So, turns out designing a Magic: The Gathering custom set is deep. Real deep. Deep af.
Duh, I can hear you say.
When I first boldly declared to my friends that I was going to design a set, I wasn’t really aware of the grandeur of the task, or the foolishness of my words. I thought I knew enough about the game already, that I just needed to sit down for a few sessions, make cool new cards with art found online and call it day.
More than a month later and here we are: I’ve hardly finished the commons (which are a mess), I’ve only dipped my toes in the pool of uncommons and deleted an entire set once. It feels like I haven’t progressed at all but I know I clocked over 100 hours on this already.
Even more deflating, my mechanics have tons of problems.
Let’s not dwell too much on the negatives. More importantly than MtG lore and mechanics, I’ve learned tons in game design, balancing, and MtG bits and bobs which took my fanboy level to new heights and will surely help me down the line with other creative hobbies (I’d eventually like to create adventures, modules and settings for tabletop games).
I also realized how little I actually know about MtG. To spare you the details of my geek/nerd life I won’t go too deep but I will say this: there are not one, but two 10-year gaps during which I played absolutely no MtG. None. That, coupled with the fact I was never a power-gamer and didn’t really care about the lore means that I missed out on a lot of things which have now been thrown at my face at rapid speeds all day, every day for the last few weeks.
Cycles. Mirrored pairs. Evergreens. Balance. Mark Rosewater. The list goes on.
After sitting down and creating 100 cards randomly, mostly based on art I felt represented my set, I realized that I needed to worry about mana curve or the number of creatures vs other spells; color personalities, rarities and a whole other buttload of stuff which straight-up gave me a panic attack more than once.
The first lesson I learned was to start at the beginning.
Duh, duh, say you. Well, what’s the beginning anyway? Turns out it’s more complicated than I thought. Actually, the very first lesson I learned was to:
Figure out your beginning!
What’s your main source of inspiration for this custom set? Is it the lore? Is it the art? Is it an idea for a mechanic or a faction? Are you creating a custom set to build upon an already existing, official set or are you tackling it as a stand-alone kit?
You need to figure all these out yes, but not right at the very start. Firstly, You need to pinpoint your muse because if you don’t, you’ll end up like me with about 6 or 7 different ideas all competing for space at the same time and none of the concepts being pulled off in a convincing manner.
A simple thing you can do to help you start is to figure out if you’re designing from the top down, or the bottom up. Again, I’ll let you do your own research on this simply because there are easily findable articles already written on the subject by much more knowledgeable people than me… safe for one link lower down this wall of text.
At the moment, my biggest problem is that I don’t have an overarching mechanic for my set. Each color has its own separate mechanic and cares a bit about creature types, a bit about color, and a bit about total power. One faction relies heavily on tokens, while the other loves +1 counters. I thought it was fine since I’m still playtesting and I’m trying to figure out what’s the most fun part of my cards but I’m creating a lot of extra work for myself and ignoring any kind of connection that could happen between all colors to unify the set.
One evening, after staring at my list pointlessly for a few minutes, I realized I was tackling the problem the wrong way. Cart-before-the-bulls type of way. I turned the computer off. I went to bed phone in hand, and googled “designing a custom MtG set”, and started reading.
From the search results, a link emerged which helped me immensely.
It was called: Putting Your Eggs in Your Basket: Designing a Custom Set.
Clicking this link really did propel me forward but also brought me to the edge of an abyss that I was not brave enough to fully stare into: the fabulous world of competitive custom MtG. These maniacs are actually playing custom modern, custom standard!
More importantly, the article referred is amazing. I won’t explain what it is because I really think you ought to read it, especially if you’re new to the universe of Custom MtG. Let’s just say it’ll save you a lot of head-scratching and a couple of late-night hours.
At the time of writing this, I’ve realized thanks to helpful redditors over at r/custommagic/ that my main black mechanic isn’t a black mechanic at all but more akin to blue spells… which is sort of a huge relief as I feel like I can drop the “colors matter” aspect of my set to focus more on a “tribes matter” feel. Back to the design board again, with renewed fervor!
May your opening hands be balanced.