You’re a Designer, Harry! #5 – Frankie Pea & Forked

Forked Bolt

The Nightmare Before

Welcome back, card-crafters! Last week, we discussed the non-white sector (I’m going to try out this term for the four-color groupings for this article, instead of “tier,” just to see how it feels) both creatively and mechanically. This week, before we move any further with the sectors, we’ll take a step back and focus on another important part of Magic: The Gathering set design: The design skeleton.

What is the design skeleton? Well, Mark Rosewater explains it best (and introduced it to the world outside of R&D) in his article Nuts & Bolts: Design Skeleton. But, first, if you haven’t already, you should read the first part of his Nuts & Bolts series – Nuts & Bolts: Card Codes . The latest part of this annual series is Nuts and Bolts: Filling in the Design Skeleton.

These three articles are ones I highly recommend for aiding in the process of designing your own Magic set. The Card Codes article is for understanding the strange letters-and-numbers sequences that are used in a design skeleton. The Design Skeleton article tells you about what it is. Lastly, the Filling in the Design Skeleton tells you how to properly use that skeleton.

With that out of the way, I’ll link you to our set’s design skeleton right now, so you can reference the document while you follow along with the article (or if you’re already savvy in Magic design, you’ll be getting right to the point). Also, the design skeleton is a little bit ahead of what we’re talking about today (the commons), so don’t be alarmed when you reach the end of the article and there is still more content on the design left unreferenced. Here’s the skeleton, hosted on Google Docs:

Four Color Set Design Skeleton

Anti-Magic Marrow

So, that brings us to our set. Our set is a typical large expansion, like the ones that usually appear in the fall, like the Scars of Mirrodin set. In modern Magic design, a large set contains 249 cards. However, twenty of those cards are usually basic land — four different pieces of art per basic land. That will be true for our set, which leaves 229 cards.

Ravnica Plains

Usually, each set balances the number of cards per color. For example, look at the commons of the about-to-be-released set, New Phyrexia. There are ten commons per color. Even the Souleater cycle makes sure to have one of each color represented in that type of design. However, this four-color set we’re working on is special since we’re not featuring all five sectors in it. This set is the large set of a block, and the block’s first two sets will split up the five different four-color sectors with three being introduced in the first set and two in the second. The layout of the sectors across the sets is reminiscent of the Ravnica block where ten two-color guilds were spread out across the three sets of the block (four in the large set, then three in each of the subsequent small sets).

(Our block will have a third set, too, but it’s more of a culmination of what happens when these isolated sectors break their geographical barriers and meet up. It’s the climax! This is like Shards of Alara‘s block’s Conflux and Alara Reborn sets. But enough of the later sets, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of this large set!)

Now, this first large set will have these three sectors:

The non-white sector, which is blue, black, red, and green (UBRG).
The non-black sector, which is red, green, white, and blue (RGWU).
The non-red sector, which is green, white, blue and black (GWUB).


The color ratios across these three sectors are not balanced. Every sector has access to blue and green. If we kept an equal balance across all the cards in terms of color ratios, blue and green would become valuable commodities (assuming we want to encourage players to play these specific four-color groupings, which we do). In draft, there might be a phenomenon where blue and green cards get snatched up early and quickly. And if you’re going to try to achieve four colors, you’re going to need blue and green represented. To restore the balance to the force, the ratios in the set will reflect the ratios in these sectors, which means: 1/6 white, 1/4 blue, 1/6 black, 1/6 red, 1/4 green. To put it another way, for every twelve monocolored cards, it’d be: two white, three blue, two black, two red, three green. This way, there will be plenty of blue and green cards for everybody when drafting the three different sectors.

NOTE: In modern Magic design, designing your set with Limited (this includes drafting and sealed pack) in mind is essential since they’re hugely popular ways of playing Magic. It’s the format of prereleases and of most Friday Night Magic events for goodness’ sake! You get my point. It’s important. And this importance applies when you’re designing commons and uncommons, as well. We’ll get to those in the future when we’re actually designing cards.


So, now we know how our color ratios are going to go. What next? Well, we take a look at how we’re having a heavy use of multicolored cards. We’re also using hybrid as a tool to get more colors onto a card with half the mana symbols. That means there are several possibilities (the following are the terms I’m giving these kinds of cards, not official Magic R&D ones):

Traditional hybrid: Two colors and its colored mana costs are made up completely of hybrid mana symbols

Two-Color Gold: Two colors and its colored mana costs consist only of the traditional colored mana symbols

Three-Color Gold-Hybrid: Three colors and its colored mana costs, in this set, will be using one traditional colored mana symbol and one hybrid mana symbol

Four-Color Double-Hybrid: Four colors and its colored mana costs are made up of only hybrid mana symbols, except with two different kinds. For example, a white/black hybrid mana symbol, and a blue/red mana symbol.

Four-Color Gold-Hybrid: Four colors and its colored mana costs are, in this set, two traditional mana symbols matching the two center colors of a four-color grouping and a hybrid mana symbol for the other two colors.

Four-Color Gold: Four colors and its colored mana costs are made up of only tradtional colored mana symbols.

Limited Information Daily MTG Image
Image courtesy of Daily MTG

We’ll be using these different types of cards. Some are only fit to be as a part of a cycle, like the four-colored cards. That leads to another special part of this set: since there’s three sectors in this set, representing a cycle involving four colors would mean there would, instead of the traditional five, be only three cards as a part of that cycle. I see this as a good thing since it lowers the amount of color density in the set and leaves room for more less-colored cards!

First off, let’s construct the commons. The ones that we know that we’re going to get out of the way are, as in Ravnica and Shards of Alara, we’ll use a cycle of artifacts that fix mana geared toward a certain sector.

3 Artifact Mana-Fixers

We also will do the same with lands in common for the same reasons as above:

3 Land Mana-Fixers

Windwright Mage

As Mark Rosewater often says, if your theme isn’t at common, it isn’t your theme. Since our theme is four colors, we’ll need a cycle of common four-color cards. Just as Shards of Alara did with its cycle of three-color cards, like Windwright Mage, we’ll include a cycle of four-color gold cards.

3 Four-Color Gold

We can also flip what Mark Rosewater said on its head and apply it the other direction. We don’t want players who open up booster packs of this set to see that this set is a three-color set. But, the three-color gold-hybrid cards, as they debuted before in the Alara Reborn set in the form of Marisi’s Twinclaws, are three colors. If we don’t put this at common, that means we’re saying that this set is NOT a three-color set. We’ll put it at uncommon, though. Giving wedge Commander decks some more firepower while appearing in smaller numbers to lessen the chance somebody’ll get confused this is Shards of Alara 2 or something.

Though, the four-color gold-hybrid cards are O.K. We’ll include one for each sector for those.

3 Four-Color Gold-Hybrid

However, we can’t keep everything four-color, so we’ll make use of two-colors and monocolored cards at common. Besides, not counting the few card cycles of four colored cards, this creates an interesting tension where most of your cards are one or two colored. It makes the player work to get three cards that fulfill their quota of four colors. Three cards to get? Reminds me of metalcraft’s magic number threshold of three. Since this is concerning color, it should be at least the same difficulty, if not easier, to get to four colors (through three cards). And going through the hard work of having two two-colored cards that each have different colors from the other to achieve four colors seems like a great reward.

Etched Champion


That brings us to the “rest of the commons” to tackle. With monocolored, I took a look at Shards of Alara commons to get an idea of how many cards of each color there should be along with how much of the set should be monocolored. According to Zendikar, there’s 18 cards per color. The “norm!” In Shards of Alara, however, there are 15 cards per (mono)color. Though, that’s also with ten cards of mana fixing (five card cycle of artifact fixing, and five card cycle of land fixing. At common, I mean).

So, I’ll include another cycle of mana-fixing. Not sure what kind of cards they’ll be. Yet.

3 MORE Mana-Fixers

And, for good measure, one of the remaining artifacts will be mana-fixing, like what Prophetic Prism did in Rise of the Eldrazi.

Prophetic Prism

Great. And nearly half the set in Shards of Alara set was monocolored. So, if we multiply the ratios (in terms of dozens) among the colors by four, we get 48 cards. That’s close to half.

48 Monocolored

Then hybrid happens, and because of how hybrid intermingles two colors on one card, to keep the ratios balanced, after doing the math, we need 18 hybrid cards (I should’ve intuited right from the get-go getting double the colors for the same price means half the cards needed. So, 6 + 12 = 18. Gotta maintain balance of the force, brah.

18 Traditional Hybrid

Since two-color gold cards are the same colors as traditional hybrids, we’ll simply copy the same numbers:

18 Two-Color Gold

And that should leave room for four artifacts. Remember, one of them can we can use to make sure it fixes mana or something (in a broad usage kind of deal) to further ensure that four colors is easier to draft. Whatever the case may be for each of these artifacts, there’s four of them:

4 Artifacts

Dia de los Muertos

Frankie Peanuts

And I’ll leave it at that for now. Join me next time when I discuss and fill in further the design skeleton! We’ll get to the other sectors eventually, but for now, we’re sketching out things.

Seeyanaras, designers!




About Bradley Rose

I'm a Timmy/Johnny Melthos red/white/blue kind of guy. And, no, that combination doesn't have anything to do with an affinity for the United States. Here's how I got into Magic: Once upon a time (let's say the year 2000), I bought my first Magic: The Gathering product in the form of a starter of ...Starter 2000. And that's when Trained Orgg's eyes and mine met for the first time. It was true love. Until I traded most of my Magic cards away for Pokemon ones. Whoops. O.K, so once upon a time (This time, 2001), I got into Magic: The Gathering with a shiny new One-Two Punch theme deck of the Odyssey set. And, surprisingly enough, I didn't trade away my ol' Trained Orgg, so in the deck it went, and we fell in love all over again. Flash-forward nearly a decade, and I've won the / Wizards of the Coast "Design Your Own Card" contest. That was neat, but then, a few months later, the Great Designer Search 2 happened. I managed to make it to the top 101 of the 1000 applicants. So, after years of reading Mark Rosewater's Making Magic column along with a rising interest in game design, I managed to prove that (while not the best) I'm more of a Magic designer than the average bear. I'll keep working on putting more ranks in my Magic design skill, and the design articles I write here will help me do just that. Hopefully, any of my readers with a serious interest in Magic design would feel inclined to pursue their interest as well, either by participating in my collaborative design articles or working on making Magic on their own. This effort toward improving my Magic design capabilities correlates somewhat with a single goal I would like to accomplish before I die: Have lunch with Mark Rosewater. Also, I still have that Trained Orgg, and we're still madly in love with each other.

Posted on May 7, 2011, in Articles, You're a Designer Harry!. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Loved this article. Initially this article confused me with gold-hybrid, but it got more easier as I read Mr. Rosewater’s Nuts and Bolts.

    How about cards that belong in one section (kind of like this one)’s strongest colors (WUBR, UB are strongest) that are one color but have an activated ability that belong in the other color? It encourages drafters to draft two/four colors if colors branch off into another.


    Clockwork Mage
    Creature – Human Wizard

    Clorkwork Mage enters the battlefield with 2 +1/+1 counters on it.

    1B, remove a +1/+1 counter from CARDNAME: Target player discards a card. Activate this ability only during your turn.

    P/T: 1/1

    This can be a simple mechanic that exists throughout the block and encourages multicolor.

    • Bradley Rose


      I probably could have explained it more clearly. After all, it is my responsibility to communicate to my audience effectively. I’m glad you loved the article!

      You certainly would be on the right track with this kind of ability cycle proposition. In fact, it’s used often in multicolor sets. Examples of such include Metathran Zombie, Tattered Drake, and Vectis Silencers.

      Thanks for the feedback! You prevented my article from the fate of having no comments on it at all. Yay!



  2. Bradley,

    Let me start off by saying I’m very excited to see this project starting up, and hope to contribute as much as I can.

    That said, right now I think the best contribution I can make is to let you know that I think we’re going about building this limited format incorrectly in looking at how Ravnica was intended to work rather than how it did work. If adequate fixing + two colored cards gave us consistently 3 color decks, we’re going to quickly end up with 5 color decks here. Even with a mechanic that cares about four colors, there’s little reason for a !B or !R deck not to splash a removal spell of the other color.

    To create a 4 color format, we most likely need to emphasize 2 or 3 colors and use the outliers as splashes. For this reason I think we ought to push the two central colors (allied pairs) and add a lot of incentive to splash everything but the enemy. We could for example have a RG card that produced W,B,R, or G, but unless we make a large number of allied paired cards, decks could just as easily play the !B shard in RG rather than the !U one. This limited environment will be tough to craft, but I think encouraging solid two color mana bases and using multicolored cards to fix that faction’s remaining colors is a good starting place. That said, if we use this model, the block probably needs either an overabundance of multicolored fixers (dare I say, two cycles?) or a lot of cards that encourage flooding so that players can play enough lands to hit their splashes ‘naturally.’

    Food for thought, do you have any responses/other ideas on this subject?

    • Bradley Rose


      I’m glad to have you aboard! I think this set will benefit greatly from your presence. With that said, let’s talk Limited concerns:

      Five colors is indeed something we want to avoid, and I agree with you about keeping a focus on the two central colors of a given four-color grouping. The way I’m intending the design of the set is that there be more weight in terms of mana requirements from the player to spend on the two central colors of a group. Also, I’ve completely trimmed all 3-color cards. Cards are now only 1, 2, or 4 colors. And there’s a lot of 2-color cards. And there are some 4-color cards that have more color weight for the two central colors than the remaining two colors. But I feel we’ll also need some strong support in how the cards’ effects work for encouraging only up to four colors. We’ll see how it goes!

      As for color fixing, currently, the design skeleton has two common cycles (artifact and land) and an uncommon cycle (land) plus enough room in the artifacts for a uncommon artifact color-fixing cycle. And, of course, there’s also the cycle of rare lands that can produce four colors (a design challenge). This is in addition to the hybrid mana and “anti-mana” cards, which get more color for your costs. Let’s just hope that all the hybrid symbols don’t make 5 color decks happen too often.

      Here’s an example design of the RG mana producer you mentioned:

      Red-Green Dude RG
      Creature – Goblin Druid
      T: Add R or G to your mana pool.
      Sacrifice CARDNAME: Add B or W to your mana pool.

      I could also see this as a monogreen card along the lines of Druid of the Anima (with a drawback, of course, to compensate for being able to produce an extra color. 0/1 would be a simple way of doing that, off the top of my head)

      Excellent food for my brains, Jules!



      • Bradley,

        I like where you’re going with Red-Green Dude, but I would caution you against a Druid of the Anima variant or overloading on colorless fixers (either artifacts or lands). Let’s start with the Druid variant, if we have (as you suggested)
        Druid of the I Really Hate Blue 1G
        Creature – NotMerfolk Druid
        T: Add W, B, R, or G to your mana pool.
        Then in a !U deck it works exactly how we want. Unfortunately, green is also a main color of the !B component, and so printing this card would incentivize what would be a !B deck to splash a piece of black removal off of the druid. The problem only gets worse with colorless fixers. If we had:
        Big Obelisk of Not Blue 4
        T: Add W, B, R, or G to your mana pool.

        This card will allow any faction except the !U faction to splash the color that they aren’t supposed to be playing while still providing both of their base colors. In order to craft a four color environment, the fixers need to only be good for the right faction. The simplest way to do this is to require both of the main colors of mana to cast, but alternatives, such as having to reveal cards of the main colors from your hand, could be used under the assumption that we need multiple cycles.

        All that said, the best option may be to make a lot of easier to cast cards (colorwise) that only add two colors of mana, say:
        BR Mana Rock 2
        ~ enters the battlefield tapped.
        T: Add B or R to your mana pool. Activate this ability only if you control one or more black or red permanents.

        This wouldn’t completely obviate the splashing issue, but it would certainly make it more important to make sure you can splash the colors you are supposed to run, and they still make it difficult to splash multicolored cards from other factions.

        Like Jay, I’m skeptical that this theme will be doable, but I hope this post indicates that if we’re going to try, we need to take some pretty extreme steps.


      • Bradley Rose


        My brain has fully digested what you’re saying here. Colorless and even monocolored cards that fix mana, by their very nature, makes 5-color decks easier when not restricted in some way. Emphasizing the two dominant colors more while making players “stretch” for their remaining two colors would be more like how the set should be like.

        Having colored artifacts might be a solution. Well, one of many possible ones. That’s where designing individual cards comes in.

        Thanks. This mana-fixing issue won’t go unnoticed.



  3. I’ve started to read this, and it is fascinating. I agree with others that this is a difficult theme with many obstacles to overcome:

    1) Variety In draft – Shards of Alara suffered the problem that if you stuck to drafting three color decks, you would always be playing one of five decks. In this set, maybe each tier can have multiple subtypes of decks (stemming from the same overall theme) that you can pursue in limited.

    2) In constructed, you want to allow 4-color play, while not encouraging 5-color decks where you just play the best spells of each color. I wonder if mana sources like this could do the job?

    CARDNAME enters the battlefield tapped.
    T: Add U, W, B, or G to your mana pool.
    You can’t pay R as a cost.

    CARDNAME enters the battlefield tapped.
    T: Add U or W to your mana pool.
    T: Add B or G to your mana pool. Activate this only if you have a UW in your mana pool.

    3) Overall, you want to avoid giving all decks access to the same things – almost every deck can counter spells, play fatty and evasion, have removal for every type of permanent, etc. Even if they can do that, they should be forced to do it at a different level of ease/proficiency. (Kind of like how Phyrexian mana makes you work within a life allowance for splashing other colors)

    I really like your idea of “2 main colors, 2 splash colors.” It could alleviate problems 2) and 3) above.

    I’d like to suggest that in terms of identity, the tiers could mean main colors = values, splash colors = the methods employed. For example, gRBu could mean a destructive society that employes bio-engineered beasts to augment its destructive raids? wRGb is ferocious, but uses religious structure to stoke its fury? rGWu loves peace and harmony, but likes meditation and has started looking into wizardly means to find solutions?

    But the flavor of “defined by what it lacks” seems fine too. (For flavor, not for mechanical identity, because they won’t actually lack much. If they don’t get burn, they get creature destruction or exile. But I’m sure the Tier mechanics can provide that mechanical identity, and those mechanics are going to come from the flavor of what they lack so I’m not saying that’s bad.) I especially like the steampunk one and underground one.

    *I don’t understand yet why the set has only three tiers in the large set, since there are only 5 in all. The reason Ravnica broke it up was because there were 10 guilds to cover. It’s true that having multicolor cards limits the number of cards that are relevant for the deck you are drafting, but having access to 4 colors would offset that by a lot. I think you are right to make many of the multicolor cards be 2-color cards, and under that scheme doing all 5 tiers should be fine.

    *I think Anticolor Mana costs could be used on the generic part of the cost. For example, if there’s a Wurm with a 5GW cost, the 5 part could be a special symbol representing antiblack generic Mana. It would feel like it comes 1 turn later for each swamp you play. But I guess this is only useful if you have high-cost anticolor cards.

    *Finally, I have some ideas inspired by your underground mechanic. Would it be ok if I posted them in the Goblin Artisan blog and my GDS2 wiki? (With citations and links to your mechanic, of course) I would only do so if you’re ok with Wizards seeing and potentially using the idea, but I’m assuming you are intending for wizards to be able to see and use your ideas anyways. If you don’t want me post it on the GA blog or wiki, I’ll just post some cards I made onto Photobucket and send you the link so you can use them if they match what you want to do.

    • Bradley Rose


      Having more than one archetype within a faction would make the set more compelling overall, which would be fantastic. I’d say that trying to make sure certain archetypes appear would happen in the stage as early as when selecting the factions’ associated mechanics. But, mostly, it’d be when we’re designing cards. Either way, variety in draft is indeed something to strive for and something that hasn’t been on the forefront of tackling this set, yet. So, thanks for looking out for that.

      Nice attempts at restricting players from going with five colors for their decks! Just a couple of many possibilities, to be sure; but it’s something that’s very important to ensure. Four colors have to be enforced!

      You do have a point about avoiding giving every color the same thing. That’s what makes Magic so great: the division of all the game’s effects into the different colors. If every faction has access to almost everything, things would be more stagnant. There needs to be more emphasis on certain types of effects with each faction, to be sure. For example, strong counterspells, if they would exist for this faction at all, would not be a big part of the UBRG faction. It would lean toward black and red type of effects in its multicolor cards. The nonred faction, however, would be very good at counterspells, given that even white has a few counterspells going on.

      I like your approach to shaping the creative identity of the factions with employing the values of the dominant colors, and the methods of the remaining colors. We’ll discuss it further when I return to talking about the flavor of the factions.

      The major reason I went with the suggestion for dividing up the two factions is because of the problem of having too many new mechanics to stuff into the first set. Shards of Alara solved this by having just three of the shards have new keyworded mechanics. Then, Esper had an artifacts theme while Naya had a “5 or greater power” theme. Three new keywords left room for one more keyworded mechanic: cycling. With our set, we would have three keywords associated with each faction then have one remaining keyword for the non-faction-specific four-color-matters mechanic. Well, we could strive for having all five in the first set, but it’d be even more of a tight fit when considering both keywords and multicolor card cycles representing each faction; especially when hybrid is also involved. It still deserves a second look, then. We could even move anti-mana to the second set to free up some room if we’re moving to have all five in the first set. Then again… will people consider five isolated four-color factions in the first set being too similar to five separate three-color shards in the first set?

      Ah, I didn’t even think of that option: somehow making a special version of the colorless part of the cost. That’s very good! I’ve also been thinking in how the symbols would look in terms of graphic design. Boy, quite a bit goes into making a new symbol (or set of five symbols. …just like in New Phyrexia)!



  1. Pingback: You’re a Designer, Harry! #6 – Reassembling the Skeleton « Red Site Wins

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