Thursday, March 7, 2019

GDS Reflections: How Custom Magic Cards Helped Me Publish a Book

By Scott Wilson

Hey there, I'm Scott Wilson from the top four of last year's Great Designer Search 3. You might remember my lukewarm Samurai cards, lukewarm Ancestry mechanic, and lukewarm Innistrad designs.

But hey, at least I'll always have Circus Peanuts.

Since last year, I've been working on another project: my book that was just published this month (Metl: The ANGEL Weapon). It was already under contract with a publisher when GDS3 started, but between negotiations and editing and polishing and printing, it's only now that the book is finally coming out.

Over the past year, I've been looking forward to the book's release while also looking back on GDS3 (which is oddly close acronym-wise to PTSD), and I've come to the realization that making custom Magic cards for years leading up to the competition actually had a pretty big impact on my writing.

Since custom Magic creators are quite creative people, I figured there might be some other aspiring writers out there, and I could share what I've learned.

So let's jump into the top five things I learned from making custom Magic cards that helped me publish a book.

#5. What's cool for the writer vs. what's cool for the reader

Back in 2015 when the video game Undertale was released, I played it and immediately wanted to make a custom Magic set for it.

Just like how Undertale took the idea of fighting monsters in an RPG and turned it on its head by letting you become friends, I wanted to do the same thing with Magic. What if there was a whole set where one of the mechanics let you win not through fighting, but by becoming friends?

And thus the Pacifist mechanic was born… probably the worst design I've ever made.

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To me, Pacifist seemed awesome. It was like you were playing a whole different game, trying to survive and make friends instead of killing. I'd succeeded in my attempt to translate Undertale into Magic cards!

But to my playtesters, Pacifist was awful. At best it was boring, just playing creatures, blocking, making Friendship tokens, and hoping it was enough. At worst it was horrifically frustrating, making the opponent feel helpless as they were slowly overwhelmed by the power of love. After just a playtest or two, no one wanted to try my set anymore until I'd changed Pacifist.

No matter how cool I thought "Sacrifice a Friendship" sounded on Real Knife, it meant nothing if no one wanted to play it.

A year later, when I started writing Metl, the same thing happened. My main character was part-boy part-robot, and to make that clear I originally named him "Lyfe." You know, like "Life" but with a "y" because he "wasn't quite alive."

Yeah, it was bad. And I thought it was amazing.

Just like the Undertale set, when I gave the first drafts of Metl's opening chapter to people, they didn't even make it past the first page because they were too busy laughing at the name "Lyfe." Even though I thought it captured the character well, to them it was just a cringey disaster.

I begrudgingly changed "Lyfe" to "Caden," not thinking it would change much. Of course it made all the difference.

My readers went from giggling and snorting to actually giving me feedback. I still had plenty of other changes to make, but at least now they were willing to continue past page one.

Here's the first page of Metl as it is now. Just trying to imagine that boy on the right named "Lyfe" makes me feel like I have an unnecessary "y" stuck in my name too.

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#4. Writing things that people can fall in love with

I remember the first time I sat down with my wife to play a test game of the custom Pokémon Red and Blue Magic set I'd made. I'd been working on it for weeks, and she'd finally agreed to play a game with me (more on that later).

To test the set, we did a Winston draft between just the two of us, and she was super excited to get the mythic rare Mewtwo. She didn't even care what it did, she just knew Mewtwo was a strong Pokémon, so she threw it in her deck.

Here's the original Mewtwo. I know it's not a good design. Keep reading!

During the first game we played, my wife got up to ten mana, slammed Mewtwo on the table, targeted me with its Psychic Type… and I sacrificed a bunch of lands that didn't matter then killed her on the backswing.

She groaned in frustration that Mewtwo sucked, and no amount of me trying to explain how it worked in combination with other Psychic Types would change her mind. And for good reason: she was right. Mewtwo was supposed to be super strong on its own, not some over-expensive combo-enabler.

So I changed the card.

A few playtests later, the new Mewtwo came up. My wife dubiously read the card—once burned already—and anxiously put it into her deck. But when she cast it that game, and it absolutely obliterated me, she couldn't stop raving about how much she loved Mewtwo now.

I think that sometimes as designers, we get so caught up in the mechanics of the set and how they all synergize with each other that we forget it's important to just have individually cool things too.

That idea stuck with me, and when I started writing Metl I had an outline that, in all honesty, wasn't very exciting. There were several parts that just involved characters talking to each other to convey information, which is not a ton of fun to read.

So when I actually wrote those sections, I changed them up into something that readers could fall in love with.

Instead of main character Caden having his technology-powers activated by a generic robot, I went with a friendly/derpy robotic spider named Tooby… with seven legs. Instead of Caden learning how to use those technology-powers from a generic hermit in the woods, I had him meet with a computer named Watson who only spoke in Jeopardy rules: statements as questions and questions as statements.

Those scenes immediately went from boring to a ton of fun. In fact Tooby and Watson became some of the readers' favorite characters.

Here's Tooby looking like the adorable nightmare fuel he is.

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#3. The importance of illustrations

When I completed the first draft of my custom Pokémon Red and Blue Magic set, I immediately printed the cards, cut them out, sleeved them with some draft chaff, and shuffled them up, eagerly waiting for my wife to get home from work so we could playtest. She'd been looking forward to trying the set too, and I was super excited.

So when she looked at the cards and wrinkled her nose, I was quite surprised. She flipped through them, grumbling that they looked boring. The reason why was simple: there were no pictures. All of the cards were just black and white boxes with text.

I tried to explain to her that it didn't matter since we were just playtesting, but she didn't care. She couldn't physically bring herself to play a game of Magic without art. For me, the art was practically irrelevant, something I ignored most of the time. But for her, it was one of the main reasons she played the game.

I spent the next several days scouring for art to fill in the cards. I got to intimately know a lot of DeviantArt trends, but eventually I did it, and then I printed everything back out and tried again.

This time, my wife was ecstatic to playtest, and we sat down to play, with her laughing and oohing and ahhing at all of the art choices.

Here's a sampling of some of her favorites. I even printed out lands/tokens for the full Poké-xperience.

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After I got an agent for my book, one of the first things I told him was that I wanted my book to have illustrations. When the book got a publisher, one of the first things I told them was that I wanted my book to have illustrations.

When publishing a book, you're fighting an uphill battle. People have so many other things they could be doing (watching YouTube, tweeting, playing Magic), so you have to do something to grab them by the hearts and eyeballs. Based on my experience with my wife and other playtesters, I knew that having illustrations could help the book stick out.

And that goes for books without illustrations too. No matter what you write, making sure it has a good cover is super important. Not judging a book by its cover is a great expression to live by when it comes to judging other humans, but when judging books, it's something we all do.

I love the art that Monika Viktoria created for Metl, and I hope that readers enjoy it just like looking at the pictures on their favorite Magic cards.

#2. "Rare/mythic" scenes and "common/uncommon" ones are both important

My first custom Magic set was a wild west set, and the first person I'd playtested it with besides my wife was a friend of mine.

Since I didn't want to overwhelm him with a draft right off the bat, I just let him look through the cards and pick out the ones that he'd like to build a deck with. One card immediately caught his attention: Kitax Milawe, War Chief.

And thus began a night of him and I enunciating "Key-tax Mil-ahh-way" over and over and over.

My friend immediately wanted to build a deck based around Kitax, so he asked me what other cards in the set were like it. I unfortunately told him there were no other cards like it. Kitax was supposed to be special: a 1/1 Human riding three 3/3 Beasts together.

My friend was immediately disappointed. He wanted other cards like Kitax: Humans riding other animals. I immediately realized my mistake. I'd created a cool rare, but I'd neglected to make other, smaller commons/uncommons that could help build up to it.

By the next playtest with my friend, I'd turned the "rider" mechanic into the red/green theme for the set, fleshing it out with some other commons/uncommons.

Being my first custom set, they're not great, but they were good enough for my friend to crush my white/blue townfolk/miner deck.

And the same idea applies for writing a book: a "rare/mythic" scene by itself needs the "common/uncommon" scenes to support it.

For example, when I was writing Metl, I got to the point when Caden and his friend arrived at a town to meet a new character named Jadice, someone with water-controlling technological powers. Originally in the outline I just wrote "they find Jadice," and that was that. (Thanks for nothing, outlining-Scott!)

When it came time to actually write the story though, I couldn't just write, "And then they found Jadice." I had to write in the smaller "common/uncommon" transitional stuff to get to that "rare/mythic" scene.

After a bit of brainstorming, I wrote Caden and his friend sneaking into town, and then watching a "blessing" ceremony on stage involving two characters they'd met earlier: a bully and a businessman. Suddenly that sprouted a bunch of new ideas: one of the two men being "blessed" into dust, the other being recruited into the Church, and the encroaching Metl in the sky eclipsing the sun.

Cool "mythic/rare" scenes are important, but there needs to be a balance of smaller "common/uncommon" transitions as well. If you can make them interesting and fun too, then you're likely on the right track.

Here's the illustration of that scene in Metl, which ended up being cool enough to get its own illustration, and would have never existed if I hadn't mined the "rare/mythic" scene for the "common/uncommon" stuff the led up to it.

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#1. Editing is a long, harrowing process

It took me a week or so to create my first draft of my custom Pokémon Red and Blue Magic set in 2013.

It took three years of playtesting, editing, cutting, adding, crafting, swapping, chiseling, scraping, sifting, and exploding to get it to a state I was finally happy with.

Every time I played the set with someone new, I learned something new. Every time I made a change, the ripple effects were enormous, or could go unnoticed for weeks until it came up in a game.

Looking back on what the set was like in its first-draft form, the current iteration is almost nothing like it. Not one single card survived all the way from beginning to the end; everything had at least some changes, most of them dozens and dozens. And yet, despite that, the heart and soul of the set is still very much the same. As are all original 151 Pokémon, of course.

Here's a sampling of three cards that changed drastically. Hyper Beam was simplified, Poison Type went through about a hundred different ideas before finally landing on its current iteration, and Misty probably had more single tweaks than any other card in the set.

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It took me about six months to write Metl.

And then I spent two years editing it.

I think a lot of non-writers think that editing is just checking for spelling, grammar, commas, and maybe changing a few words here or there. But honestly, editing is writing. What people think of as writing, typing words on the page, is only a small part of the writing process. Editing, taking those words on the page and bending, cutting, honing them into what you what to actually say is a much bigger part of the process.

Editing the Pokémon set prepared me for all the editing necessary for Metl. Not even taking into account the first six tries at chapter one that I discarded, I have no less than fifty obsolete versions of the book on my computer, some drafts ranging from just a few sentences changed here or there, and some having entire pages deleted or added.

If you want to write a book, or make a custom Magic set, I think embracing the editing process is one of the most important things you can do. When you finish a book/set, it can feel like you've reached the end. You sit back, marvel at how amazing you are, and then eagerly print out the story/cards to show your friends. But it usually only takes a little feedback to see how much work is still in store. A willingness to accept that feedback, incorporate it, and then repeat is essential in creating something that people will love.

I don't know if people will love Metl, but I do know that it is the product of many people pouring their love into it.

Can making custom Magic sets help you become you a better writer?

Can learning a foreign language help you become a better chef? Can playing basketball help you become a better painter?

I think the answer to all of these questions is: of course!

If there's something you want to do—whether it's writing a book, making a Magic set, coding a game, building a robot, whatever—I think it's important to pursue other things in addition to it. It's easy to get tunnel-visioned, focusing so intensely on the one thing you want, that you lose track of everything else.

But when you try other things that you're passionate about, you'll bring that passion back to your original project, and it will be all the stronger for it.

Now, I wonder what a custom Magic card set based on Metl would look like….

Check out Metl: The ANGEL Weapon on Amazon.

Feel free to follow Scott on Twitter or his creative writing livestream on Twitch.


  1. It's funny ... I come to this from the reverse direction. I've been writing all my life, which makes for interesting challenges. I have a really hard time grasping bottom-up design as a set foundation. It's all relentlessly top down at first. It's always about what story I want to tell, and then having to iterate and iterate how I can express it mechanically in a way that's fun.

    Interesting insights!

    1. Ooh, that's an interesting way of looking at it.

      It's funny though, because on stream we do some "bottom up" stories sometimes, as in, we start with a stipulation/prompt and then have to come up with a story from there (ie: can't use the letter "e," write a story with three random Fifty Shades of Grey sentences, etc)

      I'm not sure how applicable that kind of writing is to card design, but it is fascinating how all the creative pursuits generally seem to overlap :)

  2. Scott! I loved reading this article. Absolutely agree that the confluence of your experiences help you in whatever you're working on. It was also joyous to see that you've worked on a Pokemon-themed set, a theme that's dear to me.

    I felt moved to get your book, despite not being much of an avid reader, so it's now in my shopping cart. :)

    1. Hey thank you so much for the comment! I'm honored that you would pick up a copy of the book. That really means so much to me.

      The Pokemon set was definitely a labor of love. If you'd like to see some if it in action, you're welcome to check out some videos my wife and I made for it on Cockatrice: