot more than designing one off cards (though I think the WAC is a great way for designers of all skills to throw ideas at each other).

    Keep in mind though, that if you do that, you would have to singificantly more work than this in the span of a week. Participants were asked to generate all 20 commons from a set in a week. And if my career were on the line like that, I would definitely devote more than a few hours to playtesting them.

    There were also significant development comments in the GDS about what costs people had chosen, and what rarity people had chosen for cards. So it is very important to practice that side as well. It can be hard to tell if something is overpowered, but if you hang out here, you'll start to get some idea of rarities at least.

    PS: People often lament that they don't have people to playtest with. You can playtest card games by yourself, and I highly encourage you do so.

    I think one of the best ways to playtest is to shuffle together random cards of two colors and play games with those decks. This forces you to play with all the cards and gives you a much more rapid sense of the interactions than a lot of other forms of playtesting.

    1. I have means to solo playtest, and I could probably get someone else to playtest with me at some point. The bigger issue is just setting up the playtest takes quite a bit of time.

  4. Thanks for walking us through your thought process, Zeff. We're definitely eager to see the result.

  5. Is everyone designing commons these days? For the past two weeks, I've been working on 50% new commons for Dragons of Tarkir, as part of a Tarkir Block review thingy I'm writing. I'm working on themes and things for draft, and establishing a speed of Limited, but my major focus lately has been word count.

    The average words per card for Dragons of Tarkir commons is 21. And R&D shoots for under 20 in a regular expansion. Designing with this in mind is fascinating! It really helps you cut complicated keywords, and stick to just the core concept of each design. it's a whole new metric to keep in mind.

    Moonburst (This creature enters the battlefield with a +1/+1 counter on it for each colorless mana you spent to cast it.)

    Moonburst is 21 words all by itself, meaning at common, unless you want it to take away from your word count on other cards, you can probably only include a cycle of vanillas with the keyword, or creatures with an evergreen keyword that doesn't require reminder text at common, (Flying, Defender, First strike, Vigilance, Haste, and Trample.)

    1. If you want the average of 101 numbers to be 20, having a bunch of them be 21 + ability isn't a problem.

    2. (That said, I'm not a fan of Moonburst. It is almost exactly the mechanic that lost Jon Loucks the GDS, and there are no ways to enable it that I personally find interesting.)

    3. Wordiness is an issue, but I think it's wrong to focus on it at the earliest stages of design. Right now it's about finding the fun in the set, and if you're self editing out of concern for having too many words on cards (and a lot of these are french vanillas here) I think you're doing your set a disservice.

    4. Yes, Eldrazi Spawn is an example of a way to enable Moonburst I find uninteresting. I think that interaction is more cute and intellectually appealing than it will be fun or leading to interesting game play. Again, this is exactly what got Loucks kicked out of GDS.

      Keyword mechanic enables other keyword mechanic that directly always seems like a good idea and always gets cut in my experience.

      The wordiness doesn't concern me at all though.

    5. I don't know why word count wouldn't be a consideration at this point. For anyone who wonders why Shatter was in Khans Block limited and Naturalize was in both Khans and Dragons, there's a lot of power in cards with 3 or 5 words. I don't think Development added either of those cards. They were probably added to the Design file in its earliest stages and never swapped out for more complicated variations. Adding low wordcount staples to the file early gives you more complexity space to work with during playtesting. Being aware of when you'll have to include reminder text for evergreen mechanics and how much complexity that costs you is useful too.

    6. I'd expect every single card in my first playtest to change before the final product is released. Worrying about details before you've even tested which mechanics you won't is definitely counter-productive. First see if moonburst is fun. Then you'll know whether it's worth spending words on.

    7. If I was using maro's Three Stages (http://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/making-magic/nuts-bolts-three-stages-design-2015-03-30), I'd still be in stage one. Big picture stuff is much more important here. The goal isn't to find reasons to exclude things now, it's to find reasons to include them.

      Wordiness is a good indicator of complexity, but it's not the only metric by a long shot. I have a very strong sense of NWO-appropriate commons, and we're well within bounds here, at least on an individual card level. The commons as a whole might be pushing it, but that's a concern for a later stage of iteration.

      Also, these are merely 20 ideas I've had for red common creatures, using a single common-generating method. aside from finishing this out with other colors and card types, I still plan on generating a round of top-down cards, non-keyword recurring mechanics, a cycle of vanillas, and a couple of cycles of evergreen french vanillas. When it comes time to pick out the 101 for my first playtest, I'll have in the ballpark of 200-250 cards to pick from.

      Last point on moonburst's complexity overall: A card with moonburst and no other text is a virtual vanilla. My two commons that I put up there are virtual french vanillas. The mechanic also has a decent amount of lenticlarity to it. I'm not saying it's not wordy, nor am I certain that it's fun/right for this set, but at the very least it's very NWO-friendly.

    8. Morph's reminder text has more words than Moonburst's. Mark Regularly says he thinks Sunburst will come back, and that is one more word. There is no reason for concern, even if this project was very far along, about the number of words in there minder text for Moonburst.

      As it is though, none of the keywords have been play tested, and so odds are not a single one survives. (The attrition rate for mechanic is even higher than the one for cards in my experience. )

  6. Nice work.
    A suggestion: You could make it so excavated lands can only produce colorless mana. Flavorwise, that could represent the Eldrazi sucking the land dry of their essence. It would also enable Moonburst.