Tricks of the Trade

Tue, 2012-02-14 21:01
Creative Direction Award
Kiku's picture

A while back, I decided to start an article series on set design, but I have not heard back from my editor since posting the first article. I have decided to post up the articles myself as a normal post, and hope to continue the series on a weekly basis. If you missed it, here is the first article

Tricks of the Trade: The Insides of The Design Skeleton

248, 306, 165, 180, 145, 301, 249, 175, 350. What do all of these number share in common? They are all the size of at least one magic set (specifically Rize of the Eldrazi, Ravnica: City of Guilds, Saviors of Kamigawa, Future Sight, Legions, Lorwyn, Shards of Alara, New Phrexia, and 8th edition). One of most influential decisions you have to make for your set is the number or cards you will include. Traditionally, I like to start off with the first part of a 3 part block (which is what Arknia will be), which used to always be 350 cards, though more recently, we have seen numbers like 306, 249 and 264 become popular. It will be a matter of personal preference what number you choose. Personally, I really like to make the most realistic set possible, so I use what seems to be the norm in recent sets (right now that's 249). However, you might really hate being restricted to a smaller number of cards and move into the 306, or even 350 range if you wish. For those who are very new to design and aren't used to designing tons of cards in one world, a great option is to use a mini set. Mini sets are usually around 70 to 80 cards, and can be great first projects for those who are still testing the design waters, or aren't sure they can make a full 249 card set just yet. check out killigir's Spirits of Giravost for a great example of this. You could also consider making a small set for your first project, like you would for the second or third part of an expansion. Right now small sets tend to have somewhere between 145 and 175 cards. Once you choose the size that is preferable for you, you're ready to begin coding.

Navigating card codes

So what exactly is coding? Mark Rosewater has an excellent article series that explains the basics of this concept. Today, I want to give you a summary of the information from all three articles with a little expansion on it's application. Esentially, when we use card codes, we are referring to slots inside a set. We begin by indicating rarity using C,U,R,MR, and B for basic. Next we mark color using W,U,B,R,G,M,A,L. Finally comes the slot number in that rarity and color.
So therefore a card like Abbey Gargoyles in masters edition 2 would have been coded UW## (note that the number is always indicated using two digits, including a 0 in front of single digit numbers). We use codes to signify slots, and create multiple cards with that code. When designing masters edition 2, wizards of the coast needed a double dip french vanilla uncommon (lets call that slot UW01), and chose multiple reprints that fit, ultimately choosing the one that would best complement the set( choosing between multiple cards vying for just one slot is a whole different article). It should be noted as well that you begin numbering with 01
and that creatures come before noncreatures in code numbers. Should you design a cycle, make sure that the are assigned to the
same number. When writing down your codes, you can either write them in a word/notepad document, or enter them into a set file with the full number of cards, each of which is blank to start. I personally mix the two methods, mapping everything out in a notepad file first, then creating multiple cards at each slot and using the "notes section" in MSE to copy down the code for their intended slot, which lets me see all cards vying for that slot with a quick search.

Building a Skeleton

So you understand what a card code is and how to write and recognize them, what's the next step? You're going to want to create a design skeleton ( see the Rosewater article
. Essentially, the skeleton maps out exactly how you plan to use each slot in your set. To create one, you'll need to calculate the number of cards at each rarity your set size should have (Fantastic page with ratios for this calculation). For Arknia, a 249 card set, I multiply by .42742056919138683933142599006169 to get 106.4277217286553 commons. I round this number to 106, and decide how I will deal with any remainders from a multiple of 5, in this case, a 1 card remainder. I decide to include 11 common artifacts (greed is heavily based on need for possessions, so i believe artifacts deserve a moderately large role in the set, to represent the possessions being sought after) and 5 common lands (a cycle) in my set. This leaves me with 90 common slots, and I divide them equally across the 5 colors to get 18 commons a color. Next we write down the code for each card on a separate line

empty skeleton
CW01 -
CW02 –
CW03 –
CW04 –
CW05 –
CW06 –
CW07 –
CW08 –
CW09 –
CW10 –
CW11 -
CW12 -
CW13 -
CW14 -
CW15 -
CW16 -
CW17 -
CW18 -
CU01 -
CU02 –
CU03 –
CU04 –
CU05 –
CU06 –
CU07 –
CU08 –
CU09 –
CU10 –
CU11 -
CU12 -
CU13 -
CU14 -
CU15 -
CU16 -
CU17 -
CU18 -
CB01 -
CB02 –
CB03 –
CB04 –
CB05 –
CB06 –
CB07 –
CB08 –
CB09 –
CB10 –
CB11 -
CB12 -
CB13 -
CB14 -
CB15 -
CB16 -
CB17 -
CB18 -
CR01 -
CR02 –
CR03 –
CR04 –
CR05 –
CR06 –
CR07 –
CR08 –
CR09 –
CR10 –
CR11 -
CR12 -
CR13 -
CR14 -
CR15 -
CR16 -
CR17 -
CR18 -
CG01 -
CG02 –
CG03 –
CG04 –
CG05 –
CG06 –
CG07 –
CG08 –
CG09 –
CG10 –
CG11 -
CG12 -
CG13 -
CG14 -
CG15 -
CG16 -
CG17 -
CG18 -
CA01 -
CA02 –
CA03 –
CA04 –
CA05 –
CA06 –
CA07 –
CA08 –
CA09 –
CA10 –
CA11 -
CL01 -
CL02 –
CL03 –
CL04 –
CL05 –

From here, it's time to decide what you will be looking for in each slot. I start off by deciding my creature density (how much of the set will be creatures) which in most cases ought to be about half of your set. For Arknia, a key point will be the struggles between different inhabitants over possesions, so i will try something slightly different and go to 55 percent creatures at common.
This gives me room for 58 creatures at common. Next, I decide how I will split up my color distribution of creatures.
The order of creature density is White, Green, Black, Red, Blue, so I will use 13,12,11,10 and 9 creatures respectively amongst those colors, leaving 3 creatures to be artifacts (the way I chose these numbers was by diving 64 by 5, rounding that down, applying it as blacks number, then adding/subtracting one between colors, leaving the remainder of creatures to be artifacts).
Next, you will want to determine the relative size of each creature card, as well as potential keywords it will need, including how many cards in your set will carry new keywords, as well as evergreen ones (the criteria for this is in the rosewater article). Your final step is mapping out your noncreatures, usually including at least one of each card type (instant, sorcery enchantment) in each color. I personally check with both the rosewater article, and this page
when determing what kind of effects I need to include on my cards, ensuring I also choose things that fit my topic and message, (for example, I don't want as many artifact/enchantment removal spells in arknia as I would in a core set, because I want these "possessions" to stick around so they can be fought over).
filled skeleton
CW01 - creauture, small, flying, new keyword 1
CW02 – creature, small, first strike
CW03 – creature, small, vigilance
CW04 – creature, small, lifelink
CW05 – creature, small, protection
CW06 – creature, small, flash
CW07 – creature, small, new keyword 1
CW08 – creature, small, returning keyword 1
CW09 – creature, small, double dip vanilla
CW10 – creature, small, returning keyword 1
CW11 - creature, medium vanilla
CW12 - creature, medium, top down
CW13 - creature, large, first strike
CW14 - Instant, lifegain
CW15 - Instant, combat trick
CW16 - Instant, damage prevention/reditection or holy day
CW17 - Sorcery, enchantment removal
CW18 - Enchantment aura pacifism style
CU01 - creature, small, double dip french vanilla
CU02 – creature, small, islandwalk
CU03 – creature, small, hexproof
CU04 – creature, small, returning keyword
CU05 – creature, small, new keyword
CU06 – creature, small, vanilla
CU07 – creature, medium, flying
CU08 – creature, medium, flash
CU09 – creature, large serpent, new keyword
CU10 – Instant, soft counterspell
CU11 - Instant, hard counterspell
CU12 - Instant, bounce spell
CU13 - Instant, card sifting
CU14 - Instant, new mechanic support
CU15 - Sorcery, twiddling
CU16 - Sorcery, returning mechanic support
CU17 - Sorcery, card draw
CU18 - Enchantment aura, lockdown
CB01 - creature, small, deathtouch
CB02 – creature, small, lifelink
CB03 – creature, small, vanilla
CB04 – creature, small, new keyword
CB05 – creature, small, returning keyword
CB06 – creature, small, regeneration
CB07 – creature, small, intimidate, new keyword
CB08 – creature, small, flying
CB09 – creature, medium, haste
CB10 – creature, medium, swampwalk
CB11 - creature, medium, returning keyword
CB12 - Instant, creature gets -X/-X
CB13 - Instant, power boosting
CB14 - Sorcery, destroy target nonblack creature
CB15 - Sorcery, discard
CB16 - Sorcery, return from grave to hand
CB17 - Sorcery, card draw for life
CB18 - Enchantment aura
CR01 - creature, small
CR02 – creature, small
CR03 – creature, small
CR04 – creature, small
CR05 – creature, small
CR06 – creature, small
CR07 – creature, medium
CR08 – creature, medium
CR09 – creature, medium
CR10 – creature, large
CR11 - Instant, direct damage to creature or player
CR12 - Instant, new mecahnic support
CR13 - Instant, direct damage to player
CR14 - Sorcery, mass creature pump
CR15 - Sorcery, land destruction
CR16 - Sorcery, panic effect
CR17 - Sorcery, act of treason effect
CR18 - Enchantment aura
CG01 - creature, small
CG02 – creature, small
CG03 – creature, small
CG04 – creature, small
CG05 – creature, small
CG06 – creature, small
CG07 – creature, medium
CG08 – creature, medium
CG09 – creature, medium
CG10 – creature, large
CG11 - creature, large
CG12 - creature, large
CG13 - Instant, boosting effect
CG14 - Instant, fog
CG15 - Sorcery, flying destruction
CG16 - Sorcery, life gain
CG17 - Sorcery, land search
CG18 - Enchantment aura
CA01 - creature, small
CA02 – creature, medium
CA03 – creature, large
CA04 – equipment, power toughness boost
CA05 – equipment, ability granting
CA06 – equipment, strange on hit effect
CA07 – tap effect, mechanic based
CA08 – tap effect, wildcard
CA09 – can be used by any player
CA10 – mana producer
CA11 - shared ability
CL01 - Produces W
CL02 – Produces U
CL03 – Produces B
CL04 – Produces R
CL05 – Produces G


This should give you all the basic information on what a card code is, how to create a design skeleon, and how to fill it out. I would love to keep giving you information, but I am already over 1700 words.

Join me next time, when I give you go over how to utilize a design skeleton as you begin creating your set, and actually cover turning your topic and message into a world.

Until then, enjoy Valentines Day!


While I have a general idea of where I want to go with these articles, I think it would be really valuable to get some Ideas for articles from you guys. This week, I am going to give 4 potential articles, and you guys can pm me (I can't use the poll system right now) which one you would like to see.
A. Instilling flavor into your set
B. Finding the perfect pictures for your cards
C. Alternative methods to set design (AKA interesting ways to create a set that don't follow the norm)
D. Creating mechanics that fit into your sets flavor

If I get enough responses, then I will create the most popular article, and it should be posted here in 2 weeks.

EDIT : Fixed a few formatting errors

My Hub
I really hate Mythic Rares...
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Tue, 2012-02-14 23:14
Carn13's picture

I'll say D on the poll, I'm always having trouble with that.

Tue, 2012-02-14 23:26
Decembra's picture

First of all, way to go man, you've got me hooked. I'll be here every week to read your articles!

Wed, 2012-02-15 01:40
Anuttymous's picture

Fantastic article, kiku, it's nice to see someone doing something like this. One thing, though, I might suggest making it look a bit friendlier. For a start, the links could be done [url=http...]MaRo article[/url and sliding in a few [ hr] between paragraphs would help section it. I just figured this is gonna be used by new designers, so I'm sure they'd like something that doesn't look daunting or anything. Sorry if I sound moan-ey.

Anuttymous the Gathering
Anonymous + nutty = A-nutty-mous (no mice involved)
Ask me if you need any help

Wed, 2012-02-15 02:59
Friendly MSE Designer
Guitarweeps's picture

Nutty, I would've PM'd that instead...

Nice article kiku. I think it is useful to start your numbering with creatures in CMC order. It helps make sure that you have the right CMC breakdown in an easy to see fashion. Also, Excel works nicely with creating the skeleton as well.

Check out my updated set hub.

Wed, 2012-02-15 04:44
Anuttymous's picture

Ah, yes. That didn't cross my mind. Still forget about the newfangled things we can do now.

Anuttymous the Gathering
Anonymous + nutty = A-nutty-mous (no mice involved)
Ask me if you need any help

Wed, 2012-02-15 06:20
Sewn-Eye's picture

Niiice. Totally approve of this.

I was going to recommend linking Jéské Couriano's pre-made set skeletons, but it might actually be more beneficial for new designers to put together their own design skeleton first.

As for potential articles, I'd be interested in seeing the one about new mechanics. Not just flavor and set-specific mechanics, but just new mechanics in general, as those seem to cause the most trouble for budding designers. (So, D, just to be clear.)

"Too wary to charge, too prudent to serve. Not anymore."
—Sedris, the Traitor King

Wed, 2012-02-15 21:55
Anuttymous's picture

Ah, much smoother. Also, D - mechanics for the set.

Anuttymous the Gathering
Anonymous + nutty = A-nutty-mous (no mice involved)
Ask me if you need any help