Building a custom set part 1: Definition

Hello! Don’t get too used to these every-other-day posts, i’ll fall into a weekly or so routine once i’m done with this set segment. I’m gonna take you through the steps i took in order to build a full set, based on The Binding of Isaac game, and spoil it a few cards at a time as well.

Starting off

So we’ve been through what top-down design is all about. When defining this set, i took the concept of the game and created cards to fit it. The important aspect is that i was building off something that already existed and needed to stay faithful to the source material, flavor-wise. This leads me to my first two points. How to start making a set?

First and foremost comes research. Wizards’ Daily MTG site has a couple of specific articles on how to make a set and is overall the best source for understanding how they design and develop their stuff. I’m a far younger player than most people i know (my first set was Time Spiral) but through the years i’ve looked and researched the past of Magic, and i’ve read a lot on how things were and are now designed. Really this makes me no more than an average joe building off my general Magic knowledge, but that general knowledge needs to be there.

The second point relates to the top-down approach. Since i was building off something that already existed, having a very good understanding of the source material was of the utmost importance. The source material needs to be defined, in terms of what it’s about and what it’s trying to convey, and that’s the main aspect that will be shown off on the cards. An important point i’ve read repeatedly is that for others to notice it as well this definition must show up abundantly on commons. While it isn’t as true for non-printed cards like these, it still applies that the largest amount of cards the “public” sees will be commons. Before the idea even popped in my head i’d already played dozens of hours and gotten most of the achievements of the game. This ensured i had a good understanding not only of the game in general but also of its details; and the flavor’s in the details. Of course, nobody knows everything and that’s why my best friend during the building of this was the game’s wiki site.

I’ll try to exemplify this point with an existing Magic set; given that Return to Ravnica is coming out in a few months, let’s focus on the Ravnica block. Imagine that the plane of Ravnica was completely defined and it was up to the designers to adapt it to card form. What’s the most important aspect of this plane? The guilds, naturally. So the block has to revolve around that. They’d need to understand the guilds, their motivations and their actions. The guilds would have to be segregated into colors (conveniently there’s 10, just perfect for a pretty cycle – and i love these cycles as you’ll see in future posts) as balanced as possible and be assigned general guidelines. That’s the base level, the definition: a city of guilds. Hunting for enough flavor to fill enough cards comes afterwards and is the hardest part. Thankfully, i chose a relatively simple game for my set.

Understanding The Binding of Isaac

For anyone that doesn’t know what the game is about i encourage you to check out its Steam page and trailers first, but i’ll be briefly describing it in the next few paragraphs.

The Binding of Isaac, designed by the very awesome Edmund McMillen, is a randomly-generated dungeon crawler where you play as a little boy, Isaac, trying to flee from his homicidal mother through a basement filled with his hideously deformed siblings. My idea to create this set came from randomly coming across a Globin, an enemy that keeps remaking itself if you don’t kill its remains, and thinking “Hm. If this was a Magic card, it’d have persist.”

48 obssessive hours later, over 200 cards joined it.

That’s all it takes, it seems. Now, the game progresses through a series of rooms in classic Zelda style, and throughout your journey you’ll come across items that boost your character in a myriad of ways, deforming him at the same time.

The Virus makes your character toxic, hurting enemies on contact.

The game has several stages, each of which ending on a boss battle, before you come to the final confrontation with…

I’ll not spoil it for you just yet.

Defining The Binding of Isaac

Now that the basics of the game are covered, what exactly do we take from this? The game revolves around a single character and his evolution as he slays monster upon monster. That’s more fitting of a card game like Munchkin, but that’s not what i set out to do. So the character can’t be the focus. That leaves the monsters; it had to be a tribal set. What came to my mind immediately was Innistrad, the block running at the time. Innistrad and Dark Ascension neatly divided their creature tribes into specific colors with their respective mechanics, and that’s what i needed to do.

After setting the definition, it’s time to put it into practice. Join me next time when i break down the set into tribes and colors.