Tricks of the Trade: Getting Started
Written by kikushadowblades
Welcome to the first major article series on designing cards with Magic Set Editor! If you have always wanted to make your own Magic set, and aren't quite sure where to start, this is the column for you. This is also a great place for those who have started a few sets, but have trouble finishing them.
I will be demonstrating how to create a set by doing exactly that, walking you through the steps to the creation of Arknia: Metropolis of Greed. I will be posting my progress in the set, and what techniques I use as I go through the process. Keep in mind that these are things that work really well for me, and that you may find that some of these techniques aren't really your style, which is fine, as everyone will go through the process a little differently. Enough of the explanations of what this column will be; lets get down to it!
The longest journey begins with a single step
There are thousands of different ways to start making your set. Maybe you like to create a card or two that will be key characters in your set. Maybe you prefer to write down a set of groups and clans that will be represented in your set, and which colors will represent them. Maybe you just like to dive in headfirst and make as many cards as you can right away. While these are definitely steps you will need to take to finish off your set, it is crucial to solidify your topic and message before you create the first card or begin assigning flavor to your world. What do I mean by topic and message? Your topic is what you are going to be making the set about, what drives your set at its core. Effectively, if you had to boil everything your set is about down to a couple of words, that would be your topic. Take the Agralnat block as an example. The topic for that block was very clearly "growth" or "evolution", because all of the core mechanics in the set focused on evolving a certain type of permanent. For Arknia, my topic will be "greed," the excessive desire for wealth or possessions. I strongly recommend that, when starting a set, you begin by finding a topic that you want to focus on and say something about it through your cards.
That's where the message comes into play. Your message is what you want to say about the topic you have chosen. I find it very helpful to have a message in mind when I get down to the process of designing cards, so that I can make sure that each card matches my message mechanically, which creates a great sense of unity. For example, in the Agralnat block, my message was "We are stronger when we embrace evolution," and by Agralnat United that message had shifted into "Evolution can only be taken so far before it destroys us." (Side note: While block topic should be constant, every new set should shift the message to a new angle on that topic. Tackling how to set out an entire block design is a whole different article, so for now, just stick with the first set.) For Arknia, my message will be "Greed is a undeniable component of human nature, and it will consume us all if we indulge it." You can begin your set any way you see fit, but I really find that starting off by identifying my topic and message first greatly helps me to really understand exactly why I am making the set, as well as what the set needs to be about, and what the set might need to have in it to get that message across.
Utilizing your topic and message effectively
Okay, so now that you have a topic and message, what do you do with them? The very first thing I do is write down my set creed. If a card doesn't match the creed, it probably shouldn't be in the set. For Agralnat block, my creed was "Does this card show evolution, or the process and formation of growth?" Essentially, this is going to make sure you stay on topic (as long as you keep the creed in mind as you create cards). For Arknia, my creed will be "Does this card show greed, or the excessive desire for wealth and possessions?" Again, if not, it probably should not be in the set.
So now you have your creed written down (and you will make sure to say it to yourself every time you finish designing a card to see if it fits with your topic), the next step is to figure out how you will say your message. For Arknia, the challenge is going to be showing how greed will lead to self destruction. There's a great temptation for designers to use flavor text near the end of a project to complete this task, and I really think you need to stay on yourself from the very beginning and primarily use top down mechanical execution to get the message across, and let flavor support that. Let me give you an example of how you can use flavor as a supplement to your message, rather than trying to let it carry the burden completely on its own:
Mechanically, this cycle is very top down. Each card will complete a service for a price, and anyone can pay the price to get the service and choose who they want to receive the effect. When you play with these cards on your side of the battlefield, you feel a real sense of disloyalty from them, like they are so eager to get paid that they might actively engineer your own demise. That is the kind of card that uses its mechanics to represent the topic of greed, sending the message "greed will destroy all that indulge it." Specifically, Pain Vendor can kill you outright if enough people pay her to hurt you, while your own Treasure Vendor could be actively helping enemies dig their way through their decks to find key combo pieces. There is still considerable temptation to play these cards because you can use their effects too. Specifically in a multiplayer environment, their very presence may help you create allies if you start using Life Vendor to heal another player whom you want to start an alliance with. While they contain flavor text illustrating how these cards are dangerous mercenaries, selling their wares to the highest bidder with often disastrous results, that only supports the topic and message already being sent through their play mechanics.
Until next time
I really hoped you enjoyed taking a little peek into my personal design process, and that this article was helpful in your own set building endeavors. By no means do you have to make sets the way I do, but if you are struggling, or want to try something a little different than you usually do, give the topic-message-creed system a shot.
Join me next time, when I get down to the nuts and bolts of setting up a design skeleton (I promise it won't just be a repeat of Mark Rosewater's original article), as well as turning your topic and message into a world.
Until then, may you take time to think before diving into the deep end.