Design Class – The Four Dynasties of Amateur Magic Design

This week, Fearless Leader wrote about the five dynasties of Magic Design (actually, it was kinda of a rehash of his State of Design of this year, but it makes sense in Transformation Week). If you didn’t click the link, nor read the article, don’t worry, here’s the info “that will be on the test” version:

  • First Stage (Alpha through Alliances): This stage was about the focus on individual card design. Design decisions tended to be made on a card-by-card basis.
  • Second Stage (Mirage through Prophecy): This stage was the introduction of the block and the focus of design in thinking of Magic in terms of a year.
  • Third Stage (Invasion through Saviors of Kamigawa): This stage was the introduction of block themes. Blocks were no longer just a collection of mechanics, but contained specific things chosen to highlight the block’s theme.
  • Fourth Stage (Ravnica through Rise of the Eldrazi): This stage was the introduction of block planning. Instead of picking a theme and continuing it through the block, design now planned out how exactly the block was going to evolve. This planning allowed for themes to be better set up and paid off.
  • Fifth Stage (Scars of Mirrodin through ???): Now we get to last year. What I believe Scars of Mirrodin block has done that shifts design into the next age is to radically change how mechanical themes are looked at and used. For the last two stages, themes have been used as the foundation to build the block on. Starting with Scars of Mirrodin, mechanical themes are now thought of as tools used to put a block together. Metaphorically, themes are no longer the canvas, but the paint.

All of this is great. You really see the evolution of Magic when it gets separated into these categories. In fact, this isn’t the first time that MaRo has brought to us these dynasties (as highlighted in his State of Design right before Ravnica, the fourth stage). Here it is broken down:

  • First Stage (Alpha through Alliances): Design on a card by card basis.
  • Second Stage (Mirage through Prophecy): Blocks are created and keywords are enforced.
  • Third Stage (Invasion through Saviors of Kamigawa): Creation of the Block Theme (Multicolor being Invasion, and so on).
  • Fourth Stage (Ravnica through Rise of the Eldrazi): Tying the block closer together by having the sets in the block interconnect better.
  • Fifth Stage (Scars of Mirrodin through ???): Design a world that encompasses and design for that plane.

That fifth stage is a little card to pin down since we’ve only seen 4 sets (plus a Core Set), of this new design philosophy. As fellow GDS2 participate, and eventual winner, Ethan Fleisher said:

During the Designer Search, I was working based on some obsolete assumptions. Not only could I not see the next eight to twelve sets worth of innovation that were in the works, but I had to look back several years in order to get a clear picture of what sorts of standards existed in common between sets.

And he’s right. We’re in a total lag of trying to stay on top of what Wizards considers “proper” design. For people not working at Wizards, we’re trying to decipher what is not laughable when it comes to designing cards of our own. Everyone started making Planeswalkers when they first were announced, but we didn’t know exactly how they worked and what their impact would be. Wizards did.

So for today, I give you the four dynasties of amateur Magic design. It’s because of this constant catch up, and the way people design cards, that I believe that this is how people create cards. Of course, this is just one man’s opinion and everyone else is a little different.

The Four Dynasties of Amateur Magic Design:

  • First Stage (Alpha through Weatherlight): Design on a card by card basis.
  • Second Stage (Tempest through Prophecy): Blocks are created and keywords are enforced.
  • Third Stage (Invasion through Worldwake): Creation of the Block Theme (Multicolor being Invasion, and so on).
  • Fourth Stage (Rise of the Eldrazi through ???):Design a world that encompasses and design for that plane.

Got it? We’re done, right? Well, not really.

If you notice that I’ve taken the steps as above, move some sets around, and skipped a stage. For what the players were seeing, this is what Wizards were teaching us to do when we make our own cards. The enforcement of keywords wasn’t drilled into us until Tempest came along. But obviously just because we’ve moved on to a new stage doesn’t mean that we’ve given up the old one. Each of them overlap into the next.

The differences between the stages is that these are new ways of designing cards that were not thought of before. While most amateur designers don’t have the knowledge or experience or extra sets of eyes to take on full blocks, we do the best that we can.

To the analysis:

First Stage: Design on a Card by Card Basis

This is what most people do. They have an idea for a card, and decide that they should create a card for it. There is no harm in any of this, but all of these cards exist in vacuums. They could theoretically be in any set (especially any Core Set), and it doesn’t matter the type of environment that they would fit best in. You saw this plenty of times in the early sets because it was all about creating awesome cards. There may have been a cycle of cards, but there wasn’t a full structure about how this card should fit in this world.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with this. If you’re creating a joke card or a one of, it’s a great model to follow. But when people want to start to create their own sets, filling it up with cards in this stage cause nothing but problems. Besides the obvious drafting problems (which amateur designers may or may not care about), it just doesn’t flow together.

The best way to describe this is imagine that each card in the set is a person, and have these people meet in crowd together. If it looks like this:

the set doesn’t look like it goes together. Sure, there’s a ton of amazing stuff in there, maybe some of your favorites, but instead of being part of the same set up, there’s stuff that doesn’t belong.

But that’s ok. You’ve decided to change some stuff up and go to the next step.

Second Stage: Designing Around Keywords

Now we come to something more sophisticated: keywords. By having a common identifier to a group of cards, it’s easy to design around a basic concept. Sometimes you just want to show off that cool idea that you had, other times, it’s what it could be. But the good news is that Ever since Onslaught, it’s been ok to reuse keywords, so why not do your own variation of this.

This, I believe, is the second most common way people design cards. They were disappointed that a keyword they liked didn’t see print more. Or if they just design around this one keyword, they can create like 15 cards. What a deal! Sometimes the keywords go in obvious directions, other times it take a turn that no one thought possible.

Creating your own keyword is hard (another topic we’ll get into some other time), but it was from here that it looked more and more like a real Magic set. Then Wizards threw us for another loop.

Third Stage: Creation of the Block Theme

In Invasion we were introduced to the block theme. Invasion it was Multicolored, Odyssey was Graveyard, Onslaught was Creature types, etc. Now it was a collection of cards that reached a common goal. It was more than just a keyword, it a whole series of cards that played off each other as a common goal. You didn’t just have to choose one way of designing a card, you could come at it from several different areas, as long as it all tied into the block theme.

What’s great about this approach is that every color could get into this theme by doing things that it normally wouldn’t do, but still within the boundaries of the colors (Er, ignoring Phyrexian Mana). Green could be beneficial to artifacts, Red could care about creature type. And so on. This opened up so much more design space than just the usual keywords and top down designs. The larger issue is that if someone creates one card from this stage, it’s unknown with the block theme was. Easily fixed with a line of text explaining the card, but now designing for one card was more than just the card.

Speaking of that…

Fourth Stage: Designing a World

This is just a guess of what this stage is going to be (again, with only 5 sets since I included Rise of the Eldrazi into the mix), but this looks like where design is headed. What’s hard about this stage is that though would building might have been something that was done in the past, it wasn’t the main focus. But MaRo brought it out as part of the GDS2 and it was one of the things we had to do as contestants. Why force us to do something if that’s not where Magic is going to go?

Look at Rise, Scars and now Innistrad. All of these planes seem more fully realized then the last stage where they were just themes. Yes, even Ravinca with all of it’s world building was just a huge mass of collected block themes spread out over three sets. Basically every card has a purpose on the plane, nothing looks remotely out of place. When you’re trying to sell a horror block to people you want them to feel the horror, and I believe that Innistrad does exactly that. How many cards from Scars block look out of place on Mirrodin/New Phyrexia?

Very few.

Now, it’s much harder for us to encompass the flavor/style when we don’t have an art department/budget, but we make due. But the card should be more than just the art to tie it in with the environment; it has to be the whole package. A great number of cards just “feel” right to be in those sets. Sometimes they’re cool ideas that can only fit on that plane, or based off a mechanic, or of the theme of that block, but they belong there.

If you notice, each one of the steps looked at the larger picture each time a card was designed. It was first the awesome card, then a series or connected card, then a conglomeration of cards, and finally the whole plane. The way design is going makes it harder and harder to develop just a series of singular cards. Take a look back at that Futurama picture again. Yes, there are a ton of great ideas, but they don’t look like they should go together from a design point of view (Sci-Fi is a little different since you want to show off your wide range of designs, but that’s not always what’s best for Magic).

But these days, I can’t go into a card creation forum and just look at one card. I can get an idea of what the world is in one card, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s unfair because it can’t; it’s just one card. For Magic to tell its story, its vision of what’s happening on the plane, you need more than one card. Any card can look good and be the best card in a vacuum, which is why I believe that most amateur designers design for the first stage: it feels better and it’s easier to design this way.

As the public, we’re months, even years behind what Wizards dictates as the most modern design. We think we may know, but we don’t. MaRo’s touting the 5th stage of Magic Design and I believe we have some time to explore in this area before we move onto the next one. It might be a while that we can play in this sandbox before there’s another design philosophy shift. All we know is that Wizards has a head start over all of us.

The best we can do is try and play catch up.


One thought on “Design Class – The Four Dynasties of Amateur Magic Design”

  1. Another part of it is that mechanics will tell a story. Did you see the drop in rising suns and the rise in phis from SOM to NPH? The fact that the Phyrexians got not one but two new “rule” mechanics while the Mirrans got one? (The Phyrexians got an additional mechanic in splicers, but whatever.) Another change was that the Phyrexian mechanics started turning against each other; Porcelain Legionnaire is one of the best anti-infect cards out there, certainly one of the best at common, since it has first strike and an alt cost of life payment.

    There are other ways to do this. Take Time Spiral. I’ll ignore exile because of suspend, Necropotence, and other fun.

    Zone — graveyard
    Mechanics — all graveyard mechanics, counting spells/deaths/other events per turn, etc. (And of course any old mechanic.)

    Zone — battlefield, stack, hand
    Mechanics — instants and sorceries, “until the end of the turn”, sacrifices, spellshapers, cards like Rainbow Crow and Phantasmal Terrain (per Planar Chaos), hellbent

    Zone — library, hand
    Mechanics — forecast, tutoring/fetching, suspend, pacts, ramp (in as far as it brings stuff that would normally only appear in the future to the present)

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