Nuts & Bolts #15: Structural Support
Every year, usually in the first quarter of the year, I write an article in my series called "Nuts & Bolts" where I talk about the fine details of designing a Magic set. The column was created to help amateur designers design their own sets, but I've found that the column is a good opportunity to give all Magic players an insight into the nitty-gritty of how a set is made.
This is my fifteenth year doing a "Nuts & Bolts" column. Here are the previous fifteen (the column two years ago was a two-parter) with a short recap:
The first column is the most technical, explaining how we use a system to make sure everyone is always talking about the same card.
"Nuts & Bolts #2: Design Skeleton"
The second column introduces the most important tool in designing a set, something called a design skeleton. (It makes use of card codes, which is why that article came first.)
"Nuts & Bolts #3: Filling in the Design Skeleton"
The third column talks about how you begin filling in your design skeleton, starting with the common cards.
"Nuts & Bolts #4: Higher Rarities"
The fourth column talks about filling in all the other rarities.
"Nuts & Bolts #5: Initial Playtesting"
The fifth column discusses how best to use playtesting to gather feedback and make improvements on your set.
The sixth column talks about the concept of iteration and how you can incrementally improve your set.
"Nuts & Bolts #7: Three Stages of Design"
The seventh column explains the three different stages of design, walking you through how your priorities shift as the set evolves.
"Nuts & Bolts #8: Troubleshooting"
The eighth column answers several questions about common problems that can happen in the early to mid-design stages.
The ninth column talks about how you can look at your set as a whole and figure out what fine-tuning it still needs.
"Nuts & Bolts #10: Creative Elements"
The tenth column discusses how you interweave your mechanical and creative elements into a cohesive set. It discusses both top-down (starting with the flavor) and bottom-up (starting with the mechanics) design. I then go into detail about how to handle names, creature types, and flavor text.
The eleventh column talks about the importance of using art in later playtests and how to incorporate it into your set.
"Nuts & Bolts #12, Part 1: Limited (Mechanics)"
This twelfth column got broken into two parts. Both talk about how to make sure your set is working properly in Limited. The first article focuses on making sure your mechanics work for Limited play.
"Nuts & Bolts #12, Part 2: Limited (Themes)"
The second part focuses on building out themes for Limited play.
"Nuts & Bolts #13: Design Skeleton Revisited"
A lot had changed since I first talked about a key tool to building sets, the design skeleton. This article includes a default set skeleton that we use with new designers.
"Nuts & Bolts #14: Initial Ideation"
This fourteenth column covered how to flesh out an idea to create a new set.
Last year, I talked about how to come up with an idea and flesh it out into a set structure. Today, I'm going to talk about the next step, what we call "structural support." This is what you must do to your set so that it has all the elements it needs to work properly, especially in Limited. Interestingly, most of these things I believe will help players make cubes, as cubes function a lot like a set designed for drafting.
Here are the major things to care about:
In last year's "Nuts & Bolts" article, I talked about how to develop an idea and turn it into a design skeleton. The next step is figuring out how exactly you want to execute on that theme. This is played out in several ways:
Named mechanics – What mechanics do you want to introduce to your set to help you reinforce your theme? Those mechanics can be mechanically focused, such as adding graveyard mechanics in a graveyard-focused set; or they could be flavor focused, such as adding graveyard mechanics in a horror set to play up the feel of Zombies.
Most premier sets will have anywhere from three to six named mechanics. Supplemental sets, like Modern Horizons, can have many more than that. How many you want to have has a lot to do with the complexity level you're aiming for. The more different mechanics you have, especially when they appear in smaller number, the higher the complexity.
The other big complexity issue is how complex each individual mechanic is. You might just have three mechanics, but if one of them is mutate, your complexity is going to be high.
Unnamed mechanics – Whether you name a mechanic has a lot to do with how big it is, how complex it is, and how you interact with it. Most sets will have unnamed mechanics that show up on multiple cards in the set. Their most common use is to reinforce deck archetypes (which I will get to later), but sometimes they're put in for gameplay and feel through things like cycles (horizontal—one in each color; vertical—one in each rarity of the same color). The average premier set will usually have one to four unnamed mechanics. These usually show up on two to five cards, usually at low rarities for Limited.
"_______ matters" – Often in a set, there will be one or two qualities that the set cares about. It could be a card type like artifacts. It could be a subtype like Goblins. It could be a supertype like snow. It could be a game quality like color or mana value. The quality you care about is something that ties into your larger theme and helps the set feel different.
Whatever quality you're caring about, you'll have to monitor it in your set. Usually, it will go up in volume over its default level. An "instants and sorceries matter" set, for instance, will force you to find more ways to get additional instants and sorceries into your set. If your quality isn't naturally something you find on creatures, you'll usually have to find a way to have it interact with creatures to get the as-fan high enough to care about. This is why enchantment creatures exist, for example, in "enchantments matter" sets.
A set doesn't have to have a "__________ matters" theme, but most do, and it's one of the easier themes for amateur designers.
Once you figure out which of these components you want in your set, you'll want to make sure to include them in your design skeleton. For mechanics, named and unnamed, figure out how many you'll want of each rarity and label slots to hold them. If you're unsure how many you need, I would recommend thinking of a mechanic that fills a similar void in an existing set and copying that.
For "__________ matters," you'll want to make sure you have enough of that item in your design skeleton. Again, pick an existing set that is similar in quality (look at Theros if your set cares about enchantments, for instance) and copy those numbers. Getting the as-fan is tricky, and we spend a lot of time playtesting to get it right. As I said above, you might have to change elements of your set structure to fit in enough of the cards that have the quality you care about. In particular, the theme will have to exist on some number of creatures to be relevant enough of the time in Limited formats.
Card Type Percentages
One of the first things you need to do is make sure you have the right percentage of creatures for each color. This is built into the design skeleton I listed in "Nuts & Bolts #13." Here's the percentages for those who might not know them (i.e., everyone but R&D):
- White – 62%
- Blue – 50%
- Black – 56%
- Red – 53%
- Green – 59%
Note that these are percentages that rarely divide evenly, so you'll always have a bit of wiggle room. In general, I err on the side of rounding up with creatures.
Something to keep in mind is that R&D has a few rules about what we count as a creature for the purposes of percentages. If a creature can't attack (it's a Wall, for example), we don't count it as a creature. (Creatures that can't attack but have a way to gain the ability to attack are usually counted as half.) Also, if a spell generates tokens capable of attacking, we count that as a creature and will list it in a creature slot. For instance,
For the rest of the card types, you'll want to make sure that you have a smattering of each. Normally, within any one color in any one rarity, we'll try to make sure that that color has at least one sorcery, one instant, and one enchantment. It will often also have at least one artifact if the set has colored artifacts (which most sets do these days). As a rule, we tend to roughly balance noncreature card types, except in sets where a certain card type plays into a set's theme, as I talked about above.
Every card has a mana cost. A mana curve is about making sure that, for any format, you have cards of various mana values such that a player has things to play on every turn. Within any one color, this usually means that there are some number of cards, especially creatures, in each mana value from 1 to 5, and then certain colors will have stuff above that.
You also want to make sure that you don't have too many cards in any one mana value. A common early file mistake is something like "too many cards glutting up the three-drop." The design skeleton I listed in "Nuts & Bolts #13" lists out the default for how many of each mana value is needed in each color.
I should note that mana curves tend to focus on creatures. You want to make sure each mana value has creatures in it. Noncreature spells are important, but not as exacting as creatures. You want to spread out your spells between the mana values, but you don't need to be quite as exact as you are with creatures.
Another important thing to point out is that you want to look at your mana curve both in each color you're making and in each archetype you're building. That means you want to do a mana pass on each. Here's how you do that:
In each color, look at the design skeleton and get a general sense of how many cards in each mana value you want. For your first mana curve, I find it very helpful to follow the defaults of the design skeleton. For example, here's white common:
- CW01 – MV 1
- CW02 – MV 1 or 2 (don't pick 2 for this and CW06)
- CW03 – MV 2
- CW04 – MV 2
- CW05 – MV 2
- CW06 – MV 2 or 3
- CW07 – MV 3
- CW08 – MV 3
- CW09 – MV 4
- CW10 – MV 4
- CW11 – MV 5
- CW12 – MV 5 or 6
When making your common white cards, make sure each slot is matching up with the mana value listed for the slot. If you find something isn't fitting, you'll have to adjust it to fit. Usually that means altering the power and/or toughness, but sometimes you'll also have to tweak the rules text.
Note that if you're over on a particular mana value, you can change any of the cards in that mana value, not just the one listed in that slot. For example, you have three white commons with mana values of 4 but only have slots for two, and you're down a third card with a mana value of 3. You can change any of the three creatures with mana values of 4 that you have to creatures with mana values of 3. Just make sure to move around the cards so that they properly match the slots. You'll want to do this at each rarity, but at lower rarities, it's more important to properly spread them out. Rare being a bit clumped isn't a huge deal, but at common, it can destroy your drafts.
For doing the mana curve of your draft archetypes, what you'll want to do is pull every card that's a reasonable card for that archetype in the colors of the archetype by each rarity. Feel free to use the default of one of the colors in that archetype as a loose guide. For example, let's say you're looking at your red-white aggro archetype. Use either white's or red's default design skeleton, and then make sure you're spreading out your cards properly among the mana values.
Quite often fixing one area will result in issues in other areas. Let's say you need to adjust a white card to fit your red-white archetype. That will usually result in you having to readjust your mono-white curve.
Here's one of the big questions you must ask yourself: will my players have enough access to mana to play the game I want them to play? The largest issue usually concerns how many colors you want to be the default. If players are mostly playing one color with a splash of the second, you usually don't need a lot of common mana support, maybe something like a single land or artifact that can get you access to one color of your choice.
If you have a format where players are playing two colors equally, you're going to want some common support, usually in the form of a cycle of dual lands. Common dual lands most often enter the battlefield tapped, often with a small bonus.
If you have a format where players are regularly supposed to play two colors with a splash, or play three colors, you'll want additional support beyond the cycle of dual lands. Usually this is done with artifacts.
The best way to gauge what you need is to look at a set from the last five years that has a similar requirement for colors of mana and see what kind of support was added. The tricky part is that you want to enable the number of colors you're focusing on without making it too easy to play a number above that. For example, in a three-color set, we want to allow you to play three colors without making four colors too easy. If we fail in this regard, decks start all looking similar, as the best cards just go in all decks. We've found that the trick to solving for this is to be careful with how many lands provide three or more colors.
As the game progresses, you get more and more lands onto the battlefield. As such, you have access to bigger and bigger spells. The problem is that 40-ish percent of the time, you're going to draw a land, meaning there will come a point in many games where you'll have more mana than spells to spend with it. To account for this, you want to make sure your set has means to spend this extra mana. There are several ways to do this.
Activations – Your permanents can have abilities that you can spend mana to activate. The higher the mana cost, the later in the game they will get used. A common trick we use in Magic sets is what we call "invokers," which are common creatures costed close to vanilla creatures that have activations requiring seven or more mana, usually something that impacts the board. The idea is that you play the card early and the activated ability helps you win in the late game. Repeatable activations can also fill this void. Late game, I can activate multiple times to get larger effects that will impact the game, hopefully swinging the game in my direction.
Extra spell costs – Another popular place for mana sinks is on spells, usually with a mechanic that allows you to spend extra mana to get more out of the spell. The classic example of this is kicker. Early game, you play the spell in its cheaper form, but if you draw it late, the card adapts to being a bigger spell with a larger effect.
Repeatable spells – These are spells that you can cast more than once, usually from your hand the first time and from another zone the second time.
Mana gates – A mana gate makes you pay some mana to get an effect. Mana gates are most often tied to triggers. Whenever thing X happens, you may spend N (we use N to signify a locked amount of mana) to generate an effect. The idea is that in the early game, you're unable to access the mana gates, but later in the game, you'll have the mana to access these extra effects.
It doesn't matter where your mana sinks are in your design, just that you have some.
You start every game by shuffling your deck. This provides the randomness that makes each game play out differently. But you'll need some tool that helps your player offset some of this randomness. Here are a couple:
Scry/surveil – These abilities are both evergreen and thus are things you can sprinkle into sets as needed. I try not to mix the two in the same set, but some designers do.
Impulsing/tutoring – Impulsing is when you look at the top N cards of your library and take one, often with a restriction (with the rest going on the bottom of your library). Tutoring is when you go into your deck to get a specific card. Both help with deck smoothing, but we do a lot more of the former than the latter, as we want to avoid excess shuffling.
Looting/rummaging – Looting is when you draw a card and discard a card (usually in blue), and rummaging is when you discard a card and draw a card (usually in red). Both effects increase your ability to get the spell you need to help you win the game. There are a bunch of mechanics, things like explore or connive, that build some form of looting or rummaging into the effect.
Drawing cards – Anything that lets you draw extra cards, from things like cantrips ("Draw a card" at the end of an effect) to straight card-drawing effects, increases your chances of drawing the card you need. All colors have some access to card drawing but do it differently. Blue is the most open. White usually can draw one card per turn. Black has to pay another resource, most often life, to get cards. Red does impulsive draw where it exiles cards and has to play them soon. Green's card draw is tied to its creatures.
The normal Magic effects can get you to the amount of deck smoothing you need, but it's often nice to have a mechanic that does the lion's share of the work.
An important part of designing a Magic set is making sure your players' games will end. Part of this comes from the spells getting larger in effect as the game advances, but there's another key element: creatures. You need to make sure that the board doesn't stalemate such that creatures can't attack. The key to doing this is making sure that you build enough evasion into your set. Here are the key tools you have:
Flying – This is the best evasion tool available. It appears in the most colors and in the largest as-fan. White, blue, and black should all have common fliers, and red should get them at uncommon or rare. Green is the one color that often doesn't have fliers, although it does have things like reach to interact with them. Flying is so important, we mark it specifically in our default design skeleton.
First strike/double strike – This mechanic helps you attack such that you won't get blocked. You'll notice that we've started restricting it to just being on attack, as that's where it helps the game end. First strike on defense stalemates the game. This ability is primarily in white and red.
Deathtouch – This mechanic, like first strike, is good on offense to help you get through. We tend to put it mostly on smaller creatures, so it goes away when you get into combat. This keeps it from shutting down attacks like first strike can. This ability is in black and green.
Menace – We spent many years figuring out what was the best "some of you can't block me" mechanic, and we finally settled on menace. It helps you get through at times but isn't something your opponent can't answer, and it mostly doesn't discourage your opponent from attacking. This ability is in black and red.
Trample – This is an evasion ability, but usually only on large creatures. It's an important evasion ability for green. This ability is primarily in green and red.
Haste – This isn't exactly an evasion ability, but it can help someone get in a few points if the opponent doesn't leave anyone back to block. This ability is primarily in red, green, and black.
Indestructible – This, like first strike, can be a double-edged sword, but you are more encouraged to attack if you can't get destroyed. This ability is primarily in white and green.
Vigilance – I wasn't sure if I should include this one. It does allow you to be more aggressive with attacking but usually needs to be on a creature tough enough that it won't die. This ability is in white, blue, and green.
Set-specific keywords – Not every set has an evasion set keyword, but when it does, you should use it. It often allows us to fill in on colors that traditionally have less evasion, like green.
The key to this category is making sure you have enough volume. The tools are available, but you, as the set builder, have to make sure the as-fan is high enough and that every color has access. Again, the default design skeleton can help here.
Threats & Answers (Offensive Tools & Defensive Tools)
Another thing you have to monitor is having cards that will end the game and other cards that can answer those cards. Usually, you want a smattering of powerful threats in uncommon, generally ones that tend to win the game over several turns rather than immediately, and some larger threats at rare and mythic rare. The greater the threat, usually the higher the rarity you want. Limited isn't fun if it ends to bombs too often.
Then you want to make sure you have answers at every rarity:
Common – These answers want to be precise (i.e., deal with one threat) and want to cover every possible card type. Note that different colors will excel at different threats. Common answers are costed for Limited and thus are a bit more expensive. Common answers are usually not on creatures.
Uncommon – Uncommon answers fall into two buckets. First are point-removal cards, but cheaper than you'd get them at common. These are usually costed for Constructed. Second, are two-for-one answers, that is, either a card that removes two threats or a card that grants you something and also deals with a threat. A good example of the latter would be a creature with an "enters the battlefield" effect that can destroy a creature. We sometimes let uncommon have removal that can remove a larger number of small threats (like "deal 2 to all creatures").
Rare – Rare can have efficient answers that provide other resources or can be efficient mass removal.
Mythic rare – These are usually cards that are extra damaging in Limited. Mythic rare is where you put cards that you want showing up as little as possible in Limited games.
These are cards that exist to provide common resources to several different players. The main way we do this is through cards with generic costs, most likely artifacts, but sometimes just colorless spells or permanents. These cards can go in any deck, so it's where we put resources that we want everyone to have access to. Here are the most common uses:
Creatures – If we want to make sure people can fill out their decks, we sometimes make colorless creatures that are strong enough to serve as a twenty-third card.
Mana fixing/land fetching – Colorless sources are often an efficient way to give players access to colors of mana and/or ramping.
Equipment – Usually this is low-level Equipment made to help with Limited. Not every set has common colorless Equipment.
Set themes – We often use colorless slots to make sure that players have access to whatever theme the set is pushing.
The one other tool we'll sometimes use is hybrid. It's not quite as expansive as colorless, but it does let us give more colors access to certain cards.
Once you have a good handle on your themes and mechanics, it's time to start thinking about your draft archetypes. If you're just starting out, I would focus on the ten two-color pairs. That's what most drafts focus on. For each color combination, you want to answer the following questions:
What mechanics does this archetype rely on? The most common tool for designing archetypes is to look at the set mechanics. It's the thing most unique about the set and tends to take up the most space. What color we put certain mechanics in will drive what archetypes will play it. (This can sometimes work in reverse, where you define two-color archetypes by a mechanic, so you focus it in those colors.) For instance, in Phyrexia: All Will Be One, we put poison in white, black, and green, so green-white, white-black, and black-green were the three archetypes that revolved around poison, each though in a different way.
Remember that if your mechanic stretches across more than two colors, you want to figure out how each archetype is going to differentiate from the others. Using poison again, green-white was more go wide, white-black focused on corrupted, while black-green had the creatures with the largest toxic numbers.
What is this archetype's route to victory? You have to know how the archetype is going to win. Is it with creatures? A lot of little creatures? One big creature? Is it with spells? Focus on what the threats are and make sure different archetypes have different threats.
What speed is this archetype? We divide into three speeds: fast, medium, and slow. You want at least three of each speed, with one getting a fourth. We try to mix up which speed gets the fourth between sets.
What's default and what's not? You want to do something new with every set, but you don't want every archetype to be unfamiliar, so the rule of thumb is that you usually have about two archetypes that are doing something novel, four archetypes that are riffing off something they normally do but in a way that's a little different, and four archetypes that are doing something pretty familiar with what they've done before.
The final category gets some novelty in the cards, but the overall theme is familiar. We've experimented with sets pushing more away from known archetypes and have found that everyone but the most dedicated drafters tend to get lost and disinterested. Somewhat different is good. Too different is alienating. It still has to feel like Magic.
Finally, you want to have some cards that might not go in the deck outright, but they exist to help answer problems after the first game. Usually, these are answers to threats in your environment but things that exist in a low enough as-fan that the player won't see them often enough to main deck the answer. Sideboard cards used to live at common, but we've discovered over the years that they serve the environment better at uncommon. We've also started doing more multimode cards to allow some of these sideboard cards to make main decks.
"If You Build It
. . ."
I hope today's column gave you a lot of practical ideas for how to build your set. As I stressed multiple times, many of these topics are complex, so copying what we've done on a similar printed set is a great way to find a place to start.
As always, I'm eager for any feedback, be it through email or my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok). Let me know what you thought of today's article.
Until next time, may you have as much fun building Magic sets as I do.