Why I Will Never Stop Designing Cards

I haven’t been writing nearly enough lately, and I really need to remedy that. I’ve been thinking a lot about design recently, although that’s not exactly anything new. For the Great Designer Search 2 I wrote about I had to write a little bit about myself and why I would be good for Magic design. I recalled how I have been designing cards for years, which for me started around Ice Age. How did I get there? Well let’s go on a journey.

They Don’t Make Staples Like They Used To

Yeah, I sound like a crotchety old man, get over it. We currently have over 12,000 different cards. That’s a fucking lot, about 12 times what we had back then. With such a comparatively small card pool, choices were obviously much more limited. In modern day Magic, there’s really no such thing as staples anymore, outside of lands. Back then, however, it was a totally different story. We had Wrath of God, Counterspell, Dark Ritual, Lightning Bolt, Birds of Paradise. These are cards that are still anywhere from “incredible” to “unfair” by today’s standards. If you wanted spot removal you just grabbed a Swords to Plowshares or Terror and didn’t give it as second thought. These are the things cards did, and we were perfectly happy with them. We used our tools and we built our decks. As time passed, we got pretty damn good at building our decks. I think this is the time when the design spark awakens in those of us who have it. First you have to get good at the game. Not great, not the best, but good. You need to spend enough time building decks that you ask yourself the question “What can other cards do to help this deck?” that you finally pause and think “What can’t other cards do yet?” Or you could just be a drunk frat boy that wants to turn Magic into a drinking game. I’m looking at you, @BoozeCube! Anyway, this is what leads me to the most important part of the journey.

The Three Stages of Design Spark

I can only speak to this experience as it struck me and others whom I have directly spoken to about the matter. As the process was the same for all of us, however, I think there’s a good chance that many of you followed this same pattern.

stage One: Parody/Humour Cards – Do you like to laugh? Sure, we all do! What better way to get into the spirit of Magic design then doing it to make others laugh. Maybe you stole the idea from The Duelist or Inquest, maybe you saw something funny in a piece of Magic artwork and needed to modify the card to reflect this image, or maybe you just wanted to make a hilarious and unique gift of a custom card for one of your friends. Whatever the reason, this is where we all seem to start. The problem with joke cards is that they are frequently impossible under Magic rules, are top down designs resulting in unplayable garbage, or are extremely overpowered because you think it’s funny for Galactus to be a 100/100 creature for 0 mana. These cards range the gamut from hilarious to cancer-inducingly unfunny. No matter how funny they are, however, they are seldom good designs. Once you’ve “mastered” the art of comedy, however, it’s time to progress further.

Stage Two: Vanity Cards – **NOTE: It has been brought to my attention that perhaps not everyone goes through this stage, but rather that myself and everyone I have previous associated with are all megalomaniacs. I do not rule this possibility out, but I’ll still leave this here /NOTE** You’ve designed yourself as a Magic card. Admit it. Maybe you were a legendary creature, maybe you were a planeswalker, or maybe you were a brushwagg, but you absolutely did it. And there’s no shame in that! I’ve been designing cards for upwards of 17 years now, you think I haven’t made multiple cards for myself and all my friends? Much like joke cards, however, these have their issues. They tend to either just be a subset of joke cards or are extremely broken because you’re an arrogant douche. No, we get it bro, you totally have haste, double strike, protection from suckas, and trample. But not banding, cause you’re a renegade and you work alone. For most people, this is where it ends. They’re perfectly happy trying to be funny and stroking their own egos. As for me? I already knew that I’m hilarious and that I’m incredible before custom card design. But am I designer?

Stage Three: Legitimate Design – For many, the design spark doesn’t bring them this far. Either they just want to make joke cards or the spark doesn’t burn brightly enough inside them. That’s fine with me, because quite frankly there’s already too many of us competing for nonexistent design jobs. Whether the jobs exist or not, however, we will keep designing cards. It may seem absurd, but we can’t help it. Many of us have an innate need to create something. For many it brings them to music, writing, architecture, carpentry, information systems design, pretty much anything. But for a handful of us, Magic cards are that thing we need to create. We asked “Am I designer?” and at some point we receive affirmation. Well, if the answer is potentially yes, anyway. Many of the others I talk to design about have seen at least one of their own creations printed on cards. I think this is really the point of no return. Once you see a card you designed printed almost word for word and in your hand, how could you ever give up? I even had the extremely rare pleasure of seeing one of my first three designs, possibly my very first one but hard to remember, see print. If I could get it so right all those years ago, shouldn’t I be even better at it now?

It’s Not An Ego Thing

Yes, for once in my life, something has nothing to do with my ego. You see, I’m sure some people ask why it matters if we’re the ones actually working for R&D if we see some of our designs printed, but it’s really not the same. This is probably the hardest part to explain, because it’s one of those things that just seems so intuitive I don’t have words for it. When you want to create something, the two most rewarding parts are seeing the finished product, and seeing others enjoy what you have made. It’s not about receiving individual credit, but rather knowing that your work has directly resulted in something that made others happy. Except now it sounds not just like egotism but like smug egotism. I dunno. Like I said, this is the hardest part to explain because it’s really conceptual and science has yet to create a machine that will let me momentarily transfer my consciousness into your brain so you can fully understand what the fuck it is I’m trying to explain. Way to drop the ball, science. AGAIN. If anyone really doesn’t understand this part, feel free to ask me questions on here or on Twitter and I’ll try to explain better.

But, albeit not explained as well as I’d like, that is why I and others like me will continue designing cards: it’s what I want to do, it’s what I need to do, and like that 60 year old guy who’s still playing original songs in local bars despite never selling a single album, I just wouldn’t know how to stop if I tried.


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