Thursday, August 16, 2018

Why Designing Other Games Makes You Better At Designing Magic

I spent several years before the GDS working on non-Magic games, and the experience I gained from that is what gave me the skills necessary to get second place. I wanted to share a couple specific reasons how designing these games helped me as a Magic designer and to help illustrate an alternate path to becoming a Great Designer.

A lot of people get into custom Magic design without doing any design work for other types of games. There’s nothing wrong with only wanting to design custom Magic cards, but working on custom Magic designs to the exclusion of all else creates several blind spots that affect the quality of your work. The best way to correct these blind spots, and become a better Magic designer, is to design other games, preferably ones that are very different from Magic.


Magic is a very complicated game, but for people enfranchised enough to want to start working on designs of their own, navigating the terminology and unintuitive parts of gameplay has become second nature. Even people secondarily related to your design are likely going to be familiar with Magic, as convincing someone who hasn’t played before to start with your unofficial custom set can be a tough sell. This results in designs with a high degree of complexity, even for people trying to adhere to NWO rules, and an inherent bias towards play that more experienced players enjoy.

With your own games, you don’t have the benefits of being able to piggyback on rules that people already know. Many of your playtesters and audience members are going to be playing your game completely blind to the rules, which means that inelegant rules that confuse new players are going to be vastly more evident than a set being looked over by Magic veterans. They also won’t have strategy preloaded and will have to work it out from the mechanical paths you provide them.

The judges noted in the comments for my GDS design test that my cards were the most “polished and elegant” of the Top 8. This is thanks to, in a large part, my work on party games, where elegance is the difference between the players enjoying it and the players quitting after three rounds.


Magic, alongside other expensive games with a lot of customizability such as Warhammer, sits on one side of a gulf separating it from people who play standalone board games. This is, of course, not true for everyone, but there are a lot of people who know Magic and nothing else. If you want to be a good designer, you can’t be one of them.

Making and playing other games allows you to learn lessons that can’t be learned through the – frankly – bizarre system of trading card game design. Some games possess self-contained environments that promote strategies that Magic isn’t able to. Others promote mental or dexterity skills that Magic doesn’t cover to a great degree, such as communication. 

Even if it doesn’t seem like the lessons learned from one game are transferable to Magic, you’ll be learning lessons about what makes games engaging in different ways and to different audiences. Some people will be uninterested in Magic but adore another game, and by playing it with them you’ll be better able to understand the difference.


One of the things that best improved my work as a designer was selling my games at conventions. This is because there’s a degree of honesty about your design that you can’t get from anyone until you ask them to pay you.

Even if someone is well-meaning and truly intends to give honest feedback on your game, they might not be actually willing to clear the hurdle of giving up money to pay it at home. These decisions are, in a way, subconscious – a customer might not buy a game for reasons beyond their understanding. And no matter how hard you try to simulate it (many Unpub events ask the playtester how much they’d be willing to pay for the game), the atmosphere of a designer handing some playtesters a feedback sheet and that of a seller tentatively reaching under the table for their cash box is singificantly different. 

Furthermore, by desiging games with the eventual aim of getting them to a convention (or getting signed with a publisher), you’ll feel more motivation to create a successful end product. Don’t set anything specific, because that might feel self-defeating if you don’t achieve those goals, but saying “I am going to get this game out to the public in some way” puts you in a professional mindset, which is the best way to improve. 


The only realistic way of improving long-term at anything is to find a way to practice that skill that works for you. Someone might struggle staying in shape because they hate going to the gym, but will improve once they find a tennis league and start enjoying exercise. 

In some ways, I need the pressure of my work eventually being public-facing, and so I found that designing games to be sold to an audience was the most sustainable path for me to improve my game design with an eventual goal of working at Wizards. Of course, GDS3 allowing me to throw my name into the hat was a huge bonus, but I wouldn’t have done as well as I did if I didn’t have that prior design experience.

I hope that someone reading this will find that, not only does working on standalone games improve their skills, but it improves their skills in a way that’s so fun they’ll keep at it day after day. That way they’re better, and there will be more cool games in the world. Win-win!


  1. I think this post is really informative. Ever since the GDS3 I've been interested in designing my own game and the perspective here broadens my view, which is still mostly within the medium of cards (I really appreciate their ubiquitousness and ease and speed of play personally).

    If general game design articles will become more common, something about deciding on or developing new distribution models for your games, especially for things like cards, would be of great interest to me. Like how to tell when an LCG is your best option, or if you can compete with the big booster pack games, or if you can figure out a new model like the new Keyforge.

  2. For anyone looking to really get into game design, your first step (apart from getting together a playable prototype) is to find your peers and start sharing playtests and learning together:

    Check out and find an upcoming Unpub Mini where you can meet other designers and playtest your game.

    Metatopia in November and Unpub next Spring are two of the very best conventions aimed at playtesting, with multiple Protospiels also doing great work. (Though you'll be able to find game designers playtesting at any convention.)

    Cardboard Edison catalogs all kinds of resources for game designers. Read. Read as much theory and process and industry stuff as you can.

    The board game design community is on Twitter. I highly recommend becoming active there.

  3. Great stuff, Jeremy!
    I agree entirely.