I finished the set, ordered the cards, and I am now at around 10 events played with it. Just the design process alone was fascinating, fun, and rewarding. Actually playing with the cards and seeing how they turned out has been even more of those things. Much was, and is being learned, about magic, about design in general, and about other people, what they like and that sort of thing. This whole home made cube process has been one of the most interesting and rewarding endeavours I have involved myself in, which was really unexpected. The learning of things outside of magic was especially surprising, and of course most welcome. I suspect a large part of the enjoyment I got from the project is because Magic has been my creative outlet for many years, and with my dwindling interest in it over the last couple I was being a little starved of this important part of life. As such, when I found one that I was enthused for again I latched on pretty voraciously.
I was probably spending about 4 hours a day on average thinking about it and tinkering with it over the design phase, which was at least 12 weeks, likely rather more. Certainly toning it back a bit now... I was aiming for 600 cards and ended up printing 718 unique cards. Obviously I have not exactly stopped designing cards, and I have a folder with at least 50 more cards I have since designed under the same parameters. I am in no rush to get those out and have no specific plan for how I might use them. The main focus now is learning from, and improving upon those original 718.
In these early testing stages I have found plenty of mistakes, ranging from poorly cropped pictures, to misspellings, to cards I want to rebalance in some way. The biggest group of these cards in need of corrections are slightly over tuned cards I want to tone down a little. About 25% are grammatical and aesthetic corrections. A mere 3 cards have had a proposed buff on their original printing. Leaving about 10% of these cards that are fairly egregious over tunings. These 8 or so cards are sufficiently tedious in power level that I have already cut them. Not only are cards like that able to lower the quality and fun of games, they are also getting in the way of other cards getting action and revealing their secrets. Once it is revealed they are a bomb they get played near 100% of the time which is not what you want for anything other than perhaps a fixing land.
Once the candidates for tweaks, tuning, and touching up dries to a steady trickle I will look to finally post the whole set up. While I suspect I will never quite stop tweaking and tinkering, I feel like this first big revision will mark a good starting off point. There will be nothing too out of line in it and it will not take too long to get to that stage. If I try and wait until I think it is perfect it will never get seen! It is also not impossible that people might want to try the cube out for themselves and make it in some way (which I am obviously happy to assist with) but this does make me inclined to not release anything that might have "bugs" and other issues in it that could be ironed out easily!
So, what have we learned? I do not have many regrets, here are the two I do have. I didn't put on the artist names. Not only does that feel rude, but it made the cards look a little different as there was quite a large blank black chunk at the bottom. You got used to it real quick but initially it made the cards look a little smaller. I obviously then spent a whole day going through 718 cards in my Magic Set Editor file and added in the artists so that the next batch won't have that problem!
Second regret is not keywording "search your library for a [thing], reveal [thing], put it [somewhere], then shuffle your library" and "reveal cards from the top of your library until you reveal a [thing], put that [thing] [somewhere] and the rest on the bottom of your library in a random order." These two phrases represent like 40% of the test on my cards! If they had simply been "tutor" and "seek" respectively then things would have been a lot cleaner. I think seek is already something they use on Arena and so I should probably find another word, although perhaps it is fine as they kindof do similar things? Here are the lines of text that these cards would have had I thought to do this from the start.
Seek a land to the battlefield tapped.
But instead I have those block of words;
When this enters the battlefield, tutor an artifact to your hand.
Not quite as bad as the last card but still 4 lines of text for a common and basic action.
This card below is one of my most wordy in the whole set however it is fundamentally a very simple card, clean in theory but messy in practice down to my lack of keywording foresight. The grass is always greener however, it might have just confused players and been more trouble than it is worth. I think ideally I am just suggesting it is a change Wizards should do themselves! Like they finally did with mill.
The card above is a riff on Guided Passage, which some players may or may not remember. It was a design inspiration first, and then a help with finding the name for the card. In practice it is also somewhat helpful for players who are familiar with Guided Passage in grasping what the new card does. You can skim read this, or assume things about it and generally be fine with that level of attention. This kind of thing, be it a specific card tribute, or an inspiration, or just following Magics approach to doing things, has been a recurring theme in the set. I was aiming at a kind of tribute set that represented the core elements of the game and this had the very welcome side effect of making things generally very easy to understand, not just to those familiar with the game, but seemingly all levels of player. If a card has the word Lightning on it there is a good chance it is doing 3 damage to something etc! A lot of this was me being unimaginative with naming stuff but it seems to have wound up being a positive thing. I have been really blown away by how quickly players, old and new alike, have been able to pick up and play the cards. Few words, plenty of room for reminder text, and a design philosophy that holds your hand the whole way through learning the new cards, all add up to make for a surprisingly smooth show. I have been getting things wrong far more than everyone else because I am remembering different iterations of cards and assuming I know what is going on, while others are actually reading the clear and simple cards! Having done drafts of Tales of Middle Earth and Unfinity recently with the same group of players, I can comfortably say my friends (who normally just play my cube) took to the home made cube far easier than these other sets, despite it being twice the size! It has made me respect simple cards even more. Simple cards do not make for a simple game. Just a more accessible ones.
I didn't bother making all my card names unique from magic. Some I knowingly reused, and I am sure there is the odd one I unknowingly stole too! I did wonder if I would regret this choice. It looks like it might make things a little trickier if I want to use it with Cockatrice at some point but I am sure I can cross that bridge if and when I get there. For now I am enjoying the clarity of simple or obvious names. Many of the names I copied were direct easter eggs intended to be enjoyed by those in the know. The card below is one such card, and much as I love the aesthetic on this card, the design turned out to be a little underpowered and tedious. Just too much admin and ongoing thought for a minor part of the game. I just want my lands to be a bit simpler! This cycle is likely the first of the lands cycles to be dropped as the cube size drops over time.
One commentator mentioned a problem with my design ethos in regards internal card tensions that can feel bad. I put quite a lot of care into dealing with cards that feel bad to play against but I entirely overlooked ones that might feel bad to play with. This has become apparent in the feedback I am getting. There is lots of "this cards should do this" kind of comment, to which I reply why it shouldn't in a mechanical and balance sense, to which they typically agree, but still dislike the card because it feels wrong to them somehow. Turns out I need to go away and spend some time learning what it is people like and dislike about cards that do not relate to balance so that I can do a better job of this in the future!
In a similar light to cards that are technically balanced and fine but are ruined by externalities like people feelings, we have cards that are logistically tedious. I used a lot of cards that give away life and a lot of cards that produce food, clues, and treasure. I figured this was all fine as there is precedent for it in magic, and even more so in cube. There are all the token types in cube and a really high density of them. Turns out I dialled that up even harder and it can get a bit overwhelming. I likely need to solve this with more use of card based tokens rather than dice and beads as I tend to use. The flexibility and scope these artifact tokens offer is way too good to forgo. The life concession cards however are another matter. Those that do so in a one off hit are fine but I have a cycle of lands that give away life like Grove of the Burnwillows and this is just a bit tedious. It is enforced admin and it disrupts the flow of play a little. Power wise I am super happy with these cards for a cube setting, but perhaps I can do a better job of finding a card that physically plays more smoothly. Below is a good example of a card that would be very well suited to an Arena only set, where the tedious logistics are carried out automatically by the computer.
One big lesson I learned was the value of patience, a long review period. It should have been obvious with the likes of Skullclamp and other last minute change horror stories from magic history. Apparently I needed to learn this lesson for myself. I had 18 spare slots on my order based on the set size the company prints to, and not being one to waste them I hurried along my 18 most liked cards from my drafts and printed them too. Not only were these cards far less considered and reviewed, they were also ones I liked most rather than thought were good, usually this just meant some art I really liked... Obviously we can all see where this is going. The vast majority of these 18 cards have already wound up in nerf corner, a couple of them seriously so. Turns out reflection time is really healthy. Here is one of these over performing cards, that as yet, I have no great idea on how to "fix".
So those are the specific things I have learned so far. I have some more general take aways as well. Mostly I seem to have done what I was trying to do. There is plenty of room for improvement but I am pleased with the results and enjoying the games. The thing I got most wrong, that so far is being the most detrimental to the experience is how badly I misjudged the speed of the format. I knew it would be slower than my cube but I did not expect it to be by quite so much. Unsurprisingly almost all the factors I focused on in design are things you would expect to slow games compared to more conventional cubes. Greater consistency, more evenly spread power level, better life gain and card advantage, lower power in the top end with less game ending reach. These were all things I intentionally did. Magic metagames are complex eco systems, predicting the effects of one change is hard. Predicting the outcome of several additive changes is liable to be way off. And it was. This is not to say that it is all control. Aggro decks and midrange decks are doing fine, they are just real slow to turn an advantage into a win. This game style, with a high instance of older art, and the simpler card design philosophy did all contribute to quite and old school feeling.
The consequence of this slow format is not skewing which kinds of decks are dominant but which kinds of cards. Shockingly, all those cards that benefit from time in some way are over performing much more than I would like. This includes all of the planeswalkers, all the saga and class cards, and the various ongoing effect cards. There are some other factors pushing some of these groups but broadly this is where most nerfs have been aimed. Equally, I am trying to solve the problem at both ends by designing a bit more top end meat, game closing tools, and better answers to these over performing card types. I feel a problem so large as this needs a gradual solution. Eco systems need to move and have the time to do that, they cannot just jump from one place to another. For now I am going to have to stomach that certain types of cards are more potent than I would like.
Empowering slow yield cards is not the only consequence of a slower format. There is a lot to be said for raw card power. When you both see a lot of your deck it starts to become more about who has the most total power. You can just out threat weight the opponent. This has been meaning that players are punished for playing too much "fluff". Card quality effects are a little less desirable than before because they are a card in your deck that doesn't directly help you get to your victory condition. You just cycle through it. I love fluff cards and made plenty of them. They are seeing play certainly, but less than I was anticipating based on the need for raw power. Indeed, the inverse is true at the other end of the spectrum. I didn't quite make enough five and six drops for the meta that has arisen and so this group of cards is seeing way more play than I was expecting, and this is despite them being the most down powered group compared to real magic cards.
These slow games have been very high quality. Lots of choices, lots of back and forth swings, and the feeling at the end of them that results could have gone differently if different choices were made at various points. These are all qualities I would attribute to a good game. However... I like to get my games in and there can be too long, too much of a good thing. Not finishing an event due to time constraints isn't where we want to be. Not all games are long certainly but there are more longer games, more epic games, less brutally short games etc, all rather pushing that average up. This means greater potential wait times for opponents to free up etc. There are plenty of good logistical reasons to have games closing out a bit quicker. I like the odd long game but I wouldn't want it to be the norm. I think I want my games in the 10-15 minute range for the most part, with perhaps one 30-40 epic per event. That is usually long enough to mean it was a game but short enough to leave time for the odd epic and get most matches done well within the hour. It is not until you start tinkering under the hood of these kinds of thing that you realize how important these non gameplay logistical elements are to design, yet they tend to go somewhat unseen by the players when you get it right.
All told I am very happy with how things have come out. It really feels like playing magic. The cards look and feel real. They all seem super plausible, and the games just feel like good games of cube magic. They do have that very old school vibe to them, thanks in part to how slow they are. Partly also because your life total feels like a more interesting and relevant resource. I do plan to try and improve upon the things that I have brought up in this article with cuts, re-balancing tweaks, and new additions. I had always assumed I would need to do some significant playtesting to get things right with the set, meaning I am all sorts of pleased with myself for how well things are playing right off the bat.
I have no real idea of timescales at this stage. I am doing another custom magic cards project now, with a friend, inspired by this one, that is rather more casual and very top down focused, using historic masterpieces as inspiration rather than using just Magic art. Most of the cards I made for the homemade cube were inspired in a bottom up kind of way. Only a few cards, typically inspired by a piece of art, received a top down approach, and those were some of my favourites. As such, I am having lots of fun with this top down project as well! All of this means I am presently playing with new home made cube, designing new cards for it, considering changes to existing cards in it, all while tinkering with a whole separate and new project. I am busy again with Magic! I will try to get some sensible looking complete card list for my homemade cube up as soon as possible, but equally, I don't want to rush out a sub par showing, nor do I wish to turn this very fun set of projects into a chore. Hence, no clue on timescales. We are still very much in the early stages, so too many unknowns. I don't even have a notion of what articles I'll be putting out, if any in the interim. I have a couple of old unfinished ones perhaps. Rest assured this is very much not the last you will be hearing from the home made cube!