The state of custom Magic cards design
I used to hang around in /tg/, the “traditional games” board on 4chan. /tg/ has a very active community of custom Magic cards designers. You can pretty much always find a dedicated thread floating around, despite 4chan’s fast thread rotation. Activity varies and there’s a lot of repeats, but this still amounts to something like two original custom cards an hour, all day, every day.
Most of them are terrible.
Making custom Magic cards is really easy. There are all these knobs you can turn, like mana cost and power/toughness, and almost complete freedom in what rules text you can write.
But making good (read: printable in a real set) Magic cards is deceptively hard. You need to know about the colour pie, and the difference between gold and hybrid. You need to have an idea of what makes good gameplay. You need an in-depth knowledge of the rules, and at least a superficial one of proper card wording. You have to avoid the enticing trap of top-down design. You also need to be a good enough Magic player that you notice overpowered and underpowered cards. And experience helps, of course. As a result, the current state of every custom cards forum on the web makes Sturgeon’s Law look rather optimistic.
EDIT TO ADD: I’ve just stumbled upon the cards submissions for the 2006 Invitational (a tournament for hall of fame players whose winner gets their custom Magic card printed for real). Most cards have glaring design flaws. And those are some of the very best Magic players in the world! Play skill just doesn’t translate to design skill.
When I first discovered the /tg/ community, there was hardly a single card per thread worth saving. Since then the situation has improved a bit, partly because of some advice and memes I’ve painstakingly introduced, and partly because of the natural user rotation (with perhaps an upwards spiral of good designers attracting other good designers with their quality advice). Last I checked, there were about a dozen people whose work was sometimes salvageable, with one or two in every thread.
This is higher praise than it sounds. Even professional card designers rarely make a flawless card in a single try, and amateur card designers don’t have time for the refinements and the sheer volume of cards that makes up for it.
A lot of the cards you make will suck. And I don’t just mean in the beginning. This will always be true. I am currently the most prolific Magic card designer in R&D. I’m the lead Magic designer. And you know what? The vast of majority of cards I create are junk. (There’s a line that I know will be quoted out of context.) Understand that most of these junky cards never see the light of day. (Most. I made Mudhole after all.) Heck, most of them aren’t seen by the rest of R&D. But they exist. — Mark Rosewater
How you can learn to do better
A lot has been written about Magic design over the years. Magic is like no game I’ve ever seen in terms of how communicative its designers are. DailyMtG publishes a couple articles a day about Magic, with two columns dedicated to design and development that share many of the game’s inner secrets. I can honestly say that I owe most of my game design skills to extensive reading of Making Magic, a column written by Mark Rosewater (Magic designer since 1996, head designer since 2003, the driving force behind everything Magic is today). He wrote on card design theory, card-by-card analysis, set design, and game design in general. He even helpfully indexed and rated all 600 of his articles, so that latecomers can easily find his very best work. His Design 101 series and his Nuts & Bolts series are almost required reading. And if you have a question, you can ask him directly!
Also unique in gaming history, Magic had two reality-show-like contests called the Great Designer Searches 1 and 2, in which aspiring Magic interns designed some cards and received detailed, constructive criticism by a good number of MtG staff. Which is just what amateur custom cards designers who’ve already done a bit of reading need.
Tomorrow I’ll talk about the Custom Cards Cube, my project to squeeze out the very best of /tg/ design, polish it, and print it.