Zeu's Guide to Fun and Success with Custom Magic is reproduced here with permission of the author.
To have success with custom Magic, you must know how to make appealing cards. When making one-offs, appeal is almost the only quality that affects your success. When making duel decks, cubes, or sets, appeal is still important since people will not want to play with collections of cards that don’t have at least some appealing cards within them.
Luckily, you will understand intuitively some parts of what makes a card appealing. Every single player has cards that appeal to them, and the same is true for you. However, to be a good designer (especially for a large project) you must also understand how to make cards that appeal to people that aren’t you.
Wizards R&D conceived of three “psychographics”, psychological descriptors that explain why players play Magic and which parts of playing Magic bring them the most joy. Each player can be put into one or more of these psychographics.
It’s important that you think about which psychographic you are designing for as you design a card. It’s very easy to accidentally design a card that really appeals to no one since half of it is only appealing to one psychographic and the other half is only appealing to another psychographic entirely.
The three psychographics:
Check out this 2006 article by Wizards for a description of each psychographic in Wizards’ terms: https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/making-magic/timmy-johnny-and-spike-2013-12-03
Wizards R&D conceived of two “aesthetic profiles”, taste descriptors that explain why players find cards beautiful or pleasant to look at. Each player can enjoy what Magic cards look like in both of these ways.
You should think about each of these descriptors when making cards. However, unlike psychographics, it is rare that a single card is dedicated towards prioritizing the aesthetic beauty in one of these categories, instead of anything else. Instead they are both something you should think about on all of your cards.
The two aesthetic profiles:
For more reading on each of these aesthetic profiles, check out this 2015 article by Wizards: https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/making-magic/vorthos-and-mel-2015-08-31
Cards you make will be judged by player expectations coming from cards that already exist. For example, players expect artifacts to work a certain way, enchantments to work a different way, and planeswalkers to work another way entirely. Players also expect each color to do some things and not do other things (the color pie). Sometimes the appeal of a card will be hit when it breaks from these expectations.
However, trying to keep your card designs within expectations will fight against your desire to make cards that are fresh and exciting. In addition, breaking the rules can have its own sort of appeal. Therefore, you have to judge the tradeoffs of going against convention for each design. Sometimes it will be worth it, but you’ll have to put in work (gathering appeal and testing data) to know for sure.
Although appeal is important to making good cards, it’s also important to realize when you might be overvaluing appeal. The following is a summary of the ways in which designers often end up over prioritizing appeal.
Flavor can be very appealing! Even players who don’t consider themselves particularly vorthos-y can find benefit from good flavor. However, the tradeoffs of focusing on flavor mean that, you should analyze whether it’s necessary to prioritize flavor over other things.
Sometimes flavor is the point of a card. The card is intended to make a flavor statement (story moments) or translate a flavorful idea perfectly (top down cards). Just as often, however, flavor’s job is to not distract from the true point of the card. Flavor that’s just good enough to not be distracting is sometimes better than more interesting flavor. In addition, the constraints of custom Magic will sometimes force you to make cards that are actively unflavorful (“flavor fails”).
Trends associated with too much focus on flavor:
Nice looking structure and aesthetics can be very appealing! Even players who don’t consider themselves particularly melvin-y can find benefit from good aesthetics. However, the tradeoffs of focusing on aesthetic structure mean that, you should analyze whether it’s necessary to prioritize structure or aesthetics over other things.
When making a new design, you usually shouldn’t start with aesthetic numbers first. You should come towards nice numbers organically when making and iterating on a card. In addition, when you are iterating on a card, avoid the temptation to not move numbers around just because of aesthetics. You can avoid ruining nice numbers when you are dealing with minor issues, but most issues (fun and balance) are more important. In addition, the constraints of custom Magic will sometimes force you to make a card with ugly numbers.
Trends associated with too much focus on structure or aesthetics:
Cards should be about what they are about. Whenever you create a card it should be clear what it is doing and why, and communicate itself as cleanly and quickly as possible. It should lack elements that confuse players or distract from the impression of the card.
Wordy cards are inelegant. Cards should never ever go to 10+ lines of text (rules text, reminder text, or flavor text). You should try to keep designs below 9 lines of text. You can often reword a design to make its text shorter while mostly keeping how it plays the same.
Confusing cards are inelegant. If the player is confused while reading a card, and unable to understand what the card is doing, the card’s ability to appeal to that player will be massively reduced. You can make a card easier to read by avoiding certain rules terminology (“the stack” is a major offender here) and avoiding complex rules phrasing.