Monday, 11 September 2023

Homemade Cube Part 10

I understand that Richard Garfield has made the comment about magic that "it is not individual cards that are, or should be interesting, but the interactions between cards". This is one of the big reasons why I have tried to keep cards as simple as possible. It is also for this reason that I would class cards like Negate and Doom Blade to be some of the best designed cards in the game. There is however very little room left for simple yet sensibly powered cards such as these. This therefore means more complicated cards. This in turn is like jumping from a two body system to a three body system, if that is a meaningful reference! A Negate is clean, pointed and simple. It does one thing and is pretty easy to appraise. Add in another element and suddenly you have a far more complicated card that is hard to parse and solve. Your card can wind up falling into many more camps. Below is a nice simple card. It does one thing. It of course also shares this text with other cards that exist. Simple ones like Glorious Anthem too, this can get away with being cheaper because Anthem is slightly blow the mark and this is gold. 

There are many ways in which a card can gain complexity. We have the well understood modal camp. There are plenty of cards with Negate as an option for what the card can do, along with some other non-negate stuff. Then there are just those composite cards that do a bunch of stuff such as Llanowar Visionary. They don't give the option on a few different things, they just do all of the different things! You have Elvish Visionary - a card draw dork, and Llanowar Elf - a mana dork. Both, as far as utility creatures go, as simple as you can get. Slap them together and you have Llanowar Visionary, a mana dork and value card. As neither of those things detract from the other, they are both just positive things to have without being overly conditional or situational and so the card is a purely positive additive card. That doesn't make it better than the constituent parts, that is about context and what your deck wants, but they do tend to have a good amount of raw power in a vacuum! Then you have cards where there is a downside or drawback component like Arcane Denial. These are a bit more interesting as you can sometimes negate the drawback or turn it to your advantage and in doing so scale the power of your card up multiple times. 

Somewhere in the middle, between these additive cards and these drawback cards are those that have a collection of positive elements but that do not neatly line up, either in a vacuum or in context. Utilizing one will come at the expense of other aspects of the card. I find these internal card tensions to be fun to play with. Below is a really simple example of such a card, where by you cannot have more than one trigger from the battle cry if you want the exalted to trigger. I have been able to put a little bit more on this card in terms of power due to how these two mechanics have tension with each other and cannot both perform well. While we have capped the ceiling, we have also raised the floor, which is a nice place to be. We have also made for a much more interesting card because of all the varied options it presents as an attacker. 

We have looked at this card before I think but in a different light. City Square is basically just a Triome if you draw it. The interesting tensions on the card are directly lifted from the Triome cycle, or indeed all the playable cycling lands. Basically a cycling land is one you want to hold as long as possible in case you start to flood and want that extra card draw. Being an EtB tapped land however, you want to deploy it as soon as you have a window to do so. Say you have no one drop, then flopping out a tapped land feels free. Being forced to work out how likely you are to cycle a card at the time of the window for the free EtB aspect adds an element of skill that is missing from many fixing lands. 

Pentad Construct is a utility and support card. You can use it to ramp and fix or you can use it to get into combat with and perhaps get to retain the stats on the board once it dies. Doing one comes at the cost of the other. This is a pretty direct and linear situation. Further to that, it is a card you can deploy early at low power or later with more. One scaling tension is enough to make a card interesting, two will hopefully do more than merely double the interest! 

I have a cycle of six drops that can diminish their size to gain effects. These were inspired by Wall of Roots. While you are generally going to be wanting to use the effects where sensible to do so as they represent more value than a mere +1/+1, there is still plenty of internal tension. None of the cycle have any combat abilities and so can easily be bested. This will mean careful size management of these dorks if you want to use them in combat or avoid certain removal effects. 

This next card is very pushed and may well need tuning down. Much as it has some tension it is all good things. Either you save your stuff and have a bigger construct or you crack your clues and draw more cards. Mostly I think it will be the latter, especially when you don't have other things to do with the powerstones, but every now and again, you will just want those stats. I think there will be a lot of similarity to when you fetch a Bauble or some such with an Urza's Saga and then don't sac it. Hopefully my saga attempt is not quite as broken as Urza's!

So, we have all modal cards, all cycling cards, and by that logic any other mechanic that gives some kind of modality such as evoke providing some form of internal tension. Read ahead is a good one, it lets you trade total returns for expedience. Companions are another quite extreme card with tension although it comes in the deck building stage, you have to chose if the constraints on your deck cost you more or less than the companion you are accommodating offers you in return. For some reason I always enjoyed the delirium design challenge and so that is pretty much the inspiration for this little companion. Much as companions are very interesting, they are also very dangerous. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the 13 I have designed for the cube get culled down to zero, or near there. At the very least I would expect them to be the most heavily rebalanced of the cards. You have so much more potential danger and are trying to hit an even finer line of power level. That of being below average, yet still just about playable as a maindeck card, but interesting and potent enough to bother having as a companion. 

There are cards where the tension is about the investment you make in them. I wanted to showcase Dragon Wagon here but I already did that card as a mana sink example! If you dedicate too much mana to the card and end up with idle mana and you get hit with an efficient and appropriate removal spell then you are pretty sad about it. Instead let us look at a level up dork as they share those elements a bit. Like a companion this tension is more of a building decision than a gameplay one, although it is certainly both, and I am a fan of that. Is your deck able to afford that mana investment and that risk, does it need to do so?

There can be tension in information. I have always been fascinated by how some people play when they know about things like removal or countermagic. It is sometimes as if the information makes people play worse not better! With that in mind I made a bunch of answer cards that reveal themselves and cards that reveal other cards. The Seal cycle of cards was one way to do this but I was especially pleased with this use of the forecast mechanic. 

The cards arrived a few days ago so this design process series will be coming to a close and this will be the penultimate article of this nature I think. Obviously there will be a few about the testing and review step, as well as some full spoilers for the set once I work out how to do the galleries for them! Not to mention a conclusion sort of an affair. I have done 3 events so far and been very pleased with the results. Despite this I have already found about 10 cards with typo style errors on them and another 10 or so with rebalancing tweaks I want to make. I am sure there will be many more to follow!


  1. When designing effects with internal tension, I've learned that it's useful to keep in mind psychological aspect of how it actually feels to use them. In most cases designers want players to feel empowered, and it generally underwhelms players to make their things weaker/worse for useful effects.
    There are exceptions to this (for example, horror, war of attrition and sacrifice themes), but generally this kind of effects feels quite painful/hostile to the players, even if reasonably powerful. And I believe it's a designer's job to make game parts both strategically rich and pleasant to actually play with.

    Multiuse cards and modal stuff seem to be ok though. It's likely a matter of framing: choosing 1 of 3 feels like you actually get three cards for the price of one (cool), while weakening your dudes can feel like shooting yourself in the leg (even if that's for the greater strategic good, it's still painful).

    1. Great comment and thank you for taking the time to compose it. Can I presume you are in the game design industry?

      I hadn't considered this point at all, which comes as a bit of a surprise to me as I heavily considered cards that are not fun to play against, while apparently disregarding how fun they might be to play with, or at least for others beyond myself...

      I certainly have learned a lot in this project that I didn't expect to. Things that seem like good designs in practice have some externalities which make them a little worse. I have a lot of incidental life give away cards for balancing, akin to Grove of the Burnwillows, and in play it transpires that too much of that gets a bit tedious.

      I will keep an eye out for people not enjoying or playing cards with this negative feeling internal tension, and will move forwards based on the results of that. Thanks again for your input.

    2. Glad you find it helpful!
      Yup, I'm designing both for a living and as a hobby.

      Thank you for documenting your homebrew cube journey! I've started cubing recently, and your articles helped me a lot to familiarize with basics and grasp some advanced concepts. So it's you who I should be thanking :D

  2. Really enjoy these designs, I think might be my favorite batch from your articles. Hard to pick a favorite card here. Maybe Thran Artifice (no other colorless sagas besides urza's yet. how??) but Herald+Career Goblin hit that "interesting in any format" itch.

    1. Dimble is doing everything right for a control card, but I wish there was a way to combine forecast and foretell. Dont love the upkeep/once a turn baggage and the eternal scry feels more likely to go wrong than right.

      Maybe mega-foretell? you get a bonus (scry 1) if you exile the card face up. Keep the cost at phyrexian U