So You Want to Build a Set, Part 1: What Should You Respect?
Welcome to the first part of So You Want to Build a Set, a new article series especially for the new custom card designer or even experienced designers who have never put together a full custom set before. These articles are meant to be a guide to making the most realistic, polished, and professional-seeming custom Magic sets possible. Emulating R&D's actual methods and conventions of set design is one of the most challenging parts of the art of set design, especially in contrast with designing individual custom cards. Doing so leads not only to greater satisfaction for your readers on our Custom Cards forums, because the best measuring stick for realistic critique is real Magic and the way it works, but for you and people you playtest with as well should you decide to play games using your custom cards.
But, of course, hewing strictly to what R&D has done will result in never implementing your own original ideas. Not only that, but you may want to avoid some of the design and development mistakes R&D has made. So what are the ways in which you SHOULD follow R&D's example?
Commons: Respect New World Order
R&D's New World Order mandate means one thing and one thing only: commons should never be very complex. In practice it's a little more involved than this, but it essentially only affects one rarity. This idea's been (often deliberately) misinterpreted as an effort to dumb down the game. But think to yourself: How many complex cards and decks have you seen in the twelve years since the New World Order was introduced? I'm willing to bet it's a high number, it just so happens that none of them were common Balduvian Shamans.
The New World Order review of cards involves "red-flagging" cards at a common rarity that increase one of the types of complexity. While I'll be going through what complexity means for custom designers in a later article, the broad types are defined in Mark Rosewater's article linked above. This doesn't mean commons can't be relevant or powerful, that they can't affect the board, or that they can't be unique designs. It simply meats that more elegant, less text-heavy commons both "feel" more common to readers and playtest better particularly in Limited.
All Cards: Respect the Color Pie
This is big, obvious, and critical. You're perfectly allowed to design a monoblue creature with double strike or a monowhite sorcery that makes opponents discard cards — but be prepared to catch severe criticism for it. Everyone is allowed their own interpretation of the color pie, and we all have wishes about what effects should be put into what colors (it used to be red was the most disadvantaged color, now white is the fixer-upper du jour). However, the color pie as it exists in practice is a baseline everyone can agree on.
As with all things in Magic design, not everything is black and white (no pun intended). There's definitely room for pie bends, and special sets and thought experiments in the spirit of Planar Chaos. But be wary of justifying bends and breaks in the color pie with "but the flavor is perfect!" While a psychic energy blast that causes mental backlash is perfect flavor for a blue card, Psionic Blast is not justifiable in blue anymore.
Legendary Creatures: Respect Commander
Not every Magic player plays Commander. In fact, some can't stand it — and that's okay. The "normal" game is still what most sets and cards should be designed for; Standard and Draft are still the most popular ways to play Magic barring kitchen table casual, and even that "format" primarily consists of 20-life, 60-card two-player or multiplayer. The popularity of Commander. however, is such that even if you never have nor want to play this format in your life, R&D has to account for it in every release, and when we're designing a custom set according to how the pros do it, we must do so as well.
This doesn't mean that you should be referencing the command zone in regular expansions, or that all your legendary creatures have to make for good commanders. Far from it. Dragonlord Kolaghan, for example, released while the Commander boom was in full swing, has a triggered ability that has much less utility in a singleton format than elsewhere (although the rest of the card makes it plenty playable). However, expansions now have a somewhat higher density of legends than before. And there's a conscious effort by R&D to make legendary creatures that could helm decks with interesting playstyles. Unusual color identities, like Samut, Voice of Dissent's, are another way to give "Commander bait" without devoting the entire design to the format.
All Cards: Respect Limited
There's no two ways about this: The overwhelming majority of cards in any expansion are not going to be useful in Constructed decks. They may not fit into any Standard archetype, or be overcosted compared to other cards in their class (removal is going to see a lot less play than removal), or simply be not powerful enough or be too niche to make the cut. This is not a bug, it's a feature — for powerful cards to be powerful, they have to be better than something. Card evaluation is a great skill in Magic and players can only learn it if they're presented with lesser and greater cards. Besides, trying to bring everything up to the same, extremely strong power level inevitably produces runaway overpowered cards and decks.
You still want players to be able to have fun with cards that are not very powerful, of course. So you need cards at common and uncommon that, while perhaps not Constructed-worthy, could be Limited all-stars. You need to make sure the set has its some Cold-Water Snapper. You need a fair amount of Bombs, Removal, and Evasion, the all-important first three letters of the age-old Draft mnemonic BREAD. You should have an even spread of generally-useful cards among all the colors. And finally, if you're truly going for a full Limited experience, you should be mindful to support Draft archetypes, complete with two-colored signpost uncommons that a cohesive deck can be built around. This last practice is ideal because it means that any two given decks at a Draft table are different and that most Draft decks have a reasonable number of synergistic cards and are thus all powerful but balanced relative to each other.
These are the absolute basics for set design in the current style. I'll go into each of these more in depth in the coming editions, but it's we need a basic foundation of what is expected. Tune in to the next edition of So You Want to Build a Set, and we'll get more advanced!