Tricks of the Trade - From Skeleton to Set

Wed, 2012-02-22 05:22
Creative Direction Award
Kiku's picture

From Skeleton to Set

Last time, I left you with this mess of text (I have slightly altered it to incorporate my returning keyword choice)...
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, works well with returning keyword
CW09 – creature, small, double dip vanilla
CW10 – creature, small, synergy with new keyword
CW11 - creature, medium vanilla
CW12 - creature, medium, top down
CW13 - creature, large, first strike
CW14 - Instant, lifegain, new keyword number 1
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, one of which is new keyword 1
CU02 – creature, small, islandwalk
CU03 – creature, small, hexproof
CU04 – creature, small, new keyword 1
CU05 – creature, small, support for new keyword 1
CU06 – creature, small, vanilla
CU07 – creature, medium, flying
CU08 – creature, medium, flash
CU09 – creature, large serpent, support for new keyword 1
CU10 – Instant, soft counterspell
CU11 - Instant, hard counterspell
CU12 - Instant, bounce spell, returning mechanic
CU13 - Instant, card sifting, returning mechanic
CU14 - Instant, twiddling
CU15 - Sorcery, new mechanic support
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, new keyword support
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 support
CB12 - Instant, creature gets -X/-X
CB13 - Instant, power boosting
CB14 - Sorcery, destroy target nonblack creature
CB15 - Sorcery, discard, returning keyword
CB16 - Sorcery, return from grave to hand, returning keyword
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, toughness boosting
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

You're probably wondering, how do all of those codes become finalized cards in a set file? Let me show you an example of one way to do just that No need to look through it all, just get the gist . Not the most exciting set you've ever seen, right? The most difficult part in creating a set file from a skeleton is the temptation to create exactly what you see coded. Remember though, that your set is taking place in a world, and that the skeleton is not some legal document to be followed word for word in order to create a well balanced set. So how do we get away from just what the skeleton says, and incorporate aspects of our world? (Side note: It's not that I hate green and red, but I just didn't have enough time to finish their incorporation into the set yet. Hopefully I can run through them in a later article.)
Dripping with Flavor

Flavor, probably the most frustrating thing for designers to get into sets. At Wizards, an entire department is there to make sure that cards have interesting back stories and fit their sets(often using flavor text, though sometimes done with mechanics). You however, don't have an entire department to help you out (If you do, can I borrow them some time?) The first thing is to envision the kind of world that would contain your topic and message (see my first article if those terms sound foreign). Take a mental journey down the streets of your world, and begin to imagine what kinds of people and objects you would encounter. Using a word or notepad document, write down different things you envision as key "tropes" in your world. If you are having trouble taking a mental journey through your world, another great option is to look at popular fiction's examples of it, which was done extensively in Innistrad's design (with references to Jekkeyl and Hyde, The Excorcism, Buffy the vampire slayer, numerous zombie films, and Twilight). The trick is to create a world that is relatable to human experience, and I believe that we are all familiar with what a world filled with greed looks like. Here is my list for Arknia so far...
Treasures and possessions
"Hit Men" (like the mob)
Looting bodies for valuables (I was thinking of KOTOR and skyrim here)
"protection" (through influence with certain groups like the mob)
spending money on services
"return on investment"
survival of the richest

note that your list can continue to expand as you think of things, and that single concepts on it can be used on multiple cards. For example, numerous cards will likely involve paying for services. You may also want to create a second list of things that do not make sense in your world, because a large part of a sets flavor is actually what isn't in it. For example, a zombie would look rather out of place in a world full of greed, because they are mindless (depends on which zombie lore you adhere to) , and therefore cannot be motivated by the desire for money. I might also want to leave out creature types like "beast" or "bear" from my set, because it is also difficult to imagine them being motivated by money. With the two lists in hand, you're probably still wondering what any of this has to do with getting away from the first set file I showed you. The answer
to that?

Putting Some Meat on Those Bones

So where do flavor and formality collide in card design? Right here, right now. With your skeleton and list, you have both components perfectly separated. I'm going to walk through my proccess of taking each of those bare bones cards from the original file, altering them to incorporate the different things on my list that are at home in my set. Let's go over some prime examples of how the set's flavor improved, and what techniques I used to add in the flavor without destroying the integrity of the skeleton. First, let's take a look at a very different set...

CW01: I knew I wanted to use gold somehow in my set, so I started with a card that could produce it. However my first version of gold was that I would have separate cards that let you "spend it". Try to make your counters do something on their own, becuase In limited, counter generators can be opened while counter users may not be. This was a juge change to the set, allowing gold to work like Eldrazi spawns, but I believe that this way it can both do something on it's own and be flavorfully "spent". Flavorfully, this creature is "going to work" for the turn and gets gold for it (which it gives to you).

CW02: This is the first card that I decided to try a spin on gold with. These creature are equipped with valuable weapons, that can be which the owner can "sell" for gold after the creature dies. In order to keep the text of this effect short, I took the "sale" part out, and just put in the idea of scrapping the valuables on your own creatures after they died. This card might be named "Jewelspear Enforcer" or something along those lines. Note that I changed cat to human, because I think that leonin don't have much of a place on a greed centered world, where humans will be core to the design.

CW03: This is the idea of protection, if you have some, he will keep watch of your gold.

CW04: This is the first "pay me to unlock my potential" cards. He won't actually work very hard for you until you pay him. Note the synergy with lifelink and the use of the mercenary creature type to reinforce the "pay me" aspect.

CW05: While generic protection works well, choosing something more specific to your set can improve flavor.

CW06: Cards with flash work best when it matters that they have it, strive to include this in your design. In this case, he fits the idea of "protection" though he is still going to need a lot of help in flavor text to connect him to the set.

CW08: The original version would still support our returning keyword effectively, but it could have a stronger connection to the set, and the effect could have better synergy with buyback. In the new version, we tie in with gold counters, and by doing so, help us keep paying buybacks using the extra gold for mana.

CW09: Angels are neither common, nor are they motivated by greed. Proper creature types is one of the major ways to add flavor. Raven’s are commonly depicted as greedy animals in mythology. While this is a new creature type, I hope to support it throughout the set. There is still a possibility this becomes a bird.

CW10: I was originally playing around with a "three or more theme" for gold counters (he likes you more if you are rich), but I realized that when I added the sacrifice effect, it created dissonance. So I altered the flavor to the way seen in CW04, where when you pay him, he like you more. know there is a decision on where to spend your gold counters most efficiently, not between holding onto them or spending them.

CW11: Every set needs vanillas, and this is here to add simplicity to the set. This is an example where we need flavor text and card names to add flavor. These are some of the only cards that should treat the skeleton like a legal document.

CW14: This card was changed so that you could target anyone with the lifegain. This helps the set be more multiplayer friendly, and fits into "favors". I chose buyback as my returning keyword because it creates a visceral feel to money with the word "buy". In addition, it supports the idea of "return on investment", where your cards feel like they can be used efficiently. This also synergizes with gold counters as it allows you to help pay high buyback costs when you need to.

CW15: The first version works really well in a core set, but the second fits much better into this set. This gives the creature a "valuable weapon" for the turn.Note that toughness is only slightly increased to make it easier for the creature you cast it on to die.

CW16: This is a classic example of "survival of the richest". I had to alter it when I decided add the sacrifice portion to gold counters.

CW17: We start with a sorcery version of demystify, and end up with an interesting card that lets us "loot" the broken enchantment to find gold.

CW18: I started witha reprint of arrest, and ended with a "pay me off" enchantment. I'm still not sure if it should be returned to hand, or just sacrificed when paid.

CU01: I wanted to add stealing gold to this card, though I believe the wording isn't quite correct right now. I also changed the type from bird to raven.

CU02: Salamanders make a lot more sense on this world than merfolk, as a lot of the trade will take place on land. I also think they could use more design work. Adding an ETB version of a cards french vanilla keyword can be a cool way to make it more flavorful. I also decided to benefit hitting the opponent, since islandwalk is an evasion tactic.

CU03: Conditions are one of the designers best tools to add flavor to otherwise bland cards. He only gets hexproof if you are the most respected merchant. "protection"

CU04: I decided I wanted to try a tax collector idea. Testing may show this needs to be uncommon, and the original version may take this slot.

CU08: This is the same idea of making flash more relevant on your cards. Flavor is weak with this card still unfortunately.

CU09: Both the trigger and result changed to let this card help support the "mercenary" feel, and to have paying it get around the "islandhome" drawback

CU10: originally a mana leak variant, now a counterspell that shows that your greed for gold is strong enough for you to negate your own spell.

CU11: This goes from cancel to a conditional counterspell. I also knew I wanted at least one card that counted "gold mana" twice.

CU13: This is purely an experiment. Just as dark ascension chose to make paying flashback costs change the spell, I thought I would try a similar thing with buyback.

CU14: This is just a new way to utilize gold counters, comparison. This card will alos reward players who choose to spend them wiselt rather than cashing in on them quickly.

CU15: The first card is actually perfectly fine, I just wanted to incorporate a stealing aspect to it. The other option is there in case your opponent does not have any gold counters. This might need to only be choose one, testing will tell.

CU16: The idea in the first cards does support buyback, but generally paying for buyback is expensive already. Therefore I went with a version that could cost less mana by switching to a scry-like variant. It's important to remember what mechanics generally involve doing when you want to support them.

CU17: A card that gets better when you pay for it with gold. It's quite possible the new version is too powerful, I will see with testing.

CU18: The first version actually works effectively in a greed world, but I felt that money made a more powerful connection than mana.

CB04: This is the idea of "looting" the dead for their valuables. Other than that a very simple card.

CB05: He knows how to pick through other peoples minds, but he will only do it when he sees you have money. The other version is also suitable, but will be relevant less often.

CB06: Since skeletons are more connected to their previous selfs, I think they are a better fit than zombies here. I also though it would be fun to have players choose when they want to stop regenerating him and cash in on the gold (making them greedy mercenaries themselves).

CB08: Simple changes in triggers for cards can make a huge difference in how they feel. Since the trigger is now harder to activate, I upped the CMC and gave it 1 power so it could still deal damage. I also changed the type to raven rather than bat.

CB09: Humans are much greedier than insects, and I wanted to create cards that liked having gold spent on them.

CB12: An easy way to support my looting bodies theme. Look for cards like this that naturally line up with themes, and put them together.

CB18: Altered to reflect the removal of "three or more gold counters". Now when the enchanted creature is sent into combat, it's loyalty/morale is determined by if it is getting paid to risk its life.

CA01: I decided to change this to a variation on the "creatures holding valuables" theme. This time, it feels a lot more ruthless to sacrifice it just for it's gold.

CA03: I thought of doing a death trigger on this guy too, but I realize that losing a 5/5 isn't part of most peoples plans. I also wanted at least one creature who has two "valuables". Flavor will have to be tweaked slightly to fit this.

CA04: Just an equipment version of the "pay me" cards

CA05: I thought it would be fun to have an equipment that made a creature "valuable". This definitely makes more sense than vigilance in this world.

CA06: It's a little bit more flavorful to have the shield be so heavy that the creature wielding it can't attack. This does still need work blending with the rest of the set.

CA08: The new version might need to be an uncommon, but it definitely has more flavor than the old one. Work with "survival of the richest"

CA09: The first version would be very intriguing in a set that used cycling, but sticks out on Arknia. The second version fits the world much better, and fits right along with the idea of "favors". I can really see this being fun in multiplayer formats for creating alliances.

CA10: Same idea of valuable cards, this time using a Mind Stone variant.

CL01: This cycle was changed to help with gold creation. Note that the cycle becomes much tighter when they are changed to gold creation. Flavorfully, you can either
have the land create mana, or gold (they are somewhat like mines in flavor).


Silly as it seems, creating the "legal document" version of a set is actually a very effective way to begin the process of making your fully fledged set. When I was going through this process for Arknia, ideas kept jumping out at me on how I might make the cards more interesting. When this happened, I would write them into the card notes, and continue forward. This process really helped me think of numerous possible ways to incorporate the flavor or greed into my set, and since I couldn't actually add any of them until I had gone through the whole thing, it let me pick my best (and most complementary) ideas to work together. I would highly recommend this method to a new designer after completing their design skeleton for commons.

Side Note: The results of the poll from last week are in! It seems that almost everyone wants an article on creating mechanics that fit into your sets flavor (option D). You got a sneak preview in this article as to what many of the major mechanics in Arknia will be, but next weeks article will look in depth at their creation, and will cover how you can create the perfect mechanics for your sets. This week, anyone who wants to can PM me their set idea and I can include my take on what mechanics to use in it within the article (please label these Tricks of the Trade: set submission). You can also PM any article topics you might want to see in the future, in case the last poll didn't include a topic you would really like to see (please label these Tricks of the Trade: tricks of the trade article ideas). Next weeks article will include a poll with the topics you guys have sent me, and in two weeks from that date, the article will be up on the forums!

Until then, may you enjoy creating beauty from legal text!

P.S. Are there any comments/responses? This is a little disappointing honestly.

EDIT: Fixed several formatting errors.

My Hub
I really hate Mythic Rares...
School Days taught me everything I need to know about relationships

Fri, 2012-02-24 14:30
Anuttymous's picture

This is fantastic! Getting the skeleton as in-depth as that is very useful. Might not be many responses, but I can assure you that this is going to be immensely helpful for future designers.
Some of the sentences seem to be stopping halfway through, jumping down to the next like, though. Not sure if that's my browser, though.

Please give us more, kiku. These articles are great!

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

Fri, 2012-02-24 17:06
Sewn-Eye's picture

I would have loved to have had this one I first started.

I also think an intelligent beast race would work wonders for this world of yours.

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

Fri, 2012-02-24 23:39
Styrofoamking's picture

So, do you recommend they use this list exactly as a basis, or just form their own skeleton before they start?

Tangent Artists present: CRIT! One of three webcomics that updates every weekend!


Sat, 2012-02-25 01:49
Creative Direction Award
Kiku's picture

The article just before this one has an explanation of how to form your set skeleton based on the kind of set you are making (look under building a skeleton). If anything in that one is still confusing, you can go all the way back to the very first article on world design.

My Hub
I really hate Mythic Rares...
School Days taught me everything I need to know about relationships

Sat, 2012-02-25 03:37
Styrofoamking's picture

No further questions... I really look forward to seeing Akrina.

(Actually, I suspect Akrina and the Dogs of War campaign I'm working on would complement each other pretty well... it's about mercenary companies, throwing their loyalties around to who pays them the best.)

Tangent Artists present: CRIT! One of three webcomics that updates every weekend!


Sun, 2012-02-26 14:58
Carn13's picture

Wow... Love what you're doing with this series, kikushadowblades. With this, I might actually be able to finish a set.

Sun, 2012-02-26 19:36
Friendly MSE Designer
Guitarweeps's picture

Good article kiku. I can def say that the sets where I had a clear skeleton were much easier to manage than when I just tried to "wing it". It is expecially important to make sure that your set theme goes through when based off of a card type like land, artifact, enchantment, etc. Without a clear plan you may over or under design that card type.

You should do a reference to the piggy bank in your set lol.

Also, I reject your statement that Innistrad had Twilight influence.

Check out my updated set hub.