Color inside the lines
An Article on Custom Card Design and the Color Pie of Magic: the Gathering
Good day fellow fans of Magic: the Gathering. My name is Kevin Deninger, also known by Darth Vedik in the Custom Magic community. I have been playing this card game since 1998, when the popular magic set Stronghold was released, and have been designing my own custom cards since the early 2000’s. I’ve designed eight full custom sets, and I’m currently working on the third set of a three set custom block. I am also an Administrator of a custom card creation group on Facebook, Magic Set Editor Alliance, where myself and other members help new designers with their ideas. Above all of the rules of design, I try to defend the need for the color pie the most.
Wizards of the Coast, the company responsible for designing Magic cards, have a pretty rigid definition of what the color pie is. When it comes to custom design, you can still have your creative design fit within the current mechanical color pie.
Part of design is fun, but you have to look out for the greater health of the game. Custom card designers can still be creative with their designs and keep them within the mechanical color pie. But I would strongly caution them from intentionally breaking the color pie.
This is an example of what not to do and shows how this card goes against what White does within the mechanical color pie.
What is a color pie break?
A color pie break is something that fundamentally undermines the game. Either through how it’s flavored, or what its strengths or weaknesses are, it will be at odds within the design of your set or environment you designed it for and the color pie itself. The color pie is not meant to be broken, as it is not good design to do so.
Why does the color pie matter for custom card design?
Even though these are cards we design in our spare time and will never see print, we still show them to people in the Magic the Gathering community. People share their card ideas either in an online forum or through social media. You would still want your card to emulate the basic of rules of design, which means knowing and understanding the color pie. Most custom cards are designed as cards a player would want to see in the game, and a vast majority of players aren’t going to want to see cards that break the color pie. If you purposely break the color pie as a designer, people will begin to question your knowledge of the game and the rules of design. The color pie should be followed across all formats, constructed and casual.
Another example of a custom card that breaks the color pie. Blue used to get cards that dealt direct damage. Now it doesn’t, and no, it shouldn’t get direct damage again without Red. This would be out of color for Blue in the current mechanical color pie. It has the same issues as Hornet Sting, which is a color pie break. It is however possible to design cards that bend the color pie.
What is a color pie bend?
A color pie bend is doing something the color doesn’t normally does, but doesn’t always completely undermine the aspect of the color. These are what you should consider when attempting a color bend: Whether or not it works flavorfully. Which class bend it conforms to. There are some acceptable bends, and these newly designed cards will be rated based on if it’s in color, an acceptable color pie bend, an unacceptable color pie bend, or a color pie break.
- The ‘every block’ cards. Colors do get to do these effects, just not as often.
This is an attempt at an ‘every block’ card. White does care about equipment, and only once in a while will White get a card that lets it draw multiple cards. This card is in color.
- The ‘when needed’ cards. These cards are bends that purely bend for flavor, and are done occasionally for a set that has a theme which is for all colors.
Red does get to copy spells, but Red doesn’t often care about cards in the graveyard. This would probably be an acceptable color bend.
- This is a ‘plays to the block theme’ card. This is a card that does something the color normally does, but in an unorthodox way.
White gets several spells that deal damage to creatures, but mostly it deals that damage to attacking or blocking creatures. This is a large bend, and would probably be an unacceptable color pie bend.
- The ‘2+2 doesn’t equal 4’ cards. These are cards that take two in color abilities, or two things a color does and uses them in a unconventional way.
This is an attempt at this type of card. Green does draw cards, Green does draw cards, but when it does, it’s based on the number of lands or number of creatures you control, or the power of a creature you control, not enchantments. This is probably an unacceptable bend.
- This is a ‘on rare occasion’ card. The effect exists outside of the color pie, but is allowed very occasionally.
This is an attempt at this style of card. Blue has gotten a few cards with this type of ability very rarely in the last several years including Stormtide Leviathan and Ice Cage.
The game can handle some forms of flux. A designer can use bends as a means to play with the theme and flavor of the set. Sometimes a bend can actually become part of that color. A designer should really only use them strategically. Here’s a card idea example: A Green card that counters a spell that targets a creature. A Green card that feels more in color would be an Instant that gives your creature hexproof. It still does something similar, but doesn’t give Green access to counterspells. *This is taken directly from MaRo’s podcast on Bends and Breaks.
Custom card designers can bend the color pie by having an ability that bleeds into another color. There are existing abilities that could probably be in other colors and might actually fit those colors better. The following custom card is an attempt of showing how the ability of drawing multiple cards has bled into Red.
This seems like something Red could do. It has a drawback, which Red needs for any sort of card draw. For example, Red usually has you discard before you draw, or if you do draw before you discard, you end up discarding at random after you draw.
Some effects and abilities have a primary, secondary, and sometimes a tertiary color. One mechanic that fits into all the colors is Flying. It’s primarily in White and Blue. Secondary in Black. Tertiary in Red and Green, where usually it’s restricted mostly to splashy, in-flavor creatures such as Dragons.
Another example using an evergreen keyword is First strike. First strike is only in White and Red. The flavor of the mechanic only fits into these colors. The only way a non White or Red card would get this ability would be through an off color activated ability. Spitting Sliver is a color pie break since it gives an out of color ability to Black.
This also applies to other abilities the colors get and how frequently they appear in that color. If the ability is Primary in a color, it’s common to see it in that color. If the ability is Secondary in a color, it’s still seen in that color, but it is not as commonplace. If the ability is Tertiary in a color, it’s rarely seen in that color.
Why does the color pie matter?
It creates a framework to create more cards for the game. If every color could do everything and every ability is available to every color, it would completely undermine the game.
The goal of magic design is to not have every color feel like every color or have every color to solve every problem. The solution is to have what the color does and make it do that better. Every color having an answer to any problem is fundamentally wrong. You would need to splash a different color, or find a colorless card which achieves the goal. *This is taken directly from MaRo’s podcast on Bends and Breaks.
Each color within the color pie has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. The game would be pretty dull if each color did the exact same things at the same costs, just in different colors. It wouldn’t give the colors meaning at all, and colors are a huge part of the game that shouldn’t be overlooked by any designer.
Artifacts and colorless cards exist, but they are made to only for support. If your color has weaknesses, artifacts and colorless cards usually have the answers. To balance the availability of those answers, artifacts are printed at a low rate in a set. It gives some access, but the ability the colorless or artifact card gives you isn’t better than what other colors have.
What are the problems with letting the colors do whatever they want?
Beyond doing harm to the game if done to often, it begs the question of why would you go to any other color? It would undermine the flavors and their identity. Each color having strengths and weaknesses makes it play differently. Having colors doing different things makes the game richer.
The game and the color pie has changed quite a lot since I started playing in 1998, and both continue to evolve over time and through new cards. However, cards have kept to their place in the Mechanical Color Pie roughly within the last ten years. There have been some bends and a few breaks over the years, but even the game designers make mistakes.
The biggest mistakes I see custom card designers make is designing a card based on an older card which is out of color. There are a lot of examples I could list, and for various reasons as to why they are out of the current established color pie.
White doesn’t get regeneration, and white doesn’t get to steal creatures. All of these are color pie breaks.
White doesn’t get -1/-1 effects of any kind. Temporary -1/-1 until end of turn or -1/-1 counters. All of these are color pie breaks.
Blue doesn’t get to deal direct damage anymore. It doesn’t fit the color now, which makes all of these color pie breaks.
Blue doesn’t get permanent destruction nor creature destruction. That’s not how blue ‘deals’ with permanents. It would bounce the permanent instead. These are all color pie breaks.
Black doesn’t get counterspells. Black’s version of a counterspell is its ability to discard cards out of an opponent’s hand. These break the color pie.
Black doesn’t get the ability to tap down creatures, or keep them tapped. Black would rather destroy that creature or hurt it in other ways. These are color pie breaks.
Red doesn’t get counterspells either, and wouldn’t get counterspell effects again without Blue.
Red doesn’t tap down creatures either, or care about keeping them tapped. Red would rather deal direct damage to creatures. Red wouldn’t get this sort of ability without White.
Green should not get outright creature destruction. Green tends to have the most issues with the color pie, as it has cards that can destroy any permanent type. Green should only deal with creatures by using creatures. Deathtouch and fight effects are two examples.
Green doesn’t prevent creatures from attacking. Instead, it prevents damage those attacking creatures deal.
My rule of thumb for card design, when it comes to staying within the color pie, is to compare your design to cards roughly within the last 10 years. Old cards such most of these are from the ‘dark times’. Before the established color pie. Before modern design standards. Though, some are newer, and still have broken the color pie.
Time Spiral block should be avoided when it comes to looking at how cards fit into the color pie. There were a lot of issues with Time Spiral block. Beyond the sheer amount of new mechanics, the biggest issue was the intentional breaking of the color pie. I know now that it was part of the story as to ‘what if the colors were shifted’, but this doesn’t make for good design nor a good basis of design.
Adding a new custom color to the color wheel completely goes against one of the core aspects of the game. It’s something I wouldn’t suggest custom card designers doing. New ‘custom’ colors have been done before by designers, and these colors never carve out their own slice of the color pie. These ‘custom’ colors tend to have abilities that can easily be defined by the other existing colors, or a combination of colors, or using hybrid colors. New colors aren’t going to be added to the game. No, colorless isn’t a color.
When designing new cards, use resources available to you, such as Gatherer or Scryfall. If you think up an effect, look to see what other existing cards do similar things. Look for design space that allows your new card to fit into that space and not be better or worse than that card, but balanced.
In summary, when it comes to design, even with custom cards, the mechanical color pie is your guide to what colors your card and it’s affects or abilities fit into. Refer to the existing articles on the different colors and their place in the pie, what makes for good design, as well as the mechanical color pie. I may not always agree with MaRo, but when it comes to the color pie, that is where I agree with him the most.