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5 Shortcuts Card Designers Take in Designing Magic: The Gathering Cards

I have been playing Magic: The Gathering since 1994 and have won a few draft tournaments in MTGO and MTG Arena.

Magic the gathering-card back.

Magic the gathering-card back.

Designing new cards is no easy task as you have to consider if the card is too weak or too powerful. This article will explore how these designers make these decisions and more!

Shortcuts Card Designers Take in Designing Magic: The Gathering Cards

  1. Adding one generic mana cost to the casting cost
  2. Nerfing existing cards
  3. Changing the card name
  4. Changing the card color
  5. Adding an ability and increasing casting costs

1. Adding One Generic Mana Cost to the Casting Cost


In the early days of Magic the Gathering, spells and artifacts were super powerful. Think of a card like Ancestral Recall. Ancestral Recall is an instant that lets target player draw three cards. A single blue mana can easily give you a tremendous card advantage. You can also deck out your opponent with the three card draw.

Creatures, on the other hand, were much weaker. At many times you were lucky to get what you pay for.

Nowadays things are very much different. Creatures are light years better and other spells are worse.

A simple tactic card designers use to weaken spells is by adding one generic mana to its cost. Think of Lightning Bolt turning into Lightning Strike. Counterspell has become Cancel. Oblivion Ring is now Hieromancer's Cage.

These cards are all identical to their cheaper counterparts albeit costing one mana more.

2. Nerfing Existing Cards


Another easy way for designers to churn out new cards without much effort is by nerfing old cards that they have deemed too powerful. The card would cost exactly the same as the original spell albeit with a much weaker effect.

Think of Lightning Bolt and Shock. They work the exact same way except that Shock deals one less damage. The same goes for Mana Leak and Quench. Mana Leak counters a spell unless an opponent pays three generic mana while Quench counters a spell unless an opponent pays two generic mana.

This is yet another very easy way for designers to come up with new cards.

3. Changing the Card Name


This is the easiest method of creating cards. All you need to do is simply change the name on the upper left-hand corner of the box and you are done. In this example, Llanowar Elves, Elvish Mystic and Fyndhorn Elf are the exact same card down to the creature type and the power and toughness.

Another example of this is the soul sisters - Soul Warden and Soul's Attendant. They are the exact same card except for the name.

Sometimes the creature types are different though. Oreskos Swiftclaw is a cat warrior and Knight of New Benalia is a human knight. They are both vanilla 3/1 creatures though.

4. Changing the Card Color


The color pie was established to give qualities to each color. White is the paragon of light and order. Blue is the domain of intellect and illusion.Black represents darkness and death. Red is the epitome of fire and passion. Green draws from the power of nature and is about growth and might.

From time to time there are cards that break the mold and get abilities that are not normally in their wheelhouse. This was especially true for the Planar Chaos set where there were many off-color cards.

Think of a card like Mana Tithe. White is not supposed to have countermagic but it is a white counterspell. It is essentially a white Force Spike.

Another card that seems to be off on the color pie is Harmonize. Harmonize is simply a green version of Concentrate. It allows the caster to draw three cards. Green does not have straight up draw spells. Usually, green draw spells are conditional in nature. Think of Recycle. It allows you to draw cards but you have to play cards first.

5. Adding an Ability and Increasing Casting Costs


New sets recycle many classic spells and add new mechanics unto it. Spells that have been recycled into oblivion include Lightning Bolt, Counterspell, Disenchant, Giant Growth, Boomerang and Healing Salve.

Think of Capsize. It is a more expensive Boomerang. However, the spell becomes reusable when you have three generic mana with its buyback ability. Wipe Away is another Boomerang version but has split second which protects it from countermagic. Dematerialize is another Boomerang clone but is at sorcery speed and is reusable via flashback.

Lightning Bolt is another classic spell that has been recycled to death. Think of Skewer the Critics. It is essentially a sorcery speed Lightning Bolt that costs 3 mana but becomes one mana if an opponent lost life this turn. Wizard's Lightning is an expensive version of Lightning Bolt at three mana but becomes Lightning Bolt once you control a wizard.

Magic the Gathering Card Design Shortcuts

© 2019 Jan Michael Ong