Design Lessions of Culvion
About a year and a half ago, I embarked on the mission of creating my own Magic set. As a game designer, it was a project I had always wanted to take on but never truly began. (You can find the visual spoiler here- but you may want to read on for my critiques before taking a peek.)
Sure, I had designed several odds and ends here and there. Sets for BOO drafts (Build Our Own drafts – everyone brings 45 cards to mix together and draft with), numerous cards on my own, cards for various online contests, and so on. But never an entire set. Until one day around the beginning of 2010, when I decided, “why not?” and started crafting my vision.
To make a long story short, I fervently worked on the set for about four months, playtesting sealed deck games against myself to develop it, and then spent another two lining up the artwork and flavor. Near the end of Summer 2010, I printed up all the cards – the commons and uncommons multiple times over – and several local players had a day of drafting at my place. It was a ton of fun, and I received a lot of great feedback from my “development” team.
Afterward, I wrote an article on the entire experience and submitted it to StarCityGames for my column, relating the design process to tips for the Great Designer Search which would be starting in a couple weeks. The goal was to show off some design while simultaneously improving the design of GDS hopefuls. I put a ton of effort into the column, and it remains to this date the longest article I have ever written, clocking in at around 10,000 words.
However, in my excitement I forgot my audience. When I submitted the article to be published, it was rejected due to low audience appeal. I certainly don’t blame the editor for doing so, and it was definitely the correct decision. That article being rejected, in fact, was part of what eventually spawned this blog. It’s amazing what inspiration can come out of rejection.
In any case, afterwards my life became busy with Fall and graduation, and then SCGLive, and then another game I was designing, and then Overextended. I hadn’t thought about the set or the article I had written for a long time. But recently, my mind drifted back to it and I realized I had never posted it up here! I had always planned to do so. And now, nearly a year later, was a great time to revisit it.
The most interesting thing to me is how I have different eyes now. I’ve done more design work and learned even more since I originally crafted this set, and some of the designs in this set are ones I would certainly argue against today. I would do a lot of things differently.
It’s also very interesting to see how Wizards did Bloodthirst in M12 compared to how I did it in Culvion. One great part of being a designer is the constant learning and evolution: I know today I can look back on last year and know that I could change my work to be better, and that next year I would look on today’s work and do the same.
It’s fun to look back with what I know now and see what I can learn from it. You can see the same in actual Magic design. Look how much the game changes on a design level and constantly gets better from a year to year basis!
There are many individual designs I would scrap now. There are some mechanics and themes I would redo entirely. (Safeguard is way too heavy on tension, and some battlerush triggers cause way too much to happen during combat.) The entire storyline of the block needs to be scrapped or at least rewritten to evoke what’s going on in the plane. (It’s hard to sell this set’s storyline in a single sentence.)
There are also a couple cards that just don’t work and I didn’t realize it at the time. Notably, ones that interact with ability words; it wasn’t until the multiple choice quiz on the Great Designer Search 2 that I found out you couldn’t have cards look at ability words, only keywords. (An example in the set: Call for Aid.)
In retrospect, here are my 10 favorite and least favorite designs from the set (in no particular order):
10 Favorite Designs
1. Duncale Emboldener – Why isn’t this already a card? Short, elegant, virtual vanilla that feels white.
2. Orion’s Throneshaper – I designed this before Stormtide Leviathan was printed. At the time, I thought it was very cool. Post-Leviathan it’s not as exciting, but looking at it for the time it was pretty neat. It just feels like something a merfolk could do.
3. Spelltrump – I love how this card can do something different each time you cast it. Do you build around it, or do you just play it and see what happens? A Commander staple, for sure!
4. Undam the Mind – Short. Simple. Sweet. Flashy. We have cards like Psychic Drain, but why isn’t this a card? You look at it and it seems very powerful (even if it isn’t) and the comparison to the traditional red X spell is a nice parallel. I would expect to see this one eventually.
5. Deal for Omnipotence – Such a black Johnny card. It’s a little unfun because there’s the potential of someone sitting there and “going off” while you watch, but at the same time there’s the excitement of “how is going to get out of the 8 life bind this turn???” It’s certainly an interesting card. Johnnys of the world, how do you break this one?
6. Palimpsest Spellbook – This card reminds me of Pyromancer Ascension, in the sense that it’s a fun, popular Johnny card that has seen some high level play. I imagine this card would be much of the same. It seems like a blast to try out, and it has my “how do I best use this?” senses tingling.
7. Torture Elemental – This card is a home run in my book. For Timmy, there’s the allure of a cheap big creature sitting there. For Johnny, there’s the curiosity of which “pay 1 life” card to best combo with to create a permanent Hatred. For Spike, there’s the potential of gaining incremental advantage in limited and a two card combo in constructed. To the new player, it gives them a reason to think, “okay, maybe these cards that make me lose life are alright sometimes.” Maybe it’s body is the wrong size – you can certainly tinker with its cost and power/toughness – but the ability is simple and great.
8. Lavablood Elemental – This card feels perfect. “The more you fight, the better I am.” It’s simple, streamlined, and perfect for the set.
9. Haunted Battlegear – This card is easy to grok and has a great flavorful tie. The fact that one number (4) is throughout the card makes what it does easy to remember. Maybe it could have a “wake up” cost instead of always being a 4/4, but I like how it just kind of turns on to fight for you when everyone else is gone.
10. Tainted Key – There are numerous weird things going on with this card. The subtype and color were just to draw attention to its oddity for storyline purposes. When I made this set I mapped out the entire block and gave it a vision in case I ever found myself working on sets 2 and 3. The keys are relevant to the storyline – there’s one for each color – and there’s a cycle of cards in the third set that they interact with… but I digress. What I love about this card is how you see it and wonder, “Where does this go? Can I use this?” It provides immense power if you can figure out how what door it slides into.
10 Least Favorite Designs
1. All the Soulshapers – These were conceptualized as spellshapers, but with the “twist” you had to cast a creature. They were some of my first designs for the set, and I kept them because they had some story foreshadowing. However, I should have redone them mechanically at the very least. They’re a rather unexciting cycle, and forces players to choose between two things they want. Good for spike, but bad for everyone else.
2. Cards with forestbound – I spent so much time making this mechanic work and wanted to try it out so badly that I think I was afraid to kill it. However, looking at it now, it shouldn’t have been here. At the very least, not in this set. Yes, it allows you to play with more creatures in your deck, but I don’t think that rationale is immediately obvious. Furthermore, it’s just a really confusing and outlandish mechanic to players. Why not just have forestcycling or something instead? There’s no reason to be different just for the sake of being different.
3. Cerebral Overtaking – It’s very flashy and kind of neat, but in retrospect I think it was a bad decision. I decided its impact on Limited play would be okay before. But the more I look at it, the more I disagree with my initial conclusion. If you have any kind of reasonable control deck, you can’t lose if you draw this card in Limited.
4. Direct Interference – This is another card I kept in that I probably should have cut in one my my many rounds of cuts. I imagine this card frustrating players a lot. Either the caster is going to be thinking “man, he never attacks then casts his spells” or the attacker is going to get a spell counter and be frustrated that “grr, why did I attack before casting this?” Either way, it seems like a lose-lose. It’s also just a weird card to read and grok. Blocking and countering aren’t traditionally two things that go well together.
5. Messenger Sphinx – I had a neat idea for a sphinx, but it was way too many words so it was eventually cut down to this. Now I wonder why it even exists. It seems pretty clear this is just a holdover from the cool sphinx I had before when this ability actually isn’t interesting at all. How often is your opponent really going to hit?
Also, I now want to drastically reduce the number of non-combat related things that happen in this set. Combat should be streamlined. With this card, it’s something like, “attack, okay, hmm, I choose this card, okay now you guess, hmm, okay reveal, I draw… Wait, what was going on again?” I recgonize Conundrum Sphinx has the same problem, but that wasn’t in a set that already had enough going on in combat. (And I’m not a huge fan of Conundrum Sphinx in the first place.)
6. Thought Oppressor – Same problem as above. I attack, you block, stuff happens… What was going on in the game again? It also just feels very unnatural.
7. Drubbleborn Specter – This card’s design irks me. The repetition seems really unnecessary and potentially confusing. You read it and your initial reaction is just, “wait… what?” I think you can just make it a 3/3 and cut the third ability and it’s fine as a battlerush specter.
8. Skullscrounger – “Attack. Do something unrelated to combat. By the way, if this ever attacks twice it’s going to be very hard for you to win.”
9. Crazed Tactician – I like what this card is trying to do. I just don’t like how it does it. Ball Lightning/Master Warcraft is interesting, but a weird mix. I’m not sure it really needs trample. (Plus the trample+needing to be in play to be sacrificed might confuse some players.) It’s also just super ungrokkable to me. I mean seriously, what happens flavorfully when he hits them? Why does he die? Why do you choose what happens in their combat step? It doesn’t make any sense.
10. Nara’s Devoted – This card just feels wrong. I know what I was trying to accomplish here, but I don’t like the way I did it. The second ability on a creature is interesting, but attacking with my 0/2, getting a land, and shuffling is a A. weird to do midcombat, B. feels strange (get in there 0/2!) and C. very powerful if unchecked.
Of course those aren’t the only designs I like/have issue with, but they’re a handful of ones to look at anyway. There are other things I’d talk about, like how I would redo my planeswalkers given the time, how Elven Palisade was a terrible reprint, and how in a block about combat I had too many cards that actually discouraged combat, but this foreword is becoming an article of its own!
Below is the unpublished article I wrote for my StarCityGames column. It’s the article mostly in its entirety, only minus the opening preamble I wrote about the Great Designer Search (as it’s not relevant now) and my history as a game designer. Otherwise, it’s completely unedited and straight from 10 months ago. Enjoy!
…I had wanted to flex my design muscles for a long time. Sure, the small doses are nice – a card a day here, a few cards in class there, another card pulled out just before falling asleep – but they were nothing substantial. They just amounted to notebooks upon scribbles upon computer files of ideas that have little synergy or coherency together. So, one night, late in a hotel room, unable to fall asleep, I waded through ideas and came up with a project. It would take a long time from that night for my ideas to develop into anything more, but eventually they came to fruition.
What did I decide to do? I wanted to design and develop my own Magic set. Not just pick a theme, slap together 229 cards, and call it a set, but actually design and develop the thing carefully and rigorously. (Yes, this means I sat on my computer and played games of a “fake” sealed format against myself for hours on end.) Then, when I was all done, I would print everything off and invite anybody who was interested to come draft with it.
And so I began. I worked on the set moderately throughout Spring, and then when Summer came I finally saw my opportunity to plunge entirely into the set. I set a target date of late September, and I’m glad to say I met it, but not without encountering plenty of interesting design stories along the way.
So here’s what I’m doing.
I’m going to go through my set and detail my thoughts for each design element, highlighting lessons along the way. As a writer, we go by the mantra of “show, don’t tell,” and so you can judge my advice and ability as a designer by what I have to say. After all, the ultimate test for if you think something is designed well is how you feel about the card. Design and development isn’t all about hitting a perfectly balanced ratio; a lot of it is how something feels. Is it elegant? Does it make sense? How do you feel when you cast this card? How about if your opponent casts this card? Sure, tweaking power and toughness is important too, but there is a huge “feel” aspect to design.
You have a role in this article too. It’s a reciprocal thing. What I want YOU to do is tear me apart. Shouldn’t be too hard for the Magic crowd, right?
You see, when I have drafted this set with others, I didn’t ask what they loved about the set. That’s important too, and I made sure to get a feel for what they enjoyed as well. The question I asked instead, though, was, “what do you hate about the set?”
Well, sure, people are prone to complaining about the rare they just lost to, but coaxing out the smaller issues can be harder. If everybody just tells you that (surprise!) a few rares are too good that’s somewhat useful, but nowhere near as useful as hearing about the smaller things people dislike – hearing about the overall feel. If multiple people tell you about the commons and uncommons that bug them, then it’s likely there’s something to it. I don’t care if you hate the flavor text of a card – I want to know!
Trust me, I can take it. I’ve separated myself from my children – err, cards – and won’t take anything personally. If you hate everything, tell me. If you love something, tell me too. But leave no blow unthrown.
In other words: fire away! Also, on another note, if there are any Wizards staff out there, I know that normally you guys are unable to read or comment on any ideas the public provides. However, I would be thrilled to hear your commentary and I do not mind any of my ideas or concepts being used. I would happily give Wizards of the Coast full permission to use or reproduce anything written in this article and sign any legal paperwork necessary.
Alright. With that all out of the way, let’s start at the beginning of my process.
Choosing a Theme
The first thing I knew I needed to do was find a strong theme and then build the world with some basic cards and the story.
After working on theme ideas for some time and building some basic cards that might fit into that theme, I ended up with two ideas I really liked to choose between: the monocolored block, and the combat block. There were a variety of others that I liked, but dismissed due to lack of depth and interaction problems.
For example, in a set built around enters the battlefield and leaves the battlefield triggers, the abilities and mechanics start to feel a little contrived even if you have evoke and unearth to work with. If you don’t assemble the right pieces it’s hard to make games interesting. You can make the first twenty or thirty cards, but after that all of your tricks feels extremely rehashed. With combat and monocolor, I didn’t feel those issues were present.
Monocolor has potential to be exciting and consistently reward players for something they haven’t done for a while (and in limited, potentially ever): play one color. If done correctly, I think monocolor can harness the same kind of excitement multicolor has. People love waxing nostalgic about their mono blue, mono green, mono red, mono black, and, yes, even mono white decks. Just think about it.
The set would be full of cards that would reward you for only being able to produce one color of mana with your lands, heavy monocolor mana costs, potentially some small tribal threads (for example, heavy green based Elves are a good thematic way to hook people into playing just green) and a couple of ways to punish players for playing too many colors. (Especially interesting in older formats.)
Combat, on the other hand, rewards players for something they do all of the time: attack and block. Creatures are the direction the game has been going lately, and the combat block is an extension of that. It’s very natural action and not restrictive, unlike monocolor or multicolor and would serve as an onset for several smaller in-block themes.
The set would contain cards that reward you for attacking and blocking, as well as cards that lightly encourage you to attack and block. There would be a few cards to hinder attacking and blocking to interact with the process as well, though you don’t want to do too much to take away the interactive elements of the set.
On the other hand, a combat block poses a challenge. Unlike most sets, which are based on something that is more clear on the cards – creature types, artifacts, multicolor, and so on – combat is more of an idea you have to convey. It falls more into the line of Kamigawa or Masques – a dangerous area to tread. It also creates the danger of a format that is so fast you can’t afford to fall behind, like in Zendikar. You don’t want every game to be over on turn six.
In the end, after a lot of thought and card speculation, I ended up going with combat. I have actually wanted to monocolor for a long time, and was excited at the prospect of doing it – but I was also concerned about something else. Zendikar was out at the onset of my idea formulation and Worldwake was peaking over the horizon, and the block seemed like it might be leading up to a monocolor theme in the stand alone third set – or potentially the entire block next year. I knew this project was going to take a while, and I didn’t want to risk what I was doing with my set to start moving toward, even subconsciously, whatever was in the sets to come. I know it’s kind of a silly reason and incorrect in retrospect (though the artifact block is sort of like a weird monocolor block in its own way) but it was a decision I made. Combat it was!
Next, I started working on cards and building the world. It was then I hit a wall I had never really had to deal with before: the tension between flavor and function. Sure, you hear it talked about all of the time in columns like Making Magic, Savor the Flavor, and Latest Developments, but you don’t really realize how much of an impact it makes until you start designing with a world in mind. I love Magic’s flavor and had always built my cards with flavor in mind before, but this was different. It’s not just keeping flavor in mind, but having a whole world tug back at you when you try and change something.
For example, there is a defender sub-theme in my set. I was thinking about possible reprints, and hit upon Ogre Gatecrasher. It seemed perfect… except for in the storyline, red and blue aren’t really interacting at all. Unless I wanted to drastically change the story, the Gatecrasher had to be shelved in the folder for the next set in the block.
Fortunately, that taught me another lesson within a lesson. Everything eventually has its time.
Sure, maybe this awesome card won’t fit into this set right now. Maybe it doesn’t even end up fitting into a set later in the block. But if it’s a good idea or design, it will come back eventually. In the case of the Gatecrasher, I have it pegged for the second set. In the case of some cards in the nebulous “cuts” folder on my desktop, they might not end up anywhere – but I know many of them will be back.
What can you learn here for the Great Designer Search 2? Think about the world of your card! Last time, I think something important the people who succeeded did was look for the challenge inside the challenge. When designing a card you don’t just want to make a single card or mechanic, you want to look beyond that idea and figure out the context as well as figuring out what else would go in that set. Design isn’t so much about individual cards as it is everything fitting together.
To figure out the rest I was going to have to interweave flavor and function. I laid down some of the specific gameplay tasksI needed to do so I could integrate them into the story if necessary.
The first challenge I faced was that to make combat matter to the player, it needed to be clear that combat was important. As a result, I tried to find mechanics that jived well with that idea. You see, it’s important your cards pass the “booster pack test.” That is, if somebody who knows nothing about your set goes out to the local game store and buys a single pack of your set, you need to relay that your theme is important loud and clear.
Then it hit me: what if I gave it the landfall treatment?
Ah, yes, landfall. Good ‘ol ability words to the rescue. You see, landfall was a gigantic boon to Zendikar. If every card with landfall read exactly the same but without the word landfall, I don’t think Zendikar’s lands theme would have succeeded nearly to the same extent. Being able to thematically tie everything together with a single word is a phenomenal feature. You see, if you open a pack and see a landfall card, it’s pretty clear what a major theme of the set is. Landfall helps Zendikar make sense together.
I needed to do the same with my set.
So, after some tinkering, I took it to the most intuitive level and put these two mechanics into place:
Battlerush – Whenever this creature attacks, X happens
Safeguard – Whenever this creature blocks, X happens
Simple enough. It’s nothing earth-shattering and has certainly not incredibly innovative, but, like landfall, you would be amazed how much compounding an idea like this into a few words can help a set feel unified. (Plus, it allows other cards to reference creatures with those abilities without turning into an awkward mouthful.)
Next, I looked over the colors and tried to figure out what they wanted to do. The pieces seemed to come together and fit with some of the storyline ideas that were coming to mind, but blue was posing a problem. I knew I could have some merfolk, but what else?
In a world of attacking, I think part of blue wants to be the defender. As a result, I wanted to give part of blue a defense based milling strategy and would need a storyline reason for doing so.
I also knew I was going to want some tribes in play, as in a set so much about attacking it’s nice to be able to draw upon tribal subthemes to give the set additional depth.
Finally, I knew I would want green and possibly its allied colors to have a way to mess with its land counts so it could play more creatures. Creatures are king in a combat block, and so being able to have a wealth of forestcyclers or something similar was going to be a way to push extra creatures into green decks and give green its own identity.
Next came designing the world. It’s near impossible to recount every single detail and idea that went into crafting the plane, so I’m going to fast forward a little bit here and leave all the flavor reading up to you so I don’t take away from the overarching design perspective of this column if you aren’t interested in reading about flavor. After the credits of this article, I have written an overview of the flavor of Culvion. (The set’s name.) Feel free to go ahead and check it out. Because this article has a focus on design, I wanted to leave gushing about flavor optional – though I don’t think understanding the design process can be as strong without listening a little to its flavor.
Some of the flavor was written simultaneously with cards, and some themes were worked into the flavor from the onset. The push and pull is really amazing. I would want something for a design standpoint and flavor would buckle a little while pushing back, and vice versa.
One of the most interesting development lessons came while designing the green mechanic of Forestbound.
As I mentioned, going in I knew I wanted a way to push creatures into green decks. It’s great when you have cards that serve a similar looking function to new players and more experienced players, yet the more experienced players have the ability to use those cards to gain a little more edge without making it seem like they’re doing things that are three mental steps ahead to the newcomer. In other words, it gives skilled players the advantage without making new players feel like they’re playing poorly.
A good example of a mechanic like this is cycling. At the basic level, the idea of cycling is clear. At the same time, figuring out exactly when to cycle can be a very difficult decision that the rookie can mess up and never notice, but that Gabe Nassif will always optimalize. Abilities like these are good for the game. With this mechanic, I wanted to set forth to create something similar – and stumbled across an important lesson in the process.
The first idea I ended up at was creatures that you could also play as tapped as forests. Alarm bells went off in my head though. There’s no way a mechanic like that would be okay. As a result, I began to explore other avenues. I tried out creatures that you could pay a cost and play as lands, to landcycling-ish creatures that searched for lands, to a cycle of cards with the option to Rampant Growth tacked on. Each of them had their problems. The first version of lands sucked, as nobody wants to pay mana to be able to play their lands. It’s not fun at all. The third version was way too good, as it accelerated you too fast. The second version showed some promise, but the problem with establishing anything that searched your library over and over as a central mechanic is that, well, shuffling sucks.
There has been making a conscious effort to reduce the amount of shuffling in magic recently. The fetchlands were a necessary evil, but on the whole each card that says “shuffle” on it is looked at very closely. Little is worse than a start where you shuffle every turn. If landcycling 1 is a key mechanic that happens over and over in limited and constructed, it just needlessly bogs games down.
Imagine this: Land, go, end step cycle, untap, land, go, end step cycle, untap land ,go, card that searched my library. That’s three shuffles in three turns – and the worst part is, that’s entirely feasible.
Instead, I looked back at my original idea, green creatures you could play as lands, and decided to give it a try. And you know what? It tested marvelously.
For reference, here is how the mechanic ended up:
Forestbound (Instead of playing a land on your turn, you may put this card onto the battlefield tapped with a bind counter on it. This card stops being a creature, loses all other abilities, and becomes a Forest.)
I quickly became enamored with this mechanic. I recognized it was powerful, and broke some card design rules. When I began showing the set to others and inviting people to draft, the power of Forestbound quickly a hotly contested topic. There were some people who believed they were unprintable because the opportunity cost was too low. For the cost of playing a land tapped, you get access to an extra creature. Others argued they were fair.
My response – and the lesson here – is something different: yes, in one sense they are too powerful – but in a different sense of power.
Let me explain.
When you opponent casts Bloodbraid Elf, that’s powerful, right? How about Baneslayer Angel? Those are cards your opponent plays and you immediately slump in your chair.
On the other hand, how about a Drowned Catacomb? (Or perhaps a Creeping Tar Pit?)
Now, Drowned Catacomb and its brethren are powerful lands. However, they are powerful in the way that they give you options and help you cast spells. That’s the kind of power which is consistently strong but nobody ever bemoans.
I feel these cards are similar.
When your opponent plays their 3/4 for 5G tapped as a forest on the first turn, sure, in an abstract world that is a very strong play. However, while strong, it is not unfun or degenerate. It is a good kind of powerful. The player that played it is happy because they are going to be able to cast their spells, and the opponent isn’t likely cursing to themselves, “Elvish Ancient on turn one again!? What a lucksack.”
(Furthermore, aside from all of the game theory discussion, in a world where insane dual color manlands are printable cards, I don’t feel these Forestbound creatures are necessarily too good by any means.)
In any case, options like these can become dangerous if you overload on them. A gigantic design mistake in my first draft of the set was having a lot of Forestbound cards, including several at common. It got to the point where people would be skirting land counts too far in limited and running seven or more Forestbound creatures.
Sometimes you would put all of your Forestbound creatures into a deck with no forests, and then use them to cast each other. However, what I wanted was for people to be able to pick up a couple to help their mana bases and serve as a couple of extra creatures. With only five in the final take on the set – three at uncommon and two at rare – you can pick up a couple to help you out, but you’re not going to run into that oversaturation issue
In any case, there are three good design lessons here.
First of all, everything is worth trying. Even if an idea seems too good, it might not end up being that way. Often your first concept will be the most intuitive, while further iterations just bog everything down. Don’t be afraid to try something out.
Second of all, it’s okay to break the rules and be powerful sometimes if what you are making is of a more benevolent powerful that helps the player casting it rather than making the player across from the table unhappy. Once again, compare manafixing or Sakura-Tribe Elder to Bloodbraid Elf.
Third, the second point should only be dealt in small doses. Being subtly powerful is a problematic theory when taken to extremes as not every part of Magic needs to have a “power streamlining.” When several cards are suddenly pushing the power barrier, even problems are created. However, as a small handful of cards, they can ensure they accomplish their goal without getting out of hand.
Next up is the fourth and final mechanic. I knew the set needed a returning mechanic, but I actually didn’t know what I wanted it to be until deeper in design. I tried out provoke for a long time, but ultimately I thought that would be better for later in the block. Just like battlerush and safeguard, one of the most important things you can do with a theme is provide simple incentives to accomplish your goals.
Suddenly, it all clicked together: bloodthirst.
A mechanic that rewarded you for dealing damage was exactly what the set wanted. Since I knew red and black weren’t going to have any safeguard cards in the first set, bloodthirst filled a nice niche while playing marvelously. Most importantly, though, it added tension.
You see, one of my many goals was to make combat a little mysterious. I wanted to include plenty of cards that interacted in combat (hence increased numbers of things like flash creatures) and make sure every color had a good combat trick. I also wanted to make sure that combat wasn’t overly confusing to newer players but had levels of depth to competitive players. Bloodthirst adds tension to that: do you risk attacking and running into their trick, or do you hold back and wait, or do you just play your card unthirsted? Furthermore, as the defender, do you chump block early on to prevent bloodthirst? There are all these intricate levels that the new player is happy to ignore but the experienced player can analyze. It’s elements like those that really fleshes out a set.
The main lesson here is that you want to create interaction with your designs. It’s great to have all upside abilities, and it’s important those cards exist, but it’s just as important to make sure that you are playing a game where both players are making decisions that matter and have consequences. Bloodthirst was a wonderful fit for this set and I’m glad I ended up using it.
Now, I could go through all 229 cards and tell you a story about each and some important design anecdote, but that might get a little trite. Instead, I want to highlight the design decisions I feel are most worth talking about.
First of all, before I go any further, you can find the entire visual spoiler of the set by clicking here to see the PDF. As I mentioned above, feel free to comment away.
Alright, ready? Here we go!
Brace for Battle 2W
Prevent all damage that would be dealt to attacking creatures this turn.
While this card is by no means good – it’s made to consistently be a twelfth pick – it’s interesting. Compare this card to Safe Passage. This card is much worse in the abstract… but because of how the block plays out, it is still fringe playable in some white aggressive strategies. Similar to Mindless Null, its important this card exists. Brace for Battle is way worse than other cards – but that doesn’t mean it’s 100% unplayable within the context of the block either.
Featherborne Shield 5W (And the others four in this common cycle)
Featherborne Shield costs 1 less to cast for each attacking or blocking creature you control.
Choose a color. Creatures you control gain protection from that color until end of turn.
Just because you have mechanics to express your theme doesn’t mean the rest of your cards can avoid the topic altogether. It’s important that you have ways to encourage your theme outside of just keywords, and this cycle is a great way to encourage people to attack or block while simultaneously making sure people will fit room for instants and sorceries in their deck.
Ghostly Prison 2W
Creatures can’t attack you unless their controller pays 2 for each creature he or she controls that’s attacking you.
The joke of how Shatter and Terror are weirdly opposites on Mirrodin is a favorite story of designers for a reason – it’s a design triumph. I think it’s interesting to use that technique in small doses whenever possible to highlight the differences of the world. While on Kamigawa Ghostly Prison was okay in some decks and unplayable in others, on Culvion it can be a fairly high pick.
Griffin Cloudshaper 3W
Creature – Griffin Wizard
When Griffin Cloudshaper enters the battlefield, you may search your library for an Aura card that could enchant target creature you don’t control, put it onto the battlefield enchanting that creature, then shuffle your library.
When looking to innovate, one of the easiest places to start is to look at an existing card with a unique ability that has only been done a few timess and seeing how you can tweak that ability. One day, I started thinking about Auratouched Mage, and this was a result.
On a side note, I think this might be my favorite card in the set. I just love everything it does.
Griffin Skygrazer 2W
Creature – Griffin
When Griffin Skygrazer enters the battlefield, if you control a Human, you gain 2 life.
I think it’s always important to question “why” with your cards. Griffins have a subtheme of flash going on, and for a very long time this creature had flash and was a 2/1. It just seemed natural. Then, one day, after I had decided to tediously take a close look at every word on cards in my set, I couldn’t understand why this creature needed to have flash. It wasn’t really serving any purpose other than an occasional surprise. When you design cards, make sure every piece has a purpose. Does that evergreen ability really need to be on your creature?
On a side note, this card references the creature type Human which is typically avoided. However, I felt like since there were some humans that boosted griffins, it would be great to create some cross-synergy the other way. For a while I had it written as “soldier,” but that excludes far too many creatures. Alas. Perhaps that was a design flaw in the end and it should just be Wild Griffin. Thoughts?
Organized Ambush 2W
Destroy target attacking creature
Would you believe me if I told you this card didn’t exist? Sometimes, simplicity is best. Elegance is an incredible virtue for a card to have.
Consult the Currents 1U
Draw a card for each flood counter among lands on the battlefield.
Not every card is for everybody. Its really tempting to see everything through a Spike’s eyes, but that’s not who the majority of Magic rares are targeted at. This card is kind of cute in its own set, but combined with Magic’s history it allows casual players to use it with cards like Quicksilver Fountain. Sure, that combo isn’t exactly going to tear up the Legacy scene, but it’s that treasured moment of discovery between card interactions which keeps the game going.
Depricar Wayfarer 1U
Creature – Merfolk Scout
Once again, elegance. Not every card has to be the best card ever, and cards like these are important to have around. Not good enough to make your first 22 cards most of the time, but sometimes it will be your 23rd card, come in to block against a bunch of 2/1’s, or just supplant your beatdown strategy in a blue beatdown mirror. It’s cards like this I don’t think the average designer considers making often enough.
Diving Drake 3UU
Creature – Drake
Diving Drake can block creatures with islandwalk as though they didn’t have islandwalk.
For the Great Designer Search you’re not going to be testing the cards you make, but it’s still important to gauge their impact and figure out how to fill holes. In this set, it quickly became apparent that there was a tension between the blue based mill decks and the Islandwalkers of blue. It’s important that hole can be fixed, as you don’t want one brand of blue deck to always crush the other. I don’t know if there will be an exercise or question like this, but it’s always a good thing to think about as your designing your own cards.
Study and Steal 4U
Target opponent reveals cards from the top of his or her library until he or she reveals a nonland card. If that card is a permanent card, put up to two token copies of that card onto the battlefield. If that card is an instant or sorcery card, you may copy that card twice and you may play both copies without paying their mana cost. Then, put each card revealed this way into its owner’s graveyard.
I hate, hate, hate how much text is on this card. However, what it does seemed just intuitively understandable enough I felt it was okay to put in the final file but even then I was very hesitant. In most cases, though, elegance trumps nine lines of text no matter how cool your card is. I’ve started to design cards in Twittermode – that is, I want to see what the maximum meaning I can convey is in the least amount of text. Next time you have a lengthy card, try figuring out what the core of the card is and see if you can preserve it in fewer lines of text.
Creature – Vampire Rogue
Pay 3 life: Bloodthinner gets +1/+1 or gains your choice of flying or shroud until end of turn.
For a while, I had this card at common and it was a mistake to put it there. Although all of its abilities are simple, the decision trees cards like this create are far too many to warrant coming up with extreme frequency. Packing tons of decisions into a common is something worth avoiding. If you look at the common creatures even in Scars of Mirrodin, most of them are fairly straightforward. Sure, they might turn on and off with metalcraft or you might have to make a single choice of what to tap each turn – but that’s it. Making commons feel more straightforward is not dumbing down the game, but rather ensuring your brain isn’t overloaded trying to figure out everything that can happen. When that happens, it takes away from the fun of the game.
Infuse with Toxins B
Target creature gains deathtouch until end of turn.
Another card that is a downgrade from another, in this case Virulent Swipe. However, once again, will you play this card sometimes? Yes. That is precisely why having weaker cards like this is interesting and, contrary to what some might think, skill testing.
Soul Pierce 3BB
Choose one — Destroy target nonblack creature; or target player discards two cards.
Out of all the cards in the original design file, this is the only card to stay exactly the same from start to finish. The lesson here is that cards will need to change. Occasionally there will a handful of designs that feel entirely right, but don’t be afraid to scrap or change what you have based on the needs of what you see around you.
Vengeful Wraith 2B
Creature – Wraith
When Vengeful Wraith enters the battlefield, destroy it.
B: Regenerate Vengeful Wraith.
When Vengeful Wraith is put into a graveyard from the battlefield, destroy target nonblack creature.
Sometimes, interesting designs come out of a crazy idea. I wanted to make a card that read, “when this enters the battlefield, destroy it.” This was the result, and it turned out to be pretty interesting. The lesson here is that if you have a crazy idea, don’t be afraid to follow it and see where it leads. The weirdest strings of words sometimes leading to the most unique cards.
Cumbersome Ogre 1R
Creature – Ogre Warrior
Skip your untap step.
The first time we drafted, Alexander West confronted me about this card.
“I don’t get it. Why would I ever play this card?”
“You wouldn’t. But someone else would love to.”
Not every card is for every person. There are player psychographics out there who enjoy taking the truly bad cards and figuring out how to use them. I guarantee there would be plenty of people trying to crash in with this guy and then Fling him. That alone is enough reason to include a card like this.
Worv Firestoker 1R
Creature – Cat Shaman
R: Worv Firestoker gets +1/+0 until end of turn.
Some people create at a card, see that something similar exists, and then ensure that the other version carefully does not surpass the original. In this case, the original is Pygmy Pyrosaur, the same thing (save for creature type) except he can’t block. Spitfire Handler upgraded on the Pyrosaur, but it still carried a similar drawback. However, look at other cards that exist which do similar things, such as Flamekin Brawler. I see no reason for the can’t block clause with the creatures of modern magic, now it’s good on offense and defence. Once again, elegance wins out.
Branchbreak Elemental 3GG
Creature – Elemental
Battlerush – Whenever Branchbreak Elemental attacks, other attacking creatures you control get +3/+3 and gain trample until end of turn.
Just like it is important weak cards exist, it is important cards that are above the curve exist as well. Design is not just kicking weak cards up a notch and sliding cards that are too strong down a notch. It’s important that some cards are naturally very good and above the curve. Why? Well, one reason is so that the more experienced player doesn’t always win every game in limited. A card like Branchbreak Elemental could cost 4GG… but it doesn’t need to. Not only would have as large of an impact, or become a card people would try and play in constructed, but it would simply be trying to equalize all cards. Is it strong? Yes. But, on the other hand, it is a 3/3 Overrun that you see coming.
Crashing Wurm 5GG
Creature – Wurm
Trample, intimidate (This creature can’t be blocked except by artifact creatures and/or creatures that share a color with it.)
An elegant way to explore design space is to find somewhere that two unlikely abilities will meet. (See: Phobian Phantasm.) With this Wurm, green is one of the colors with big enough creatures to stop it – but green also has a bevy of chump blockers. The Wurm is interesting because your green creatures can’t just chump block it. You need to throw a lot in its path to take it down. All that with just two words! (Well, sans reminder text.)
Repel Fabrications 1G
Destroy target artifact or enchantment, then put Repel Fabrications on top of its owner’s library.
Is this card better than Naturalize? Why? Why not?
The answer is that it depends entirely on the format and the deck you’re playing against. The discussion of that alone makes this card interesting. Simple cards that have shifting value from deck to deck, opponent to opponent, are always a nice rarity.
Amulet Collector 4
Artifact Creature – Construct
Battlerush — Whenever Amulet Collector attacks, it gets +1/+1 until end of turn for each other artifact you control.
Hinting at more to come is an interesting tactic. Sure, this creature could just be a one-of… But it also could herald more artifacts in sets to come. Enticing people about what could be in store, as long as it is not done in mass quantities, is a way to make even the most simple cards interesting.
Manaforge enters the battlefield with a charge counter on it.
T, Remove a charge counter from Manaforge: Add one mana of any color to your mana pool.
2, T: Put a charge counter on Manaforge.
One interesting way to show that a theme isn’t being supported is to contrast something against what is usually there. (For example, Hornet Sting versus Lightning Bolt.) Multicolor is not supported at all in the first set, and the next block is intended to be the monocolor block. (Which, coincidentally, is why there are no multicolored lands in this set – though there would be some in the next two.) Manaforge is worse than Signets, Prismatic Lens, or even Prophetic Prism, which just shows how hard you’re going to have to work if you want a multicolor strategy to pan out.
Tainted Key 1
Artifact – Key
Tainted Key is black.
As long as Tainted Key is tapped, creatures you control are indestructible and have deathtouch.
Ignore the key-ness and being black, as those are there for flavor reasons and to work with what is planned in the next two sets.
Whet someone looks at this card, they immediately begin wondering how they can make it work as though it were a riddle they have to solve. Any ability that poses such a riddle in an elegant manner is worth trying to make work, and pulls at both the Johnny and Spike in all of us.
And finally, I want to talk about an important lesson learned from a card that was cut from the set:
Seize the Moment 2RR
Cast Seize the Moment only if one or more creatures are attacking you.
Untap all creatures you control. After this phase, take an additional combat phase as though it were your turn. (Creatures you control can attack and your opponent can block. It is still the same turn and that turn resumes as normal afterward.)
There’s a problem with this card. (And it isn’t just that it doesn’t work within the rules.) As cool as this card is, it has a major flaw: it’s almost never going to be as awesome as it promises! The only time it does anything is when you’re racing. Otherwise either they’re not going to be attacking you, or attacking them isn’t going to be profitable. As cool as it looks, it almost never works out.
The lesson to be learned here is to look ahead at how a card will be used. If the card doesn’t do what you want it to do or doesn’t have a good function for any kind of player, then often the card is better left buried.
Similarly, how about this card?
As Abandoned Bog enters the battlefield, you may reveal a blue or black card from your hand. If you don’t, Abandoned Bog enters the battlefield tapped.
T: Add U or B to your mana pool.
This is a card a lot of people have proposed over the years as a dual land cycle, but if you think about how it plays out for just a minute or two you will realize why these are problematic.
Do you see it?
Unless you are sitting on an instant or you are a three color deck and the spell in your hand is neither of those colors (unlikely), these lands are more or less without a drawback.
No matter what turn of the game you play this on, if you are going to play a spell that turn, they will enter the battlefield untapped, you will cast the card you revealed, and they will be void of a drawback. One drop? Reveal it, play it, go. Two drop? Same thing.
Many can argue this is the same kind of thing as the Lorwyn lands, only those ones had a drawback: you had to be tribal! Sure you Secluded Glen or Glit-Leaf Palace always came into play untapped… Because you played certain kinds of decks to make that happen.
The lesson? Just think about cards as you make them. How will they be used? Is that really drawback? Is that drawback too unwieldly? You can almost think about them in the same way you can play out matchups in your head when playtesting. This, beyond all things, is one of the most important design skills you can have.
On that note, this article is heading to an end.
I’m looking forward to reading the forum comments! If you want to e-mail me you can message me at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com, or you can talk to me on Twitter @GavinVerhey. If you’re entering the Great Designer Search, hopefully I’ll see you after the final cut! I’ll be back next week with some decklists for states. Until then, have fun designing!
Rabon on Magic Online, GavinVerhey on Twitter
Bonus section on the flavor of Culvion:
Culvion is a world with pieces very, very loosely based on traditional English/Irish legend. While only a handful of elements are there, I tried to populated the world with as much as I could. With the name of the set, for example, Culvion, the first half (cul) comes from a Cumbric prefix meaning “narrow” which has set significance. A castle is named “Duncale,” the first half (dun) a Irish and Scottish prefix meaning “fort.”
Additionally, I tried to blend traditional names with English/Irish sounding names whenever I could. For the most part, though, I knew the art I would find was going to be mostly generic fantasy artwork so I couldn’t do anything too extreme. (By and large, the artwork was the hardest part – it took over two months to find everything I needed and ask permission from several of the artists. Plus, when you’re as finicky as me about art and flavor I wasn’t about to settle for pieces that made no sense.)
I knew I wouldn’t necessarily need a whole storyline to make up all of the names and flavor text, but I wanted to have one anyway just so I could draw on as much as possible. I wanted to show off those basics as well as I could. Some of the plotline are fantasy clichés, but I wanted something I could definitely build around – sometimes clichés are that way for a reason! Even if you don’t like flavor, this is worth skimming to see how it impacts design later on. Here is an overview of what is going on with Culvion.
Culvion was once a mostly peaceful place. Don’t think Lorwyn, but maybe something more like Dominaria pre-Urza and Mishra. People had their spats, but they were mostly unified at least among colors.
Then, six years ago, the Nulse appeared.
As if out of nowhere, they first materialized in The Drubble – a then-lush forest and home of the Elves. They are a seemingly unending force of dark beings that has eventually defeated everything they have come into contact with. Nobody had seen or heard about them before. It started with small attacks, then the assaults eventually grew to monstrous proportions. They have killed around 70% of beings on Culvion and have singlehandedly wiped out entire races. (From a creature type perspective during design, this is especially important.) The attacks are still relentless and have pushed the races (colors) of Culvion apart as the Nulse continue their assault for complete control of the plane. Worse yet, tensions between races that were once aligned are growing.
The few planeswalkers left on the plane have been trapped there as Culvion somehow shifted to a barren spot in the blind eternities that is near-impossible to planeswalk to or from. The plane is, in its own way, in hiding.
When the Nulse came, the noble beings of the world were their first target after the elves. They slaughtered the king in battle, and ravaged entire cities. All nobility has left is a tiny corner of Culvion.
Erected shortly after the Nulse appeared and named after Cale, then a prince, this is the proud race of men’s last fortress. It is everything they have left, and they defend it constantly. There are shields of magic some mages have set up outside the perimeter, but they are neither unbreakable nor permanent. They are shattered daily, and battalions of soldiers are sent to try and fight them back while a new shield is erected.
Nobody remembers this field being so peculiar, but since the Nulse first appeared it has been. From what the men have seen, if you go far into it you risk disappearing and then appearing elsewhere in the field. Some who enter – such as the Nulse –have just disappeared entirely. However, as the men know, the griffins of Culvion safely live there. What the men don’t know is the handful of surviving kithkin on the plane have also taken refuge there. Few men even believe they exist. The griffins ensure they are shielded.
It is important to note that the kithkin here are not like their Lorwyn counterparts at all. There is no thoughtweft that binds them together. They are more of a Dominarian variety, but with the love of peace that the Lorwyn kithkin have.
Given the title “Heir of Valor” instead of king after his father Riesl died and the citizens subsequently naming their kingdom after him, he feels obligated to protect his people at any cost. He has begun to make enemies with Zafarl, once a friend to mankind, by having his men abduct griffin fledglings to use as steeds.
Zafarl, keeper of the flock, protects the griffins and kithkin of Flickerfield. He can speak in human tongues, and was once an ambassador between the races. He still wishes mankind hope, but simultaneously rejects Cale as any kind of leader.
When the Nulse appeared, the feeble beings aligned with blue magic were unable to defend themselves. Aside from the drakes that litter the skies, there are two main races left: humans and merfolk.
The human wizards that could retreat before the Nulse arrived ascended into Windspire, a floating fortress near where the ocean and the shore meet. Shortly thereafter someone unknown set a magic barrier over it, preventing anybody from ever entering – or leaving. They still keep tabs on the world around them when specialized magic.
The merfolk once walked on land with help from human magic. As the Nulse approached, they retreated into the water – a place that the Nulse have not been able to enter… yet. The major city of the merfolk underwater is called Aquos.
Depricar Ocean is the major ocean that spans Culvion.
Cyprica is the leader – called a Sage – of Windspire. She has assumed all of its operations and all wizards answer to her.
The city of Aquos may be the hub of the ocean, but outside of that the waterways are ruled by the planeswalker Orion Marthel. With planeswalking near-impossible, the visiting Orion Marthel has turned Culvion’s situation in his favor and is attempting to rule the entire ocean as the Nulse have the way with the land. He controls the tides and has an army of followers who help him to orchestrate raids on land.
Azelor is a wizard who has managed to narrowly survive despite the circumstances. He is currently travelling Culvion, looking for the best way to fight the Nulse.
The Drubble was once the home of the elves until the Nulse appeared. They first showed up in The Drubble, and quickly forced the elves out. Now, it is where the Nulse brood. Furthermore, several of Culvions witches have taken residence in The Drubble. Unlike every other living creature, the Nulse ignore them.
The Drubble itself is a mix of dark magic, abominations, Nulse, and the witches. It is unclear to many what role the witches have played in this, but almost all of Culvion believes them to be at fault for the Nulse somehow.
Rattleclaw is a specific area inside The Drubble where many of the witches spend their time.
See everything else, such as why the world is in such deep despair. No details are known about them as of the first set
Silverweave is the last stand of nature. When the Nulse appeared in The Drubble, the elves begin to migrate away from their home, to a location unknown. The Nulse killed off all of the dryads, treefolk, and most other forest creatures – but not before they could pass on a gift to the elves. The dryads and treefolk taught the elves how to permanently become trees, giving them nature’s gift. The surviving elves retreated to an empty expanse and many of them took root and became the forest of Silverweave.
The Nulse now attacking Silverweave constantly, resulting continual war between the two areas.
Faye Arim, a mysterious planeswalker, original location unknown, is leading the elves, and has unrevealed reasons to believe they should stay and protect their home instead of going back into The Drubble to fight the Nulse back. Not all Elves are content with this, however.
Shiras, bearer of a treasured key which opens a door somewhere inside The Drubble, is the leader of the Duskseekers, a band Shiras former. The Duskseekers go against Faye’s wishes and aim to assail the Drubble until the Nulse fall back – and Shiras can figure out where use his key.
Finally, there is Scatterpeak. A series of highly unstable mountains with ledges that teeter and fall on a whim, and intricate cliffsides carved out over and over, is the most naturally dangerous place on Culvion. It is the one place the Nulse have consistantly had trouble invading. A handful of different races retreated there to live, such as goblins, ogres, and minotaurs, choosing to live dangerously than not all. The rulers of Scatterpeak, however, are the Worvs, a tribal race of nimble cats (yes, most of the art looks like wolves – it turns out that finding anthropomorphized cats that aren’t females without shirts on is a very difficult venture) that nimbly live around the perilous ridges of Scatterpeak.
While the locals think the difficulty to traverse is what has been protecting them from the Nulse, that is not entirely true. Kelm Issar, a Worv who had his spark ignited during the first fights against the Nulse, has been using his energy to keep the Nulse away and protect his Worv people for the past six years without rest. However, he is wearing thin.
Vorgal is a worv packleader who is trying to rally his people so they can be ready if and when the Nulse invade.
Krelt is a renegade worv who fights his own way. While Vorgal tries to fight with honor, Krelt has no such rules.
The story of the first set of Culvion ends when Kelm channels all of the red mana he can, resulting in a giant cataclysm – Barrin style. It kills him and destroys hundreds of the nulse tracking his fellow worvs – as well as much of the surrounding landscape. His last ditch attempt proves unsuccessful, and the nulse begin to finally converge on a specific place in the Scatterpeak mountains, searching for something that will no doubt make matters worse.