State of Cardsmithing 2018

In February of this year, I posted my list of Projects to get done in 2018. Now that it is January 1st of 2019, that is to say New Years Day of 2019, I feel it is only appropriate to look back on how much of this list I accomplished, my successes and my failings, and why certain things worked and didn't work. I'm going to do this the way Mark Rosewater does, with a State of Design report. Now, obviously this won't be exactly the same as the official State of Designs, since I am one high school senior doing this as a hobby rather than a whole team dedicated to the design of the game, and some of this is going to be in terms of me personally and how I felt rather than the sets as a whole. Anyway, without further ado, for any who care, here's my State of Cardsmithing for 2018

Overall Design
• I feel like I got most of what I wanted to do done.
When I look back at what I had originally set out to do this year, I realize I did list quite a bit more than I could reasonably do, but I also see that I accomplished a good deal of it! I got five of the seven sets I listed done (plus two I didn't list in any form), and all but one of the supplemental products I wanted to design done.
•Generally speaking, I got better at balancing and designing cards.
Mark Rosewater himself has said the best way to get better at designing cards is to design lots of cards. Even he admits he uses only a fraction of the designs he actually theorizes. Thus, with all the cards I created across 2018, I feel it's reasonable to say I gradually improved over time, and I think that can be seen across my sets and blocks.
•I bit off more than I could chew at some times.
I tried to make Umbra happen in a month and a half. That was a tall order, and while I just barely managed to pull it off, that was quite the workload, even if I enjoyed it. In junction with my real life (which always takes priority of cardsmithing), I was so busy I hardly did anything other than Umbra on MTGCS. It was around this time I started falling behind on and flat out not entering into contests I was interested in here on the site, and frankly it was all pretty stressful, and this is just one of more than a few examples of mildly overloading myself in my cardsmithing endeavors. In the following year, I'll try not to procrastinate seasonal-themed sets I want to make (e.g. Umbra being Halloween Themed) and overall plan to take on less projects so I can take more time on each one.
•I need to try to get more people involved in proofreading my sets.
Being just one person, I can't catch everything I design. Maybe there's a broken combo or the card is just too strong. Often, it isn't until I've put a roughly-finished set aside for a few weeks, started on another project, then gone back and looked at the set that I catch errors and balancing issues. I feel like a lot of this could be helped by getting people involved. @Tigersol was a huge help to me this year in looking over some of my custom sets and giving me his feedback on cards so we could debate, discuss, and make changes. It was almost like a mini R&D! Honestly, I'm hoping I can get more cardsmiths, as well as some members of my playgroup to help me check over my sets in 2019.


  • Individual Sets
    Ethouria Block
    - Eathouria (Finished Late 2017 and revised across early 2018):
    - Torments of Thought:

    •Eathouria was the first set I was proud of completing, and this block represents what I feel to be a big step forward for me.
    Prior to Eathouria, I had made one custom set before: Blackened Skies, which was a total mess in retrospect. The color pie had been thrown to the wind, cards were way too complex, and the lore was overly-convoluted. Blackened Skies had certainly been a big step forward for me as far as mastering my understanding of wording, balancing, and mechanical design when isolated from rarity or the color pie, but it was by no means a set I am proud of making. Though, this is all typical of creators. Generally, a creator looks back on their first works and isn't satisfied with them. As creators, we grow over time due to the practice and experience we get from creating more and refining our craft as we create. Eathouria was a culmination of that for me.
    As my first custom block, not to mention one based on a mechanical area wizards will likely never explore: the exile zone. (Granted, I know all the reasons WoTC won't explore exile-based mechanics and they are totally valid, this was more an explanation of what could be rather than what should be.) With this block, I had a crucial realization that I hadn't made during Blackened Skies Development: multicolored cards are rarely ever printed at common outside of multicolored sets. With this realization, I also discovered the cycle present in almost every standard-legal set known as the signpost uncommons: ten two-color uncommons (one for each guild paring) meant to clearly show people playing your set what each two-color combination in the set can do. These for me have been the backbone of every set I design and usually some of the first cards I make when creating a set. They define limited archetypes and direct each color to their mechanics and capabilities within the set. It was also with Eathouria I first correctly implemented the color pie, something I had begun to grasp and understand much more in 2017 (the primary time this set was in pre-completion development). This was the first set I made that looked like a Magic set, even if it mechanically explore areas a real set never could. I'm proud to be the creator of Eathouria.
    Torments of thought, while holding less emotional significance to me, marked the completion of my first ever custom block. I'm really pleased to be able to say to myself "you created two sets sharing lore, mechanics, and themes that can be drafted together." It just feels good, you know?
    •The visuals of the set were amazing.
    Okay, this comes off as a brag, and is subject to opinion. I know that. However, I really enjoyed Eathouria in the realm of visual experimentation. The plane was bright, beautiful, imaginative, and in my opinion unlike much we've ever seen in Magic. I really liked the idea of making all the rares and lands full art to highlight the stunning art and give them extra value to players and collectors. It gave Eathouria block something unique from my other sets, and other official sets for that matter.
    •The block was still too mechanically complex.
    While not as bad as Blackened Skies, Eathouria block still had an issue with the mechanics of the set being too prevalent. There weren't any vanilla creatures between the two sets and a majority of the cards had some sort keywords on them. It just made the set feel overall too clustered.
    •There was very little visual cohesion among cards.
    What is Eathoruia (the plane, not the block) like? Well, I as the creator can tell you it's a world where any person's thoughts can shape reality if they're strong enough and the realm is an endless sky with floating islands, but you, as the player likely couldn't gather that by looking at the set alone. This is opposed to an official set like Kaladesh, where the art gives insight into the world's architecture and feel. This an issue that was pointed out to me by @ningyounk and it's one I couldn't really find a solution to. The issue mostly comes from the fact that I am limited to the art I can find on google images, meaning I just have to use what fits best and can't get exactly what I need out of it most of the time. If I had my way, I'd see that more images showed Eathouria's skyline and other floating islands in the background of pictures, but I can't afford an artist to make such images, so I'm limited to the internet's stockpile of pictures. Still, this is no excuse and I feel like I should've tried to put more effort into creating some sort of more visually cohesive block.
  • edited January 2019
    Kaladesh 2.0:
    •The cyberpunk feel was spot-on.
    Kaladesh 2.0 was supposed to be a set that was based around the distant future and impossible technology gone wild. I think it achieved that with the abundance of robots, cyborgs, and neon aesthetics present throughout. I mentioned a person playing Eathouria block couldn't really get a feel for what kind of plane Eathouria was, but with Kaladesh 2.0 I think I did a much better job tying everything together visually with what images I could find.
    •The Artifact theme of the set was present without being dominating. least, as far as I can tell. Kaladesh 2.0 was definitely an artifact set, but the cards weren't specifically designed with artifact synergy in mind, or designed with colorless artifacts as the primary way to see artifacts in the set. I believe, based on what limited playtesting I can manage to do with the set given the limited resources I have, this has largely eliminated the artifact block issue that seems to haunt WoTC with Urza's Saga block, Mirodin block, and Kaladesh block, which typically stems from certain artifact-based synergies or colorless artifacts that can slot into any deck being too strong.
    •There was very little visual connection to the Kaladesh of the past.
    This once again stems from the issue of being confined only to internet images. I had virtually no way of keeping the Indian-inspired architecture of Kaladesh in tact when I time warped it 250 years into the future. It was just a generic cyberpunk world with no real visual connection to the previous Kaladesh.
    •Artifact Planeswalker were unnecessary.
    In my mind at the time of design, I thought the idea of Artifact Planeswalkers would be cool and really push the idea that they were cyborgs. However, in retrospect, the artifact type just makes them easier to kill because of artifact types and might have unintended implications that planeswalkers wouldn't normally have. They should've just been regular planeswalkers.

    Core Set EM:
    •The set had a nice blend of both new and old cards.
    Honestly, I liked the mix of reprints and original cards this set contained. I got to include some of my favorite cards from Magic history and expand upon archetypes I liked without need to care too much about coherent flavor or fitting a world. This was much more mechanical endeavor than a flavorful one and I liked that change of pace.
    •The had some really cool individual cards.
    I feel like this set more than any of the other designed-for-standard sets I created had cards that screamed "wow!" From fancy mythic rares like Rise of the Eternal to the "Ultimate" cycle corresponding to each planeswalker in the set to some fascinating Uncommon designs liked Saved Spell, this set had a lot I feel I could show to people to get them "hooked" to the product.
    •The power level on some of the cards is way above that of others.
    A core set is a relatively "powered down" set by and large that is meant to keep certain crucial cards (cancel, shock, etc.) in the standard format. I had a lot of trouble maintaining this "powered down" feel in Core Set EM and I think that resulted in some cards being able to completely dominate over other.
    •This set doesn't exactly feel like a core set.
    Even beyond power level, the set had three non-evergreen mechanics when the average core set only has one, and contained some cards I just don't think would see a core set printing (Zur's Weirding, for example). Over all, I just don't feel I did a good job accurately recreating a core set with this. It will indeed be the core set used in the first iteration of the Cardsmith Standard I'm working on, but I could really see it getting replaced in the future knowing what I know now based on Core 2019.
  • edited January 2019
    Blackened Skies Remastered:
    •This set was a marker of how far I've come as a cardsmith.
    If you compare side-by-side the original Blackened Skies and its remastered version, you can see just how much I've developed from 2016 to now. The color identity of archetypes has been fixed, the multicolor presence of the original set has been drastically reduced, the card complexity now more accurate reflects New World Order, etc. Really, I'm proud to have come this far as a cardsmith and this is my attempt at fixing my old pet project. Here's to finishing the block in 2019!
    •The steampunk setting of the set is largely distinguishable from Kaladesh.
    While Kaladesh was a bright world of invention, discovery, and progress, the plane of Cogsban managed to tackle the steampunk theme in a different way, focusing on giving the plane an industrial, urban feel in the city. Mixed in with the concept of only a part of the plane being the massive city and the outer reaches of the world being a fantastical realm of giant mushrooms, with some steampunk crossover within, and you get a steampunk-inspired plane that didn't overlap too heavily with Kaladesh such that it felt like it should've taken place on Kaladesh instead.
    •The coin-flipping archetype needed more support in blue.
    In retrospect, Blackened Skies' most unique archetype, its coin-flipping matters archetype in Blue/Red was much more a mono-red archetype that splashed blue. There were only two mono-blue cards that cared about coin flipping and frankly the archetype needs more support in blue to make it truly viable.
    •The idea of the Mushroom Biome could've been better implemented into the world.
    This is once again, as a creative lead for the set, something that makes more sense to me than it does the player. If I gave somebody a pack of these cards without any context and they saw all these steampunk cards and then suddenly a random mushroom-related card, it'd seem pretty jarring. I wish I had done better connecting the two part of the world to one another.

    Cardsmith Commander:
    •This is how I think all commander products should be designed.
    Okay, that's a slight hyperbole (I'll get into that more later), but this is how a commander product ought to be built if WoTC is going to increase prices like they did this year. I got to add meaningful reprints not just for commander, but for formats like modern as well. The decks are powerful and almost completely upgraded, ready to win games right out of the box.
    •The transforming commanders were a really cool concept.
    The space having transforming commanders opened up, not only for deck design, but also in terms of reprints was a huge help in designing the product and allowed for archetypes that couldn't usually be included in a commander precon (Werewolves, for example) to be made.
    •There was too much value in the decks.
    I know WoTC isn't technically allowed to talk about the secondary market, directly, but they certainly do. They just use vague phrases like "[cardname] is worth 40 points while this other one is worth 60." I recreated all the decklists in MTGGoldfish and the prices of the whole things were absurd. These are supposed to be more an entry product to commander rather than fully-upgraded decks, and the value you get from buying one of these decks would either crash the prices of cards within or cause the decks to be bought up in mass and make them shoot up in price as they can't be found anywhere.
    •I didn't make enough new cards for the decks.
    Each deck tended to get only a handful of new, unique cards (I'm excluding the second half of the land cycle originally started in Battlebond that I finished in the product when I mention this). There isn't much to see here as far as cardsmithing goes, it's more or less just a group of 5 commander decklists.

    Conspiracy 3: Rise of the Council Remastered:
    •This set managed to successfully convert commander into a limited format.
    Prior to making this set, and even prior to joining the cardsmithing community, I had always wondered what it would be like to make a limited format designed for commander. The idea of adding Representatives, commanders you were guaranteed access to that matched the archetypes of the set so you could still draft what you wanted, helped to ensure drafting was still possible and not constrained by potential color identity issues. Additionally, still allowing the use of legendary creatures that show up in a palyer's pool diversify the styles and outcomes of games. Overall, I think the system worked well.
    •This set looks incredibly fun to draft.
    While the complications of a Conspiracy draft prevent me from being able to draft this digitally anywhere, I must say all the cards within seem to synergize very well with one another and create a fun and diverse limited format I'm dying to test out someday when I get $1,000,000 in printer ink and sleeves to recreate the experience in real life.
    •The addition of commander might be unnecessary.
    As much as I think a commander draft set would be cool, I could be in the minority. My main question is whether or not the set, as-is, cutting all references to color identity or commanders, could still function. I think it could, but I honestly couldn't know for sure without trying it.
    •The Representatives should've been better tied to Fiora flavorfully.
    Of all the representatives, only one of them is a returning character from past Conspiracy sets. The other characters are virtual nobodies to players. I think Selvala should've replaced Nartona as the GR representative, for example. As such an integral part of the limited environment, the representatives should've been largely returning characters.
  • edited January 2019
    •The set served as an excellent case study for sets where transforming cards are included.
    Umbra, for me, served two purposes as I was designing it. This was the second of the two (the first one of the two being my next highlight). I wanted to better learn how sets with transforming cards are designed, using Shadows Over Innistrad as my reference. For example, one interesting thing I learned is the only common double-faced cards you can open in SOI are red and green, and there are less single-faced red and green cards to compensate. This was a great learning experience for me and made this my largest set by count of nonbasic cards to date.
    •The set really captured the Halloween theme I was hoping for.
    Zombies, Werewolves, Ghosts, and Vampires galore! (Not to mention Pumpkins too!) Umbra was my tribute to Halloween, my second favorite holiday (Christmas taking the number one spot). Funny enough, I hate horror movies, but I love just about everything else to do with the supernaturals that haunt the night. I think mechanically and falvorfully I got exactly the feel I was hoping for.
    •The plane of Umbra was too much like Innistrad.
    Just as Kaladesh had been my inspiration for Cogsban, Innistrad had been my inspiration for Umbra. However, this time around I wasn't able to really distinguish the world of Umbra from that of Innistrad in a visual and mechanical way. Don't get me wrong, Umbra is its own world with its own characters, events, and ways of handling the gothic horror takeovers (with all of it happening in one terrible night rather than the horrors being a constant struggle for humans). However, if I showed a new player an Umbra card and an Innistrad card, they'd likely think they came from the same set.
    •Umbra was rushed and didn't get enough time to be seasonally relevant.
    This is not to say I didn't like the product I put out, I still love Umbra, but as I stated earlier, the large amount of Umbra's development took place in only a month-and-a-half, leaving me crammed and stressed for time. In the end, the set released on the last possible day it could be thematically relevant: All Hallows Day, and really didn't get much attention from MTGCS because of it. I'm not saying this in a "you should've paid more attention" way, I'm saying this in an "I shouldn't have procrastinated" way.

    What Didn't Happen
    This will be a brief look at the projects I mentioned at the start of the year that I didn't manage to get to this year.
    Pokemon Diamond and Pearl: The MTG Set: I still have the potential to do this one, it's just taken a backseat to more original and involved projects like what I did complete this year.
    Secret Project: This was Umbra. It happened as planned.
    Cardsmith Masters: I have multiple potential versions of this set, all half-developed. To clarify, when I said cardsmith masters, I meant a masters set of my creation made of existing cards, keeping with the original goals masters sets put out for themselves. So far, I've got half-finished Tribal Masters, Commander Masters, and Historic Masters, but I don't know when or if I'll finish any of them.
    Duel Decks: Ugin vs. Nicol Bolas: It's not that I couldn't have made these, but I realized this wasn't so much cardsmithing as it was just sharing theoretical decklists.
    Various Lore: I mentioned writing lore for my custom sets, but frankly by the time I've finished a set I tend to be drained and out of motivation to write anything for the set. Maybe I'll revisit it when I get some good motivation to actually get my ideas into well-written lore, but for now I'm going to lay the idea to rest.
    Unsmithed: Okay, this one is not cancelled, but it's also not an in-progress project. Simply put, I'm just not as good at creating Un-Cards as I'd liked to be, let alone designing an appropriate limited environment for the set. As ideas come to me, I put turn them into cards and put them into the set. I bet one day I'll actually fill it up, but until then I'm keeping Unsmithed "cryogenically frozen."

    Year's End
    Over all, I am more than happy and impressed with myself with how this year went. I got a lot done, and now have enough standard sets to essentially have the equivalent of the current MTG standard (One Two-Set block consisting of a large and small set, one standalone large set, one core set, and one standalone large set with another large set as part of its block releasing in 2019) on top of two supplemental sets and a commander product! That's practically the equivalent of what WoTC put out this year! Okay, I'm tooting my own horn again, and I really shouldn't be. I still have a lot to improve on in the future. Here's to a great 2019 full of new cardsmithing endeavors!
    As Mark Rosewater says, "with my State of Design, I'm eager to hear what you think about both this last year of design as well as your thoughts on my take of it." Any feedback or responses you have to all this would be greatly appreciated.

    I'll end on Rosewater's words from his 2018 State of Design: "May you enjoy the highlights but heed the lessons of life."
  • This is a fascinating read. Self reflection and assessment is totally necessary to improve. I don't make that many cards any more but I still like to go back through my collection and work on ideas I had that weren't executed well and places that I can improve.
  • @strongbelieves
    Thanks so much! I'm glad you enjoyed it!
  • I agree with @strongbelieves i wont lie i skimmed some of the reading. But i did read the bulk of this, and your take on commander and value of cards in precon decks was interesting. I have always liked your extra attention to detail you bring to your cards i notice it when you participate in my contests. Especially when using mtgdesign (i believe thats what its called?).
  • Excellent read, excellent! As an aspiring creator, I just can't find enough good art for my sets. But these custom sets are always so inspiring to view! Excellent job!
  • @sorinjace
    Thank you very much. I personally use Magic Set Editor to design my cards, but MTGDesign is an excellent resource as well. It's all a matter of preference whether you use MSE, MTGD, or MTGCS.
    Art is a big issue. I have a couple sets that have stalled out due to a lack of art. It usually takes me being creative and patient on google image search to find everything I need.
This discussion has been closed.