You’re a Designer, Harry! #6 – Reassembling the Skeleton

NOTE: As my returning readers are aware of, as part of the effort of determining the name of a four-color grouping, I change up what I call these groupings in every article to “try it out.” These four-color groupings would become a part of Magic players’ lingo when they reference any one group of four colors, whether it be a card or a deck. People reference the guilds and shards from multicolored sets of old to refer to two and three-color groupings to this day. While designing this set is simply an exercise, we should treat the design problems we face seriously if we want to grow as designers.

This article’s name for a four-color grouping is: faction.

Another note: This week is more of an expansion upon last week’s article. Some things have been changed since last week and some things have been corrected. Such is the way of design. Most times, you get things wrong the first time! So, while there is new content in this article, there will be a lot of reiteration (but explained with more clarity).

Now, on with the show!

In a previous life…

Last week, I started the design skeleton for this four-color Magic: The Gathering set. To recap, a design skeleton is like the blueprint of a Magic set. You plan out what pieces (cards) to include in this specific blueprint (set), then you actually go build it (design cards). We still haven’t started designing cards, yet, though.

But while a design skeleton is like the blueprint, it doesn’t mean that whatever you initially put in your skeleton isn’t going to change. In fact, if you changed nothing from the first time you assemble the skeleton until the set is finalized then, most likely, something is wrong with your set. There’s a lot of components to a Magic set; a lot of opportunities to make an incorrect decision. Also, if you’re designing a set without feedback from others, then that’s even more likely you’ll have made a mistake because you’re only working with one perspective that could possibly be skewed, especially with being involved so deep into the set. Because it’s nearly impossible to get it right the first time, you’ll be changing your design a lot over time as you playtest and find out new things and get feedback from others.

Speaking of changing the skeleton, there have been changes made to this set’s skeleton since last week! Here, I’ll link you to the shared Google Docs spreadsheet of the four-color set’s design skeleton:

Four-Color Set Design Skeleton

NOTE: The link above links you to a design skeleton that gets updated. So, by the time you read this, the design skeleton may have changed. I see this as a good thing since you don’t need to worry about tracking down my latest article(s) and finding a link to the skeleton to see the most current version of it.


So, what’s different? Well, I remembered something that’s very important when you’re designing: KISS, or Keep It Simple, Stupid. In the first iteration of the skeleton, there were too many “bells and whistles,” as MTG Color Pie put it in a past design article of his mentioning KISS as it relates to Magic design. The execution of “four colors” had become too complex.

Initially, one of the defining themes of the set when I pitched “four colors,” was that it was going to use hybrid, since that cuts down on the number of mana symbols needed to achieve four colors. But “gold cards” were still going to be used in addition to the hybrid cards. What’s more is that there was the opportunity to intermingle the use of hybrid mana symbols and regular mana symbols to make “hybrid-gold” cards.

Before I go any further, I’m going to go on a Mark Rosewater-style aside and show visual examples of the different types of multicolor cards, so you can better get an idea of what I’m talking about. I’ll also tag “YES” or “NO” next to each category to indicate whether we’ll be using that type of multicolored card in this set:

Monocolored: YES

There’s only one color here, and it uses traditional mana symbols. In this case, the black mana symbol. By default, for some reason, a Magic set usually has monocolored cards. So, we’ll be using these kinds of cards.

Hybrid: YES

This is a 2-color card and a hybrid. This is a traditional hybrid card since all the hybrid mana symbols are the same. This card can be payed for with RR, GG, or RG. Such is the nature of a hybrid card. Hybrid plays a valuable role in this set. It’s a multicolored card that actually makes it easier for the caster to cast instead of the other way around with gold cards. This is good since we’re going to need all the help we can get to make it easier for players to build 4-color decks.

2-Color Gold: YES

This is also a 2-color card, but it’s gold. Not hybrid. It uses traditional mana symbols, which requires you to pay both white AND red. There can only be so many 4-color gold cards in the set, so we’ll be using these. They’re relatively easy to cast as most decks can handle two colors without mana-fixing. Always dependable for sets with gold cards in them!

3-Color Gold: NO

This is a 3-color card, and it’s gold. All of its mana symbols are traditional, which means you’re going to be paying all three colors to cast it. We will NOT be using this kind of card. The reason is because we want our theme to be about four colors, not three. The 2-color cards are there out of necessity (And, besides, they play a good role for being a faction’s central two colors. For example, the nonwhite faction’s central colors are black and red). Anyway, we can’t include all of the types of multicolored cards without making the set too complex (and less focused), so we have to only choose a few kinds of multicolored cards. This was a no-brainer to cut out of the set.

3-Color Hybrid-Gold: NO

This is ALSO a 3-color card, but it uses a mixture of traditional and hybrid mana symbols. Because of the use of a hybrid mana symbol, this spell can be paid for with GW or WU. For the same reasons above as 3-color gold, we will not be using this card. Again, the message we want to communicate to players is “four colors matters!”

3-Color Double Hybrid: NO

This type of hybrid doesn’t exist, yet. Perhaps for the next hybrid-specific set? A mana cost like this could look like (g/w)(w/u), where you can pay GW, GU, WU, or WW to cast it (but because of how the mana symbols are arranged, you can’t pay GG or UU to cast it). It uses two different types of hybrid mana symbols, which is why it’s what I dub “double hybrid.” Anyway, again, because this is only 3-color, we’re not including these. Also, it adds much complexity.

4-Color Double Hybrid: NO

This type of hybrid also doesn’t exist, yet. Like with the 3-color double hybrid, a hybrid set could tap into this type of card. The mana cost for this can be something like (g/u)(w/b), where you can pay GW, GB, WU, or UB to cast it (but because of the type of mana symbols used and how the mana symbols are arranged, you can’t pay GG, UU, WW, BB, WB, or GU to cast it. Now it’s getting confusing). Again, because there’s two different types of hybrid mana symbols here, I label this a “double hybrid.” Even though this is a 4-color card, the double hybrid is something we’re avoiding for this set because this type of card is very complex to process. If this set was a hybrid set, we can look into using this type of card. But because we’ve got both gold and hybrid going on, we’re not going to touch this kind of card.

4-Color Hybrid-Gold: YES

This type of card is just like the 3-color hybrid-gold, except it only uses one hybrid mana symbol and the rest being traditional mana symbols. This doesn’t exist, yet, but if you imagine adding another tradtional mana symbol to the Crystallization card shown above, like B, then you’ll get a 4-color card that has this mana cost: (g/u)WB. We’ll be using this type of card because it’s four colors for less amount of mana and is not too complex in its options (pay the traditional white and black mana then either pay green or blue, in the (g/u)WB example’s case).

4-Color Anti-Mana: YES

This is a card that uses a new type of mana symbol that represents being able to pay any color of mana for it EXCEPT one color. Another way of thinking about it is that it’s a four-colors-in-one-symbol hybrid card. Because the anti-mana symbol is inherently four colors, this is a “four colors matters” set, and we’re already using hybrid as a tool to fit more colors onto cards with less mana symbols, it’s a great fit for this set.

It’s especially crucial that, when introducing anti-mana in this block, it is done so in the first set. This is because the second set is just an introduction of two more factions (no evolution of existing mechanics, just introducing a couple more mechanics) and the third set is supposed to tell the story of when the barriers are broken that isolate each of these factions. It doesn’t make sense, flavorwise, for anti-mana to be introduced in a set later than the first set.

An anti-mana symbol, when writing about it, might look like this, for a nonblack card: (!B). Or even: (!B)(!B) …I wonder if we should do this instead: (!b) or (!b)(!b), considering how hybrid cards use lower-case letters.

Now, let’s talk about the design skeleton!

Skeleton Scavengers

This set has a goal, and we need the set to be designed to meet that goal. The goal is to make four colors matter. From there, we would include mechanics and types of cycles and cards that help us support our efforts toward making four colors matter.

This first set, though, is about making three specific four-color factions matter: Nonwhite (!W), nonblack (!B), and nonred (!R). The other two will be introduced in the second set. Because there’s an imbalance in factions in this first set, that would also lead to an imbalance in the ratios among colors. In a “regular” Magic set, all five colors are evenly represented. The shards in Shards of Alara were also even in that all five were present throughout all the sets in the block. But, this set has a difference in densities in the amount of color among each color. All three of these factions have blue and green. That means something, especially for Limited.

When drafting this set, it would always be “safe” to draft blue and green cards because each faction has those colors. You wouldn’t have to commit to a faction just yet. As such, we would see a phenomenon of blue and green cards disappearing quickly. So, we need to do something about this. Because Limited is just as important as Constructed. The balance must be restored to the force (colors)! Here’s what I came up with:

Each of the three factions has four colors. The first has UBRG, the second has RGWU, and the third has GWUB. If we count how many times each of the five colors appears in each of these factions, we have our proper ratio. For every two white, two black, and two red cards; there will be three blue and three green cards. The ratios change from 1/5 of every color to 1/6 of: white, black, and red and 1/4 of: blue and green. This means monocolored needs to come in sets of twelve to be balanced, as opposed to the previous sets of five to be balanced.

Monocolored: Sets of 12

For hybrid, though, you can cram twice as much color on individual cards. The minimum amount of cards you would need is six to balance them all. If you have one of each of these hybrid cards:

(g/w), (w/u), (u/b), (r/g), (u/r), (b/g)

…and if you count how many times each color shows up across these six cards, you’ll get: two white, three blue, two black, two red, and three green. Voila! Balanced!

However, what about the (b/r), (w/b), (r/w), and (g/u) cards? Well, then we can do this, to include all ten possible hybrid combinations:

(g/w), (w/u), (u/b), (b/r), (r/g), (w/b), (u/r), (b/g), (r/w), (g/u) x 3

Count the colors as last time, and you’ll end up with the same color ratios. 12 cards! Rinse and repeat.

Hybrid: Sets of 6

For 2-color gold, this works the exact same way. Just pretend, for example, the (g/w) symbol is actually the two mana symbols GW. So, hooray!

2-Color Gold: Sets of 6

And everything else come in cycles. Oh, right. Cycles usually happen in fives. This set, cycles occur in threes (horizontal across the factions, at least), to match each faction. And, of course, the ratios would be right because that’s what the set’s design skeleton is being built around!

An Aside that Gets Its Own Section

An aside: For those who don’t know, there are horizontal cycles and verticle cycles.

A horizontal cycle usually happens across five cards, one for each color of mana, in the same rarity. An example of this would be the souleater cycle in New Phyrexia.

A vertical cycle happens within one color (or color-grouping) but goes along the different rarities within that color. Example: The planar chaos vertical cycle of split cards in the color red.

And then we can get complex with either horizontal cycles of vertical cycles, or vertical cycles of horizontal cycles. The difference between the former and the latter is that the former looks at one single vertical cycle then has each other color (or color-grouping) also do the same to make a horizontal cycle of those vertical cycles. The latter looks at one horizontal cycle across the colors then has each other rarity do the same thing to make a vertical cycle.

I don’t have examples of these complex cycles since I can’t remember where they’ve appeared (or whether they’ve appeared at all). Perhaps you, readers, can help giving an example by commenting on this article where we can find one of these complex cycle sets. Anyway, we’re done with our aside.

Cycles: Sets of 3

Now, let’s actually talk about the design skeleton! …Er, wait a minute. It’s been a lot of words so far in this article! Let’s break for now. I’ll catch you next time when we go over what kind of cards/cycles (and how many of each of these kinds of cards/cycles) we’re actually going to put into the design skeleton. Thanks for reading, set sculptors!




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 14, 2011, in Articles, You're a Designer Harry!. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I made a mechanic and some cards inspired by your underneath mechanic.

    As you can see, there’s two versions of it – one that acts like morph and one that acts like the second half of Oblivion Ring.

    The idea is that in the White-less faction world, a race has adapted to the darkness to the point of blending in with shadow by physically transforming into shadow and back.

    I don’t know if it matches what you want to do with the faction, but I hope it provides ideas.

    Would it be ok if I posted a detailed description of this idea (along with links to your page and citing credits to your underneath mechanic) in the Goblin Artisans page? Also, did you see my comment on the previous post?

    • Bradley Rose


      Yeah, I saw your post! I’m going to make this quick, so you can see this reply quicker, so you can post your stuff quicker. You might be dying just waiting by for my response to share what you have! Sorry aboutthat. I was in a hurry to finish the article then get going with my weekend (I’m usually busy every weekend).

      My reply is: of course! I wouldn’t see much point in holding it back from Wizards being able to use it since they’re designs within their game, so I could never really benefit from the designs besides to gain recognition. So, you linking back to the post and crediting the peeps involved would be just fine. And I would be honored to have some kind of mention on the Goblin Artisans blog.

      I like how you’re embracing the underneath mechanic, and the cards you have designed look quite interesting! I’m not sure how I feel about them, but I don’t have the time over the weekend right now to give them their fair shake. Just wanted to make sure to get back to you!

      Now, go! Go let designing happen! Thanks, Chah!



      • What happened to Milling for 53? Looked up your past work from GDS2 – great work.

      • Bradley Rose


        I’m flattered! Thank you.

        Milling for 53 is still around! Well, the name might change, but I haven’t abandoned my personal blog. That blog, though, is for my blog posts about game design in general, with a specialty in video games and card games. I just haven’t updated it in forever. I’ve been busy with life recently! I’m also trying to adjust to a rigid schedule in doing this weekly article series. I’m getting better at it, though, and when I manage my time proficiently, perhaps I’ll find the time to write something for that blog. I have at least one topic that’s been burning within me to write.

        Thanks, again!



    • These certainly look interesting, and thinking about them brought up a question that I think we should address before going further with the mechanics: How do they interact with the larger theme?

      Invasion had a lot of mechanics that cared about color, but this set looks to have a more similar structure to our other multicolored blocks. In Ravnica, eight of the guild mechanics had nothing to do with multicolor while Boros (Radiance) and Selesnya (Convoke) benefited greatly from being in a multicolor set. In Alara, none of the shards’ mechanics cared that they were in a multicolor block. How should we go about making this set?

      My suspicion is that we don’t need to make the mechanics multicolor friendly. Like Alara, simply making each faction play into its own mechanics should push multicolor sufficiently (alongside the unaffiliated 4-colors-matter mechanic).

      On a separate note, if, as has been suggested, we focus each tier around the missing color (i.e. the !G group is flying based), we should have the color emphasize the same role in the groups it is present in. for instance, I think we should have at least one green anti-flying card in each of the other factions. Overemphasizing this contrast should make the cults feel more alien.

      • Bradley Rose


        I like the approach of letting each faction’s mechanic become shaped by their flavor. They don’t need to be color-specific, but what they do need to be, though, is not interfering with each other. If a player wants to play a couple of mechanics, the mechanics shouldn’t impede upon each other when considering deck-building.

        I also like the idea of making sure each faction have cards that specifically combat the core of a particular faction.



    • Bradley Rose


      I love your lurking mechanic. It’s much better than going with the underneath mechanic. Up until I viewed this lurking mechanic, I was strongly considering bringing back morph. I like how lurk (in one of the versions) is just like morph.

      Oh, right, what are the rules ramifications for the version of the mechanic that has the lurker lurk under another permanent? If the permanent gets destroyed, does the lurking card stay in exile forever? Does it go to the graveyard? What happens when you destroy the permanent Fel Warrior is lurking under? Are you able to turn it face-up at any time anyway? If that was the case, then what’s the point of lurking under another permanent?

      I like both versions you’ve provided since both bring something to the table. The face-down option brings the feeling of them lurking in the shadows. The face-up version is cool in that it can lead to modifications of the permanent being lurked under, like with Fel Rager.



  2. Loved the fel cards you designed. I especially liked the Fel Caretaker – its cool and reads well.

  3. Chah,

    Being somewhat familiar with the rules, I’m wary of the first implementation of lurk. First off there’s a question of whether it’s ever turned face up (this could be fixed by making those abilities “when ~ enters the battlefield from exile…”), but more importantly, if you look at the rules surrounding morph, all sorts of nastiness was necessary to avoid cheating. At the end the game (or whenever it would change zones other than stack to battlefield) all morphs are turned face up. Moreover, I’m not sure there’s a way to make Fel Pouncer’s ability work. Let’s just say there’s a reason the Zendikar traps are alternate costs if a general condition has been met, not triggers. They’re hidden. That said, the second implementation looks really good to me as a sort of reversed Haunt. To that end, I wonder if it might be a good idea to remove the ‘under a permanent you control’ clause and let people live the dream of lurking under a creature and then killing it. Would that be too swingy? Hard to say, but I think we should try it out, gives it more of an opportunity to save mana feel, rather than just being Elephant Guide-esque. Great mechanic thoughts!

  1. Pingback: You’re a Designer, Harry! #7 – Fixing and Fixing « Red Site Wins

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