Pattern Recognition #191 - A Set Design - Concept

Features Opinion Pattern Recognition


15 April 2021


Hello everyone! This is Pattern Recognition, TappedOut.Net's longest running article series as written by myself, berryjon. I am something of an Old Fogey who has been around the block quite a few times where Magic is concerned, as as such, I use this series to talk about the various aspects of this game, be it deck design, card construction, mechanics chat, in-universe characters and history. Or whatever happens to cross my mind this week. Please, feel free to dissent in the comments below the article, add suggestions or just plain correct me! I am a Smart Ass , so I can take it.

What it Means to Design a Set

So, I promised that I would walk you all through how to build a set, and actually do it from start to finish. So this is the first article in this series, and here I won't design a single card, or choose a single card to reprint. Rather, I will go over the first small steps of the process, and what it means to do this before making my first conclusions and justifying them.

Card Design is easy, as the most popular thread on our forums can attest to, the Card Design Challenge thread. What is difficult is building a large, cohesive set of over two hundred cards and make it work. Far too often, I've seen 'sets' that are nothing more than a person's personal power fantasy, where each card is there to service a single person's goals in making the best cards for them personally without regard to balance, themes, the opinions of other players or just plain good sense.

Wait. Sorry.

I was talking about New Phyrexia there. My bad.

But the point stands. Building a set is not about you, the designer. It is about the community, the entirety of the player base. It's about a set that can appeal to the Spikes, the Vorthos', the Johnnies, the Mel's, and the Timmy's of the world. There has to be something in there for everyone, and if you create cards that appeal to multiple demographics at once, then you are succeeding well beyond anyone's intentions.

Sets are also designed years in advance of being printed, and have multiple teams working on them at various points. The sheer man-hours involved are something that most people simply don't consider as I've seen far too many people think that a few hours of work, a nifty idea, and some ... borrowed and attributed artwork off the net makes for a good 'set' of cards.

No. No it doesn't. And that's one thing I want to make clear about this mini-series. I'm not going to be done quick or easy, and I expect to run into pitfalls and failures as I go along. So don't expect perfection. I'm only one person doing this in his off time, rather than a full team being paid to do this full time. As such, any feedback will be appreciated as long as it's constructive.

What I want to get out of this Set

I want many things, some of which are even relevant to this! But what is relevant is that I want to create a set that is fun to play, fun to interact with, and well playable even outside of limited formats. I understand that this is basically having my cake and eating it too, but that's not the point. The point is that as this is basically a passion project, I can aim for a certain balance of these criteria - playability, interest, mechanics - and hope that in the end it all works out for the best. After all, there's no money on the line, and the days when "See what I made!" was a viable way to get into Wizards. They're too big for that now.

I also want to show you all the work that goes into these sets. I've said these things in the past, and I will say them again in the future. But it's easier to show you all than to tell you.

So in the end, I want to design a set that is not just for me, but also for you, the players. I want to make something you'll enjoy playing, enjoy exploring the concepts behind, and making the most out of the cards I design. I accept that it won't be to everyone's taste, but that's alright. I hope to have enough things that appeal to enough people that someone will find something that they like.

Top Down Design

I won't go into the details of the differences here, but when I set out to design my own personal set, I would up going with the Top Down design. This is where you start with a core idea for a set, a theme to build around first and foremost and from there, everything else is built to serve the idea. On the other hand, a Bottom Up design starts with the mechanics and builds a cohesive whole from that.

A top down design works to my advantage as while I am very analytical in nature (not that it always shows), my creative side can take a concept and work at it until I understand it and can see it from different points of view. It serves me well enough in my writing that it still applies to this as I see this whole project as a creative endeavor more than anything else.

Also, this style of development will give me more flexibility in design space, or so I hope. As this is a one person show in the end, I can't depend on or lean on other people to help fill in the gaps. I need to be able to do everything myself. By starting with a central concept, I can branch out from there into various aspects of the set, see what works and what doesn't in order to better determine what to keep and what to jettison. Or to see where I need to patch things up and reinforce.

Of course, this is my personal preference, and if you do decide to forge your own collection of cards out of the Blind Eternities, and you choose to go for another way, go right ahead. You do what's best for you, and not because I say so or don't say so.

Which of course, segues into my next subject.

My Choice of Set

Initially, my idea was to design a Core Set, something to come out over the summer as a 'benchmark' set, one to help balance out and smooth out the coming year of Standard, as well as to act as a baseline for new players getting into the game.

Core sets are vital, in my opinion, but as I mulled the idea over, I found that such a set would be too Bottom Up for my tastes and preferences. It would depend too much on knowing what had come over the previous year and what was coming in the next for me to build as something of a standalone set.

No, a Core Set would be a good idea, but not something I could pull off by myself. And this leaves building either a Standard Legal expansion set, or a specialty set, like Modern Horizons.

I immediately discounted the latter option as being to stand-alone. Or rather, as I thought that option over, there are certain expectations of such a set that I cannot find myself embracing, be it a gimmick like drafting in Conspiracy, building for a format like Modern Horizons, or something else. No, in the end, I find that my only real choice is to build and design a Standard-level expansion set.

Of course, I've summed up a lot of thought over a period of time, and I must strike a balance between going over each thought I have in detail, and going right to the successful choices. Or at least hopefully successful.

From there, I know I want to build a Standard Level set, but what keeps it together? Well, as I've already mentioned, I'm doing a top-down design, which means that I have an idea for a set to hold things together, and that idea is....

No wait, I got to explain why I chose this idea first.

My concern with building a Standard Set was that there are two major ways to go about it. First is to return to an established location or the other option is to create a new one (relatively) whole cloth. A Return set comes with large degrees of hangups, especially in the restrictions placed on design that require a certain degree of continuity with previous sets placed in that location. Ravnica is a good example as the Guild system is so baked into the plane you can't go there and not have it.

And of course, on the other hand, creating a new plane means a lot of fundamental world building that may or may not be seen in the final product. But on the other hand, it allows for a lot more flexibility in changing things behind the scenes to fit the developing direction of the set, rather than changing development to fit the already established skeleton from previous sets. And on the gripping hand, you can hide a lot of choices that wind up being cut or ignored a lot easier.

So with that in mind, I discarded the idea of doing a return set out of hand. Mostly because I wanted to show off my personal skills rather than leaning too much on the hard work of Wizards and their fine people.

That leaves doing a 'new' Plane, and here I ran into another problem. Well, not really a problem, per se, but rather I realized that there were a lot of places and ideas that people want and that Wizards knows about and probably already has plans for that range from "Set design starts in Q2 2021" to "On the back-burner while we sort out technical issues". But in my talks and musings over the past few years here on this site with this series, I did realize that there is one type of... let's call it genre that Wizards sees as an outlier for the fundamentals of the game, or at least how the grand, overall vision of the game and how it is presented goes.

I talked about High Technology and High Magic before - and that was over a year ago, really? - and in it the argument ended up that personal firearms, rather than siege weapons were a step too far in terms of what Wizards was willing to create. Or at least for the most part.

So, in the end, I decided I wanted to start outside of Wizard's comfort zone, and I will be working on developing a Wild/Weird West themed plane to center my creation on. That this is something I can develop without worry that I'm stepping too much on Wizard's toes, while at the same time being self-indulgent and proving my own point that technology is not the enemy in Magic.

But at this point? I don't even have a name for the set yet. That'll come later.

Join me next week when I talk about something different. What? I don't know yet, but I'm always willing to field suggestions from you, my audience.

Until then please consider donating to my Pattern Recognition Patreon. Yeah, I have a job, but more income is always better. I still have plans to do a audio Pattern Recognition at some point, or perhaps a Twitch stream. And you can bribe your way to the front of the line to have your questions, comments and observations answered!

This article is a follow-up to Pattern Recognition #190 - What the Heck was that? The next article in this series is Pattern Recognition #192 - MDFC

Why not call it Doomtown? Oh, wait...

April 15, 2021 9:15 p.m.

Raknulfr says... #2

I´m thrilled to see where it goes.

Wild West themed? But what about Pirate Jace? XD He won´t fit in there. :P

All jokes aside, I like the idea even though I have absolutely no clue how a mix between wild west and magic/fantasy stuff could look like without being too close to being >Kaladesh with cowboyhats<, you know? I´m looking forward to see what cool things are going to pop out of your head there. Man, I can already think of some planeswalkers I´d like to see there, some that could totally fit in there and some that would be so out-of-place that it would be funny to watch them stumble around. :D

April 16, 2021 3:21 a.m.

vortical42 says... #3

Raknulfr I could see Tezzeret being right at home leading an outlaw gang on a weird west plane. Of course that would inevitiably lead to Jace showing up to stick his nose into things. Then again, who knows? Pirate Jace was fun so perhaps Sherriff Jace might not be so bad?

April 19, 2021 4:22 p.m.

Raknulfr says... #4

vortical42 Sherriff Jace, eh? Could be but wouldn´t be nearly as acceptable as Pirate Jace. As an equivalent to Pirate Jace would only be a Ninja Jace (UBG Pirate Ninja Jace back on Ixalan riding a dinosaur would probably the only Jace I´d ever play XD) but that´s something for another day XD

Tezz is an interesting thought, forgot about him but I can totally see him having some kind of revolver as hand (or whatever you call that arm thing of his). I think Chandra would fit in there real nice and pewpew all the badguys with flaming bullets.

And since he is my favourite and I want to see him literally in EVERY set, Garruk. Some kind of tribal-looking native american-y Garruk :3

A wild west Sarkhan, Ral or Vivien could be cool too.

April 20, 2021 2:13 a.m.

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