The Custom Card Creation Mailbag, Edition #2 - Spring 2023


Hello, and thank you for joining me for another edition of the mailbag column for the MTGNexus forum section I am most involved with, Custom Cards!

As I noted in the original thread asking for questions for this column, a lot has changed in the few short months between my prior column and now, and the overarching story of Magic stands at a precipice, with the soon-to-be-released March of the Machine being advertised as a blockbuster on the order of War of the Spark. In fact, WotC is claiming it'll be such a big deal it's the first set that will need its own epilogue. Make of that hype what you will... but I have a lot of great questions about the future, as well as the past and the present, to get through at the moment. Thanks to everyone who submitted a question to the mailbag this time - and let's get started:

kwanyeegor-ii writes: What is one card from a 2022 set you think is well designed and why?
What is one custom card from 2022 you saw you think is well designed and why?

The nod I'm going to give for real cards has to go to Angel of Suffering, I think. This is a card that fits what it "should" be in so many ways. It's a mythic that is big and splashy and a large flying threat, but that also does something unique yet elegant. It's an Angel, so it protects or "saves" you in a way, but it's black, so it just diverts one kind of pain into another, and the self-mill you get to convert damage into can either massively benefit you if you get the things you want to into your graveyard or just kill you faster than your life total going down would, depending on the situation. The flavor and mechanics match up very well. All in all, I love this card and would be proud to have designed it myself.

I'll actually make note of a few cards from different sources as great custom designs from 2022 - contests, quick reply games, and regular design threads. The one from the contests came really late in the year, and is slimytrout's entry for the December MCC, Round 3 - Supercharge. The reason I have to shout this card out is obvious. It got a perfect score in the MCC, and I think it deserves that honor. Pygyzy's Last-Minute Replacements from May's first round also shares that distinction! From the quick reply games, Grodenwold, Storykeeper by Surging Chaos is great: It feels like a perfect uncommon legend and is a great way to give RG an enchantment theme and make finishing Sagas more satisfying. Finally, I'd be remiss to not give a hand to SecretInfiltrator for Artful Arson, one of the cleverest rummaging effects I've seen.

marioguy3 writes: What are five non-evergreen mechanics you think are the most well-balanced in Magic?

Generally speaking, mechanics aren't really balanced or unbalanced. If storm spells had all been effects that can't directly win you the game, like scrying or exiling cards from graveyards, then storm would not be known as a broken keyword. If no high-CMC delve cards had been made, and all that mechanic were good for was reducing costs by a couple of generic mana, then delve would not be thought of as overpowered. There are a few exceptions - with dredge, for example, it's hard to think of how to balance self-fueling recursion - but generally, it's cards that make the reputation of keywords, not the other way around.

However, there are still mechanics that tend to lend themselves to balanced and satisfying designs. If I had to pick five in that category, I'd go with:

  • Cycling. A bit simple, a bit flavorless, but the OG set keyword has stood the test of time. The reason for this is simple: Any card can benefit from being able to take a chance on another option if it's not useful at the moment. It's a good thing cycling is now deciduous, I think.
  • Riot. The tradeoff of a +1/+1 counter versus haste almost always will lead to an interesting, impactful decision. This is a guild mechanic I especially like.
  • Foretell. The ability to make a down payment on a large cost or make sure you don't have to pay much mana to an instant you'll need on an opponent's turn later is such a "reasonable" and useful idea.
  • Persist. Infinite loops aside, getting back a weaker version of a creature that has died is definitely among the most balanced but effective of recursion mechanic ideas.
  • Totem armor. This is one of my favorite ways of mitigating the inherent 2-for-1 drawback of Auras.

Lorn Asbord Schutta writes: Archetypes for any (or maybe each?) color pair that you wished were more explored?
Any idea how to deal with a - in a context of a set - conflict between differently centered shards or wedges? For instance a Uwg faction fighting the Gwu one.

Ooh, one archetype per color pair you say? I'll just make a quick list of things I think would be interesting draft archetypes in upcoming sets, no matter the setting.

  • WU Equipment: Both these colors just have access to so many creature abilities that pair great with Equipment.
  • UB flying matters: Black is one of the main colors for flying, but we almost never, if ever, see black cards that care about flying creatures.
  • BR flashback: One color likes the graveyard, the other color likes instants and sorceries - it writes itself.
  • RG ramp: Let me see rituals paired with mana elves and Dragons alongside Hydras!
  • GW lifegain: This is an old chestnut, but WB and rarely BG always get it - green is a full-fledged lifegain color too!
  • WB Treasures: Something I'd like to see for the Orzhov in a Ravnica set, perhaps.
  • BG control: This seems like a natural fit for the two colors that pair up to destroy anything.
  • GU enchantments matter: I was almost tempted to put "anything but +1/+1 counters" here.
  • UR tempo: I was almost tempted to put "anything but spellslinger" here. :unamused:
  • RW defender matters: My first favorite color pair alongside my first favorite theme.

Factions with the same color composition fighting based on which is the center color is a really unique idea. However, it's a bit subtle and might be hard to implement. Some ideas I have off the top of my head include color weighting in costs (GUU vs. GGW for example), restricting the non-center colors to things like off-color activations, and making the two themes SO different they're completely incompatible.

Sporegorger_Dragon writes: In your personal opinion, for the next Wedge-based set, should Wizards revisit one of the previous (Tarkir, and to a lesser extent, Ikoria), or should they try something new (like Capenna)?
Should a four-color focused (Nephilim quads) set be even attempted?

The shard tricolors in Alara and Capenna feel completely different and that's really nice. Obviously, Tarkir feels totally different from Ikoria as well (maybe there are commonalities with the focus on giant monsters of SOME kind), but both have issues as wedge sets/blocks: KTK was followed up by two sets that gradually dropped the wedge themes and Ikoria's only real wedge aspects were creature types appearing in those colors, a wedge-colored legendary cycle, and the Triome lands. In view of this, there's more to explore on both of these worlds in terms of a wedge theme - let's go back, say I.

I go back and forth on whether quad-color themes are feasible all the time, but should they be attempted? In custom designs at least, yes. We have that freedom in the custom M:tG world, and I'd say who dares wins. We won't know what's possible until we give it a shot. Heck, I've tried it myself... even if I have never completed a project along these lines.

Rithaniel writes: So, I've personally been disappointed by WotC's storytelling throughout the years. They have very good worlds to explore, which are in turn bolstered by their great art, but a lot of the storytelling just feels like a kid smashing action figures together. For an example, Nicol Bolas's scheme was shallow and only worked because he had a ridiculous amount of brute force to utilize from the beginning. Meanwhile, literal years of storytelling were dedicated to building up the hype of Nicol Bolas and his scheme.

What about you? Do you disagree with my assessment? Do you have any pet peeves in regards to WotC's storytelling? What is your evaluation?

I'm nowhere near as low on the storyline as you are, but I know criticisms that you and a lot of other people make are valid and coming from a genuine place of wanting better narratives in a game you love. WAR and now MOM are interesting to me because they're payoffs for intertextuality and continuity references in an otherwise separated multiverse where we can leave narrative threads behind for real-world years, and I liked a lot of the Bolas arc without really thinking it was perfect or even an especially well-constructed fantasy story.

When the primary narrative medium is cards coming out of booster packs or precons in no particular order, I would say environmental storytelling and more low-key ideas are usually better than yet another apocalypse, but there has to be anticipation and climaxes sometime. My pet peeves with the Magic story are so often individual terrible decisions by individual writers - it's a bit like criticizing comic books in that sense. I won't get into them here, but suffice it to say there are plenty of points on which I agree with you. To be glib about it, maybe the storyline should be more about vibes than it is about actual story.

And that wraps up this edition! Thanks to everyone who wrote in to this delayed mailbag column, and I look forward to another conversation after we've all digested MOM: Aftermath and Tales of Middle-Earth...