The trouble of putting themes into Magic (Part 1) sets

Let’s talk about a difficult topic today. One I have, in this case, ended up mostly copping out of in the end, though I can assure you that when I still thought I had all the time in the world it was an aspect of design I did put quite a bit of thought into: the question of whether I wanted to put a theme of some kind into all my colors/colour combinations.

Wizards stance of this is quite clear: they want to have strong incentives to draft certain kinds of decks in all of their sets. This is for various reasons, though the most important of these reasons is probably to give newer players a much easier entry into drafting than they would have had 15 years ago. That’s a reason I can certainly respect, but it wasn’t terribly helpful for me, who was designing a crazy set for people who had all presumably drafted at least a few hundred drafts each in their lives.

Personally, I do like themes, both those of flavour and those of synergy. But, and this is a big but, I really hate being dictated to draft a certain way if I’m going to be in a colour-pair. I want the theme to be a gentle suggestion. Something open to me, that I can make work in a few cards, or not at all, if I choose to do so. Sets like Modern Master take things way too far for my tastes, where most of the cards sucked big time, when you weren’t drafting exactly what the Wizards design team envisioned. It makes me feel like Wizards is treating me like dumb little kid who couldn’t possibly come up with any ideas of my own, and it does make a format get quite tiresome very quickly. Because why would I want to play the same matchups over and over again? And even if I wanted to – why would I not simply pick up any constructed deck and at least play a deck I have some say over creating?

But themes do help to structure a set to a certain degree – they make it feel a little less erratic. So, ideally, some minor themes it would be.

In the end, I did of course, run out of time to make them really work / not be too obtrusive. But let’s take a look of what my vague plans were, and what came of them.

UW – Enchantment

I like enchantments. Not sure exactly why, but I do. Maybe it’s just because they tend to get a bit underrepresented (and oftentimes suck), making me cheer for the underdog. But generally, making enchantments work as a theme has kind of lurked in the back of my mind ever since I first tried drafting Mesa Enchantresses in my very first drafts so long ago.

Blue and White always have a bunch of enchantments, so making some cards that could synergize with them is obvious – and something Wizards usually does as well.

In my case, I underdid it, I’m afraid. I allowed myself to put way more enchantments than strictly necessary into the set because I thought “It’ll be fine. There’s an enchantment theme after all!”, and then went and forgot to make the synergy cards. Not that I think I should have made very many, but I guess a common and an uncommon in each colour? As it is, the only common that really helps along enchantments in blue or white is this guy:

Imaginative Painter

He’s pretty good though. What I like about Imaginative Painter is that you don’t need to obsessively hoard enchantments for this to be a sweet card – you can just pay 5 and look for any of these old classics:

or even this overly powerful pumpspell / anthem / whatever

True Devotion

While I don’t necessarily begrudge this card all those different abilities (and it is kind of flavourful!), I guess the numbers could (read: should) be different. This card is objectively too powerful. Oh well, back to Van Gogh!

Point is, he’s good in a normal deck. Or maybe if you search out Engineered Explosives / Pernicious Deed wannabe fusions (that are still insanel powerful)

Tardis Explosion

but it becomes slightly better if you have a few more enchantments than normal in your deck. And that is the kind of synergy card I was trying to create.

Now, if had made maybe two more of those in blue and white, I think it would have been a cool theme. Maybe even just one more. As things are, the only blue card that gains anything from playing enchantments is a rare:

Dreamscape

For a while I debated making it just three mana. It would have fit with my philosophy of making decent cards that get better with more enchantments, but it did feel a bit too powerful, considering how many enchantments there were in blue already. Even my carddraw was an enchantment after all.

Transdimensional Gap

I’ll be honest and say, that I love this card. It’s a carddraw, so I guess that was slightly obvious? But in many ways, it’s such an interesting card draw spell. It’s slow, and it isn’t overly efficient. It’s not very powerful in fact, but it is different. And different is something I have a childish fascination with.

For 2 mana you get to cantrip – a turn later. Once you shell out three mana over two turns, you get to build yourself a slowpoke divination. For five you get three cards, and then for 8 you get to actually live the dream of casting an opportunity – kind of. The worlds slowest Opportunity. This is exactly the powerlevel I like my card draw spells to be – nobody likes people who just play end of turn opportunities or Sphinx’s Revalations to effectively end the game. No, if you’re going to cheat on cards you’re going to have to pay for it!

The only other enchantment card that I want to mention is one of the very first I made:

Might of the Storyteller

I really like this card too – it’s flavourful, and it’s kind of cool. It’s the kind of card that would really shine brightly if there had been a bit more of an enchantment theme to speak of. As it is, Might of the Storyteller doesn’t really do too much. It’s still cool, and when I made it, I didn’t expect it to do too much – but I wish it were a little more desirable to have. Maybe I could have made it turn both artifacts and enchantments into illusions? But I guess, then it would have been TOO powerful. I’m still really unsure about this card.

 

Five-colour Green

This is probably the theme that is most visual, and yet not aggressively in your face. So, I suppose it’s a success? 🙂

I was still seriously lacking any kind of theme for green at all, and then I rewatched Planet of the Ood, and decided to make this card:

Ood

I can’t help it – I love this card. Initially it was actually going to be just the blue effect (though of course it wasn’t going to make things 2/2), but I really really couldn’t afford another blue non-creature, so I thought: what better theme to put into green, than give payoffs to having other colours available. And so, this is a card you might play in a blue deck if you’re really desperate for removal, and one you can easily play in any kind of green deck – but that really shines in a green deck that also has access to blue mana, though you need that blue mana only much later in the game.

It was also perfect, because I had already established UG as the options colour pair with this beautiful rare:

Time Beetle

Yeah, I know, I seem to all of a sudden love every single card I made, but damn, this thing is beautiful. Time Bug may just be my favourite card of the set. It’s a bit more powerful than I usually like my cards to be, but that is easily offset by just how interesting and SWEET this card is.

The first thing that is very important to note, is that it does not in fact give the creature it enchants +3/+3. Wizards has never used this design space, but by putting it on each of the individual cards – and not as a part of bestow – they have left themselves this option. I took this open design space as an invitation and whole-heartedly seized it.

So, this is a 3/3 flash guy. OR it is a cancel that will give a creature shroud and at some point in the future leave a 3/3. But it does put some demands on mana. Perhaps it could have been just 3/2, to make it a bit less overpowered. Apart from this I am very happy, and I doubt you will be able to ruin this card for me even with the harshest criticism ❤

Back to green.

From the both insanely flavourful, powerful but interesting and just allround fairly elegant card that was Ood, I decided there was just going to be a cycle of green cards that would get better from having access to other colours of mana – but could also be played in only the other colour. The next one I made was Hunting Slitheen:

Hunting Slitheen

This card is fine too. I still needed an aggressive RG card anyway, and it is elegant enough if maybe a bit on the powerful side. Still, this is no Elite Scaleguard and as such, I guess I like it.

It is certainly a much more elegant design than the Slitheen deserve. Dear god, the Slitheen. Who ever came up with them is almost as deplorable as the person who decided they had to come back constantly. I guess that would be the Russel T for both of those counts, but just because he basically made the new Doctor Who show, doesn’t mean he gets a free pass on bullshit like this. Just like Moffat doesn’t get a free pass for his shitty season finals, despite being maybe my favourite screenwriter in the world (and having written probably my favourite show ever, which is obviously Jekyll. Pure genius!).

The Slitheen are dumb, silly, boring and disgusting all at once. They scare the living daylights out of my three-year old brother to the point he is terrified of watching a Doctor Who episode on his own, because he’s constantly worrying they may come back. And he adores Doctor Who. He’s scared of Cybermen too, but, understandably not as much as of the monsters that wear dead peoples skin to disguise themselves. His fear of the Cybermen is a good fear. The terror the Slitheen invoke not so much. Why do I bring this up? Because the Slitheen are a villain designed specifically for small children (what with their constant farting humour and what not). Everyone above the age of 9 hates them. And everyone below the age of 6 seems to have horrific nightmares of them. That’s a very narrow window of target audience. It’s just bad design.

Trees of Cheem

And so is this. I mean, there are certainly worse cards. It’s hard to make a Nettle Swine with some dubiously relevant text too horrific a card… but all in all, it just doesn’t fit. It makes no sense flavourwise, it doesn’t really synergize too much with what white actually does, and it should have been an ally if I was already making it syngerize with the one tokenmaking uncommon sorcery I had. There is nothing appealing about this card, and for just a vanilla thing it’s too wordy.

Trees of Cheem is an inelegant design that doesn’t really know what it wants to do. But at least white got a card at all – black was not so lucky.

In my first post, I mentioned, that there was a white rare that got shifted to Green / Black uncommon and then back up to rare, right? So yeah, for a while that was the fourth card in the cycle.

Ashildr

When she was uncommon, she had different numbers of course. I Think, she was 1/2, cost 4 mana to activate and was a 3/2 on the night side. Powerlevel wise I think it would be ok for an uncommon – there are better uncommons in every new set we get – but it just doesn’t feel like an uncommon. Because even if you rename the day side Viking Girl, the night side will always be legendary. And legendary means rare if there isn’t a very good reason not to (which there certainly isn’t in this case).

Did I mention how much I hated Face the Raven? I know I did, but damn, I hated Face the Raven. What an awful episode. I took time out of designing to watch it – because I hoped for new ideas – and then ended up losing a card and all desire to keep working on a Doctor Who set.

Making a double episode with a star like Maisie Williams isn’t a bad idea. And I do enjoy watching her for the most part – she seems like a very confident, no-nonsense young woman and I like the way she takes possessions of the scenes she is in. But the character is already tiresome in the Woman who Lived, and bringing her back again? Worst. Idea. Ever. And then this woman, who is now almost a millenium old, is just so STUPID. She feels like a cruel, bumbling idiot in this episode. And what the fuck kind of way was that to kill Clara? If something puny like that would be able to make the Doctor completely powerless, wouldn’t he have died like 2 millenia ago? Seriously. What. the. Fuck.

Initially Ashildrs night side actually prevented damage to companions you controlled and had the quote “I’ll be the patron saint of the Doctor’s leftovers” as a flavour text. Of course then the next time she appears, she just casually kills the Doctors companion. Which is something neither of my siblings who already knew the whole season pointed out to me, when they saw the card. So, then I thought she could, instead of preventing damage to them, just sacrifice companions. But of course in Green / Black there are no  companions, so it became just creatures, but only with active delirium.

Well. Enough of her. I did make a rare to fit this five colour green theme as well, and I do for the most part like it:

Wonders of the Universe

It is a giant wall of text, but with alternative win conditions that is sometimes hard to avoid. And I did want to make an alternative win-condition for the set, though I wasn’t going to force it if I just didn’t get a cool idea.

But then I sort of did. This card is supposed to convey just how wondrous the universe is, and how much the Doctor enjoys showing off to his companions. It has a breathtaking artwork and I think it’s hard but far from impossible to actually get to 25 counters. I’ve seen it happen a lot – and perhaps that means this card was a bit too powerful – but I think it’s not this card that was at fault (if indeed there was any fault to be found), but rather the supporting cards that pushed it over the top. My little sister had a deck with what felt like 35 rares, with this as a primary win condition. Those rares included two Ashildrs, a Wolf359, and this admittedly completely broken card:

Abigail the Soothing Voice

I know, she already looks completely broken. And I wasn’t entirely blind to it. But I needed her to have Fading 8 for flavour reasons, and the effect seemed to be exactly what she did for flavour reasons too. She was so darn flavourful and I ignored my better judgment.

If I had to fix her, I think I’d change the ability to: “G, Remove a fade counter from Abigail the Soothing Voice: Prevent all combat damage a creature of your choice would deal to you this turn.”. She would still be a powerful life gain card, but she’d be a little (or rather a lot) less oppressive.

And then I needed a way to actually find those lands to make five colour green work out.

Potential for Discovery

The name is a little silly, the artwork portrays a classic Who episode, and yeah, that is not exactly how Imprint is supposed to work – but overall, I think it is cool enough of a Magic card. You get to search out up to four lands – which is powerful – and even to ramp, but you do have to pay a lot of mana for it, you don’t get to use those lands for anything but playing them, plus you need to be interested in at least four different types of basic lands for it to live up to its potential.

It is very wordy for a common, but I think it’s cool. A payoff card for manycolored decks, but one that you might still play in a 2 colour + small splash deck.

 

I’m out of time for today, I’m afraid. I’ll finish up with the other colours / colourcombinations tomorrow. If there is anything specific you would like to read about after that, I’m open for suggestions 😉

Thanks, as always, for reading.

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