Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Designing Duel Decks

Hey folks. I'm pleased to announce a new guest columnist for Goblin Artisans. Please welcome Jake Mosby. This article was originally posted to MTG Salvation.—Jay Treat

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?
There are several obvious answers that apply to all of custom magic design, but let’s talk specifics about the advantages you get by designing duel decks. Since I love lists, here are four good reasons you should consider designing a duel deck as your next project:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
Okay, I want to make a duel deck. How do I do that?
Like designing a set, there are many ways to begin a duel deck project. Whether top-down or bottom-up, you want to start with some kind of inspiration. Maybe your favorite movie is Underworld and you want to design a duel deck around Vampires versus Werewolves, or maybe you want to explore the design space of some cool custom mechanics you or another designer has come up with. Find what your inspiration is, identify what kind of gameplay experience you want your duel decks to provide, and write it down in the form of a design goal. By the time you’ve finished your project, you should be able to say that your design accomplishes the goal you identified here.

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?
Now you get to do what typically takes a large set design year(s) to get to - playtesting! One of the best ways to develop your skills as a designer is to see how your designs actually play out on the battlefield. There are several ways to accomplish this feat.
  • 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!
When you playtest, there are a lot of things to look for. The most basic of which are:
  • What was really fun?
  • What was actively not fun?
  • What was boring?
It’s also important to keep your design goal at the forefront when playtesting. If you want your Vampires versus Werewolves decks to be gritty, you want to know if your playtesters find them corny instead. Running a playtest and getting the right feedback is an important design skill in itself, so don’t be afraid to play around with how you playtest or gather feedback. Find what works for you.

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.


  1. Hi everyone, I'm the author of this piece. Happy to answer any questions or hear any comments about duel decks or designs.

    1. Nice article! Do you have any lists you'd like to share? My hardest part is balancing the decks so that they aren't repetitive. It's easy enough to get a "fast/slow" balance where the two decks trade off winsl enough, but hard to get back and forth game play that's more interesting without coming down to a handful of haymakers.

    2. Thanks! My most recent project is a duel deck framed around the Brother's War. Not sure what the best way is to share a list here, but I'd be happy to share where it's at so far. There's only been preliminary testing done with them, but the mechanics seem promising.

      Another relevant aspect of duel decks is that there's inherently less replayability involved, since there's not room for players to make changes to their decks/card evaluations like designing a limited format. In a sense that's freeing though. I'm not opposed to the inclusion of haymakers, especially if they match up in interesting ways or if answers to said haymakers are included in the opposite decks. Haymakers are a quick way to get Timmy excited - the effect wears off quickly, but if you aren't terribly concerned with making the 20th game exciting it's fine to use them to ensure exciting 1-3rd games.

  2. This is my favorite topic! I made a (moderately) well-received set called Duel Decks Starcraft (http://imgur.com/a/weFrT) and have learned that the needs of a duel deck are VERY different from a normal set.

    Jake already pointed out the most important thing - you're working with a VERY LIMITED design space, so it's an amazing puzzle to squeeze out as much as you can from each card to maximize the set's "discovery time", or time before things become repetitive. Generally, anything which INCREASES variability is good, anything which REDUCES it is bad.

    After iterating and playtesting for a very long time, I've seen a bunch of card archetypes which contribute to increasing the fun-per-card quotient.

    Bad: Tutor-style effects, no matter how narrow (Enlightened Tutor, Ranger of Eos)

    Bad: Repeatable effects (Lord of the Undead)

    Good: Cards which can make an impact at any part of the game. (Ravenous Rats, Cancel, Scroll Thief, Fiery Hellhound). The home runs are these kinds of cards that are as simple as possible.

    Bad: The kind of card that is either totally useless, or annoyingly unstoppable to beat, depending on luck and topdeck: (Vinelasher Kudzu)

    Good: Cards whose power level varies depending on the board situation. (Oxidda Golem, Siege Wurm, Synod Centurion, Maro.)

    Good: Cheap cards with expensive alternate or activation costs (Ghost-Lit Stalker, Mulldrifter).

    Good: Cards with multiple purposes, even if the alternate usage is rarely used or obscure. (Beast Within, Path to Exile, charms, Sign In Blood)

    Good: Cards that allow one to "push through" stalled boards (flyers, gas like Harmonize)

    Bad: Cards which have very few answers in the opposing deck (Hexproof dudes without sacrifice effects, big untouchable flyers)

    Good: Cards that scale, whether automatically with time (Mutilate), or manually (Fireball).

    Good: Cards that test your skill in converting one resource to another, or just have an insane amount of usage permutations. (Wild Mongrel, Carrion Feeder, Pentavus, planeswalkers). Duel decks usually have a higher complexity threshold so these are ok.

    Good: Cards that make "minigames" happen. (Fecundity, Hunted Wumpus, Fact or Fiction)

    Good: Cards that reduce mana screw or flood. ([[[Chartooth Cougar, Barren Moor, mana sinks)

    Good: VERY important: Cards that allow surprise, drama, sudden reverals, and "OH FUCK NAW"... moments (Willbender, alternate costs like Fireblast, haste and flash creatures). An very good design space are those cards which can scale in power from low to haymaker, DEPENDING on the context - such as Aetherize.

    Good: "Answer cards" to the other decks' hard-to-deal with threats. The good thing about duel decks is that cards' powers vary wildly depending on the environment they're in (e.g. Faerie Macabre for Garruk's Rancor and Genju of the Cedars, Reminisce against Golgari)

    1. Great list.

      Much of this applies to Magic and games in general.

  3. Very interesting concept of actually designing duel decks from the ground up rather than as reprints. It would be a cool exercise for something like a 24-hour comic challenge.

    Great piece.

  4. Sometime it becomes very hard to find a well written and well established bog which give you correct and useful information. However, I found this blog and got some relevant information which are really helpful for me.
    ฉลาก ติด สินค้า

  5. This blog aware me about different programs which can become very useful for our friends and kids. Few websites provide combined courses and few of the are separately for single subject. Glad to get this information.
    โรง พิมพ์ สติ๊กเกอร์

  6. A debt of gratitude is in order for giving late reports with respect to the worry, I anticipate read more. Fast Digitizer - Embroidery Digitizing