Getting Started with a New Design

9 Card Pickup

Recently I launched into a new MTG design project, and I took a look back through my archives and found this e-mail.  I wrote this to my brother a while ago as he was getting started on designing his first set.  He had pitched me a basic world idea and had designed a number of cards.  While some of this e-mail is specific to his ideas, much of it will translate to anyone designing their own set, and I’ve decided to publish it *almost* in it’s entirety.  I’ve left out a portion about card formatting, as it’s full of his idea’s and I haven’t asked for his permission to publish his stuff.  This writeup mostly pertains to basic world building and the practical matters of physical card set production.  I’ll be continuing this series as I work through the process, writing about the steps as I take them.  Currently I’m still in this first step which, in the words of Ned Ryerson, is a doozy!

World building and mechanics

So it sounds like you’ve got a pretty solid idea for the flavor of the world you’re going for.  I would suggest fleshing it out a little more in terms of where the cards are going to come from.  Who are the groups of characters in this world?  What are they concerned about?  What are they good at?  What colors would they align with?  What are the landscapes like?  Are there any established fiction tropes that you’re modelling after (high fantasy, prehistoric, arabian, steampunk, etc).  Are there any major events taking place in the world over the course of the set?

Mechanically:  what are your major mechanics?  Meaning: what abilities are you designing into your set that makes it unique from other sets?  Here are the articles that detail out mechanics for some real sets, you’ll see what I mean:


This is a huge part of set design.  In the best sets, the flavor of the world and the mechanics are designed together.  There is quite a bit of give and take there.  One can inform the other quite a bit in both directions.  For instance, you mentioned a “network of mana” in your world concept.  How would that play out mechanically in a way that’s different from other magic sets?  You mentioned that the creatures there have “evolved to use it.”  What can these creatures do that creatures in other sets can’t?

As an example, when I was in that designer contest I participated in, I came up with a mechanic called “Ambush.”  Basically, it jumps out of your hand to help one of your creatures.  Here’s an example of a card with ambush:

Velociraptor attack

Razorclaw Raptor (uncommon)
Creature – Lizard
Doublestrike, ambush 1R (1R: If a creature you control that shares a creature type with CARDNAME attacks or blocks, you my put CARDNAME onto the battlefield attacking or blocking the same target.)

Something to bear in mind with all these mechanics is that they need to translate onto commons.  Commons are where the majority of the flavor of your set is displayed.  If you have 3 major mechanics and two of them are so complicated they can only be on rares, then you’ve relegated yourself to keeping the driving force of your set within 10% of the cards.  Also, is generally a good idea for mechanics to be “constructive” rather than “restrictive.”  You don’t want the the main idea of your set to be “you don’t get to do things that you can do in other sets.”

The main mechanic you described basically says, “you’re not allowed to play this creature unless you jump through hoops.”  Then when you jump through the hoops, all you get is a normal creature that can get wiped out with a Shock.  The concept is good, but it needs to be turned around so it the player feels like they’re getting something good that they wouldn’t normally get.  Like, maybe you can play it without the other kind of land, but it gets a kick ass ability if you do have it.

Please don’t take this as “your idea sucks” or something.  This is just something I’ve learned about game design through trial and error and lots of study.  Good games are all about balancing abilities against restrictions.  The games that people like playing the most are the ones that hide the restrictions behind things that feel natural, and flaunt the abilities so they feel like they can do cool things.  Almost any mechanic in any game can be written in different ways so the players think it’s cool, or get irritated by it.

fight_vampires_sesame_street_edward_cullen_count_von_desktop_1440x900_hd-wallpaper-767131For instance, say your game (whatever game, not specifically magic) had a card/piece that was powerful but you only wanted the players to have access to it part of the time, otherwise it would take over the game.  You could make an arbitrary rule that says “you’re not allowed to play this piece unless X, Y and Z.”  Alternatively, you could make that piece a vampire and put mechanics in the game that determine whether it’s day or night.  That way when they can’t play it during the day, but they don’t feel like they’re losing anything.  There’s an existing expectation that vampires can only walk around at night.  It’s functionally the same mechanic, but it feels very different because of the way it’s presented.

So, once you have answers to those questions posed above about the world you’re building, you should come up with 10 or 15 mechanics that could work for the set.  At that point, make sure they work within the rules, and you can design some sample cards to play with an see how the mechanics work in real games.  No amount of experience can take the place of playtesting.  Things just work out differently when they’re in context than you think they will when you design them.  Then we can narrow it down to the 2 or 3 mechanics that really work best and start filling out the set.

(on a side note, it’s usually fun to include at least one old mechanic from a previous set that people haven’t seens in a while).

One final note in this section, there’s not really any need to be dogmatically set on creating all new stuff.  Hundreds of people have designed thousands of amateur sets.  You probably aren’t going to come up with something that nobody has ever thought of.  Feel free to get ideas and inspirations from other peoples designs.  The wizards R&D team don’t hole up and design sets individually, they have a couple dozen designers weighing in on every set.  I like parusing things other people have done for inspiration.  Here’s the list of a lot of the final submissions from the top 100 for that design contest I was in (mine is Aztelan).

/mm106_gdsAnd here are the wiki pages that we were all using so solicit ideas during the contest.  There are probably 10 times as many ideas scattered around these pages as there are in the final submissions above.

Feel free to raid them for ideas.

Framing the project

Something that I found helps a LOT is that once you have a basic theme idea and a couple of mechanics, lay out an outline of the structure.  So first off, are you planning on doing a single set?  Or a full block?  You said “each set has 3 packs?”  I’m not quite sure what you mean, but I’m guessing that you mean each major story arc has 3 different kinds of boosters over the course of the year.  That’s a terminology thing (no big deal).  The world/story arc is called a block.  Each block has a few sets, usually 3.  Each set has it’s own booster packs (for instance, Innistrad, Dark Ascension, Avacyn Restored).  Sounds like you’re saying you want to do a whole block, but given that this is a first attempt, I’d suggest a single set. If you end up liking it and want to do more, you’ll probably have learned so much that you just want to put this set aside and start fresh to create a full block.  That’s what happens to almost everyone, myself included.  No need to chain yourself to your first attempt for the next 2 sets you design.

math-and-symbols-image3This next section is the math to explain the choices for set structure, feel free to skip it and look at the breakdown below for an overview of what we need to do. But come back to this later if you do, it’s important to know so you understand how/why this is all put together.

The next question is “small set or large set”?  Here’s a breakdown of the numbers of cards per set (including # per rarity etc). As a general rule, big sets nowadays are around 250, small sets are 150-170.  If you’re designing a single set, you’re going to want to be able to draft.  Small sets don’t work very well in drafts, as you end up seeing the same cards over and over and over.  So you probably want a big set.

Now, wizard’s set sizes are determined specifically by the way their print runs work, as will ours.  They print on sheets that are 11 cards by 11 cards.  Meaning 121 per sheet.  Take a look at the numbers for Magic 2013 (on that link in the last paragraph).  A print run of a large set usually involves 3 unique print sheets.  One sheet has 1 of each common, and 4 of each basic land (usually 4 different artworks for each one).  The second sheet has 2 of each uncommon.  That leaves 1 blank spot on the sheet, which is usually a token card (we’re going to ignore this for now, because it makes things a LOT more complicated).  The third sheet has 2 of each rare, and 1 of each mythic rare.

/Magic-2012-M12-Booster-BoxThey then print the appropriate number of sheets to make the rarities line up for the booster packs.  This is called a “print run.”  Each booster pack should contain 10 commons, 3 uncommons, 1 rare/mythic, and 1 basic land.  If you print 1 “rare” sheet, you’ll have 121 cards for your rare slot, which means 121 booster packs.  (approximately 1/8 of them will be a mythic, and each mythic is represented once and each rare is represented twice).

That means you’ll need 363 uncommons to fill the uncommon slots in those packs.  That means printing 3 of the uncommon sheets (each card represented 6 times).  I know the math doesn’t line up with that token card.  That’s because a “print run” for wizards doesn’t mean 1 rare sheet, it means 120 of them… or something like that…which then makes the math line up, but it doesn’t really matter for what we’re doing because we’re not selling MILLIONS of cards.  We’re going to ignore this discrepancy and pretend it lines up.

So you’ll need 1210 commons.  That’s 10 commons sheets (each card represented 10 times).

Hopefully So for any given mythic, you have 10 of a given common in the print run.  And there are a LOT more commons that mythics.  This is why the flavor of the set is dictated at the common level.

Overview Breakdown


THAT SAID, all that assumes 11×11 print sheets.  We can’t do that.  If you want to design a set with the potential of printing it and playing with it, you have to design with the printing capability in mind.  An 8.5×11 piece of paper will fit 9 cards (3×3).  That means we need to tweak all of those numbers, while trying to stay as close as we can to the same ratios.  So, here’s what I did with mine for a “print run”:

126 Booster packs (1 rare/mythic, 3 uncommon, 11 common, no basic lands) total = 1890 cards

Here’s the breakdown

Mythic – 18 card designs (2 unique sheets, each printed 1x) tota l= 18 cards printed
Rare – 54 card designs (6 unique sheets, each printed 2x) total = 108 cards printed
Uncommon – 63 card designs (7 unique sheets, each printed 6x) total = 378 cards printed
Common – 99 card designs (11 unique sheets, each printed 14x) total = 1386 cards printed

So that means you need to design 234 cards.  The numbers of cards in each color also need to match up within each rarity. How you break that down depends on whether you want multicolor cards in the set or not.  That’s a decision to make in the worldbuilding/mechanics step.

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