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From Concept to Card: How to Design an Epic TCG Set

What’s up, designers, and welcome back to Rempton Games. It’s been a while, but I’m finally back, and I’m really excited about today’s topic! Whether you are designing your own trading card game, or just a fan who wants to know more about how these games are made, today’s video is for you. Today, I’ll be going through the steps of how to design a TCG set – from initial concept to design skeleton, all the way through to finished sets. Because Magic: The Gathering is still the gold-standard for TCG sets, and they have the most information available about their design process, I will be referencing that game heavily. Although the details will of course differ from game to game, I found their process very helpful for designing my own sets, and I think you will too. Without further ado, let’s get started.

While some games *cough* yu-gi-oh *cough* are content to simply throw 100 random cards together and call it a day, we can do better. We want a set that stands on its own, is memorable, and supports a wide variety of different formats.

The first step is to come up with a concept for the set – something that will tie the set together, and make it unique from every other set. A theme can be either mechanical (also known as bottom-up), or flavorful (also called top-down). Some mechanical themes in Magic sets include the “lands matter” theme of Zendikar, and the “two color faction” theme of Ravnica. Some “top down” themes include the Greek mythology inspired world of Theros, and the Gothic Horror plane of Innistrad. For our new set, l think it’s time to introduce a brand new type of conflict to the world of Magic – capitalism! A top-down set where the world is filled with bureaucracy and red tape, monsters compete in brutal office politics, and businesses fight each other to the death in a free-market free-for-all, where only the strong survive.

Once you have your core theme, you should spend some time fleshing out the concept. If your theme is mechanical, you can test out some mechanics that might fit the theme, like Landfall to fit a land theme or flashback for a graveyard theme. If it’s a flavor theme, you might try to come up with lists of things that people associate with your theme, such as Pyramids for an Egyptian theme, or an evil stepmother for a fairy-tale theme. Because we are going with a top-down set, we should come up with things that fit the theme – managers, cubicles, stock options, mergers, accountants, marketing departments, and so on.

However, fleshing out a single theme is not enough to fill an entire set. It can make the set seem too repetitive, and drive away people who aren’t interested in that theme. Not that I can imagine anyone NOT being interested in this particular theme, but the point stands. While you should start with a single core concept, your finished set should have around 3 major themes, including at least one mechanical and one flavor theme. As you are exploring your initial theme, think about how you could complement it with other themes. For Innistrad, the core idea was a top-down horror world, and the mechanical themes of “graveyard matters” and “monster tribal” were created as mechanical ways to express the theme. On the other hand, Strixhaven began as a set themed around Instants and Sorceries, which led to the “Magical School” flavor, which in turn led to the creation of the 5 enemy color colleges.

To support our corporate theme, and keep things relatively simple, we could do a faction set where each color represents a different business area. White could represent healthcare, blue could be tech, black could be the financial sector, Red is the entertainment industry, and green is agriculture and food service. We also need at least one other major mechanical theme, and I think it’s been long enough since we’ve had a new artifact world! In this new world of Marketopia the artifacts have already taken over manufacturing, and are starting to creep into other industries as well. Each color has a different relationship to the artifacts – white, for example, sees them as a tool, while blue focuses on designing and improving the artifacts, and red goes on strike to protest them. The set will also have a new type of counter – Money counters, which are given to the player like energy tokens, which can be spent for various effects.

Now that you have a solid idea of what your set is about, it’s time to start actually designing the set itself. For Magic, this process begins with a set skeleton. The set skeleton is basically an outline of the set that allows you to keep track of which cards you’ve already designed, which cards you still need to design, and how everything fits together.

To make your skeleton, first start with how many cards you want to be in the set. A modern magic set has roughly 260 cards, with around 100 commons, 80 uncommons, 60 rares, and 20 mythic rares. Within each of these rarities you will want to make sure that all of your factions are represented. In Magic’s case this means that each of these need to be divided evenly into the 5 colors (we will assume that all the artifacts are colored to simplify the math). This means that each color should have 20 Commons, 16 Uncommons, 12 Rares, and 4 Mythic Rares (although the mythic rares tend to be more loose regarding color balance).

This is already starting to seem more manageable – “design 20 common red cards” is a much more doable task than simply saying “design a set” – but we can keep going. You can further divide each rarity by card type – for example, in Magic roughly 50% of the cards are creatures, and you’ll want to make sure that instants, sorceries, and enchantments are all represented as well. Among your creatures, you’ll want to make sure that you have a range of different mana values – especially at Common and Uncommon. At this point, you’ve broken it down to the level of “design a 2 mana red common creature”, but we still aren’t done.

Now you can start filling in the specific details you know you’ll need. This could be stuff that you always have, such as a giant-growth style effect in green, a direct damage spell in red, a counterspell in blue, and a discard spell in black. However, you can also fill in some details based on the themes you’ve determined for your set. You’ll need to make room for some of the new mechanics you’ve designed, fill in slots for some of the top-down tropes you’ve come up with, and generally make sure that your themes show up in a high-enough volume to build a deck around them. We’ll want to make sure to reserve a blue Mythic rare for our Billionaire Tech CEO, put in a common “Talent Agent” in red, and make sure there are enough cards generating Money and spending money counters.

Speaking of building decks, if you want your set to work for limited formats such as drafting (which you definitely do), you also need to make room for all of your draft archetypes. In a standard Magic set players are expected to draft two colors, so this usually means coming up with individual themes and strategies for each of the 10 two-color combinations. To come up with draft archetypes for your set, you should think about how each color interacts with the themes of your set, and the overlaps between those themes.

A draft archetype is often a mechanic in the set that the two colors care about more than any other, or a creature type that they both share. Actually adding these draft archetypes to your skeleton requires making sure that the theme appears in a high-enough volume in both colors, adding support cards to each color that enhance the archetype, and often creating “signpost” cards that communicate the theme and encourage drafters to build their decks around it. We might make blue-black the archetype that cares the most about generating money-counters, while red-green might be the “anti-artifact” colors, and the white-green deck is built around a new creature type, “employee”.

By this point your design skeleton is starting to get pretty full, and it’s time to start filling it in by actually designing some cards! But where to start? My advice is to start with whatever has the most constraints. Each card you design puts certain limits on every other card, and if you save the most difficult cards for last you might discover that you’ve painted yourself into a corner! By starting with the most constrained cards, you ensure that they won’t become even more challenging later. This also makes it easier to design more open-ended cards later, because you can narrow-down the possibilities.

Of course, designing cards in a vacuum will only get you so far. As you fill in the design skeleton with new cards, you should make sure you are actually playing with the new set – both constructed decks, and eventually drafts as well. As the set gets closer and closer to being complete, your goal with playtesting should also change. Early on, you should be testing to make sure that your major themes and mechanics are fun, play well, and are coming through clearly. As the set develops you will want to make sure that all of the subthemes and draft archetypes are coming through clearly, and make sure that none of them are much too strong or much too weak. As the set gets more mature, your playtesting will be more focused on fine-tuning the details.

Always remember that design is not a straight line – it’s cyclical. You design cards to playtest, the playtest will reveal changes that need to be made, you will make new cards to fill those gaps, and so on. Also keep in mind that the design skeleton is meant to be a tool – not a straightjacket. While it’s useful for breaking down the initial design and giving you a pretty good starting point, it will shift throughout the design process, so don’t be afraid to change your original vision to fit the needs of the set.

After several rounds of playtesting, you will finally have a finished set – congratulations! Of course, you still need to get art for the cards, procure funding, print the cards, package them, distribute your printed cards, and market your set… but that’s all going to have to wait for a future video. For now, I hope you enjoyed this look into the design process for a TCG set. Of course this is still barely scratching the surface, so if there are any parts of the process that you’d like to learn more about let me know in the comments, and I can explore that aspect more thoroughly in a future video. Until then, thank you so much for watching and I’ll see you next time.


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